When someone speaks of the Academy Awards, they speak of many things. But they rarely speak of the journey. The expedition from the premiere of an out-of-the-ordinary feature to its eventual (if it is so fortunate) appearance at the most celebrated of celebratory film events is long. It is arduous. When someone mentions an “Oscar campaign,” this is what it is. Many cities. Much talking. Repetition. And while Amour might be the favorite, No could be the one with the statue in the days ahead. Of the two, No is definitely the better film.
For its director, Pablo Larrain, the journey began eight months ago. Or, more accurately, much earlier. The work started long before No’s arrival at Cannes. Set in 1988 and artfully comprised of contemporary footage fully integrated with material shot during the period of the actual events, No benefits from a great screenplay by Pedro Peirano and an exceptional cast led by Gael Garcia Bernal. But this film, in essence, is the completion of a political-tinged trilogy that started with Tony Manero in 2008 and continued with Post Mortem two years later. Each film is self-contained and considerably different from the other two. But they each exist within the landscape of Chilean history and, in part, it is their thematic differences that subversively unite them.
Outside of these three films, Larrain wrote and directed his debut feature, Fuga, (unreleased outside of South America) and, more recently (in the year prior to No) executive produced the crime drama Profugos for HBO Latin America. The International Film Festival Rotterdam presented the Netherlands premiere of No at the end of January as well as what appears to be the first international screenings of two Larrain-directed episodes of Profugos as part of the festival’s “Signals: Changing Channels” program. The television series, while remarkably conventional and consistently implausible, is nonetheless compelling and serves to illustrate the versatility of Larrain’s abilities as a filmmaker.
Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow met with an exhausted Pablo Larrain in San Francisco a few hours before the latter disappeared for Los Angeles (and then, immediately thereafter for the former and the latter, Europe).
Pablo Larrain: I’m sorry.
Jonathan Marlow: No. No. No. Please.
Larrain: What is weird is that I slept for ten hours last night. It’s not that I slept a little. I’m just exhausted. I don’t know why. I’m sorry.
Marlow: Where did you arrive from?
Larrain: From Dallas. Before that, Sundance.
Marlow: It’s been relentless. I just flew in from Park City as well.
Larrain: I haven’t stopped since May.
Marlow: Since Cannes.
Larrain: Yes. It’s been wonderful. But it’s f—ing long, you know?
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Marlow: For Tony Manero and Post Mortem, the films were produced by your brother [Juan de Dios Larrain] and your company, Fabula. For No, it was in collaboration with Participant. Does their involvement change some aspect of the way that you put this film together versus the earlier films in the trilogy?
Larrain: When you have a partner, there’s a new voice in the group. We were very lucky. Those guys are really cool. We found friends there, not only partners in business. Because what I think is interesting is that we had them in the process. And then in the cut, when we did the film. It was very interesting to know their perspective. I think it helped, in the end. It was more interesting and probably more universal at the same time. It was great. We were a very little company that made one movie every two or three years. Now we’re making maybe four or five movies a year [including the Berlinale-premiering Gloria, directed by Sebastian Lelio]. That has been a whole learning process that has been very interesting. Now to have Participant as a partner, it’s nothing less than learning more. It’s been a very interesting relationship.
Marlow: Did their involvement make it easier to get someone of the international stature of Gael Garcia Bernal or was he already involved?
Larrain: I have to tell you that Gael and the script were ready before they got it.
Marlow: This was your first time working with this particular screenwriter, Pedro Peirano. He adapted the script from a play that had been unproduced? Were you familiar with the play prior to that?
Larrain: No. It has never been staged. It’s a play that is very short. But what’s interesting in the play is that it is the perspective of the ad guy. We could have found so many different possible points of view here. I was like, ‘Why this guy?’ We thought it was very interesting. Then we did a huge research that took like two years. We interviewed pretty much everyone.
Marlow: The actual participants.
