Shortly after seeing Matías Piñeiro’s Viola at New Directors/New Films, I had the chance to have a conversation with him via Skype. At New Directors/New Films this year, he and Jazmin Lopez, who I also interviewed, showed an exciting moment for Argentinian film. Piñeiro is also one of several filmmakers working now to take on Shakespeare in new ways. His film seems almost a companion piece to the Taviani brothers’ film Caesar Must Die in conveying a Shakespeare play through the rehearsal process in a specifically different setting than England, this time Argentina. Yet where the Taviani’s try to show the full play in the closed prison, he hones in on one specific element, the female characters, and allows his characters a full range of locations all across Buenos Aires. Shakespeare’s words and stories, translated to Spanish, become wonderfully alive in Piñeiro’s film much like in the Taviani’s. Shakespeare can speak to us wherever we are from, Piñeiro shows us through his film. He takes us around all of Argentina through both rehearsal rooms and streets with the bike riding, DVD delivery girl Viola. Talking to Piñeiro, one gets the feeling of a filmmaker who has found a project he is committed to in these re-interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Viola comes after Rosalinda, his film based on As You Like It. Piñeiro is currently working on another Shakespeare film to start shooting in Argentina soon. Also, as we discussed in the interview, Piñeiro uses cinematic structure in interesting and surprising ways. One can look forward to seeing how Piñeiro will continue to change our ideas of what Shakespeare can be on film as well as how films themselves can be made in his future films.
For those based in New York, Viola as well as a retrospective of Piñeiro’s other work opens today at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center. -Gabriel Chazan
Gabriel Chazan: You use a lot of the same actors and crew for a lot of your films. I was curious if you see your film team as a sort of repertory company.
Matías Piñeiro: I think of it but in a very informal way. It’s not that we get together and work like a conscious group but every time that I have an idea for a film, I know that I want to do it with them. Then each and everyone goes its way but then I do have a tendency to work with certain actors that I like. The characters come up to me from them somehow. The technical crew, it’s the people who I’ve known forever and we trust each other and we push to the same place somehow. So it’s kind of natural for me to go back to these people and as we work together I think we try to take the best out of each other. I think that’s why we keep on insisting on us. (laughs) So it comes natural but it’s not like we’re a company that goes together and has a name or something. No, it’s more fluid, it’s more random.
You mentioned using the same actors. Do you use their parts in the different films to play off each other?
Not exactly. But yes to this idea that they bring something to the character that is from them. I thought the character for them because of something that they had in them. But with what they have, I create fiction. Or maybe I put them at a race. For instance “now you’re not a very supportive girl so I will push you to do some physical things” because I know that from that something will come even if it’s a difficulty. I would like to see how it would be hard for you to be running all the time, for instance. Then the next film I can do the opposite. All the roles were written for these people and play with them somehow. Like doing variations with their possibilities as performers or as a body in front of the camera.
You mentioned as well in the Q and A that the film came out of directing an actual production of…was it just Twelfth Night or several Shakespeare pieces?
It was several pieces. It’s the same thing as the one in a scene in the film that they talk about that “we are doing this play, that it’s a mixture of five or seven plays.” Well, that was the play that I did with the girls. With the girls that you see in the dressing room and that was the starting point somehow to Viola. I did this play because I was called on to do it from The Public University Of Buenos Ares Cultural Center.
Had you already started the project of filming the Shakespeare plays at this point?
The Shakespeare series of films that started with Rosalinda was previous to the play. So somehow the people from the university called me to do the play, a play for the first time in my case because they’d seen that I’d been working with Shakespeare, with these actors and they saw that there was some kind of relationship between my cinema and theater so they called me because of the films and then I did another film and I’m planning to do another film based on one scene that we did in that play.
How did you find working in theater as a filmmaker? Did you use different methods or find you were able to bring elements from your filmmaking into theater?
When I was to do the play, I just didn’t try to do a cinematic thing. I just said “I’m interested in this text and these actresses. Let’s play with this and let’s do some theater. Let’s not try to bring cinema film world.” So I tried to be focused on how Shakespeare did his plays, his very simple staging, these actresses in front of the public. I decided to work on the text, this idea that the structures are so strong and the conflicts are somehow part of a code. That even though you take many different plays, you can always select one scene from Act One, one scene from Act Two, one scene from Act Three, Four and Five, from different plays and you can still see the thing flow. You can still follow the thing because it’s been so structured and it’s an architecture that can go through that. So that was my approach to the text and to see how this can still be played on without having this Shakespeare glass. Without the usual thing, trying to appropriate this text as if it were like our own.
