INTERVIEW: JAIME ROSALES
This interview was originally published in Spanish magazine Miradas de Cine and can be found here.
After its world premiere at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes and its Spanish premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Petrais hitting the Spanish screens. During the making of his 6thfilm, which might be his most accessible work to date, although it maintains the formal rigor that characterizes all his films, Jaime Rosales wrote a book of notes about his conception of cinema: The Pencil and the Camera. He states in his book that he likes to read interviews in which filmmakers are asked about their creative problems and the aesthetic solutions they have found, because that is the real work of the filmmaker, so that is precisely what we will try to do in this interview.
Why did you decide to shoot Petrain sequence shots with a Steadicamthat scrutinizes the action in such a subjective way?
When I am looking for the DNA of a new film, I am a bit like an explorer who is looking for a new territory, and therefore what I cannot do is to follow paths that are already known. The first thing I do in that search is to discard everything that I've already seen or done, and then I start to imagine or fantasize about this somethingwhich I have not yet seen, and which I have never done before either.
And this starts when there is already an idea of the script or of the story?
No, these are independent processes. Well, I always begin what I call the “ideation” of the film in 3 parallel processes: the narrative one (the story, the intertwining of the facts of the plot), the filmic element which I just mentioned, and then the financial part (how much it will cost, how we will get this money ...).
Then, the filmic part is based purely on speculation. Within all the variants that occur to me, there are many that are novel techniques. And there is a moment when you realize that there is one of the variants that is not only novel, but also seems particularly appropriate, or has a certain connection, with the theme and the history of the film. And usually that’s the one I choose.
And in this specific case?
Because the story was very inspired by Greek tragedy. This style of the Steadicam and the subjective camera that observes the action and then leaves made me think of a kind of demiurgic entity, kind of angel, or God, who looks and examines... A presence that is not entirely human, but at the same time which is not insensitive to the human experience. It is something that does not belong entirely to this world, but which finds interest in us humans.
You say that you normally choose the film form that best suits the story or the theme, but in your book The Pencil and Camerayou defend Truffaut's idea that one should shoot against the script. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?
Well... the thing is that the script of Petrahas that Greek thematic background on the one hand, and in that sense you're right that we would not be shooting against the script, but it is also true that the most usual way of filming the derivative of the Greek tragedies, which are soap-operas, is the opposite of what we have tried, which would be the basic language of TV.
Also, the film is almost fully made of scenes with 2 characters, and the most common way to shoot a scene like that is the shot-reverse shot, which you never use in Petra.
Exactly. That’s the reason why there has been certain people who had participated in the making of the film, who had read the script, but who had not been present during filming, who were very surprised when they saw the finished film because they never imagined it was going to be shot like that.
For me a film has to fulfill several requirements: it has to be something new, and its filming has to go against the script, and then the editing against the filming. For example, there are times when the sequence shots that I filmed end up being broken in the editing, because the editor decided it was better that way.
Speaking of those cuts: within this rigid structure that Petra has, which derives from very rigid self-imposed limits (like in all of your movies), you allow yourself some exceptions, like those cuts that cause several scenes to no longer be formed strictly by one sequence shot.
Petra has 88 scenes and 118 shots. About two thirds of the scenes have a single shot, but the rest don’t, because they incorporate some cut, or several. Given that most scenes are shot in sequence-shots, most of the cuts in the film are ellipses, both temporal and spatial cuts... but then there are a few cuts which aren’t ellipses,because they are intra-scene cuts. My question is: why these exceptions, why not take the idea to its ultimate consequences? And, on the other hand, are those exceptions strategically placed in order to highlight the scenes they are in?
In my opinion the filmic style itself already contains the possibility of those exceptions. But no, I do not know from the beginning where the exception will be. I shot everything in sequence-shots, so wherever there is an intra-scene cut it’s because in the montage we have decided to join two sequence-shots into one. As each shot is complete, but has a variant in its movement or rhythm, these variants allowed the editor that option in some cases, although I was a bit rebellious to the idea. If sometimes she abused that option, I would say "let's not go too far", but other times it seemed fine. Because deep down I think that in art one should do like in the kitchen: you add a bit of salt to desserts and a bit of sugar to other dishes. Otherwise it’s too rigid. The work of art must have a framework, emerge from a plan, but then in the same way that you set limits to yourself, you also give yourselves permission for certain exceptions.
This makes me think of your comments in past interviews where you admitted to the accusation that you make very controlled films, sometimes too much so. Do you think that maybe you are finding a better balance with time?
Well, I believe that these kinds of exceptions are present in in all my films, even in The Hours of the Day, which is a movie that is all shot handheld, except the two sequences of the murders, which are static.
The Hours of the Day is actually a great example, because in that film the exceptions are placed very precisely, to highlight key moments like the murders. Does this also happen in Petra? Are the intra-scene cuts also used as a sort of exclamation point? For instance, the scene that has the most cuts is the scene with the mass graves from the dictatorship, which could seem like a transitional scene but which perhaps has a great thematic importance ...
