Sundance directing award

DESDE ALLA – Built Around the Most Magnetic On-Screen Couple in Recent Years, This Golden Lion Winner Premieres in LA Tonight

FILMMAKER IN FOCUS: LORENZO VIGAS

The following interview was taken on September 16 at TIFF2015, a few days after the Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas was awarded The Golden Lion at VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2015.

Desde Allá has its U.S. premiere at AFI FEST in LA tonight.

desde alla poster

Knight: I thought we could start this interview with me asking you to reminisce about your beginnings as a filmmaker.You have just been awarded the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for Desde allá, your first feature film. The film was produced by your friend and collaborator Michel Franco, who by the way told me you two met 10 years ago when you showed up at his house party uninvited!

Vigas: (laughing)  Yes, that’s true!

Knight: But where would you locate your beginnings as a filmmaker?

Vigas: My father gave me a VHS camera when I was 15. My father is a painter and a very important artist in Venezuela, very well-known in all Latin America actually.

Knight: Was your artist father a great influence on you?

Vigas: Yes but not as a painter. He gave me a camera when I was 15 and that was very important, I started making films and made a series of home-made videos. I never thought it could be my profession, it was just a hobby, but a very passionate hobby. Then I went to study biology but I never left the camera, I was always making things. Then I started making documentaries. At the time I was studying molecular biology and I was between science and arts. But I never thought I could make a living in the arts.

Knight: Why were you so convinced you couldn’t? Were you living in Venezuela or Mexico at that point?

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Lorenzo Vigas @Venice Film Festival 2015

Vigas: I actually did my studies in the US, I studied molecular biology in Boston. And before that I was at University of Tampa in Florida. I felt this necessity of telling stories, of expression, and one day I realised that I wouldn’t be able to express myself as a scientist, either as a university professor or as a researcher. I felt the necessity of having an artistic expression. So I did a couple of very short film workshops in New York.

Knight: On directing, screenwriting?

Vigas: Yes, directing, filmmaking workshops. I wanted to learn the practical things. I didn’t want to go to film school, I don’t think you need to go to film school at all. Then I went back to Venezuela and I started working as a director, I was hired to shoot commercials, infomercials for TV, documentaries, just work for hire. But I really wanted to make films. One day I met Guillermo Arriaga, he came to Caracas to give a film lecture at the university where I was shooting a TV documentary series. I told him about this story and he fell in love with it.

Knight: So the idea for this film goes back many years…

Vigas: It’s very old, this was in 2001. But it was just an idea for a story. So Guillermo Arriaga told me, “I want to produce your film, come to Mexico”. When I went to Mexico, I wanted to shoot something very quickly, so I wrote and directed a short film, Elephants never forget, have you seen it?

Knight: No, I haven’t seen it yet.

Vigas: You have to see it because I’m working on a trilogy. This short film is the first part.

Knight: Like a prologue?

Vigas: Yes. Desde allá is the second part. The stories are not similar, but there are through lines. I am obsessed with the theme of absent fathers. This theme is present in the short film, in Desde allá, and in a third film I’m now working on now, it’s called The Box. So I came to Mexico, I wrote the short film then went back to Venezuela to shoot it and to keep working on the screenplay for Desde allá.  While I was writing the screenplay I met Michel (Franco) with whom I became very very close. He was preparing his first film and ever since we helped each other and shared all our projects. I worked and advised him on his films and he did the same on my films. He’ll also be the producer of my next film.

 Michel Franco (Foto AP/Berenice Bautista)

Michel Franco (Foto AP/Berenice Bautista)

Knight: On the subject of your collaboration with Michel Franco, I would say that your filmmaking styles have a similar quality, would you agree? I’m not talking about specific cinematographic choices, I’m referring more to the fact that you both have a very direct and confident style of shooting.