Larrain: Then I saw hours and hours of archival footage. Then we had this huge amount of information and it was difficult to start. It was like looking at a mountain. Where do I start? That’s where Pedro Peirano comes in and he’s just a genius. It’s a huge challenge to compress all of these details. To really see what is the most important part.
Marlow: When you look at Tony Manero, which is shot in super 16, and you’re shooting in Academy ratio, 1.85. Then Post Mortem, which I believe you shot in regular 16, but at 2.35?
Larrain: Yes. 2.66.
Marlow: 2.66? Yes, it seems very wide. Then with No you’re shooting 4:3…
Marlow: U-matic. 1.33. In each of these projects, you’ve set a very unique and unusual challenge for yourself. You’re working with the same actors and putting them in very different situations, getting very different performances out of them. Is that part of the attraction of dealing with three different aspects of the Pinochet period?
Larrain: Well, you know… [laughs] I understand [what you’re saying]. It’s just way more spontaneous. It has to do with the identity of each film. For example, in Post Mortem, we wanted to use those Russian lenses that were anamorphic. We brought them from Russia. You could barely see through the viewfinder! It would make the composition of the frames very specific. You had to really control pretty much everything. It was fascinating to us and it really had to do with the story and the tone of the movie. Tony Manero is a movie that was shot in handheld, following the guys, looking at everything, just trying to be more ambiguous, mysterious and, at the same time, dangerous. How could you use a camera as a weapon?
Marlow: Yes. Yes.
Larrain: Then No is a movie that was always going to have a lot of archival footage. In fact, it has between thirty-five and forty percent… I don’t know exactly but one third of the movie is archival footage. I didn’t want the audience to be fighting with…
Marlow: …pulled in and out of the movie.
Larrain: Right. It was going to be horrible. To avoid that pull in and pull out, we just shot in the same format, so people wouldn’t know what they were looking at. When you do that, you learn that format was 4:3, that it has a specific technology, that it has a look, that it has a danger, that it has whatever. You just decide to do that, because it’s good for that specific film. I really thought we were going to shoot in 35mm. That was what we budgeted. That was the idea. Then, when Gael went to Chile, a couple of months before we started shooting, we tested seven or eight formats. We did a set and then we shot the same shot with different cameras. We just changed the camera. We shot this huge 35mm and 16mm, the same camera as Tony Manero and Post Mortem. Then we brought in an HD, state‑of‑the‑art ALEXA, a Scarlet from RED and all the beautiful Sonys. Then I said, ‘Okay, did you guys bring the VHS?’ ‘Yeah.’ We tested on it. ‘Did you bring the U-matic tube camera?’ ‘Yeah.’ We tested it and, when I was shooting it—not even in the meeting room–I said, ‘Okay, this is it!’ It was just so funny. At the beginning, we laughed so much because it looked so odd. Gael had this jean jacket we had never used before and these pants. It was so funny, because immediately he was that age. We had an old car. The shot was that he was inside. He would walk out. He would walk out and go outside with the sunshine.
Marlow: Right, and he gets all blown out.
Larrain: Yeah. We would just correct it and everything. He would go to this old car and start cleaning the window. It’s in the movie. He’s worried about his car and he was just cleaning the window. When he did that with this U-matic test, it was just so funny. But the camera was broken so we couldn’t use that one. We had to hire a company in Hollywood. Those guys bought twenty cameras from all over the U.S. and they assembled four for us. They all looked different. They were like people.
Marlow: So they were all pieced together?
Larrain: Yeah. We would pull down some wires and we would just record it digitally.
Marlow: Was your cinematographer originally expecting to shoot in 35mm? How did he react to having to do everything in video?
Larrain: It was the same guy who did Post Mortem and Tony Manero. We said, ‘Sure. Let’s do it.’ My brother, the producer, said, ‘Can we have an HD camera on the side, just shooting?’
Marlow: Just in case.
