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Matías Piñeiro Interview (Hermia & Helena)

Hermia & Helena

Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro discusses his latest film, Hermia & Helena (2014), based somewhat on William Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, following an artist travelling from Buenos Aires to New York City for a fellowship for her work translating the Shakespeare play into Spanish. Though it’s the loosest adaptation, it follows the same methodology of his previous adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies that focus on the female characters:  The Princess of France (2014)’s inversion of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Viola (2012)’s take on Twelfth Night and Rosalinda (2010)’s As You Like It.  This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2016.

The Seventh Art: The last time we talked, we mentioned the differences between The Princess of France and Viola, because they’re similar with some formal variations here and there. Hermia & Helena is a more significant departure. One new technique here is the use of dissolves – was that to reflect the idea of two things happening at once you’ve mentioned when talking about the film?

Matías Piñeiro: Yeah, there are many things, but if there’s one thing that convinced me to do it, it’s that: the idea that even if you think about translation, it’s a work that’s in progress in each time. It’s never fulfilled, there can always be another version, you can always revise. Time will make it change and it’s an impure matter. When you translate you leave your marks, your fingerprints somehow. It’s a text that is dirty, it’s creased. You can see layers, when you translate you do one section and then you do another, it’s a Frankenstein monster. Things are faded, there’s densities of layers. [The dissolves] worked with the idea that it’s never pure and crystal clear, you can see the translator translating, as you can see the editor editing in the fades somehow. I liked to sustain that, sustain the fades – it’s not just that you go from one place to another, but that you are in between. With the languages and translation, you are also in between. It also works with the idea of Buenos Aires to New York, the idea of fading these two and making an impossible merge, like a mutant. Fades allow you to produce mutant images, the head of a toad, the legs of a rabbit and the tail of a bird. There’s something about sustaining the fading, if you keep it that way, you can see different sorts of images that are produced that are a little bit ungraspable. 

Sometimes it looks like there’s three images.

Yeah, it depends which case.

It also didn’t look like it was a cross-dissolve, but that sometimes the more faded image would become more clear and then fade back again.

I wanted to move away from the rhetorical grammar of the fade, as if it’s the passing of time or space. I wanted to suspend it, keep it always in the fading process, not just from A-to-B, but to have the AB be the image. In some cases it’s more cases, but very long, while in other cases it’s many many layers at the same time. I really like when you see that one image has been sustained, it’s not fading anymore, it’s just there. There are other ones that are fading, so each image has an independence. I thought there was the possibility of finding combinations – hazardous combinations – by changing the time of each shot. Usually in my films I never used fade, but I’m trying to use things I haven’t used as much. The last film it was the long shot, this time I said fades are something that cinema has that I haven’t worked with that much. There’s a long fade in Princess between a painting and a woman, but here I wanted it to be the centre. It works for this film, but it wouldn’t work in Princess, which has other devices. 

There’s superimposition, too, with text overlaying the image in this film. It’s new, but in its spirit it reminded me of The Stolen Man (2007), which had the text in it a lot more.

Yeah, yeah. All the punctuation of time going by is with the text. I like this as well, the impurity, in a way. You have a piece of literature and adapt it, but then you have the text as an object. I like how cinema relates to things in a very concrete way: Photographing, capturing, documenting. The title of The Stolen Man comes from the name of a chapter of a book and I shot the book, so the title of the film is a shot of a [physical] book. It’s chapter 5, so it says V on the title. There’s no need to do anything else, just capture it with the camera. Here, it’s something similar. I wanted to have this uncomfortable element, which is words in cinema. They can do something still, they can multiply the image. Not only be a description, but be used as an action. The word appears and it changes the image, what is happening in the image. [Camila] is working in a notebook, writing and scribbling down, so somehow it’s a counter-shot, a point-of-view shot in a way. I never worked that much with this, but it’s on the radar, so let’s try to exhaust the graphic element. I like when certain films use that, it puts the film image in a critical position, it breaks the image. A work appears and it produces a little fracture and I think that can produce fiction for me. 

