Interview: Victor Moreno
The Hidden City screens Wednesday, February 6 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on the opening night of Film Comment Selects.
“The ethereal opening of Victor Moreno’s The Hidden City takes us into an unknown world, but it also feels simply like the awakening of light in darkness,” I wrote in the January/February issue of Film Comment. “Deep below Madrid, these tunnels of all sorts keep the city running, whether it’s storm drains or subways or other underground systems—the behind-the-scenes to urban living. Traveling through the tunnels (sometimes through literal tracking shots), the film’s camera-eye also makes a journey from abstraction into the brutally concrete (the substance, and the drilling into said substance), as we get subterranean glimmers of light, night-vision peeks at rats and even a cat, and watch workers on somnambulant tours through the artificial night. Its soundtrack phases mysteriously between scored ambient music and sounds of the environment. In the mind’s eye, we also take echoic trips through cinema, with John Alton, Alien, and Vertov all harmonizing in the film’s DNA (as well as nonfiction explorers like Glawogger and Véréna Paravel/Lucien Castaing-Taylor). It’s a whole new generation of the city symphony, with a voice and an orchestra all its own.”
I spoke with Moreno last November, shortly after the film screened at International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
How much time did you spend shooting underground?
Two months. But it was very difficult because in some of the locations we could only shoot for two hours, so we had to choose very carefully what we would record. Because of security and the conditions, we spent months looking for locations. It’s a big city.
Did you work from a map?
I like it like that.
You’re an explorer.
Exactly. One of the images that I had in my mind when I began the film was a tunnel without a light at the end. It’s as if you are in a comfortable place, comfortable by design, with a wall that we recognize, and we feel secure. But then when it’s darkness, you have to listen, you have to look with the camera for any bit of light you can discover. That’s a suppressed image in cinema—in movies you always see the tunnel with a light at the end.
A horizon of some sort.
Right. I like that there is no light at the end here: you are going into the abyss. And then you feel other sensations.
How deep underground is it?
It’s difficult to say because the underground is very labyrinthine, horizontal but also vertical, especially in Madrid. The most difficult thing for us was to go with all the equipment, down through a very enclosed place. We had to go in a line, one by one. And when we arrived at a location, we could not move anymore, we had to go backward.
So, no mistakes.
How big was your crew and what kind of cameras and lenses were you using?
We were five and sometimes six people. It’s not so much, but it was a lot.
Down there it’s a lot.
Exactly. We recorded with the Epic Dragon 6k. But the most important thing was choosing the lens, because it was very difficult to record in the darkness and we didn’t want to use artificial light. We used the light that we found there, a lot of lanterns. So we used a lens from East Germany in the ’70s.
For the sound, it was very important to me to put sound and image on the same level. Even when we did not have much time to record, we stopped shooting for 10 or 15 minutes in each location and recorded ambient sound, on the walls. The ambient track was the first tool to build the film.
Are there layers to the sound? It’s very rich.
Yes, it is more or less 200 tracks. It’s crazy, the sound in this movie. And you never know when you are listening to music or when you are listening to ambient. We worked with 10 people at different stages: we worked with an experimental musician from Germany, Asmus Tietchens, and Juan Carlos Blancos from Spain, but we also recorded foley from different floors [surfaces].
Stepping back a bit, what was your vision for the entire film? This is not a film where you learn how a system works. You’re creating a journey.
Yes, for me the idea of journey was important—a mind-bending trip. Putting space at the center of the narration—the tunnels, the sewers, all these worlds—and reflecting on our own habitat. What is the meaning of this world that we have to create for ourselves? We are a kind of a prisoner in it: completely enclosed and far from the nature. So the underground of the city was a chance to work in a place that is very close to us but that is completely unknown. I could work as a kind of explorer, as you say, to create a new imaginary from a world that no one knows exactly. One big inspiration for me is Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, a place that is close to us but unknown. It’s not a utopia, but by going there and looking, we can maybe see what the future will be.
In terms of function, what are the tunnels we see for?
It’s water, electricity, sewers, storm drains.
Did it ever rain while you were in there?
Was that a little scary?
Yes, that was the worst part. We had to go out immediately. But this was important for me in the film: the way nature exists there.
You can only partly control nature. It’s always a deal: nature is making a temporary deal with you.
Elsewhere in the film, we enter another kind of space, with the people who work underground. You can feel each worker, each person, trying to have his own space. What was it like, being with them?
It was really good to work with them, because they felt like an important part of the world. No one ever wanted to record them. So it was important for them to feel they are part of this big machine that is the city. Also, they could tell us where we could go, what we could find, because they are always there. They know the city.
Do they work days or nights, or both?
Both—sometimes they don’t know exactly. When you are there, you don’t know. There is a kind of border that you cross from outside to inside, and suddenly you lose time, space, what part of the city you are in. You are completely lost.
What was the mindset of the people working? Sometimes they seem so meditative.
Yes, that is the mood I wanted to record. All the people that appear are working or thinking to themselves. It’s a world that’s completely human [manmade], but the world that we show is dehumanized. This is the state of mind that I wanted to show in the movie, because it is very close to the contemporary world that we live in.
