Modern Spanish romance gets deft scrutiny in this hilarious story of four modern Madrilenos stuck under an alien invasion.
DT: You’ve said that you made Extraterrestrial in the tradition of “uncomfortable comedies.” What do you mean by that?
NV: If you focus on recent comedy in television, you find a new age of comedies like The Office, the Ricky Gervais thing, later the American version, and other series in the UK. These new comedies deal with situations that are horrible and angry and deal with uncomfortable feelings, but due to the craft of these unique comedians, you find them funny, so you can laugh. I think that’s something that’s happened recently. You can obviously find this kind of humor in the past, but it’s something that comes with this age. In fact, one of the most prestigious journalists in Spain talks about post-humor. It’s a new age of humor in which you are laughing at things that don’t need to be funny, but you’re laughing anyway.
DT: Your films remind me a little bit of Billy Wilder, where there’s a juncture between comedy and despair.
NV: Totally. In Billy Wilder films and in Howard Hawks films—all the screwball comedy tradition—the characters have this ability to communicate themselves. They are all quick, they are all smart, and they are all ingenious. I wanted to apply the same screwball structure to a reality in which the characters have problems communicating with each other. So instead of this quick, fast dialogue, we get this horrible silence, these horrible, angry reactions. I wanted to get those traditions in comedy, the old and the new, and put them together. So this is like a screwball comedy with UFOs.
DT: Think of The Producers, or Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator—
NV: It didn’t come to Spain yet, but Sacha Baron Cohen is another big reference in this kind of humor.
DT: Do you think that you can go too far?
NV: I think that your duty not only as a comedian but also as a writer is trying to go far without being gratuitous about the limits. That’s the challenge for me. Going far without jumping off the cliff, without falling down. Because it’s so easy to jump over the cliff.
DT: That sort of happened to you with the whole Twitter thing.
NV: Totally. There were a lot of factors that played their part in that situation. I felt so angry at some people who found a political benefit in taking my Twitters and changing the context of my jokes. So that situation is really complicated, but again, I think it’s better to make a mistake than to be safe all the time, because making a mistake means you’re testing yourself, you’re pushing yourself to the edge.
DT: You’ve described your style as “classic.” What do you mean by that?
NV: I love to play with the shape of my films. I like my films to be difficult to describe. I’m a fan of so many classic auteurs, and I think that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. At this moment of my career I’m not doing a big leap from the references I work with. I’m not being postmodern. I’m not being innovative enough. I’m not doing avant-garde at this moment. I think that my movies are easy to see. Maybe my movies are difficult to describe, but on the other hand they are easy to see because I’m being classic. I respect the tradition of filmmaking.
DT: On whose shoulders do you stand?
NV: Two of my favorite directors ever are Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. This is something I wasn’t aware of when I was doing the films, but later when I see my films—even my short films—I realize that there’s a constant feeling of guilt. I didn’t know this in advance, but later I found out that I’m talking about guilt all the time. Guilt is the main thing in Hitchcock and Fritz Lang movies, so I have to assume I’m not that far from these big classic auteurs. But I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with guilt.
DT: Your other love is comic books. What’s the intersection between film and comic books for you?
NV: I spend more money every month on comic books than on movies. I don’t know why I make movies instead of writing comic books—maybe because in Spain there’s no market for the kind of comics I’d love to make.
DT: There’s not much of a market for film, either. There’s not a market for anything in Spain right now.
NV: Maybe it’s my time to move into a new territory and start writing comic books. You know, because of the language, it’s easier for me to make an English-language film than writing an English-language comic book, because my ultimate duty in movies is filmmaking, is shooting, and my ultimate duty in comic books will be writing. And at this moment I love the language of images, and I’m OK if I stick to that language. Later, when my English becomes more agile and more wise and more precise, maybe I can write something to be drawn, like a comic book or a graphic novel.
DT: That’s interesting, given the fact that you love images, because in some of your short films, like Code 7 and Domingo, you have these long shots that are just one image, with all of the action essentially going on in the dialogue.
NV: I love the fact that you can change the nature of the image through language, through the dialogue. I love the fact that the same image has a specific vibe, but you manipulate the image through the dialogue and suddenly the nature of what you’re seeing changes totally. I love to play with this…what’s the meaning of the UFO in the background of my movie? I hope people think about the UFO in totally different terms at the end of the film than they do at the beginning. I love the idea of using that specific sci-fi icon, the UFO hovering, the alien mothership, and through dialogue, and situations with characters, and narrative that UFO is not a menace anymore, it’s a big giant metaphor of something. I love to work with audiences at this level. It’s something I really enjoy.
DT: During an interview at a comic book convention you said there are superheroes in the US but not in Europe.
NV: One of my next projects is called Supercrooks, which is a movie I wrote with Mark Millar, based on one of his properties. My involvement with this script is really deep; in fact, I appear in the comic book as a co-plotter. In that comic book we were toying with the idea that superheroes and supervillains are so common in US culture. In Europe we’re really fans of superheroes, but somehow we assume that the superhero isn’t a Spanish guy. We all assume that it’s an American thing. So we wanted to toy with that idea, and we tried to picture a universe in which all the superheroes and all the supervillains are banished in Europe because of the laws and they fight each other in America. It’s funny because that idea somehow makes a lot of sense because it’s a reference to what happens in the superhero comic book market.