What about the moment where the image’s colours invert? That breaks it, too, but she’s also as a character inverting things and you are inverting gender in some of these adaptations.

Yeah. The inversion had to do with making a little bit of a crack, an in-your-face crack in the film. There is this dreamy sequence, it’s enchanting, a moment where the film believes in magic, so I have to do something to cry out with that [laughs]. I know that maybe some people won’t follow or see it that way, but I needed to puncture the image. I need to shake the frame, how the camera is objectively capturing a corner, a face, a space, and then I can do something else. It’s a matter of trying new things and seeing what happens. I do enjoy producing dream sequences, I always have those types of things. This one is weird because it’s not fully a dream sequence like the other films. I feel like I’m doing alternative fictions in a way. It’s not experimental film, but I don’t feel like they’re following conventional storytelling – I just like taking detours and producing parallel ways of telling something. It may work, it may not work, it may not work today, maybe it works tomorrow, or maybe it worked a long time ago. At least I’m trying to see what kind of responses the narrative structure gives when confronted with these types of elements, which are not typically used in narrative: this way of fading, the words, the image inversions – I like to push the image a little bit as a storytelling factor. It’s not a total abstraction, but I’m messing around with how to tell a story.

The short film within the film is a detour, too, but you also made it, so it’s a detour in the film and in your own filmography, as well.

Yeah, I like the idea of having a short film from a character – especially this character [played by Dustin Guy Defa]. His participation is very small and it’s a flat image, there’s nothing behind that character. She puts it all in, she puts a lot in him, but then the image we get is a very flat one. In order to also contrast that and produce an imbalance that I like – that produces something – a very personal object from him would be good to somehow build him as a character. It’s a very intimate side of him that makes you see him in a different way afterwards. I don’t remember what came first now: I wanted him to be a fellow [in the artist program] at another time and he went to Buenos Aires, so I started thinking what he would have done in Buenos Aires. That’s when the filmmaker idea appeared, so a short could be included. I had a friend from the Museum of Cinema in Buenos Aires, they gave me the material. It’s a program they have for Argentine filmmakers to intervene with footage from state propaganda or tourist advertising. You have to do something with it. They invited me once, I said yes but backed off because I couldn’t do it. So when I had the idea for the short, I didn’t feel like doing the short entirely myself, to shoot something that didn’t look like a Matías Piñeiro film. I thought about putting footage in from another film or asking friends to give me something, to ask Lois Patiño to give me a shot from one of his films, raw footage.

And now the two of you are working together.

Yeah, that’s why, we know one another. But I said no, it would be fake in a way. Suddenly I remembered [the Museum] and I thought it was perfect: the material is not mine, the intervening material is something I haven’t done, so I think it will work. I had the idea of using a text that is not mine, so I used Rebecca, which I really like. It worked very well with the idea I had for the character, the melancholic thing and going back to the south. “I dreamed I went to Mandalay again.” I really like the introduction of that film. I made it very romantic and melancholic. I put the music, the music was not supposed to continue in the film and then we did the inversions. At first the words were going to be animated, we had a very long process of experimenting with little animations. We were working with great guys from Argentina, but it was not working. My idea was that there would be the image from the text and you would see that someone is writing, not the hand, just the text.

You see that a little bit in the film, no? There’s a circling of a word…

A little bit, yeah, but it’s more like Méliès, not animated. There are cuts, it’s more brutal. Then I realized that was the way to go; the animation was not part of the universe of the film. There was an ontological problem, it did not belong. It’s a fake element, I want to make you think it’s the handwriting of Agustina [as Camila]. It didn’t work. You know when you’re a kid and you have – I never had it, but I saw it – that magic board and when you write and on the TV it appears. It’s like Godard in Numéro deux (1975).

Or sportscasters in the past drawing over a replay?