Vigas: Yes, but we’re also very different in some ways. Michel loves static shots, he almost never moves the camera, everything is there happening in front of you. Whereas I move the camera, I intercut. But we have this thing of always avoiding sentimentality. I’m not talking about mise-en-scène, I’m talking about how to approach the work with actors. Also how to approach the story and the lines of dialogue. There are similarities but also very different things. I like to play a lot with ambiguity.

Knight: He does too.

Vigas: Yes, that’s true. That is definitely a similarity.

Knight: I was referring more to your confident and direct manner of shooting, I could tell from the very first frames of the movie that you knew precisely where to put the camera and where to cut, there was no hesitation in the visual story-telling.

Vigas: I hope so! And I think art is about knowing what to take off, getting rid of things. Michel does one take. He can’t get rid of it, he can’t change it. I film more than Michel does. What you saw is a product of eight months of editing. I am very happy with how the film turned out but I had to get rid of a lot of shots. That’s because I like to have choices and to be able to get rid of the ones I don’t like or don’t work. Michel doesn’t like this, he is very sure of the takes he is going to have.

Knight: It’s also about the relation between form and story, your filmmaking style suits your story, his filmmaking style suits his story.

Vigas: Yes, we talk about film form a lot.

Knight: With a static camera you can be very introspective, you’re delving deep into the character, as if you’re trying to see through the character. Whereas your style of moving the camera and cutting faster suggests a more “emotional” camera, very suited to rendering the characters’ emotional state, what they feel as opposed to what they think or who they are. 

Vigas: That’s an interesting observation.

Knight: I’m also curious: what  input did you have on Michel Franco’s films and what input did he have on your films?

Vigas: We have greatly influenced each other. He read my screenplay before he shot his films. So I know there were things about my film that influenced him. And I guess I was influenced by his way of filming. We have a lot of things in common although I can clearly see differences.

Knight: Did you go on set with him when he was shooting his films?

Vigas: No, I didn’t, except maybe for a couple of days. And he was never on my set, he never travelled to Caracas. I did not want anyone near me really, I wanted absolute control.

Knight: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?It sounds like a very long process.

Vigas:  It was a very long process, yes, but then it took longer to make the film.

Knight: Why? You already had your producer.

Vigas: Yes, Guillermo Arriaga had the script in his hands and he wanted to make it in Mexico. Then he changed his mind, “No, not Mexico, let’s make it elsewhere, maybe in Europe.”

Knight: What were the reasons for that?

Vigas: I don’t know but those were very wrong decisions and one day I couldn’t wait anymore, I grabbed the script and went back to Venezuela where I really wanted to make it. But it took me a while to be able to do that, I had to wait for a while before I was able to tackle this project. But in a way it was perfect timing: to make the film in Caracas right now, you can really feel this tension between the classes that plays into the story of the characters. We come from a country where hugging is very important, the physicality of the act is very important. And Armando is this person who cannot be touched, so it is very interesting to place a character like this in a society that loves to do exactly the opposite. It’s a metaphor about what is happening in Venezuela right now. So the film was made when it really needed to be made and the Golden Lion from Venice is a proof of that.

Knight: Talking about Venezuelan society, you said at the press conference that the film is not so much about homosexuality as it is about a “shortage of emotions in our society”.

Vigas: Yes, emotional needs.

Knight: But is this something that characterises Venezuelan society in particular or is it a more generalised feeling?

Vigas: It’s a generalised feeling. And this is a film that transcends homosexuality, it goes far beyond that.

Knight: Hence the title, From Afar or From Beyond.

Vigas: Absolutely.  It’s about emotional needs. If a 60-year old lady would have taken care of the boy, he would have fallen in love with her, so it’s not about homosexuality in a strict sense. It’s about their emotional needs, the fact that they needed each other. And it’s a film about consequences, not about the reasons for things. I think it is more important to see the consequences than to know the reasons of things. And it leaves space for imagination, I think the public is tired of being served everything on a plate. We have to think that the public is intelligent and leave space for their imagination, leave space to connect their psyche with the psyche of the characters. The only way of doing this is not telling everything.

Knight: Being sparse with the storytelling.

