Following its world premiere at the San Sebastián Film Festival, Regression was one of the (many) special galas of the 11th edition of the Zurich Film Festival. Alejandro Amenábar was in Switzerland to introduce his film and I was lucky enough to be part of a roundtable discussion with him.
We talked with the joyful Spanish-Chilean filmmaker about his latest film, while discussing his relationship with religion and the horror genre.
What got you interested in making a film about psychological regressions?
To me, the real interest came when I first read about this subject. In the beginning I wanted to make a horror film just for the pleasure of it, even before I made my previous movie, Agora. And then I thought of the greatest movies I've seen - Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen - so I thought I should try to do something about the devil. But I couldn't find the proper approach. We couldn't find something realistic enough and something that would allow me to express a meaning. Then I read about satanic ritual abuse and I found something very real, something phenomenal that happened in North America. It was talking about fear itself, about psychology and about how our mind works. I really love learning things when I make a film, and what I learnt with Regression is that our mind is much more fragile that we would think.
During your research, did you make any striking discoveries?
A few years ago I remember seeing a documentary about repressed memories and multiple personalities. That's what the movie is trying to explain. It seems that it's something that got forgotten and nobody talks about it, not even in the States. I thought it was something impressive and that had to do with our society, specifically with the involvement of the media. In Agora there was a confrontation between faith and science, and in Regression faith and science are working together, trying to solve the same puzzle through different ways. And the lesson everybody learns is that we all make mistakes. Ultimately, it's a film about mistakes.
Why is the question of "believing" so important to you? Are you struggling yourself when it comes to faith?
Well, my family is catholic - not strong catholic believers - but I was raised in a catholic school. As a creator, you have to deal with your irrational side, even though I tend to be more on a rational side. In situations where you have a mystery, I like to confront my characters with the ways you deal with it and whether we're gonna allow ourself to be carried away by fear or by rational thinking. What surprises me a lot about ourselves is not our ability to lie but our eagerness to believe.
Do you consider yourself critical of religion?
I wouldn't like to say "critical" because I don't like when one criticizes me [laughs], but obviously, when you have something that doesn't fit your systemic thought, we look for complicated explanations. Sometimes we ended up blaming the devil and we realized that it's as simple as something we forgot to add at the beginning of our equation. I try to give a low profile to this whole thing about religion and the church in my movies. The idea of the devil being portrayed in a very realistic way in movies that I mentioned previously like The Exorcist is based on something very real that was the research on sexual abuse on minors. The psychiatrists and the police realized that sometimes the danger didn't come from outside but from within the family. I try to downplay a bit the responsibility of the church, because for me what was more interesting was the responsibility of the world of science.
The film is set in the 90s for obvious reasons, but do you think this kind of story could still take place nowadays?
Well, what we didn't have then I don't know how it would affect now, like the internet of course or mobiles, but yeah, I think it could happen. If you visit evangelical churches nowadays, the sermons are about the end of the world and about the second coming of Jesus Christ - what they call the rapture. I found that when I went to Minnesota. The fear is always there, or it seems that sometimes we were looking for something to be afraid about. It's like an obsession. Look at when we shifted to the new Millennium with that infamous "Millennium effect".
All the nightmare scenes in REGRESSION are very effective, especially in terms of lighting and mood. Could you tell us a few words about the elaboration of these scenes?
I wanted to have some of the flavor of those movies from the 70s. Not only horror, but also American thrillers like All The President's Men, Marathon Man or The Conversation. There was something serious and contained in those films. As Regression is inspired by real events I wanted that kind of realism. Our director of photography Daniel Aranyó and I decided to try to have a very contained mise-en-scène. Then through the lights we had something very moody that would help suspense but at the same time he tried to justify all the lights from within the screen instead of having lights from outside. Sometimes it was really about positioning the lights - or their sources - in the frame. Every time we could just retrain ourselves and not move the camera and look back to those old movies we would do it. I know it's a bit risky nowadays, particularly with suspense or horror because very young audience are used to a lot of special effects and a certain cutting style. That was a challenge.
You use several POV shots in REGRESSION and you even establish playful connections between them. Was it something you had in mind before the shooting?
Everything that had to do with dreams and with regression scenes, we had it pre-visualized. Not only with image but also with sound, with music. It helps you to set up the mood and not to waste time with different things. I'm not very fond of POV shots ; I like more when you're behind characters and when looking right above their shoulder. But sometimes POV shots are inevitable, such as in the regression scenes where we play with the point of views since the character is telling something that he couldn't see from his point of view.
Can you tell us a few words about the casting?
I really wanted to work with Ethan (Hawke), I've been following his career for a long time. He did Linklater's trilogy which I loved. He's plainly and totally American, but as he's lived in Europe he knows the world he's living in. He's written a couple of works, he's an intellectual. I thought that he could understand the approach of this project and that he could be a good ally. Luckily enough he said yes, and the first thing he said when we met is "How is this guy?". I encouraged him to work with me, trying to create his character on a very few elements. With Emma (Watson), we were just lucky to have her. Sometimes you have all these options but you only get negative replies. I think Emma really wanted to change her register and the genres she's dealing with.
What do you think about contemporary horror movies?
Horror cinema has changed in a way that the whole language has gotten much more fast nowadays and more frantic. And of course the tricks are more stylized now. It's interesting to notice how horror movies age compared to dramas or comedies. Horror cinema ages...[hesitating] quicker. Maybe because people are aware of the tricks. But it's easier to make people scared than to make people laugh. The thing with horror is that if you rely too much on the jump scares you're gonna lose what you have to say. That's a frequent problem. But a recent horror movie that I really enjoyed is The Visit.
It seems you are very careful when selecting the projects you work on. So what's gonna be next?
It's too soon to tell. If you would have asked that question six years ago I would have told you "a movie about the devil" and that would have been right [laughs] ! But that was pure luck.
Thanks to Serge Sanchez, Seline Meli and Beat Glur for making this interview possible.