From Cinema Scope #52 (Fall 2012)
With Summer of Goliath (2010), Mexican-Canadian filmmaker Nicolás Pereda finally began to attract well-deserved attention for his unique mode of hybridic fiction/documentary, an increasingly intricate formal gamesmanship that has been primarily based upon his collaborations with actors Gabino Rodríguez and Teresa Sánchez, playing son and mother. From Pereda’s first film, Where Are Their Stories? (2007) through Juntos (2009) and Perpetuum Mobile (2009), Rodríguez and Sánchez are placed in an ever-shifting configuration of relationships to each other, the other people in the film, and their social context, the accruing layers of each previous incarnation informing the next. Both actors reappear in Pereda’s newest film, Greatest Hits, which introduces a new layer of artifice cum reality by having the protagonist, Emilio, played by two different actors in sequence: Pereda has each play similar scenes with the other actors, allowing the differences between his two leads to shape the progression of the plot.
Toronto-based filmmaker Kazik Radwanski and his producing partner Dan Montgomery—founders of the production company MDFF, whose short films were previously spotlighted on Cinema Scope Online (cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/the-reckless-moment-5-mdff-shorts-at-the-royal/)—have now made their feature debut with Tower, which focuses on Derek (Derek Bogart), a withdrawn, 34-year-old Toronto man who lives in his parents’ basement, works part-time at his uncle’s construction company, and casually aspires to be a graphic animator. Following Derek as he drifts through clubs in half-hearted pursuit of a relationship, through uncomfortable social situations, and a titanic conflict with neighbourhood raccoons, Tower is an intense yet oddly laid-back portrait of a resolute outsider trying to find his place in the world, even as he attempts to avoid it.
Though their films are markedly distinct aesthetically, both Pereda and Radwanski share a pronounced interest in the representation of characters, whether it be through Pereda’s metafictional games or Radwanski’s microscopic, assertively context-free observations of people in crisis. Pereda had just finished shooting his first Toronto-set feature, with the help of MDFF, when this conversation took place, shortly before both Greatest Hits and Tower received their world premieres in Locarno.
Kazik Radwanski: We were eager to shoot Tower in the same way we shot our shorts, even though shooting over a long period of time makes more sense for a short. But we didn’t want to bring someone outside our peer group in. I didn’t want to change the way I write a script or start presenting the films in a different way. When I’m writing, I’m always thinking of how I will shoot it. When I was younger I always liked two-member bands: I always related to giving yourself rules and stripping everything down. A real turning point for me, when I first started shooting this way, was realizing it was important for me to always have the camera on people’s faces. I knew I didn’t want to cut to a wide shot; it’s a rule that the camera always has to be focused on character’s faces. I felt it would inform better performances.
Nicolás Pereda: I started very similarly, but in the opposite vein. Maybe you watched the Dardenne brothers and I watched Tsai Ming-liang or something like that…I also had a rigorous style of shooting, which was a fixed camera, one scene in one take. I feel that what’s happened with my films was that it was good to impose myself rules, and over the films I realized that there were some benefits to that. When I broke those rules, it was also a formal statement. When you make a film that’s very formally rigorous, at least that will work, but otherwise it becomes a bit risky. Like when you make formally strange films that are not so rigorous, which I think is what I’ve been doing with the last few films. In Greatest Hits, the first 40 minutes follow a very concrete aesthetic and then suddenly something totally new happens that changes the whole idea of what the film is about. We’re shooting with a different camera, but the acting style also changes radically. Those are formal games that now I’m more interested in—not setting up concrete rules, but making radical games that are obvious to the viewer.
Radwanski: I remember you telling me that you write screenplays for yourself, but other people don’t understand them?
