Interview: Martín Rejtman
Like many artists who straddle different mediums, Argentine filmmaker and novelist Martín Rejtman has alternated his focus over the course over his 28-year career, which in part explains the half-decade gap between his latest feature and 2009’s Elementary Training for Actors, which he co-directed with Federico Leon. Elementary was an adaptation of one of his books—he’s also adapted two others, Rapado (92) and Silvia Prieto (99)—but Two Shots Fired is an original screenplay.
Rejtman sustains a unique energy across all of his work, which combines droll dialogue with screwball-inspired situations and chance. In Two Shots Fired, 18-year-old Mariano (Rafael Federman) finds a revolver in his mother’s house and shoots himself in the stomach and head, but survives without lasting physical effects, save for an odd harmonic that’s only audible while he plays in a medieval flute quartet. His distraught mother (Susana Pampin) insists that he carry her clunky old cell phone with him at all times, even though it constantly emits shrieking reminders of long since missed calls. Without a job or any responsibilities to speak of, Mariano drifts along, sometimes engaging with the respective social circles of his mother and brother. As the routines and rhythms of these two sets of characters mirror and oppose each other, Rejtman paints a deft portrait of ennui in present-day Buenos Aires.
FILM COMMENT digital editor Violet Lucca spoke with Rejtman in August immediately following its first screening at the Locarno Film Festival.
In this film and in The Magic Gloves, mental illness is definitely not the whole story, but it’s present, shaping the action. What draws you to that theme, or that element?
I really don’t know. I mean, my father was a manic-depressive, but that’s too personal. I don’t think that has a direct relationship with whatever I write—it’s just one more element. My way of working mixes together biographical elements, things that I witness, things that I read, and things that I steal from other movies. And then I put it together. People think that maybe there’s a special personal relationship with things, but sometimes there is not. In this film, the music quartet is there because I was involved in one when I was a kid, but there are many other things that I didn’t have any relationship to.
I didn’t even mean it on a personal level, I just meant as an element of the story. What draws you to it?
Thanks for making the question more interesting, because I always take it like, “Oh, I have to answer from the personal!” [Laughs] In Two Shots Fired, Mariano shoots himself twice: is it mental illness or not? For me it’s not. In The Magic Gloves, they take pills and drink, and nothing seems to affect anybody—it seems that these things aren’t really effective. It’s a way of showing how in life you go on, and things don’t affect you so much, and you still go on, and you still go on. Mental illness is one more of these things that is supposed to affect you deeply, and in my films it doesn’t. These characters are still part of a plot that is larger than their own lives.
You always maintain a substantial distance from your characters. Why do you prefer that approach?
I’m not very attracted to this flamboyant way of making films that makes the shot the principal thing in a film. I don’t like to make fancy shots, because I think they call too much attention to themselves. I try to find the right distance in terms of how much attention I pay to the characters, how much attention I want the audience to pay to the characters and to the story and to the scenes. This is a very delicate balance in terms of acting, in terms of position of the camera, in terms of editing. Sometimes I do it in the right way, sometimes I don’t. I also try just to use certain things with real care. For example, if you use too many close-ups, they’re not effective. When you have three or four close-ups in a film, they are there for a reason. It’s like getting the right energy. It’s also a matter of musicality and rhythm, and the size of the shots is part of the music, no?
Do you end up writing a lot more and then cutting things out as you edit, or is basically what you write the final version?
What I write is the final thing in terms of dialogue, usually. And in this film I just left some scenes out. I usually don’t.
When they bring Lucía from the coast, there was another scene dropping Ana at the shopping mall, and she was getting back to work right then. And she was meeting her boyfriend there. I left that out. It was more direct to go to Lucía.
When you’re establishing these rhythms, do you shoot from multiple angles and have a lot of excess, or do you have it all worked out in your mind, you get it in the camera, and then work with that?
There isn’t excess, but I don’t have it in my mind either. I find it more and more during the shoot. Before, I used to draw storyboards, and nowadays I’m less precise. I have to confess that working on this film was like making a film for the first time. I was kind of lost during the shoot, never knew what to do, and I had to find my way little by little. It was difficult because it was a very long shoot, and we had too many scenes to shoot with very little time—not very little time, but you know, it was always very hectic and a lot of pressure. So it was like learning again. If I learned something, I don’t know, maybe I didn’t. And it was surprising for me, to feel so ignorant in a way, so empty somehow.
Why was that?
I think it’s because it’s been a long time since I made a feature film with a whole crew. The films I made in between—one is a documentary [Copacabana, 06], the other I made with seven people. A documentary’s different because you go and find whatever you have to shoot. And then I made Elementary Training for Actors  for TV, which we did with a crew from a television channel, and I co-directed it. Again, it was different. I swear, I felt completely empty, and I had to learn again how to make a movie. Now I kind of like that. I like the rawness of that situation, because I feel that my films are very primitive. As I said before, I don’t like the fancy shots, so maybe I would’ve felt comfortable during silent cinema, if it had sound. [Laughs]
As the moderator mentioned in the press conference, this film has a certain dynamic: the kids with the kids, the kids with their parents, and the parents with their parents, and there are these mirrored relationships, it’s sort of like a quartet. Was that intentional, or was that something that, when you were coming up with the story, it just developed?
It developed, but for me it was important. My first film, Rapado, was about teenagers, basically. Then, Silvia Prieto was about people who are twenty-something. The Magic Gloves is, like, late thirties. And then I said, okay, I have to mix everything up now, because otherwise I’m going to end up making a film in a retirement home or something. Cocoon, or something like that. [Laughs] And they don’t want that. It was intentional to mix everything up. But then I realized that there were different groups of people, like the music quartet, then all the adults, then the kids. And all the groups kind of dissolve.
