Piše: Sven Mikulec
It’s difficult to find people like Nacho Vigalondo these days.
The 36-year-old Spanish filmmaker, writer and actor came under the spotlight back in 2003, when his short film 7:35 in the Morning got him an Oscar nomination, but most people got to know him four years later with Timecrimes. Ever since he made this intriguing low budget SF horror-thriller, Nacho’s career path led forward, only to get him where he stands today – at Hollywood’s doorstep. We’re eager to see his first English-speaking project, Open Windows starring Elijah Wood, currently in postproduction. The young author has shown huge potential so far and the crystal ball predicts a rather nice future in the business for him, and while Nacho waits for it to knock on his door, he’s been so kind as to allow me to bother him a bit. That he was an excellent filmmaker with an unlimited imagination, I figured out as soon as I saw 7:35 in the Morning for the first time (out of hundreds that followed). Nothing, however, could prepare me for how interesting, friendly and talkative he really is.
How did your love affair with the world of movies actually start?
I’ve been a film lover all my life, and, since I was born in 1977, I seemed destined to be one of those filmmakers that were born when they saw E.T., Raiders of the lost Ark, or a Star Wars film. But the commercial movie circuit didn’t reach the little village from the north of Spain where I spent my childhood. And we didn´t have a VHS until I went to high school. And no one from my family was a cinephile. I knew who Spielberg was before having a moustache, but when Twin Peaks was released in Spain, I didn’t know anything about this David Lynch person. I had a poor cinephile education, but I was fascinated with movies, and with the spectator’s experience, all the ceremony aroung going to the theater. It only happened from time to time, but, when it happened, I always fell in love with every movie, and later insisted on describing it to my friends and family again and again. Them poor things.
The first movie I’m aware of having seen on the big screen is The Island at the Top of the World, a Disney live action film in the mood of Jules Verne. I don’t know the significance it had for me, anyway.
How come you started making movies? At what point in your life did you realize you were meant to do this?
As a child, movies were something amazing, but still something in the distance for me. This means I didn’t ever consider making films until way later in my life. In my early years, that was completely surreal. Everything changed when high school and VHS came, and I discovered the explotation films, the various sub-genres, the arthouse movies, the raising indie phenomena. In that sense, I’m a pure 90’s child.
I remember watching movies like Pink Flamingos and Bad Taste as a teenager and, thanks to the transparency inherent to low budget, being able to picture the process behind. All the choices, all the difficulties. That was also the time when Spanish filmmakers like Enrique Urbizu, Alex de la Iglesia and Juanma Bajo Ulloa caused a stir in our filmography with unexpected genre films that blew our minds. And those films were shot not that far from my own home! Suddenly, making cool films in Spain seemed plausible.
So I grabbed some friend’s domestic camera and started to imitate Sam Raimi’s travellings from The Evil Dead. I already had a forest 10 minutes away from our flat!
If you weren’t a filmmaker…
I honestly have no idea what I would do. I’ve been through stages in my life where I considered myself as a TV writer, an actor (I made a living being an actor for commercials, some time ago) and a comedian. But, to be honest, I don’t think I could have made a long good living in those alternate universes.
What are your directorial role models?
I always try to keep as a guidance the work and lifes of those filmmakers who where able to subvert themes and tropes in popular genres. Those whose careers were a constant exploration in language and meanings, using horror, comedy or western as a vehicle. And those who kept moving all the time. For example, I love Kubrick as much as everyone else. But the guys whose spirit I’d like to soak up are people like Don Siegel, Fritz Lang while in the USA, Terence Fisher, Seiyun Suzuki or Mario Bava.
Do you go to the cinema? Do you even have the time to enjoy movies with your chaotic schedule and all?
I love to go to the movies, and I try to consume films in the most diverse way, but when I’m into some production, it’s hard for me to go to the theatre. Since I work better by night, my schedule tends to go grazy. I watch a lot of movies at home, and when I’m lazy I tend to rewatch old films. Sometimes I lose perspective of the present time, and that makes me ashamed.
Your brilliant short film 7:35 de la mañana, which is one of my all time favourite short films, gave you an Oscar nomination, while Los Cronocrimenes and this film combined brought you no less than 14 awards. How important are these signs of appreciation from the critics and the public to you?
