Argentine director Lisandro Alonso discusses his latest feature, Jauja (2014), starring Viggo Mortensen. Lisandro has made five feature films, including Liverpool (2008) and Los Muertos (2004), featuring minimal dialogue, striking atmospheres and mostly solitary characters. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014.
I’m curious how you started working with (Jauja co-writer) Fabian Casas?
Lisandro Alonso: Actually, I was far away from cinema. I was working on a farm harvesting, repairing things on the farm. After I finished Liverpool, I was a little bit tired about producing my films, being around, get support and everything, so I go back to my family and then I get married, have a child and everything. I start looking again, through magazines, about very rich places, all rich places in Argentina, because I was curious to make a kind of period movie, if I can call it that. Fabian is the editor of a magazine from rural places in Buenos Aires, I contacted him. I mean, he was a poet, but at that moment, I didn’t read any of his work, but he’s a great guy and we just went to a pizzeria and had a pizza. I started talking about the idea of working together. He told me, first we should try to be friends or something and we were around for two years, after we started writing a little bit and talking about the idea of making this film and get the ideas together. Because he has his own ideas, actually, he wrote a book with the same elements that appear in [Jauja], but the main character he wrote in the book was a dog. But I cannot shoot a film about a dog, that was not my idea.
Nevertheless, we start thinking about these characters and the plot and suddenly he brings Viggo [Mortensen], because he’s a very close friend of Viggo – they are fans of a soccer team, San Lorenzo de Almagro. Because he told me that Viggo also has a Danish passport, I liked much more the idea to have the main character from Denmark. Then we sent a twenty page script to Viggo and he started reading it, also correcting some ideas on the film, and it takes three or four years to try to get all the things together. Viggo was shooting something else and I had some problems with money for the film, so it was not easy to film all in the same place. That’s how I met Fabian and it was very easy to work with him, but I think he brings a lot of new ideas in terms of dialogue and strange characters – not strange, but you know, what I was not used to having in my own head. This film is more like a theatrical film, kind of artificial for me, from my own point of view. It was more or less like that. Then I tried to find a way to work with Timo Salminen, the cinematographer of Aki Kaurismaki, and he got on board. I think it looks different from my previous films because he has a kind of lighting, not rude, but strong. It looks a little bit… I don’t know if it looks like a set, but he likes not to do natural light. So you can feel the colours and the lighting is not naturalistic and I like it better that way, because for me it creates a little bit more the unique world for the film. You don’t really know what’s happening at the beginning and then the film kind of mutates or changes, you can imagine, in three different ways.
Fabian is in Sin título and he says in there that words now matter in your films. What did that mean?
In Sin título, actually what he’s reading at the end is more or less what he was writing. So I take many of those characters and situations and dialogues and I put it in the script. What I like from Fabian is that he’s not coming from film school or something like that, so he really doesn’t write like “1. EXT. – NIGHT” or something like that. He just has ideas and puts it on paper and I take some of them. I just read this little script for the film.
Did this idea come first or was there an idea where you wanted to move away from the previous three films?
It is more or less the same: there’s a father looking for a daughter or something like that and you can see it in Liverpool or Los muertos, so it’s more or less the same. But I was impressed [upon], especially in this film, because I was shocked by – I don’t know if you know the guys that were murdered in Manila in Philippines. There was a couple film critics, Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco. I know Nika from a time ago and she moved because she was in love with Alexis and they moved to the Philippines. Suddenly, I just received an email telling me that they were killed, then I realized this is the way it is, so I was shocked. I started thinking about her family, have to travel to a strange country to get the body. I kept thinking of that all the time and that was the main idea that I took to Fabian, that I wanted to make a film about when someone loses someone who is very important to him and how to keep going. Then Fabian started creating this – I don’t know how to call it – at the beginning of the film it starts in a certain way and then it moves to become more or less a western, then it goes to something… I don’t know how to even describe it. I just prefer not to know how to describe it, I just put it there and will try to understand how the film works next year, I don’t know how to discover the film. I have to wait. They’re just ideas.
Did you have any of the locations in mind early on? You usually have that first.
Yeah, during the process of writing, which is not a long script but it took three years or something like that, I travelled a lot. I just took my car and go away. I see a lot of places and I like to this kind of experience, being around in places where there’s no internet or telephones… nothing around you. How to walk those places, how to fill the isolation, how the characters can have a relation to nature, I like that. Basically, I like to get away from the city and be there with my crew, my friends and just be together far away from our everyday life.
