Chilean director Pablo Larraín follows up Tony Manero with the incredibly black comedy Postmortem, once again casting Alfredo Castro as an obsessive everyman in the days of Pinochet’s coup. Mr. Larraín has just completed No, the third film in the trilogy, for a 2013 release.• Availability: Postmortem has its US theatrical premiere April 11 at New York City’s Film Forum. Tony Manero is available on Netflix.•
DT: In the credits for Postmortem you list the actors who played the corpses. Did you actually use live bodies for the autopsies?
PL: All the autopsies were performed with living actors, of course. Real dead bodies? I’m sorry, no; I’m not that crazy. The actors were playing a role, and we thought it could be interesting to have them in the credits, too.
DT: That’s an interesting choice. Was it artistic or financial?
PL: It’s just a possible one. I mean, what would you do instead? Use some sort of body made out of silicone or whatever?
DT: Yeah, latex, or a real cadaver.
PL: We used real live bodies with some sort of makeup work and then some TGI, but it’s not a matter of money. If I would have to do it again, I would do it the same way, I think—it’s what you do when you’re working with dead bodies. The creation of the human body is very tough.
DT: You focus on Allende’s autopsy in great detail. Did the uncertainty about how he died have a great effect on the country?
PL: Yes and no. This movie originally came to me when I was reading his official autopsy report on the internet. And the way that it was reaching me and the information that was in the autopsy looked more like a historical metaphor for a country than a medical legal file. It’s been public since the 90s.
DT: When you began writing the script for Tony Manero, you didn’t start out intending to make a film about the Pinochet era—that grew out of Raúl’s obsession with Saturday Night Fever, which was set soon after the coup. Do you consider Tony Manero a political film?
PL: Yes, very much.
DT: Even though you didn’t start out to make a political film.
PL: Christopher Columbus went to India and he discovered America, no? That’s how art is also. You start in one direction and then you go where you have to go; you don’t know much about where you’re going. I realized I was making a very political movie, and then I made Postmortem, and I just finished the last movie of the trilogy. It’s called No, and it will be released next year. I wasn’t actually sure what I was doing, and then I realized that it was so political, so I kept on the same path until today.
DT: Are you going to be using Alfredo Castro in No?
PL: Yeah, the protagonist is played Gael Garcia, and the antagonist is played by Alfredo.
DT: Both Postmortem and Tony Manero depict characters whose personal obsessions inure them to the violence in the streets. Is that how Chileans normally react?
PL: I don’t think so. I’m not doing some sort of movie that would tell a story that could be played in schools so people would know what happened in Chile. I’m not into a moral and spiritual historian’s way of doing things. I’m not trying to learn or to pitch anything. I’m just trying to go there in order to understand what happened in those days because that’s where the actual Chile began. Those days are a little piece to understand what’s going on today in our country. And the characters aren’t exactly regular people—they’re just symbols who represent the situation, who represent the society.
DT: You shot with Russian lenses? With Tarkovsky’s lenses?
PL: Postmortem was shot with Russian lenses. There are stores all over the world today with something that’s called Lomography. They’re cameras that use a vintage system with film, that you need a lab to look at. The label is called Lomo, and they’re originally from Russia. They created these lenses from the late ’30s to the early ’90s, and most of the Russian movies were made with those lenses, also Tarkovsky’s, and others. We checked all over the world, found a set in Los Angeles, and brought them from there. We used those lenses because they are so amazing, and they’re so strange. They’re old and they don’t work very well, but the way they look is so beautiful.
DT: Yeah, very beautiful. Are they plastic or glass?
PL: Glass. Amazingly heavy, strong, very well constructed glass, but they aren’t perfect. People today, with this HD revolution, they’re looking for perfection, for high definition, high resolution, high quality blah blah blah blah high colors, whatever, and we are looking completely on the other side. We’re looking for texture, for life, for death, for bodies, for colors, for lighting, and those lenses really helped do that.
DT: So you’re going to continue to shoot in film?
PL: I shot No, the movie I just made, on video, but on analog video, with a cheap 1983 camera. It really depends on the movie.
DT: When you shot in film did you edit digitally, or did you edit on film?
DT: Like many other directors, you use the same actors for different films. What do you get out of using the same people?
PL: A lot of things. It’s collaboration in one way, and then there are characters that you want to work with. Alfredo is a guy who has an enormous mystery, someone who, while he’s in front of the camera, no matter what he’s doing or no matter how he’s dressed or the way he looks, will always keep this sort of strange mystery thing. You never know what he’s really thinking, and that is so beautiful for me, and I’m glad to work with him. It’s a fantastic experience for me to work with someone who also understands what I’m looking for. He helps, he has great ideas, he’s always taking care of what I’m looking for, and he pushes me to go there. So it’s very interesting.
DT: How did you meet?
PL: He was my teacher. He’s a very well-known actor and theater director, and he’s very respected down here. He owns and runs a drama school, and I was a student there in theater direction. So I met him there, and he jumped from being my teacher to being the actor in my movies. He’s also a core writer on Tony Manero, with writing credits. So our working together is a progression over some years.
DT: How was the transition for him from theater to film?