Larrain: We said no. You are not going to frame for two cameras! We had two [U-matics on the set]. I operated one…
Marlow: It is still a very risky decision to go that route. But it works. The thing that is fascinating in No is that you might suspect that this would be distracting. When the first scene comes up, it is a bit distracting because you don’t see films made this way. Then you purposely shoot into the sun after the opening sequence. All of the things that you’re not supposed to do, you do.
Larrain: I remember at the Lincoln Center screening, all of the viewers were just scratching their eyes. ‘What the fuck is this?’ The screen is so huge. They were like, ‘What is this? What?’ You get used to it.
Marlow: As the viewer, you adapt to it. You very quickly adapt to what you are seeing. It lends itself remarkably well to the archival footage. The commercials for the ‘NO’ campaign. ‘Happiness is coming.’ Those commercials are so absurd that, if they weren’t real, people would assume that it was preposterous. Yet you’re using these actual commercials, mimes and all. It is a mirror of reality within fictional situations but still based very closely on real people (which you then put in the film).
Larrain: It’s an illusion. That’s what we do.
Marlow: Yes. That’s what cinema is.
Larrain: We are much closer to a magician than anybody else. It’s just an illusion. You have to create an illusion. I remember, on that same day at Lincoln Center after the screening, a lady raised her hand and said, ‘Oh, why did you decide to shoot in such an ugly format? The movie was hurting my eyes.’ I answered. Then another person asked something else. Then this same woman raised her hand again. I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ‘Why did you shoot all this ugly material? These commercials…’
Marlow: She just answered her own question.
Marlow: And you created the illusion. The mixture of actual footage in the streets and footage that you shot near the end of the film… You can’t tell the difference anymore. It becomes all one piece.
Larrain: In that scene, where it is a demonstration and Gael’s wife gets caught…
Marlow: It’s very tense.
Larrain: We had one shot coming from the cable [news] and one shot is ours. It’s just amazing. When we were editing it, at some point I was looking at it and I said, ‘Where is that coming from? Who did that? Us or…?’ When that happened, I just went home and said, ‘We did it.’
In ‘Post Mortem,’ we wanted to use those Russian lenses that were anamorphic. We brought them from Russia. You could barely see through the viewfinder! It would make the composition of the frames very specific. You had to really control pretty much everything. It was fascinating to us and it really had to do with the story and the tone of the movie. ‘Tony Manero’ is a movie that was shot in handheld, following the guys, looking at everything, just trying to be more ambiguous, mysterious and, at the same time, dangerous. How could you use a camera as a weapon?
Marlow: You got it.
Larrain: Exactly. I’m not going to tell you who but we sent a first cut to someone here in the United States, a very well‑known person. He called us and said, ‘Man, you are f—ing amazing. Pinochet looks the same. Who is that guy?’
Marlow: Yes, great casting!
Larrain: We said, ‘Well…’
Marlow: When you work with someone like Alfredo Castro, who plays such a large part in all three films, he has very different roles. He (and your other regulars) brings very different aspects to their performances. This speaks to your abilities as a director.
Larrain: Thank you. But it was their work, too. Don’t forget it! They do it.
Marlow: It is a meeting of their talent and your talent.
Larrain: It’s our work.
Marlow: Because the characters are so different, do you work with Alfredo Castro in a different way? How much time do you spend before shooting begins?
Larrain: Not much. We read. We just read. We just sit here. I don’t like to ask them to perform.
Marlow: You don’t do blocking or anything?
Marlow: Do you storyboard?
Marlow: Much of everything happens on the set.
Larrain: Most of it. A movie is not only the result. It is also the fact that you have to make the movie! That’s pretty obvious but that’s why I enjoy it. The process is so long. We are here now and we started in 2008. I’ve been five years into this movie. It’s so long that you had better enjoy it. For me, the best part of the cake is always in the shooting. I try to keep in there some of the things that you might be unable to discover otherwise. It’s like when you’re going to a party and you don’t drink anything in three days or in a week or in a month before, waiting to just get drunk at the party. It’s a little bit like that.
