SPANISH CINEMA: TAMBIEN LA LLUVIA (EVEN THE RAIN, 2010): Interview With Icíar Bollaín
Icíar Bollaín's Tambien La Lluvia (Even the Rain, 2010)--Spain's official entry to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®--made it all the way to the Oscar® shortlist. That's a remarkable and rapid achievement for a film that had its World Premiere this past September within the Contemporary World Cinema sidebar at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Describing Even the Rain as essentially a film about hope, Diana Sanchez synopsized in her official description for TIFF: "Focusing on the continuing exploitation of Latin America, Bollaín shows the inspirational change that is possible when people band together to fight injustice." The injustice at issue being the Cochabamba Water Crisis of 2000 when the Bolivian government decided to privatize the water company, resulting in a 300% increase in water costs and massive civic unrest.
Filmmaker Sebastian (Gael García Bernal) and his crew arrive in Cochabamba to make a cost-effective film on Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the Americas and find themselves caught unaware by escalating local protests against the imposed water hikes. Blurring the line between fiction and film, past and present, Sanchez noted: "Effective on many levels, this film within a film draws subtle parallels between the exploitation of the past and the continued exploitation of Latin America by richer countries and multinational corporations. Bollaín's thoughts on the introspection inherent in filmmaking, or in any work of art, are expressed through Sebastian. He has only the best intentions of denouncing the injustices of the past, but little patience for the present dilemma, especially when it starts to impede his shooting schedule."
At Exclaim!, Christine Estima writes: "This is a bad place we are in, you and I, make no mistake; the world darkens on a daily basis and it seems only a matter of time before the stars themselves go out. Most movies I see take perverse delight in screaming into the void, but while Even The Rain screams, it also attempts to make the void that much smaller." Catching the film at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber considered it stood a good chance of making the cut for an Oscar® nomination: "First of all, it has a bona fide movie star in Gael Garcia Bernal. It also has a strong social conscience that often appeals to the Academy's liberal wing. Beyond that, its story about the unexpected perils of filmmaking will strike a chord with industry insiders. Most important of all, however, it happens to be an excellent film that will be hard for voters to ignore."
Along with being shortlisted, Even the Rain scored PSIFF's "Bridging the Borders Award" presented by Cinema Without Borders to the film that "best exemplifies the cinema's ability to bring the people of our world closer together." It has also been nominated for 13 Goya Awards (Spain's Oscar® equivalent), including Best Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Lead Actor, Best New Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. The Goyas, held in Madrid, are upcoming mid-February.
My thanks to Margot Gerber of Vitagraph Films for arranging the time for me to sit down with Icíar Bollaín at the Palm Springs International to discuss her latest. Even the Rain opens in the Bay Area on February 18, 2011 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and Camera Cinemas in San Jose. Also opening Friday, February 25, 2011 at Landmark's Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto.
This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!
* * *Michael Guillén: Tambien La Lluvia is a complicated film to discuss and I'm sure it was an equally complicated film to make. So let's first address how different your signature is in this film from your previous feature Mataharis (2007). What motivated you to take on such a difficult and serious project?
Icíar Bollaín: Paul Laverty, the writer, is my partner. We live together. He was working on this project for a long time--something like eight years. He first wrote a script that was a four-hour period film about Bartolomé de las Casas but he found the story too distanced. He wanted to bring it closer to the present and add a different layer. Then he found and became fascinated with the story of the Cochabamba Water Crisis in 2000. He saw similarities between the indigenous resistance against de las Casas and the same kind of resistance against the water crisis. Again, he saw poor people against a modern army and he loved this resistance. In the time of Bartolomé de las Casas it was gold that caused the persecution of the indigenous but now it was water, which has become the gold of the 21st Century. Paul wanted to connect those two things and tell the story of the Conquest from that point of view. Then he developed the vehicle of a film crew on a shoot.
Paul spent three years working alongside Alejandro González Iñárritu on the project but then Alejandro decided that he wanted to make something more personal and he went for Biutiful. So after eight years of watching my partner work on something that never crossed my mind to direct, suddenly the script was available and both Juan Gordon (the producer) and Paul said, "Why don't you direct it?" I felt they were crazy because it was so different from what I had done. It was a big challenge. So then I thought, "Why not?" I liked the script very much. I thought it was original and intelligent, multi-layered, with a lot of things to try to achieve. It was fantastic material. Then they were so confident that I could bring it along that I just decided to go for it. But it was funny because I had seen this script for many years without ever imagining that I would direct it.
