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Killing Strangers

By Adam Cook

Now in its fourth year, DOX:LAB is an initiative of Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX documentary film festival that pairs a European and non-European filmmaker together to collaborate on a film via a CPH:DOX development grant. The 2012 program brought together Mexican-Canadian filmmaker Nicolás Pereda with Denmark’s Jacob Secher Schulsinger, who has worked as an editor on Ruben Ostlund’s Play (2011), Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Volcano (2011), and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming Nymphomaniac, and released his first short film Fini in 2010. The result, Killing Strangers (Matar extraños), is an hour-long exercise in formal gamesmanship that alternates between a narrative set in the Mexican desert in 1910— following three young men who have wandered off course while seeking to join the revolution—and candid “casting couch”-style auditions, where prospective actors recite dialogue from the desert narrative and are fed other lines (including, um, Beatles lyrics) through an earpiece by Pereda’s perennial star Gabino Rodríguez.

This interview with the filmmakers took place at the Berlinale, where Killing Strangers had its world premiere in the Forum section.

Jacob Secher Schulsinger and Nicolás Pereda

Jacob Secher Schulsinger and Nicolás Pereda

CINEMA SCOPE: Killing Strangers is a project produced by DOX:LAB. Can you tell me about that and explain what it’s like working with the program?

JACOB SECHER SCHULSINGER: Well, the DOX:LAB is initiated by the CPH:DOX festival, and as far as I know the idea was to bring ten directors from Europe, and ten directors from Latin America, Asia and Africa…So Nico and I were paired together and didn’t know each other in advance.

SCOPE: Do they hand-pick you?

SCHULSINGER: They did. I was asked if I wanted to be in the program and I said yes, and was eventually told I’d be working with Nico. Though at first they asked me where I’d want to work and I said Japan—but somehow I ended up in Mexico. (Laughs.)

NICOLÁS PEREDA: I think it’s pretty random. I don’t know what decisions go on behind doors. Maybe there’s a master plan.

SCHULSINGER: I think they have reasons. You meet in Copenhagen, and have five days. They make a schedule of lectures, and then you meet and get five days to prepare a pitch about the film you want to do. You get a budget of about 13,000 Euros and you have to shoot it outside of Europe. Aside from that, you have complete freedom.

PEREDA: And I think it’s like anything: at the end of the day, even if they have an aesthetic vision of what to expect from the filmmakers, they still can’t predict how personalities operate in a co-directing relationship.

SCOPE: That’s quite the risk.

SCHULSINGER: Definitely.

PEREDA: Kind of. It’s a calculable risk. Not each of the ten films produced each year have to be successful. It’s the people involved who take a risk by joining up with the project. You don’t know what to expect and you have to spend quite a bit of time, and you’re not going to make money—you’re going to spend it all on the film, because it’s such a small budget and you’re working in two different countries, so there’s a lot of travelling. You have to make a film on a small budget really fast with someone you’ve never met. You put yourself in a really strange situation.

SCHULSINGER: We both agreed when we met that it was a pretty dumb idea. (Laughs.) If you want to make a good film, this is a really roundabout way to do it, with someone you’ve never met…

SCOPE: Gimmicky, almost, but I assume it proved to be more?

PEREDA: It’s such a far-out idea, but the good thing about that is it made us feel really relaxed.

SCHULSINGER: For me, I haven’t talked to the people at DOX:LAB about their idea of it, but it’s my perception that this is maybe not the best way to make a good film. But I don’t know if the program is simply about making good films. I also think they do it to have directors meet each other.

SCOPE: To foster something beyond the film.

SCHULSINGER: To exchange perspectives.

PEREDA: There is, whether you like to accept it or not, such a thing as “regional cinemas.” Certain regions make certain kinds of films, more or less. So a big idea is to see what would happen when Asians or Latin Americans, etc., make a film with Europeans. The influence of Europe on the rest of world cinema is obvious—most influence comes from the US and Europe, but once the influence of Europe spread, in the last 60 years it hasn’t really returned and influenced Europe in return. So the project is like forced exchange.

SCHULSINGER: Of course there is a hope that maybe some collaborations could end up with films that would never have been made in either individual country.

SCOPE: How did your collaboration work? Who brought what to the film?

SCHULSINGER: We never really talked about how to divide it. I think some of the other partnerships have trouble because there are two directors who would rather make their own film. I normally work as an editor, so I’m used to not being in complete directorial control, and Nico is so relaxed. CPH:DOX is a documentary film festival, of course, but we very quickly realized it would be difficult to come up with an observational doc idea in Copenhagen in five days that would have to be shot in Mexico.

PEREDA: At first we more interested in doing a documentary, but the weird part is Jacob has never been to Mexico, so he can’t really bring up a subject for the film.

SCHULSINGER: I would just have to go along with it in that case.

PEREDA: Actually, it would have been good if I told you to come up with the concept based on what you imagine Mexico to be without doing any research (laughs) and we go and just shoot whatever you think it would be. But we didn’t do that. We just sort of came up with the casting idea.

SCOPE: The film is divided between a narrative in the desert—which features [Nicolás’] regular leading man, Gabino Rodríguez—and “documentary” footage of casting auditions, as well as some parts that exist in between these two. Are the rest of the actors non-professionals?

PEREDA: The three actors in the desert narrative are professionals. They’re popular actors in Mexico. But those in the casting process are non-professional.

SCOPE: And you knew from the very beginning that the casting process would be built into the film?

SCHULSINGER: The first thing we talked about in Denmark was the idea of mixing fiction and documentary, and it’s a talk that’s gone on for a long time. We just talked about using casting tape as an idea to do something where the casting is in a way documentary material, because it’s not really somebody performing yet.