Marlow: You don’t want to waste the rawness.
Larrain: I just want to enjoy the shooting as much as possible because it’s just so beautiful. Of course, we meet with the actors. We read. We talk about it a lot. Then it is just people that I respect so much. They’re extraordinarily talented. We are friends. We are like a company. Like a theater company but we make movies. It’s just fascinating when we get together on a set again. We have so much fun.
Marlow: It’s bringing the family back together, so to speak.
Larrain: Yes. It’s just so much fun.
Marlow: There is something particularly special about the Chilean film industry. When you look at Raul Ruiz or Alejandro Jodorowsky or Patricio Guzman. In Guzman’s case, when you look at Nostalgia for the Light…
Larrain: He’s so f—ing good.
Marlow: It’s an absolutely amazing film. But since a fictional narrative or, in this case, a loosely-based-on-actual-people fictional narrative is generally more approachable for audiences than a documentary, the trilogy presents a plausible way for many people outside of Chile to understand in a different way this horrible period in the country’s history. Is there some aspect of your upbringing that leads you to these stories? As I understand it, one of your parents was a politician.
Larrain: My father, yes.
Marlow: It seems like you have a very important story to tell and you are telling it in these very different films. Presumably you did not plan to make a trilogy.
Larrain: No! [Laughs.] That’s what I was chuckling about in the beginning. It’s way more spontaneous. With Tony Manero, do you know how it came out? I was in Madrid in the Reina Sofia Museum [Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia]. Do you know it?
Larrain: I was in the library of the museum. There was nothing to do. I found this wonderful photograph book and I opened it, bored. I just looked at it. There was this picture of this man staring in a window, which is a very similar frame that I have in Tony Manero, when he just naked sitting and then he sees the lady that’s getting beaten down on the street. He just sits there, then gets dressed and goes down. The lady is on the floor. [Spoiler.] Then he kills her. I saw this picture. ‘Wow. This guy looks like a…’ It was pretty similar. ‘Oh, who is this guy?’ Then I realized he was a crack addict. He was called Uncle Charlie. It’s a whole photographic…
Marlow: Like a series?
Larrain: Like a series, yes. It’s amazing. It’s in New York. It’s a guy in Brooklyn. He’s a crack addict in Brooklyn. He’s holding his gun and he’s just staring with a cigarette. What I did was just… he could be a dancer. A dancer and a killer. It could be funny. He should impersonate somebody. It would be funny to have more guys. Who? Oh, John Travolta. Saturday Night Fever. When was that released in Chile? Google it. 1978. Whoa. That’s where it became a political movie. Of course, we were aware of that. We used that. Then, when I was in Cannes, I met this Canadian producer that wanted to make a movie about No.
Marlow: So it goes back to then?
Larrain: Yes. We started working on it and developing it. Then I went back to Chile and I found this autopsy report of Salvador Allende and Post Mortem came out of that. It was so spontaneous. I never planned to do a trilogy. It would be so pretentious!
Marlow: You just had to let it happen as it happened.
Larrain: I understand that you could consider it a trilogy because they are three movies about the same period. But the press came up with that.
Marlow: Sure. Sure. Sure.
Larrain: I never said that. I got used to the idea, of course, in time.
Marlow: Now that you’ve completed what now has been designated as a trilogy, is your inclination to do something completely different?
Marlow: Do you still want to shoot in Chile or would you want to shoot abroad?
Larrain: It depends… I don’t care.
Marlow: It depends on the project.
Marlow: With the success of No and Sony Picture Classics efforts to get the film out there, now folks will ideally return to Tony Manero and Post Mortem.
Larrain: I really hope so.
Marlow: These things have a life. You mentioned that you’re like a theater company except you’re making films. The advantage over a theater company, of course, is that now people can revisit your earlier work.
Larrain: It’s like [Andrei] Tarkovsky said. We sculpt in time.
Marlow: Exactly. Which is a remarkable thing.