Guillén: Let's step back just a bit. You have, of course, done some wonderful acting over the years and I'm always intrigued when an actor elects to become a director. Are you still acting as well?
Bollaín: Yes, when the chance appears; but, it's not that often. The last thing I did was a small part a few years ago in Rabia (Rage, 2009) by Sebastián Cordero. So whenever the chance appears, I take it. I think when an actor asks himself or herself, "How would it be if I told the story?", they become jumpy if they don't do it. As an actor you're telling the director's story but if you ask yourself how you would tell it, then you have to go ahead. That's what happened to me. I always liked writing, even before acting, and then I helped start a small production company. I participated in my partner's shorts and first features and then I started doing my own. I found myself like a fish in water. I really liked the teamwork and found the whole process creative. Somehow acting in itself is isolating. You have to be in front of the camera by yourself and then also you have to depend upon others to choose you and pick you up for a film whereas this way I could be my own boss. Except for Tambien La Lluvia, my other four films were produced by my company. It was a natural thing for me.
Guillén: Outstanding. I have to say, this is such a treat for me because I don't often get to speak to women directors.
Bollaín: Neither do I!! [Laughs.] It's a pity.
Guillén: Within Spain's film production infrastructure, have you found it difficult to be such an accomplished, intelligent female director?
Bollaín: I had a soft entrance through acting. Also, I have worked with prestigious directors who were auteurs, very interesting, even if not necessarily commercial. So I had my little place in the industry and was respected and welcomed. Then I went into my production company and also felt welcome. My first film [Hola, ¿estás sola?, 1995] was small and modest. It was about two girls who tried to make a living by themselves. That film was very well received. My production company was made up of four men and me and I was the first to direct out of the group. I've never felt that being female has been an extra difficulty. Even when Juan and Paul were so sure that I should direct Tambien La Lluvia, I thought, "It's going to be even harder to raise the money with me as the director instead of a man." But I don't think my being female made it harder for Juan; it was hard enough for him just to find the money. So I don't feel that. But I do feel that there are very few women directors and, thus, it's hard to create a continuous career from one film to the other. And because there is a lack of visibility of female directors, producers tend to go to male directors for everything, even to be jury members at festivals; but, for me personally? I can't say it's been difficult. Except for this film, all my films have been modest in their budgets. I never sought millions to finance a film. My films were achievable and then very well received. I think my being a woman was actually celebrated.
Guillén: Speaking of your "little place in the industry" of Spain, you started out by working with Victor Erice on his second film El Sur (The South, 1983). What was it like working with him?
Bollaín: He was fantastic! I was 15 and picked up totally by chance. When I say "by chance", I mean I never expected to be an actress. I never dreamed it would happen. I was studying at the time that he cast among the schools in my area. He saw many girls, me among many, but he interviewed me and then gave me an audition. I happened to bump into one of the most beautiful films in Spanish history. El Sur is a gem. It's so beautiful. I didn't actually realize very much about what was going on. I just enjoyed the experience. I was fascinated. Only years later have I tried to recall how in the hell I did it and how he directed me. Basically, he was a gentle person. He always created a sense of intimacy with the cast and the crew. It felt very easy. I had trouble after in later films where I was being asked to act and I didn't know how to do it! In El Sur, I was guided by Erice. It was beautiful really. He created a lovely atmosphere around the scenes and in creating my character.
Guillén: Which leads me to ask, of course, how you dealt in turn with so many non-actors in Even the Rain? And how you balanced that against working with well-known professionals as accomplished as Gael García Bernal and Luis Tosar? Do you direct one-on-one?
Bollaín: In the scenes with many actors I must attend to the necessities of everyone. For example, some actors are great in the first takes and then they get wasted. Some actors get better with more takes. And when you have two actors this different within the same scene, you juggle. With the non-actors, I tried to make them feel at ease--as Erice did with me--and I surround them with the security of technical professionalism. I try to create a climate. I try to be very close to them. I never leave their side and go away to watch the film on the monitor. I literally remain with them to be supportive. The work of an actor is to recall his own sensorial memories and--because non-actors don't have a technique to do that--as a director you do it with them. You bring them to the mood. Somehow as a director you are doing the technique that they don't have to help them get into the mood.
