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The five international directors featured in the second of The Hollywood Reporter’s Palm Springs Film Festival panels helmed stories ranging from the expansive — tales of overthrowing dictatorships such as Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 — to intimate, tragic portraits of adolescent friendship, like in Lukas Dhont’s Close.
Some of these films are based on historical figures — like Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, which sees Vicky Krieps stepping into the role of the free-spirited Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul draws from the personal experiences of the director’s close friend and her complicated relationship with her birth family. And multiple Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths weaves a complicated fiction out of semi-autobiographical musings.
THR‘s Kevin Cassidy leads a discussion with these five celebrated filmmakers about the kernel of inspiration behind their decision to create these features in this particular moment and what types of research went into preparing these movies.
I’d like to go back to whatever the spark was that made you want to make these films at this point in your lives and in your careers?
MARIE KREUTZER I grew up in Austria, where Empress Elisabeth is one of the main tourist magnets. On every souvenir, it’s either her or Mozart. So I was not really interested in that woman. What I found so interesting about working on a period film and working and dealing with a historical figure who really lived, is that there is not one story and there’s not one truth. It’s not objective, it’s always interpretation. The Sissi [Elizabeth’s nickname] films by Ernst Marischka are an interpretation out of a time where people wanted to see a beautiful film about a young Empress because it was right after the war. [Vicky Krieps and I’d] made a film before, and just wanted to work together again. She said, “Why don’t we make a film about Sissi?” I was like, “I mean, who would do that?” But then the idea stayed with me. I started reading, and then the spark was, for me, reading about the rebellious side of that woman and how she really hated being that beautiful Empress and what came with it, and the spark really was: This is a story. This could be a story about a woman who doesn’t want to meet the expectations anymore. And about women at that time, but still today, being raised and trained by society to please in order to be loved. That’s what I wanted to talk about. All I really want to do in every film I do is show the complexity of human beings. It’s a little bit like a calling — I feel that I’m called to do films about complex female characters. Because whenever I write a script, people would say, “Oh, it’s a great script, but do you think people will like her?” It’s just something I deeply care about: the complexity of people, no matter their gender or where they come from, or if they are an empress, or a soldier or whatever.
Alejandro, you said something to the effect that all your other movies you made with your eyes open. But with Bardo, you looked inward. Can you talk about that a little bit?
ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU I think that what I tried to say is that films like these, you have to close your eyes and make it from what you find there, and sometimes [that] can be pleasant, sometimes embarrassing. There’s a beautiful, funny line from Orson Welles: “Everything that they have said about me at some point was true.” And it’s true, right? They can talk, like, “Oh, that guy is very angry.” Yes. On Tuesday, that day, I was angry. We are a mosaic of reality. So we are not good, bad, whatever. I have to find all the bad things that I have seen about me or things that have bothered me, memories that I have been creating and shaping and dreams and fears and doubts and uncertainties and experiences that I have gone through and then take it like acupuncture, emotional things that were ready for me or needed for me to revise and put together after 21 years of living in this country with my family. That can create a lot of displacement, and fractures of identity and challenges and gifts and all those kinds of emotional things. I took them from a subconscious kind of source, not rationally, and then fictionalized them. I was not interested in the facts. I was interested more in the emotional conviction of things that have affected me and my kids and my wife. Fiction, in a way, has that ability to put light in things that reality hides.
Davy, I was amazed at just how rich the main character in Return to Seoul is, and how well-rounded. She’s a Korean-French woman, which you are not. But there is a dual cultural thing happening that you share because you’re Cambodian-French. Was that the access point for you?
