When we held retrospective of Jaime Rosales’ work at Cinematik Film Festival in Piešťany, Slovakia in September 2015 and gave him carte blanche to pick his favourite films or films he was influenced by, he chose Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Tarkovsky’s Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961) and Bergman’s Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1953). Between them, these films begin to give an idea of the look and feel of Rosales’s own work. They are austere and keep their distance from their characters. Rosales explore loneliness, death, coping with tragedy and the inability to understand each other. His films move clearly in one line, yet with each he seems to reinvent himself.
A Cannes regular, Spanish director Rosales has made five features. In 2003 he debuted with Las horas del día (The Hours of the Day), a film about an ordinary man, his tedious everyday reality and an inexplicable outburst of violence. A follow-up to this FIPRESCI Award-winner from Directors’ Fortnight was La soledad (Solitary Fragments, 2007), a film for which Rosales is probably best known. Here we see fragments of the lives of two women who don’t know each other, are surrounded by others and yet feel alone. Roughly one third of the film is shot in Polyvision so we can see the scenes unfold from two points of view at the same time.
In 2008, Rosales made a film about two ETA members killing policemen, Tiro en la cabeza (Bullet in the Head). Shot from a distance with a telephoto lens we do not hear any words throughout the whole film. His 2012 film Sueño y silencio (Dream and Silence) follows a couple coping with the tragic death of their child. Rosales’ latest, Hermosa juventud (Beautiful Youth, 2014), marks a new chapter in his career. More socially oriented, the film focuses on two young parents and their struggle to live a decent life in contemporary Spain.
During the Cinematik Film Festival we spoke about his oeuvre in general, where he talked less of the particular details of these films than his ideas on cinema more broadly and the motivations behind his filmmaking practice. He come across as very thoughtful man who pauses to think before slowly answering, or – it would be more precise to say – that he explains rather than answers as if offering to show you some part of his thought process. This is transcript of our conversation edited for clarity and continuity.
Watching your films together, as audiences can here, one notices that even though there are some recurring themes and stylistic elements, every film is quite different. Why is this so?
My films are reactions to specific impulses at different stages of my life whether it is the political situation in my country or a personal feeling. For example, my second film Solitary Fragments responds to my becoming a father for the first time. Every film is an answer to a question that is different. However, there is one question that I have been obsessed about since I was a kid and it is a question about living and dying; what is happening when you die.
Death is a central point in four of your films. Why is it so fascinating to you?
It is not fascinating, it’s more traumatising. I remember very vividly lying on my bed as a boy and thinking ‘how can it be that there will be a moment in my life that I will not be here anymore? What would that be like?’ I think there is something spiritual about being in the universe. I pretty much know how it is in life when I wake up, but when death comes I don’t know.
I come from a Catholic background, but the eschatology of Christianity doesn’t fully work for me. I am not saying there is no afterlife, but the way it is explained by Christianity is not 100 percent convincing. And I don’t find the answer that there is nothing convincing either. Not because it is pessimistic, but because I have an intuition that it is not like that.
Death was central, especially, in my fourth and for me the most important film Dream and Silence. I tried to create an experience within the people who were working on the film; a kind of spiritual experience that will translate into the film.
It seems to me that the main theme of your films is that we cannot really understand what’s going on in someone else’s mind – whether it is a murderer or a relative of the deceased. You can never really explain what’s inside.
I truly believe that it is not possible to understand each other – it is even very difficult to understand yourself. Nor do I think it is possible to understand the causes of things. Maybe God, if he exists, knows everything, but for us as human beings there is so little we can understand about one another and about the universe. We try desperately but we fail, because we don’t have the capacity to understand.
Paradoxically, when you use the technique of Polyvision in Solitary Fragments, having two points of view at the same time still doesn’t help us in understanding the characters. There is still the same distance.
I haven’t thought about it that way. It’s not that because you multiply the points of view you would understand more. The problem is the failure to understand – because we are unable to, basically.
Solitary Fragments is a film about family and life. When I became father for the first time I could sense that the baby was very fragile and very strong at the same time. It’s a paradox: you have a baby you need to take care of because anything can happen to her, but at the same time there is the super-strength of life.
