High in the frozen north, a wanton tragedy blights the lives of a mother and her two children. Decades later, they’re still struggling to reach redemption. With fleeting images both mystical and terrifying, Peruvian director Claudia Llosa captures the pulse of what it takes to survive. With Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, and Melanie Laurent. A Sony Pictures Classics release. •Availability: Opens May 22. Check local theaters for listings. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: One of the characters in the film refers to the tragedy as being “too much to bear.” Did you construct the film—its nonlinearity, its mystical ethos—to reflect that impossibility? In other words, did form equal content?
CL: Yes, absolutely. For instance, when I directed The Milk of Sorrow, I paid a lot of attention to the aesthetics, how the girl was going to look, because you needed to surrender to her beauty in order to understand her pain. It’s something I usually do in my work. I place things in a way that you can let yourself in and let yourself closer and closer to whatever is going to be there that’s not easy to see or not easy to get close to. The way I decide things is conscious and unconscious; for instance, the position of the camera being so close to the characters physically. It’s like trying to say, OK, keep close, because if not, I’m going to lose you.
It’s such a difficult story to tell that I need to hold the audience in different ways—the aesthetics, the way I’m shooting, the beauty in terms of mystery, but darkness. The falcon, for instance, is itself so incredible and stunningly beautiful, but at the same time it’s aggressive, it’s dangerous. The camera is close to the bird and to Cillian, like it’s saying we need to accept nature, both human nature and nature itself, in all the ways that it has, in its beauty and its aggression. That’s something we usually try to separate: the one you love or the one who loves you will never betray you. The one who is the loving figure is not capable of aggression. For me that’s the most interesting thing about this film—you have a mother, and despite all the love you feel she has for these kids, her immense affection is not enough to create a bond of communication to solve problems. It’s also capable of aggression, in a way.
DT: Inflicting pain.
CL: Life is not black and white, but we try to separate things, like body and mind…it started long ago, I think, this idea of separating things. Society’s arriving at a moment that we need to unify things again, and that’s why you feel in the film the way I pulled things together to be able to sustain the pain but hold it in order to give it to you as an audience. Add to that the beauty and the idea of conservation and also the idea of rhythms…how do you really hold it in film and in life? It’s a very fragile structure.
DT: You’re Peruvian. To me the film had the feeling of a Peruvian folk tale, where intimate relationships between animals and man act as a conduit between humans. Does that play a part in your films?
CL: It’s intentional but not in that way. This film is trying to allow our primitive side to be part of our self. It’s trying not to domesticate our emotions, our way of understanding life. It’s trying to accept the fact that control is not the way. In that meaning it’s open to primitive impulses, not only in the actions or the reactions of the characters but also in an imaginary way that they are able or willing to access. What happens when you’re part of a world that’s apparently secure but eventually you discover that it’s not like that? Where do you go, what are your resources? Something is unlocked that somehow brings you back to a very primitive, instinctual, animalistic kind of impulse. It’s not that that’s the answer, it’s just a way of reacting to things that are painful. Is faith or hope a very archaic way to find a way to hold onto or feel a new security? Or is it maybe something that will eventually help you to overcome? There’s always this kind of question of something that has an archaic reminiscence. That’s why I allow myself to explore it in that way.
DT: What were the technical difficulties of shooting in Manitoba? It looked just like the Arctic.
CL: It was very difficult. We were trying to find financing at a time when things were difficult in Europe, even in the States, and by the time we got the green light, it was already late in winter. That created many problems. With the frozen road on the ice lake, they said, We’ll build your road, but we don’t know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. If we have a storm, all the money that you invested could disappear overnight.
DT: How did they build that road? That night scene where Cillian is crossing the lake is terrifying.
CL: We had to hire a team of ice engineers to work with us the whole day, making holes around us and making sure we were stable enough to shoot there. And we weren’t shooting alone—we were shooting with trucks, with pretty heavy stuff, so it wasn’t just me and my backpack. There was a lot of weight on top of the ice. I said to myself, My God, what am I doing? I’m putting all these people at risk for this film.
Nature cannot assure your security. That was hard, but it also helped us remember the story we were telling: It was almost like the story was eating the context of how we were shooting the story. There was a complete connection between how we were shooting and what the story was trying to say. There were also the difficulties of how to secure the safety of the kids in this kind of environment, so there were a lot of technical issues that I had to learn, because my work prior to this film had not been technical at all—classical shots, no digital effects. It was hard, but it was superinteresting too.
The weather was hard, and we had to work for long hours in very, very difficult conditions, but what happened was that the spirit wrapped it together. That was incredible. It was also a reminder of how community works: it’s more important when you’re surrounded by difficulties in nature and weather conditions. In a city, you feel secure, so you get more individualistic. But in Manitoba, we stuck together all the time, laughing a lot. It kept us warm and working long hours. We had two days of night shoots on top of the ice road, and that was pretty scary. Cillian almost got frostbite.
DT: You wrote and directed Aloft, as well as Milk of Sorrow and Made in USA. Will you ever direct a film you didn’t write, or will you write a film for someone else to direct?
CL: I would love to do both, but I think it would be easier to direct something I didn’t write than to write for someone else. In terms of directing, it’s difficult to find the right story. If I have to develop the film, I would rather develop my own. I’d need to feel a special connection to a story that’s already written.
DT: What kind of preparation did you do with the actors?
