Monday, April 9, 2007

Director Rodrigo Moreno on Actor Julio Chávez, Storytelling, and "El Custodio"

The remarkable character actor Julio Chavez ("A Red Bear," ND/NF 2002) disappears into the nearly silent role of a middle-aged bodyguard. The cleverly paced, slow-burning tale is a mesmerizing portrait of a man whose all-consuming job is to be an invisible human shield.

Director and screenwriter Rodrigo Moreno spoke with me about his film, "El Custodio." Prohibited from smoking by a stern cafe-owner, Moreno banged the table to emphasize each point. I trembled with the table.

Interview by Jon Robbins

Why a movie about a bodyguard?
I used to tell an official story, but I’ll tell you the inside story, Jon. In reality, my ex-girlfriend’s father was appointed to a government position five or six years ago. He was not involved in politics, and was in no danger, but protocol dictated that he have a bodyguard. So the family’s life was transformed with these silent, armed guys following them everywhere they went. One time we were gong to a restaurant, and there was no place in the family's car, so I rode with the bodyguards, and it was during that short period that I decided I had a film. As we ate I was overwhelmed by the idea that these armed men were waiting for us outside.

Was there one bodyguard who was like Reuben?
No, Reuben is my invention. What interested me was how vicariously Ruben lived, and moreover how people can experience life so vicariously. This isn’t just the case for bodyguards, but for husbands, bosses, wives, parents, whatever. So I created this very silent character called Ruben.

The actor who plays Ruben, Julio Chávez, is fantastic.
He’s not a famous actor, but he’s well-known and very well respected. In fact he just won a Silver Bear in Berlin for another film a few weeks ago. Yes, he’s a very good actor, and I’ve known him since I was a kid because he’s a friend of my mother's. That made it easy for me to get the script to him.

Julio Chávez played the main role in an Argentinean film from the 80s called La Pellicula del Rey, about a filmmaker trying to make a movie in Patagonia. It’s a fantastic comedy that won big awards at Venice, and a very good film. I was eleven when I saw it, and it was a kind of revelation for me. I don’t know quite how it happened, this symmetry, but that film, when I was eleven, made me want to study film. And now Julio is the protagonist in my first feature film.

Was there a lot of discussion between the two of you on what form the film would take?
We spent a year preparing, reading the script, discussing how we would approach it. Julio asks such precise questions that it makes you a better filmmaker, you learn from him. He made me a better director.

Rodrigo Moreno and Julio Chávez between takes

Is he a director as well?
In a sense. He is one of the most important professors of theater in Argentina. Everybody in Buenos Aires wants to study acting with him. And he’s also directed a few plays. Mostly he is very intelligent and excellent to work with.

One really impressive aspect of "El Custodio" is how you were about to blend comedy with serious moral examination. It was a marriage, not a juxtaposition.
For me it is very important that everything should have a sense of humor. My previous films were all comedies.

At the same time, I needed to say in my film that a bodyguard is not a doorman, although he can be treated that way. Ruben is a soldier, a policeman, he has a loaded gun under his jacket, and he thinks in those terms. The way Ruben knows how to live, the rules he knows, all lead to the end.

And what a challenging role he had to play. I was particulraly interested in how you constructed Ruben's sexuality. Sex for him wasn’t erotic, but humiliating...
Ruben spends his time guarding the family. On a rare day off, he finishes his birthday with a decadent prostitute in Buenos Aires. I wrote Ruben as someone who is contained, who needs to keep everything inside. Sex fits into this theme. That scene shows how alone he is in life, how folded into himself he is.

I have to say that everything in this film is a preparation for the ending, everything goes to that point. It is a a big boiling pot that is always ready to overflow its container. Every level of the film works in this way, leading you to the end. In formal terms, it is a film about point of view. That is how I did the sound, the framing, everything from Ruben’s point of view.

The ending is risky...
It’s nice to able to take risks in life, and in film, as well. When I was writing the script I was invited to many workshops in France, in Spain, and even then I knew that some people would love it and some hate it. So I was prepared for the reaction it’s gotten. But this is the film I imagined. Indeed, the day the film came to me, I wrote an outline, and have stuck to it.