Thanks for your kind words. Yes, I spent a whole year receiving awards and becoming an Oscar nominee made me a little celebrity, somehow. That is obviously flattering, and there’s a part of you that just wants to go to the party and enjoy the reward. But the most important thing for me was being able to perceive myself as a director. By the time I made 7:35 I had experienced some success in the domestic short film circuit, but I also knew some things about failure. I wasn’t sure about being a true filmmaker, about deserving to shoot a feature film someday. I’m not talking just about my technical skills, but also the possible relevance of my work. Even if I’m able to direct in a decent way, will there be someone out there who cares about what I’m telling? There’s too many direcors out there already, and no one is asking for another one!
So 7:35, my first time shooting with celluloid, was a test. If that short film hadn’t worked, I would have retired.
How did you come up with the story of 7:35, a film you even dared to sing in?
At some point I found it funny to picture a music number that would break the first rule of music numbers: the lack of logic behind the fact that everybody suddenly sings and dances in a coordinated way, to a song they never heard before. What if we show a music number that actually can be logically explained? That question was my starting point. And, as most of my scripts, this starting poing could drive into something interesting or just a silly formal joke. In this case, the reason I decided to shoot this is the dramatic meaning I found behind the idea. If this music number has an explanation, it’s because someone has created it. And if, like in classic musicals, this performance happens in an everyday context, it’s because it has been made for someone else, as some kind of a surprise. And if there’s someone making this for someone else, it’s because this guy is not able to communicate in a normal way. So now we have a tragedy. And a tragedy that’s also incredibly stupid. And I felt instantly in love with this tragic, stupid story.
Based on your own experience, do you believe short movies are the best way for a young, anonymous filmmaker to make a name for himself and put himself under the spotlight?
I always recommend young students to shoot a bunch or short films, not as a way to convince producers of your talent, but as a way to discover which kind of filmmaker they are. There are hundreds of rules of screenwritting that every writer around the globe is aware of. They may apply to them or not, but at least they all share a constant set of tools and advices. But when it comes to directing, most of us reach our very first day of shooting without knowing exactly what to do in set. Are you supposed to grab the camera at some point or not? Should you scream all the time or be quiet? All those options worked for different prestigious filmmakers, but what suits you? What’s your nature? It’s still better to experience and explore those things while your are making no-budget short films, with a small crew.
I started reading science fiction in college, and I haven’t stopped ever since. I instantly became a fanatic of authors such as Philip K. Dick or Alfred Bester, and I found their approach, their challenging ideas, were still far from common sci-fi films. When I read the first chapter of Stanislaw Lem’s Star Diaries, a massive time travel paradox with a single character multiplicated hundreds of times, I thought “This has not taken place in any movie before” (those were the times before fims like Triangle, Moon or Primer). So I tried to write a time travel story in real time, in one location, with just one character. It started as a way to prove myself that I could be able to solve the script as some narrative puzzle. But, as in 7:35, this story started making real sense when I found some real drama inside. And that happened when the female character appeared.
While you were making Los Cronocrimenes, did you have the feeling you were making something so good, something that will make your name heard across the world?
I was sure about that the movie was going to be surprising within the spanish context, but I wasn’t so sure if the movie could travel overseas. Spanish audiences and critics are always asking for Spanish films to be original, to break the expectations. Surprisingly, Timecrimes was received mostly with indifference in Spain, but it had and incredible international presence.
Since Spain doesn’t really have a strong science fiction tradition, how hard was it to finance the movie?
It was ridiculously hard. After finishing the shooting, we spent a whole year trying to find money to finish the film, and that was the worst time of my life. There were moments when I thought the movie would never, ever be finished, that I was a total failure, that the whole Oscar thing was just an illusion, a trap I had fallen into. I was close to becoming a Werner Herzog character.
My personal favourite is Twelve Monkeys, the Terry Gilliam film. It’s one of the saddest studio-made genre films I’ve ever seen, but it’s also shockingly complex, with ten symbols, eight metaphors and two twists per second. It’s one of those movies that shouldn’t work, but it does. And it’s starred by A grade actors!