Then film, there I thought I did it more maybe. In the play, I was interested in the actresses and the space and the theater experience. Then in the film, I did realize that shooting just the play, following the narrative of the play, it’s kind of boring and it’s a little bit stale to see. It’s Chicago somehow. I realized that I had to do something with that, put something on in terms of the plot and whatever. Then I said “okay, I’m interested in the text again so let’s do something with it” and I was having this idea of repetitions, of rehearsals and I said “okay, let’s work on the idea of repetition” so I decided that the girl would repeat the text many times in order to conquer this other girl and prove her theories of love (or whatever). So I said “let’s have a little bit of an artificial approach to this text that is so baroque at the same time” and I decided that a good way to see theater would be different from the experience that we have when we go to the theater. That means being very close up, to stay only focused on one thing and stay there.
So it’s very close and very staying in one place. I said “from there, we will go away from these superficial things of theater being shot, like this capsule, and we’ll be looking for something else apart from the actual doing of the play, the actual performance. I thought that being very close and waiting for things to come, catching those little moments of smiles and movements of the face and sparks in the eye. Trying to watch more that, shoot and find that in cinema and that would somehow take me away from theatricality in cinema.
I thought it was unusual that, as you were saying, you hone in on a very specific element of the play where a lot of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare make it very large, that you choose that repetition. I don’t know if you saw The Taviani Brothers’ film Caesar Must Die but that film used a similar device of focusing on the rehearsals.
Yeah, I did something like a month ago.
I thought it was really interesting with your film compared with that one. It’s a similar thing in some ways, the device of focusing on the rehearsals.. It’s a similar choice in that film of trying to bring Shakespeare to a different way of speaking, a different dialect, and that’s a really fascinating trend in adaptations of Shakespeare.
I like it because you see something else apart from the actual play. Then you see the play, you hear the text but at the same time you have other layers. I think that those layers are the one that keeps the thing a little bit alive, brings something else that has to do with the story of those guys, those men, the dialects, the appropriation of in Italian and all those are classes, things that sum up something new. At the same time, the film does not stick to the play in a way that would kill the film. It’s not that I’m against the usual adaptations but it’s true that sometimes you can find something more interesting if you have a determined approach. I think that this film, even though it’s pretty much the play, it’s not only the play that we’ve listened to and read so many times. It’s something else thanks to the text. It’s a nice dialogue.
And moving the space which you do that a lot in your film as well. Going past the theater to rehearsal rooms or to other places. Do you try to avoid filming in theaters? You start in a theatrical space but cut out of it to show the girl biking and kind of take the viewer away from the theatrical spaces. How do you locate it somewhere else?
One thing that I tried to avoid is the “as-if” motif, “let’s do [this] as if they would be doing the play, as if they were happy,” I hate that. It’s horrible to put extras watching a play that they’re not really watching and I know that everything in fiction is false but things can be a little less fake. When I wanted to shoot a scene from the play, I said “oh but it’s so boring to have people watching something that they’re not actually watching” because when you’re shoot a scene, they doing the scene for the sake of the frame. You’re shooting that scene where they’re talking and saying bad things. If you’re shooting that they’re watching a play, they’re not actually watching the play, they’re just posing for the film which I don’t like much. I decided all the time that I don’t want to fake it that way so I needed to move the theater and doing of the play somewhere else.
I knew that I needed to put one little moment so I focused on one little moment but then I knew that I had to move out from there. That’s why I liked rehearsals because rehearsals are much less “as-if”. Even though we will not do the play again for theater, the rehearsal was something that you can always do and always repeat and always be in rehearsal so that gave me a little bit more of air. It was more free, more possible, less of a fake, less of “as-if”. Then I tried to move it everywhere like into the car, into the bike… The idea of the bike has to do with that I knew I was having people watching faces for 25 minutes and this isn’t Shakespeare in a loop so let’s bring something different.
Do you do rehearsals for your films or just theater pieces?
