NEW DIRECTORS NEW FILMS 2014 – ALBERT SERRA and the Paranoia of Cliché

serraALBERT SERRA graduated from Barcelona University with a degree in Spanish and Comparative Literature before embarking on his cinematic career with Crespià, the film not the village. He made his international debut with Honour of the Knights, a reworking of Don Quixote which he wrote, directed and produced. The film received its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2006 Cannes Festival and was named one of the best films of the year by Cahiers du Cinéma. It has won awards at festivals across the globe due to the originality and purity of its distillation of Cervantes’ novel: two lone figures walk in silence and commune with the landscape. Serra’s next film, Birdsong, tells the story of the journey of the Three Wise Men. It was filmed in black and white at locations in northern Europe, with the same actors, it screened and won awards at many international festivals (including Munich, Toronto, Vancouver, Mar del Plata, London, Rotterdam and Los Angeles). After completing this trilogy, Albert Serra was named one of the 15 key directors of the decade by the magazine Film Comment.

His most recent film, Story of my Death, won the Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival.

story-of-my-death posterThe following conversation is part of a Q&A with the Catalan filmmaker that took place at MoMA, New York City as part of  NEW DIRECTORS NEW FILMS 2014.

This festival has described you as a master of “cinematic antiquity” and certainly choosing Casanova and Dracula as subject matter would lend itself, in a romantic way, to that idea, but you’re a young man so why would this designation fit?

Serra: Not only that, I think what is against this idea of antiquity is nonprofessional actors. Also in my previous films, about Don Quichote, about the three wise men of the Bible. In this one it was more by chance as I don’t want to waste time explaining the plot. So I thought let’s use a plot that everyone knows in our Western culture. From this point I can really work on what I love. Time is quite important in my films, and this is quite a sophisticated work compared with the previous oneS, which were more contemplative. In this film, the contemplative side is still there but the film is much better with a little bit of narrative, even if it’s abstract.

The subject of the film is something that everybody understands: the trouble with the century of light, rationalism, sensualism, the century based on communication. Slowly this century is confronted with and has to face another world, that is darker, more violent, more romantic. For me the important thing was to deal with these two subjects and link it with pleasure.

The origin of the film was a commission. A Romanian producer asked me to make a film on Dracula, but I wasn’t interested in Dracula at the time. Not even now. For me it wasn’t an interesting subject. But later I was reading Casanova’s memoirs and I thought why not? why not make a film about that, since they share the same subject in different ways, they are both linked with pleasure, desire, why not ask where is real pleasure, where real desire is satisfied, where social pleasure ends and real pleasure starts, or where this real pleasure ends and calculation starts. Where this calculation ends and fatalism begins. These two different approaches to pleasure, this was the real goal.

So you take on corporeal desire and the desire for the body but you mask it behind these costumes, these layers and layers and layers of costume. So is it a challenge for you and for the audience to unmask these layers of desire behind the façade of your filmmaking, which is also incorporating the set design, the costume design?

Serra: It’s difficult to answer this question. But that’s not all, also you have to link it with non-professional actors because in this case the truth of the film will come from the people I work with. It was a real and realistic search. For example, there is mystery in the film. A friend of mine at the end of the film said: “It’s a film about hypocrisy”. I didn’t  understand what he was talking about at that time. But then I realised it was an interesting point of view because you never know what the characters are thinking, what are their real worries, their desires, what they are looking for. But this is also linked with the way I work, very strange, because I don’t know anything about what is happening in the film. In a sense it’s like a Warhol film, I don’t judge what they are doing while I am doing it, I simply shoot and focus on what I like. And that’s going on, going on, going on…and I really don’t know what I am doing when I am doing it.

Godard said: there are people who are shooting with the camera and other filmmakers who are shooting with the projector. But the projector doesn’t record. So you can shoot what you have in front of you, in front of the camera or you can shoot what is behind the camera, what is in your mind. I prefer what is in front so I’m very sensitive to that.

But you chose nonprofessional actors and you also chose to give them instructions rather than have professional actors who may have taken your script and run with it in their own way…

Serra: No, that’s not true, no instructions….

story of my deathSo what did they have when you engaged them and gave them a script?

