I interviewed the strikingly young Argentinian filmmaker and artist Jazmin Lopez in the lobby of the Museum Of Modern Art at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival. I had just viewed her debut film, Leones, which was one of several films by artists in this year’s festival (including the very different comedy Towheads by the performance artist Shannon Plumb) which, fittingly for being shown at the MOMA, seem to cross the line between art and film.
Lopez introduced the film as a mystery of sorts. Leones is a film which reveals itself slowly to the viewer. Much like a mystery, the viewer is allowed to impose their own reading on the film, to be engaged in a rare way.The film shows five teenagers going together into the woods to stay in a cabin. They grow lost and try to find their way using a flawed map and a constantly going tape recorder. In their journey through the woods, violence and nature both begin to attack the youths until we see an event that in most mystery or horror films would be the beginning but in this film is rather the end. Lopez plays with genre and formula in the film.
Lopez, in my interview, mentioned Hitchcock and one thinks of him while viewing the film. There is a famous quote of Hitchcock’s in which he compares suspense and surprise saying that if a bomb suddenly goes off, it is surprise whereas if we are aware of the bomb but it never explodes, it is suspense. In Lopez’s film, there is a bomb of a sort waiting to go off. Through this withholding the film gains its particular suspense and beauty. Yet, the bomb ends up being not what the viewer expects at all.
When I started to speak with Lopez, I told her that the film was one of the most unnerving I had seen. She manages to make the viewer feel consistently on edge through her brilliant use of sound and the long take. In the film, she makes nature an active, often menacing force. Her shots are gorgeously choreographed with characters moving into and out of frame perfectly. The film manages to have virtually nothing yet everything happen. The viewer is allowed to add onto the film and impose their own reading. As well, Lopez creates a mood through her use of sound which was recorded all after the film was shot. When at the end of the film the Sonic Youth song “Do You Believe In Rapture” begins to play, it feels abrupt yet correct. You think to yourself ‘this is the only way this film could end.’ Like an artwork, it is complete. This is the power of her work.
You mentioned Bresson in your Q and A and I noticed that in how you didn’t show faces for a lot of the film. I haven’t seen this in very many, for instance, American films or anything else for that matter outside of Bresson so I was interested in how he influenced your filmmaking.
Well, I love Bresson so much. “The Devil Probably” is mentioned and it’s a little bit of a quote. I worked with the actors pretty much as he did. I love how he worked with the actors. It’s not a quote but it’s how I learned to do cinema or what I was really fascinated with while I was studying. How these actors look like they are not there but maybe they are more there because I think that real life is more like this. At least for me, I realize what has happened in my life in the last three months is not in the moment that I say “oh my god! what just happened!” I think it’s more in this moment of taking the time to think what happened so I think it was a perfect way. He, Bresson, was so much right on this so I just learned from him.
Which other filmmakers did you count as influences for this? I definitely saw a lot of horror filmmaking within it as well as a lot of other stuff and you mentioned Miyazaki too.
Miyazaki, for me, it’s more in the spiritual way. Like I love how he managed… I always think in Spirited Away, there’s a scene that they enter into this monster hotel and then Chihiro’s parents are eating food that is not for them and when the camera turns without any cut but in animation this doesn’t make as much sense as in non animation but when the camera turns back they are pigs. How her feelings are changing the image. Perception can change reality so I think Miyazaki in this is perfect. Also, I’m an extreme fan of Tarkovsky and Godard.
Yeah, Godard definitely used tracking shots in a similar way. He would have very extended shots.
Also, the character saying dialogue telling something more to the audience than them really saying it so I wanted to generate a strong relationship between the audience and the film rather than the film with the actors so they know less than the audience knows. In the way, it’s a bit Hitchcock as well. Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel, filmmakers from my country, in a different way because they do realistic stuff and this film is fantastic in a way but fantastic like Borges or Cortázar. What you are reading in their books sounds and looks real but something is out of place. This was a very big interest for me.
What did you do in preparation for shooting the film?