Twelve Monkeys uses time travel the way I like it the most, using it as a narrow corridor to imprison the plot, not as much as a “journey into the unknown”.
Did you feel any pressure after a very successful debut film? They say that making the second movie, in this case Extraterrestrial, is always more difficult than the first, because there’s the pressure of people’s expectations.
The thing is – I felt surprised by the international good reviews and the awards, but never experienced Timecrimes as a success. All of my short films are comedies, and most people in Spain that were interested in me were expecting the movie to be a comedy. Many people found it boring, ugly and chaotic. And many people hated the acting, specially mine. The cult status of the movie came later, thanks to the international audiences that slowly discovered the film.
Anyway, I was lucky: Enrique López Lavigne thought the movie was great. Enrique is a well-known spanish producer, who later asked me to direct something for Apaches, his production company (producers of The Impossible).
The movie I started to write for them is Open Windows, which would become my third film. Actually, I shot Extraterrestrial during a hiatus in the Open Windows preproduction. Me and my partner since college, Nahikari Ipiña, decided to shoot something small and quick. Since Open Windows is another narrative labyrinth, with crazy twists and so, I wanted to make the opposite, to escape from complexity and plot-driven stories. So Extraterrestrial is actually a reaction against a movie that did not exist back then!
In Extraterrestrial, you used UFOs and the theme of alien invasion in a way to camouflage what the movie was really about. What kind of a story did you want to tell?
First I wanted to use a blockbuster environment to frame an insignificant story. To replace the heroic point of view with the one from people who are located far from action, the people who will never have the chance to be useful, or poignant. Most of us, basically. I later found that out this story was about people in a situation where all the social rules have vanished, so they feel free to behave in a way that’s wrong with no apparent consequences. This way they become adults who act like childs, with toy guns and walkie-talkies.
When the romantic plot was defined, I found this easy metaphor involving an object of desire close to you and a giant UFO hovering in the distance. And, when I started to think visually, I found a lot of sequences where I could play with the character’s physical POV, one of the things that I like the most. Like in Rear Window, I love to join the characters and audience’s point of view, so you only see what the character sees. And when Julio uses tricks with cameras and mirrors to see more, that works for the audience too. Almost every important sequence of the film deals with visual perception.
In the short film Marisa you dealt with the theme of multiple personalities, in Extraterrestrial you used the presence of UFOs and the alien invasion to put human nature and the complexities of our relationships under the spotlight, and in Los Cronocrimenes, the main character is both a savior and a murderer. You’re quite interested in the human psychology, it seems?
It’s hard for me to talk about the main theme of my movies because I think that that territory is owned by the audience. Being the author gives me a privileged perspective about the working process, but I think the results of the movie, specially in terms of deep meaning and symbolism, are somewhat different from the author’s intentions. Maybe more profound, maybe more superficial. In both Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial I wanted to tell stories where the main characters are the good and the bad guy at the same time, and wanted the events to be a consequence of their actions. At the end of both movies you can blame the main characters for everything, and that’s an obvious attempt to avoid maniqueism. But, as I said before, I’m just talking about the path I followed when I made those films.
Your next movie, Open Windows with Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey, is currently in postproduction. What do you expect from this movie? Do you see it, perhaps, as your ticket to Hollywood?
I hope it works that way, because I feel that, as an Spanish filmmaker, I’m done! I don’t want to sound like I’m weeping, but the movies I have made until now haven’t worked with local audiences – not the way they should have. I enjoy the ways my movies get old, the way they find their audience throught time. But that doesn’t mean anything in economic terms.
Nevertheless, I want to make clear that I haven’t made Open Windows with the urge to reach bigger, easier audiences. The story is dark and risky at some point. I hope it feels as my third film, coherent with the previous ones, but in English.
I knew him before, we became friends in the Austin Fantastic Fest years ago. I was shocked because he was the one that actually approached me, just because of Timecrimes. It felt crazy. He was a movie star and I was a small Spanish director! I love the guy, he is a skilled actor, so precise and filled with energy one could suspect that he’s a bionic man from the future. And, at the same time, you can chat with him about obscure genre fims or strange music bands all day. He’s the guy you meet the first day at college and then you start talking and laughing continuosly.