Vigas: Yes.

Knight: I was very impressed with the performances of your actors. How did you find them?

Vigas: First of all, I am a mad obsessive about the direction of actors. My crew hated me.

Alfredo+Castro+Afar+Photocall+72nd+Venice+ieni4vtjNEUl

From left to right: Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas and newcomer Luis Silva

Knight: Why, what did you do?

Vigas: Well, not all the crew but some of the crew. I was obsessive about some performance details and having control over their performance. We went very big, we took great risks, it was very painful for the actors. First of all, I did not want the main actors to meet before the shoot, they met on the first day of shooting. I only gave them the lines 15 minutes before we started shooting. So they hardly had time to read the lines that we started.

Knight: Is it because you wanted the surprise effect of them actually meeting for the very first time?

Vigas: Yes, and I also did not want them to be conscious of their character. I did not want them to rationalise their character, what they should and shouldn’t do at any particular moment . So every day we were shooting new scenes and they did not know what was going to happen next. Of course I had to give the screenplay to Alfredo (Castro) because I couldn’t have secured him for the film if I hadn’t given him the screenplay to read before.

Knight: Did you know from the beginning that you wanted the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro for the role of Armando?

Vigas: Yes, he was my first choice. I didn’t know if he was going to like the story but he absolutely loved it.

Knight: Armando is a very mysterious and unpredictable character. Very unconventional as well in the way he behaves and reacts.

Vigas: Yes and he is a metaphor for the lack of communication. I really wanted the film to be about someone who is unable to connect emotionally with people. There is something in me that I wanted to communicate also, it’s a very personal film, a lot of my obsessions are present in the film.

lorenzo and ElderKnight: And Luis Silva who plays Elder, how did you discover him?He’s not a professional actor and he hasn’t made any films before, has he?

Vigas: That’s right. I saw his photo at a casting agency. A friend of his asked him to come to a casting with him. He lives in a very poor and very dangerous neighbourhood.

Knight: Very much like the character he plays in the film.

Vigas: Yes. So he went with his friend who wanted to do a TV commercial and it was him who ended up in the commercial because he has this amazing face. I saw a picture of him and I said “I want to meet this guy”. He was very young, 16 years old. And from the moment I met him and started talking to him, I immediately knew it was him, he was Elder. Luis has this tremendous energy, he’s brutally smart, he’s a monster! But I never put a camera in front of him, never did a casting with him, which was a risk, this was a very big production for Venezuela and we had a famous actor from Chile. We never did a formal camera test but we had a workshop with him and the rest of the kids, his girlfriend and his friends. This was a 3-month workshop and Elder was part of that workshop. So one day before the shoot we finally did a camera test with Elder and we were all shocked, I knew I found something very big. And Alfredo’s reaction to Luis was incredible, I remember him telling me on the set, “This boy is a monster”!

Knight: The thing that impressed me the most about his performance was this almost palpable fear on his face, he looks like a caged bird in some of the first scenes. He is so expressive that you know immediately what he feels.

Vigas: Yes and he’s the same in real life, he’s very expressive and absolutely transparent. He expresses everything that crosses his mind. And in the film he doesn’t speak but you understand perfectly well what his character is about.

Knight: Did you give him any acting instructions at all?

Vigas: No, we explored different emotions. And he gave everything he had, he’s a natural.

Knight: This film is also very much about homophobia, at the beginning there is a lot of hatred that Elder feels towards Armando, he calls him “you old pervert” at some point. I suppose this is still a very pervasive feeling in Venezuela and everywhere in Latin America.

Vigas: Absolutely, Latin America is a place where homosexuality is still very condemned.

Knight: How do you think the public will react to the film?

Vigas: This is going to be very interesting! This is a film that will make people argue a lot in Venezuela and I want this to happen actually. As artists we have the responsibility to create conflicts and divisive opinions. And especially in the current climate in Venezuelan society when the dialogue between the classes has been cut: there is no dialogue between the government and the people, there is no dialogue between the poor class, the middle class and the higher class. Everyone is divided and everyone refuses to communicate. So I hope this film will make them talk about social issues and homosexuality.

