Despite a career that begins in the 1960s and features decades of fruitful collaborations with composer Jorge Arriagada (arguably the greatest film composer working today) and numerous legendary cinematographers (Sacha Vierny, Robby Müller and Henri Alekan, among others), the work of Raúl Ruiz remains sadly underrepresented and little seen in the United States. This was somewhat remedied when, in 2006, Kimstim released Ce jour-là (That Day) and Blaq Out (by way of Facets) released Three Crowns of the Sailor and Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, all landmark works by the filmmaker from three different decades.
The extraordinarily prolific filmmaker passed away last August at the height of his post-Time Regained critical acclaim. Mysteries of Lisbon, made initially for television in Portugal and released theatrically in the U.S. and elsewhere, may ultimately become the film for which he is most remembered and yet it is merely one remarkable work out of almost 100 idiosyncratic films completed over the divergent course of 50 years of filmmaking.
The following conversation between Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow and Raúl Ruiz occurred in a crowded café at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2004. Expect that a few things were lost in translation as the conversation shifted from English to French and Spanish, occasionally within the same sentence.
Marlow: You’ve mentioned in the book Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage and elsewhere that you were unsatisfied with the popularity of Three Crowns of the Sailor. What are the conflicting issues at work, both in wanting success for your films and then the repercussions of their popularity when audiences embrace them?
Ruiz: Of course, I don’t know. It’s kind of natural. It’s naturally different to observe than to be the center. To be in a good position to shoot the scene but not be in the center of the scene. I’m not a comedian. I’m not an actor. I should be something like that, not more than that, because I have to do everything. I have to comment so I escape for a while and then I return. It was quite embarrassing because there were politics in France, looking for international directors. So I was considered a sort of French ambassador. I still am.
Marlow: You’ve now lived in France nearly as long as you lived in Chile.
Ruiz: Oh, yes. I’ve spent much time in French countries. The center still is France, Paris [Ruiz left Chile because of his public position against the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973].
Marlow: But you’ll never escape your identity as a Chilean. That always infuses and informs your work. Even in That Day, the film draws a parallel to Chile’s past.
Ruiz: It’s always making bridges or connections.
Marlow: Even if these connections are not immediately apparent. I didn’t initially notice a specific reference in That Day, although the military presence seems to reach back to the Allende coup. The film is a Swiss/French co-production. Did you shoot the exteriors on location and the interiors in France?
Ruiz: Yes. It was less expensive. They made all the interiors in France. Switzerland is only landscapes and streets.
Marlow: So the scene with the bicycles in the beginning was filmed in Switzerland?
Ruiz: Yes, all that is Switzerland. All of the scenes in the little town are in Switzerland.
Marlow: It’s difficult to anticipate the reception of such a black comedy in the United States. They have difficulty with things that are not clear. The relationship between the couple is more complicated than what most Americans can deal with. How did the project actually come about? I was under the impression that it originated from an unfinished detective story…
Ruiz: No. At the beginning, I wanted to make a kind of an American movie in the Middle East. The woman was normal, not rich. Suddenly, all the family around her is being killed. In the original, there were many ways that they died accidentally. Many Americans are hysterically optimistic.
Marlow: So the deaths, in the original concept, were purely accidental?
Ruiz: There were accidents. So it was God, at the end of the day [that was causing the deaths]. All these people for her were the most beloved persons. She is surprised and doesn’t know how to react. The other element was that a homeless man could be the suspect. This person was simply a way to distract her. This guy makes all kinds of mistakes, almost like Peter Sellers in The Party. He provokes interest and he protects her without knowing that he protects. It’s kind of grotesque. It finally becomes a metaphor of another Swiss element, as it seems to me more and more. The story I told you now could be set entirely in America, where people come and stay alone. People die in houses and nobody knows. At the same time, it’s a kind of sociability that makes possible this story. So then I moved the story to Europe.
‘That Day,’ revisited
Marlow talks with Elsa Zylberstein at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2004.
Marlow: How were you cast for Time Regained, your first film with Raúl Ruiz?
Zylberstein: The producer who introduced me to Raúl wanted to work with me. I only appeared as Rachel, an actress. It’s a very tiny part. We did another movie together with no script [Combat d’amour en songe (Love Torn in Dream)]. We went to Lisbon together. He gave me pages every day and, one day while we were waiting, he said, ‘I think we’ll make a movie about a woman who is just alone and she’s just has a dog and her whole family is going to be killed.’ Okay, whatever! From that he wrote That Day.