People keep seeing how you’re depicting the landscape and they draw connections to other films. Did you have anything in mind or is this something being projected onto the film because of its frame and it’s a bit self-reflexive?
No, not really. I just go. First of all, in between locations there is 3000 km, so I like to travel. Suddenly, the film starts near to the ocean, by the sea, and finishes in a very strange place with black rocks. Little by little, you feel like the landscapes are changing us, the head of the main character is being disturbed by what is happening to him in the film.
It’s interesting that the character is always moving forward or trying to understand why men move forward, whereas in your last two films the characters are trying to get back, go back to a place. Is that what you’re describing with the landscape changing?
Yeah, by the action that happens in the film, the guy is alone in nature. But in this case, this guy’s already losing the way, I guess, because his daughter has disappeared. He doesn’t know what to do. What he’s looking for is nothing, he cannot find anything because he’s in a strange place far away from his homeland. For me, it’s like what is happening the head of the main character is happening all around, the nature is changing and at the end it’s like a science fiction thing. It gets more unrealistic. I don’t like to compare with no one, but there’s a couple of places in Stalker, the Tarkovsky film. I like to put people in and create a strange feeling around them with nature, even if there’s nothing strange around them. I like to try to create this unrealistic sensation or dimension.
There’s always a mysterious relationship with the other characters. As a viewer, you don’t know what it is – there’s something odd between how the characters relate. Here you have three groups of people with a tension between them you don’t know. In Liverpool there’s the community, you get an idea that there’s a relationship between the characters that you don’t know. It has a strange quality.
Yeah, that happens because you don’t really who’s who and you don’t really know anything from the past. They just appear there in present time – or it seems that it’s present time – the parts that happen in the film, you start to realize what was happening at that time in Argentina. The time when the government was killing the [Amerindians], putting them apart from civilization and things like that. Actually, I don’t think about it a lot as it’s happening in the film. If something, like an image or a scene, if I think it’s nice for me to watch, I just shoot the thing. Then I will have the chance in the editing room to put it all more or less… to create a logical or not logical way of understanding what is understanding with the character.
Objects have that kind of mysterious quality, too. In Los muertos the toys, the key-chain in Liverpool… now you’ve got the toy soldiers. It’s interesting because it seems like they matter more to the viewers than the characters. The viewer draws connections that the characters may not.
Ultimately that happens because the film is in a way so simple that elements can create, in the pool, a lot of importance. Especially in this film, which is different from the previous films I’ve made, these little soldiers appear in the past and then in the present time when the girl is waking up in Denmark. It makes you feel that you don’t know – it’s a dream, but at the same time the toys are in the present time. So that little moment at the end when the girl finds the little toy soldier, it confused me a little bit. Okay, maybe it was a dream or not, I don’t know. What do you think of that sensation?
It is a sensation, I don’t try to over-think it. It’s just something that is interesting for how it connects things that otherwise wouldn’t [be connected].
Yeah and I think for me this movie isn’t that easy to explain – from the other movies I made, it was like a day in the life of someone, but in this case it’s not that easy for me to explain. If someone came to me and said, “Okay, what is the film about?” It would be easy for me to say, but at the same time it’s hard for me to clarify the ideas of the film. For example, during the last screen there was a man who told me that maybe he doesn’t understand why… he does not agree with the last part, the present [day] sequence at the end. Then I ask him, “Okay, but can you explain to me what the film is about in two minutes?” And I think he couldn’t. And I think I can’t, so… I don’t try, especially in this film, I don’t try to get any logical explanation. It’s just more like painting, even if it’s not painting because it’s cinema. Especially because this 4:3 framing reminds me of old cinema or painting; for me it’s not narrative. The 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 frame you are probably waiting for some more action, especially if you see Viggo with a gun and a horse. Maybe you are waiting for the Indians – are they going to kill one another or what? So, I just prefer to get out from that kind of area and put it in the 4:3 just to create another perspective for the audience. Don’t try to see the blood or something else, just try to focus on the pleasure of what you’re watching.
Is that what the frame does, too? The rounded edges that gives it a painterly quality or maybe an old photograph maybe?
Yeah, like an old photograph. But actually, the way it is with the round corners is how I get it from the lab. Actually, we composed the whole film during shooting in a 1.85:1 [aspect ratio], but the lab never put the window in the right place, so I asked them can you send it to me full frame and I started editing it in full frame. Then I realized that if I zoom in some of the picture, it was better for the film to show it that way.