DAVY CHOU Maybe unconsciously, yes. But at the beginning it was very practical. The story of Return to Seoul comes from a real experience I had. In 2011, I went to South Korea for the first time. One of my closest friends, who basically inspires the character [in the film], she phoned me and said, “I know you’re going to Korea. I just took a one week holiday and I’m gonna go with you.” She was as impulsive and unpredictable as the character in the film. And she said something I remember on the phone, she just said, “But I don’t want to meet my biological father from Korea. I met him twice. I hate him. I don’t want to meet him.” I said, “Okay, no problem.” I didn’t ask anything. We ended up in Korea and had two or three days of enjoying [a] festival. It was the first time for me. I was very young and enjoying also the joy of Soju, the alcohol that you can see our characters drinking abundantly in the film. She told me, “I just texted my father, I’ve got to meet him tomorrow, do you want to come?” So of course, I’m coming. I embarked myself into that journey in which we took that bus drive, like in the film, and after one hour and a half, we were facing her father from Korea, her biological grandma, to witness that incredible scene that I would never [have] imagined being a part of and to see these two worlds, the bridge [between having] been broken … and in which each part has so [many] heavy, contradictory feelings and so much will to communicate and to connect and total impossibility to connect whatsoever with the barrier of language.
Santiago, you said a while back you were surprised the events in your film hadn’t yet been made into a movie?
SANTIAGO MITRE The process of making a film is so long that I’ve had this idea, this desire of making a film about the subject for so many years. I had a lot of admiration for the process [in which] it was done. After the dictatorship in Argentina, it founded the roots of the new democracy. The awful dictatorship that governed the country was kicked out [democratically]. And it was so important, it was very risky, because the militaries at the moment were super powerful. So the government took that decision, the judges took the trial, the prosecutors investigated, and the people who were kidnapped, the families [whose] relatives disappeared or were killed, went to give testimony, when everyone who ran this dictatorship, this repressive system, were still free. So it was, I think, a magnificent event. I, as an Argentinian, feel very proud that my country had the bravery [to do] that. But then my goal was to tell this story, because of this magnificent trial that I really wanted to [portray], and I thought it was great material to make a good trial film in a classical way. But then when we started to show the film in other places, we screened it for the first time at Venice Film Festival, I realized that there were many people from other countries, different societies, feeling very connected to the film, and they could use some of the elements that the film was telling to think about the history of their own countries.
Lukas, can you talk about the origins of Close? And specifically, there was a book that had a big influence on you, correct?
LUKAS DHONT Yes. There was a friend of mine who had recommended to me a book called Deep Secrets. And it’s a book written by an American psychologist, who spent five years in the lives of 150 boys. And at the age of 13, she asked these boys to talk about their male friendships. And at this age, these boys talk about each other in the most loving, tender way. They say that they would go crazy without each other, they dare to openly use the word love. It’s just incredible, emotional testimonies. And then, as these boys grow older, and she asks them the same questions again, and again, she just realizes and notices how these boys stop daring to use that language, how they actually distance themselves from each other. Because they fear that language of emotion because our society tells them that that is soft, that it’s seen as feminine. So we deprive them actually from authentic connection. It’s also the time in their lives where the suicide rate for boys goes up four times the amount as for girls. I, also, at a very young age started to fear intimacy with friends. But by reading her book, I realized we just live in this society that puts everything which is hard and competitive on top, and everything which is soft and tender is smothered by it. And I had also always thought that it was very linked to my experience as a queer boy growing up in the Flemish countryside. That fear came from understanding my sexuality. But what her research showed me was that it didn’t have to do with my sexuality, it had to do with masculinity and what type of vocabulary we have built up in this world, linked to masculinity.
Davy, you cast a complete unknown in your film — how did you go about finding the right actor?
CHOU That character is very complex. This requires the actress who’s going to interpret the role to go to extreme emotions in one second, and to switch extreme to extreme emotion inside one scene, and sometimes inside one shot. That’s very technical. And because the story is the story of a French-Korean girl, I really wanted her to be a French-Korean actress. We have a lot of French-Asian actresses in France but not a lot from Korea. So it was very challenging. I certainly didn’t want to have a Korean actress learning how to speak French, because the film, really being about identity, that wouldn’t work after two seconds. So I opened the casting to nonprofessional [actors]. But no one was really matching the kind of anger that the character freely required. One day [I spoke] with a Korean adoptee, [a] French artist and [I was] telling him about the film. At the end, he said, “You know what, you need to meet [this] woman. She’s not adopted, she’s Korean, moved to France when she was nine.” But everything is about the character, about the charisma, the self-destructiveness, and she’s an artist. So we ended up meeting in Paris for around three hours for coffee. She was not really interested in playing in the movie, obviously. So knowing that, I had to go progressively. But I think we became friends very quickly. And I asked her after to make a casting test. She was incredible, with that kind of thing of natural-born actors to be just like, raw and true to their feeling, able to express very real feelings into one second without thinking of the surroundings.