Serra: No, it’s like a performance, I don’t care about my own thoughts. And I never saw the faces of the actors when I was shooting. Obviously I don’t have any monitor or any camera or any screen, I never check anything, I never look at what’s happening. But I’m not the only one, the Drive director, Nicholas Winding Refn does this too. A journalist friend of mine was on that shooting and he said: “he’s all the time with the headphones on, listening to his own music”.And Warhol, have you seen Chelsea Girls? What is he doing, he’s talking on the telephone with the actors.

That’s quite informative but at the same time language is extremely important to you. 

Serra: This is true but I think the beauty of the film is in this strange point that you never know when the performance ends and when some kind of script starts. All the people ask me: are the dialogues improvised?Because there is some mystery. And I was very proud of this question because usually when you have some historical, philosophical content, you always feel the presence of the scriptwriter behind. Here I like the fact that the actors are quite wild and you never know what is actually improvised.

But you knew with these actors that they knew the language…

Serra: You never know…you can imagine but…I am an actor also of the film, I’m always on the same level as the actors, I have the same information. This is the point: I am an actor also when I am directing. I am playing my own role, it’s part of the shooting of cinema. I don’t know if at the end of the script we can see this point but for me I decided to make cinema just to live a different life, at least at the shooting. Then, ok, life is mediocre, we cannot escape that. But at least on the shooting, you need to be able to live a different life. And with different values that will not be allowed in real life. So putting yourself as a filmmaker on the same level as the actors, on the same level of information, is important. Even if I have the general concept of the film inside my head, it’s quite general and I try to forget it.

I have to confront you a little bit, because you started this conversation with the challenge that this is not mediocrity, this is excellence, which we happen to agree, but you just insinuated that perhaps mediocrity could have inflicted the process. I see a discrepancy here. 

Serra: The idea is to have purity of perception, of time, space, actors, the beauty of small gestures, a small sentence. Just to rediscover the beauty of this quotidian thing that our daily life has completely destroyed, because we get used to it. And for this reason, professional actors are not better, it’s a performance, you can’t describe in any other way. Obviously it’s a closed concept, it’s a closed film, it’s a feature film, it’s not life.But at the same time I try to keep this real mystery and it’s the only way I found to create mystery in the film. If someone knows another way, ok, no problem. But the only way I found to create mystery with the actors was this performatic way of working. And I think it’s the future of film because otherwise it’s boring. Because it’s in the middle:something that is being recorded or it’s being filmed, and it’s a concept, but at the same time it allows you a beautiful point of view, if you are focused on what is in front of the camera and not on what is behind. And now the film is showing in a museum.

story-of-my-death-001The film is a gorgeous work of art, particularly in the last section: every shot was like a painting and the lighting was extraordinary, it was like Rembrandt. Can you talk about the cinematography and the lighting?

Serra: It’s difficult to say because I’m more focused on the actors.They are not really aware of what’s happening, there is the concept, the idea of the century of light, the 18th century, going into romanticism, the darker…

But the lighting and cinematography was the result of careful work, that was not random…

Serra: No, it wasn’t accidental but I like the fact that it looks accidental. You can never get the same kind of feeling if it’s prepared. Why? Simply because the technique in this kind of film has to follow acting, the inspiration of the actors is much more important, and they cannot wait until technique is ready. It’s always the opposite: technique has to follow the inspiration of actors, the inspiration of the filmmaker that acts like an actor. So it’s very difficult and very subtle. If you prepare it, you lose something.

But I think this is what we recognise as your inspiration because if you hadn’t thought through that, it wouldn’t have worked. So whether or not you acknowledge it, if it hadn’t worked, if we couldn’t have seen what the actors were doing, in the light that you had envisioned, it would have been a failure. But it did work so you must have thought of something in advance. 

Serra: Obviously. But the main point is that the filmmaker has the same knowledge as the actors and everybody. He’s not above everybody. Ok he has the concept, he controls the concept. He has the faith with the concept, not that he controls the concept. And yes it’s a closed concept because if not it wouldn’t be a feature film, it would be a ridiculous experimental school film. But this is not an experimental thing, it’s a feature film. So the concept has to be closed. But after that, I don’t have more information, I don’t want to have more information. Actually my way of working is that every time I try to destroy what was filmed before. When I have the concept of the film and the script, the film tries to destroy all the meanings, all the ideas that were in the concept. When I shoot the film, I try to destroy everything. Because I am scared of cliché. I’m like a paranoid who is scared of cliché. So when I’m shooting, all these ideas that were beautiful in the script, when I shoot it, if I see that something that is similar to what was in the script, I immediately think: “oh, this will be a cliché”. I became totally paranoid so I say to myself: “you have to go against that”. And in the edit it’s the same thing, I try to destroy all the meanings that were there before, because of the paranoia of cliché.  And on the post-production I am destroying what I made in the edit. For example, the film was shot in 4.3, but at the end I thought it was better in 2.35. And cinemascope is completely the opposite. But it’s ok, it’s part of the performance of the film, it’s more unpredictable. Otherwise you have a perfectly composed film. And my film is also perfect, but in a different way. Like with the actors, I shot a lot of hours, 400 hours for a 2h feature. But I’m not the only one, modern cinema has many interesting filmmakers who work in this way. Otherwise it’s boring.

