Interview: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka
This article appeared in the May 26, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival here.
Eureka (Lisandro Alonso, 2023)
Nine years after the landmark historical drama Jauja (2014), Lisandro Alonso returns with a feature several times more ambitious than anything the 47-year-old Argentine director has yet undertaken. Structured around a series of narrative pivots reminiscent of Jauja’s climactic temporal ellipsis, Eureka is a time-, space-, and genre-jumping attempt to locate resonances among various indigenous communities in three distinct milieus: the Old West of some collective cinematic past; South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in the present day; and the jungles of 1970s Brazil.
Shot in black and white and framed as a film within a film, the movie’s opening section features Viggo Mortensen arriving in an unnamed saloon town to free his abducted daughter with the help of the mysterious El Coronel, played by Chiara Mastroianni. Following some playful philosophical banter and a protracted gunfight, Eureka makes its first shift to contemporary South Dakota, where policewoman Alaina (Alaina Clifford) is being dispatched to deal with various incidents around the reservation. Unlike anything Alonso has previously shot, this extended middle portion is simultaneously surreal and matter-of-fact in its raw depiction of life on the reservation, and the violence and drug addiction that afflict its residents. (Think David Lynch by way of Roberto Minervini, who co-produced the film and consulted on the U.S. portions of the shoot.) Meanwhile, Alaina’s niece Sadie (Sadie Lapointe) is fed up with her life, and seeks to transcend her prescribed existence through a Native ritual that will carry both her and the film into the wilds of the Amazon—at which point, Alonso’s signature style of observational fiction takes flight into something magical.
Soft-spoken and sensitive to the film’s multicultural concerns, Alonso was in good spirits when we met up in the days after its premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and eager to discuss the project and its inspirations.
Was Eureka always conceived as a multipart, cross-continental project?
For me the idea was to find a new way of using different elements in the same movie. I started writing with my Jauja scriptwriter, Fabian Casas. Even though there are professional actors in the film, I always try to keep my crew as a friends-and-family team because [that way] it’s easier for me to evolve themes or issues that the films describe. Very quickly Fabian and I started thinking about utilizing a kind of multitude of locations and time periods, as a way of showing different experiences about being Native in different parts of the world.
What about these specific cultures interested you?
After we finished Jauja, I received a fellowship from Harvard, and that was a great excuse for me to start getting in touch with the Pine Ridge Reservation. Viggo Mortensen knew people from the reservation; he gave me advice and then I traveled there several times. Pine Ridge has a lot of bad press; there were a lot of things that I think needed to be shown to contextualize these issues. I wanted to focus on the problems these people are going through.
Is the bad press related to drugs?
Yes, but not all of it. I’m from South America, so I know places that have these kinds of problems. But I think Native Americans have even more of these issues. It’s not just about being poor, but also about being excluded from their country. But especially in Pine Ridge, they still live in an old-fashioned way. I think there’s something special about them. I was curious how I could work with them to depict these problems, which is how I came to choose a police officer to show different stages or the different results of these problems. There are drugs and things, but there’s also deep, profound issues that are unrelated.
Can you tell me a little about how your writing process has changed between your early, more observational films like La libertad (2001) and your more narrative-driven recent films?
La libertad started without any particular ambition. That’s a word I’ve been hearing as it relates to Eureka, and I don’t think it’s a bad word. But the main thing that’s changed is that I’ve started to work with screenwriters—in the case of this film, the novelist Martín Caamaño, as well as Fabian Casas. When you start writing with someone like Martín, who doesn’t come from the school of film, there’s more freedom. It’s almost like painting: there are different colors and ways of doing your job. We just try to put framing over the walls of a story, and people can hopefully make connections. So I think I’ve found more freedom in the writing process, and I enjoy it because for me it’s a way to step above the parameters of my previous films, which focused mainly on just one character going through whatever, as we attempt to read what is happening in their mind.
How did you come to the transitions between sections?
I always start by thinking about where I’m going to shoot, especially if it’s in unmarked locations like jungles, or Patagonia, or the desert. Once I choose those places, I need bridges in order to take me to where I want to be. When I started thinking about this film, I thought about Natives and who represents them in film, and immediately I thought of the western genre. I don’t know why, since I’m from Argentina, but I was dreaming of filming a western. I figured this was a good excuse to keep going in a similar direction as Jauja, which is about a father looking for his daughter. For me, westerns are entertainment, and entertainment should be on the screen. So I needed a strong cut to get us to reality and I thought a film, a western, would help facilitate that.
Has your thought process changed at all as it pertains to working with professional versus nonprofessional actors?
