I was so impressed with Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool when it screened at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival that—not only did I write it up right away for Twitch and The Evening Class—but I actively pursued and scored an interview. Since writing up Liverpool nearly a year ago, I’ve read commentary here and there that has deepened my appreciation of the film. Most noteworthy is James Quandt’s ArtForum essay “Ride Lonesome” (available at Highbeam Research Library). “Ride Lonesome” is an especially impressive piece of criticism, tackling all of Alonso’s films, while specifically noting: “Liverpool seems designed for auteurial legibility.” Praising Alonso’s “dilatory style”, Quandt adds that Liverpool “keeps to [Alonso’s] antidramatic ways, attenuating narrative through empty time and withheld information.” Of related interest: Violeta Kovacsics and Adam Nayman’s interview for Cinema Scope; Darren Hughes interview for Senses of Cinema; and R. Emmett Sweeney’s interview for The Rumpus.
San Franciscan audiences will have a chance to experience the film themselves when Yerba Buena Center for the Arts mounts Liverpool’s Bay Area premiere on September 17, 19 and 20, 2009 as part of the film’s U.S. tour, organized by Adam Sekular of Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum who are likewise hosting “At The Edge Of The World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” come November 11–19, 2009. Further, Alonso’s short film S/T will be featured in the fourth Wavelengths program for this year’s Toronto International. As Andréa Picard has written in her program notes: “Setting up an intense reciprocal gaze, Lisandro Alonso—whose work consistently explores the personal quests of men navigating natural settings—creates a face-to-face encounter with the wild in the beguiling and enigmatic S/T, a moment observed in a seemingly floating abyss.” This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary.
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Michael Guillén: I loved your movie!
Lisandro Alonso: Thank you very much.
Guillén: And—I’ll be honest—I was drawn to Liverpool by way of Kent Jones’ Film Comment essay, wherein he waxed eloquent appreciating your aesthetic. He wrote: “Alonso is a fascinating figure who probably thinks more about form than any other narrative filmmaker his age. His attempts at overall unity are impressive if not fearsome, even when he miscalculates. At his finest, Alonso settles on journeys that accumulate observation (of landscapes and ways of life) that expand along the way into collectively internalized visions of existence and their horizon lines.” Do you think it’s true you think more about form than any other narrative filmmaker your age?
Alonso: What can I say? I don’t know. Maybe. There are a lot of filmmakers who are better at form than I am.
Guillén: Let’s back up a bit. How did you come to filmmaking?
Alonso: I studied in the Film Institute for three years but, before that, my favorite movie was Dirty Harry. [Chuckles.] After I studied a little bit, I discovered older filmmakers. I understood that, maybe, if I was lucky, I could make a film and express myself to other people through the film.
Guillén: Well, you’ve certainly caught critical attention. One of the critiques I’ve read most consistently is that your films achieve the non-dramatic by frustrating narrative expectation. For me, your films seem created by accretion, by the accumulation of many observed moments, that link together into a semblance of narrative.
Alonso: I think I understand what you’re trying to say. My films aren’t narratives. I observe people, different moments, and I put them all together in the film. The audience has to imagine or create something sitting in the chair.
Guillén: You give your audiences plenty of space to make associations. Spatiality, in fact, is a major aesthetic of your work. You use a lot of different kinds of space—not only inscapes, but landscapes—and specific locations like the lumber mill in southern Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, that create multiple environments, different spatial scenarios, for your characters to journey through or temporarily repose. And they always seem to be longing in their movement, or longing to be moving, and that longing is often registered as their looking within themselves as they journey, or looking out at the landscape they’re journeying through: overwhelming snow-capped mountains and bright indifferent skies. I especially noticed your aesthetic of spatiality when you placed Farrel (Juan Fernandez) in the restaurant at a table next to an autumnal mural of a white birch grove. Inside and outdoors, domestic and wild spaces, the autumn and winter seasons, were intriguingly counterpointed.
Alonso: I agree with what you say. I don’t know why, but using many spaces is interesting. I can’t explain why it seems interesting for me. I feel it and then I film it; but, I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s intuition, probably. I didn’t think much about what I should be shooting or not, I just knew I wanted to shoot the film in nature. I really wanted to shoot a movie in the snow and on the cargo ship; but, whatever connection those two spaces have is just a coincidence.