In the last scene, I was reading that there are sea horses in it, but I didn’t notice them myself, but I’m curious about it.
Yeah, the last frame after the little girl throws away the toys, there’s a sea lion at the back. I think I put it because it brings you back to the beginning of the film where the guy is watching all around. It makes it… not confusing… but to have the possibility to ask, “Is that a dream? What part of the film was real or not?” I don’t know, it’s just instinctive I guess. I think it’s better to end the film in Patagonia in Argentina, not to end the film in Denmark, even if it’s just thirty seconds.
In this film and Liverpool… even La Libertad… at the end there’s a moment where it twists and goes in a different direction. I’m curious when you realized that structure was something interested you? I read an interview circa Liverpool where you said there’s something magical when it switches over at the end.
Sometimes, especially in the films where you follow someone – the main character – for the whole film, I just get bored about him. During the shooting I say, “Okay, maybe we can change, stray to some other character” or put something that keeps you alive while you are watching the film – like a surprise to you, a new character or new point of view or film the camera a little bit. Even if the characters are not more in the frame. I just like to still have some time to think what is happening, that’s what I like to start all the sequences with an empty frame and finish it with another empty frame. That gives me the opportunity in the editing to manage the rhythm of the film. Otherwise, if you just go to the action, then you have to go action, action, action, action and there’s no time to get away from what is happening to think a little bit. Or have the feeling that there is someone making the movie.
You had to fight for the end of Libertad where it cuts to the camera crew, that was taken out of it for a little bit?
Yeah, actually years ago the people from Cannes Film Festival told me that maybe they don’t really… kind of… in agreement with that scene because they thought it can be a little bit provocative or something. Then I said we would take it away, because I thought it was better for the film to be in Cannes. But then yeah, I kept thinking about that and maybe it was good to be that way at that time. It makes me think what I should do and do in the next films. I respect everyone from the film industry, especially people who see so many films through the year and maybe they know what they’re saying. But sometimes maybe they are wrong and it depends on you – it’s your decision. For example, in Jauja maybe there are some ideas to take away the Denmark ending, but I was not agreeing with that. I said, if you want, leave it in and if you just want to take it out, I will not show the film. I think it’s a much better film if I have this opportunity to break the time and put you in a different place. It seems stronger for me.
Physicality and the body are always important in your films and I was wondering what working with Viggo allowed you to do in that sense? He has a real presence, especially when he’s climbing up the rocks.
Well, I like Viggo as an actor, as a person, as an artist, as a producer – as everything. I guess, from what I know, Viggo in the films I’ve seen, he doesn’t talk too much. Maybe because he’s physically communicative with his gestures, he doesn’t need to talk too much to make you understand what is happening in the character. I guess he really understands that. Maybe I was a little bit confused at the beginning of the shooting and I asked him, “Viggo, don’t you think that sometimes when he realizes he’s not going to see the girl any more, you have to show your feelings a little bit more?” He told me, “No, I don’t. I don’t think it should be that way. I’m a military guy from four hundred years ago and I don’t think it should be that way.” And now, I realize that he was right. In that way, I think he never puts his character ahead of the movie. He was always trying to figure out how to balance the drama and the acting in the favour of the film – if you compare with the other cast and the landscape. Actually, if I had to be honest, I never work with professional actors, so I just sit there and watch Viggo acting and I learn a lot. For me, the work I have to do is to pick the right people and once we are all in the set or location shooting, I just have to be there and be quiet – see what happens, you know? I feel comfortable to do that when I choose Viggo or the other actors, they are already the characters, so whatever they do is fine to me. Even if they are talking in Danish and I didn’t understand a word, I don’t care. I just ask, “Are you saying your lines? Okay.”
How did you do the scene where [Viggo] is sleeping under the stars? That seems like it was more of the difficult scenes to shoot.
It was chroma [key], it’s fake. That was a breaking point in the film. I like to think that until that it was one way and maybe the character just dies here. Apart from that place to the end, maybe it’s a dream. For me, the film can be a dream from the dog or the young lady or the old lady, who is the old lady in the cave? I don’t know, I have no idea, I don’t need to know. Even if I have my own thoughts, I don’t know if it’s the little child, his own imagination… I don’t want to know.
Is that something the actors consider? I’m curious, now that you’re working with a professional actor – is the backstory and what happens the story important to them in a way that maybe it’s not important to you?
