How 'Wild Tales' Director Damian Szifron Wrote a Foreign-Language Oscar Contender in His Bathtub
Argentina's biggest hit puts the helmer on Hollywood's Oscar map
Damian Szifron wrote most of Wild Tales —THR's top foreign-language film Oscar frontrunner — in his bathtub. He'd light a candle, pour himself a drink, slip into the warm water and let the suds carry his imagination away.
"The bath is a great place," says the 39-year-old Argentinian filmmaker, whose aptly titled new movie — an anthology made up of six different, savagely comic revenge stories, including one about a bride who discovers at the wedding party that her groom has been unfaithful with one of their guests, and another about a road-rage duel that escalates into a firestorm — got raves on the festival circuit earlier this year and is now considered by some to be a contender for best original screenplay as well. "I'd write one story a night in the bath, then another, then 15 or 20 … " says Szifron.
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Although not yet a household name in the U.S., Szifron (pronounced ziff-ron) for years has been a rising star in his homeland. His 2002-03 Argentinian TV cult hit, The Pretenders, about con men who solve people's problems by duping their enemies, won the Emmy-like Golden Martin Fierro Award and has been remade in Russia, Spain, Chile and Mexico (where Sony Pictures Television International produced it for Televisa, Latin America's broadcast giant). His first two movies, 2003's Bottom of the Sea, about a guy stalking his girlfriend's lover, and On Probation, his 2005 cop-meets-psychiatrist buddy action movie, made him one of the country's most popular filmmakers. That's no easy feat considering that Hollywood films dominate up to 85 percent of the market in Argentina. But Wild Tales, which opened in South America in August (it opens in February in the U.S.), is not only Szifron's biggest hit so far; it's the biggest indigenous hit ever in Argentine cinema history, selling 3.3 million tickets.
Wild Tales' unprecedented success was a long time in the making. In fact, it took seven years for Szifron to get the picture on the screen. "I'll make a flashback," he says in his thick accent, recalling how in 2007 he found himself so burnt out and creatively spent that he decided to put down the camera and concentrate strictly on writing. "I was used to shooting a TV episode while I was writing another episode and producing," he says. "So I said, 'No, no, no. I'm writing.' " And he wrote alright. If there's such a thing as an opposite of writer's block, Szifron had it. He churned out so many movie scripts that they started to stack up in piles in his home.
"It was like a big, long dream going by like light-years," he says of the years of runaway prolificacy. "I wrote a romantic comedy, an American Western and a science-fiction film that grew into two movies, then a trilogy. I got more and more ideas — I was drowning in my own material."
To stay afloat, Szifron eventually decided to boil down his ideas — and get back to basics. "I went to a cabin in the mountains, wrote under the stars, in front of the fireplace, using fire instead of electric lights," he says. Ultimately, he found the bathtub was his sweet spot, and the script he ended up writing there — with an old-fashioned pen and pad of paper —-- turned out to be bursting with possibilities.
"The new ideas kept coming, but I got focused in my writing," he goes on. "It was like a bonsai treatment. I kept nothing but what was essential to the character, the scene. The result was a bunch of very powerful short stories. I thought of it like Pink Floyd's The Wall, songs that add up to an album. Or like the circus. There's a guy on the high-wire, then cut to a guy who enters the lion cage, the magician, different tales, tones, moods … "
At one point, Szifron considered the idea of adding some Tarantino-like links between the stories: a character who turns up in more than one story, or intercutting between the stories. "I thought about inventing a bird that flies over the scenario, or a writer character and it turns out it's all from his imagination. And I said, 'No, no, no. There's a lot of freedom here, and you can feel it.'"
Expansive as it is, there is a unifying force to the film: rage. "I noticed the first six or so stories were all about revenge, a reaction toward injustice and the pleasure of losing control," he explains. "Suddenly I had a new film without even realizing it." Each tale in the movie is indeed a time bomb ticking closer to an inevitable onscreen explosion, though Szifron prefers a different, less violent metaphor: "It's like an orgasm," he says. "Storytelling that establishes a tension that begins and builds and has to come out. You have to release it!"
He showed the script to his longtime producer, Hugo Sigman (who also happens to be a psychiatrist like Szifron's characters in On Probation and in one of the segments of Wild Tales). "He said, 'This is very deep, full of truth and at the same time hilarious. Let's do this right now,'" says Szifron, who got the same reaction from a couple of filmmakers he had met years earlier, Pedro Almodovar and his brother, Agustin Almodovar. "They saw my 2005 film On Probation, and they called and came to Argentina and had dinner in 2007 and started a small friendship," explains the director of how the Almodovars ended up producing the film. Along with Sigman, they came up with a budget of $4 million to make Wild Tales, 70 percent of it from Argentina, 30 percent from Spain. “They told me, ‘Go ahead, be free,’” says Szifron.
The anthology format proved a boon in casting. All the actors got to be the star of their own movie. Szifron landed Argentina's top actor, Ricardo Darin ("He has the aura of James Stewart or Harrison Ford," says Szifron), as well as a slew of other local A-listers, including Oscar Martinez and Erica Rivas. Putting all those stars on one poster was a very powerful sales tool in Argentina, and it helped Wild Tales smash all local box-office records.
Szifron gave each chapter of the film its own distinct look. "They have their own visual identity, as if each were a different movie, with its own spatial dimensions, colors, style, textures and set decoration," says production designer Clara Notari. "We cut from a hard rain at night in the first episode on the plane [in which a psychiatrist discovers his pilot may be an angry patient] to a desert setting for 'Road to Hell' [about a rich motorist in an Audi who lives to regret giving a worker the finger] to the big city for 'Bombita' [the story of a dynamite engineer enraged with the city for towing his car]." Says cinematographer Javier Julia, "We talked about shooting each segment differently: in black and white, then in 35mm with anamorphic lenses, then video cameras for the final wedding segment." But Szifron nixed the idea. "I thought that would be distracting, disconnecting," he says. "I wanted it to be one dreamlike experience for the audience."
During the eight-week shoot in April and May 2013, Szifron took production bumps in stride, such as when triple Academy Award-nominated composer Alberto Iglesias suddenly had a conflict and had to pull out of the film. Szifron simply hired double Academy Award-winner Gustavo Santaolalla. "We went to a bar serving gin in every color and spent the whole night talking about the film and drinking the rainbow," recalls the director of their first meeting. Two weeks later, Santaolalla sent the theme for the title sequence, an emotional and powerful pop piece that captured the frenetic mood of the film in two minutes of music.
After its reception at Cannes in May -- it debuted in the plum Saturday night time slot, just as another unconventional anthology film, Pulp Fiction, had 20 years earlier -- Wild Tales didn't have much trouble finding suitors. Sony Pictures Classics took distribution in the U.S., Canada and Australia; Warner Bros. bought it for France, Argentina and Spain. "What's exciting is that it appeals to the classical kind of foreign film audience who are primarily older," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, "and then to the audience for films like Almodovar's, which draw a large percentage of that classical audience and also the younger audience, attracted by that new energy they don't necessarily get from American movies. It's broad-based, and on top of that, there's the Latino audience."
Now, thanks to the heat Wild Tales has given his career, Szifron actually is planning on making all those other movies he wrote before: a romantic comedy called The Perfect Couple, an American Western called Little Bee and the three-part science fiction series The Stranger, which -- no surprise -- since has grown even larger in scope. "It's both a four-part film and an eight-episode TV miniseries," he says, deadpan.
He's going to need a bigger bathtub.