I have strange feelings about professional actors. Viggo was the first professional actor I worked with, but I learned quickly that they immediately understand the concept of the film. With nonprofessional actors, the approach is totally different, because you don’t throw the story to them: you say who you are, you listen to them, you create a circle of trust, you spend much more time with them, and you try to hear what they need to talk about. It’s another kind of relationship, which I love. In some ways this film was an excuse to travel to these spaces and be a witness to the way these people live. I’ve always been interested in seeing different realities and exploring why people decide, if they decide, to live in a more marginal way without having access to certain comforts, like water, heat, or electricity. It seems they don’t need that. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. They don’t know they can get access to certain things, so they don’t try to get access. As a consequence of that, I’m not sure if trying to force yourself to live in a big city, and receiving access to all the things that come with it, is actually a better way to live. I don’t know what it demands in exchange.
How did you find Alaina Clifford and Sadie Lapointe?
Eléonore Hendricks, my casting director, had made a couple of films before with people from Pine Ridge. People respected her there, so it was a great open window to start saying hello. I went to the police force in Pine Ridge; they have [barely] 20 cops, and only three are women, but I knew I wanted to have a female character in the lead role. That’s how I met Alaina. She was curious about the film, and my intent, because I’m not from there. I told her that I thought it was good for people outside the U.S. to know what it is to be a person who tries to establish some order in a place that doesn’t have many of the laws that we’re used to. When you’re a cop in Pine Ridge, the people you meet when you knock on doors are family; maybe you open the door and it’s your cousin and they’re on amphetamines, or involved in a spousal dispute, or even something more violent. Alaina’s character is not a schoolteacher; she’s a police officer. So if that’s your line of work, you’re inevitably going to show me different realities.
How did you get access to certain Pine Ridge locations, like the drug house?
Most days I would jump in a police officer’s car, and I would stay in the car all night and watch them react to different calls. With the drug house, I could feel that something was happening in there. We knocked on the door and that’s what we discovered, even if in the end there is a frame of fiction around it. The old couple who live there, for example, are the owners of the house. They’re living in a dreamy, unconscious, intoxicated, senile way. They knew we were shooting a film, but they would connect and disconnect from reality like you see in the film.
You worked with Roberto Minervini on this part of the shoot, right?
That was a great help for me. He’s a co-producer of the film. I’ve known him for a while but I asked specifically for help with this section. I told him, “I need you to be here with me because you know how to read in between the lines.”
Right. And, like you, he’s an outsider making films about America.
He’s been in some deep shit with the films he’s made. Even if he’s from Italy, he knows how to read the atmosphere. I actually asked him if he wanted to co-direct, but he said, “No, you’re the director and you have your own vision, but I’ll be there with you to share opinions about what you shoot.”
Can you talk about your thematic interest in families?
I’ve been dealing with that since my second feature [2004’s Los muertos]. If you go deep in the narratives, my films are also about how people try to communicate and show feelings. I have always tried to understand how we communicate, because it seems we’re not that good at it. Maybe it’s part of our existence, but I think in some situations we could be reacting better than we are. It shouldn’t be that complicated, but it is for different reasons. If you consider Pine Ridge, you don’t know how many people even live there because they don’t have passports or IDs. Apparently there’s somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000. It wouldn’t be that complicated for the U.S. government to change the reservation’s reality. They could start by opening schools. The Pine Ridge Natives are proud of their past, but they’re at a loss for how to keep going.
Can you tell me about working with cinematographer Timo Salminen again, and why you brought on Mauro Herce to shoot part of the film?
Timo’s a genius. I’ve been shooting with him for the last 10 years, not even making movies. We have a great relationship. We shot the U.S. part of the film in the winter, 14 hours per day. It affected all of us, but Timo was really affected by the weather. It was 32 below zero and it was too physically demanding for him. That’s why I called Mauro.
Timo seems to have really influenced the look and feel of these last two films.
He made it all possible. Before I made Jauja, I spent eight years thinking about who I wanted to work with, who I admired. Timo is one of the best, and he had championed my work, so I asked to collaborate with him. His visual style is another form of narration, if you want to call it that. His style is more shot-countershot and reverse shot than I’m used to—and the way he lights was new to me. At the beginning I was like, “Timo, but where does that light come from?” He said to me straightaway, “That light is coming from the lamp. Lisandro, we need to create an illusion. I’m not a realistic or naturalistic DoP.” So as a director, I had to let myself go and experience it his way. It’s brought more artifice to my films, more theater. You can see the light is artificial, but to me that’s a plus. That’s why I try to think about him as a reference for the images, even when not shooting with him.
Pacing is crucial to your work. How did you arrive at the rhythm and length of each section?
It’s instinctive. I don’t have a manual. I just sit and start editing and think, “Here, I understand that this is happening in the character’s head, and if I go further, I get bored.” It takes a long time for me to get bored [laughs]. For example, Timo said to me, “Why are you using these fades? It takes too long. It should be two seconds.” I said, “No, no, no. I want to establish this dreamy feel. It’s the only way.” If I gave this film, or even my first film, to any other editor, they would make a different film. Maybe a short film, maybe one with voiceover. But this is me, and I’m the one in charge.
Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight and Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.