You are an auteur, a torchbearer of the past generation, but you are rejecting that.

Serra: It was something that was very common in the past. And I come from the art world. Not in the sense that I studied or worked in art schools. But my main influence was art people from the beginning of the avant-garde, the attitude. Also take music for example: you can go to a live concert and say “the sound is terrible, the singer was drunk, and the people, you see them crying, it’s horrible”. But at the same time you can feel some magic, sometimes, that you cannot see in a perfect recording with a better sound, with all the time in the world, trying to do rehearsals and do it again and again and again. And we all here have experienced the same thing, that in a live concert, there is some kind of magic that you cannot achieve otherwise, despite the best sound, the best musicians, the best music studios…and then the final result is boring. And you can apply this kind of thinking to cinema. Because cinema has been academic, always. You go to art school and they say “do whatever you want, you are free, you are an artist”, you don’t need to justify yourself. But you go to film school and no, putting cows in the shooting, this will never get you good results!

Unless they explode…Another thing that seduced me about your film was the tone and the movement of the film, it seemed so controlled and so subtle at the same time. How did you manage to keep that movement in the editing room?

Serra: I edited the film myself, it took me one year and a half, so it was really really very difficult work. The edit adds something. My main goal in the edit was to create a fantasy which only really existed on the screen.  For example, in the scene where Dracula asked the girl to go to the castle, to cross the river for the first time. I shot that  scene for three hours, always making variations, I never repeat the same scene. Even if I like something a lot, I never say, “do it again”. Always some variations of the same subject, using the same words. It depends on the actors. So I have three hours of that, same dialogue, going on, coming back. Then in the edit I rewrite all the dialogues on paper. For three hours of shooting you have 24 pages of dialogue. And I start editing the film on paper. So I would choose a question from the first page and then pick an answer that is on the fifth page. And that’s because I like the poetry and lyrical aspect of that combination. Then again a question that is on page 20 and so on. And it’s really open, there are so many possibilities. And at the end when I’m really tired, I decide and I usually I keep the last version. Then maybe in the final edit I cut something. But in general I keep the whole scene.So what happened? What you see in the film, it’s the first time it exists, this dialogue was never done in reality, no one thought about that dialogue before, no screenwriter who wrote it, no actors who performed it. It means that it only exists on the screen, it’s like a fantasy. And it’s the same with 4.3 and cinemascope. OK, the film was shot in 4.3 but in the end I thought it was better in 2.35. So what you see is a new image, an image that never existed in reality. Also for the structure of the film, sometimes I edit one scene before another because I like the last frame. The physical combination of the last frame with the next frame. I don’t care about what’s happening from the narrative point of view. So in some sense, the film you see here was really born on the screen, it never existed in reality, it’s a cinematic performance. It has the values of performance in the sense that it’s really unpredictable but at the same time it has the values of cinema, the fact that in the edit, even in a strange way, somebody really controlled it and worked for having a more intense and more sensitive perception of time, space, characters. Somebody was really focusing on showing that.

What can you tell us about the music you chose for the film?

Serra: It’s the first film in which I use music, it’s part of the subject of the film that is this mix of artificial and ultranaturalistic. When you see these actors, you feel that it’s wild, no professional actors, but I like also the artificial side of the film. And music is part of it in some sense. I wanted to add a new layer. It’s obvious that it’s strange music, made specifically for the film. And that would be a beautiful contrast with the wildness of the actors, and of the edit, which has a raw quality. Even the image, although it’s beautiful, it’s always strange. It’s an imbalance, the values of the film are imbalanced.But this is what I like. I decided to make cinema just to live a different life.