Marlow: The film is a little treasure for me. I talked to Raúl in Rotterdam and he showed me his notebook full of drawings and stories and ideas. Even in the course of our conversation, he suggested one idea after another for possible films. With That Day, you came to a project with the character relatively formed when you arrived at the set. On several of his films, actors are seemingly not up to the challenge of filling the part.
Zylberstein: Raúl, as a director, is someone that requires you to fit into his world and create a real character, because everything is so precise. If you don’t arrive prepared, he will give you two or three keys to the character and just let it go. You really have to deal sometimes with the inside world from the depth of yourself and to create something very concrete, very down to earth, compared to his world.
Marlow: There is a moment in That Day when you walk into a room, you shut the door and your expression is blank and then, all of a sudden, it explodes with emotion. There’s so much to what you bring to this character, a whole realm of little nuances. Even in the opening scene, the whole establishment of the characters as angels when they fall.
Zylberstein: You know, for me, everything is concrete and I have a reason for everything. Especially for Raúl, you need a very cold and perfect line. I knew everything about my character. I know what she wrote in her book. I know why she thinks people are falling angels. That makes things relative and real when she’s talking and looking at people. We have so much that is relative. When you are touched by someone it has to belong to something specific and intimate. As long as I knew what it means to me when she says, ‘Oh, you’re an angel,’ or as long as I knew she was forgetting things, when she has amnesia and suddenly she’d say, ‘Who are you?’ Everything has a reason for me in that character. It has to be very concrete. I really worked on someone who was just forgetting who you are minutes ago and just worked on that amnesia. That’s my job.
Marlow: What did you use as a source for research into this character?
Zylberstein: Emotional, personal feelings.
Marlow: In much of Ruiz’s work, the characters sometimes seem lost.
Zylberstein: You know why? The actors are not working in his world and I knew that I had to work. I trust his world, but I didn’t want to be lazy and say, ‘I am in this movie so I’m going to go from here to here and I’ll be fine.’ I simply turn my head and I have to bring all of my life and what I have inside to create a whole character. The two worlds were meeting.
Marlow: The scenes in the Swiss town with the military vehicles were completed after you had shot all the other material in France?
Marlow: It was his rethinking of a political allegory to the story?
Zylberstein: I think so, yes.
Marlow: Even in such a diabolical story, he effortlessly maintains a sense of humor. For instance, the repeated issue of the antagonist’s blood sugar level as a spark for his violence. The joke is maintained even when it is clear that this is no longer a critical, or credible, issue. Since he wrote this script with you specifically in mind, do you expect to work with him again?
Zylberstein: Oh yes, I can’t wait! I’d be ready for him even without reading anything. I will go for it. I love him. He’s a great character and a wonderful person.
Marlow: Unfortunately, in the United States, most French films fail to play outside of the festival realm. Even then, festival programmers are not always the sharpest people in the bunch and pass over a number of exceptional films from your country. I know that you’ve made many films and yet the majority of them have never played here. Does that disappoint you a bit?
Zylberstein: No, that’s life. This is a good gig. This is the cherry on the cake. Coming here [to a festival] with a movie, you don’t know what’s going to happen or what movie will bring you somewhere else. I just trust the good star above my head. I just finished this movie about Modigliani with Andy Garcia, so…
Marlow: You traveled with That Day to Cannes. How was the film received? Most audiences have a lot of difficulty with Ruiz’s films but obviously your performance is very different than is usual in his work. Something unusual is happening in this particular film.
Zylberstein: I think it’s more human. The first time, when there is a kiss, it becomes a love story. It’s a moral story… It’s related to who he is. They are kind of naïve characters, as we are in life. In a way, I am him.
Marlow: In that role?
Zylberstein: Both of us are him. It’s kind of the way I look at things. He is very shy about his feelings. I just have the feeling that we could both be him.
Marlow: You mentioned that a lot of the discussions about the story happened over meals. I know he’s something of a gourmet, in a sense. He really loves to cook, loves food, loves wine. I’ve heard stories…
Zylberstein: We like talking…
Marlow: Mostly talking about life?
Zylberstein: Of course, before we began filming, we liked to talk about the movie. But, when you’re filming, you have to have lunch and talk about life.
Marlow: When did you first want to make That Day?