Film is an exception, different from real life, for me. The reason Ruben ends as he does explains my need in making the film. I made it because I wanted to see this choice, it is my view of the life Ruben has to lead. The minister is hardly the Latin American villain, and the film is not a sociological exploration. I say this without meaning to be pretentious, but I mean the film to be an existential film, a universal film, not a sociological treatment.

Interview by Jon Robbins

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Director Peter Schønau Fog on "The Art of Crying"

11-year-old Allan’s life is dictated by his father’s tears. Mom oversleeps, so the only one who can truly comfort dad is Allan’s sister Sanne. Director Peter Schønau Fog ably strafes the horror/humor divide, and with irony and ample respect brings to the forefront the tabooed horror of child abuse. The Art of Crying is a beautifully shot film by a very capable new filmmaker.

I spoke with director Peter Schønau Fog about The Art of Crying. Composer Karsten Fundal and Irene Meltzer Richard of the Film Society of Lincoln Center joined us.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

How closely did you follow the novel in making your film?

Not at first. I maintained the intention of the story and the tone from the novel, but overall, not everything is similar. One big challenge was getting the boy to be the emotional center of the film, while making it clear that he cannot be responsible for all the things he faults himself for. Luckily the author is very happy with the film.

Did you write the screenplay?

In Denmark, films are supported with government money, especially in the case of The Art of Crying, which is in a particular dialect that few Danes speak. There are essentially two people who determine funding, and the first one told me she didn’t think child abuse could be successfully treated in a film. The second one wanted a different actor for the part of the father but he did fund us for a sort of pilot. So we went to the area where the boy is from, and shot a funeral. It was a short.

But he didn’t choose to support the film. Then, two years later we found a third man and he liked my directing and the book. But he didn’t like out script. You see, the book is quite episodic, whereas we tried for one straight story line with big emotional impact. He thought we should redo the script and adopt the episodic approach. So we got a completely new screenwriter and he worked on it for a year, and then he and I worked on it together for another eight months.

Peter Schonau Fog. Photo: GODLIS

So there are only a handful of these state funding agents?

Yes, basically there are two people who decide if your film will be funded in Denmark. And if they say no, then no studio will fund it and no production company either. But the upside is that once you’re funded you have a lot of freedom to do what you want.

What sort of background do you have in film? Is “The Art of Crying” your first feature?

Yes it’s my first. My two brothers and I grew up on a small island off the west coast of Denmark. Despite this not being a place with any connection to film, my brothers and I all got into computers and film when computers were Commodore 64 and the cameras were huge. From there it’s been a long struggle to get into a position where I could make my first feature. I’ve been doing a lot of local television, I studied theater at the university in Denmark, and spent a year at the Czech Film School in Prague, and four years at the national Danish Film School. My thesis short film there won a lot of prizes and was shortlisted for an academy award there. That was seven years ago.

Was it about a similar subject?

No, but it also was in a local dialect. It takes place in the small island we’re from. It was much more realistic, whereas in The Art of Crying the film is colored by the boy. It tells the story of a young man who, driving drunk, killed the son of a local patriarch. He returns to the island and suffers unbearably, but in the end it is a story about forgiveness.

For me the real evil in the world lies in simplifying things and simplifying human beings. As long as we keep relating to each other as human beings we are on the right path. And that even goes for people like the father in the story. I mean, the reason why these evils circle from generation to generation is that the people are not treated as human beings. We too often see them as monsters and no one dares deal with a monster. For me to understand the father and the reasons why he does what he does was a way to deal with it. I had to find a human understanding for this character, however difficult it may have been

I was impressed by how confident and nuanced your visual style is, especially since this is your first feature…

Irene Meltzer Richard (to Peter): You seem to have a very strong directorial vision. You’re somebody who knows what kind of film he wants to make. The film really exudes an incredible amount of directorial confidence. I was wondering what you’ve done before, where that came from. It’s really remarkable

Peter: Well, thank you. I’ve been doing projects since I was fourteen. So in a way I’ve spent the last twenty years in film. As a director, I try to aim for a combination of precision and real life. If you want precision, you cut away life, the two are opposites. If you only want life, you’ll be chasing the actors around with a handheld camera. Or if you want precision, you’ll put the camera on a tripod and arrange the set. And this kind of approach, aiming for precision in forming an image leads to a kind of style. My approach involves fewer cuts than most films these days. You’re not being thrown around quite as much. I was working with young actors and I wanted them to come out in the film. Does that make sense?