Yes, they would circle, exactly. I wanted that, it would have an immediacy. Here in the animation that had to be built. That was boring, super boring. It was one of these ideas that I said I have never done, like live translation in the film that she writes down, crosses out another line. It was not working, I was suddenly so angry, we tried many times and it was stopping the editing process, so I said I would do it. I grabbed the paper, wrote it down, took a picture and put it in – and it worked. It was very primitive. You write it on an A4 page, you take a picture with a telephone, send it, invert it – that’s where the inversion came. I had to invert it and it looked good. When I first put it in, the writings, they were too big and over the edge of the frame, and that was even better. There was something performative, just doing it quickly and it was better. I realized it was better to be direct, no fooling around, going back to Méliès in a way. No perfume, no make-up, just in your face. That was a relief and that I could do it myself, handmade. I decided then that the credits had to change. The title, I used the typical Didot [typeface], then I realized it seemed conservative. I liked it, but realized I’m overdoing it. I wrote it with a big marker and it has to do with the film because she’s always writing, so even though it’s my handwriting, it belongs to the film, the universe of the film. If you have enough time and you breathe with your film through the processes of the work, somehow the film finds its own way of being – the devices, the ideas, the little forms that the film needs. Even though I’m forcing the idea of the fades, if you’re sensitive with your work and how the thing moves, it can reject it. The film was rejecting the animations, I insisted, and it was still rejecting. It looked fake and I couldn’t understand why. If you give yourself time – and I did take a little bit longer than with other films to finish, not that much, but the film could have been finished in December 2015 – and it was better. Not to run after any festival, but just keep on insisting, if something is not working, and the film finds its own way of being. That was an enriching process.

Was the Joplin ragtime music your first choice or did you try anything before that?

It was my first choice because I used to play the piano and I really liked “Weeping Willow,” which is a song that appears twice. This was when I was a teenager and I always felt that this should be in a film. I never saw it in another film. Then it was a thing where I’m doing a very American film, so I thought what music should I use. I said it would be nice to use music in a way that I’ve never used music before. It’s the more conventional way to use music, this one, in a way. It would be nice to use American music and with Scott Joplin you couldn’t get more American. It’s before jazz, so there’s something about it – it’s a mark, like when you put your fingers in clay. It leaves an imprint, this film is in the U.S. with my experience in the U.S. and I think it works. At first it was only once piece of music, “Sugar Cane”, but then I realized that the repetition [of it] was working sometimes, but sometimes annoying. Again, the film rejects the idea. You just have to be okay, not have too many crazy ideas in the head, watch it and understand if it’s not working. Then Graham Swon, the producer, came up with the idea of using many. I was happy because I could use “Weeping Willow” and I like how it works. I like the tone, it’s a little bit playful, but also super melancholic; it’s called “Weeping Willow”. There’s something about my sensitivity that connects with Scott Joplin in that sense. The structure of the music is simple, but very clearly geometric. All music is geometric, but this one is very obvious, you understand the two hands. One idea I had that’s not in the film, I really like the movement in “Sugar King”; you need one hand [on the keyboard] to move further away from the other hand. The left hand somehow stays in certain keys and the other one has to travel all along the keyboard. I liked the idea that the character was doing that, she was going from Buenos Aires to New York, Buenos Aires to New York. I showed that, but it was not clear, so I cut it out. 

I wanted to talk about the scene that comes up a lot when the film is written about, which is the scene with Dan Sallitt. I’m really interested in how it’s shot. It seems like compared to your other dialogue scenes, it doesn’t cut away from the shot of her as much. It doesn’t cut to him every time he speaks.

