Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro cobbled together prizes from past festival wins to fund his latest release, Viola, which is partly based on a single scene about lovers’ intrigue from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Piñeiro (whose next film focuses on 19th-century Argentinian writer and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento) shot Viola in 11 days in 2011. He spoke with FILM COMMENT during New Directors / New Films about working with friends, the pleasures and perils of the text, his special Korean connection, and his plan for broadening Argentina’s offerings in cinema from abroad.
Why did you choose Twelfth Night as the basis for Viola?
I started with Shakespeare’s comedies and the first character to catch my attention was Rosalind [the basis of his previous film, Rosalinda, from 2011] and the other was Viola. I only chose one scene from the play and it’s a scene that works fine today without having to cut anything. There are no strange references to kingdoms, for instance. The rhythm of the scene was attractive to me because it felt contemporary; it spoke to me the most of all the scenes in Twelfth Night. I felt that I’d found the roles for these actresses. For Viola, the actress was María Villar, and for Rosalinda it was Agustina Muñoz.
And these actresses are your friends?
I am friends in one way or another with many of the actors, whether I see them once a week or once every so often. But María and Agustina I am very close with.
Is it a challenge sometimes, working with friends?
Yes, of course. With an actor whom you are only paying, you can just tell them to “do this and do that,” but with friends, you play off one another’s feelings and that is richer and more complicated. And then also, when a film has success, there is the question of giving credit and to whom and how much, etc. Or if I’m doing the poster and a photographer takes a picture of one of THE actresses, I would not ask a paid actress for her permission to use it on the poster, but of a friend I do ask. It complicates things, and I prefer working this way.
What do you do when you’re not making films?
I teach at the university [in Buenos Aires] and also I give private lectures about film to a group of ladies who feed me lots of sandwiches. I show them films like Bringing Up Baby and A Woman Is a Woman. They didn’t like that last one at first, by the way. They thought the DVD player was broken. It’s incredible that nowadays a film from the early Sixties that had ruptures in sound—it still shocks! It still works!
You play with sound in Viola too. You’ve put in ringing cellphones and a kind of buzzer.
Yeah, I do. I think that rhythm is important in cinema, and that sound helps to give a film rhythm. In my film They All Lie , I play with sound the most out of all my films. There, like Viola, I wanted to be specific in creating an atmosphere. As much attention as I gave to framing, I wanted to give to sound, to ask, “How can I make this more dense, more complex?”
With the telephone ringing, I like that you can put it in wherever. I don’t ask the actresses to think about the phone ringing, or tell them, “act as if.” I like to profit from what happens unplanned. The idea of the world as being something beyond what is seen is what I’m looking to express. I think besides editing, sound design can be a very economical way of communicating that idea. As I work in close-ups, especially in Viola, the larger world must be communicated somehow. Just as I say how I’m interested in how a Shakespeare voice hits someone’s face, I’m also interested in a telephone’s ring, how it hits.
The camera stays close to the actors’ faces, as in Rosalinda, but the image seems softer somehow. What did you do to achieve that quality?
It has to do with Fernando [Lockett], the DP, knowing how to work with the light. The lens was an 85mm, I think, a long lens, which gives you this softness. The camera assistant, with this setup, has to constantly be arranging focus, going in, going out. This gives a little movement to the image, too, which was more static in Rosalinda. There, we used another type of lens, a shorter lens. Most of Viola was shot using these lights, like Christmas lights. Fernando really knew how to move and sculpt the lights. So it looks almost like there was a filter. I was looking forward to having this closeness, and the technology—which we did not have on Rosalinda—allowed that.
In Rosalinda, I wanted it to be a little more like in Howard Hawks’s films, where a wider lens shows more of the action. It’s not a wide-angle lens that we used, but it was wider than what we used for Viola, where I wanted to really insist on the faces. For Rosalinda, I let the Shakespeare text introduce all the complexity, but not so for Viola.
Is he the same DP from your other films?
Yes, it’s the same sound people, the same image people, and almost always the same editor. The sound people know that I like direct sound, that they need to have two booms. So we speak in a kind of code. The same goes for the cinematographer.
Rosalinda and Viola are characterized by the theme of repetition, most explicitly because their narratives are comprised of rehearsals, Viola especially. What about repetition, about looping, appeals to you?
I think that one film calls for the next one. For Viola, I was doing another Shakespeare, female comedy. When you’re working with the same topic in a new film, I think you have to provoke differences. I wanted to work with the idea of repetition as rehearsal. The idea of mantra and loop came to me, too, because I like this idea of the text being more powerful than people.
More powerful than people?
Yes. Like, in Rosalinda, sometimes I had this feeling that when the text was over, the people in the film would cease to exist. This fantastical idea—you know, the power of narrative to influence what it literally, realistically could not. This gave me another idea for a film in which the characters would be conscious that they were characters from a book and then in the final scene of the final act, they would disappear. In Viola, I took only one scene, and made them conscious of being actors rehearsing a scene, but I wanted it to be like even if they made a mistake, the actors rehearsing the play—Viola’s characters, in other words—would continue on. I thought about how if one actress makes a mistake with the Shakespeare text, she then traps the other one inside the text and thus they must go back and do it again. It has this consciousness of being inside the scene, of working inside the text itself not only as a narrative. There is realism and the actors are conscious of acting. It’s not Pirandello!
You’ve spoken of the text having a physical presence in your film. Was it Rohmer who said that words are something one can film, just like a mountain?