Knight: You live in Mexico City now, right?

Vigas: Yes. Well, I go back and forth, I spend half of the year in Caracas, half of the year in Mexico City.

Knight: Is The Box, the third film of the trilogy, based in Mexico City?

Vigas: Yes but it’s not going to be shot there, we’re shooting in North Mexico.

Knight: What is the film is about?

Vigas: It’s about a 14year old boy whose father was killed 10 years before and who finds out that his father was just found in a massive graveyard. So he goes there to recover his human remains. I wrote the script while trying to find the money to make Desde allá, I was going to Europe, Venezuela a lot so I wrote it on these trips. Now the script is ready and we’re shooting next year.

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How To Love Creative People – Interview with ZACH HEINZERLING, the Director of CUTIE AND THE BOXER

A while ago, Ideas Tap published a very amusing article on “How to date creative people” and the advice was: give them space, don’t compete, get creative with your dating ideas, don’t plan too far into the future, lower your expectations even further, etc.

All very sound advice… And then? What happens after the dating stage?Any hope for a “happily ever after” dénouement?

cutie_and_the_boxer_biggieCUTIE AND THE BOXER, winner of the documentary directing prize at this year’s SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, offers one of the most surprising answers to this dilemma.

Imagine this “stranger than fiction” scenario: You are a super cute Japanese 19-year old girl, an aspiring artist, and you move to New York to start your art education. A few months later you meet Ushio, a very charismatic artist-provocateur,  21 years your senior. He asks you on a dinner date, sparks fly, then you go back to his place to see his art among other things. Then the following morning he asks to borrow money to pay his rent. And because you’re nice and he seems trustworthy, you part with the tiny allowance that your parents gave you to get by in New York lest poor Ushio get evicted. Six months later you become pregnant with his child, which forces you to give up your art education as the money doesn’t stretch to cover both… And you become Ushio’s full-time wife, cook, assistant…Thus began one of the most enduring romantic and artistic entanglements we ever heard of: 40 years later Ushio and Noriko are still making art, love and especially war…

Zachary_Heinzerling_Headshot

Zach Heinzerling

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, the film’s director ZACH HEINZERLING tells us more about his most endearing subjects…

Dana: How and when did you first discover Noriko and Ushio, the “Cutie” and the “Boxer” of the title?

Zach: I like taking pictures and I was in Dumbo one day, this is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that a lot of artists used to live in, art studios are still there but it’s become very posh and expensive. They have an open studio day when you can walk in and meet artists. A good friend of mine speaks Japanese, we went together and he introduced me to them. I was an art student, I’d just moved to New York and I was interested in getting to know them, they are very welcoming, they want to share their art, their art is about their lives and you get personal very quickly, which I think for a documentary subject is really interesting because you don’t have to work very hard to understand what they want to say, it’s out there and they are projecting it and drawing on it. First I made a short film about them, kind of a day in the life. Then, I just kept going over there, sometimes with a camera, sometimes not.

Dana: Did they welcome the idea of you making a documentary about them immediately or did it take some effort to convince them?

Zach: Yes they welcomed the idea immediately. Ushio is obsessed with being filmed, he’s a performance artist, his art results in paintings but it’s the performance really that is the art itself, so the idea of being watched is important for him. Noriko was more shy but with my interest in her art she really opened up for me and that became the basis for the film, it’s more her story as opposed to his.

