PSIFF15: My Interview with "Wild Tales" director Damian Szifron

Raymond with Damian Szifron
I have a confession to make. I am a terrible journalist! True, I no longer get starstruck with movie stars but introduce me to a film director and I will instantly whip out my camera phone and take a selfie before I could even exchange pleasantries with them. Two weeks ago, at the 26th Palm Springs International Film Festival, I was waiting for my next movie inside the press lounge when in came someone whose face looked familiar but whose name I couldn’t remember. He looked boyishly handsome (in the way directors are, you know) and he was having a hard time getting into the lounge because he didn’t have a badge with him.

I overheard him telling the doorkeeper that he just flew in from Argentina and that he was supposed to meet someone inside the lounge. When I heard Argentina, that’s when it clicked! He was Damian Szifron, one of World Cinema’s biggest sensations in 2014! And I lost it! I was not literally and outwardly hysterical but inside I was just screaming so loud! I composed myself, I breathed and waited for a chance to approach him.

Eventually, I caught the eye of his festival handler and I walked over to him and whispered if I could perhaps have at least 10 minutes with Damian. Another journalist from L.A. Weekly also approached the handler so I offered to just do a shared interview with her. She agreed. We were both happy.

Who is Damian Szifron? You might ask. Well, Damian directed “Wild Tales” or “Relatos Salvajes”, one of the best-reviewed films of the year and this writer’s #2 pick for my ten favorite films of 2014! “Wild Tales” is an anthology of six short films united by a common theme of violence and vengeance. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May last year to universal acclaim and the buzz continued to grow with incredible word of mouth. If you are a film buff, it is the kind of movie that is on the top of your must-see list. (Perhaps the Argentine embassy could arrange a special screening of this film in Manila soon?)

Damian is 39 and “Wild Tales” is his sixth film. Like every great director I’ve met, he was very kind and pleasant in person and he has this certain charm about him specially when he ends some of his sentences with “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”

Here’s the full interview I had with him.

What was the inspiration for the movie?
I would say reality was the inspiration and as a filmmaker you can do something with the things that bothers you – with the anger and frustration but then I took those conflicts into the world of fantasy and I used the freedom of imagination and I think that I created something that is more similar to the “Amazing Stories” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” than something that’s a description of our society so you have some fantastic bite in it.

I read somewhere that the idea came while you where in a bathtub?
That’s kind of a myth. I work on a bathtub. I write in a paper, that’s true, and I like to write while I am in a bathtub but also in other places, in regular places, of course. I have a studio but yeah I like the connection with the water.

The general theme of the movie is revenge, vengeance and you take it to such extreme level but we are enjoying it. How did you do it?
Absolutely. I think the joy is the main issue in this film. For me, it’s about the pleasure of losing control, not just about revenge but it’s that particular moment when you just let your instincts go out and you stop repressing yourself and so you enjoy that. We have to repress ourselves on a daily basis and everybody is telling you what to do, when to talk… We, as human beings, have the ability of repression. Animals can’t do that; they only have their instinct. We have our instinct but also we have the ability to think and to remember and we know that when we do A, we go to B and if we go to B we are going to end up at C. And we don’t want to be there so we don’t do A. I think that that’s what makes you feel depressed or stressed and some people just explode and this is the film about the ones that explode.

The "Wedding" from WILD TALES
But I love how you ended the wedding. (The last wild tale, if you will, in the anthology is about a bride who discovers that her groom has been cheating her on the day of their wedding. You’d love to see how she reacts! Boy, it’s some reaction you’ll see.)
Yes and it was a total surprise for me. I made some stuff before, I made two TV series and a few feature films and usually I used to work on a structure of everything and I knew the ending when I started with the dialogue but in this opportunity I just went there without having a clue of where I was heading. It was like an exercise, I mean, the freedom was always there – I just went with the characters, you know. So, while writing the wedding, I never thought that the party could end like that. Each step was a step into the catastrophe and into chaos, into the abyss so when that happened, I said, wow!

And the actors, how did you gather such a fine ensemble of actors?
They are amazing, yes. In Argentina, they are all very well known, very important actors and you usually you don’t see the together in the same film because each one is in their own films. But the structure of this project allowed us to call them and they came on board very quickly. And also, you don’t need them for two months or three months, you just need them for a week or so.

How long did it take you to complete the movie?
The whole thing was eight weeks. (He added that the pre-production took longer)

Can you tell us the budget?
It was almost $4 Million dollars.

Is that a lot for an Argentine film?
That’s a lot. It’s not the most expensive film made in Argentina but it’s a big film for Argentina.

And your collaboration with the Almodovar brothers, can you talk about it?
I am very, very lucky. They saw a previous film of mine in 2005 and they called me from Spain to tell me, ‘We got into the theater to see this Argentine movie and we enjoyed and we want to see how you are doing, where are you, what are you going to do next?’ Afterwards, Agustin Almodovar, Pedro’s brother, came to Argentina and we went to dinner. So, as soon as I decided on this project, we sent the script to them, they read it and two days after they called.

So how long did it take from writing to completing the shoot?
The last thing I shot was in 2006 and then I started to write a science-fiction film, which grew into a trilogy. It was a very creative period in my life and I was getting tired. You know in TV, I was writing an episode while shooting another; editing the one I shoot before. So I wanted to stop with that mechanism and just dedicate myself to write. I thought it was going to be, like, two years writing and I spent seven years writing this trilogy, a romantic film named “The Perfect Couple” and then a western in English. And, at the end of this huge process, more ideas kept on coming so to stop them from becoming into more feature films – I have so many in development – I tried to compress them and as a result I got these powerful short stories. And when I had two or three, I noticed that they were all connected by the same theme and that they belong to the same universe and that they came out from the same DNA so without even trying, I had a new film in my hands. I call it an undesired child that after you have it you feel the luckiest father in the world.

And how’s life been since Cannes?
Like this. I have been traveling since Cannes. I never stopped. The film was shown there for the first time and after that it went to Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian and more festivals.

And your thoughts on the Oscar because I know you are going to get it. (We had the interview two weeks before the Oscar nominations were announced. Yes, I am more confident than him, Wink!) 
I don’t know. There’s nothing I can do. It’s a very hard period for a director. As a football player, when you are going to the World Cup, the moment of truth is the game. But now the moment of truth is actually making the film, writing it. So, I am now just hoping but I am happy with all the things that already happened with the film.

Thank you. I feel so lucky I met you today.
No, no. I am the lucky one.

On January 15, as I predicted and hoped, “Wild Tales”, was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category alongside its Cannes contemporaries “Leviathan”, a powerful parable on corruption, faith and religion from Russia and “Timbuktu”, a harrowing dramatization of the occupation of Timbuktu by Islamic fundamentalists from Mauritania. Other nominated films were “Tangerines” from Estonia, a beautiful anti-war film and “Ida”, a film about a catholic novitiate struggling with her Jewish lineage from Poland. All films screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this year.

The Oscars will be presented on February 22.

Raymond Lo

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