FILMMAKER IN FOCUS: LORENZO VIGAS
The following interview was taken on September 16 at TIFF2015, a few days after the Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas was awarded The Golden Lion at VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2015.
Desde Allá has its U.S. premiere at AFI FEST in LA tonight.
Knight: I thought we could start this interview with me asking you to reminisce about your beginnings as a filmmaker.You have just been awarded the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for Desde allá, your first feature film. The film was produced by your friend and collaborator Michel Franco, who by the way told me you two met 10 years ago when you showed up at his house party uninvited!
Vigas: (laughing) Yes, that’s true!
Knight: But where would you locate your beginnings as a filmmaker?
Vigas: My father gave me a VHS camera when I was 15. My father is a painter and a very important artist in Venezuela, very well-known in all Latin America actually.
Knight: Was your artist father a great influence on you?
Vigas: Yes but not as a painter. He gave me a camera when I was 15 and that was very important, I started making films and made a series of home-made videos. I never thought it could be my profession, it was just a hobby, but a very passionate hobby. Then I went to study biology but I never left the camera, I was always making things. Then I started making documentaries. At the time I was studying molecular biology and I was between science and arts. But I never thought I could make a living in the arts.
Knight: Why were you so convinced you couldn’t? Were you living in Venezuela or Mexico at that point?
Vigas: I actually did my studies in the US, I studied molecular biology in Boston. And before that I was at University of Tampa in Florida. I felt this necessity of telling stories, of expression, and one day I realised that I wouldn’t be able to express myself as a scientist, either as a university professor or as a researcher. I felt the necessity of having an artistic expression. So I did a couple of very short film workshops in New York.
Knight: On directing, screenwriting?
Vigas: Yes, directing, filmmaking workshops. I wanted to learn the practical things. I didn’t want to go to film school, I don’t think you need to go to film school at all. Then I went back to Venezuela and I started working as a director, I was hired to shoot commercials, infomercials for TV, documentaries, just work for hire. But I really wanted to make films. One day I met Guillermo Arriaga, he came to Caracas to give a film lecture at the university where I was shooting a TV documentary series. I told him about this story and he fell in love with it.
Knight: So the idea for this film goes back many years…
Vigas: It’s very old, this was in 2001. But it was just an idea for a story. So Guillermo Arriaga told me, “I want to produce your film, come to Mexico”. When I went to Mexico, I wanted to shoot something very quickly, so I wrote and directed a short film, Elephants never forget, have you seen it?
Knight: No, I haven’t seen it yet.
Vigas: You have to see it because I’m working on a trilogy. This short film is the first part.
Knight: Like a prologue?
Vigas: Yes. Desde allá is the second part. The stories are not similar, but there are through lines. I am obsessed with the theme of absent fathers. This theme is present in the short film, in Desde allá, and in a third film I’m now working on now, it’s called The Box. So I came to Mexico, I wrote the short film then went back to Venezuela to shoot it and to keep working on the screenplay for Desde allá. While I was writing the screenplay I met Michel (Franco) with whom I became very very close. He was preparing his first film and ever since we helped each other and shared all our projects. I worked and advised him on his films and he did the same on my films. He’ll also be the producer of my next film.
Knight: On the subject of your collaboration with Michel Franco, I would say that your filmmaking styles have a similar quality, would you agree? I’m not talking about specific cinematographic choices, I’m referring more to the fact that you both have a very direct and confident style of shooting.
Vigas: Yes, but we’re also very different in some ways. Michel loves static shots, he almost never moves the camera, everything is there happening in front of you. Whereas I move the camera, I intercut. But we have this thing of always avoiding sentimentality. I’m not talking about mise-en-scène, I’m talking about how to approach the work with actors. Also how to approach the story and the lines of dialogue. There are similarities but also very different things. I like to play a lot with ambiguity.
Knight: He does too.
Vigas: Yes, that’s true. That is definitely a similarity.
Knight: I was referring more to your confident and direct manner of shooting, I could tell from the very first frames of the movie that you knew precisely where to put the camera and where to cut, there was no hesitation in the visual story-telling.