Pereda: It’s very project-specific. Sometimes the acting is very much acting: professional actors working, and I let them improvise a lot. In Juntos there were seven pages of script, but the film had a lot of dialogue, so it was mostly improvised. With Perpetuum Mobile everything is scripted. I see it as a guide. When you shoot the film, maybe it will follow those ideas. But I’m open to anything happening. There’s no specific spaces or people in the script, because I almost always know where we’re going to shoot it and with whom, so I don’t need to describe the places or people. How much does the dialogue change when you’re shooting? Do the actors memorize the script?
Radwanski: I never give them a script. I tried and it always fails terribly. When I was writing certain scenes I started getting in the habit of eavesdropping on conversations. I was at times literally transcribing the conversation I wanted and giving it to actors. And it was hopeless.
Pereda: The adults in your films see themselves as actors? You’re not working with non-professional actors, they’re just actors who don’t get many jobs?
Radwanski: They’re non-union. It’s important that they’re interested in acting because I rely on that rigour of being able to do a scene again and again. That’s a huge difference between you and I, that I do a lot of takes. I’ll do 15-20 takes regularly.
Pereda: I don’t think there are very many people like you, making films like that. I think most work with either total non-professionals or they work with people who are constantly in films. Because you work this in-between—these people who want to be actors but don’t get that much work—you give them an opportunity.
Radwanski: What I look for is to be as honest with them as possible. They can see the films and find out what role they played. With this film in particular, the protagonist was someone who lives at home and aspires to be a graphic animator, which may play off Derek living at home and aspiring to be an actor. When I wrote the film, I was living at home and aspiring to be a director. It’s something that comes up when talking to different producers—is it a documentary? Is it fiction?
Pereda: It is.
Radwanski: I know, but still you get the sense that with how the protagonist looks, there are rules for it to be a fiction film that it’s not following. Does he not know how to perform, or is he playing someone who does not know how to behave in a specific situation? So much of the character is feeling social pressure and not knowing how to define himself to other people. At times it felt like it’s okay if it is seen as bad acting, because the character is trying to project a performance.
Pereda: I think it has very little to do with content and more to do with the fact that you do 15 takes. That defines it a lot more as being fiction than documentary and the style of shooting with a camera that’s so close in such intimate situations; maybe if that situation existed in the real world and you were shooting it, the camera would be more distant.
Radwanski: Multiple takes is something that’s so crucial to me. To be able to do the same moment 15 times and then pick my favourite moment from there is, artistically, a greater truth. It ties into improvisation: having chaos so many times to get something precise.
Pereda: I’m interested in that as well, but also to talk about this process. Greatest Hits is a film where the same scene happens more than once in the film, and some of the scenes that repeat themselves were separate takes. I enjoy the repetition, but when I see that a take is a bit different than the first one, only I can enjoy this difference. In this film I tried to give the audience the pleasure I would get from noticing the differences from one take to another.
Radwanski: The idea of wanting to change the aesthetic in each film was always articulated more with my choice of protagonist or actor. It became a question of what is a crisis, what makes them worthy of being a protagonist, worth exploring. When I’m trying to picture a film, I’m normally thinking of a character. That defines a lot of what I’m ultimately exploring: the many ways to view a person. I think different attributes of the character get redefined when I meet the actor. With Tower, we had one of our longer casting sessions before we found Derek. Everything about him, including his physical features, was not what I initially had in mind. I think it’s a very masculine character, centred on ideas of masculinity and how men perceive themselves, so I initially thought of a bigger person, a guy who has always worked on a construction site. Derek’s not what I pictured in my head, but talking to him I started to understand there was something fascinating there. Clearly Derek’s an anti-hero, and the question becomes, can you make a feature film about this character? And that becomes the tension.
Pereda: Tower is such a crazy film because I think Derek is the most unlikely character for a film. There are always anti-heroes, but he’s not quite that. He doesn’t fit many or any of the parameters of characters that I can think of. You feel that 20 minutes before the end he’s going to kill somebody or some crazy thing will happen, something really radical, because he cannot cope with the world any longer and explodes. But it feels more like he’s going to keep trying. It’s such a specific story.
