SundownHuman is only human when vulnerable: An Interview With Michel Franco Savina Petkova May 2022 Interviews Issue 101 In less than 20 years, writer-director Michel Franco has carved a niche for himself in the more austere parts of world cinema. The Mexican filmmaker has never shied away from representing thorny issues on screen, beginning with his feature debut, Daniel & Ana (2009). Premiered in Cannes’ Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, the film offers an arresting look at a family disintegrating, and traumatically so. Retrospectively, this first project has been evaluated as seminal for Franco’s further directorial endeavours – all uncompromising, sober, and often painfully raw stories. There are films in which the familial trauma once again takes centre stage, such as April’s Daughter (2017) and partly Through the Eyes (2013), but for the most part, his filmography explores the power dynamics transposed over socio-political structures with family issues as a peripheral structure. Franco has made two films in the English language, both of them starring Tim Roth as an undecipherable lead, but while Chronic (2015) has him as a troubled palliative carer, in Sundown (2021) he plays a nihilistically quiet business heir who, following the death of his mother, decides to extend his holiday in Acapulco indefinitely. Also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sundown revisits themes of lurking violence and the unknowable human nature but also offers the possibility of some retribution – a gesture openly refused by the harsh dystopia of New Order (2020). Now, with his sixth feature released in US cinemas, Michel Franco admits he still doesn’t like to address his body of work as a whole. Consistency, for him, is a natural consequence of being honest in his writing, rather than a purely aesthetic choice, which drew me towards questions of ethics, boundaries, and treating the characters as no less human than us, nonfictional folk. Together, we traverse his filmography, touching upon various narrative threads, as well as questioning characters’ decisions; we speak about visual style and political stakes, the push and pull between filmmaker and audience, death and the dark corners of the human psyche. Oh, and about not ending up a musician instead. Maybe you can start by telling me about when you first thought of yourself as a filmmaker, if it was a singular moment? Maybe when I was 14 or 15, when I started to get passionate about certain movies like A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950). At that time, I wasn’t used to watching films for a second or third time. I would watch a film only once and I started to get hooked… to see them time and again and to analyse them. It was around the time that Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) came out. I saw it a few times in the cinema, and then I got the VHS and I would watch it many times. And home recordings, of course. And when you add his movies and Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders – that left a big impression on me – I guess that’s when it started to grow in me. But how did you get to these films? Were they just in your VHS collection? No, no. Well, Pulp Fiction, I guess, led me to A Clockwork Orange and then a teacher at school recommended Wings of Desire and Bunuel’s film, to which I think nobody else in the class paid much attention to, myself included. I was at the age when people start asking you about what you want to study, and by that time I was into music. I thought I wanted to be a musician but realised I wouldn’t be good at it. Why is that? Because I’m not good at it. I can do it, but I’m not talented. Talented, like how? Well, you know it: when you’re talented, you’re good. You just know – when you see people’s reaction, you either feel comfortable or you don’t. And I wasn’t. I only started shooting when I was 19, when I was a year into Communication Studies. I didn’t dare study film and my father wouldn’t have been very supportive. It didn’t sound realistic but I was always very attracted to the prospect, so I found my way to a filmmaking workshop in New York and that did it for me. I wanted to think of myself as a filmmaker, I wanted to believe that I could do it. I remember most of the students were having a good time, you know?, – enjoying summertime in New York, and it wasn’t like that at all. I was working as hard as I could, because it was a very limited opportunity, so I couldn’t waste the six weeks I got. What I learned there and what I shot made sense, and I felt very comfortable. Then I knew I could do it. And I haven’t changed that much, not since I started making feature films, I think I’m pretty much the same, for good or bad. Has your writing process changed over the years in any way? Well, it’s a bit easier now because I’ve done it many times. It doesn’t mean that it’s better – that the result is better, but I have more confidence as a writer. In a way, I sometimes feel like my films are connected, but only if I’m honest. In that case, if they all come from the same source, they’re going to be similar. But what about the formal aspect of the films? They tend to have a more uniform aesthetic. I don’t think too much about that. I don’t try to impose aesthetics on a movie. I used to have more rules at the beginning and now I’m way more relaxed. Like, I wouldn’t move the camera. I had more film references, and now I have none. I’m borrowing more from books than from films. In a way, the films’ aesthetics feel close to the way I am, to my personality and I don’t hide it. Maybe that’s a horrible thing to say because it’s a body of work that’s not, you know, the brightest or the most luminous, but that’s who I am. I’m never trying to make something interesting, either. It’s interesting by itself or it’s not, but I’m not chasing interesting ideas. At the same time, I do try to shoot in a way that might surprise the audience a little bit, hopefully. I feel like you have a way of training and conditioning your audience to expect the unexpected and to be surprised at the same time, by ending a protracted take in an unexpected way. Do you feel like you have this power in the editing, at least, over audience expectations? Well, it should be effortless and natural. And it should make sense. First, you write a movie, then you shoot it. Then you edit it. So you reinvent the movie three times. And it changes a lot at each of those three steps. You first have to earn it, as a director, from the audience, and it’s got to