Yes, and I like that quote. I hate when categories are established. When people say, “That is so cinematic,” I think “What the fuck does that mean?” What is cinematographical? It’s not any one thing. Does it mean that there’s movement? It’s stupid. The quote from Rohmer gives a lot of freedom, that you can film a mountain and put it against a sound, a face. I also like this idea of fiction that works with the documentation of an object rather than with narrative convention: to shoot a fiction film, and to be interested in what’s real about that. No, not what’s real, actually, but what it provokes. I’m not so interested in the borders between reality and fiction. I like fiction, I like actors. For the last 10 years, everyone has been talking about using non-actors. But I like professional actors or a certain kind of professional actor. I like making a fiction that is not trying to mimic reality, but that is trying to provoke a reaction by setting things against or with one another.
For me, a Rohmer film, it’s a confrontation of objects out of [which] some meaning will come. It’s like chemistry. He also talks about chemistry and combinatory processes. It’s all energizing somehow, what he says. Rohmer gave me courage to explore these kinds of ideas.
Would you talk about subtitles? For Viola you knew you were making a movie that people would watch with subtitles, is that fair to say?
I really had a hard time with Rosalinda and subtitles because it’s so complex what they say. There are so many words. It was like a ping pong game of dialogue. That she’s a girl dressed like a man pretending to be the girl she actually is, is great to watch, to act out, but reading the words on screen is not the same thing. It was easier with Viola, which has something more like a series of monologues. Still, there are too many words. At one point, I thought I should do like Godard in Film Socialisme, and only put nouns in the subtitles or something like that. I have not yet come up with a way of totally fixing the situation. There is always some loss by the time the viewer is reading the subtitles. Also, because Viola has so much repetition, and the viewer understands that, and they’ve already read the subtitles, I thought about just cutting out some sections of subtitles. Thus, the formal idea would take over and all people, Spanish-speakers and not, would be watching the same thing, the things, the faces that really interest me. But then I decided not to fool around with the subtitles like that.
You’ve referred to yourself as an Argentinian-Korean filmmaker because of your relationship with the Jeonju International Film Festival. Did they help fund Viola?
Jeonju gave me some money as an award for another film, and I used it for postproduction and for helping to give some money to the actors. What I win, I redistribute, so the actors and I have a kind of cooperative structure, I guess. I must be responsible about this and fill the envelopes! [Laughs] Jeonju accepted my first feature, The Stolen Man , and I won a prize, which was very useful for making They All Lie and for paying people. Then they commissioned me to make a film, which turned into Rosalinda. Then I won a work-in-progress award for Viola. They have given me much more money than my own country. It’s kind of crazy.
With other wins, I’ve bargained for different services than those that I’d won. You have to trade to make it work. For example, They All Lie won an award of film cans which I then sold in order to fund Viola. Viola is kind of a Frankenstein in a sense. It was funded with winnings from all these different places and then the rehearsals were conducted first as part of a play I directed. You learn lessons from cinema. It’s kind of like Orson Welles and Macbeth. [Laughs]
At a recent Flaherty Seminar showing of your films, you mentioned some of the difficulties of distribution within Latin America. Could you talk about that?
The problem in Argentina is that it’s very centralized and it all goes through Buenos Aires. There’s not many places you can show your film if it’s not all done in the official way. But I work in the parallel system. There is no need to make and pay for copies of my films to show on 35mm film. But there’s one or two places that I can show my films. One is the MALBA, the Museum of Latin American Art. Their idea is that there’s no need to show a film at two in the afternoon because no one will go there. Instead, they show a film four times per week only during prime weekend hours when people can go. Then, your film can stay there for a whole month, and if things go well, it can stay for three months. So the audience is developed in another way than what’s usually done in Argentina, where it plays for one week all over the city at different times, and then suddenly it’s over. I think MALBA’s way builds your audience better and allows more people to come see your films. The other system is just an old one that doesn’t adjust to new developments in film technology and production. It’s like making sausages.
Last year, Argentinian magazines and some based in New York asked me to send them my list of top ten films for the time I was in New York. The lists were pretty different. On my Argentinian list, there were like five French films! [Laughs] And on the New York list, there were just two. I realized that the only alternative to the American films in Argentina are these French films. There’s Claire Denis, which is awesome, but then we have all these other, industrial French films. You don’t have the good German or Spanish films in Argentina. Or Chilean films! There were five good ones from Chile that year, and none of them showed in Argentina. They’re right across from us, over a little mountain, but we don’t get to see them. I mean, people are premiering at Cannes with a USB drive. People under house arrest are showing at Cannes. I don’t know if it’s because of taxes or fees or the industry dynamics or what, but we don’t get Chilean films in Argentina.
I would like to do something to fix this. BAFICI [Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival] is a huge festival, and thanks to it many of us have been able to show our films. If there is an audience for international independent films there, then there will be one if we show them in Argentina outside of BAFICI. It’s very bizarre that we don’t get Spanish films, Mexican films, Columbian films. We don’t have a little place downtown showing these films like we should. In Mexico, they do! There’s a place called Cine Tonalá, and there are Argentinian films screened there. I may be a little green, but I think we can do it, too, in Argentina. In New York, you can learn from Light Industry, Anthology Film Archives, Union Docs. I’d like to do something like this in Argentina, even though I’m not much of an entrepreneur. It’s nice to try to force something into being.