Radwanski: It’s in Tower in many moments: very ordinary moments that can happen to anyone, but will define people’s lives or be a great tragedy for them. Tower touches upon similar themes as my shorts: the nature of conflict in a specific scenario. Derek’s living at home with his parents and there was a safety net, there was no danger of poverty. But then that context became the tragedy, that there was no consequence. He was in this limbo. Exploring that type of protagonist and his desire to create a drama of his own.
Pereda: What’s nice about the film, there are so many moments that are uncomfortable to watch, but at the same time they are incredibly banal. And it’s not comical, like in Hollywood where people are awkward and you’re supposed to laugh at this. It’s the opposite sensation.
Radwanski: The aesthetic also makes it uncomfortable, being close-up and disorienting. That is what I’m hoping for—that headspace. I don’t want the audience to laugh at this character, but to know who he is.
Pereda: At the same time I was thinking that all of your protagonists I’ve seen are very lonely or deal with their issues alone. No matter the people Derek meets, they don’t seem to have an impact on his life emotionally. He’s still alone. How important is the emotional life of the characters or their practical life, that he works construction and lives in a basement?
Radwanski: Probably the emotional aspect is more important. I was more afraid that there would be things in the context that would define the character, and I wanted to neutralize that so it could be more of an emotional or thematic exploration. You get the idea that he’s lonely or can’t express himself. You can tell people are trying to understand him, but in a sense they’re almost villains.
Pereda: If you shoot over a long period, would you shoot two weeks and then reflect over the material and then change directions?
Radwanski: Initially that’s because we had a small budget and people had jobs, but now I rely on it. It’s like doing so many takes and then choosing the takes. It’s a notion of the character and a slow process of trying to represent it. That’s what I like, pinning it to the world and then forming it around with what’s available. Often it’s something very personal to me—the family business, the neighbourhood I grew up in—they’re tools. I wish I could just choose the ideal context for the story, but I have to think of myself as the director and what’s going to lead to interesting territory that I’ll be able to pursue in the right way. Why would Toronto be interesting to someone else?
Pereda: Yeah, that’s a hard question.
Radwanski: That is a hard question. What does Toronto represent to me? It’s one of the largest cities in North America, but out of those it’s one of the safest. That’s what I’m thinking about with Derek’s situation, having parents to live off of and having a constant safety net, but still living in a city feeling some type of alienation. We saw Derek and thought it would be interesting to have him on the construction site. There are guys like that on the site, purely due to nepotism. And this affects his ego. How did you settle on the movers for Perpetuum Mobile?
Pereda: That was because I was moving a lot myself, we just continue moving. It seems like in Mexico there are more possibilities of how a moving could go because there is so much informal work. You cannot expect certain kinds of movers; it’s all up in the air. I felt that every time I was moving there was something happening in my life that was important or problematic or tragic or great. It was dramatic no matter what. Because I came from making two other films that had so little plot, so little drama, it was a good place to start. I knew it was not going to be a film that was very plot-heavy, but if I included these movers having to be in the situation of moving other people, there would be a conflict there no matter what.
Radwanski: When I work with actors, I think of most interactions that way. I work with them separately and never talk about the dynamic as a whole. Do you talk to your actors as a group? Because I know you work with some actors that come from more of a theatre background.
Pereda: It depends on what I’m doing. Because Greatest Hits is the last film I think I will make with all of them together and those characters, I hardly say anything. I just let them go. They know me, the situation and each other too well. So there’s hardly any directing of actors. Maybe there was a little bit more with my earlier films, but it was more simple. It was all about tone and movement, never talking about context or past or future.
Radwanski: Roughly how I cast people is for the actor, and if something happens I want it to come from them. I view it as the actors playing themselves, but in an extreme situation, or a specific situation.