One film I talked about with my cinematographer was Badlands. It is a very beautiful film and there is also the element of a main character who doesn’t entirely get what’s going on around her. In this case it’s Sissy Spacek in the voiceover. But of course The Art of Crying is not as beautiful as Badlands and the two are different.

Irene: Have you [and composer Karsten Fundal] worked together before?

Peter: No.

Irene: So how did you find each other?

Peter: It was one of those ads in the paper. Male seeking…

Karsten: A mutual contact liked my music and suggested me to you.

Peter: I really liked his music.

Was it a unique challenge composing for a film with such sinister elements?

Karsten: I think the unique challenge was not so much the subject but the depth of the film. How it mixes humor with the extremely serious. That was really a challenge, and you really have to push yourself.

Peter: It was a very emotional process and I think that goes for everything in this film. We had to be very intuitive and to see how it felt. It was a very difficult film to calculate beforehand. We had to be emotionally there.

Karsten: Up until the very end, we had a lot of back and forth of finding the right tone.

There was German opera, or were they lieder?

Karsten: It was Schubert.

Peter: The idea came from the book. The author’s father had the complete works of a Danish singer called Axel Schultz, who was quite famous in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. He also had a career in New York. He was the most famous Danish musician at the time. There’s a lot of feeling in that music, and it is heartfelt. We listed to the music and thought it might become too ironic, but then we tried it and it felt right. I always enjoyed The Last Picture Show, how Hank Williams is used. Maybe this was a sort of inspiration for me.

I’ve seen films from the Netherlands and Denmark that use German as a language of transgression, and I was wondering if there was an element of that here...

Peter: Well, German plays a very specific role in this part of Denmark, which had actually been German. The film was shot one kilometer from the German border, a border that has switched hands many times. The patriotism and relationship with Germany I didn’t stress in the film but it’s in the book. For instance the mother is into German Slager music and the father hates it.

There are a couple of Danish flags in the film, because the flag is more important to Danes in this part of the country than elsewhere in Denmark, and they are more patriotic. But I don’t think it is the language of transgression.

Karsten Fundal, you made particular use of counterpoint in the film music…

Karsten: I tried to create a kind of thematic tension. I really thought in terms of this process in composing for the Art of Crying. For instance, in the funeral scenes, which are so grotesque, with the father crying, I couldn’t make the music too ironic, or sarcastic, that would have killed it. For me to make the music, I thought a lot about the children and that scene with the angel, that scene of discovery. For me music describes all those things you cannot otherwise describe.

Do you find that you faced particular any difficulty making a movie about child molestation being a man…?

Peter: I actually haven’t thought about it. Of course it is an unpleasant subject matter to attach yourself to, but on the other hand, it’s too important not to address it. Maybe it’s because people know me from another film which is also quite sincere, and quite serious. My reasons for making The Art of Crying are also serious, even though there’s humor in it.

Would you talk about the actor who plays the father…

Perhaps you know him from a Dogme film called Mifune. He’s a well-known Danish actor who usually plays humorous, likeable characters. He was very happy to get this part but it was also quite tough on him, all the crying.

And the children are not professional actors, is that right? The boy is the son of a local pig farmer?

The film is done in the local dialect of this area and so we had to find children from the area who spoke the language. (Incredibly, the father learned the dialect for the film)

The daughter was able to cry on cue, and the son was quite incredible. By the end they were professionals. I really enjoyed working with those kids. They were so strong, so good, so grounded in a way.

How did you approach the subject of the film with the children?

We talked about it.

With a psychologist around, or with their parents…?

Well, actually, the girl who plays Sanna, when she found out she would be acting out an incestuous relationship, she felt she had to share this with her schoolmates. And when she announced this in class, most of her classmates didn’t really know what she was talking about, which shocked her. From this experience, her need to tell the story grew.

As for the boy, I didn’t know exactly to what extent he understood it, but he clearly understood it well enough to do what he needed to do in the film, which I think shows a clear understanding. He is also a very clever kid who is in a very different place in life from the character he portrays.

What’s your next project?

I plan to work on a film about religion.

-Interview by Jon Robbins