Yeah, because the film is about her. Actually, I cut other sections of the film because I realized some moments I was going away from her. I cut everything that wasn’t her, I was shooting everything from her. The film has her point-of-view and you have to keep with her. The father figure is another empty structure, the film has a lot of those empty structures. They’re always talking about someone you haven’t met, then you meet him and then you have different approaches to how that image is filled with information or not. In this case, I wanted to go out of New York, I didn’t want to do a “New York Film”. It is, but if you watch the film, New York appears as much as Buenos Aires in my other films, very little. There’s the weird place of Chinatown mixed with City Hall, the bureaucratic part of the city. Then going someplace else. It’s the state of New York, but not the idea of New York that people have. The city has been shot so many times, so it’s a little bit overwhelming, so it was good to move away. I also liked the idea of a scene where she’s along. I don’t usually have many scenes like this… The bicycle scene in Viola is a match in a way. I wanted to work with an adult, someone who is another generation, not an old person, but a different generation. The father figure in my other film somehow appears. In [They All Lie (2009)], it’s the thing about the tree and the father, in Princess of France the father is dead. The father is somehow always there haunting. I thought about Dan, who would be great, I had a hunch that he would work. Even facially, somehow I thought it was not that work, I didn’t want to have a joke of a Robert Redford face – not super WASPy, not an imaginary image. No, something that could be possible, but at the same time was sort of paradoxical. He’s the father, but at the same time nothing. That produced another pace that I was conscious of, but not absolutely conscious of. I think it stands out because it has another structure, very different than the first section, for instance, that looks more like my previous films. You don’t know what she’s after, things appear that are mysterious, you’re a bit paranoid. This section, she says “I’m going here” and you see her going. It’s a very simple structure that’s very effective, I was surprised that you keep watching. I was scared that the scene would be kind of “low” and to put it at the end would make the film unbalanced. When I watched the first cut, that was the section that was working more quickly because you watched her walking from one place to another, arriving, he’s not there, etc. You keep watching without any anxiety. Maybe I have a nervousness that I express through my film in the other section, they’re pushy, they’re here, they do this and that, it inverts. [In this section] it was a very calm water. I was conscious but not fully of how it would be. In my films they always stop and talk, in Viola also there’s a moment where they’re in a car, they stop and they talk. Here, I really wanted to be very simple, shot-counter-shot, which I don’t usually do. Dan is not an actor and I trusted that he would be able to do it alright even if he’s not an actor. I thought that the mise en scène, how he was going to be shot, needed to help him little by little. I liked the idea of filling in his gap as a father figure, little by little. First the voice, then a shot from the distance when he arrives, then off-screen in a reflection, then very close but not the face, then finally the close-up. Little by little, the film gives you the father figure to fill in that gap. There’s another pace, another tempo that comes from introducing him like this. I was curious in introducing little by little, but I was not interested in slowing down, though it made it more slower. That was something I found, it was good. I was surprised at how affective it was. When they shot in the deli, that was improvised. It was very liberating, you can put a lot of things you were not expecting and it looks at ease, peaceful. 

How is the location shooting going for your film with Lois [Patiño], you said you were looking for a Spanish island?

Do you have islands in Canada? We need islands. It’s a CPH:DOX project. I was so busy with Hermia & Helena so we couldn’t work that much and he was busy with another project of his. Now, finally after Locarno, we went to Islas Canarias, the Canary Islands. It was amazing, it was very good. For me it was strange, to start a new film by going to look for locations. When I went to a museum and said I want to shoot here for The Stolen Man, but not like this, this landscapes thing. I felt like I was on an excursion [laughs]. Talking with Lois, we connect so well, it’s amazing that when we’re together we work very well. He says something, I add something else, he corrects something and then I say another thing. It’s always adding stuff, even when we’re cutting out ideas. I wanted to shoot in Greece, he said Greece is great, but then we talked after and he said it’s not the right climate. He’s interested in climates, so he needs more. We cut that, we’re thinking Islas Canarias, next stop is Azores. It’s kind of funny, this way of being a filmmaker. The first time I have to travel to do a film. It’s [based on] The Tempest, it’s called Aerial. Mati Diop will be in it, Agustina Muñoz will be in it, we’re having ideas around who Prospero should be. I think it should be an American, so we’ll see. We have a small structure for the film, not a script yet, but it has a format. From that I’ll start writing the script, then writing the script with Lois, and I hope to meet him [in September 2016] to go to Azores. We have a hunch that we will have to do it in Portugal and Islas Canarias. We shall see, it’s like a trans-atlantic film. It will be very different, but in a good way.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, and his written work includes numerous video essays, investigating formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.