Pereda: Greatest Hits is a film about this representation. What does it mean to represent a character or to portray yourself or to be portrayed by somebody else? The position of the camera in relation to the people? Who are these people that we’re looking at on screen? Are they real people or are they constructed by the director? Or are they constructed by the actors? It’s always shifting between the actor as a professional actor portraying a character, to the actor being the actor being filmed. So at times I sort of interview them, Gabino and his real father, and I ask them real things about their real lives. When the film starts over, in the second half, that’s when it becomes a lot more obvious, because there’s one new actor who’s playing a character that we saw before, but the new actor—my uncle actually—is more of a documentary subject. He doesn’t know when we’re filming him, so he’s just talking away. I told him what the movie was about, but I didn’t tell him at that point that he had to act, I just said we’re making a movie and this is your character. Before we said, “Action,” he was already in character, but he constructed his own character and it’s very close to his actual life, with a few minor changes to fit the storyline. Towards the end, I make him act and tell a story that’s a complete lie for his own world. It was so absurd, but he says it in the same way he’s saying everything else that’s so banal. I like that there’s an important shift in acting, but you don’t notice it. It’s something you would always try to avoid, and I tried to avoid it in my earlier films. You can’t say there’s a right kind of acting or a wrong kind of acting, but within one film you should have a consistent type of acting for all the characters throughout the film.
Radwanski: There’s a similar moment in Tower, where Derek’s in the car with an Irish worker. That guy works on a construction site, he’s clearly from Ireland, and he tells basically his life story. I was fascinated with Derek, who’s an actor playing a role, lying to Danny about what’s happening in the movie to make it comparable to Danny’s actual problem.
Pereda: The great thing about that scene is that because the type of acting you’re using in the film is close to that…why people talk about your films in relation to documentary. When you’re having a guy basically tell his life story, he’s a documentary subject, and then you put the reverse shot of a guy lying about everything.
Radwanski: That’s a funny thing about the character of Derek and his essence: it’s a social situation where someone’s shared a personal story and he feels the pressure to reciprocate…by awkwardly lying. It was an epiphany I had close to shooting, because we had just shot the scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend. Part of it is this feeling of being left behind—his brother had a baby and he’s getting older—and he wants to have a relationship. He likes the idea of a relationship, but just not her. It represents his place in society, to have a spouse and fit in. As you say, being alone is so much a part of my films and is the core crisis of a character like Derek. The title Tower is something that is lonely, but powerful. He’s pushing people away; it’s a sad victory.
Pereda: What you do that is very interesting, in terms of representation, is your films are raw to a degree that people would call aesthetically unpleasing. But you’re still willing to go to that type of representation because it feels analogous to reality. You know when you go into the basement in Tower and it’s this basement that exists in millions of houses, but no one would be willing to photograph the way you do because it’s not pleasing. You’re willing to represent that: average ugliness.
Radwanski: I always liked Powers of Ten (1977), that Eames film set in Michigan that starts above Detroit and zooms down all the way. It became infinitely smaller. I’ve always felt that way, in people’s faces, that you can be going smaller infinitely. The camera can capture something there that I can’t articulate. On a bigger scale it’s the idea of happening upon real people and learning about them. It sounds basic, but it’s more the richness of textures that are unexpected.
Pereda: With All Things Were Now Overtaken by Silence (2010), I started thinking more about representation as a possible theme for games. There was something that felt nice about doing these games where you never know whether it’s a character, or the actor playing himself, or something in between. In my previous films it was more organic: you don’t need to know what percentage of the character is the actual person or the character they’re given. In Summer of Goliath I did a lot of that as well. There’s a scene where the main character is in the military outfit and gets into a truck. It’s just one take and at the beginning of the take he talks about himself as an actor, “I came to make a movie in this town,” and then later he talks about how he’s in the military. In the same take he’s going from actor to character and with a different person, so you don’t know where they stand because it’s the first time you see them. A lot of it has to do with cinema because it’s so real, it’s the closest art form to our reality while at the same time being one of the most abstract ones. Because we think it’s so real, it’s incredibly deceiving, and I think these games with representation talk about the deceit in the nature of cinema.
Moderated by Christopher Heron.