Interview: Lisandro Alonso
“His most important film to date,” the Argentine critic Quintín wrote in FILM COMMENT about Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s feature (partly) about a 19th-century Danish engineer’s trek into the Patagonian hinterlands to find his daughter. “Jauja gives new meaning to Alonso’s past work, proving that his poetics isn’t necessarily tied to the use of non-actors, non-verbal performances, and minimalism. But the participation of Argentine poet and novelist Fabián Casas, actor Viggo Mortensen, and longtime Aki Kaurismäki cameraman Timo Salminen doesn’t merely imply higher production values—it also suggests a combined effort in which literary values, professional performances, and high-quality visuals fuse with and modify Alonso’s approach.”
Unlike Alonso’s past cinematic journeys into the unknown (from Libertad, 01, to Liverpool, 08), the Argentine setting of Jauja lies firmly in the distant past, during the campaign to suppress indigenous peoples that was known as “The Conquest of the West.” Mortensen’s character has arrived to join this effort, but as an engineer, he occupies a somewhat less heroic-sounding position, and when his daughter elopes, his search feels all the more desperate and quixotic (even if it looks beautiful).
“Jauja” in Spanish denotes a mythical land of plenty, but it’s also an actual city in Peru and, historically, a mining area (and consequently a site of colonial battles). It’s a suggestive, multivalent title that names without quite explaining, and with the story’s enigmatic deviations from a purely physical journey, Jauja itself ultimately manifests the urge to escape from a certain narrative—and for Alonso, an attempt to blaze a new path.
FILM COMMENT spoke with the ever-playful director last year at the Cannes Film Festival following the world premiere of Jauja, which is currently enjoying a much-lauded New York theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (where Alonso was 2014 Filmmaker in Residence) and IFC Center.
I was immediately struck simply by the vivid colors in the film. How did you get those greens and reds?
This is the first time I work with Timo Salminen. He has a great knowledge and perception about colors, and he used to work on films with Aki Kaurismaki. So he likes to push the colors to the limits, and to create delusions, not the reality. I asked him: “Where does the light come from?” “It’s from the lamp,” he would say. Afterward, in the color correction, in the postproduction, he just pushed the limits more, and I really liked it because you can see the colors in the landscape get a little bit more alive. And you know how I love to shoot those places, those wild places.
It has the effect of making you feel like you’re seeing a new land for the first time—the kind of shock an explorer might experience. Did you read any journals by explorers who went through South America?
Yeah, a little. I wrote the script with Fabián Casas, the poet, and read some books about some French guys who were traveling at that time. They were traveling on a horse from Buenos Aires to Chile, and that takes about three or four weeks. They just did that—there was no other way. We took some ideas from the books.
How long were you shooting on location?
We were in there for like three weeks. But after two weeks, we stopped because we were waiting for the old lady [Ghita Nørby]. She was busy and had to do some theater plays and other things. So we stopped for two weeks, and then we went there for the location at the end.
Where was that?
It’s at the very bottom of the continent. Laguna Azul means Blue Lake. I discovered these places by the Internet, but as soon as I got more informed, I just took the car and went.
And the chateau at the end of the movie and the scene in the cave, where was that?
That is in Denmark. And the cave scene is in a studio. Well, you see the entrance which was filmed on location. But the cave was in a studio. It’s like theater.
It looked a bit like a piece of black box theater. The older Danish theater actress, what was her background and how did you cast her?
Her name is Ghita Nørby. She’s kind of a living legend in Denmark. She acts frequently in Danish films, and she did more than 155 films. Viggo was a great fan of her since he was a Danish boy. He just mentioned Ghita for the role, and he got in touch with her. Suddenly she was flying to the end of the world, just to come with us, to be in a cave.
And speaking of Viggo, how was it different directing him? In the past, you have directed a lot of nonprofessional actors.
His mind knows how to create these characters. I didn’t know how to do a lot of these things. He’s a great actor, and I’m not able to tell him what to do or not, you know. Nevertheless, we talked a lot and when we worked, we would make solutions to the script and make it better. With Fabián, we just talked about who this guy is and blah blah blah. But, yeah, I mean, what can I do? I trust these guys. I don’t know what the hell they said in Danish, unless I think he was saying my lines.
Hopefully he wasn’t just saying the alphabet or something. It’s interesting because Viggo has a different style of acting from many you’ve worked with before, but it’s also partly because of the nature of the character. It’s as if Dinesen has been weakened by his experience already when we first see him. I wonder how he gets to this point.