Lukas, your film hinges on the acting of these two incredible young boys. How did you find them and bring out these performances?
DHONT At the end of writing the script, we realized that this film is all about the friendship between two 13-year-old boys, so we would need to find two boys of 13 at that very fragile, short moment in time, just between childhood and puberty. And so we went to look in all the schools. I saw over 500 boys, because I went to all the last years of primary school and the first years of secondary school in Brussels and around Brussels. But then, call it luck, or destiny, I don’t know which one of the two, but I was taking a train from Antwerp to Ghent. I look next to me and there’s this young angel sitting, talking to his friends, very expressive. There was this fire in his eyes, these long eyelashes. I didn’t hear what he said, because I was listening to music. So it was already a bit of cinema. But I saw his expression. I thought, “Wow, this looks like an incredible young human being. And I thought, “I’m going to regret if I don’t go up to him and ask him if he wants to do a casting.” But I also thought that’s going to be incredibly creepy of me. And so I was just like, “OK, no, I will go and I will ask the group,” because he was sitting in a group. Luckily, he seemed very excited and responsive. We saw them in groups, each time, of 30 young people for the course of a day. So we did this workshop with these groups. And in one of these groups, Eden [Dambrine] and Gustav [De Waele], who eventually play Léo and Rémi, came together, had never acted before, had never seen each other before. And there was this instant chemistry between them. I think we saw so many young, talented people, but with them there was just also the possibility of friendship. And then I think a big part of the budget went into rehearsing because I wanted to rehearse for six months with them, as they had never acted before, never been in front of a camera. I knew that I had to prepare them before we actually started to shoot. So what we do in those six months is they only read the script once, in the very beginning, and I asked them to forget about it afterwards. And when they read it, we talked very openly about the themes of this film: guilt, grief, friendship, the heartbreak of friendship.
Can you talk more about that rehearsal process?
DHONT We bring in a camera very early on during the rehearsals, and the camera films just what we’re doing, the camera follows us. And I think what they come to understand is, there’s not really an action and a stop. And it’s also not because the camera is rolling that I all of a sudden ask them to do anything differently. So there is this documentary sense to our work, even if everything is very framed, even if there’s a mise en scene, they get very used to that idea of a camera. I think when people hear rehearsal, they often think that that means rehearsing a concrete scene. But I do the exact opposite. I never rehearse a concrete scene, because I want to stay away from them having to repeat something they have already done. What I do is, I get to know them profoundly. They get to know me profoundly. I build family, intimacy and confidence. Because sometimes, for example, we will make pancakes, their favorite activity. I ate so many pancakes during the making of this film. And while we’re making them, I’ll just say “Why do you think Léo would do that?” But just very informally. And they’ll be like “Yeah, I think he does that, because of that.” And so what I do is, in this very informal way, I make them detectives, because they have only read the script once, but they become active, they try to fill in the blanks, try to think why their role is the way it is.
IÑÁRRITU I block the scenes very technically, very precisely, because it demands a camera move that was long, and very precise, because 70 millimeters lenses and 360 degree of murals with lights and technically complex things. So we needed to really rehearse with sometimes many, many extras and everybody involved. So technically, [my actor] physically owns the muscle memory and obviously tracing the motifs and things. But then, because it was sometimes one or two takes, that adrenaline of that became — once they own the words, and they feel very comfortable with it, then they can liberate. And they can come [up] with something that was very real and very honest. It was about being honest with that amount of people. It’s something that I am always excited about. That was the alchemy of it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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