After winning a Tiger Award at the 2011 Rotterdam film festival, Sergio Caballero’s sui generis feature debut Finisterrae, with its tale of two ghosts making a pilgrimage across Spain, hit the festival circuit like a meteorite. Three years later, the protean artist-cum-filmmaker from Catalonia made a return to Rotterdam with his sophomore effort, La Distancia. Following the efforts of three telepathic, Russophone dwarves to recover an artwork (eponymously named “The Distance”) that has been illegally sequestered by a post-Perestroika oligarch in an abandoned Siberian factory, the film’s picaresque, absurdist narrative allows Caballero to delve into more fundamental formal concerns – including filmmaking’s connections with other art forms, the relationship between image and sound, and the role of language in the cinema – as well as further developing the inimitable visual hallmarks that marked out his debut work. Senses of Cinema caught up with Caballero in Rotterdam, shortly after his new film premiered at the festival.
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La Distancia is your second feature-length film after Finisterrae, which also premiered at the Rotterdam film festival. While obviously the two films are different in many ways, there is also a certain stylistic unity about them. In fact, what strikes me the most about your filmmaking is that your style is so idiosyncratic and unique to you – and differs markedly not only from mainstream cinema, but also from a dominant trend in arthouse or festival cinema. So I wanted to start off by talking about what your stylistic traits mean to you, how you came to develop them and how you work with them in your films?
It’s a long question, no?
To cut it short: style.
OK, do you have five hours? Of course, there are points in common between the two films, in the imaginary worlds they both construct. In particular, there are three stylistic elements, or tropes, that are shared in both films, namely: the presence of animals, a certain brand of humour, and the specific tempo that they both have. These are all very present, very strong, in both films. At the same time, Finisterrae was a very linear story that begins and ends with the voyage of the two main characters – in essence, it’s a road movie – and its narrative unfolded in a very clear, straight line. La Distancia, meanwhile, is more multi-layered, it’s more complex. Nonetheless, both films were developed using the same working method, which is: I do not start off with a story or a script. Rather, I just have a few elements that serve as the point of departure for the film. Like I said: there will always be animals, there will always be humour, there will always be a certain tempo. But at the same time, the structure of the film’s narrative derives more from a palette of concepts than a pre-determined story. Let us say that both Finisterrae and La Distancia grew and evolved as concepts, they were not written down as words. They grew in terms of their atmosphere, in their choice of locations, into a story. It was only in the editing room that my films really became stories.
Could you talk in more detail about how that process works for you? In particular, is the idea that you start with very different to the film that you end up making? Do you end up making major changes in how you conceive the film?
Yes, there can be major changes between the beginning of the project and the finished film. For example, with La Distancia, I spent a year collecting random notes and writing them down on my iPhone. They would just be sentences, or situations in life. This is what I worked on for a whole year. But I need an excuse or a pretext in order to make a film. The robbery, for example, was a pretext for conceptualising La Distancia. From the moment that I have this pretext, I write down all the ideas that pop into my head on my iPhone and I develop these bits and pieces until they start to come together into a more coherent idea of the film. It is at this moment, when these elements cohere together, that I start working on the film in the proper sense of the word. But as soon as the film starts it becomes alive, so it actually undergoes changes all by itself.
And due to the story that develops out of this working-method, the first idea I have for the film might be good or it might be bad. So I am completely open to changing everything at the last minute. And it is precisely because there’s no script that this is possible. For instance, there is the example of the scene where the man’s leg is cut open. Initially that scene was conceived of as being much bigger, but in the final edit of the film it ended up being significantly reduced, and more hinted at than explicitly shown. This kind of thing happens all the time when I am making a film. I have to discover what really belongs to the material. It can be very plasmatic. It’s like when I cook. You literally have to lose your senses and bring together different elements in a spontaneous manner, constantly testing it for taste so as to find out the perfect blend. It’s completely like that. Making a film is like cooking.
And the more elements I have, the more changes there are. For example, at the start of the filming process, I only have a bunch of ideas, but then later on I have the actors. I am very interested in the faces of the actors, as well as in their voices. The voice of the actor can totally change the character. The same goes for locations: when I visited the abandoned factory for the first time, it was incredible, because my brain started moving very quickly. I suddenly understood the whole film much more clearly, it was like the pieces of the puzzle were all coming together. When these moments happen I can create very, very quickly. I love improvisation. I am very happy when these situations arise in my life. And when they happen, it’s necessary to move quickly. For me, this is the perfect way of making cinema.