Sasha Grey is also known for being a former porn actress. How does she manage to get along in the world of serious movies?
I wish I could manage that as good as her. She does it brilliantly, and that’s a big deal, considering her public role has no precedent. Not many people have managed to move away from adult films and keep a whole new artistic identity. But even when she was doing porn, she was a total game changer. In such a male-centered world where girls are just images, she had a whole strong female identity that hadn’t been seen before. That’s impressive.
Did you have a say in the casting of Open Windows?
I wrote Elijah’s role thinking of him. The female character had no face, but when the producers made a list of actresses, Sasha was the choice I liked the most. I liked her in The Girlfriend Experience and Entourage, and her identity gave the character a new layer of significance.
Elijah and Sasha are not just actors I wanted to work with, but the kind of people I like to meet. They are movie stars, but in a total unorthodox and interesting way. They are the kind of people that reccomend you a great book you’ve never heard of. Elijah is the kind of guy who enjoys listening to bands like Suicide, and Sasha would be the record spinner at that party.
How satisfied are you with The ABCs of Death, the horror anthology of 26 chapters, which the critics didn’t exactly greet with open arms?
I love the movie. I understand that it is impossible for you to like all the short films, but most of them are unexpected, funny stories shot by people around the world with absolutely different approaches. In a time where most horror films are repetitions of old formulas and archetypes, reboots or simply sequels, a movie with 26 attemps to surprise is a treasure.
I personally loved to shoot A is for Apocalypse. I treated that segment with the same seriousness that I apply when I make all my other stuff. I tried to make something funny and meaningful, as if it was my next feature film.
We’re eagerly awaiting for another horror anthology you took part in – The Profane Exhibit. What should we expect?
This is funny, because the whole project, the aesthetics, the intentions, they all seem to have nothing to do with the kind of stuff I make. This excited me, and pushed me into trying to shoot a short film that could match into an anthology with a gothic, gorey feel, but that at the same time was something that would feel absolutely mine. The result is one of the weirdest things I have ever done, and I can’t wait for the whole antology to be screened.
Anyway, I always love it when I have the chance to make a new short film, and this time I am sharing credit with legendary names such as Coffin Joe, a guy that I cannot love more.
If you had the chance to make a biopic about any famous person in the world – either alive or dead at the moment – who would you choose?
I’m somehow obsessed with Philip K. Dick, a movie about his latter years would be my most ambitious film. I’m also attracted to the Silver Apples band, a couple of musicians that basically invented electronic music in the mid-sixties, so nobody understood them. I also love the lives of Madame Blavatsky and those crazy spiritis from the late 19th century, when spiritism was a respected, high class activity. I don’t know, I like to dream.
Psychological horror mixed with science fiction is an area of storytelling you feel at home. Would you consider making a drama, or an action movie, for instance?
Absolutely. For the time being, I feel rather comfortable mixing sci-fi with other genres, but I’d like to prove to myself at some point that my range is wider. For example, I love the action genre. In fact, I think it’s the purest genre, since it’s the most cinematic one. All of the other genres come from literature, from theatre, from other languages. But the action genre is born in movies. One of my favourite movies is Breakdown, by Jonathan Mostow. It’s the perfect action film, in many ways.
My answer to this question may change in a week, but today I can say without hesitation that the filmmaker I admire the most is Hitoshi Matsumoto, the director of Big Man Japan, Symbol and Scabbard Samurai, three masterpieces that make me feel blessed as a part of the audience, and a cockroach as a filmmaker.
What about the best Spanish movie in the last couple of decades?
It’s difficult to answer that question, but there’s a couple of movies I want to reccomend to you, movies the foreign audiences tend to be unaware of. The first one is Arrebato by Iván Zulueta, a film made in 1980 that could be considered the Spanish Eraserhead, and Diamond Flash, by Carlos Vermut, a film shot in 2011 on domestic format, with almost no budget, that offers a fascinating take on the superhero genre: instead of following the superhero’s adventures, we know about them through the dialogues between the women around him.
How would you compare the Spanish cinema to, for instance, the American?
