Projecting and Excavating the Past: An Interview with Pablo Larraín
Post Mortem, Pablo Larraín’s follow-up to Tony Manero, began its U.S. theatrical premiere run last week at New York’s Film Forum. FILM COMMENT spoke to the director by phone from Chile about the ins and outs of inescapable history and compelling fictions.
What drives you to keep returning to the era of the coup and military dictatorship in your films?
I grew up in the middle of the dictatorship, and when I was a little bit older I started to understand what happened here. But those days remain a sealed box, and it’s absolutely impossible to open. So maybe this is a way of trying to open it. The absurd thing is that the more I dig into that time period, the farther I am from it. I feel that there’s something absolutely unexplainable about it, and for some reason I want to get close to it. It's archeological.
That archeological impulse manifests itself in Post Mortem because the protagonist, Mario Cornejo, was a real person who actually participated in Salvador Allende's autopsy. Can you describe the process of creating a character around this historical moment?
I read Salvador Allende's official autopsy, and I found it to be an autopsy of Chile itself. It’s a very strange document because it describes the way that he was dressed––which was the way that most people dressed in those days––the things that he had in his pockets, the labels on his clothes, the shape of his liver, the food that they found in his stomach, along with typical medical details like his blood type. And I saw that it was signed by three people: two of them are very well-known doctors, and then there was this third guy, Mario Cornejo. And we were like, “Who the fuck is Mario Cornejo?”
So we started researching, and I found out that he was dead, that he had been a small-time clerical guy, and that his son, also named Mario Cornejo, wasdoing the same job that his father did. When I met his son, he was pretty much the same age as his father was when all this happened. He’s actually in the movie as one of the assistants. He also described how the real Mario Cornejo acted, so we used a few details about the way that he would talk, the way that he might view the situation. His father never, ever, ever in his life said anything about the Allende business, so it was a huge mystery for him and he had all these theories about it. So we start getting all this information, and it was interesting because it was so new and so dark and so weird.
Much of who Mario Cornejo was, was a mystery even when he was alive, but we knew that he was somebody who did, in an indirect way, support the coup and the new government. He was somebody who, like a lot of people, was just there—a regular unknown person who experienced this historical moment and nobody ever gave any thought to. It was just that hour, or day, when this huge historical moment took place. By making him a “functionary,” we created somebody who was a certain distance from the corpses. He is the camera, a point of view. And then the inherent strangeness of the situation, the absurdity of the violence, of almost everything during the early days of the coup. I think that it’s important because that’s how we see the situation. Our point of view is his behavior and I believe that they’re very close.
The film and Mario's character seem inseparable in many ways. To what extent did one influence the other?
We wanted to have a character with a few aspects that were very easy to read and understand, but a lot of things that would always remain a mystery. I believe that’s very important. I don’t know how you could make a movie about somebody you completely understand. The human mystery, I think, is essential. And that’s how I think as a viewer you start to connect with the movie because you start to create something out of your own biography, what you are, and the way that you see the world.
When a lot of people see this character they think that he's eccentric, weird—whatever it is—but I think that’s something that happens when you look at anybody too much, you know? He's also typical of the lower middle class in the early Seventies. He's shy. He's not very smart. He probably started off as a kind of a regular person and then became quite singular after his solitude. But he carries this country on his shoulders, and for me that’s a symbol of the situation. He’s mixed up. The other part that we created around the historical facts was this lonely guy who was in love with his neighbor. A lot of people talk about the dark humor of the film, but they never talk about the melodramatic elements that are so important to me.
I wanted to ask you about Nancy (the neighbor, who performs at a cabaret). She is sort of the archetypal sexy neighbor, but there’s a lot more going on there.
Yeah. It’s funny because that cabaret was very famous back in those days, and put on fairly elegant shows. After the coup, it became sort of seedy and run-down. We met with some of the women who were there, and some of them came from left-wing families who felt ideologically compromised by their line of work: dancing almost naked to be ogled by an audience of men who represented the bourgeoisie, the patriarchy. Everything that these women did was completely antithetical to socialism, so it would cause shame for their families. I found this interesting. Nancy is someone who doesn't care about politics or much of anything. If Mario is the product of an entire society when its morals fall away, Nancy represents the new world, the country that will now become the real country, that will import stuff that will try to be from a First World country. Both characters are symbols, and they’re absolutely from opposite sides, and that’s why they’ll never be together. It wouldn’t work.
Would you say that her refusal to eat is part of wanting to be foreign?