The second feeling I had at the time I was writing the script is that within the family communication is difficult. People may love one another and they want to live in harmony, but they talk about things that drive them apart. It seems like we cannot be open and true to our feelings because we think it will make us fragile.
These are basically the two stories of Solitary Fragments and the reason why they are more or less separate. And at the center there is the problem of misunderstanding. So what you said about the Polyvision is really true because adding another point of view just doesn’t help. We are scared to tell the truth to each other and it produces a lot of pain.
In The Hours of the Day we see the mundane life of a man. He has committed some extreme acts of violence, but you cannot explain them with a simple answer like his background or childhood. You cannot go inside. And the very same is true for Bullet in the Head where we follow the main character from a distance.
A common point in both films is the impossibility of understanding the causes and reasons why somebody does something as serious as killing another human being. The difference between the two films, at least in my point of view, is that in The Hours of the Day it was really central to talk about this impossibility while in Bullet in the Head the theme is only secondary.
It was a film made for my country at that particular moment; it was a political film and it was meant to produce a political effect. I was trying to say that there is a problem with terrorism in Spain, in Basque country, and in my opinion it is not so a huge problem that it cannot be solved. And I wanted to bring attention to some of the ideas for solving the problem which is basically to listen to the other party and not criminalise anybody.
For me Bullet in the Head is your most radical film because all the stylistic elements that you more or less use in other films are used in an extreme way here.
Besides making a political statement I also asked myself: can that be a film? Is this a film? We have quite a narrow view of what is “experimental” and what is “normal” cinema. Bullet in the Head was shown in museums, but also in commercial cinemas. It didn’t work well in commercial network I have to say, but a few people went to see it and paid for it. I hope it shows that film can be political and opens up possibilities for cinema, too.
That’s what I like about your films – you always try to push boundaries. Even though there is, for example, the pervasive theme of death, with every film you try to find a new way of dealing with it; every time it is different.
I would be bored doing films the same way over and over again. As I look for different stories I am also looking for different ways of telling them. It’s a kind of intellectual game I make myself play while making a film. I try to explore. It doesn’t mean that everything ends up well or in the film. You try something, you look at it, you think about it, you judge and decide whether you use it or not. My films are full of mistakes; I try to improve from one to another.
However, I’m not seeing myself taking risks only because I am doing something differently. I think it is also risky to do something the same way as everybody else does it.
The difference is that for me inspiration is more important than experience. There are filmmakers or writers or painters that work out of experience: they find their style and do their work better and better. I am not that kind of a filmmaker. I am not saying I am better because I am doing it this way. It’s just I prefer to look for inspiration to find always a new way. And I don’t mind failing. We shouldn’t be scared of failing, I think, because the destiny of the human is to fail. Instead of trying to pretend you succeeded in something I’d rather fail.
Yes, sometimes even films that are not perfect have some little element that inspire you and you say: that is ingenious.
I remember one screening of a Monteiro film at Toronto Film Festival – I can’t remember the title. When the film started the house was full, but I ended up being one of two or three people who didn’t leave. I am talking about maybe 120 people leaving, but it doesn’t matter. I still remember this film and it is really important for me. For example, when I shoot a scene in a bus I think of this film. That’s the value of art; it doesn’t have to be for everyone.
Both The Hours of the Day and Bullet in the Head were inspired by true events, but in general, behind your stories there is always something personal. How does your inspiration work?
In between films there is a moment like purgatory. I read newspapers and books, listen to music, speak with people – I am receiving the stimuli from the world around me and it has to do with general state of mind and my sensibility at that particular moment. Then I start to project: maybe this stimulus can produce a film and I start thinking about it and maybe drop it. Then another, then another. For example, in case of Bullet in the Head the day after reading the news I knew the film exactly. It took me one day to write the script. Right now, I am preparing my next film and I have been writing the script for a year already.
Why was it so quick with Bullet in the Head?
When these cops were killed, the situation was so dense it allowed me to see clearly many ideas that I had in my mind. For the last 25 years of my life there was this problem in my country. It was in the media; we were discussing it with our friends… it was pretty much there – in my country and in myself.