Of course. Yes, I think it is indeed a very important scene. However, I don’t want to enter too much into the interpretation of the film or its meaning, but some people interpret that this scene is one of the most important moments is that. Perhaps this relates to Bresson idea that one should "hides ideas, but in a way that the public finds them, and make the most important ones be the most hidden". So yes, the mass graves scene is much more important than it may seem.
But to be honest, and to answer about the exceptionality of the scene’s editing, I hadn’t realized that it was the scene with most cuts. Sometimes this happens when one makes films: one doesn’t know very well why he has done certain things. But it is indeed curious that the mass grave scene is the one with the most cuts, the most edited one. As I said, quoting Bresson, sometimes what is most hidden can be the very important. Although, in any case, I don’t like to interpret my own films, because sometimes I don’t even know why I did this or that. But what I can tell you for sure is that the scene of the pits is relevant to me.
How planned were the Steadicam’s camera movements, their directions and their rhythms? Was everything planned to an inch, or was it found on the fly, or did you give the operator total freedom to find his own rhythms?
What we did was that since the text is liquid (it is not at all measured and timed), we made the camera also a bit liquid. For example, we would say, "now we are going to make a shot in which we are going to cross the axis, and we want to end up there ...". In each shot we had the beginning, the end and the route very established, but in the next shot we modified it. Hence, there were times when something very important in the text happened off-camera, and in the next take it happened in camera, because we didn’t know exactly how the take was going to go, it was up to the actors. And then we made another variation. So, by the end we had several takes of each variation, and then in the assembly the editor freely decided which one she liked the most (because I never mark it during the shoot).
And didn’t these variations make it very difficult for you to decide when you had the scene and when you could move to the next one?
Yes, extremely difficult. However, I really like having elements like these that limit and condition us, because the more limited or restricted you are, the more creativity you will find. It seems to me that when you can shoot in any way, with all the optics, with any equipment you need... when anything goes, you end up being lost.
There are many shots in which the camera stays outside the rooms, so that the compositions have a frame within a frame. This stylistic choice is sometimes interpreted as a device to distance us from the characters and the action. Was that your intention?
What I wanted was for the camera to connote a presence, which we called "the angel". The camera is not completely transparent, as in classic cinema, where you see a movie as if what you were watching was actually happening. Not here; here you see what is happening through the gaze of "someone" who is not entirely human, nor entirely alien to humanity, and the fact that you are looking from the outside of rooms and entering later gives you a very subjective feeling, of someone who comes to take a peak, like a voyeur. Therefore, the idea of re-framing is completely central to the conception of the film’s style.
There are many shots of empty spaces, which is something that was already present in your previous films, but used in a way that is more common: in order to see the space before the characters arrive and holding the shot when the characters are gone. However, here it is also used in small, single scenes – why is that?
This is because of a thought that has always fascinated me: the idea that the spaces that we inhabit with our human presence continue to exist, and time continues to passthrough them, when they are completely empty of human presence. Time still exists there, in that empty space. That idea of the place where something has happened, where people have been and lived, but in where there is no one, there is something there that fascinates me, because in that place time continues to exist, and in that sense, there is still some sort of presence inside them.
The style and phrasing of the titles of each chapter refers to the language of the way the chapters are titled in Don Quixote. Was it a deliberate quote?
Yes, totally, the literary style is directly inspired by Don Quixote. Curiously enough, you are the first person to detected it, and when I was asked for translations for other countries, the translators made a cinematic translation of these chapter titles, but I told them that those didn’t work, they needed to go to the translation of Don Quixote in the corresponding language, in order to keep these quote.
And what was the purpose of quoting Don Quixotein the chaper titles?
In my opinion, there are two film families: classical cinema and modern cinema. And generally, people belong, or prefer, one or the other. But I like both of them: I like classic films very much, and I love modern cinema. And for me in this film it was very important to hybridize those two great styles. Dividing films into chapters is a very modern-cinema thing, so I have balanced this by taking the literary style for that capitulation not from modern literature, but from the biggest classic in Spanish literature: Don Quixote. This mixture of classic and modern is all throughout the film.
Can you give us some other examples?
It is in everything, really. In the casting, for example: Marisa Paredes and Joan Botell: an international, classical star... and a natural actor, which is something that is very present in modern cinema. The main example of this hybridization of modern and classic is an extremely classic script which is then broken, sliced, and shot with a very modern visual style, which is the sequence shot. Another example would be music: a very classical music placed in a very modern way, not in the moments when it would duplicate the dramatic intensity, but before or after.
Speaking of the dichotomy between classical and modern cinema: you say you like both, but if we had to place your work in one of the two, it would clearly be more on the side of modern cinema. Some people argue that it is no longer possible to make classic films in 2019, or at least that artistic relevance can no longer be achieved in this way. Do you agree?
I'm not sure. I am convinced, and this conviction is very important to me, that there is a lot more room for creativity (although it is more difficult) if one makes films using only tools that are technologically equivalent to the tools that Chaplin used. That's what interests me, trying to see if I can do with the same tools. Because that will be much more novel than a mere technological innovation, because in technology there is no true creativity. I believe that there is no special effect that could be superior to Chaplin, and something like Jurassic Park for me is nothing more than a computer-generated thing that isn’t especially interesting.
