At the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival, I caught up with Chilean director Alicia Scherson (Play) in the hospitality suite and she graciously granted me the following interview.
MG: Alicia, I want to congratulate you on the festival success of Play. You've been doing well! You've been getting awards for your first narrative feature, at Tribeca, Havana, you got the audience award at Montreal.
AS: Thank you.
MG: Since we have such a short time to talk this morning, I wanted to focus on the design of Play—which I found so fresh and interesting—not only the visual design of the movie but the sound design. Could we talk first about the sound design?
AS: You mean incidental music?
MG: Yes, incidental.
AS: Incidental's only three songs. They're all made by [Marc Hellner, who's also attending the festival]. You know that in the movie [Christina is] Mapuche, which is the Chilean indigenous from the South, and he's a Chicago-based musician who I met when I was living there. So what he did was he took some Mapuche music and remixed it and made this composition loosely based on Mapuche music, there's lots of samples taken directly from their music, and that's both at the beginning and at the end which has drums and more weird-sounding rhythms.
MG: Your movie has a texture of shared spatiality, which I very much liked. I think I mentioned in my earlier write-up how you present an image then texture it with sound; the audience sees a picture of the sea while they hear seagulls and waves, or look at a photo in a National Geographic while they hear indigenous drumming. I like how the senses share this cinematic space. But the film also presents the shared space of the city, your characters and their crisscrossing lives and lonelinesses, and also the shared space of the dreams, sometimes the audience is not sure who is dreaming what. Can you talk a little bit about the design? Do you have a background in design?
AS: It was all scripted, the dreams and all that, and a lot of the sound references were scripted already.
MG: Did you have an influence in doing that? You wrote the script?
AS: I wrote the script, yeah. No, I mean, I think I really had a lot of freedom during this movie. Because I studied film and then I studied art and right before making the movie I was making more video art. But I always like narrative and characters. Even my video art always has a character and dialogues, very narrative. But I think that gave me more freedom in terms of what I wanted to do. It was my first movie. Nobody was paying for it. I was just raising the money whereever. So I really felt like I could do whatever I wanted.
MG: That must have been a wonderful feeling?
AS: Yeah, I just did exactly what I wanted basically. I always wanted to shoot dreams that didn't look like dreams, y'know? It's a cliché in filmmaking to have your own dream sequence. How you shoot a dream, how you shoot sex, how you shoot a fight. I guess I had this opera prima thing where I did all that, I did the sex, I did the fights, I did the dreams. [Laughter.] Had to prove it was something I could do.
MG: But you did it subtlely. It wasn't like you were hitting the audience over the head with these things though you were going into their heads.
AS: The dreams, people get really curious about them.
MG: They want to interpret them, don't they?
AS: I always get the question, "What do the dreams mean?"
MG: The whole film has that quality of being receptive to projective interpretation; you've left the images open-ended. I had to tell myself as an audience member to just let the movie be. To let the movie be what it is. To not try to understand what Christina is doing. To not try to understand what Tristan is doing. Just watch them. And it's within that watching, that observing, that I felt Play was magical. You're obviously aware of magical realism, and yet the movie wasn't a magical realist movie except for maybe that one moment when the moth flies out of Tristan's mouth.
AS: We grew up with this magical realism being the Latin American literature and we sort of hate it in a way. And so, after I made the movie and I started getting reviews where people were using the term, I had to sort of fight my own prejudice and say, "Okay, I guess I did something that was sort of magic realism." Because for us, of course, magic realism is like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende who are all great writers but—as one of the younger generation growing up under the shadow of those huge writers—you always kind of hate them, in a good way. But it's true that there is this mix of magic but I guess the difference is [that it is] not based on the folkloric, y'know, it's just very subjective.
MG: Exactly. What I was trying to point out in my review—I'm not sure if I did a good job of doing it—is that most magical realism is hyperdramatic and obviously fantastic, but—what I appreciated about Play—was its lighthandedness. It was more like the magic was in the shift of the narrative eye.