In Capbreton, France two cops were killed. It wasn’t planned; it just happened. And it was absurd. The terrorists didn’t want to kill the cops, but at the same time they had to do it and they did it. It is not shown in the film since it was done quickly, but I knew that the terrorists would be caught quite easily, because when you don’t plan something like killing cops, unless you are extremely lucky, you will get caught. You haven’t forseen how to escape. It is basically a trap for terrorists and for cops. The cops end up dead and the terrorists end up in prison. There are five families destroyed, absurdly. That was the density of the event – it concentrated the absurdity so clearly that I could say: why are we doing this?
The film premiered at San Sebastián Film Festival in Basque Country in September 2008 just after your Goya wins for Solitary Fragments. In regards to the sensitive subject matter and your newfound status as a major Spanish director, what were the reactions to the film?
The premiere was quite tense. I didn’t stay with the audience; I can’t stand being with the audience watching my film, but I was told there were perturbations, people were screaming and shouting that it was wrong.
I didn’t know at the time, but the festival security put some secret agents around. There were people from the police and probably also from the organisation; they were looking at each other and recognising one another; you could feel the tension. I had a conversation with Head of Secret Service in Basque Country after the screening and he told me: “I had thousands of images just like yours. We have been shooting actual terrorists just like you, exactly the same way. I could replace my images with yours and it could be the same film.”
That was the feeling I had from the film – as if somebody was watching the main character; as if we were the observers or the police was shadowing him. What was the idea behind shooting from that distance?
Actually, it was a question of sound. I was trying to find a way how to show that the problem is that people don’t listen to one another. So I shot with telephoto from the distance and kept the sound corresponding to the place where the camera was situated which meant we could not hear any dialogue.
At the same time, it was strange when the whole film was shot with telephoto. Telephoto produces a very flat image while wide-angle increases the drama. If you take a close-up with wide-angle you have the face and features of the face and emotions, but you still incorporate the space. With telephoto, the space disappears. I find its images very flat and ugly, but I thought it would be interesting to work with this kind of image.
In the case of Bullet in the Head it might be most obvious, but your other films seem to have some concepts that lie in their form, too. How do you come up with them?
When I’m preparing a film I create some rules about what I’m going to allow myself to do and what I’m not going to allow myself to do. Those rules are as important as script. When I said I had been writing my next film for a year now, it has been also one year trying to figure out what the rules should be. In the case of Bullet in the Head the script and the rules came just like that.
I find the economy of rules to be something positive. Let’s say you’re gonna shoot everything with hand-held camera with 50mm lens – it’s fine. It can also be fine to shoot everything with telephoto on tripod; it can be fine to shoot everything with steadycam with wide-angle. Any set of rules can be valid. On the other hand, what I don’t like is mixing everything. That is why I prefer to create a set of rules and usually it takes a lot of thinking to find which rules are appropriate for that particular film.
In case of Bullet in the Head I wanted people to think. When you shoot from the distance with telephoto the image is not emotionally filled and the viewer’s approach is more intellectual.
Is it also some kind of rule that you don’t use music in your films?
I don’t use music in my films for a simple reason – I don’t know how to use it properly. I think the way we are used to seeing movies with music is not a proper way. And because I haven’t come up yet with an idea of how to use music and I know it is not the way it is usually done, I don’t use it. If I ever come up with a solution I will. I don’t want to be redundant. I love music but I haven’t come up with a way how to use it.
Dream and Silence seems like the end of an era as if you reached the highest point possible. Is it somehow connected to these rules?
When I was at film school I always thought “I have to experiment with film language to find the central point of my cinema,” and I knew it would have to be something related to actors and mise-en-scène. I found this with Dream and Silence.
The particularity of Dream and Silence is that I made a fiction but the rules I imposed were very strict. It’s a film where every scene is shot in one take; the actors don’t know what the scene is about before shooting it; they don’t know anything about the script; they are non-professional actors; it is shot with no artificial light and there is no rehearsal. But it’s a fiction, very strong fiction. This film took me to a place I found fantastic and magical.
What does the preparation process look like if you know you have only one take?