No, I rehearse for film. I probably don’t rehearse as much but each film goes by and I realize that I’ve rehearsed less. But at the same time this film has all the energy of these four actresses who have been doing the play for five, six nights so it’s kind of tricky to measure up the time that we rehearsed this film because we did it for a long time with the play. I think that the play was somehow the preparation for the film. I truly felt that. That the play was not truly successful in a way but it was a good way for me to experience that which was very lovely. It’s very nice to be there every week putting on the show and seeing how things go wrong and how things go right. That’s very beautiful and makes cinema seem so stupid also, so superficial. Here you’re doing something every week, you’re doing something that will evaporate when its been said, if everything is wrong next time can be better. It’s very nice, theater. I really like theater.
But at the same time, my thing is cinema and I love cinema and I was working too on this film. Then, for the other films, I tried to rehearse as much as I can. A month at least or two months, depends the film, but in the end, as these are very small independent features, I do not have a lot of money to give to the actors so that they can be free to rehearse so it’s very hard to organize the schedule so we can all get together and rehearse. It’s always much less than I would prefer but I try to do it as much as I can.
You focus in Viola almost exclusively on the female characters, mostly entirely taking the male characters out other than some mentions. I was wondering if you could talk about why you chose this approach.
I chose the female characters because, when I was reading the comedies, I realized that the characters that were more interesting were them. They are not that well known and also this idea of putting a little bit of light into those usual topics, for instance Shakespeare, but into one corner that hasn’t been very well lit was something that interested me. At the same time, I do have this great relationship with these actresses and, when I was reading Shakespeare, I said “oh my god! Maria can perfectly be Rosalinda so let’s do something with that.” So it’s those two things like knowing that those characters have a relationship with me today and that I have this group of actresses that are so good and so perfect for them, so suitable for these roles.
Shakespeare is huge and the plays are huge and have so much material that for my little films I thought the best thing I can do is just focus on something. There’s no need to put Malvolio, even though it’s a great character, or Feste. They’re awesome characters, it’s a pity that they’re not in but this film, this approach is not into them. I’m not in this need of putting everything. I prefer to leave them aside and maybe there will come a day when I or someone else will do the fools in Shakespeare in cinema, alone, but in my case, I din’t want to do an average. I just wanted to focus on something.
You start the film which this rehearsal which seems like it will be the film with the repetition and then you abruptly cut to the story being told. I haven’t seen this kind of structure used often, especially in such a short film. How do you structure your films?
I do like to play with structures so I just think how a story can be told in a way that… It’s not that I want to be super original but, yes, I want to try different movements, different forms so I tried this: let’s organize the film in two parts, let’s put two things that have nothing to do together and see what happens. I tried to mix these possibilities of cinematic gifts. I do know all about the plot points and I don’t care much about them and I think that’s the good thing about knowing all the little things from cinema, it’s to do something to move forward.
So, okay, we have a plot point but then we go somewhere else because we have seen those other films before where everything is said and everything is according to how it’s supposed to be done. That’s great, that’s why we have classical cinema and we can learn so much from it. But then I do have a need to move forward and try new things that may be surprising for myself so the idea of cutting the piece in two, the idea of Chinese boxes inside and out, I tried to fool around with trying to de-realize the world a little bit and trying to introduce some artificiality into the world. Using cinema in that sense. It’s much more about telling a tale instead of telling a story or trying to avoid this idea of cinema as a reflection of the world. I’m trying to produce something out from the world. So it has to do with a curiosity of mine in structures, playing with structures.
Speaking of that, what films most influenced you especially with that structure?
I like the films that take Shakespeare and are actually adaptations. Maybe they’re very far away from what I do. When you see the beginning of To Be Or Not To Be that it seems to be something else but then you see that it’s a play. [Ernst Lubitsch] works with that, with one character’s point of view produced in narrative. For example, Buñuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie also. There’s a little homage there [in Viola] when the girl says the address. The boy said ‘tre tre cinco, I don’t know what” and there you see the plaque and Buñuel does the same thing. That’s like foolish things and they’re not important but this idea of playing with structures.
Preston Sturges does the same thing of mixing film with reality or Hsiao-hsien Hou who also plays a lot with structures that I like. Some Renoir films like Elena And The Men or all of his films that are like structures but don’t seem so structured. At the same time, you know like two girls go with the other two boys and the other third girl goes with the other boy. Everything kind of gets together in a beautiful, artificial way in the end, all because of the love for structure or love of narrative. The love of the classics, somehow. All those things I put together. Even the Olivier films on Shakespeare I really like, Henry V especially. It’s very artificial. It begins as something else. It’s not the play, it’s the performance of the play. It develops into something else. It’s very nice.