Yes. She wants to look different from everyone else in this little Third World country; she also dresses in a way that's different from those around her. When Mario asks her out, he takes her to a Chinese restaurant. It’s kind of an international thing to do. She represents this new world.
I read that you shot a lot of Tony Manero yourself and experimented with framing and the blocking of shots as you went along, and that for a few takes you told Alfredo Castro to improvise how he moves so he missed some of his marks and the camera was rushing to keep up. Did you do the same thing here? [Castro plays Mario, and was the lead in Tony Manero.]
No. It was much more calculated and rehearsed. We did improvise, but we had very clear framing and action. So he could move a little bit, but not very much, really. They’re very different movies in that way. They look similar but the way that they were made it’s so different. Tony Manero was handheld documentary–style, and this one has a 2.66 aspect ratio, very framed. Everything is under control, I would say.
I also read that to achieve the greyness you used regular lightbulbs in a little block. Can you talk about how you arrived at that set-up?
We shot on 16mm with these old old anamorphic Lomo lenses from Russia that were made for 35mm, so the result was very special. That type of lens was used on a lot of Russian films from the Seventies, including Tarkovsky's. And then when we were shooting, we were doing all kinds of lighting setups, and we never liked anything that we had. One day we had an electrical problem and all the lighting we had set up went down before we started shooting. So I asked for somebody to turn on the lights for the room, and when I looked at the monitor I realized that I really liked the idea of using very regular light coming from the ceiling, but a lot of them. We created this very plain array so the film would have this public lighting look. It also made sense because there is a certain politic to it. And after the test we realized that it actually did work because it creates such muted colors with very little shadows and we liked that. It was plain, it was grainy, and the color palette was very special. So we only used regular lightbulbs, hung up all over the set but mostly from the ceiling.
You were talking about how you worked very differently from Tony Manero where it was very spur-of-the-moment. How did your direction of your actors change with this film?
A lot of people are so concerned about script and plots and sub-plots and twists and whatever, and of course it’s very important, but I think the most important thing in the movie––and the hardest part to reach and the thing that I most admire in other directors––is the tone, the atmosphere. Of course the look did help and all these technical aspects that we’re talking about, but it was also very important the way that these people would behave: the speed of their gait, the way they talk, the direction of their gaze, how many times they blink, if they used their hands or not. We looked for some tone, and when I felt that we had something, I just stayed there for the entire movie so we would create an entire organic world through the performances and the way that we shot it.
You’ve said that this and Tony Manero are part of a trilogy about the coup and the military dictatorship. Can you talk about your next film?
It’s set in 1988, which tells a story about the creation of the “NO” campaign. After international pressure, the government had to hold a referendum so people could vote to keep Pinochet or get him out of office. The “NO” campaign was in favor of him staying. Alfredo Castro is the antagonist and Gael García Bernal is the protagonist. It’s already been shot and I've almost finished the editing.
You’ve been very critical of the Right in the press, and you’ve said right-wingers have very little interest in culture, and that it reveals their ignorance. How does your father, Hernán Larraín, the president of the Independent Democratic Union [a conservative party], react to your characterization of the Right, and what does he think of your films?
Well, I would never answer for somebody else. I understand the question, but you should ask him. What I could tell you is I think he likes it, and he’s very proud, but no matter who you are or how you think, if you are able to raise a boy who is able to think so different from you and to be free enough to build his career in the way he wants I think it’s something interesting from that father. I tell you this as a father. I wouldn’t know what I would do if my daughter became a right-wing activist or something.
But I believe that the problem is that the right-wing project is what is truly in control around world, and every other movement that promotes equality is going down. No matter what the government, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. All over the world and the system is pretty much the same. And I wonder what can we do. We don’t have the answers.
I don’t make these movies to change anything or to create a process. The left-wing movies that were made in Latin America during the Seventies expressed a certain ideology. They wanted to change things and create conscience. I’m not after any of that stuff; I'm not trying to create a pamphlet. I’m just trying to understand something and to show some things that did happen that I believe are very important for all of us.
Can you talk about your HBO series? Will it be broadcast here?
Yeah, it was already shown in Latin America and it’ll start airing in the United States from September onwards. It’s thirteen episodes. It’s something so different from what I’ve done in movies and that’s why I’m attracted to it. It’s a sort of action-drama series where we show the reality of these coke dealers, kind of a “road series” instead of a road movie––these guys run all over the country everywhere so we never shot in the same location more than one or two or three scenes. We film the reality that we are experiencing now and I have a lot of fun doing it.