AS: Yeah, there are only two moments that are clearly unreal: the moth and the fight with the woman that is like a video animation game. I had that dialogue of the moth written before, y'know, just the dialogue, I write dialogues all the time and so that was one bit of dialogue—"I got a moth in my mouth last night." When I was adapting it for the movie script, I was like, "Well, what if he just has the moth?" It seemed like the best way to resolve the scene.
MG: I have an observational question because I wasn't sure if I saw this or not. You do a narrative backswitch where first you show Christina on the bench watching Tristan and Irene across the street….
AS: Yeah, and the moth goes by.
MG: And does it actually fly by her?
[Alicia laughs, pleased, nodding her head yes.]
MG: That is so brilliant!
AS: Very few people see the moth the first time.
MG: I only saw it the second time! I had to see the film a second time and I thought, "That is so brilliant!"
AS: It's very subtle because it's actually 3-D too. It's animation but it really looks real because it's so fast. Few people notice the first time.
MG: That moth sequence underscores what I mean by the shared spatiality in your movie because that moth connects the space of Tristan and Irene with Christina's space. Christina's story is that of a woman who is new to Santiago and trying to make a new life for herself, trying to become a new person. That was heartfelt for me. I empathized with her character. Can you tell me about the actress, Viviana Herrera?
AS: She was a theater student by that time, now she's a professional actress, but it was two years ago, she hadn't graduated yet and she had never acted before a camera before. It was really impressive how she acted. She felt really comfortable with the camera. I guess that's just something some people have or not. I always say how I learned a lot of little things she did in her acting that I didn't see in the shooting but I discovered in the editing room, which was great. Like, she would do this little gesture with her hands or her feet. During the shooting—sometimes it's so crazy on the set—I didn't see all those details, and then I was editing and I noticed all these little things she gave to the character, which was great!
MG: What Viviana created was a character who you might first think was humble, docile, but who had incredible self-sufficiency and strength. She was able to reunite Tristan and Irene. She was able to correct perceptions. I know some people thought in the ending rooftop sequence that Christina was going to jump off the roof, but, I couldn't imagine how anyone would think that! How could they possibly think that?
AS: That was my fear, and the producers. I shot an alternative ending for that scene which was her whistling the same song at a bus stop, standing there and just whistling, instead of on the rooftop. Because my producers were thinking that people were going to think [she was going to jump off]. We didn't decide until the very end. It was so much nicer—the rooftop shot—like nobody will think [she's going to jump off], she's whistling, she's happy….
MG: She was claiming Santiago!
AS: She was just overlooking it. And it was the first time you saw Santiago. But still, some people in the audience think that [she's going to jump off], but just until she starts whistling, then I don't think anybody keeps thinking that during the credits she's jumping off the building.
MG: Some of the subsidiary characters—the blind mother. Why is the mother blind?
AS: [Chuckling but grimacing.] I don't have an answer for that.
MG: It's a question you get a lot, isn't it?
AS: Yeah, and I really don't have a track of how that came to be. I could invent some stuff? I do know that the scene where the mother's lover is with another woman and she's sitting right in front? That scene I actually stole from an early Nabokov novel which is called Laughter in the Dark and it's a story of a blind man, a man who becomes blind and his fiancé brings another man to live with them but he doesn't know, but he sort of senses they are all there in the house, he's sensing there's a third person in the house but he can't see him. I always thought that was really creepy and I always wanted to do a scene like that. But there's also this thing about being visible or invisible that Christina has, Christina's sort of invisible in the city, but it's all about her eyes.
MG: Yes, her eyes are large and beautiful!
AS: Having a blind woman in a way made sense in those terms.
MG: In terms of the mother and the lover relationship, and again in terms of your visual language, I loved when Tristan feeds the rose to the rabbit, a rose which his mother's lover gave to her. Such a simple, lovely image—a critical comment upon his mother's relationship—that has really stuck with me.
AS: I love how you pick up on these little things that no one comments upon!
MG: That's what is so fresh about Play. If a person can relax and stop anticipating what they think the movie is going to be, you provide a sequence of engaging poetic images. What's next? What are you working on now?