So all these people have been thinking about Shakespeare and thinking about how to tell a story, tell a tale and you take notes. When watching films, you can also learn things. You take note and see what happened, how they do this, how they do that and then you just try to apply it to your world, to your possibilities and try to work by yourself. It’s not that you try to copy. It’s more that you try to see how it’s been working out before you came.
You’re mostly based in New York but still do your films in Argentina. Do you find that you’re more connected to writing about Argentina through not being there?
I’ve been here in New York for two years now and Viola I shot just before coming here. When I shot Viola, I was still in my Buenos Ares mood. Being here now, I don’t think there has been much difference. I’m planning to shoot in August the third Shakespearean film. I’m starting to write here. I’m kind of a lazy writer but do write, do think and I like doing these signs, drawing things. That has to do with structures because you can see them. I don’t know if you can write them. You see structures, I think that. I’m not conscious that being here now has informed me in an aesthetic way. I don’t know… Let’s see in the next film if there’s something very different. I don’t think it has.
I’m not nostalgic from Argentina, it’s not that I want to go back. I like it there, my friends are there, my crew is there. They’re part of the film as much as I am and I have a relationship that I don’t have with anybody here. I think that I will be able to shoot here the moment that I get aquatinted with people in a similar way as I am in Buenos Ares. That’s starting to happen. Suddenly I realized that ooh this guy can work on this, this guy can do this, this girl can help me here and we can do something but it will require some time. It will require me some time to be the filmmaker that I am and that’s thanks to the people [in Argentina]. So I’m not yet clear what has affected me or influenced me by living here. I will see once I’m doing the next film. We’ll see. Then we can talk about production things like getting the films seen, getting the films known like people meeting the films for the first times. Living here has helped me a lot in that sense. Putting the films out there.
Do you find there’s less of a way to get the films seen in Argentina?
What happens is if you work in Argentina, there’s a film festival that’s great called BAFICI [Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema] so everyone comes there. Someone comes from France, someone comes from the states, someone comes from Australia and it’s always that same someone. The films are only shown to these two, three people from those countries. So, for instance, I wanted to go to a certain festival in Portugal but the guy who came to BAFICI was always the same one and maybe he didn’t like the films.
You know that the festivals also have these kind of ambassadors, one for African film who will will go to every African festival and see films for The New York Film Festival for instance. So you get these filters. When I moved here, I broke that filter. Even though my films were shown in BAFICI, people were nice to them and I’ve been around a little bit, moving made me meet people that I’ve not been meeting before because they were not coming down to Argentina. That was interesting because it opened up the scope. Also, the film was seen little by little by the Argentinian journalists and critics so I was not in the middle of the typical chaotic and crazy mire at the local film festival where everything is eaten so abruptly. Viola made connections to other people because I was here and not there. I didn’t get the same filters I had before. There was a difference in that sense.
If you had one piece of advice on filmmaking for those starting out, what would it be?
I come from a very particular place and I do my films in a particular way so my ideas are not applicable everywhere. I do think that the way that I did the films or that I got my films being done had to do with an idea of insisting and on truly believing that I want to do this and having a crew and people around that were truly part of the thing. I think that it’s nice to see that film is somehow a way of meeting people and putting people together. We’re so much director driven in our analysis of film that it’s nice to take a step down and think that the films are also possible because of the mixture of people. Something has to go right there, you have to think how that does work so that the film has the ideas that you want to convey. The atmosphere that is in the film when it’s being produced is not that different from the atmosphere and energy that the film has as an object already done. You have to concentrate on trying to maintain that energy that you want to put in the picture in the actual working with people in your films. It’s kind of abstract but you have to be conscious that the decisions that you do will somehow be shown in the film, in the actual final object. That does not just mean to correct the phrase of one actor or correct one pan, it’s just a spirit of the thing. I’m trying not to be a jackass. Try to think on film. People sometimes think too much on money, everything is money and you meet directors and all they are talking about is money. I work in a very small frame. I’m happy with that. I want to develop but I don’t want to develop big. I just want to be able to work on my storytelling and try to focus as much on that, on that writing kind of work than on the production and money kind of thing that some people go a little bit crazy. It’s long, it’s abstract and confused so that’s what I can provide. Confusion and a lot of words.