Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cinema of Searching: Lisandro Alonso Interview

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Known for his use of non-actors, loose narrative and minimal dialog, Lisandro Alonso's films are at once real and otherworldly. His cinematic explorations are often mysterious and open-ended. He is definitely not into making crowd pleasing blockbusters with big name actors for sure.

Then comes, Jauja, his hallucinatory new film which is garnering a lot of buzz, ever since it won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes and made splashes at TIFF and NYFF last year, stars Viggo Mortensen (who also serves as a producer and provides music) and is a period piece. And for the first time, his characters speak in full sentences. Does this mean Alonso is going mainstream? Or is this just another branch of his explorations in cinematic realm to convey what's unattainable? You will find answers to these questions in this interview below, or maybe not.

Unlike his enigmatic films, Alonso in person (via skype) is very open and engaging, his answers direct yet elusive. 

Jauja opens in New York on 3/20. National roll out will follow. Please visit Cinema Guild website for more info.

JAUJA is a big departure at least in scope from the other 4 features you've made. You have a big Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen and you also have a co-writer on this for the first time, Argentinian poet Fabian Casas. Then you have Timo Salminen, Aki Kaurismaki's cinematographer as your DP. How did all these come about?

I've been making films since 2001. Every 2-3 years I've made a film. After I made Liverpool in 2008, I wasn't sure I wanted to make films anymore. I went back to my family's farm, I got married and I had a child. 

But I was thinking about doing another film. And I didn't want to repeat what I've done film after film, without any professional actors. There were people I always wanted to work with, like Viggo and Timo. Then I became friends with Fabian Casas. After two or three years, he and I came up with a treatment for Jauja. Since I don't write conventional scripts, I had about 20 pages of this thing that we sent to Viggo. He liked the idea and it took off from there. He produced it and did a music for it too. Now he is promoting the film at festivals all over the world.

Did he know your work before?

I think he'd seen and liked Los Muertos. He told me that he saw something honest in that film. I think he might have seen my other films later on. But that's the film he mentioned. All I can say is that he is a brave man to take on something like this.

Thematically, JAUJA is similar to your second film, LOS MUERTOS. Since you've done 5 films now, do you see the same theme repeating in your body of work?

Yes. But it's just a part of the film. It's a simple premise of father or brother looking for a daughter, son, sister or mother... It's an excuse for me to expand on that thin premise to build up something in that environment. It's like that with all my films.

Going back to the searching for the lost daughter theme, you famously asked "Who's John Ford?" when someone mentioned  his name when comparing a similar shot in one of your films. I think it was from LIVERPOOL. And here we are again with JAUJA.

You know, for the record that I was joking when I asked 'who is John Ford'.

I know I know. But I can't honestly think of any reference when considering your films. They are very unique and original. That said, do you have any filmmakers who influenced you?

Oh yeah, many. I don't know about John Ford, but I watched a lot of Italian neo-realists films when I was in school, you know? I love Tsai Ming-liang, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, lately I am very fond of Aki Kaurismaki's films.

Do you still go to cinemas and watch a lot of films?

Not as much. But I am very interested in what directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul is up to or what Paul Thomas Anderson is up to.

In your films, there are contrasts between nature, the simple way of life and civilization, realistic depiction of everyday life and fantasy, past and the present in cinematic terms. Is the idea of phantom/illusion something you are interested in exploring with the cinematic medium?

That's a very good question. But as opposed to...?

Like painting, photography, music, literature....

Yes. I wasn't really good at those. I tried to be a musician when I was 20, but I wasn't really good at it. I tried acting but I couldn't really act. Not good in front of camera. I think I feel more comfortable behind the camera, hiding.

The thing is that there are so many things that I don't really know. That is the part of reason why I make films. I don't have a clear idea of what I'm searching for.

JAUJA also explores colonialism in Argentina's history with Dinesen, a Danish engineer serving a Argentine Army to clear the road for settlers. Is it any way based on Argentina's history?

I've read some books. Fabian read many books on history obviously. It happened here like it happened anywhere. But I didn't want to pinpoint exactly what time period Jauja is set. I know those moments in history happened in more or less the same way that happens in the film. I mean, like organizing the city just outside the green area just to exterminate Indians as they construct those big holes that you see in the film.

But other than that, we are trying to put all these little facts in the film in favor of making the film bigger, and grow it out some other directions. We did that so we could get at the main theme: how one survives when someone that you really love is gone. How to keep going with your life and everything around you when that happens.

How was shooting in Patagonian desert? What were some of the challenges you've had?

Well it was not easy. I mean we were living in some tents and had to house camera gears and microphones and things like that. But we were strong group of people. There were about 25-30 of us. They were like a family to me. Many of them I've been working with for the last 10-15 years.

Then there were some new guys like Viggo and Timo and a young Danish actress (Villbjørg Marling Agger) with her parents. They were all around talking Danish, English and Spanish drinking some bottles of wine at night and working hard again the next day. There were no roads there so we all just walked to the next locations for, I don't know, half an hour or so.

If you are in that kind of shooting environment, you need people and they need your energy to keep going. We managed very well I think. It wasn't that long of a shoot, about 4 weeks or something like that.

But It can be strange for some. I was not afraid for Viggo, because I knew him a little. He is a tough guy. But for Villbjørk, who played Ingeborg, I didn't know if she would be comfortable. She came from Denmark and she hadn't acted in her life. It was her first film role. She must've thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It's a desert and there isn't even a bathroom you know? But she did very well and we had a good, supportive group.

Now you've done relatively a big movie and expanded your cinematic horizon, whatever that means...
(we laugh)
but it seems that for you the possibilities of what you are searching for in cinema is opened up a little more, I am wondering what you will do next?

That's a good question. I think about that every day. But to be honest with you, I'm not in a hurry. I just feel that I had a good experience making this film, meeting all those great people and traveling a little bit, presenting the film.

I have some ideas. And I would like to work with the same people again, in terms of Viggo and Timo plus all the crew members I've been working with and Fabian. But I'd like to go farther and go to another country. I'd love to shoot in the Amazons in Brazil. I have some ideas shooting in some remote place inside the US also, but just like that Denmark scene in Jauja, as a small element. But, yeah, nobody knows. Tomorrow I might change my mind and shoot the entire film in my house.

But I think the nature is very important character for me. I will feel safe if I'm near a tree. As long as I have nature in my films, I'll be fine.

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