AS: I'm working on an adaptation of a Chilean novel about two orphans, brother and sister orphans in the big city, they are like teenage. So it's like a loneliness story too.
MG: When can we expect that?
AS: I will try to shoot next year so I don't think it will be released until the end of 2007 or 2008, because things take time.
MG: I'm always curious about how young directors perceive the festival circuit. This is your first year as a festival darling and you've been traveling with the film from festival to festival, is there a commonality among the audiences? Do people react to the movie differently in different parts of the world?
AS: You know what's curious, I think the American audience is the one that reacts best to this movie, even better than the Chilean one. I think it has to do with the sense of humor. This is what I have discovered in this year of festivals. I think Americans find it more funny—like fun—they laugh a lot at all the jokes, y'know? Which, let's say, in Germany the people weren't laughing.
MG: The stalking scene is hilarious!
AS: There are some scenes that always get people but I think here people find it more light-hearted. I think there is some kind of sense of humor which I connect with that might be more North American, like Wes Anderson or Hal Hartley or maybe people more used to that sense of humor. But I've noticed here in the States, and in Canada too, in North America, people find the movie more of a comedy. At the Vancouver film festival it was catalogued as a comedy and I was so happy about that! Even more than the rest of the world where people find it more heavy, or pessimistic, like in Europe or even Latin America.
MG: That's interesting! There was some commentary of your being grouped together with other first directors coming out of Chile as if there's a new movement going on, I think that's been deconstructed; that's not really happening, right? It's just timing?
AS: Were you the one mentioning this Jorge Morales article? We have this enemy at home.
MG: I had to comment upon it.
AS: I'm so happy that you—not attacked—but commented upon that article because we were really pissed at that article because it's on the FIPRESCI webpage and I think he's not making a favor to anybody. And it doesn't really matter. Movements are not real movements ever.
MG: They're applied afterwards.
AS: They're generational moments. This thing that Chile is now popular is very good for everybody there, for the industry. We're not connected stylistically, we don't consider ourselves part of a movement. But we do share like the age, and we use digital, and we do urban personal stories and I think people in the world are talking about this, there was an article in Cahiers du Cinema talking about this, there was something in Variety, and we have this critic trying to destroy this, for what? Why? I don't understand. Because we're not claiming any kind of big statements, people are saying it's new Chilean cinema, it's new it's Chilean and it's cinema, that's it, you know what I'm saying? It's not that we are the neorealistics. It just happens to be a group of people making movies now and it's good for everybody. And [Morales] has such a bitter feeling towards the whole thing.
MG: I thought he was unfair. That's why I had to comment upon his view. What I like to do when I'm reviewing a film is to monitor the critical commentary.
AS: I'm okay if he doesn't like my movie. He's the one critic that has constantly published bad reviews of my movie, which is great to have somebody [like that], because it's suspicious if everyone likes your movie. The only time I disagree with him is when he attacks this … he tries to go to the world to say, "Hey, there's no movement in Chile, it's a myth!" Why is he doing that?
MG: It's an unnecessary distraction. Going back to the digital, the look of your movie is beautiful. A comment I've heard frequently is that you've achieved a striking palette using this digital technology, anything you can say about that?
AS: Just my art director [Sebastián Muñoz] and my DP [Ricardo de Angelis], I guess, there was a very good triangle that we created there. The DP was the only experienced person on the whole crew…. He's done movies like Man Facing Southeast, [which] was an Oscar nominee for Argentina, he's Argentinian, he had a background in huge 35mm classical, beautiful Argentinian movies, but, he was interested in digital. So I think he makes sort of this new media—this is high definition—with his classical background in 35. And the art director also did a great job with him. They really had a lot to do with this. Ricardo de Angelis, my DP, it was an honor to work with him. He works with Subiela all the time.
MG: I love Subiela! Well, Alicia, I look so forward to the work that you're going to do in the years to come. You can count on me picking out all the little details. Your work is lovely. Enjoy your visit in San Francisco. And, again, congratulations!
AS: Thank you.