PACIFICTION Interview: Director Albert Serra Talks Creating Fascinating Images
Albert Serra is a mad man. His latest, Pacifiction, was my favorite of 2022.
Its almost stupid bravado took my breath away. It's all in his digitally-captured, decaying grandeur of the first world, the remnants of a colonialist spy game playing out in paradise. The film is perhaps the most audacious cinema I've experienced in a long while.
Serra is a real auteur in every sense of the word. He might come across as arrogant at first, but listening to him at length, talking about his methods, you find that he is an adventurous soul, always looking for the ways to find images that goes beyond earthly concerns, yet deeply humanistic. It was a privilege to talk to him for the second time, even via Zoom.
Pacifiction opens tomorrow (Friday, February 17, 2023), exclusively at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.
SCREEN ANARCHY: How are you?
ALBERT SERRA: I am good. I am in Dublin now. It’s late.
Are you working on something there?
I am just checking out the possible locations. Just randomly. I haven’t written any script or anything. But I shot here some years ago. [Singularity, for Venice Biennale, 2016.]
I dunno…I like some places I’ve seen and wanted to come here and see there’s something inspiring. I have some ideas. Sometimes I have this real place in mind. It’s an interesting thing. It helps to make the process more organic.
Was it the same for you with PACIFICTION?
Well, not the same, because as I said, I couldn’t travel because of Covid, but in the end it was almost the same result. I couldn’t go but I was inspired by some books, you know?
But some ideas are mine. Possible nuclear tests were mine! I never heard it or read it anywhere. It was totally an invention but became a visionary, because Russia invading Ukraine and all the talk of nuclear war became popular again.
Everyone has forgotten it. Now it’s the center of the topic again. We went there to shoot, and I shoot very fast. With four weeks of preparation, we started shooting -- preparation meaning, casting there, looking for locations. We do it very fast. But it was 2020.
Because of Covid, on the third week, we had to leave.
Because everything was locked down. So, we came back. Then I was thinking about the film in more concrete terms.
I knew some of the locations and a little bit of casting and from what I saw there. So, before we started to shoot, already I had some accumulated volume in my head. But the film started very artificial, with plot being on the edge of being ridiculous. I found it organic, in a way.
This is the balance I try to find: very artificial idea and setup, with the performances, the wilderness of its surroundings. It makes actors believe in everything they do, even though its half humorous, half ironic, half visionary, half political, half serious…I don’t know.
Unlike your other films, this one takes place in the present. But it almost has an aura of the Cold War era paranoia and the colonial past. You said it was partly based on what you read. It feels very much like Conrad or Graham Greene.
Graham Greene perhaps. Conrad, I haven’t read it. It’s a strange thing I haven’t read the Heart of Darkness because it’s very important and good and I read a lot. Of course, there’s a link with Apocalypse Now, with this strange character that Marlon Brando plays, because you don’t know if he’s good or bad – whether he is the beginning of something very bad or the end of something very good.
I think there’s something that is connected with his mental state. I don’t know if that is something specifically colonial.
My film is more on the contemporary side, where the savior/villain has no face. Nowadays everything is spread out, like a virus. Everything is based on total opacity of power – who makes decisions? What are the reasons behind these decisions? And which are the interested parties behind these decisions?
Before, there were good people and bad people. Coppola’s film was the end of that illusion. Kurtz was the beginning of that ambivalence. Now we are in this era, and everything is flatter.
Everything is less interesting, it’s more like the internet, you know. Real life dissipates, everyone has no face, and things are still going wrong and getting worse. And everyone feels it. Inequality and wealth gap keeps getting bigger and bigger. Everyone knows it and feels it. And no one knows how to correct it.
This lack of humanistic approach to solve the problem brings something purely technical, they don’t take into account the souls of people, therefore they don’t solve anything. Maybe to you the film feels like Conrad, but it’s very contemporary. It’s something that is happening now.
How did you like Tahiti?
I don’t care. I try to force myself to think against cliché. For example, I try to think that these people are not victims of history. Because they do nuclear testing there, so they suffer from this and that. That they lead a very simple and quiet life and suddenly colonizers are sending these nuclear scientists and doing tests in paradise, whatever.
But why do I want to tell that story? To say something about these injustices? These are things even a child knows. Everybody agrees. Then I force myself to go there and look for the faults of these people.
Sure, they may be victims of history. But they might have bad genes and are lazy. Or maybe they receive a little too much aid. You know where I am going with this. But in order to see things the way they truly are, I have to let the images flow, let the images flow without control and without any meaning from my end.
The idea that they are some hapless victims, it would be a cliché. But the reality is not so easy, especially nowadays.