Guillén: But surely you intend the contrast to be visceral? I mean, you feel the confined quarters of the ship cabin empty out into the relief of these immense landscapes. You feel it by way of contrast. In fact, one might say your earlier films looked out towards nature more while Liverpool explores confined domestic spaces: the ship cabin, Farrel’s mother’s home, the restaurant.
Alonso: For me it’s new to film in interiors. As you say, my previous films have a lot of nature, a lot of trees and land; but—during the process of making films—I discovered I wanted to film in interiors to see what would happen.
Guillén: Are you pleased with the result? Have you enjoyed yourself?
Alonso: Yeah! I like it. Making a film in nature is easier for me. If I shoot something in a realistic way in nature, then with sound and editing I can make it not as realistic. For example, if I film this phone for two seconds, it’s just a phone; but, if I film it for a minute and a half, it’s more than a phone. Of course, it’s still a phone; but, the audience is thinking, “Why is this a minute-and-a-half phone?” I don’t know if I’m saying this right.
Guillén: I get it. It’s like Hitchcock with his glass of milk that the audience knows has a drop of poison in it. But where I felt it in your movie was the scene where Farrel is passed out drunk on a bottle of Stolishnaya and wakes up near the empty bottle stuck in the snow. That empty bottle is fraught with implications. It’s also just beautiful somehow and I don’t know why.
Alonso: Has that ever happened to you?
Guillén: Passing out drunk? Of course! [Laughs.]
Alonso: Ah! That’s why you like that scene and think it’s beautiful.
Guillén: Well, if you’re talking about images I relate to, there’s another in Liverpool that comes more to mind. My father abandoned me when I was two years old. I never knew him really; but, one of my few memories of him is when he came to visit when I was about four years old. We spent time together on the front porch of my grandparent’s home—no longer, in fact, than Farrel spent with Analía (Giselle Irrazabal), maybe 20 minutes max—but it was such an intense memory because he had come out of nowhere, unexpected, having won a lot of money gambling in Nevada. My dad was a gambler and a drinker and he had come “home” drunk to boast his spoils. He said, “Hijo, hold out your hands.” And so I did, cupping both small hands. He filled them overbrimming with shiny new pennies. To this day, whenever I see a penny on the street, I pick it up, thank Mystery, and remember my Father. When Farrel gave Analía the keychain—seemingly the only way he could express any kinship, any affection, any legacy—it moved me to the marrow.
Alonso: That’s a wonderful story.
Guillén: With regard to that scene where the gift is exchanged, I have a question: why did she put it in her pocket to hide it from her grandmother?
Alonso: Maybe she just forgot about it? I don’t know. I wish I knew. She’s a little bit retarded and maybe—even though she has the keychain—she isn’t really aware of it? But I know what you’re saying, that little things like pennies or keychains can become meaningful treasures. Maybe. I’m not sure about that. It’s open. I’m asking. Maybe she’s just trying to understand it? What it is? Maybe she’s asking, “Why does it have ‘Liverpool’ on it? What does that word mean in this situation? It’s red. It’s a city. It’s a port. It’s a gift from my father. Is he my father? Who is he? What is this? I don’t know. It’s very cold out here. I’m going to go inside.”
Guillén: In other words, you prefer to keep these moments open-ended?
Alonso: Yes, for me. People think when you are a director that you know everything. I don’t. What I’m trying to say is that I prefer many questions to answers. I don’t have any answers.
Guillén: Since you admit you provide no answers to the questions Liverpool raises, and perhaps because its narrative doesn’t reach resolution, the film captures an emotional authenticity.
Alonso: What do you mean by “narrative”? How I’m telling the story?
Guillén: Usually when I refer to a narrative film, I think of a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, like an O’Henry short story. A dramatic conflict that resolves itself. But filmmakers are free to tackle new kinds of narratives by subverting linearity, thwarting resolution, and telling the story in unexpected ways.
Alonso: But I tell a story. I think I tell a very sad story about this sailor who’s a father, and this girl who’s his daughter. I didn’t tell the story in a commonplace way, but I think there’s a story there. [I start to protest.] I know what you’re going to say. If you say to me, it’s narrative in terms of making people go into the cinema, that’s another question.