We are going through such a deep financial crysis, that I’m not able to find advantages about shooting here. The box office here is reaching historical bottoms, and too much friends and colleagues of mine are migrating to Los Angeles. I’m sad if this interview is being too dramatic, but it’s true. In the past, shooting in Spain could have meant more freedom, more edginess, but I’m afraid that, in two years, shooting in Spain will mean no shooting at all.
Do people recognize you in the street often?
I’m not exactly what you’d call “a celebrity”, but when we hang out on Friday night, from 2:00 am, when people get drunk and lighten up, sometimes they want to take a photograph with me. We call this “being a 2 am celebrity”.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years time? Do you have a vision where you want to be or you simply take it one day at a time?
Honestly, I don’t know. When I made Extraterrestrial I tried to test a way of building a film. If that worked, I would write and direct small, quick genre films once a year, in spanish. Like a small latino Woody Allen interested in parallel universes and UFOs. That’s my will for life: working on a film five days a week and hanging out with my all time friends every weekend. But things are changing in such a brutal way I don’t know where I’ll be in 20 years or the kind of movies I’ll shoot, or be forced to shoot. I have enough synopses in my drawer to make 15 more movies, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to develop them. Maybe some will end up as graphic novels, maybe all of them will. I’d love to write comics at some point. Anyway, my dream is shooting a bunch of decent, interesting movies that could surprise and amuse some people. But I need to keep moving all the time. I’m more attracted by the chance of shooting 40 good films, rather that 4 masterpieces in the same span of time…
I didn’t want to raise this issue until the end of the interview. As you know, I watchen Extraterrestrial after downloading it from the Internet. As an author directly hurt by this action, what is your opinion on piracy, and all the good and bad stuff it brings to the table?
I don’t condemn every specific circumstance around the downloading of my films. I’m aware that most of my popularity overseas comes from torrent downloading. And I’m honestly glad everytime someones congratulates me, no matter the way they saw the movie. But, at the same time, I recommend everyone who likes a torrented movie to buy or stream a legal copy via Amazon, Itunes or whatever.
The experience in many countries, even whole continents, is that piracy doesn’t kills culture. In China, the biggest country in the world, piracy is everywhere, and movies keep being distributed and produced… But here comes the trick: all those movies are pure mainstream stuff.
It’s an amazing paradox: you can buy the whole criterion collection in every chinese pirate DVD store. But, at the same time, film culture is incredibly poor, because there’s a massive gap between an extremely small bunch of arthouse filmmakers and the big mainstream properties. A similar thing happens in all the countries where piracy is the common way of film consummation. And Spain is moving towards that situation.
In other words, piracy doesn’t kill culture, but polarizes it. Since most of movies won’t be able to be financed, the only ones that survive are from the minuscule arthouse elite and the blockbuster makers. And I don’t like that at all. Because that implies that, in the future, if you want to be a filmmaker, you’ll have to be either privileged, or work for a multinational company. Some piracy supporters claim that Internet can allow anyone to become a filmmaker in their free time. But making films is not a hobby, it’s a way of life. A horribly expensive way of life. And the only way you can make most low cost movies is not paying the professionals that work for you. That means that, if you don’t get any kind of economical benefit, you’ll retire before you make your second film. I’ve seen too many cases of that and it’s sad.
Coming from a low class family, but being able to make a career as a director, I can’t be happy with that scenario. Everyone should be able to have the chance I had. And the great opportunity we have to keep independent movies alive is supporting legal streaming services.
The countries where author rights are protected the most, such as USA and Japan, are the ones where there’s a huge amount of independant production companies, where the annual production is wealthy and diverse, where more new authors rise. If that’s not the situation in your country, and if you can afford it, support the movies you like. Because we don’t need only William Friedkin to shoot an amazing movie like Killer Joe every two years. We also need two William Friedkins in every country!
Yeah, this is a fine way to ask you 5 dollars now, hahaha.
If half of the film-lovers there are like you, Croatia is a film heaven! I’m sorry I haven’t visited your country yet. But I’d love to meet you there in the future and, while talking about movies, share a beer or sixty.
Interview arranged with the help of Cinephilia & Beyond, a fascinating film blog you should definitely visit.