It’s almost as if you’re saying that the most important aspect for you in filmmaking is simply to be open to what happens, open to be inspired by the things you come across or the things you encounter in the course of making the film.
It is the perfect filmmaking method, because in the end the film is the film, whereas I am just a person. As a filmmaker, those moments when you come to “know” the film are very interesting, and these are the moments when it grows and takes on life. This is when I can respond to the film, and say to myself: “The film needs more humour, or more this or that.” Or, alternatively: “This is the perfect location for the film.” So this is my method.
I found it interesting that, in the program notes for the film at Rotterdam, “The Distance” was described as being the film’s MacGuffin. Are you familiar with this term?
A MacGuffin is a pretext for the plot that the spectator thinks is the central focus of the film’s storyline, when in reality the film ends up being about something totally different. As far as I know, the term comes from Hitchcock, who relates an anecdote to explain the concept. He tells a story of two people sitting in a train, and one of them has a large suitcase. So the other person asks: “What’s in that suitcase?” – “Why, in that suitcase there’s a MacGuffin.” – “What’s a MacGuffin? I’ve never heard of that.” – “A MacGuffin is used to kill antelope in the Scottish Highlands.” – “But there are no antelope in the Scottish Highlands.” – “Well then that’s no MacGuffin.” The essence of the MacGuffin is that the object that the characters of a film are searching for or inquiring about is illusory, it has a completely mythological status. Either it will never be revealed, or when it is revealed it turns out to have no actual importance to the plot.
Why does it apply to La Distancia?
The whole matter of the heist, the robbery, and then the discovery of The Distance in the factory. Throughout the film we’re led to think that this is what the film is about, that the robbery being planned by the dwarves is the focus of the film, but in the end it doesn’t matter.
It’s very curious. Never, after a screening, has anybody asked me “The Distance, in the end, what is it?” Never. When I was working on the film I said to myself, “I don’t know what The Distance is. Maybe I could put Jeff Koons’ heart sculpture there, or something.” I also toyed with the idea of involving Doritos in some way. You know, the cheese chip. Doritos spend a lot of money on sponsorship. So while I was working in Brazil, I talked with a guy from the company, explained the film to him and proposed that they pay $200,000 for me to put a massive packet of Doritos in the factory, as The Distance. But they turned me down. Look, in the end, the whole plot is a joke, because why don’t they just kill the guy?
When we finally do see inside the factory and discover what The Distance is, I found that scene very striking on a visual level, where you see this enormous reflective disc taking up the entire space of the factory floor.
It shows Shibuya, the commercial centre of Tokyo. I love this scene. To create The Distance, I was inspired by the work of Anish Kapoor, his sculptures in Chicago and New York City that reflect the surrounding world. For me it’s the same. When I was working with the post-production team to create the digital effects on the scene, I said to them: “It should just be a hole. That’s all it should be.” And the image from Shibuya is simply taken from a YouTube clip.
The way your filmmaking relates to other artistic practices is also quite fascinating. On the one hand, you have a close relationship with visual arts or installation work, and on the other hand, given your background with the Sonar music festival, the role of music and sound composition is clearly also an important part of your films.
Well, I think that no matter what art form I am working in, I am always working in the same direction, in the same general sense. Whether I am making dinner, or whether I am working with the Sonar festival, on their latest promotional campaign, or on the art direction for a venue the festival plans to use, my attitude is always the same. I have a very long background in the arts. I started very young. Since the age of 14, I’ve been playing music with synthesisers, mixing music on cassette tapes. I’ve worked in the theatre, and painting. But in the end, it’s the same no matter what the art form. Because when I work on a painting, it’s not really painting per se. For example, I once bought some pictures, put them in frames, and put my name on them. And I sold them! It’s true. For two or three years I was making a living from doing this. It’s the attitude of the artist, his life, that counts.
