Interview: director Pablo Larraín on his new film ‘El Club’

I recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chilean director Pablo Larraín about his newest film El Club which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale in February and has been selected as Chile’s entry for the Best Foreign Language hopeful for next year’s Academy Awards. The film is about pedophile priests exiled and hidden away by the church in order to keep their indiscretions secret. You can read my short review of the film here.

He is calm and composed, perhaps in part because I have just been introduced as a student (which is only partly true since I did come to learn from Mr. Larrain, but I am not currently enrolled in school). Ready for any challenge I probably won’t be able to throw at him, he lounges on an ornate throne of a chair in the far corner of an elaborately hollow room – a king without a kingdom.

MLP: I understand [El Club] was a relatively quick shoot, something you were doing in-between other projects. How much did the shooting conditions impact the aesthetic of the film?

PL: It’s hard to say. Make it as you can, you know? It’s very spontaneous. You try to find a way to tell the story so that it fits what you’re trying to do. That’s what you try to do.

Would you say it’s an intimate setting?

Yeah.

I thought it was an interesting choice to choose such a wide-screen [2.35:1] aspect ratio for such an intimate setting, was that a deliberate choice to put those elements at odds with one another?
Of course, when you shoot in scope, what you have is that the environment has a lot of information, and it gives a lot of psychological weight to the characters. But the way to deal with it in this case was we thought it would be good to have the camera very close to [the actors]. That’s the key I guess, to be very close, so the audience will feel the presence of the characters.

And having the camera so close in conversation scenes created some interesting distortions, such as out-of-focus faces. How much of that was something planned and how much took shape as you were shooting?
Well, some things were planned, and when you plan something, you leave some space for what you’re doing on the set. It’s a little bit of both, it’s hard to answer. It really depends on, you know…

It’s spontaneous?
Yeah.

I found the use of music really striking, some great pieces by Bach, Britten, Arvo Pärt, and of course the songs the actual members of the ‘club’ are singing. How much was the use of the music and the stylistic consistency of the music something you had in mind as you were writing?
I had in mind that we were going to use music and I didn’t know specifically what, and then when we were editing the movie we started to put some music and what happens is that it would really define the movie somehow. Music is important because it really triggers the tone. What we did basically was look for musicians that have a really mystical approach to religion. All those musicians composed that music thinking of religion, so it’s very connected. And they’re very connected among themselves, because Britten was very passionate about Bach, and Arvo Pärt was very passionate about Britten, and actually one of the pieces in the movie is called “Cantus in Memorium of Benjamin Britten,” by Arvo Pärt so they’re very connected as a chain.

How is this connection of sense of community between Club members also reflected in the sense of community on set?
It’s different because it’s an illusion. Cinema is an illusion. We work more like a magician, you know? I don’t believe that the actor has to feel what the character is feeling. As long as you believe it. I don’t think this movie is realistic. I think it’s very simple, which is not the same. And it’s a technique. When I say this sometimes people are very…I don’t know…they feel like, ‘Oh how could you say that?’ But it is. It’s a technique. The actors didn’t have the script in this movie. I never showed them the script.

At all?
No.

Wow.
Only every day, in the morning we would give them the scene, so they would read it and they would realize what they had to do right there. It’s an act of presence and present that is captured. And then it makes sense when you cut it.

Does that sense of mysticality, or magic of the illusion – are you seeing that already as you get your takes? Or in the editing room? Or is there a specific moment where you really feel the magic?
No, I think you realize what kind of movie you’re doing when you’re shooting it but then what it really means, and what the tone of the movie is, becomes clear when you’re cutting it.

Do you think the fact that this kind of group that comes together – that they victimize themselves in a way? Do you have a specific feeling or sense that perpetrators may be victimizing themselves more than actual victims of traumas like this?
No, I just try to deliver some content to the audience so you can think that. I’m not sure, maybe. I just try to open things, so it’s the audience that actually closes it. That’s what cinema… why it works. There’s like a kind of cinema that will tell you everything, what to think, what to believe, who’s bad, who’s good, with a moral perception of the world. It will tell you everything and I don’t understand why those filmmakers want us to see that movie, if it’s already been said. I hope we could have a more active audience, so you can create a visual idea that has a aesthetic perception of humanity; that it’s open. So it needs an audience to make that conclusion and that audience would always make a different conclusion, because every one of us is different.

That’s a beautiful way of putting it. To what degree then would you consider the audience a kind of co-worker?
Yeah, what you dream, what you hope, is to have an active audience. The more active it is, the more interesting the movie. Why would you do something that is already being defined? They ask me sometimes, ‘what’s the message, Pablo?’ There’s no message. No message. You do what you want, you think what you want. I don’t want to feel responsibility. I want to be irresponsible, you know?

Then would you consider it a proper analogy to consider the film like a tea cup that the audience has to pour the tea into? Or is that be taking it too far?
Oh man they can stick the tea pot in their ass if they want, it’s okay. I’ll just put the teacup there and see if they want to drink it or not or swallow it or vomit it. What usually happens is that cinema is a collective operation. When you make it and when you see it. When you make TV, it’s a collective operation and then you see it by yourself, if you want to – while you’re looking at your phone and checking Twitter or Facebook. So that’s the difference between cinema and TV.

Television is more of an ‘already defined’ package coming to you?
Yes. And you can do multiple things when you watch it and you will get it anyway. Cinema is more of a religious operation, if you want to make a metaphor. You go to church with more people, and instead of looking at a screen you look to a priest. It’s a collective experience, and everybody has different perceptions of that God. Cinema is the same; you go and collectively watch something and then you go out and have a drink and talk about it and everybody would have a different opinion of what they saw. If everybody had the same opinion, that would mean that the filmmakers stopped trusting the audience.
I think cinema should be very expansive. The more expansive it is, the better it is. Think about the great filmmakers of history…good cinema is always made by a filmmaker that is a kid with a bomb. And then sometimes it explodes and it has no idea where to go, it’s very expansive. I create existential terror…which I guess is the most beautiful thing about cinema.

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