Rendezvous – When Filmmaking Turns Meaning-making
Erudite Spanish director, Antonio Méndez Esparza, gets candid with Pandolin about the techniques, the philosophy, and the intentions that created his scintillating exploration of selfhood, HERE AND THERE (original Spanish title, AQUÍ Y ALLÁ), the BEST FILM at the 14th Mumbai International Film Festival 2012. A Pandolin New Year SPECIAL
How was your experience with the actors of Here and There?
Dealing with actors of Here and There was tantamount to building an environment to be able to work with. The initial days, especially the time that corresponded with the shooting of the first scene, were very difficult. It was a difficult scene to cut. It seemed choppy even after the final cut. We had first tried to shoot it in a stylised way. Finding that approach problematic, we tried simpler ways of capturing the scene with the required emotion till we were satisfied. By this time the actors had had a measure of the film’s rhythm, and directing and shooting had become much easier.
One-takes seem like the élan vital of the film. What made you use them in that breath?
I always wanted to make the film with really long one-takes. I felt that if these one-takes were done well they would render the subject-matter of the film in great detail and beauty. I wanted the film to comment silently and simply upon the event of normal people trundling through life. In some ways, therefore, I wanted to make a film of the kind the Lumière brothers did.
What was the rationale that you adopted for assessing whether a scene was done or if it was half-baked and still needed work?
There wasn’t any rationale, per say. I was guided by instinct. The shoot progressed depending on how I felt each scene progressed. If a scene went well, we’d keep it. If a scene seemed bad, we’d retake. If I needed something very specific, I’d cut and work on getting that particular element in after resumption.
Did you have storyboards and detailed plans of specific shots and scenes?
We did have a few plans for conducting our shots and scenes, but didn’t have any specific storyboarding to complement it. We planned especially for the shots that were to be taken inside the house that forms the locus standi and the locus quo of the film. I decided to reveal it little by little to my audience so that they could go on a well-paced sense-making journey and assess the true meaning of what unfolds in the house. We couldn’t storyboard because storyboarding requires the sense of finality to your filmmaking process from the very beginning and we, on the contrary, never knew what was really going to happen and how things were really going to unfold in our filmmaking process. Although working in this constantly innovating way was really interesting, it was also extremely tricky. I think that at the end our uncertain but exploratory method of filmmaking made sense because it let us think, observe, and bring our immediate perceptions into play; three things that are essential to good and serious filmmaking.
What was the experience with your DOP like?
Interacting with the DOP of the film was quite funny to begin with (laughs). On the first day of the shoot when he asked me where he needed to put the camera, I replied, “Let’s see.” I thought then that he must have found me the worst director he’d worked with ever. Then after 6-7 days of shoot when I asked him where we needed to put the camera, he greeted me with the same response (laughs). We shared a good relationship on set and I was quite thrilled by his dedication and commitment to the film.
The film uses its long one-takes that are ridden with slow movement of characters to capture and emphasise tension, contemplation, and thought. Would you like to comment on that?
(Laughs) This is a complicated, but very, very interesting question. You see, a film cannot proceed without building narrative tension up. Many films couple narrative tension with tension in meaning to take a convincing cinematic form. It must be understood that each scene of a film needs to have a requisite tension without which it would become empty and could not be sustained. A film based on long one-takes, therefore, needs this narrative tension much more. Something—even if it is a small incident—needs to be happening in each and every scene of such a film to grant it its acute narrative force, coherence, and meaning. The slow movement and action of characters in Here and There provides its scenes with happenstances that usher in these concepts of narrative force, coherence, and meaning into their body and thereby hold the scene together well.
Another thing that needs to be understood is that slow movement of character both contributes to and borrows from the process of achieving exactitude in performance. At times, it takes a lot of time for things to happen aptly during filmmaking. The exact expression, the exact way, and the exact demeanour required in a moment in a scene need not necessarily be realised by an actor upon his will at very moment. An actor can never say, “Oh! I am going to scream now, perfectly” or “Oh! I am going do this or that now, and it will come out with the exact expression and impression that I require it to create.” He or she has to find that moment and that way if he has to deliver what the director of the film—who is another mind, desire, perception, and person—wants from him. As I had decided to principally use one-takes for shooting Here and There, I invoked the concept of real time, and sacrificed and delayed the supposed perfect screen time (colloquially called timing). Upon being prolonged, the screen-time merged with the real time and amplified moments, spaces, and actions in the film. These amplifications of our basic experiential concepts and coordinates helped the film’s actors find their voices and be both supremely convincing and thoroughly realistic in the impressions their performances created.
There is a lot of documentary style, handheld capture in the film. How and why did you conceive of this approach to creating the film’s characters and its story?
This is a very, very, very good question. I am very happy that you asked it. I too have been thinking about it for a long, long time. Earlier, I used to describe the film as part documentary and part fiction, but after mulling about it for long I’ve concluded that we cannot attribute the concept of documentary to it. As there is hardly any genuine documentary footage in the film, it cannot be called a documentary. In each moment of the film, the actors are acting. They are never themselves and always someone else. By being so they are continuously interpreting their roles through the imagined perspectives of the characters they are playing. I, of course, cast them in the film because they seemed to me similar to the characters they were to enact. Because of this methodological overlap, the film does create impressions of the documentary form. In that sense it is a semblance, an impersonation, a fake, a look-alike of the documentary. Handheld shooting generates and enhances this feel of the documentary and pushes the audience to ponder on what a documentary is and if it is a documentary that he or she is watching. Handheld shooting also achieves the purpose of letting the film evoke the feeling of real life, emphasizing its aesthetics of realism firmly, and grounding location and place in it definitively.