Ruiz: The idea? I had it when I was shooting Combat d’amour en songe [Love Torn in Dream, also starring Elsa Zylberstein] and suddenly the idea came to me. Like two days ago, I had an idea forming around Spinoza, who is completely forgotten. Spinoza was completely quiet and dissident of everything. One day, it was too much and he started screaming. It was his stopping point.
Marlow: Considering that you’re extraordinarily prolific, I presume that you must have a number of story ideas in your notebook. How many of them actually get made? A good number, more than most filmmakers…
Ruiz: If you don’t include Asia! They really have a lot [of prolific filmmakers]. And now with digital [technology]… They are commercial [directors]; they want to be. But they do not generally do the kind of research that tries to understand what we’re doing philosophically. ‘What is this all about in this world?’
Marlow: A large part of directing is working with actors. A few contemporary Japanese directors, such as Takashi Miike, seem to falter on this front. You seem to be exceptionally fortunate with actors. I don’t know if it’s from working in the theater, but….
Ruiz: In Chile, it’s one game. In Chile, we were trying something that seems to be easier to find a theatrical way to cinema. To deal with the Chilean accent was kind of impossible. How to make it not necessarily funny? It is a problem in many countries. It was a problem for the Quebecois in Canada. Australians invented a kind of neutral dialect; they never speak true Australian in the commercial cinema. So that was the problem. To deal with the relationships with the camera where they were not made of protagonist, secondary characters, extras. Always trying to say everyone is the main actor. Sometimes an extra passes by and starts talking for a while, becoming the center of the show, and then disappears never to appear again. We kept trying to deal with the screen. Instead of trying to escape the accent, we went extremely inside the accent. To transform, to accept and play with a syntactic way of talking Chilean. It’s really special because it seems that you never know what the conversation is about because sometimes there is no verb. People rarely finish their sentence or they speak in metaphors. So it’s too much. The moment is like Samuel Beckett, a kind of nonsense with humor. An almost English nonsense.
Marlow: In Tres tristes tigers [Three Sad Tigers, Ruiz’s third feature), there’s less a style at work than working around the language.
Ruiz: Yes, the language, in that context, becomes more expressive because I understand all the words and all that they’re talking about. Suddenly, it’s violent and you don’t really know why. Of course, it’s evident somewhere and the actor was connected with that. Then I went to France and I couldn’t listen to the subtleties of the language. In France, it’s very formal and when someone starts talking he knows where the sentence will be finished. It’s not always the case in English. When you’re talking, you are inventing a way of talking. You can move inside the sentence and you can break it, stop it. All of that is expressive. It’s enough because trying to play like an American, it’s not in any way French. What I use is like in music: faster, slower, higher, lower. It’s like the conductor of an orchestra. And then, very recently, I’ve started playing with breathing and reconsidering the old masters of theater like Stanislavsky and maybe Chekhov, Michael Chekhov, the inventor of the psychological gesture, who taught in America. They played with some new kind of schema. Essentially, it’s trying to play with a circle. When you have two characters, they form a circle. They are trying to play with this circle. If ‘a’ plays with ‘b,’ you have a ‘c’ character. If ‘a’ plays with ‘e,’ you have an ‘m’ character. It moves. This plays and changes completely the way you have to study the characters. It’s very simple. There are three concentric circles. Outside is your mask. It’s what you want to show. It’s your official image. You get dressed, go to work or to a party. It is the image you want to give to others. In the center is the image you want to give to yourself. If you are American, you don’t want to be contradictory between the first and the second. If you’re European, you have no problem in the center. Something like that is psychological, it’s nothing conscious. It happens in your head all the time to form hundreds of thousands of promissory personalities. When they talk about multiple personalities, that’s when you put two characters in the front. Let’s say there are two who are present at a cocktail party, so it’s the exterior circle with an exterior circle. At some point, one wants to be honest so one is the external circle and the other is the medium circle. Sometimes the two persons are good friends who are in the middle, they want to be honest with themselves. This is what is called in France the coup de foudre. Like in the tempest. The lightening, the thunder.
Marlow: It works out like a realization?
Ruiz: It doesn’t mean that the scene has to be played in only one way. You have to link one to the other. Then you’ll have a kind of middle character. That means a certain amount of exercise that actors never have the time to do. So I can do that and play with it when I make a workshop. I hope one day I will be able to do that completely. A part of what I do is write a short story in three levels.
Marlow: And all the stories are infused with these separate levels?
Ruiz: I wrote a lot for Shattered Image. There I imitate [Gérard] de Nerval, the other is like [Friedrich] Dürrenmatt….