PL: He was very scared. He thought it was going to be an awful experience because it’s so technical and so different, but when he grabbed it he really started to enjoy it. A lot of things weren’t with specific direction; I would tell him something very ambiguous about what to do, and he would just go and act. That’s why we shot so much—we shot hours and hours and he would move and do a lot of things, and we never cut. I would give him instructions during the shot, so he got involved very easily, I think.
DT: Did you storyboard?
PL: No, I never do that. I don’t understand storyboards. When you shoot action scenes, you need them because the crew will need them. But you can put everything into a drawing, but into a lens you can’t. So I don’t use storyboards.
DT: Do you rehearse beforehand?
PL: We just read a lot. We get together and read and read, and we talk. But no rehearsal—there are no actors playing characters or anything like that.
DT: How long was the shoot?
PL: Postmortem was six to seven weeks, something like that. It’s very slow. When we get the budget, I’d rather have less expensive things in order to have more time. I wish I had a lifetime to make a movie. I would make one movie my entire life; I would keep shooting it forever, if that’ possible.
DT: One critic called the FIPRESCI [International Federation of Film Critics] award the most important in Latin America. Do you agree?
PL: In every festival there’s a FIPRESCI award, and they’re important in the entire world. Everywhere but in the United States, I would say.
DT: No one knows them in the United States.
PL: But if you check out Cannes, or Venice, or Berlin, or Locarno, or London, or Buenos Aires, Brazil, whatever, in every film festival you have a FIPRESCI award.
DT: How important are film festivals to your career?
PL: Film festivals are important when you have the right film and the right festival. If they don’t fit, it doesn’t make sense for the movie or the festival. But when you have the right fit it makes a lot of sense because it helps you push the film internationally, it helps you sell it, it helps make people aware of it, and it also gives you the chance to talk to other moviemeakers, talk to the audience who saw your movie. I don’t think they’re the most important, but they’re interesting.
DT: In 2006, the Chilean government began infusing the film industry with money. How does that affect you in terms of production?
PL: It helps—not in every film, but in some of them, because it’s something you can use as a starting point. It’s not easy to get. First you send your project anonymously, and the first commission reads it. Then if you’re over a percentage, let’s say ninety percent or whatever, you get into the second commission. So it’s very long, and it’s not easy, and if you’re lucky you can get the highest award possible, which is something near $300,000, which could be one-fifth of your budget. It helps you to start with, but it’s not something that would be enough to make an entire movie.
DT: Are there certain countries that are more receptive to your films when you’re looking for international financing?
PL: So far we’ve been finding help and support and also commercial interest from France. This last movie that I made also found money and a production system from the United States—Participant Media were involved in No. So it depends on the project. Every project has its own path.
DT: Of course. Can you talk a little bit about No?
PL: It’s the last movie of this trilogy, and it’s different. Even though I believe that Tony Manero and Postmortem are quite dark comedies, this is more a comedy than anything else, I would say. But that’s pretty much all I can say.
DT: It disturbs me when you and other people call Tony Manero a comedy.
PL: I wouldn’t say that it’s a comedy just like that. I would say that it has black comedy elements, which is not the same. It has theatrical elements, it has dramatic elements, it has melodramatic elements, and it also has comedic elements. The hard thing is that in the United States, they need to establish a genre for each movie so people will know what they’re looking for or what they’re about to see. In both cases—in Postmortem and in Tony Manero— I wouldn’t say it’s a horror or a comedy or a whatever. I would say that it has elements from different genres, because I’m not doing something that specific. I’m just trying to tell the story and have fun with it, and it turns out just the way it is.
DT: Do you find that American audiences are less sophisticated than others?
PL: No, I would say that in the United States you can find pretty much everything. You can find from very sophisticated audiences up to people who really enjoy silly movies. You know how it is. That’s why the United States is so fascinating,, because you find everything—the worst and the best in the same country. And movies are no exception. When you see the gross of movies, sometimes you just cannot believe why some of them are on that level and why so many people went to see that movie, but then you see that other movies did get a lot of attention and they’re very good. You can find pretty much everything in the United States.
DT: How about in Chile?
PL: I think we have a very interesting critical mass. People here like to see good movies, but just like everywhere else, our box offices are in control of American movies. Harry Potter got the highest box office in the entire year. It’s like everywhere in the entire world. There’s a very massive interest in this sort of super-studio-sequel sort of whatever movies they are, and there is some interest in another kind of movie. It’s pretty much everything, but you know there’s nothing like Paris. It’s not like France. Those guys, it’s just crazy. In Paris, they release twenty-five movies a week, so they release a hundred new movies every month. That’s pretty exceptional. If you pull France out, then you find London, New York, and then the rest of the world. I know a lot of people who say they want to fight against this situation, blah blah blah, they want to do this here, there, and the single thing I say to myself is, Why don’t you make a good movie? That’s the whole issue, I guess.
DT: Well, France has the droit moral, the filmmaker’s right to the final cut, so the whole national attitude toward cinema is different from, as you said, the rest of the world.
PL: But they’re also interested in international cinema. When my movies get released there, I go there, and it’s just so huge, the press interest, the amount of interviews, the questions, the way they think, the way they enjoy moviemaking, it’s just so amazing. It’s unique in the world.
©Director Talk 2012
Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.