Guillén: A popular narrative; popular probably because it’s accessible.
Alonso: In the beginning, you cry a little bit. Now you laugh a little bit. Now the music swells. No, that’s not my show.
Guillén: So when you’re filming….
Alonso: I don’t know what’s happening.
Guillén: You don’t know what’s happening? [Chuckles.] You just see things you want to shoot and aim your camera?
Alonso: I talk with the people. I talk with the crew. I talk with the actors. I tell them, “We want to shoot this”—I don’t write much; 15 pages is enough for me—but I tell them, “This is what I’ve written.” They say, “What is it? It’s bullshit.” I say, “Maybe it’s a little bit bullshit but, okay, do it.” And we do it like that.
Guillén: But there are images that are so strong in the movie that it’s hard for me to accept they’re accidental or made up on the spot. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe I’m reading too much into your films?
Alonso: No, no, no. For me, too, the images are strong.
Guillén: For example, I loved the image of the Jesus on the back of the door.
Alonso: I added that because the art director was sleeping off an all-nighter at the bar. [Laughs.]
Guillén: And I love when Farrel is sitting at the battered red table against the green wall. The table’s length, the line it creates through the frame, abstracts the composition. There are many lines and angles in your compositions. Surely, you set up these compositions?
Alonso: I give that a little bit of thought, yes. [Grins.] I like to shoot night imagery and I have to look through the camera and make sure it’s in focus.
Guillén: And what I’m especially happy about is that you keep your camera still so your compositions can be appreciated. Your camera stays put and watches intensely. Your camera is composed as it’s composing. As in that final scene when Farrel is walking off towards the woods. The duration of that scene plunges the audience into a quizzical contemplation.
Alonso: Where do you think he’s going in that scene? Do you think he’s going back to the ship?
Guillén: Yeah. He knew he had to be back by a certain time and had to start making his way there.
Guillén: He’ll find a way back. He’ll flag down a logging truck and hitch a ride or something.
Alonso: You’re positive? I’m more negative.
Guillén: You don’t think he’ll make it back to the ship?
Alonso: You know why I think that? There’s a little detail that I couldn’t get quite right when I filmed it. When Analía asks her father for money, I noticed—and not everybody noticed—that Farrel takes a moment, looks into his wallet and then hands over all the money in the wallet. Without money, he won’t be able to buy passage. I filmed that scene badly. If I had filmed it better, everyone would have known he wasn’t going to be able to make it back to the ship on time.
For me, he went back home to see his mother and she was already senile so now—having done all he could do—he could rest his mind and drink without conscience, drink better. Also his daughter didn’t recognize him so—after giving her all his money—he feels free. Until he returns to the ship. Maybe I’m just talking about me in 40 years? But I see him at a point where he can leave family behind and just go. He can go with the memory of having done something good. He thinks: “Now I can walk through the snow until something happens.”
Guillén: As someone who has travelled a lot, perhaps I am more hopeful about his returning to the ship because I’ve been in situations where I’ve been stranded with only a dollar in my pocket for days. I’ve learned from experience that if you really want to get from here to there, you can.
Liverpool is a movie longing to move. First, Farrel petitions for shore leave so he can get his land legs back, and then—once he’s been traveling around on the land for a while—he wants to return to sea, or—as you’re insinuating—wherever he ends up wanting to be. There’s a restlessness that impels the film forward. It reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “You want to keep moving and you want to stay still; but, lost in the moment some longing gets filled.”
This kind of links back to what I was saying before. He’s a character who gauges his own movement by what he sees around him. He has to see the land. He has to see his mother. He has to see his daughter. And one of my favorite scenes was when he woke up hungover and was trying to see.
Alonso: [Laughs.] He sleeps everywhere.
Guillén: He slept outside and nearly froze to death! One curious omission in all of this is his mother Trujillo (Nieves Cabrera).
Alonso: What about her?
Guillén: That’s what I was going to ask: what about her?
Alonso: I don’t know. [Laughs.]
Guillén: Okay, I get my questions are annoying, but these are the kinds of things I wonder about watching a film.