I think for them, yes, but I never get involved with that. I think Viggo just creates his own character from day one to the point where he starts appearing in the film. I never ask about that. I never ask the other actors, too, they are professionals and have their own tools to create something. In the same way, the non-professional actor you just put in front of the camera, “Do what you think you have to do.”
It’s interesting how in Liverpool it seems it’s all about what happened before with the character and in this one it’s more about what happens after – that’s the bigger question. He’s progressing so much and be philosophical about his own future, that’s the bigger question vs. a backstory.
Yeah, because in this film what I was interested in knowing is how you keep going after you have this loss: your daughter or someone else. For me that was the main question: How do we keep going, living, after something really important. For Viggo’s character, he’s out of Denmark, he’s nowhere down there in the south, completely alone in a desolate place. That’s what the old lady asks, “How can we keep going?” And actually I don’t know. I don’t know why we just keep walking in this life.
How was it like working with Timo [the DP], can you describe more about how you two collaborated on the film?
Well, Timo is a Finnish guy, a very serious guy, but at the same time he has his own way of working and I just learn from him. He came from – if you’ve seen Aki’s films – it’s more narrative in a way, plano contraplano [shot-reverse shot], it’s more dialogue, close-ups and things like that. At the beginning I was not sure about doing that, but then he told me to just do it and if I don’t want to use it, just give it away. Especially for this film, it was useful to me to have not only one point-of-view, especially with the dialogues. He’s very fast doing the lightning and everything, so it let me do different things with the same sequence. I think we will work together again, that’s my feeling.
You get to try different set-ups?
No, we just go down and put the camera, but I was used to just going to a landscape and see which is the better framing and put the camera, say to the non-professional actors, “This is the way it’s going to be, so walk or do your thing from there to there.” But with the professional actors, it changed a little bit. They know where the camera is and they can tell me, “This isn’t natural, it’s a little bit forced. Where should I look? To the camera? The light?” So we have to talk a little bit more with the actors in terms of where to put the camera. Just to not make it only for the framing, to participate also with the action and what the characters are doing in front of the camera. That was a big difference from my previous movies, where I just put the camera and tell them what to do.
You’re going to be spending some time in New York now?
I’ve got this residency and I suppose I should go there and try to start thinking about my new film. Actually, what I already told them was that I want to make the new film. I’m interested first in location and I think I’m going to go to the Amazonia in Brazil. I’ll go to the jungle, I think the film is going to be based mostly there. There’s no time, there’s a place in Amazonia, so once we are in the jungle, we don’t know precisely what year it is. It could happen 100 years ago or in the next 100, so I like that possibility – that you don’t know what time it is.
This film was already getting compared to Aguirre: The Wrath of God because of…
I didn’t know about that, but I hear about that. I like that, because I like Herzog a lot. Why do you think they compare the films?
The relationship with the daughter probably and…
They lose their way, get a little bit crazy – or not crazy, but you know. Well, maybe Herzog is in my mind all the time, so probably it appears.
The Amazon one sounds like it will also get that comparison.
It’s a compliment for me, you know, when people make connections with Werner Herzog. I like it a lot.
Hopefully the production is not quite as difficult.
It’s going to be, it’s going to be that way. I’m always asked by the crew, “Why don’t you figure out a film at the beach, in a better place?” They make a joke about that. I’m working with the same guys for the last fourteen years, so they’re used to it, but it’s going to be tough, I guess.
Wasn’t there a really difficult experience on Liverpool where you said that you didn’t want to put the crew through something like that again?
Yeah, we didn’t have the right to make that film and we did things that I don’t want to do again, like jumping to the big cargo ship, just approach the cargo ship in a canoe in the middle of the night. It was snowing and raining and they just throw up by a rope. That can be dangerous. Something goes wrong and somebody just jumps into the water, it’s not going to be a happy end. I just don’t want to take those risks again, but I don’t think in the Amazon it’s going to happen that way, I guess. Some Indian just poisons up or something like that.
Are you going to work with another established writer?
I was just reading a short story by Fabian that I’m reading. Years ago, I don’t know, twenty years ago, a week before he was going to get married he just decided, “No, I’m not going to do it.” And he goes away to the Amazon for two years. So I think I’m going to take some of that real element and I will do something. In the short story, it happens that the guy went a little bit crazy and his brother and mother go to look for him in the middle of nowhere – the jungle. So I think maybe those elements are going to be in the next film.