Vigas: I hope so! And I think art is about knowing what to take off, getting rid of things. Michel does one take. He can’t get rid of it, he can’t change it. I film more than Michel does. What you saw is a product of eight months of editing. I am very happy with how the film turned out but I had to get rid of a lot of shots. That’s because I like to have choices and to be able to get rid of the ones I don’t like or don’t work. Michel doesn’t like this, he is very sure of the takes he is going to have.
Knight: It’s also about the relation between form and story, your filmmaking style suits your story, his filmmaking style suits his story.
Vigas: Yes, we talk about film form a lot.
Knight: With a static camera you can be very introspective, you’re delving deep into the character, as if you’re trying to see through the character. Whereas your style of moving the camera and cutting faster suggests a more “emotional” camera, very suited to rendering the characters’ emotional state, what they feel as opposed to what they think or who they are.
Vigas: That’s an interesting observation.
Knight: I’m also curious: what input did you have on Michel Franco’s films and what input did he have on your films?
Vigas: We have greatly influenced each other. He read my screenplay before he shot his films. So I know there were things about my film that influenced him. And I guess I was influenced by his way of filming. We have a lot of things in common although I can clearly see differences.
Knight: Did you go on set with him when he was shooting his films?
Vigas: No, I didn’t, except maybe for a couple of days. And he was never on my set, he never travelled to Caracas. I did not want anyone near me really, I wanted absolute control.
Knight: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?It sounds like a very long process.
Vigas: It was a very long process, yes, but then it took longer to make the film.
Knight: Why? You already had your producer.
Vigas: Yes, Guillermo Arriaga had the script in his hands and he wanted to make it in Mexico. Then he changed his mind, “No, not Mexico, let’s make it elsewhere, maybe in Europe.”
Knight: What were the reasons for that?
Vigas: I don’t know but those were very wrong decisions and one day I couldn’t wait anymore, I grabbed the script and went back to Venezuela where I really wanted to make it. But it took me a while to be able to do that, I had to wait for a while before I was able to tackle this project. But in a way it was perfect timing: to make the film in Caracas right now, you can really feel this tension between the classes that plays into the story of the characters. We come from a country where hugging is very important, the physicality of the act is very important. And Armando is this person who cannot be touched, so it is very interesting to place a character like this in a society that loves to do exactly the opposite. It’s a metaphor about what is happening in Venezuela right now. So the film was made when it really needed to be made and the Golden Lion from Venice is a proof of that.
Knight: Talking about Venezuelan society, you said at the press conference that the film is not so much about homosexuality as it is about a “shortage of emotions in our society”.
Vigas: Yes, emotional needs.
Knight: But is this something that characterises Venezuelan society in particular or is it a more generalised feeling?
Vigas: It’s a generalised feeling. And this is a film that transcends homosexuality, it goes far beyond that.
Knight: Hence the title, From Afar or From Beyond.
Vigas: Absolutely. It’s about emotional needs. If a 60-year old lady would have taken care of the boy, he would have fallen in love with her, so it’s not about homosexuality in a strict sense. It’s about their emotional needs, the fact that they needed each other. And it’s a film about consequences, not about the reasons for things. I think it is more important to see the consequences than to know the reasons of things. And it leaves space for imagination, I think the public is tired of being served everything on a plate. We have to think that the public is intelligent and leave space for their imagination, leave space to connect their psyche with the psyche of the characters. The only way of doing this is not telling everything.
Knight: Being sparse with the storytelling.
Knight: I was very impressed with the performances of your actors. How did you find them?
Vigas: First of all, I am a mad obsessive about the direction of actors. My crew hated me.
Knight: Why, what did you do?
Vigas: Well, not all the crew but some of the crew. I was obsessive about some performance details and having control over their performance. We went very big, we took great risks, it was very painful for the actors. First of all, I did not want the main actors to meet before the shoot, they met on the first day of shooting. I only gave them the lines 15 minutes before we started shooting. So they hardly had time to read the lines that we started.