Alonso: The only thing I can say is that when I “discovered” this grandmother, I asked her, “Nieves, can you act? Do you know that we are trying to make a movie? And that we want you to be in the movie? We’re going to pay this amount of money; do you want to be in the movie?” Then I asked her kids, “Does your mother want to be in this movie?” “Yes,” they said, “She wants to be in the movie.” I asked, “Can she work?” “Yeah,” they said, “she can work.” So I went to her and I said, “Ola, quieres caminar? [Are you ready to go?]” and she said no.
After about a month, I returned to the location, which was now covered in snow. When some of the people from the crew saw Nieves, they couldn’t believe their eyes and they thought bad of me because I wanted her to walk in the snow. Everyone on the crew was looking at me like, “You motherfucker, what are you doing?” I was so nervous, I started to laugh, and then I jumped out the window into the snow. I didn’t return for about two hours.
Nieves was lying in her bed for two days. It’s funny but it’s not funny. She’d eat and go to the bathroom whenever she wanted. I would say, “Now we are shooting” and she would go, “What?” I realized you can’t do this with a professional actor because this little retarded girl and this old woman make an effect, but the fact that they’re real people and not actors has an affect on the crew also. When Farrel asks his mother, “Do you know who I am?”, the truth is Nieves didn’t really know anything about what we were doing there and so she reacted to Farrel’s questions quite naturally. What I’m trying is to say that—whatever the old woman was feeling—the whole crew was feeling, behind the camera as well.
Guillén: So you’re catching a real moment and placing it in your story?
Alonso: That scene was totally for real. I’m not the guy with a professional actor. It was the same with the girl Analía. She made the crew nervous when we were shooting but how else could I capture that? I can’t do it with a professional actor.
Guillén: Several directors whose work I favor refuse to work with professional actors for fear of losing a strived-for authenticity.
Alonso: When I was young, I took some acting lessons. But on the day I had to recite something, I was totally drunk. I decided that would be my last lesson and that—if I wanted to be drunk—I didn’t need to be in acting class; I needed a bar. What I’m trying to say is that I really respect actors; but, I don’t want an actor coming up to me and whispering, “Lisandro, what do you think of my performance? What’s my motivation?” I don’t care for that.
Guillén: Is your filmmaking an attempt to make the image complete in and of itself?
Alonso: There’s no Shakespeare in my movies. I just work from scene to scene, smoke cigarettes, say this, say that.
Guillén: Let me ask you this then: before you make your movie, I understand you explore where you think you might want to film, and then you just hang out there for a while? You watch and listen to the people who live there and you decide once and for all if that’s where you want to make your movie. In this case, you noticed the old grandmother and you noticed the mentally challenged girl and you decided you wanted to put them in your movie because they would have—as you’ve indicated—a particular effect. Despite all your efforts to make the filmmaking as naturalistic as possible, does the making of the movie influence the place and the people? Do they change because you have arrived with a camera to film them? Have they even seen the finished film?
Alonso: No, not this film. My other films, yes. I made a film called Fantasma, which is about the lead actor in Los Muertos going back to Buenos Aires to see the release of his own film. For me Fantasma is very special. But to answer your question, no, I don’t think the making of the movie influences the place or the people. We create an environment of happy moments between the people who live there and the people who have come to film them. We dance together. We eat. We drink. We enjoy the day together and that’s all I want to do.
Guillén: You’re reminding me of Carlos Reygadas and his film Japón where he cast an old woman named Magdalena Flores, for much the same reasons you cast Nieves Cabrera in Liverpool. Magdalena was perfectly wonderful in Japón. No professional actor could have delivered her performance. And then—because Reygadas enjoyed meeting her and working with her so much—he used her in his next movie, much to his regret. He told me that it was one of the biggest errors in casting he ever made when he sought to use her twice because—when she made her appearance in the second movie—everybody knew her, everyone had an association of her with the previous film. Reygadas didn’t realize that was going to happen, but it happened and it impacted the authenticity of her scene. Did you have any problems like that when you were reusing the actor in Fantasma?
Alonso: No, I don’t think so. Actually, I’m not working with some of the first actors in my films and am trying to discover some new people; but, I enjoy working again with people that I know.
