Brontis Jodorowsky on Playing His Grandfather in Dad Alejandro's 'The Dance of Reality' (Q&A)
Forty years after "El Topo," the son of the avant-garde legend talks to THR about his experiences collaborating with his father.
BUCHEON, South Koreea -- Brontis Jodorowsky’s first screen role involved shooting someone from point-blank range, walking past bloodied villagers falling foul of a massacre, being asked to bury a picture of his mother to mark becoming a man and then finally seeing himself abandoned by his father – a lot to take in, perhaps, for a 6-year-old.
Adding to the complications is that El Topo was directed by his father, Alejandro Jodorowsky – who also plays his papa in the film, an acid western that revolves around a brutal gunslinger’s quest in killing his rivals, his rebirth as a saintly man and finally the confrontation and reconciliation with his long-estranged grown-up son.
Released in 1970, El Topo was lauded as the film that kick-started the “midnight movie” genre and has since become a much-analyzed classic – and a piece that propelled Alejandro Jodorowsky to become a mythical figure in modern avant-garde cinema.
While the film has proved to be a positive influence on Brontis, the director’s eldest son, in taking up acting as a career later, it has also proved to be a millstone: People (including this writer) still quiz him about El Topo and how the role must have scarred him psychologically.
This time round, there’s even more to talk about as the actor is also bestowed with the responsibility to discuss The Dance of Reality. Making its Asian premiere at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) after its debut at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiographical film revisits his tortured childhood in Chile under the auspices of a monstrous father – who, in the film, was played by none other than Brontis himself. It’s the seventh collaboration for this father-and-son duo; they have been touring The Gorilla, a stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, for a few years already, but Dance is their first full-fledged film collaboration since the 1970s.
Brontis Jodorowsky spoke to The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week at PiFan, where the Paris-based actor serves as a jury member and also a speaker at a retrospective of his father’s films.
The Hollywood Reporter: How has working with your father changed during the past 40 years?
Brontis Jodorowsky: In the beginnin,g I was a child. I have an innocence but I’m still this little, serious actor. We’ve always worked well together because we share the same vision, so it has always been easy, in fact. What has changed, in fact, are our personalities; we have changed as human beings. I have become a trained actor, and before working with him [again], after El Topo and Holy Mountain, my career had been totally independent from him in France. We met again in collaborations because he liked me as an actor, after he’s seen me in some plays. He said, you have to be an actor for me – and so we did three plays and this movie. It’s a very natural development in fact … there’s no big differences in the work. It’s still fun, but also very intense.
THR: The Dance of Reality revisits autobiographical aspects of Alejandro’s work – and after playing his on-screen son in El Topo, you’re now playing his father. How do the two of you prepare for the role?
Jodorowsky: We’ve been preparing for this film for 40 years – with the films that he’s done, which is about the research of the human mind that we call the finding of one’s soul, and also for me my development as an actor. But to be more concrete, we’re artisans. At the moment when we were to shoot the movie, he’s the director and I’m an actor; we discussed a little bit and analyzed something, but then I’m just the actor.
Two or three months before shooting began, he told me, “You must prepare – you are going to play your grandfather.” But as you can see in the movie, the relationship between my grandfather and my father was terrible – I grew up without a grandfather because my father hated him. He was bitter about the treatment he received, all without tenderness. So I never had [the image of] a grandfather with me because he never talked about him and I never saw him. So I said to my father, “No, I’m not going to play my grandfather – I’m going to play the character in the script.” And as the film is the work of my father in transforming the image he had of his father, it was even better not to imitate someone but to understand the situations and to produce them with this relationship with this little kid who’s playing my father as a child.
In the preparation, I have read a little bit of his novel [on which the film was based] – which he didn’t want as he wanted to start again and be fresh. But I did rewatch El Topo because I made his links between [playing] his son then and his father now. It’s the little details that I put in the movie – instead of playing Jaime the grandfather, I was playing Alejandro in El Topo. Many people had told me that this first scene in that film – when [my character] was told, “Now you’re 7 years old, bury your toy and a picture of your mother” – and everybody said, “Oh you must be so affected by that, poor Brontis, it must have been terrible.” But in fact what people don’t see, and what they don’t know, is that in that scene the child was Alejandro and El Topo [the gunslinger] was Jaime, his father. He was remembering the type of education his father gave him, it’s a metaphor – for me it’s funny because it’s not really my toy and it’s not my mother in the picture.
THR: But it must be very difficult to separate the fictional and the real.
Jodorowsky: Doing The Dance of Reality has two levels – in one, it affects our memories, a transformation of a very important character in our family’s memory. So obviously it affects us a lot. I believe in a work of art, you have to put your pound of flesh there. Some movies, when you go and watch them, it might be fun or interesting if you’re lucky, but leaving the cinema and two hours later you would have forgotten the movie. But a work of art gives you something an audience will continue to work on, interrogate yourself and angry or sad about this movie, that it stays with you.
In order to do that, you have to put something personal to do that. So yes, this movie more than any, but I always do that in theater – when I do a comedy I always see what [the story] is working for me as a human being, how my art can be a vehicle for my personal development.
So for this movie we went to the real town [in Chile, where Alejandro Jodorowsky was born before he moved abroad] in which everything happened – the real house was burnt down four years ago because of a short circuit but we rebuilt it for the film. Obviously I have never been there, but this is a very small place in the north of Chile, for me to be there and see the place where my father came [from], then look who he is now and what he has done in his life, I really admire the courage he has and the strength and rage he has to survive that environment, to be a reborn man from there.
THR: Did you discover something new about your relationship with Alejandro by making this film?
Jodorowsky: It’s not about rediscovering, not really. But it’s to experience in a metaphorical way. … In fact, my grandfather is a monster to my father, but it’s his mother who’s important to who he was; how she told him to resist, to be a hero and fight. To be the father of your father in a film, naturally it psychologically changes something, but at the same time there’s a relation he’s the director and I’m the actor. So it’s a very symbiotic thing that we have never had before. Sometimes when you are a child, your parents became so close to you, you couldn’t breathe. This didn’t happen to me. This is not the end of our relationship but there’s a very strong change, about what I knew about him and what he knew about me. We both became adults in our relationship.
THR: Was there a period in time when you resisted against working with him, though?
Jodorowsky: Yes, absolutely! He’s very famous and creative, so in many areas you have to find your own way, sure. Before working together again, for 30 years I was doing in France with a very good career and I worked all the time. In the beginning I was working on forms of theater that he might not like, and he was probably thinking, “Why was he not like myself?” But if so, I will be like an imitation of him, like a parrot!
THR: Are there different ways of handling this relationship with your father and brothers, whom have all worked with him on various films?
Jodorowsky: I can’t speak for them. … Each human being is different. He was not the same father to me as it was to [the second son] Cristobal, because it’s different when you have your first or second child, or when you have a son for the fourth time – which is Adan. Cristobal was an actor for some time, he prepared a lot for Santa Sangre, but now he’s much more into working on therapy. And Adan is much more a musician. But we think artists should be complete, so Cristobal paints, and Adan directs videos and he’s preparing a movie too; I write also, so we tend not to limit ourselves as artists and we go into any form of expression we are open to.
THR: So would you consider moving behind the camera to become a director, thus following on Alejandro’s footsteps?
Jodorowsky: I suppose so. … I am a slow and very methodic actor, and of course I have ambitions of directing, but I also want to do the scripts, to learn the skill of screenwriting. With my brother Adan I have an idea which we are working together on, but I also have two ideas for scripts. It may happen. But maybe I’ll find an idea in which my father is to act – and then I can take my revenge. I’ll direct him as my son – or my mother!