So, when I am in a place like this, I try to think the opposite, just to make things more complex and not to reduce the complexity of the matters. And I think it works. That everyone sees that things are unbalanced. When everyone thinks and goes the same direction, and I present the opposite, something happens.
It’s a more faithful way to paint that place that you are in. I get the real inputs from the place just because I use this technique. I put myself in the position that I don’t have anything to say. I am here to create the most fascinating images possible.
Talk about being there and finding something. The character Shanna fascinated me. I am very interested in how you casted Pahoa Mahagafanau in that role and what her character means in the film?
She’s a non-professional actor, like all the indigenous people on the island. I have an intuition for people who are interesting and quite natural. They look natural and spontaneous, and I like them as human beings, you know.
This is the main thing when I choose actors. There should be something in them I like as human beings. Something I respect, in order to start disrespecting them and start creating my own idea against them, but there should be this equilibrium between us. Not as much as collaborating with them but to abandon them to their own devices and this creates a little bit of tension and that generates interesting images in the film.
In her case, I like her very much. She is very spiritual. This idea of transgender, from a strictly visual point of view, not moral or political point of view or anything, I think there’s some purity and ambiguity in her that was extremely fascinating and photogenic. The extraordinary thing is that there is no contradiction in her, not one single moment of tension between two human beings in one.
One that was before and the one that is now. There is this pure way of being in her and I like that very much. Transgender thing always has to do with makeup and costume and attitude, you know. They don’t decide to be transgender, it's a family decision in their culture.
For example, if they have two boys, depending on the places, if the third one is also a boy, they dress them and raise them as a girl. They do this at a very young age, so they don’t realize all the stigmas that we modern society have on transgender people. They don’t distinguish gender like us. There is no vindication. There’s no gender politics.
I have to ask you about the scene where the surfing contest takes place in the water. It’s so stupendous and surreal, I couldn’t stop laughing at its bravado.
It’s so fascinating and spectacular...
It’s spectacular because he (De Roller, played by Benoit Magimel) is there. If you search YouTube, I am sure you can find much more spectacular surfing videos with great waves than this one. But you are not a motivated spectator unless you are a professional surfer. It’s because the actor is in there riding the waves.
As you said, it is grotesque and makes you laugh. But at the same time, you are still fascinated by it because the actor is still not breaking out of his character. You question yourself what kind of film you are watching. It makes you questions a lot of different things. And this is my aim.
The plot is very plastic with submarines and all that. You know, him looking for a submarine with a torch light at night. And at the shady discotheque where things get very paranoid. It’s very ridiculous and dangerous and extremely cynical.
It’s a mixture of all kinds of different things and layers and tonality. At the same time, it’s very compact. It’s hypnotic on the edit and the flow. For me this was the main discovery of the film. The possibility of mixing all these impossible things. And it still works.
Is this how your work usually is - you finding out as you go along?
Yeah. But other films were mainly historical, and you have to be a little bit more respectful. You couldn't open it too much for other tonalities. If it was too grotesque, it would’ve destroyed the credibility of historical ambience. You had to be much more careful with those. Too risky. too risky.
Did it take a long time for you to set that wave scene up?
One morning. Three to four hours.
The whole thing? Twenty-four days of shooting. One day of reshoots. Twenty-five days total.
That is fast!
Yes, that is fast. when I was 18, 19, I was working as a construction worker. My boss, who was teaching me, told me one good lesson. He said, “You have to work good and fast!” It stuck with me, and I do the same with cinema, 20-30 years later.
PACIFICTION kept reminding me of Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE.
Yes. Here is what I said before. The grotesque element is there. The political element is there. The scary future of the war is there. The humor is there but it’s a fiction and that makes him a total liar.
Therefore, it's less hypnotic, less fascinating, less complex and there is less mystery. The mystery comes from how close to the truth it is or how close to the real show or fake show. The kind of images you see in Kubrick films are much clearer.
I work with digital images. There is less control and therefore could be more dangerous. It means they can really capture things that are around that are even out of my control. This content can reveal something that is not so nice. I think it is important to keep the door open. But it’s also a commitment. It’s not that easy.
This is not a political question, but I am wondering is this how you see that it will all end? Unbeknownst us, a bomb goes off without warning?
I am very pessimistic. I can tell you. Capitalism is spinning in a very harmful way. With the internet it’s even worse.
All the human relationships among people are already damaged and the internet just accelerated the damages. The financial inequality and wealth gap grows exponentially and there is no way to stop it. And the tensions grow, and the revolution is not possible because power has all the instruments. The people in the colonies and who are still colonized understand this because that’s how they lived all their lives like that.
I don’t know. Maybe I will do a comedy musical next. Where people dance around and sing happy songs.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com