I wanted to ask about the way you use sound, and in particular spoken language, in La Distancia. You’ve said that in this film you used languages that you are not familiar with – Russian, German, Japanese – and that the reason why you did this is so that you could pay attention to the way the languages sound, the rhythms and intonations of the voices of the actors when they speak, rather than the mere content of their utterances. I found your way of doing this, by devising a narrative pretext whereby the dwarves communicate to each other telepathically, an inspired idea. How did you come up with that? And what effects do you think this had on the film?
An example for how I worked with the sound on this film is the Russian song you can hear. The music of this song is very beautiful. I worked together with a composer, Pedro Alcalde, on the film’s sound. We composed the music together. Now he is the new director of the Berlin Opera, and one of the ballets I worked on with him was adapted from Chekhov. One day, I was watching a TV program in which there was a Russian man talking about the life of Anton Chekhov. So I chased the man down to find out who he was, just because of his voice. Eventually I found him, but he was 40 years older than he was when he did the documentary. And yet the voice was still perfect. So I worked with this man for a year, getting him to say numbers, texts and words and recording them – for an entire year. And we composed the texts in the film using this man’s pre-recorded voice.
You’ve also said that, in order to get a full character, you will often need the body of one person and the voice of someone else, and that taking these components from separate individuals allows you to synthesise them into a more complete figure than if you simply had someone using their own voice. Could you talk more about that idea?
Well, this is fantastic, because when you adopt this method you have far more creative freedom. For example, the voices of the dwarves are very bad, because one is from Poland, the second is from Ecuador, and the third is from Valencia. And their voices are not ideal. But dubbing them is perfect.
When conceiving the film, I use voices that are not the real voices of the actors, because I need to see the character and what the character really needs. So I used that Russian man’s voice in order to lend the film the right tempo, the right tonality. I knew I had to do this from the very first take, because it was essential for the character to have the right voice. In the case of one of the characters, Volkoff, the voice is very high-pitched, and this is because the character needed to sound like that.
The practice of dubbing is almost totally out of date now, because it is so easy to record synchronised sound, but it does hark back to a long tradition in filmmaking. The way you were describing it reminded me of Pasolini –
You mean with the numbers, no?
Well, that’s Fellini. He would just make his actors say random numbers when speaking their lines, and dub in the actual dialogue later. But Pasolini said very specifically that when he was looking for an actor to play the lead role in Accatone he needed a very distinct body, but then a totally different voice. So I find it interesting that you’re going back to these past iterations of the cinema. It also struck me that in both Finisterrae and La Distancia there are references to Russia, in particular. What meaning does this have for you? Do you see a parallel between Russia and Spain?
I’m a really sweaty person, so I prefer the cold. And the thing about Siberia, when you fly over it in an aeroplane, is that it’s thousands of kilometres of nothing. For me, the taiga is very magical. It’s a land that has its own magic, its own civilisation, in the middle of Siberia. I love the sounds and the stories from this region. This is what I love about Russia. The other face of Russia is awful, with so much money and these brand new billionaires, flaunting their bulging bank accounts. But Russia has this other side, this magical side to it.
I was also wondering about the factory, is that in Spain?
Yes, it’s near the town of Teruel.
It’s astonishing, because it really fits the stereotypical image of the Russian post-industrial landscape. To find such a place in Spain is incredible.
In fact, a woman came up to me after the film, who said: “I am Russian, and for me you really managed to capture the taiga perfectly.” I didn’t tell her it was actually filmed in Spain. But Teruel is also a very cold place.
The way you film Spain is very different to how it’s normally filmed.
It’s not like Almodóvar. There are no beaches.
On the one hand you have this idea of modern Russia: the oligarchs, the nouveaux riches. But on the other hand you use the recording of a Lenin speech, which is the other Russia, the side of Russia that has been buried by the course of history.
It’s important that, on the whole, the film doesn’t have a fixed temporality. On the one hand, there are some indications about the period in which it is set. For instance, in the beginning of the film, they tell the story of the millionaire and they say “After Perestroika he stole a lot of money…” But on the other hand, for most of the film you are unable to say for certain the year, or even the century, in which the action is taking place. This is above all due to the atemporal, timeless nature of the location. Even if sometimes you see cars, or people dressed a certain way, at the same time there are a lot of things that are not related to any particular time. In the case of the Lenin recording, it’s there because one of the characters listens to his speech as a form of “nostalgia trip”, like old men you see in the street who are listening to music from the time of their youth. So it’s basically a soundtrack of his own life, or his own memory.