I think what makes your films so special is that these people are talking, interacting in a very banal way, and then someone will say something totally absurd, like “She sent a nude.” And then if you think back, when the brother first opens up the picture he sort of has a funny look on his face, so we wonder: “Is she really ugly? What is wrong with this?” And then it’s casually revealed later. How do you create those rhythms in your mind, and by extension, how do you know when to shift from different character grooves?
It’s just instinct in a way. I mean, you asked about how to build the rhythm—that’s the whole work, actually. Usually it’s in the dialogue, but sometimes it’s not only in the dialogue, sometimes it’s in the actions. Sorry, I’m kind of slow because this is my first approach to the film, actually. Usually it takes me a while before I know what the film is about, and I never saw the film with an audience, so for me it’s like not seeing the film. I mean, I haven’t seen a DCP of the film yet. I never saw the film with a good quality image and good sound together, so it’s like, what is it? You saw more than I did.
Sound is huge in your work, and usually has an intrusive role. Is it just for comedic effect, or is that reflecting something larger aesthetically?
I’m completely obsessed with sound. During the sound mix I’m like a crazy person who’s listening to everything, and my sound mixer told me he never worked with somebody who had such a—not a “good ear,” but it’s like I hear everything. It’s my favorite part of the film, I love it. I always feel that I should’ve done more with the sound in order to play more in the sound mix, because it’s really my favorite game. Buenos Aires is a very, very noisy city, so it’s difficult to shoot with direct sound or to have clear sound, so I tend to shoot more in the outskirts now.
It’s also a personal thing. Sometimes I am disturbed by noises that other people don’t find disturbing. For example I had next to my house a garbage plant that was making extremely loud noises. I had to file a complaint and they made studies of the levels—I mean, I am kind of obsessed. Sound is like a thing for me. And I try to be a little more calm about it, and I put all that anxiety in the sounds of the film, maybe. Psychologically speaking.
Yes, I can relate. That’s why I ask.
You’re from New York?
It’s little noises that bother me. Like someone chewing gum—it’s the worst!
Or somebody breathing heavily, you know? I was at a classical piano concert last Tuesday in Buenos Aires, and there was a guy next to me who was [simulates heavy breathing]. He was ruining my whole experience. I mean, I’m here to listen, I cannot put up with your breathing! But all those things are reflected somehow in the film, and it’s like a musical part that I don’t know what it is, because I’m building it in the sound mix, mostly. I know that there are going to be some sounds but I don’t know what they’re going to be during the shoot. For example, all the cell phones, I didn’t know what sound they were going to have. We picked them afterwards. And at one point we were using some sounds, but then we found out that they were all Apple, and we don’t have iPhones in the film, so we looked for others and we invented some.
What were you looking for with the casting? You’ve worked with Susana Pampin a couple of times before.
This is the third time I’ve worked with Susana. I know her well, and I know she’s a very good actress. She’s more “expansive” as she said [in the press conference] than what I want in a film, but she knows, so we work together with that.
As for the lead actor, we did the casting with so many, many, many actors. It was difficult to find somebody who could speak without putting too much intention in what he was saying. That’s always my problem. It took like two years. [Rafael Federman] isn’t an actor—he’s taken some courses in acting. I liked the way he looks—I mean, he can look a little sad, but also at the same time, he looks smart. And he’s extremely smart, he’s very clever. I related to him personally—I think he went to my same high school, and he’s Jewish. Violeta Bava, the producer, told me that for her, he looks similar to me when I was his age, in a way, even though she never met me back then. And other people told me the same. It’s like he had a familiarity with me.
Working with Susana, she knew what I wanted, so that’s liberating. The guy who plays Arturo played Susana’s husband in The Magic Gloves. And for that role, actually, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be him, so we saw every actor of his age in Argentina. All of them. And it never worked, and when he came, he just read a couple of lines and there was no doubt that it was him. He knew exactly what he had to do. So I guess I’m more difficult as a director than I thought. I mean, I am difficult—for the actors, it’s not easy, in Argentina at least, because I want them to say exactly the lines I wrote and they are more used to improvising. In other countries, I guess in the States it’s not like that.
It’s hard for people to improvise. It’s something that’s specialized.
Right, they just study and follow the lines, but in Argentina, they’re lazy, maybe. [Laughs]
It’s a different type of creativity.
It’s like, when I rehearse, they learn their lines in the way I want them to say it, so it’s like two jobs in one. So I don’t mind rehearsing because of that.
How did you find Daniela Pal who plays Liliana?
She’s really good. She was very difficult with her lines—but it was worth it. She works in theater, and isn’t very well known. The casting director suggested her. She’s surprising because you look at her and you already know, in a way, no? She’s saying so much with her body language and everything.
You said in the press conference that you didn’t want to do something that’s entirely a comedy or a drama. How do you know that you’re hitting that right emotional tone?
I don’t know. It’s very risky because it can be a total disaster, completely unbalanced. But I said okay, that’s why I’m making movies. I’m not doing a formula or anything. I’m just trying things out. And that’s why it takes me a long time to get the financing and to get the people involved, and this and that, because the movies are in between. And also they’re in-between art-house movies and non-art-house movies. That’s very difficult to market, and very difficult to get the money, because sometimes they feel that you need to make arty movies or social movies. But this is so ambiguous that they don’t know how to read it. But this is what I do, so I cannot change that.
When you see one of your films with an audience and hear what they’re laughing at, do you ever change your approach?
No. Never, never, never. I am the first person in the audience and I believe in my vision because otherwise I would be making somebody else’s film.