I was at a workshop with Abbas Kiarostami once and he told us that he shot Ta’m-e gīlās… (Taste of Cherry, 1997) mostly in one take. I asked him: what if it doesn’t work? You have only one possibility. And he said, “Well, you have to take the risk”. But if you prepare everything properly there is no reason why it shouldn’t work. It can (fail), but if you do it properly it shouldn’t.
That means you prepare people to do what you want them to do without telling them. I can make an actress cry without even mentioning that she has to cry. If you want her to cry you have to bring tension, but in a way that has nothing to do with crying. In a sense, it is a mind control.
The only thing with this kind of technique is that the technicians have to be ready at the same time as actors. Because if they tell me they are ready and I bring the actors and then they say they need ten more minutes it kills me. It’s all ruined.
I understand that the scene in Beautiful Youth where the couple is interviewed by the pornographer was shot in one take and it was not really in your hands. How did you create that scene?
The way I usually work is that there is a script written. With a scene that has dialogue I go to the actors and have them read the lines a couple of times. They don’t get the script to memorise, but they read it in front of each other. I tell them to read and they usually start to perform. No, I say, just read – which is really difficult for the actors because they want to perform. After they read the lines a couple of times I take the scripts and they start performing. Basically, they know what the scene is about but they don’t remember the lines. What they remember is length. So, now you know what the scene is about, let’s behave as if you were in the situation. I think this technique makes the scene more vivid; it’s semi-structured improvisation.
In the scene of the interview with the pornographer, the man is a real pornographer and I told him to do exactly the same things he does in his films – you can ask whatever you want, in exactly the same way. I prepared my actors by telling them that whatever he asks they have to respond. Together we created a backstory – where did they meet, when they had first sex, etc. I covered with them a whole story without knowing what the pornographer would ask. If I haven’t covered something they were supposed to make it up. And I told them it’s going to be one take, that’s it.
You also hired the second unit for the parts with smartphones and social media. Why?
Part of the reason I wanted to do this film was to understand young people more. When I start working on a new film there are two things that drive me: A will to express some opinion I already have and a desire to learn more about the topic. I have some ideas about the young generation in Spain, but there are many things I don’t know and am really interested in knowing. It is beautiful how cinema allows you to learn from people you are making the film with and about.
At the beginning, I knew that one aspect of the film should deal with the implications of pornography and social media on young people. I am not part of that generation so I don’t use the smartphone the same way as they do. That’s why I had to hire young people to do it for me and to show me how to do it. I created a second unit to make those pieces and then I incorporated them into the film.
It is interesting to hear because a minute ago you were talking about strict rules while filming and now you let other people make parts of your film quite freely.
The creative process of making the film is based on thinking as well as intuition. I analyse and reason that something must be done because of that and that and that. But I also make some decisions even though I don’t know what it means, I don’t know exactly how to do it, but I know it has to be done. I cannot articulate the reason, but I know it is right.
In the case of the social media pieces, the truth is I didn’t really know what they did in the film or how they would work, but I knew they were central. And I’m really happy with the outcome. It had to be shown as an aspect of their life that is relevant and negative; that there is a problem.
Does Beautiful Youth feel like a new beginning?
Dream and Silence was a consequence of three previous films, but it was a huge commercial failure. I realised that if I want to survive in the industry I have to start over again; I have to be so far away from this film.
So it was the pressure of the industry that took me to another direction – and the result is Beautiful Youth. Now I am trying to identify the next step after this new beginning, but I know I closed something that was extremely valuable for me.
It is interesting to hear that an auteur like you is driven by the industry in such a way.
The problem with creating images is that creating a dense image is expensive and if I make films for such a small audience – the economics are impossible. I could cut the budget and possibly get more freedom but I would lose the density of the image. The tricky thing with digital, for example, is that it creates images but they are not dense. The only two filmmakers who can do it with digital are Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Wang Bing.
Take Velázquez, for example. He had to paint kings and battles in order to make those huge paintings he wanted to make. They have that density. On the other hand, painters like Vermeer would paint a girl at a window or merchants. It’s beautiful, but I know I need money to create the type of images I want to create and that means I need to find stories that allows me to make such films.
I’m not complaining; it’s been like that and always will be. For example, Alfred Hitchcock created incredibly dense images with such silly stories. But when you see his images…