Carlos Reygadas: interview

How do you direct untrained actors? Tie string to their legs and pull, says Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. Time Out meets the director of 'Silent Light'

Carlos Reygadas: interview
Carlos Reygadas with the two leads of 'Silent Light'

For fans of world cinema, the name of Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas is synonymous with one primal image: old people having sex. His two previous films – 2002's 'Japón' and 2005's 'Battle in Heaven' – both featured graphic scenes of fluid transfer among the elderly which not only ruffled feathers when they were originally screened at Cannes but found the director prematurely incarcerated in that ever-swelling internment camp of the enfant terrible.

There is some sex in Reygadas' latest film, but 'Silent Light' is a far cry from his headline-stealing past. Paying close homage to the work of a certain Danish filmmaker (unnamed here for fear of spoiling the plot), his new work displays a maturity and clarity of intent that marks him out as one of the most exciting and challenging directors working today. His new film is also one of the year's best.

'Silent Light' is a rhapsodic, elemental fairytale set in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, amid a community of Mennonites – austere Christians of European descent who speak Plautdietsch, a derivative of German. It tells of Johan (Cornelio Wall), a paunchy, sweat-dappled patriarch who is thinking of abandoning his family for another woman. With a halo of sunburn across his forehead and a birthmark in the shape of a tear under his right eye, Johan – much like the troubled male leads in Reygadas' other films – is an unreadable mass of fervent religiosity and repressed sadness, a character who is unsure how to act under the watchful eyes of God.

Why did Reygadas choose to set his film in such an obscure world? 'I drove to the northern part of Mexico four years ago and came across this place and was intrigued by the beautiful dresses, the houses and the faces,' he says. 'I noticed that they were uniformly monolithic: there were no social or economic classes, pre-judgments about physical beauty, or anything like that. So I thought it would be like telling a children's story, like "Little Red Riding Hood" or something. I wanted archetypes. It's not a film about Mennonites. It's a film about people.'

Like his previous films, 'Silent Light' stakes much of its currency on the vast, untapped potential of the camera. Long, crisp takes bask in the splendour of natural process: harvesting machines reaping down crops; children soaking in a creek; tears rolling down a cheek.

The film opens on a six-minute shot of sunrise which transports us from a night sky strewn with twinkling stars to a stunning rural vista at daybreak, all of which is enveloped in a spine-tingling natural symphony of crickets, cows and the rustle of wind through grass. This blurring of the mundane and the magnificent allows us to view the drama in an entirely organic context, where the mysteries of the human heart are allowed to overlap gently with the wonders of nature. Here, existence is captured as if it were an infinitely sprawling tapestry of miracles. In short, it's a beautiful film. So beautiful, in fact, that it's difficult to fathom how one is able to write, or even broadly conceptualise such a project.
'The idea for a film stays in my head for a year,' Reygadas explains. 'I come up with the subject, how things happen more or less, and then in two or three days, I write the script. Not a conventional screenplay, but a full, literal description of everything you see and hear.'

'I was at the coast in Vizcaya in the Basque Country writing for three days. I had everything apart from the opening and closing scenes. I was listening to Sigur Rós before going to bed, the computer was in front of me, and the screensaver came on. I have this cosmic screensaver, a picture of stars moving out of the frame very, very slowly. I looked at that magnificent space landscape with the music of Sigur Rós playing and I thought the movie had to open like that.' You get the impression from watching Reygadas' films that if you were to isolate any frame, it would make a great photo.

'I have an aversion to photography,' Reygadas muses. 'I love it in cinema, and I like to see other people's photographs, but I don't like the idea of stopping to take a photo. I hate social photos. I hate photos of myself. I hate photos that capture moments of joy. Photographs are the true image of death. Whenever I see a person in a photograph I think of them as dead.'

This goes some way to explaining why Reygadas has a preference for casting non-professionals. 'When you put a known face in front of the camera, you're contributing to the grand delusion of cinema,' he says. 'If you imagine this film with Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman in the central roles, you would destroy it. You would instantly know you're watching Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman dressed as bloody Mennonites. It's not that I'm a hard man to please, it's just that I don't like this whole circus, these people being recycled. To me, cinema is a fancy dress party. I see Gael García Bernal dressed as Che Guevara. Then I see Benicio del Toro dressed as Che Guevara. In five years, we'll see someone else. I
almost feel they should lend each other the costume.'

True to its title (and Reygadas' previous films), 'Silent Light' is propelled by wordless exchanges and sustained (albeit, emotionally intricate) stretches of internal contemplation. How does he make sure his actors perform on cue?

'For the timings, sometimes I get down and tie strings to their legs. Then I pull the strings to tell them when to say their line or to move.' Like a puppeteer? 'Yes. This gives them perfect timing. Some people think it's degrading, but for me it's the opposite. What I want from them is true internal energy and presence. I believe that when somebody is acting and thinking about the timing of a character, they are not there any more.'

The meticulous methods employed by Reygadas are the result of a firm belief in the immersive power of cinema: 'The most powerful quality of cinema is that the senses receive it as if it were real life. For me, that illusion is just wonderful.'

'Silent Light' opens on Dec 7.

Author: David Jenkins





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