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara

Dana: Their relationship sounds very interesting, there’s a bit of dominance/submissiveness going on…

Zach: Yes there is, they’ve been married for over 40 years, she met him when she was 19 and within six months she was pregnant and basically taking care of him. He’s sort of the classical drunk, egotistical artist, the “only thing important in life” kind of guy, and I think she was wooed by that and fell in love with him for his purity but then had to sort of clean up after him.  And I think there’s an element of, you know, in Japanese culture, sticking with your spouse through thick and thin, and she suffered through most of their relationship…The film is about them now in the present and how that past affected them today. And the resentment she holds against him, but also the power that she’s trying to extract back. She is the dominant personality now, she very much wears the pants in the relationship, she’s very strong, fierce, competitive. It’s always very interesting to have two headstrong artists, when you combine them something beautiful is created, and complex, and I think that’s really what the film is about, it’s about what’s created from the two of them as opposed to either one of them individually. The tension is drama and that’s what the film is.

Dana: How did they receive the film?

Zach:He didn’t like the film. When you see the film you’ll understand why, he only really cares about his art and the film starts out to be more about him and then transitions to be more about her. And he expected the film to be more about him, for his art to be more featured. And the film is not only about art really, it’s about this relationship, and love in a way, and he doesn’t enjoy love stories. But he wasn’t critical of it, this is something I worked on for five years and we’re very close, we’re like family, so his reaction wasn’t like “You have to change it”, it was more like “I didn’t expect this”. But he’s since come to really appreciate and compliment the film and he’s supportive of the film because it’s essentially promoting his artwork which he likes. She’s always loved the film, she takes ownership of it and uses it in a way as more of a weapon in their battle…

cutie at work

Noriko at work on her Cutie paintings

Dana: What made you choose to focus more on her, is it because you found her the more interesting character, or is it because she is kind of the “underdog” and you wanted to side with her?

Zach: Yeah she’s definitely the more complicated character, she’s layered, there’s a complexity to her.  And she’s got a fascinating story, she moved to New York when she was 19, and she was kind of taken under the wing of this crazy personality and she lived in this bubble that he’s created ever since. And she’s now 60 and looking back on her life. The film’s title, Cutie, comes from this comic that she’s created, the Cutie character is basically her alter-ego, she’s created herself as this 19 year old girl with pigtails, and part of it is tied to this longing for a youth and an innocence that was taken from her at a young age and she’s trying to recreate it through her artwork and deal with a lot of her problems through her artwork. So it was fascinating, she wears her pair of pigtails today as a 60 year old woman, she has this kind of ageless beauty to her and a real strange way of dealing with things. So yes I think that her character has legs and it was also something that over the course of the film would shift and I could observe that shift…

Dana: It sounds almost like a feminist film, a woman who really comes into her own…

Zach: Yes, in her art now she creates drawings of herself dressed as a dominatrix and whipping her husband who’s in chains, she’s revenging against her husband …and she’s this cute Japanese woman so it’s crazy…(laughter)

Ushio_Zach_Noriko_at studio

Zach with Ushio and Noriko in their art studio in New York

Dana: How long have you spent with them to make this documentary and what were the challenges?

Zach: I met them five years ago so it’s technically a five year process but the film really takes place over the last two years. Early on, it was a film more about art and more of a slightly traditional style of documentary where I was using other people to kind of contextualise them and their art, historians, and their friends and curators. And then it shifted to being only them, observational in style, where they were sort of interviewing each other. But there’s no interviews in the film, it’s just reality observed, reality sculpted obviously, the editing process creating a story out of these two years where she starts to gain the respect of others and the relationship shifts from her being the assistant to her being a real artist in her own right. And the challenge was that I’m not fluent in Japanese and the film is almost entirely in Japanese. So a lot of time when I was shooting I had no idea what they were saying but I could generally understand the idea and I would just film scenes in their entirety and then get all of the footage subtitled and recover scenes from that…It’s an inefficient process but I was interested in things other than exactly what they were saying, the rhythm of the scene, or what it looked like, or what it sounded like…And I shot the film too, trying to get that kind of intimacy that’s needed for the kind of scenes that I wanted…And it took that long, it was only after three years that I started to get scenes that were natural…and to observe them in more vulnerable situations. So obviously that’s an immense amount of time, I was working on other projects throughout but the film is really as much about my relationship with them as it is about their relationship…

Dana: Are you in the film?