Watching the film I was also constantly thinking about movies. I thought of 2001, a bit of Glawogger, a little Tarkovsky when you pan over water, but also film noir—the cinematography of John Alton in The Big Combo, for example. Were you thinking about any of these?
I know [Alton] but I don’t know that film. My favorite film of all time is 2001 not only for the world of science fiction—that of course is the model for this—but also for Kubrick’s conception of the film: thinking more about the sensation, the immersive experience, more in music than in narrative. It was very inspirational when I was in my teenage years, looking forward to where I wanted to be as a filmmaker. Another filmmaker who is very close to me is Dziga Vertov.
Yes—when you do a tracking shot here, you’re on an actual track.
Exactly. I love Vertov. I think this movie is close to the urban [city] symphony from the beginning of the [20th] century which puts the narration in the image. I love this kind of perception of things. And of course Tarkovsky.
2001 is an interesting reference point because its science fiction becomes mystical. I had that feeling a little when we start seeing animals in the tunnels—you have your Blade Runner owl. There’s a feeling that you can never truly understand.
And it’s a universal symbol, a strong philosophical symbol. It’s curious what you say about animals, because I have a short film The Stranger about animals that Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer, loved. He told me that it’s the same thing that he feels in 2001 with animals. I met him because he wrote me with this connection.
It’s so surprising to see the cat—such a symbol of home. That cat looks so confident—because you’re the intruder. What was the most surprising thing you saw underground?
The most surprising was in fact the cat. I never thought there would be a cat. It was in a tunnel for water coming from houses. It’s a territory for rats. Maybe he came from a house.
Maybe it’s the cat’s vacation home. You mentioned your previous film The Stranger—let’s talk about how you started making films.
I began about 10 years ago. My films were closer to direct cinema, me alone with the camera—I did one medium-length film. With The Hidden City, I wanted to go another step, to try to recognize the reality, but to go with this reality to another world.
Where did that urge come from?
I think it comes from the opportunity to explore a world that had never been explored, the heterotopias that I told you about. When there’s not a strong imaginary, you feel free to create it. At the same time I like to connect the underground with the sky, with the stars, with the world outside Earth, because at the end it’s completely impossible to be there without the work of humans. So it’s a strong representation of us. Maybe in the future, people might come and say, What is this? How did you arrive here? Also, it’s in the beginning of science fiction.
Yes, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I also thought a bit about Dante’s Inferno. I think the last line is “we emerge to see the stars.”
Exactly, that is amazing.
There’s also that other branch of science fiction where people go underground after nuclear war. Maybe this is where we are going to end up.
I know where to go! We are maybe close to something that will not be very comfortable in the future. This imaginary is not only in cinema—Chris Marker, also the underground—but also in books: Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. When I read, or watch this kind of film, I feel more inspiration not from the narrative but more from the little ambient details: how they move the light, how they describe the space. For example in Blade Runner I love how they design the ambience and the light, how it’s always moving. And police and advertisements are how they have light in that world. It’s an amazing idea.
How are people reacting to your film?
People like it a lot, but there are some people who don’t go inside the film. When you change the narrative, sometimes people feel strange. But when people do go inside, they go completely inside. I like to change the position of the spectator, because I think the spectator must be active in film. I feel very close to contemporary art where the role of the spectator is a part of the process. It’s also a film where it’s difficult to have all the answers at the end—it speaks more to the unconscious of the spectator. This is the most important part of the cinema for me.
Are there any particular artists or artworks you’re thinking of?
One of the most amazing portraits for me is Las Meninas by Velázquez. Who is looking at it, who is painting it—it’s this space in the middle. These kind of games with the spectator, where you don’t know where the point of view is exactly, and you have to look for the middle of the image. For me this is a very strong inspiration.
It also makes me think of Dutch masters a bit, where the image is hyperlucid but that doesn’t mean it’s clear. In this film it’s hard to know how to orient yourself sometimes. I don’t remember seeing a tunnel in a film quite like this, not knowing if you’re coming or going, these very deep shots. It must be hard managing focus and light levels.
It’s very crazy. And for the person who was moving us, the very long traveling [shots] are very hard. I like that the camera was dancing a little bit in the space. It’s like the owl flying, that kind of feeling.
You’re going to think this is funny, but I also thought of Alien.
His two best films [Alien and Blade Runner]. And they are also workers [in Alien].
Yes. In your own film, you take on an institutional subject but not an institutional approach.
It’s like the recurring joke in Frederick Wiseman movies—the title always sounds so institutional, but…
I love Frederick Wiseman, I have seen most of his movies. But I wanted to be closer to the space than the characters.
Your film moves so well between the very abstract and the very material—from pure shadows and light, to the scenes with workers where you really feel the weight of things.
Yes, that was one of the most important things, because I like to help things move between the micro and the macro. How all these workers have to work to conquer this place, but at the same time nature is trying to take it all back. Nature is a spiritual, mystical part of the movie, something that is there waiting for its time.
It’s very much a film for the cinema, for the theatrical space.
I completely agree with you—and not all cinemas. Sometimes you have an amazing production on a big screen, but the light for the steps reflects on the screen. It’s impossible because it’s the law. But with this film, the darkness is important.
Nicolas Rapold is the editor-in-chief of Film Comment and hosts The Film Comment Podcast.