Knight: Is it because you wanted the surprise effect of them actually meeting for the very first time?
Vigas: Yes, and I also did not want them to be conscious of their character. I did not want them to rationalise their character, what they should and shouldn’t do at any particular moment . So every day we were shooting new scenes and they did not know what was going to happen next. Of course I had to give the screenplay to Alfredo (Castro) because I couldn’t have secured him for the film if I hadn’t given him the screenplay to read before.
Knight: Did you know from the beginning that you wanted the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro for the role of Armando?
Vigas: Yes, he was my first choice. I didn’t know if he was going to like the story but he absolutely loved it.
Knight: Armando is a very mysterious and unpredictable character. Very unconventional as well in the way he behaves and reacts.
Vigas: Yes and he is a metaphor for the lack of communication. I really wanted the film to be about someone who is unable to connect emotionally with people. There is something in me that I wanted to communicate also, it’s a very personal film, a lot of my obsessions are present in the film.
Knight: And Luis Silva who plays Elder, how did you discover him?He’s not a professional actor and he hasn’t made any films before, has he?
Vigas: That’s right. I saw his photo at a casting agency. A friend of his asked him to come to a casting with him. He lives in a very poor and very dangerous neighbourhood.
Knight: Very much like the character he plays in the film.
Vigas: Yes. So he went with his friend who wanted to do a TV commercial and it was him who ended up in the commercial because he has this amazing face. I saw a picture of him and I said “I want to meet this guy”. He was very young, 16 years old. And from the moment I met him and started talking to him, I immediately knew it was him, he was Elder. Luis has this tremendous energy, he’s brutally smart, he’s a monster! But I never put a camera in front of him, never did a casting with him, which was a risk, this was a very big production for Venezuela and we had a famous actor from Chile. We never did a formal camera test but we had a workshop with him and the rest of the kids, his girlfriend and his friends. This was a 3-month workshop and Elder was part of that workshop. So one day before the shoot we finally did a camera test with Elder and we were all shocked, I knew I found something very big. And Alfredo’s reaction to Luis was incredible, I remember him telling me on the set, “This boy is a monster”!
Knight: The thing that impressed me the most about his performance was this almost palpable fear on his face, he looks like a caged bird in some of the first scenes. He is so expressive that you know immediately what he feels.
Vigas: Yes and he’s the same in real life, he’s very expressive and absolutely transparent. He expresses everything that crosses his mind. And in the film he doesn’t speak but you understand perfectly well what his character is about.
Knight: Did you give him any acting instructions at all?
Vigas: No, we explored different emotions. And he gave everything he had, he’s a natural.
Knight: This film is also very much about homophobia, at the beginning there is a lot of hatred that Elder feels towards Armando, he calls him “you old pervert” at some point. I suppose this is still a very pervasive feeling in Venezuela and everywhere in Latin America.
Vigas: Absolutely, Latin America is a place where homosexuality is still very condemned.
Knight: How do you think the public will react to the film?
Vigas: This is going to be very interesting! This is a film that will make people argue a lot in Venezuela and I want this to happen actually. As artists we have the responsibility to create conflicts and divisive opinions. And especially in the current climate in Venezuelan society when the dialogue between the classes has been cut: there is no dialogue between the government and the people, there is no dialogue between the poor class, the middle class and the higher class. Everyone is divided and everyone refuses to communicate. So I hope this film will make them talk about social issues and homosexuality.
Knight: You live in Mexico City now, right?
Vigas: Yes. Well, I go back and forth, I spend half of the year in Caracas, half of the year in Mexico City.
Knight: Is The Box, the third film of the trilogy, based in Mexico City?
Vigas: Yes but it’s not going to be shot there, we’re shooting in North Mexico.
Knight: What is the film is about?
Vigas: It’s about a 14year old boy whose father was killed 10 years before and who finds out that his father was just found in a massive graveyard. So he goes there to recover his human remains. I wrote the script while trying to find the money to make Desde allá, I was going to Europe, Venezuela a lot so I wrote it on these trips. Now the script is ready and we’re shooting next year.