Another reason for choosing to shoot handheld was my desire to express and convey the feeling of being a guest in my own milieu. Here and There falls in the tradition of some Asian and some European Filmmakers, e.g. Hou Hsiao Hsien and Pedro Costa, who have debated this condition and experience in their films. The film, therefore, represents a filmmaker observing his own milieu and portraying the social and psychological realities that entangle its characters in that milieu. It is a process of detailed cinematic sketching of a social landscape. For me, such explorations are very important. They create the sense of place and being, and question and foreground notions of belonging. They, therefore, review the fundamental concepts men and women use to enjoy their lives. A case in point is the lake-scene in Here and There. Nothing much happens in that scene, but the viewer and the character spend one day of delayed cinematic time in the lake and attempt to understand things about their lives. The scene (close to the film’s end) in which Pedro travels hunched up in a train that’s moving continuously again produces the same feeling of being on a constantly prolonged journey of revisiting oneself. Scenes such as these are my attempts at creating the ever-progressing and overlapping processes of beauty, sensuality, thought, meaning, and reflection.
The film seems to emphasize the significance of the entire film frame by skipping unnecessary foregrounding of subjects. The whole frame with the subject as a part of it seems to be the cinematic bedrock of Here and There. Such an expression of wholesomeness in the film seems emblematic of the way we experience memory as a constant and an always unfolding phenomena even though it is always recalled after the formation of the impressions. It also resists quick consumption of the film by the audience and quick formation of perspectives in a scene. What is your view on this?
It is true. It actually works like that. I wanted to create a film that was a strip of film with images and memory rolling around together. Therefore, in the film, we see images of the things Pedro will take with him to the US, his memories. In both practical and abstract terms, memory and film are inseparable. This is so not because memory is there in films as part of their content, but because memory is the reason why many, many films are made. It is the reason why actors, directors, writers, and filmmakers of diverse milieu get together to make films. They want to remember that they had acted, directed, shot, and had reasons to do these things. The actors of Here and There too wanted to have a record of their lives, performances, and identities during the course of the making of the film from 2010 onwards. That’s why they were there. It’s also very important to understand that filmmaking, especially if it is contemplative, is an exercise in revisiting the self and subjecting it to a disclosure, a display, an acceptance, and a scrutiny. These again are exercises in memory.
Did you consciously bring the memory element into the film or did it find its way into the film as a floating signifier?
I think you find the memory element when you reach a perceivable juncture. I didn’t bring it in consciously and intentionally. It wasn’t there in the form of a preconception. It just floated in as a signifier when the time was right.
Here and There has a lot of frieze of life cinematography. Things happen and the film captures it as if it were a slice of life. Someone does something; it becomes a part of the film and then draws the audience into the story, making him/her identify with the characters in a sensitive way. What is your opinion about this?
Yes, that’s a precise perspective on the issue. Many times, when you invent a character, you want the audience to feel for him or her. You ask yourself how you could do it, and invent ways and means to that end. I too wanted to create that relationship between the characters of Here and There and their audience, and therefore used very familiar, very quotidian, but meaningful occurrences and props in its scenes. It was all done with great precision and metaphorical intent, and added a distinct stylistic imperative to the film.
The lighting in the film is diffused, soft, and acutely realistic. It seems to evoke sensations of a settled melancholy. Could you please tell us how you managed it?
Yes, it was a very conscious decision to light the film realistically thoroughly. We used lights throughout the film, especially while shooting indoors. This was required to avoid underexposing the essential parts of the actors’ faces and for their expressions to be revealed aptly. The photographic team for the film was Romanian. They did an amazing job in creating realism in the film. Most of the lights they used were very simple, but adequate. They always lit just a little bit, and never too much. They built some rigs in the ceiling that served as installation points for those lights. To diffuse light, they changed bulbs, used screens, and bounced lights.
Could you please share some of the most wonderful moments that you’ve had on your way to finishing this most amazing film?
Well, there were many, many beautiful moments during the course of filming Here and There. Perhaps the two most beautiful ones that conveyed that film was moving forward and progressing towards finality and that its crew were determined to see it through were the following:
It was the 6th day of the shoot. We were having severe problems with everyone in the crew. To make matters worse, the actors were finding it difficult to find the rhythm that they needed. We were shooting the scene in the lake. The two sisters from that scene were having problems with their parents outside the set. In a moment of anxiety, they asked me to take a walk with them across the lake. As we walked, the elder daughter grabbed my hand suggesting that I were, sort of, her father. I felt that that was a very beautiful moment. It meant that she had rested her trust in me almost completely. It was also very unlike the tough persona that she gets portrayed as in the film. Experientially, therefore, this event was quite enriching.
Then there was this moment when we had to stop the shoot because I fell sick for ten full days. It might not seem a big setback, but for us filmmakers on a budget it was a big financial and moral disaster. When I returned to the set, I had lost almost 10 kg and could barely walk. Although still recuperating, I had to tread my way up the biggish hill in the film. Upon trekking up I saw a glum, scared crew eating sandwiches. They were suspecting that I might collapse any moment. There was hardly any excitement around. Then, as the shoot began once again, they surprised me completely. Everyone immediately started working on their own and never looked back.
If it had not been for moments like these, my film, as I feared, could have fallen apart.
Which do you like more: acting or direction? Do you have an interest in theatre too?
Direction, only direction (laughs). And I don’t act. I can’t act for nuts (laughs). I’d be a very horrible actor (laughs). I only do films, not theatre. Here and There is my first feature film. Before it, I’ve done many short films. I’ve also studied film.