Guillén: How did you find Juan Fernandez?
Alonso: I was looking for the location and he was working as a caterpillar operator removing snow off rooftops. I saw him and waved to him and he ran away.
Guillén: I would run away too. “Oh no! It’s Lisandro Alonso!!”
Alonso: [Laughs.] But the good thing is that nobody knows me. So I would keep saying hello and he would keep looking at me like, “I don’t want anything to do with you people.” But after three or four hours of speaking with some of his co-workers, taking photos of the interiors, he finally was fucking freezing outside and came in to the restaurant. I asked him who he was and if I could take his picture? He finally said okay. After two or three coffees more, he had to go. The next day I called him and asked him if he would like to be in my movie? He said, “Okay, but I will have to ask permission from my family.”
Guillén: I hope this is not a stupid question or a disrespectful question, but are these people you meet in these remote locations even aware of movies?
Alonso: No. Absolutely not. Juan Fernandez, maybe.
Guillén: Because he was a natural, as they say and the camera loved him. He has a beautiful face and a noble nose. So what was it that you saw in him that you felt made him eligible to be the lead actor in your next movie?
Alonso: I don’t know. But once he agreed to be in the film, I told him he couldn’t back out or ask for more money or run away. He promised he wouldn’t. I told him he could drink whatever he wanted to drink but he had to wake up in the morning and come to work. He said, “Okay, I will do it.”
Guillén: That’s reminding me of a Malaysian filmmaker Deepak Kumaran Menon who brought his film The Gravel Road to the San Francisco International. Early in the film he had a little boy cast as a member of the family and I seemed to be the only one who noticed that halfway through the film the little boy disappeared without explanation and never showed up again, so I asked him during the Q&A what had happened to the boy. “I was hoping nobody would ask me that,” he answered. [Laughter.] Apparently, the boy decided he simply didn’t want to be in the movie anymore and the filmmaker didn’t have the means to reshoot his scenes. So it’s interesting how you lay down the law with your non-actors.
Alonso: From the moment we begin shooting the film, I know the people who I met from a month previously. I know all of them who live there and I know I can trust them.
Guillén: Do you know Pedro Costa?
Guillén: I’ve been much impressed with how he lives with the people he films in an effort to more accurately capture their situations, so much so that at this point he allows them to provide input into how the film shapes itself.
Alonso: He’s a good fellow, Pedro. I do understand why he changed his way of filmmaking and why he scaled down from 35mm to video. I understand why he wanted to film on his own and not with a crew of 100 people.
Guillén: Costa told me—and I was wondering if your experience is at all comparable—that he switched from the large moviemaking equipment and extensive crews to smaller cameras that he could handle himself or with one or two other people because coming into these people’s lives with all that equipment and commotion was, in essence, a death eye that killed what he was trying to record.
Alonso: I can understand that. Maybe he can’t raise the money to afford 35mm filmmaking so he has to change in order to survive as a filmmaker? I appreciate that. Maybe I’m wrong and I’m just a stupid kid, but my understanding is that for the movies he wanted to make, he couldn’t get the money so he had to use different equipment and shoot in a different way. I might be wrong but I think one of the main reasons he changed his style was because he couldn’t get the funding.
Guillén: He’s admitted to me that funding is an uphill battle. As for yourself within Argentina, as one of the key players in the so-called New Argentine Movement, do you consider yourself that way?
Alonso: The New Argentine Movement? I don’t know. New blood? Ten years ago there was new blood making films but now they’ve become old blood trying to make new films while new people keep making old films. What I do trust about this New Argentine Wave, or whatever you want to call it, is that they were basically people shooting on the weekends, sharing sandwiches, nobody was paid, and they were all just trying to make honest films. Nowadays, that spirit has disappeared because they now have families and production companies, they go to film festivals, they’ve met Viggo Mortensen…. [Laughs.]
Guillén: To wrap up, I simply want to say that I thoroughly enjoy the films you are making. I’ve come somewhat late to your work and am now looking forward to going back and appreciating your first three films, which people have been recommending to me for ages. I wish you the best of luck in the future in what you want to do and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Alonso: Thank you for your time, man.