CL: It depended on each one of them. Jennifer [Connelly] had a very complex character. We were working with two time lapses, so we had to create how it was going to look at the end of the film in order to understand her at the beginning. Jennifer took a lot of time with me to really go through the whole script, line by line. We did more table work, not rehearsing, talking about each line and each moment and what happened. I loved that part of the work with her. She’s very creative in her need to understand how she’s going to look, how she’s going to dress, how she communicates, how she relates to those kids—if she touches them or not, all the little things that are part of the transmission of affection. We also worked on a lot of references for the older Nana [Connelly’s professional persona late in the film]. I sent her a lot of different portraits and interviews with women that I thought were interesting to explore.
Cillian [Murphy] is so intuitive. He likes working the moment, so it’s more about shooting that day. He’s very precise in his questions. Our work was shorter. He would ask something specific, we’d solve it, and we were ready to go, so it was more in the field. It was kind of the same with Melanie [Laurent].
It’s different with each one—of course it’s different—and you create a very specific relationship, which holds that emotion and holds that bond within each other. These guys are really incredible actors, and they have so much access to emotion in a very physical way. They can control and access so immediately to whatever you need that it’s easy, and also emotionally available, to work. I felt blessed the whole process with the three of them. This was my first time working with professional actors, because my prior films used all nonprofessionals. It’s different, and the experience was incredible.
DT: What did you learn as a director from working with them?
CL: You need to find your balance with each one of them. You have to be consciously aware and really see where the bond is, as well as the limit to that bond, because if you lose that… It’s a different relationship with nonprofessionals because they’re relying on you. It’s more paternalistic. They need you for every decision because they don’t know what to do, so you have to work with them until they feel ready. Of course I knew that that wasn’t going to be the case with these actors, but I didn’t know where the connection was going to be. I didn’t understand where or in what. I needed to find where my strength was with each one of them, in a very short period of time. It was very different with each one of them, so I learned to do that very quickly. When you’re working with a nonprofessional, there’s a lot of time to rehearse. Here you have to build that in a very, very short period of time, and you have to be able to sustain that. So that was the skill that I learned during the process.
DT: Do you conceive of the story and then work backwards from there, or do you conceptualize the film as a whole and then work backwards to the story?
CL: It’s been different with each film. The way I’m working now is completely conceptualizing the story, understanding what I’m saying and then going back to the script again, back and forward. I work visually; the work of the script has to be sustained visually. You read a lot of scripts where you can just use any visual. My scripts always tell you. I always build from an image. Then it’s kind of a patchwork on those kinds of images, and I need to ground myself in terms of how I’m going to say it. If I could say it with just one image, I’m good, I’m happy. Sometimes it starts with one scene and you build everything around that, and you know you have something powerful because you can see the pulse. Sometimes it’s just an emotion.
In Aloft, for example, I knew that the characters and the camera needed to be in this kind of dog-paddling place, going back to the idea of your primitive reaction to survival, your animalistic way to domesticate yourself and swim beautifully. I wanted this kind of movement that you need to sustain high enough in order to survive. I needed that kind of energy in the camera, I needed it in the actors.
I needed the complete opposite in Milk of Sorrow. It’s like something that was trapped, and there was no possible way to move. The camera had to be steady, and I had to use the fewest resources I could, because I was portraying a very humble atmosphere and didn’t want anything fancy. If I can tell the story with two shots, I will do it that way.
The spirit or the pulse of the characters kind of show me the way in terms of how I’m going to shoot. For Aloft, we talked with Nicolas [Bolduc, cinematographer], who’s such a great cinematographer. We had to be able to move wherever we could, so we were actually shooting 360. You have to find your way, you have to move around. All those things and all those impressions—they’re more impressionist—are all the things in the end that the people who are working with you grasp and make their own kind of work and then give back to you. That’s very important for me—to understand the vibration of the film and how it’s going to sound, how it’s going to feel. That’s very important for every decision…for a dialogue pulse, for the image, for the way to edit, for everything.
DT: Is financing changing for Latin American directors?
CL: It depends. Latin America is not “Latin America”; each country is a separate place. We don’t have a European kind of commission with a fund for every European country and access to coprodutions and lots of ways to create bonds between countries. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to build a film without a coproduction, so we need to create more bonds with all of the countries in Latin America, not only with the four or five that are the biggest or the strongest in terms of the film industry. Me being from Peru, my experience is that they are absolutely increasing those forms; there are laws that are really helping us build that kind of relationship. It’s still not as good as the ones they have in Colombia or Argentina, so we need to keep on working even though support has multiplied by ten in the last five years, since the beginning of my career. That’s incredible, but there’s still a lot to do. It’s difficult to say we’re fine, because we’re improving, but not enough.
For me the most interesting thing to explore is the bonds within Latin America. How can we create an interesting coproduction between Colombia and Peru—not only Colombia and Mexico, who are already working together—or Peru and Chile, for instance, without being supported by Spain or other European countries? Also all the rebates that are very strong in Colombia and Mexico but not in Peru, for instance. We also have to work a relationship with the States. We have a beautiful commercial treaty with the States, but it’s not cultural.
It also depends on the specifics of the film. It’s never going to be the same as your last film unless the film is almost the same, which you don’t want. It’s very complicated, because every time you do it, it’s like you’re learning to do it again. It’s very difficult to raise a film that is eighty percent Peruvian. It’s impossible. We’re still in a thirty percent, twenty percent kind of bracket. I’m always basing my films in Spain or Europe, and now I’m working more with America. It’s a question of learning different ways.
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