Guillén: Clearly, casting Gael and Luis in the same film is a marvelous feat; but, I have to say that Juan Carlos Aduviri in the dual role of Daniel and Hatuey was a revelation. I have often said that Magaly Solier is the cinematic icon of indigenous resistance; but, now I have to say she has competition with Juan Carlos Aduviri. His face is classic. Can you speak to what it was like directing him?
Bollaín: We realized early on that we were not going to find him among the actors because there aren't that many actors in Bolivia. He didn't have a profile. So we started casting in the street, door by door, word of mouth. Juan Carlos is a carpenter by trade. He's not an actor. He lives in El Alto and has long been fascinated by film. He started saving his money from his carpentry work in order to pay for his career in filmmaking. He's studied direction. Then he realized that the kids in El Alto would never have the opportunity to study film so he took it upon himself to start a film school, financed by some government money, and--along with others he has brought in--he teaches filmmaking to the young kids of El Alto.
It was when he was engaged with that project that we appeared in El Alto casting for Even the Rain. He heard about us but he didn't attend the casting call because he thought, "It has nothing to do with me." But finally someone convinced him to come and he came. I was fascinated by him. He did an improvisation and was very much like he is in the film. He has this look. He's a small man but you would never step on him--there's no way!--he has such dignity. We did a couple of auditions with him and then I told him I wanted him for the role. He said, "Are you sure? I'm not an actor. I can't do this." I said, "I'm sure. I'm going to help you through it because it's going to be difficult for you; but, I'll help you."
The amazing thing about Juan Carlos is that he doesn't speak a word of Quechua--he's Aymara--and that was an added difficulty: he had to speak a language he didn't know. He spent hours in make-up with the hair stylist to be dressed up as an Indian. Physically he's not very strong but he had to run, he had to jump, and when we finished the film I told him, "Only you and me know the effort you've made and how much I have asked of you." Remember: it's a double part! I think Juan Carlos--along with Luis--worked the most in the film. His role was very demanding. I can only be thankful for Juan Carlos because he is fantastic.
Guillén: The film's braided narrative and the fact that several of the actors played dual roles must have made the casting especially difficult. How involved were you in the casting? And what were the qualities you sought for in your actors that you knew would satisfy the requirements of their double roles?
Bollaín: Well, first, I did the casting. I think the idea of playing a dual role is attractive to an actor. For example, Karra Elejalde--who plays Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus)--also played Antón and they were two completely different roles. We had to find someone who could play both roles; someone who had a humane background. Karra has his own backlog of life. All of that is in his face. But then he also had to have the presence of Colón so--when we were auditioning for the casting--we had him do two scenes, one as Antón and one as Colón. The actor who played Antonio de Montesinos (Raúl Arévalo) also played the character of Juan who was a funny, cheery, light guy; but--when he does the scene as Montesinos--he's really in it and serious so, again, we had to try both sides. It was a process of double-casting.
Guillén: Even the Rain truly is three movies in one. It blows my mind to think of what it must have been like to direct three different movies at once. For example, when the film shifted into the historical period, I was thoroughly enraptured by the tone and the visual detail and I kept thinking, "I hope someday Icíar gets to focus completely on a period piece" because I felt you displayed remarkable skill with that genre.
Bollaín: Thank you very much.
Guillén: As the director of the film, how much are you invested in the persona of Sebastian? Are you a similar filmmaker to him? Would you fall prey to his ethical quandaries?
Bollaín: There's a general quality to Sebastian, the director in the film, which I think is common to all directors: you have to be stubborn to direct. There are moments during a shoot when as a director you just want to give up--it's either really late or people are getting really tired--but, you know that the more you push, the better material you're going to get. If you're going to give up, you're not going to get good material and you can't then tell the audience, "I'm sorry but everyone was hungry so I had to cut and I didn't get the right take." Nobody cares about that. They want to see memorable scenes on the screen and--to get those memorable scenes--you have to fight like mad. Having said that--that's common to every director--I don't know what I would have done in Sebastian's shoes. His was a tough situation. But I have questioned myself many times on how far I can push my actors and my crew.