Me too. I think Fabián at the same time was actually writing a novel with some of these elements, but the main character was a dog. And I don’t want to make a film about a dog. Well, not yet. So I just picked up some elements from his novel, which is much bigger than my 20-page script. In the beginning, it was a little bit linear but then after the girl disappeared, I think he made a crack in his head, or something happened. The film breaks itself a little bit and starts to have distortions in time, space, and reality. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t really want to know. Not yet.
Why did you want to take the movie into that direction?
I mean, there’s no way to keep on in the film after he realizes that he’s not going to see the girl again. He has no horse, and he has not even a hat to protect him from the sun. He’s a man in a desert, and he loses all that he has, his daughter. He’s far away from his country. What I’m saying is: the character would not want to go on living after all that.
So it’s escapist in a way.
Once you lose your child, there’s no way to keep on going, to abide that feeling.
Extreme experiences call for extreme landscapes. Sometimes the movie reminded me of a western just because of the extremity of the landscapes. I’m wondering if there’s that equivalent kind of feeling for you—making a movie that’s a historical story, in an actual historical setting.
I love historical stories, but I think you [Americans] have to do the westerns. We don’t know how to do the westerns. I’m not able to do a classical western. I just leave it to someone else. This is my kind of twist on the westerns.
You have the search element in the plot, which you find in westerns, most famously in The Searchers.
Everybody talked to me about that film. I was going to watch that one, but then I was like: “No, no, it’s better if I don’t watch it.” But I know it’s one of the best of John Ford.
About the screenplay—which you mentioned was 20 pages?
Only one. One page! No, it was 20 pages long.
How does it play out when you’re making the movie? At certain points, when he’s walking and hacking his way along, you can effectively leave the specifics of a screenplay behind.
Yeah, I don’t ever read it. I had it in my pocket but sometimes I forget about it. No, for example, if Captain Dinesen is just walking through, I write a little bit more in terms of getting more money. I put some more of this and that, and expanded the situation, but it’s actually just, you know, a guy is walking.
You mentioned that Viggo had some input with the casting of Ghita Nørby. What other aspects did he work on?
He has three different roles in the film. He’s a producer, an actor, and he’s composing music with this guitar player who’s called Buckethead. You know, the strange guy? He plays with the mask and nobody knows his face?
He sounds like an interesting guy…
He’s a very interesting, strange guy. He’d go with the guitar on the stage and then suddenly he’d stop and he gets out a nunchaku. And he continues to play. Yeah, he’s a funny guy. Viggo is a machine—I mean, he never stops working. During the shooting, before the shooting, after the shooting, and until today. He was controlling the subtitles—that kind of guy. He had a lot of ideas on the structure of the film, and it’s super easy to work with people like that. I used to work with the same people who more or less know my films, and I was worried about, you know, “That’s a new guy.” But he won everyone’s confidence because he’s great as a person.
Do you have any favorite performances of his from his other movies?
I think the Cronenberg film, A History of Violence, is his best. The last scene—it’s only his face. Nobody is speaking at the table, and he can do all that with his face.
With Jauja, Viggo seems to be one of the more talkative characters that you’ve had.
Yeah, but nobody understands Danish.
Sometime you’re really going to have to get that translated!
I like how Danish sounds. I feel like I’m familiar and afraid when he is talking to Spanish people. I can read it so deep.
How did you decide upon the unusual 4:3 frame of the film?
Actually, we composed the film in 1.85:1, which is more panoramic, a little bit more modern. But then, when I asked for the transfer from the lab, I just asked them to give me a full frame, and I started editing in 4:3. The machine just gives it to you like that. I was thinking that if I go with a more ’scope film, people maybe would get the wrong idea about Viggo, the swords, and the horse, and they’ll look more for action. Is he going to kill the Indians? And that is not the film. So if I put it in an old frame, they will start seeing the film another way, not waiting for more action. It’s a better perspective to have.
Right, you share a kind of tunnel vision with him instead of expecting more action.
I think also it’s more like a pictorial thing. It’s more like a painting.
I read one interview with you in which you said: “Liverpool would’ve been much different if I had not made Fantasma.” So now that you’ve made Jauja, do you have a feeling like that again?
I think after Liverpool I just felt maybe I should start changing the elements that I work with. I was a little bit tired of the films I produced myself, so I stopped a little bit. I went back to the farm and started working; I meet my wife, and I have a kid. I needed to start thinking with new questions in terms of keeping going and getting stronger as a filmmaker.