unfold in the right manner. So I guess it’s a bit like music editing, like a symphony. It’s about rhythm and pace: so sometimes you need a higher note, and maybe that’s what you call a surprise, or, you know, sometimes it’s a violent thing. How important is the role of ethics for you? As in, how interpersonal relationships unfold, how they are portrayed, and when to confront the viewer with this or that, how much the viewer can take in? Mostly it’s common sense and one shouldn’t overdo it as a director. It’s a matter of respect and common sense. But perhaps it means different things to different filmmakers? Yeah, and every filmmaker has the audience they deserve. New Order In terms of an authorial signature, what about the car sequences that feature in all of your films? I don’t particularly like them. Sometimes I try to avoid them, but they end up there. The car is a very private space: you’re in the exteriors and interiors at the same time, you get to shoot around interesting places, but, at the same time, you are in a very nice intimate space with a character. That’s interesting. And then, you know, it’s reality. At least in Mexico, we end up spending long hours in our cars. The backseat perspective there is from the most natural place to put the camera without making a show about it. And I always have the characters driving for real, trying to keep it as natural as I can. It’s a very particular space. The car itself is like a meeting point between intimacy and publicness, especially since most of your films take place in interiors. So how do you portray this kind of intimacy and also expose it? It exposes the inner world. The more the camera can look inside a character, so to speak, the better the film might be. But you can spend a lot of time and not penetrate into the character or the oval, you’re going the other way around. So, you have a good actor, the camera is in the right place, and the writing is good. You – hopefully – you are looking inside the character. Like Tim Roth’s characters in Chronic and Sundown, to name two examples, seem very much impenetrable but then the camera is there with them, 90% of the time? Well, you will need to take your time. Every film should be a character study, which should take the full length of the movie to try to provide some answers or some hints at what we’re seeing. And then the audience has to participate actively. I like that it takes time to slowly get into the character’s mind and the conflicts that arise. If there’s no mystery, there’s no reason to stay with them. Do you see your characters as vulnerable? Yeah, of course, they are very vulnerable. But I think in any good book, or movie, the characters should be vulnerable. Why? Because it’s the only way to learn about them. So, in service of empathy? No, no. It’s because we are all vulnerable. I mean, who’s not vulnerable? It’s just the way things are. I think, to the extent that one is vulnerable, they’re human. If you’re not vulnerable, and you’re solid and impenetrable, then you’re not human. This is something your films conceal more than show. Also, we often have some peripheral characters revealing crucial information about the main character. And, in a similar vein, we often have important things happening off screen. I like that a lot, when key elements are left off screen. It triggers our imagination as viewers. I think it’s more interesting than the concrete things that you can show. So, if I can tell something through sound instead of images, for example, I’d always jump on that opportunity. I think it’s much more cinematic. Many films make the mistake of using every resource to say the same thing, through sound and the image – and dialogue, and music and camera movements – so I really try to do the opposite. But, at the same time, you are asking the audience to do some extra work, right? And that should be earned, and it should come at a particular point in the narrative, because the audience may not respond if it’s straight away. You know, I don’t patronise the audience. I never think of myself as someone that’s from above telling a story and telling you what to feel and what to think. I think it’s a dialogue, and it should be one, so I’ve never given answers. I’ve never said, “These things can mean only this,” and “You should think in such a way.” I hate that. Do you feel like the domestic audience is tougher to please than the international? Well, yeah. I mean, in terms of our [of Mexicans’] expectations and things like that. They know – they think – and sometimes they do know better, like knowing what the characters or the places mean in a particular context. So, sometimes they are entitled to demand more. But it can also be the other way around: some things are too close to them and they can’t be truthfully objective. Does that put you off in any way? No, nothing puts me off. Strong reactions encourage me, even if they’re negative. I don’t mind. I prefer positive ones, of course, but I don’t mind if someone reacts against the movie, and especially if they’re very enthusiastically against it; it flatters me. Chronic It seems like most of the protagonists move from a sheltered environment to one that tests them. Sometimes it’s metaphorical, sometimes it’s material, because they literally move from one city to another (After Lucia, Chronic, April’s Daughter), or they are on vacation (Sundown). What are they moving to? Well, in Chronic, David [Tim Roth] doesn’t succeed. Even though he succeeds in getting closer to the daughter, that’s not enough, somehow. In After Lucia, they definitely fail. In April’s Daughter, I guess the young mother does succeed somehow, at the end, getting back the baby and overcoming her mother’s reign. And maybe Sundown is the exception in terms of what you’re saying: the character is not moving, he’s actually staying. But it’s true what you said about testing the characters, and they fail on most occasions. I wouldn’t say that’s my view of life. I’m not that pessimistic. I just find it more interesting. I understand the idea of commercial filmmaking: that has to do with pleasing the audience, through a narrative where the character is learning something or overcoming something. But, for me, it’s the opposite. It’s more interesting to learn from the failures of a character. Often, they transform for the worst. In Daniel & Ana for example, it’s not only a test, it’s a sacrifice. That sacrifice produces some sort of meaning for these characters, or, it destroys all the meaning they had before. I was curious if you ever