Let me give you an example. Since you asked me how I deal with the non-actors, I did something with Sonia Ovando, the little girl in the film who plays Juan Carlos's daughter, with regard to the scene where she sees the young man getting his arm cut off. I never gave her the script so she didn't know what was going to happen every day. Before her scenes, I would tell her, "Do this" or "do that" because I worried that reading the script too much beforehand would spoil the naturalness of her performance. In that amputation scene, we never rehearsed it. We set up the camera and waited for her to appear around the corner so that what she sees would be the first time she sees it. She had a sense of fear because she knew we were shooting but she was easily in the mood because she didn't know what was going to happen. She knew something bad was going to happen. The actor who played the young man whose arm was being cut off was actually her brother. I cast him in that role on purpose because I knew that was going to mean a lot for her, instead of his just being an extra. So I told her, "Look, something is going to happen to your brother and you have to try to break free from the soldier to help him. You have to fight like mad." With the first take, she was amazing. She was crying and fighting to break free of the soldier. After we cut, she was crying her eyes out and she came to me and asked, "Can I ask you something? How many more times do I have to do this? Because it's really happening here [gesturing to her heart]." That's when I began thinking, "I can push a little but I have to be concerned about the stress on her." So I said to her, "I promise you, we're going to do just one more take." When she returned to first position, the director of photography said, "Are you crazy or what? You need this scene to be really great and I'm not sure about the focus because we haven't rehearsed and I'm not sure about the lighting. I'm not sure about anything. You need to cover yourself and do at least three or four takes." And I said, "Well, I have promised the girl that we're only going to do one more take so you had better focus it and get the lighting right because I don't have the heart to have her go through that scene emotionally again and again." Even though she knew the scene was false, she was stressed out by imagining this was happening to her brother.
Guillén: As a young actress, she was quite compelling, especially in the scene where she was watching the film and her father comes to pick her up on the set and he asks her, "How did it go?" and she replied, "Oh, it was very interesting. It was so sad." This is what's so difficult to describe about the film, because it's operating on multiple levels at once. Who's acting? When are they acting? Which performance is within which performance? Which reality is the grounding reality?
I have to ask the obvious question. Because this is a story about the exploitation of Bolivian extras in the making of a film about the historical Columbus....
Bollaín: Were they paid? [Laughs.] How much were they paid? Were they taken care of? Yes. We were very concerned about that and we knew that would be the first question everyone would ask. We paid them much more than $2 an hour, obviously. We did something that was actually a good lesson for us and it was a lesson that came from them. We contacted some of the main people who participated in the water wars. We cast them from the barrios that still have no water. They're still fighting for water. We first contacted the leaders of those communities and they said, "Well, for us it's great but you have to ask them. We can't tell them to do the film." So we went to their public assemblies where we were the last point on their agenda. They discussed pipes, their schools, for hours it was "Compañero, compañero, compañero" while we were there waiting. [Laughs.] What can you do? After a four-hour meeting they finally said, "And these guys here want to make a film." So we introduced ourselves and told them what we wanted from them and then we left. They kept discussing whether they were going to join us or not. It was a decision that had to be made by everybody in the assembly. They decided, "Yes, we want to participate but we want you to individually pay the extras and also to participate with every community they belong to." They wanted to make sure there was not an inequity, that all the luck was not going to a few and not distributed among everybody, and they wanted us not to pay in cash (to avoid corruption), and to pay in materials. If someone asked for 2,000 bricks to finish building a school, we paid them with 2,000 bricks. Others asked for something to help them with the water, or a truck, and for us this was a lesson.
Guillén: That's what I call committed filmmaking. Bravo.
Bollaín: At first we thought it was a curious thing that they asked us to do that; but, it was what they wanted, and we came to see it was a very good idea.
Guillén: In the past year I have been fascinated by the idea of what constitutes a contemporary film. Your film seems particularly pertinent to this query. Is Even the Rain a contemporary film because of its topic about the water crisis? Or is it contemporary because of the ongoing abuse of indigenous people by multinational corporate forces? Do you have a take on that?
Bollaín: I worked once with the writer Julio Llamazares who said that somehow film is a witness of its time. I believe that's true. Within a film there will always be a documentary aspect. Some films achieve that by not dealing with anything, which is again a witness to its time. Sometimes people don't want to deal with anything and then we have periods of history where the films are all happy-clappy and about nothing. Then we have other times where films are used as weapons. Some films have an extra element of being contemporary because they deal with something that is going on. I think this film does. I mean, when I read the story--apart from the many reasons to do it--I thought that water is central to the advent of the 21st century. It's already affecting millions of people who don't have access to clean water. This film shows one battle but there are going to be many more. There's going to be serious trouble with water shortages. Even the Rain is also contemporary because it's about people from this time looking back and learning from the past, reflecting on the past from the present. In that sense, Even the Rain is like a poem. Poetry is often at the heart of these social issues.