Marlow: And you generally use other works as a starting point?
Ruiz: I do that for the character to the actor without saying anything. Some actors go immediately inside. With one actor, I sent the story and she thought I was rewriting the script so she sent that to her lawyer and to her agent.
Marlow: Shattered Image was the only film that you made in Vancouver?
Marlow: And you made a film in New York, The Golden Boat. So the only two films you’ve made in North America…
Ruiz: Yes, but I’d prefer many more. I had experience with another one. I was supposed to make Never Talk to Strangers with Rebecca De Mornay and Antonio Banderas. [The project was eventually helmed by British director Peter Hall, perhaps better known for his stage and television work].
Marlow: You started that project…
Ruiz: There are so many stupid things in Hollywood. The actors were afraid that they would never understand what I’m saying. My English has become quite bad.
Marlow: Generally, when I talk with actors, they seem to prefer a director that seems almost transparent. They’re more worried about the camera than they’re worried about their performance. They allow the actors a lot of freedom, which means that the films usually aren’t very interesting.
Ruiz: But the actors are not the most conservative part. It’s the working class. They want to put the camera here or not. It’s a special shot. It’s not us, it’s the other people. Sometimes, but not always. I prefer not to work with television because you have a close-up of the actor but you never see the body. Or you see the body but you see that the hands are moving in the wrong ways. Moving too much. You really like the actors. It’s not comfortable. The actor is much more concrete. When they work in theater, they are much better for that. With a camera, it was here and I was here, about 25 degrees, and I was looking at the cameraman, then back to the actor, cameraman, actor. I was making and seeing the connection. Then there was suddenly television and that was less useful. It was very easy. I remember when my father, who was a captain of a ship, was furious with the generalization of the regatta. Everybody can be a captain now.
Marlow: You tend to use camera movement for psychological effects.
Ruiz: It works, sometimes, playing with the rhetoric of psychological effect. I can go from the middle, to a close up, so you are waiting for something psychological but in fact it’s the opposite.
Marlow: Occasionally you’ll move both the camera and the objects in front of the camera creating spatial displacement. Particularly in Time Regained…
Ruiz: Because I have the money to do it! Normally it is expensive. With Time Regained, [Marcel Proust] plays with space. He’ll talk about a room and you feel like a stadium and suddenly you realize, in fact, it’s very small. And the movement at the center of the scene, that moves to the periphery, to the outside. The actor has no objective in the scene. The actor says, ‘What is my objective?’ I don’t know in English what is the word. My…
Ruiz: Motivation is one thing. Say you are looking for many things and nothing. You are up there first and things are happening to you and you react to some of them, not all of them. Then that makes the atmosphere stronger and, of course, you are lost if you’re interested in plot.
Marlow: The plot doesn’t play much importance in much of your work.
Ruiz: For me, no. I should say it’s almost against the complete structure and all that. I would not have the idea to forbid what we call plot. This is simply not the only way to make cinema. Wonderful to make with the strict conflict structure, but you can’t pretend some American professorial instruction. That, for instance, Antonioni’s Eclipse, there is a central conflict, there is not. I listened to someone explain the central conflict of the three-act structure. If you want, you can see this everywhere.
Marlow: You can make it out of anything.
Ruiz: An irrefutable fallacy since you know that you’ve invented a theory that can be repudiated. They never test the limit of the theory.
Marlow: All films begin and end. You can always build the structure out of it.
Ruiz: Recently, last week, I was having a discussion with a German producer, because I made a film around the character of Gustav Klimt. And they said, ‘Well, here we are, waiting for the concept and then we will make the preparation and then the execution.’ It can be the opposite: first execution, then preparation, at the end, the concept. In fact, it’s both and many others. Of course, you have some images that are strong. That’s just execution. Then you have to prepare the images. You have to support this imagery against others and that means preparation. The whole scene comes in the film, the concept. That means you have to have the possibility to deal with this structure without destroying the whole thing.
Marlow: As your filmography expands with unfinished projects, is it work that’s looking for that solution? You have the footage, then you need the….
Ruiz: Sometimes, no. For instance, last year I shot this really modest, small film. Somebody dies and there are some people from the living world and some from the other world who try to help him to arbitrate the idea that he will not be alive again. What I invented was that they tell stories. He liked the stories I used to tell him. I became a kind of storyteller and I produced this tale, inviting him to go to the other side. In all religion and all tradition, there is this spark of superstition. Even in death, he goes to the office and he does the same thing every day. We lost the negative so we only have the copy. It was a working copy.