DT: What do you think there is in the European mentality and American mentality that makes that so? I mean, why are Robocop and Superman and Batman American?
NV: Because of tradition. In the old tradition of British comic books you find all these characters from the ‘70s that were the villains, and you can find the same thing in the French literature from the nineteenth century. The villains could be the main character. And that is something you can also find in Italy. In Italy you have comic book characters like Diabolique, which has a villain. I don’t know why this happens, but I’m really attracted to the idea that somehow in Europe we can deal with villains on a level that doesn’t happen in the US, but I don’t know why.
DT: I’ve heard many Spanish people speak about their relationships as “complicated,” even in Extraterrestrial…
NV: You see them do that on Facebook.
DT: All the time!
NV: All the time! “I’m married, I’m alone, I have a girlfriend,…it’s complicated.”
DT: And as a director you have a running theme of a desperate man in love with an unavailable woman, like in Cháchara, Marisa, Extraterrestrial…..
NV: You know how you can translate “It’s complicated” on Facebook? I think the way to translate this is “OK, I have a relationship, but you can flirt with me.” That’s the meaning of “It’s complicated.” I’m sorry, but I think that’s the reason.
DT: Do you think that’s something particularly Spanish?
NV: I think it’s totally universal. Because it’s something that points to vanity: I have a relationship, but I’ll let you be attracted to me. It’s pure vanity: I might have a relationship, but don’t worry if you feel attracted to me.
DT: You were born in Cantabria. There was a lot of violence when you were growing up as a kid, with PETA.
NV: Not exactly in Cantabria, but there was a lot of violence just next to Cantabria in the Basque country. My father is from there, so half of my family is in the Basque country. I can’t say I was surrounded by this political tension, but I know what the situation was at the time because every summer I went to the Basque country and I could feel the tension in the streets.
DT: Did that affect your filmmaking?
NV: If the situation affected me, I’m not aware of it. I’m not interested in violence, but on the other hand, when you see a violent social conflict from a distance, you are able to see that the problem is not one of good against bad people. Each people has a different perspective on a situation, so each people has a reason to behave that way. So I wouldn’t be able to take part in this conflict because you can tell from a distance that there’s no black against white. That’s something you can see in Spain in many ways. I think that every time someone tries to give you a simplistic explanation of a violent conflict, they are lying to you. All these situations are complex.
DT: But don’t you think that’s what comic books do?
NV: Yeah, but the comic books I really appreciate are those in which even the whitest character has a dark side, and even the darkest… Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t written a villain in all my films at this point. For example, in Extraterrestrial even the worst character has a chance to explain his feelings, to explain his behavior, and all the bad characters have the chance to be loved by the audiences the same way all the good characters have a chance to be hated by the audience.
DT: Who’s the worst character in Extraterrestrial?
NV: Oh, the vicious neighbor. I love this character because he’s playing the most vile character of all, but the way he walks out of the movie, the way he disappears, the way he says good-bye changes the nature of the character somehow, and that is something I really like. One of my favorite lines in the movie is the last line from the neighbor, when he says, “There’s no comparison” at the end. That’s one of my favorite moments. I’ve never been involved in one side of a political struggle. I’ve always taken some distance and tried to see the overview. Because I don’t think there are heroes and villains anymore. Everything is much more complicated.
DT: Cantabria is essentially an autonomous region. Do you think of yourself as Cantabrian or Spanish?
NV: I make fun of nationalism. I love people from Cantabria and I love people from Madrid, and I have my people, and I love them. I love the places where I was born because they’re familiar to me, but that’s all. I don’t feel respect in geographical terms. This is difficult to explain even in Spanish. Nationalism asks you to love a region in order to realize the other people are the others. I love my country, but I don’t feel other people are the others. There are people I love who live far from me, but they are not the others. They are not different from me in any way, so I don’t feel my blood is better than any other blood in the world. Sometimes I hate that kind of strong, violent nationalism that comes from Spain. But I also don’t like the nationalism in little regions, like in the Basque country. They want to feel Basque, but they don’t want to feel Spanish, but they want to feel European. They make this strange leap. It’s new ways of manipulating people.
DT: Tell me why you love Robocop so much.
NV: I love Robocop because there’s a constant commentary on real things. At the beginning, you listen to policemen talking about privatization of security on the streets; private companies want to take control of the police forces, and they want to clean the city in order to make the living more profitable. So it’s about gentrification. So in ten minutes in Robocop you get a lot of commentaries on the real world. That’s something I really appreciate in a movie that is supposed to be about a robot killing bad people. I love that in a movie that is far from reality; I love the fact that it is so deep in reality.
DT: Is there a difference between superhero films based on comic books and superhero films that aren’t based on comic books?
NV: The problems come when a property has a lot of owners and moves a lot of money. And when decisions come from a big committee instead of one artist. For example, I think that Robocop is a really brave film, a really dark film, and it’s really challenging for the audience, even at this time. If Robocop came from a big property with a lot ofmoney involved, it would be softer, less risky, because when there are too many people at the table, decisions are much more panicky about failure. So I prefer when there’s only one or two people behind the superhero rather than one million people. That’s the reason I really love working on a film that is represented by people like Mark Millar. You can make a movie out of his comic books and you will have to deal with him, not with a big company and a lot of people in the room.
DT: Great. Looking forward to Supercrooks.
Copyright © Director Talk 2012