Guillén: It's my understanding that Even the Rain is dedicated to Howard Zinn, who was definitely focused on social issues.
Bollaín: My partner Paul was a close friend of Howard's. Howard was especially close to the script when it was originally going to be only a period film. He loaned Paul most of the books that Paul used for his research. The sad thing is that Howard died a few months before the film was ready. That's why Paul wanted to dedicate it to him.
Guillén: As Spain's official submission to the Academy Awards®, and cognizant of the fact that it is a co-production with Mexico and France, can you speak to what it is about Tambien La Lluvia that represents Spain?
Bollaín: First of all, I think the Academy members liked the film and thought it was well-produced. When a film comes to the U.S. for the Oscars®, you think--not so much what people like here--but what will be interesting for them. If you send a local film that rings lots of bells for a Spanish audience but nothing else--it just has local appeal--that doesn't make much sense. There was another film that came out about the same time as mine that had lots of opportunities but it was deeply connected to the Spanish culture, especially to Spanish history of the last years of Franco. The film made some jokes around it so you have to know what that time period was about to appreciate the humor. So I think why Even the Rain suited Spain was because it was about Colón, which is also a part of the history of the Americas, not just Spain, and because it was about the water wars in Bolivia, a neighbor of the United States, whose interests are intimately tied to Latin America. So all of that played into Spain deciding to submit Even the Rain to the Academy Awards®. But the basic thing is they liked it.
Guillén: Let's discuss the character arc of Costa (Luis Tosar). His was the most dramatic change of heart within the narrative. Can you speak to how you worked with Luis to achieve his transformation of character?
Bollaín: This is my third time to work with Luis. I find him to be a magnificent actor, probably one of the best in Spain, if not the best. Costa was a subtle role to play. To come from being a cynical, politically incorrect bad guy (I laughed a lot at some of his first lines) to becoming someone committed to what is going on around him had to be subtle, or else it would be crude and obvious. I felt it was amazing that with so little Luis expressed so much with his eyes. What I tried to do was to never leave my focus on him, even though so many things were happening in the film. I had to find moments for the audience to be alone with him to see what he was thinking. The audience needed that. The good thing about Luis is I could tell him, "I don't know the answers. I don't know how Costa changes. But let's try to find the answers together." He goes, "Okay!" So it's like we went arm in arm into every scene trying to find little things to reveal the change.
Guillén: How long was the shoot?
Bollaín: Eight weeks.
Guillén: How much of that was spent in rehearsal?
Bollaín: I don't rehearse much. I like to sit down with the actors for three or four days and go over the script, have them ask all their questions, make their suggestions, many times we adjust dialogue they're not comfortable with. I rarely have much time to rehearse on my shoots but on this film I had none so I said, "Look guys, it's now or never." That's how I work. I don't insist on rehearsing scenes over and over because if anything fresh comes, I'll lose it. There's no camera rolling. So I prefer to leave most of that for later on; but, I give the actors a general sense of what their characters are all about and then with that information the actors go and do their own work. Then we shoot it.
Guillén: My final question: it seems to me the film's situating metaphor was this cross that, first, is being flown in to location, which reminded me briefly of....
Bollaín: I haven't seen it but everyone mentions it.
Guillén: But then also the dramatic scene where it is being erected. Was this based on historical fact? Since Howard Zinn researched this and Paul worked with Howard, was this an actual historical event?
Bollaín: The truth is that Colón in his diaries writes about how he was looking for land and he would sail around what turned out to be an island. Then he would spot more land and, again, would sail around it and discover it to be an island. He became desperate trying to find the mainland. But as he was doing this, he was putting up crosses on every hill. He put up about 20 crosses on his first voyage. Every place he disembarked, he would put up a big cross on a hill so you could see it from the sea. It's there in his diaries. It became very monotonous: "We landed. We put up a cross. We landed. We put up a cross." [Laughs.] Colón was obsessed with religion.
Guillén: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Bollaín: It's been a pleasure.
Guillén: As a student of Latin American archaeology, I have studied the Spanish contact a lot; but, am especially impressed with how your film connects it with the present.
Bollaín: That's Paul's genius. I don't know how in the world he connected the Water Wars with Colón; but, it's a fantastic connection. I think if you make a period piece, there is a distance for the audience. This way there is no distance because you are back and forward and the same. I was very lucky to be offered this script.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.