We were doing rehearsals in the “central park” of Buenos Aires, just putting tracks. Then when we arrived in the nature, it’s so strong and so big and difficult. I love this about nature that something looks very easy but then when you have to go through these paths then you have to move all these leaves and trees. It was a very structured shooting. We were doing one shot per day so we were in rehearsal all the day and then when the sunset came we were hopefully ready. We didn’t use any lighting so we were so attached to the nature rules. This is how it was.
I was also interested that you do an art practice too. I saw the film very much like an artwork. The motion got so that it was very much the color of the trees or the leaves which felt very much like an art piece. Do you consider the film one of your artworks or something different?
Yeah, actually my main concern is to make all my work together because I don’t think one is art and one is cinema. I think nowadays contemporary art is very open to any kind of expression, more than cinema. In cinema, you cannot put paintings or maybe but… For me, it’s one of my artworks rather than film. But also not just in the visuals, I think in the concept, it’s very connected to conceptual art. Like at times that it’s out of time. But it’s something very cinematic as well.
Do you consider the sound part of the artwork? It’s sort of like a sound installation how you make the sound be separate from the image instead of just focused on this is how it would sound to an outsider.
It’s not a sound installation but it has a lot of personality, it’s very fantastic the sound. It’s not that real. As we were talking about in the Q and A, there’s a lot of totally silent moments and then in the same shot it’s very loud so it was generating this experience. We built up experience there more than the narrative or cinematic. In this way it is very ‘art.’
The moment where you have a girl’s voice heard singing and see her back so that the viewer thinks she is singing out loud but then you realize that it’s the tape playing was really fantastic with how you un-edged the viewer. Often with the gun too. You only have the gun shot once. I thought that was so interesting how you had as much be to the viewer’s interpretation as on screen. I’m not sure where the question is there.
No but you really got it. I’m surprised. There’s all these details that it’s not that easy to catch and I’m very happy that you caught it.
If you were to advise someone in starting filmmaking, what would your piece of advice be?
For me, it was very important to watch a lot of films. Also, watching them feeling like you can. I had a period that I was watching so many films, I felt so outside. Like ‘wow’ fascinated but this fascination put me out. But there was another moment that I thought…not thought like I can do it but really be into it and thinking. Thinking all the time about not how it was done technically. I think it’s the most stupid to approach how someone [does something]. Also believe in your concerns. It sounds cheesy but in the beginning when I started to try to finance this film, a lot of people were like “what’s this.” It was really difficult to explain to someone what was Leones before. Maybe my advice is, even though it looks like you’re crazy, keep going.
How did you explain Leones to financiers in the end?
Well, it was very difficult. I wrote this extremely theoretical kind of statement about it. They were saying we don’t get it. Then the script, I have to admit was the communication process. I think scripts are very much communication even for the investors but also very important for the crew. Like what do you really want there. I think this has been a lot. Even though I don’t like so much to write scripts, I prefer to be in the sound.
Do you write visually or do you write more dialogue? How do you find your scripts?
The visual was everything written. The one that is exactly, exactly the same is the one in the car. It was everything, everything written. And of course the dialogue’s there as well. Every dialogue was in the script.
How long did you spend writing the script?
It was more than two years but it was not only writing. It was also financing, also learning a lot. I was finishing the university and it was a period of maybe understanding everything that I was learning. So I don’t know if the next one will take two years.
What was the hardest thing in making the film?
Communication. For instance to convince the producers of doing it in 35 and how important it is for me. Not just because of the visuals but also how 35 structures shooting.
So did you have a limit of how long a shot could be?
Totally. That’s why for me it was extremely important. All the long ones are until they almost finished the cases. It makes the thing more easy to me to think ‘okay I have to tell this part of the story and I have ten minutes so I have to figure it out. It’s like mathematics for me. It really helped a lot. I only did one music video [digitally] and I was totally lost because suddenly there was a rabbit there and I wanted to shoot it. I’d get so distracted and with film, for me, it works a lot.
And for color, it’s probably very important too.
The black in video is never as black as film. It’s grey, it’s very dark grey but it’s not black.