You’re also screening a short film at Rotterdam, Ancha es Castilla, which mostly features puppetry and stop-motion animation. What led you to make these films in tandem with one another?
It was a very long process to make La Distancia, with financing the film and preparing the production. This aspect of filmmaking is boring and I don’t like it. I need to be active. Ancha es Castilla, by contrast, was very quick to make: it only took me three months in total, with six days of shooting, and a very small crew. There were only two “actors”, and the director of photography and myself, four people. I was very happy when I was recording all the voices in the studio.
Are you working on other projects now for the future?
I am working for the Sonar festival, we are going to be in many places this year: Stockholm, Reykjavik, Tokyo, Barcelona, Cape Town. But for my next film I want to work on something involving extraterrestrials. It’s a good pretext for a new film. I’m also interested in the idea of making a television series, but I don’t know what will happen. Because my work is in the middle.
You mean to say it’s situated between different art forms?
In a way, yes. If I tell people it’s fiction, then they will say, “This is art, go to the museum with this film.” But if you go to the museum, they will say, “No, this is fiction, go to the cinema.” In the end this is the problem: all the cultural industries are very restrictive, very rigid. You need to break through these walls. When you go to a museum and you see a painting, you need to enter into the painting. And for me, for my films, it is necessary to enter into the film. It is a sensation, you are right there. And when you are inside the film, you are looking at the photography, listening to the sound, seeing these strange actions.
Moreover, my film is full of false connections. For example, when one of the dwarves goes inside the house of the guard, and he opens the metal box, I have two polaroid pictures of an odometer, but there is no real connection there. Or, at another point in the film you see a postcard of the planet Pluto in a book. And then later, when the guard is masturbating, he yells out “Pluto!” when he reaches orgasm. The film is full of these strange links. Certain spectators will perpetually ask themselves, “What is the meaning of all these connections in the film?” I like to give some hints of codes that people would like to think are there, but that turn out to have no meaning.
It’s interesting that you said that you felt situated in between gallery art and cinema, because I know a countryman of yours, Albert Serra, also occupies these two different worlds and has spoken out about the frictions and rivalries between them. How do you relate to other tendencies in Catalan or Spanish cinema? Do you have a lot of interactions with other filmmakers in Spain?
Many years ago, I decided not to consume cultural products. Because I think they make you sick or contaminated. The only films I watch are children’s films, because I have two kids. For the last ten years I’ve only watched children’s films.
So you literally don’t watch contemporary films?
No. Just television series. I did see The Turin Horse by Béla Tarr, because I was sick in bed, and it’s very beautiful – but that was two years ago now.
Finally, I wanted to ask you a question that was also asked this morning by a member of the audience in the Q&A you had after the screening of La Distancia, because I thought you gave a fascinating answer. Namely: why dwarves?
I love dwarves. Maybe because I love David Lynch, and it’s an idea I got from him. But there is a certain magical, fantastic element to them.
It’s interesting because, while there is a fantastic element to them, it’s also very realist. They’re not mysterious creatures, they’re real people with real lives.
My daughter is four years old. The first time she saw a dwarf was in this film, and she said, “Papa, he’s very small. He’s like a bear cub.” I think it works well in the film.
You were also saying that one of the starting points for the film was a proposal to make a commercial for a beer company, which involved dwarves.
I imagined renting out one or two floors in a hotel in various cities of Spain, and in each room there would be something weird happening: in one room there would be 500 of these Japanese porcelain cats that move their arms, and in another room there would be a famous bank robber, El Dioni, who robbed a bank, and became the symbol of a criminal in Spain, similar to Ronnie Biggs in Britain. He’s a friend of mine. In another room there would be a man dressed up as one of those pine-tree air fresheners, like you find dangling form the rear-view mirror in taxis. Another room would just have two old people watching television in their room. And all the music you would hear would be played by impersonators (like Elvis impersonators, Bee Gees impersonators, etc.). And all the girls working in the hotel would have to wear fake moustaches, while the waiters would all be dwarves. So the joke would be, “Where’s the waiter?” – “Down here!” Unfortunately, my proposal was rejected. But I have lots of other ideas.