For me the challenge is this: “how do I do something new with those same tools?”. Which also applies to other arts in my opinion, like painting or literature or music. What surprises me is that the best symphony of recent years, by Gorecki, uses the same elements, the same ingredients... as Beethoven. Or a painter like Barceló, who uses the same materials that Velázquez had at his disposal. We could say that those works of art that just rely in technological innovation do not interest me in the least, nor do I find them worthwhile, and I also believe that they never endure the judgement of time.
You mentioned in an earlier interview that the plot of Petra has been changing very much during the re-writes of the script, that there were versions in which everyone committed suicide, versions in which Petra was the one who killed, etc... I wonder: how and why did you choose this version in the end? Did you think it was the most attractive one to the viewer, or the most interesting one to you, or the truest, in the sense that it revealed the truth of these characters and the subject...?
I think it’s necessary to understand that in any artistic creation one can only advance via trial and error, one attempt at a time. The artist advances in his creation like a blind person, like an explorer who ventures into the unknown without knowing the path. He has to take a path and then he undoes the path, he takes another one... that's the way artistic creation works. And the same thing happens in scriptwriting: we have written 20 versions of the script, and the first one looks nothing like the last one. Because you are always doing and undoing... and keeping what your intuition tells you that is right and true, but you do not have any certainty either. Just as you do several takes until you think you've found the good one, which you think is the sixth, but the editor makes you see that you’re wrong: the good one was the third. The artist doesn’t advance amongst certainties, but advances in darkness, trying to illuminate a truth but advancing like a blind man without a guide. And that’s the reason why we make so many mistakes, of course.
In your book you talk about the densityof the image as something very important to you. Are there any image(s) in Petrathat you think are especially dense, in the sense in which you use this word?
Yes, there are two shots that I think have a great density. The first one is when Marisa and Alex are in Madrid, when she comes to see him again. I think that scene has a great density both in what is said, and in the way that it’s said, and in the camera work. It’s a dialogue that is very much based on interpretation and that has a great economy, which is the basis of density. Additionally, in the middle of that dialogue there is a moment when the camera crosses the axis, right in front of Marisa’s eyeline, and she makes a very intuitive and natural gesture of looking down as if looking for a thought, but that serves as a technique for the camera not to distract her... I think that’s a moment of incredible density.
And then I find a lot of density in the shot when Barbara is in the field with her daughter and the camera is looking at them, goes away, goes to the mountain... pauses, returns and then the characters go back to the field. Density and poetry are often linked, and I think this is a very poetic moment. Perhaps other people may like other moments, but those are for me the two moments of greatest density.
You say in your book that "the thematic richness of a dramatic work is not achieved through the inclusion of many different themes but through the multiplicity of angles and points of view on only one" - what would be this one single theme in Petra? Because I think there could be several: artistic creation, identity, family and father-son relationships, the idea of Spain and its relationship with collective memory and class struggle...
I am very reluctant to enter into interpretations of my films, I find it a very delicate matter. I believe that the spectator is sovereign, and all the interpretations of all the spectators seem equally valid to me. Every spectator establishes a dialogue with the work, and whether he likes it or doesn’t like it, and for whatever reason, his interpretation belongs to him and is valid. I also have an interpretation of the film (which has also changed during the process), but the problem is that I find it illicit for me to say it, because it seems to me that interpretation should be a forbidden territory for the director. Because I firmly believe that my interpretation is not more valid than yours or that of any other spectator, but because I am the author, people are going to give my interpretation much more importance, and I think that’s false and wrong. Therefore, I avoid talking about it.
In the book you define yourself, for lack of a better term, as a "celluloidist". Could you summarize the reason for your absolute commitment to celluloid?
Because celluloid is denser than digital. Just as I think stone is denser than plastic, and therefore if I wanted to make an architectural work or a sculpture, I would resort to a denser material like that one. Well, the same happens with cinema. Digital is cold to me, it seems very easy to manipulate but I'm not interested in that manipulation. And celluloid limits my possibilities in a way that seems good and fertile to me. It's very simple for me: I make films on celluloid and I do not even enter the field of discussion about it with anyone who tries to convince me otherwise.
To wrap up, in the book you write that "an innovative work of art is an invitation to change the world". Could you expand on this idea?
I believe that the main function of art is to illuminate the truth, and to generate symbolic capital, insofar as everything symbolic is what grounds you to an identity. For me this is in the central function, but there are other derivatives: sometimes art may have an ethical element, a political element... And in that sense, the innovator does it because he wants to improve his technique and his art, but if there is an opportunity to improve in this area, in art, then this means that there may also be the opportunity to improve in other areas. And it is in that sense that it is an invitation, as if the artist was saying, "since I have done something new, since I have discovered something new was possible... I encourage you to also advance in that path in whatever area you work on, and try to find a path that is novel, and perhaps better."