Marlow: You shot it in 16mm or 35mm?
Ruiz: In 16mm. And I gave the materials to a university because they agreed to keep footage of several of my films. So I thought that I would never finish this movie. Two years ago, I was in Sicily and there was a storyteller who described the battle of Charlemagne. I paid him for his time but he was quite expensive. It’s not always like that, but sometimes you realize what you are seeing will be in a movie. You just don’t know which one.
Marlow: Do you feel there’s an overlying philosophy that informs all of your films? Or do you approach each film with a different way of working?
Ruiz: Both. They have their own psychological logic. Their own philosophical logic. Aesthetic logic. They are made by many things. By the kind of acting, by the amount of money, the time, your personal situation; all of these details make a film different. It’s not explicitly experimental. It could be the principle, the central element of the mise en scene.
Marlow: I was told a story many years ago that a band approached you to make a music video and you said, ‘Go raise a little more money and we’ll make a whole film.’ Did that actually happen?
Ruiz: Yes! Régime sans pain (A Guy Without Bread). That was made in the south of France. There was a group with two singles. Special rock singles, it was quite experimental, almost contemporary music. For something like $5,000 more I would do ten songs and a story.
Marlow: Something of a concept album. What became of the film?
Ruiz: It was shown in Rotterdam and won a prize there. It had quite good reception in Hong Kong. The rest was not very good, because it was not really a movie. It was something quite different.
Marlow: It isn’t possible to talk about ‘seeing your latest film’ because, by the time I’ve seen whatever I believe to be the most recent, you’ve made one or two more! This was a problem before digital technology. Now, with digital technology….
Ruiz: It’s less expensive, that’s very important. You can decide to make a movie. It’s my case now. The film of Spinoza we decided to stop and we’ll come back for a couple of weeks because it takes place entirely in the house of Spinoza. It’s about what happened outside. He’s alone and suddenly he screams. Three weeks ago, there was another notion. It’s about the feeling that in this society it’s about playing games. So you have these five games. There are many but there is a combination of these five. It’s ‘competition,’ ‘agony,’ ‘assault,’ ‘lottery’ and ‘mimicry’ about presentation, in all the senses, for show and feelings. Feelings are a form of Russian roulette. The purpose of the game is to risk the life. What I want to make [felt] in the film is, ‘Okay, when you play the other games, all the games have the tendency to go to the vertical, to risk the life. Even if you’re playing just for the excitation, for the competition, death is somewhere.’
Marlow: This is an idea that you had three weeks ago?
Ruiz: Three weeks ago. At the beginning, it was just a game about Kafka’s The Trial. So, in this context, an old man, quite rich, comes to see a lawyer that works in this company where they work, trying to find out how to make a trial. Everybody is here. ‘I come here because my son is being psychologically aggressive.’ The two people are policemen and the son has a trial. So it’s Kafka, K, and of course, the character of Kafka is not true. It’s relatively close to the plot of the original.
Marlow: Do you always think in these terms?
Ruiz: Not always. In this case, I have the possibility to create quite easily. It is an easy way to create atmosphere and, little by little, this aspect will become a kind of global/social criticism. With age, I become more and more political.
Marlow: Obviously the work of Kafka, which you’ve mentioned several times, and Borges has played a role in your work. You’ve never made a film in Prague?
Ruiz: No, but I want to…
Marlow: This book here, this collection of your writings. What do you write in these notebooks?
Ruiz: I simply put what is happening in the day.
Marlow: Do you write every day?
Ruiz: Yes, almost.
Marlow: And you write in French or in Spanish?
Marlow: How many of these books do you fill in a year?
Ruiz: I still have about twelve. I’ve occasionally lost notes in taxis.
Marlow: You need a little string attached to yourself. Take it and you can’t leave it behind.
Ruiz: That’s what my mother used to do when I was little!
Marlow: It’s an image that would seemingly appear in one of your films. Someone with books attached to them wherever they were going. In fact, imagery is something that has always been very important in your work. I remember, in Dark at Noon, the scene with the crutches along the horizon. Your films are filled with consistent visual illusions. The exceptional Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, for instance. Did you see Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which bears some resemblance?
Ruiz: That was my favorite. Many people were really against it, for some political reason. It was just a joke. One character is talking about the French Revolution and all of the consequences and the other character, the voice, says, to paraphrase, ‘Well, we make revolution, but it was not a big matter.’