SCOPE: It’s a fine line.

SCHULSINGER: Yes, it’s somebody being themselves trying to act as someone else in front of a camera, in a way more doc than fiction.

SCOPE: Interestingly though, the actors are more emotive in the audition footage than the three professional actors are. But of course they’re trying to prove themselves on the spot, it’s because of context. They’re responding in the moment to an earpiece through which you’re feeding them direction.

PEREDA: It has an element of reality TV. This is kind of a setup. It would be a successful TV show—it could be called So You Think You Can Cast. (Laughs.) So yeah, we were very aware of the danger of making fools of the people we filmed. It’s a super-vulnerable, horrible situation. The earpiece allowed us to take the experimentation beyond just the person we’re watching, kind of a puppeteering thing. Some of them do have more talent than others, clearly, but a lot of the people that end up in a film aren’t necessarily better actors, it has a lot to do with the instructions that are given. It was more in our end, the difficulty of how to deal with what to tell them.

SCOPE: Who was actually the one feeding the lines?

PEREDA: Neither of us were.

SCHULSINGER: We put Gabino Rodríguez in a room and prepared stuff we wanted him to tell them. He was in one room, we were in the room with the actor, and we just watched what happened.

SCOPE: So another layer of the experiment exists outside of the film.

PEREDA: Right. We gave him a ton of responsibility, but we give him all the material. Gabino got bored after two or three auditions, so eventually he would add things and mixed our ideas around. And Jacob would come in and tell him things I wasn’t aware of. It was strange because Jacob can’t speak Spanish.

SCHULSINGER: At first I didn’t understand the language, but pretty quickly through the repetitive casting you get an idea of what text they’re working with. But suddenly when Gabino started changing things…

PEREDA: It was like watching a private play over and over again but with variations. The experience was super-intense.

SCOPE: The experiment isn’t limited to performance though, it’s also in the form, in how you’re presenting the casting versus the desert narrative in terms of shot choices and framing. In a way, it’s a comparison of wide shots and medium shots and their impact.

PEREDA: That level of experimentation with formal strategies is part of us, it’s in my films and in films Jacob has worked on. The performance stuff was what was really new for us.

SCOPE: The opening is really conceptual: you have a warning of how the film was made, a lengthy Stanislavski quote, and an overlapping dual-narration before the title card appears and the film really begins. It’s like you’re setting up the rules of the game before it starts. You bring up ideas of performance and of revolution, or rather of how society remembers or represents revolution…What do you think these two things have to do with one another?

SCHULSINGER: When we came up with the film, Nico spoke about the Mexican revolution and how history is written similar to how fiction is written. For me, where these ideas connect is in how Mexico tells this story, and every country does this, and it’s part of your identity as a Mexican, a shared story that is told to represent yourself, like part of a performance, a way of telling a story.

SCOPE: They both have a dubious relationship with reality, ultimately.

SCHULSINGER: Yeah, and it’s never a fixed thing.

PEREDA: I don’t think the idea of character construction and constructing history and cinema are that separate. There are similarities in ideas of Stanislavski in how an actor creates himself with how history is constructed. If you changed some words in Stanislavski it could be about creating a country’s identity. They’re still different topics. What I think is nice about the film is that it isn’t like an academic paper explaining things; it’s more about connecting feelings to ideas.

SCOPE: Experiencing ideas.

PEREDA: Yes, that’s what we’re trying to do, so you can generate a discourse for yourself.

SCOPE: What do you think you both gained or learned from this project, the experiment? Did you emerge with a different perspective on filmmaking?

SCHULSINGER: Totally. I’ve never done something like this and I don’t know if I will do something too similar again, but there are so many things in it I like outside of what I was used to… I like making a film that is not predictable, where you don’t know what could happen as you’re making it. What I learned in the film will carry on to what I do in the future. I think you can do a film with more of a plot than this but utilize some of its ideas, to be playful and shifting.

PEREDA: I didn’t see our footage until Jacob had edited a rough cut and sent it to me, and I was shocked at how entertaining he had made it. We didn’t talk about a structure because we didn’t know how the ideas would collide. I watched it with my wife at home and she was like “this is your best film!” (Laughs.) I’ve always edited my films, [so] this was strange. Getting to close my eyes after shooting, and open them after ten days and there’s a film ready, is amazing. I realized a lot about my own limitations, because there are things I couldn’t have come up with on my own.

SCOPE: So you’d like to collaborate more in the future?

PEREDA: Or just hire an editor. (Laughs.)

SCHULSINGER: What I like about this process is the idea of editing being a new step in the filmmaking rather than simply putting together the footage according to a pre-existing plan.

PEREDA: This casting scenario we created was like a lab: “Is everybody ready? Send the next guy in.” (Laughs.) This idea of setting up a world and seeing how it operates and how you can manipulate it. I want to take this idea again, but in different directions: setting up fictional space where the people inside are documentary subjects. There’s something to that world of reality TV, the setup.

SCOPE: You set the parameters and select the pieces and leave the rest up to variables… How did you settle on the title Killing Strangers? Is that what you think revolution is?

SCHULSINGER: Well, we had a brainstorm of bad titles, which was more fun than finding good ones. (Laughs.) I think the title can be interpreted however you like, but for me there was something to this fact that when you talk about famous characters in history—and history is a sort of fiction—it’s not the exact truth[:] when you create a new historical character, you kind of kill the old one and make a new one. And the old one will remain a stranger to you, so this whole process of making historical characters is sort of like killing strangers.

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