Zach: No, I’m not in the film.

Dana: Because you mentioned the word “observational” and I was wondering whether you put yourself in the frame in the style of cinema vérité or whether your film is purely observational in the style of direct cinema?What was your approach?

Zach: I wouldn’t describe it as purely observational.Traditional cinema vérité is this whole idea that you don’t direct at all, it’s just the camera as is. […] But the genre shifted and these sort of hybrid films were created. I mean everything that happens in the movie, happened, but the order that you place it, the way that you shoot things, we use music in the film, we use animation, her comics are animated, there’s a level of me deciding which stories to tell. And even cinema vérité is subjective, nothing is observed reality, it’s always sculpted reality so I constructed it slightly more than say 60’s vérité films, but that was always the intention, you turn something into a cinematic experience to make people understand your version of the story, this is my version of their relationship. They understood that and that’s why they weren’t critical of it because they knew it was my version as opposed to the real version or…

Dana: What they wanted to project…

Zach: Yes…when you film artists, a lot of the time that’s a benefit because there’s a sort of understanding that “ok, this is my art”, even though it’s about them, they are more exhibitionists…(laughter)

Dana: This is your debut feature film and you made shorts before. I was wondering what you have lined up for the future, will you continue to make films?

Zach: I think so. I went to arts school, I studied philosophy, I didn’t go to film school but I do think I’ll probably continue making films, I’m currently writing a script for a fiction film, so my ambition is to create and construct a story. I would do another documentary, this documentary was special because the subject lent itself to an interesting and creative style of documentary, you can’t find that in every subject…

Dana: What would be the main themes you would like to explore?

Zach: I think I’m most apt to continue exploring this sort of morally complex relationship stories, smaller personal stories are what I’m most interested to catch on film…Why I like cinema is that you can approach this idea of something or someone without having to define it, you can make an audience sympathetic to a character then turn around and make them disgusted by that character. It shows how complex people can be and you can shatter people’s preconceived notions of why someone does what they do, I think that’s the most interesting thing about film, it’s very difficult to find another medium that doesn’t rely on specificity. Ambiguity is something that is sometimes scary and hard to sell but if you can make a film that is ambiguous but also engrossing, I think the audience feels perhaps changed in some way or their perspective is shifted. So it’s those kinds of films, with characters that you might not always like. I mean in this film Ushio the husband is kind of demonised at the beginning and then by the end maybe you feel differently.At the beginning, one of the lines in the film is that he is a genius and his wife is average so it’s her job to support him.

Ushio boxing

Ushio performance art

Dana: Oh no!He really said that?And you left that in?

Zach: Yeah.So you might hate him. But then there are other things that you might like about him.

Dana: Did he know he was being filmed?Didn’t he say it as a joke?

Zack: Oh yeah, he knew…Well, she wasn’t there but no, it wasn’t a joke. He laughed and the camera was on… As you’ll see in the film, there’s no place he won’t go, his life is to be as exposed as possible but the irony is that you never actually feel like you get to his core, it’s always a performance with him, he’s always kind of acting in a way, so I think that line is probably a version of acting and finding out what he really thinks. And he definitely cares more about his art than hers and he definitely thinks he’s a more important artist than she will ever be, and based on what he’s done, he was part of a 60s post-war Japanese group that’s very important in the art history of Japan, so his paintings are all over the world. But now he’s actually not selling at all, he’s not known for his work of the last 30 years, so in some ways he’s sort of this washed-up artist who’s not really relevant anymore. She is the more sort of fresh, with something to say, you know. Whether he actually respects her or not is still a question, and whether she actually respects him or not is a question…

Dana: Why are they together?

Zach: I don’t know (laughing), that’s the subject of the movie…

If we managed to pique your interest and you want to find out the secret to Ushio and Noriko’s enduring love, don’t miss out on the film’s cinema release, Cutie and the Boxer is screening at ICA and other cinemas in the UK starting today.

To book your ticket at the ICA click here.