thought about it in terms of sacrifice? No, no. I never sit and reflect on my movies as a body of work. I mean, I’m glad to talk with you about it, but it’s not something I find interesting to do on my own. It seems so consistent, though: all of your films present a situation where you have a failure and a price to pay. I like certain subject matters, like trouble communicating with people you love, with people close to you. So, the toll that that brings keeps creeping up movie after movie, I guess. Especially when you have upper class families disintegrating, there’s always a domino effect. No one is spared. Do you think the values that the characters represent are fragile to begin with? Well, I guess it’s not about values, it’s about the real deal. It’s about when, in life, you might have certain values and ideas, but, when the time comes to be tested, it’s not so much about values, it’s about – it’s more primitive – it’s about survival. But survival doesn’t always entail failing, right? I do like looking into the darker side of human nature, and to be able to analyse that I have to put my characters through difficult experiences. I don’t think that, in life, when we’re tested, in the worst way, the best will come out. I think that’s unrealistic, unfortunately. When Buñuel was questioned about Los Olvidados and Viridiana (1961), [about] the people he’s portraying that are living in the streets, he would say, “They are no better nor worse than you. If you would be living under those conditions, the worst of you would show.” You mentioned Sundown earlier, and the main character being tested and, in staying, testing everyone around him. He’s abdicating, but he truly lives, which makes it seem almost like a life affirming film. It kind of happens on its own. By doing nothing, things happen. And that’s the beauty of life. Things will always keep happening, even if you try to avoid them – or maybe more so when you try to avoid them. Maybe it’s a bit more positive, if you want to think in those terms. But his living also has very grim consequences for someone dear to him. Ultimately, it’s a fear of facing life, but it’s also a fear of death. Well, you have to ignore it, yeah. Because otherwise you go crazy. Much like the perennial philosophical wisdom that we are alive, that we live only because we are going to die. This is why I was intrigued by this in their psychology and the contradiction of him enjoying his life. Well, you live up until you die. And at least he makes that one decision, of staying behind. So, you’re always able to choose to some extent, and there’s always consequences to what you choose. He’s trying to spare the pain on his loved ones, thinking that’s a good call, a good decision, and it doesn’t play out that way. I do think there’s some humour to it. It’s a bit absurd, but that’s life. Do you think, because you mentioned the dark side of human nature before, that you get so interested in some inherent tendency towards masochism in people, in the characters? After Lucia is a clear example. Yeah, I guess also in Daniel & Ana it may be so, regarding Daniel. Daniel makes the decision to be self-destructive. Does he, though? I felt like he was too young to make an informed decision. He is the same age as Alejandra in After Lucia. Yes, he’s helpless, but still he’s making a decision. In Chronic, David is driven by guilt, but that’s a decision as well. April is, of course, destroying everyone around her, and herself. April’s Daughter Isn’t that usually the case, especially within a familial structure? Things don’t happen in a vacuum and, building on that, especially for April’s Daughter, I feel like the character of the mother really changes from some sort of hero to some sort of a villain. So, what does it take for her to become a villain in the first place? You said she was always supposed to have this effect. Well, her daughters know. They know who she is. That doesn’t mean they don’t love her, even if she’s a moron. And when she arrives – I guess I was hoping the audience would be puzzled and ask, “Why wouldn’t they want her there, since she seems like a loving, caring mother?” There’s something infectious about the ego that usually gets in the way of the characters. That’s very human. So when you spoke about human nature, do you have anything particular in mind? I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s good and bad, or what it is. I’m intrigued by self-destruction, for example, because we all have that, some more than others. But what is that impulse and that primitive thing you also have, especially when you’re damaging others? To me, all those negative impulses are both very interesting and very natural and, you know, a part of who we are. Do you think that film provides a safe space for you to explore that? Yeah, even when people say, “What a horrible movie!” or when it’s too much, or painful to watch. I just think it’s interesting if one can learn something from looking with a distance and [in a] safe environment to understand more of who we are, instead of just pretending we’re all good. When you ask yourself, “Where does that come from, that crazy movie?”, and then you open any newspaper, you see it’s not crazy at all. I’m thinking of New Order now. Would you ever consider making another dystopian film? I don’t know. For now, I’m satisfied with what I did there but if, again, making dystopia seems like a way to express or to explore something, then yeah, why not? I mean, making New Order was liberating as I got to see that I’m capable of writing and producing something like it. But I love A Clockwork Orange, which is not considered as dystopian as I perceive it to be. It’s one of the movies that I grew up watching, so that theme is not foreign to me. I mean, I’m more interested in stuff like this than the more typical dystopian films like Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985). But there you are, interested in the way humans communicate or fail to communicate, but at the same time these humans exist in societies, in larger structures. It’s hard to make a good dystopia without it being cinematic nonsense. Maybe it will be even harder now. At the end of the day, I made New Order as close as I could to reality. I guess I try to make films that are multi-layered. And also, everything is political. But I’m not into ‘the political’. What I mean by that is, I’m never making a film as a statement or endorsing a certain kind of ideology. But everything we do is political. Because film is an artform? Yeah. It should be.