Silent Light, on our screen this Friday, is one of the best films of the year if not the decade. Director Carlos Reygadas is an opinionated type, with fierce ideas about cinema’s responsibilities. We tracked down some recent interviews in which he espouses his cinematic approached.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview:
How does your film thwart the concept of “time”? You have the clock ticking loudly in the beginning, and then you have comments on the impossibility of time going backwards, but then it does.
I think in cinema it is great to create your own world and take all the liberties you want. We stopped time to tell the story, a story that perhaps is only in our heads. When the old man fixes the clock, he is just fixing the time, he is making it correct; he is not making it go forward. Every time I have done something stupid, the first feeling is if I could just go back… In reality, I do not believe in miracles, but I think reality is a miracle. I don’t think what happens in the Bible is so different from reality, even if I do not believe in them literally.
And your own belief?
When I was a boy, I asked my mother all the time about death, and what happens afterwards. Sometimes I wanted to be an atheist, I managed, but I didn’t really believe. I wanted to be an atheist, but I believed despite myself.
What is your technique when it comes to aesthetics?
I plan the movement of the camera and the movement of the characters. I use non-actors. I make sure my characters know their texts by heart. We don’t do rehearsals. Many times the first take is the best. I believe this is the best way to do it for my films. Only a non-actor can represent the kind of characters I have. I also have a lot of shots of movement, in tractors for example, to move from scene to scene. For example, the traveling forward in the garage, the traveling forward in the shower. Things like that happen without me planning it. It is a way to approach each moment little by little. It leaves you space to enter the frame and imagine what is going on.
Your film is quiet yet very intense.
I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story. The great part of film is to make you feel… For example, the first shot of my film is cinematic. The light itself is beautiful. In literature, that does not exist. You can just write: “The sun came up.” The beauty in my film is the sun itself. You don’t have to recreate it. I also like the white light that she sees when she wakes up. Pure white. We worked with particular lenses to do it.
Your opening shot-where the sun rises-is considered the best opening shot of the festival.
I begin and end with stars. This is the beginning and end of the story. There is the universe-the broadest and largest thing-then we go to the story of these three characters and then back to the universe. It is like our life; we think we are the center of the universe but then we are nothing too.
I am not particularly interested in Mennonites. I like that they are so uniform; so monolithic. They are all dressed the same. They are archetypes: the mother, grandmother, children. This way, I could concentrate on the essential: the love story. It is a difficult triangle. Here there is a divided heart: a man who really loves both. Everyone feels compassion for each other. The other woman wakes up the wife in an act of compassion. Christ died on the cross for us. It is the same for her. She did this for the love of her man.
He also held forth with The Guardian discussing rules he films by.
The film is everything: “I’m not pursuing ‘a career’, or trying to make a point like Godard, who had these ideas of cinema and wanted to prove them through his films. His films are just essays trying to prove a preconceived theory, and that’s why I don’t like them very much. I feel films have to be pure – projections of vision and feelings, rather than make references to things outside of them. For me, they have to be spheres: self-containing.”
Make cinema for adults: “I’ve never understood all those children’s films about animals that talk and little animated spoons. When they ask me what I think of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, I always say, ‘I don’t understand them, they’re for children.’ And when I was a child, I didn’t understand films for adults and now I don’t understand films for children. I don’t understand why so many people understand films for children.”
Story isn’t cinema: “It’s not that I’m against storytelling itself – I’m against illustrated literature. I don’t want a story and then you illustrate it, in a way that there will always be a division between form and meaning. I think in art, form and meaning are the same thing. In that sense, music is the most noble of arts, because it does not permit you to separate the music from the meaning. In cinema, the story and the photography are the same thing. It’s not, like, ‘I don’t like the story, but great photography.” The photography is the film itself; it’s not a vehicle for the story. When cinema is true, it is a language in itself — that is why it is an art. I hate the idea that a good film is a good story, as Hollywood people say. That’s not letting cinema be totally free.”
Choose your collaborators carefully: “Werner Herzog said three very clear things regarding my editor: it has to be someone who’s fast knowing the best take; it has to be someone with a sense of rhythm; and thirdly – and this is applicable to any one of your assistants or collaborators – they have to have artistic empathy with you. The third I have applied fully. If there’s someone who’s a great technician, but doesn’t understand the kind of art I’m pursuing, then it’s better not to work together.”
Demand the best: “One thing I expect is full giving in to the project and to the film and to myself. It’s not a job. You will get well paid, you will be respected, you have great food and good resting time. But when the time comes, you have to be fully there and you have to be ready to risk your life. If you’re not, you have to leave. It’s commando mentality. [For example] in August, all the rattlesnakes come out, and the area of Mexico where we filmed Silent Light is plentiful with rattlesnakes. Of course, some people are afraid, but we had the correct shots, we wore boots and, if there were still rattlesnakes, then too bad. Probably people do it also because I set the example myself.”
Use non-professional actors: “I don’t want to work with known faces. In my opinion, the greatest quality of cinema is that your eyes and your ears perceive what you have in front of you as reality. (Of course, the brain tells you that it is not.) Anything you do to diminish that miraculous capacity is almost a crime against cinema. So if you have Brad Pitt doing the Mennonites, you cannot stop seeing Brad Pitt. For me, that is like going to a fancy-dress party.”
Casting is key: “For me, it’s like love at first sight. It’s the feeling you get when you see them, when you observe them talk and move around and walk. With Cornelio [Wall, the lead actor in Silent Light] it’s what I feel about him as a man – a trustworthy guy, a sympathetic guy. I first met him on a radio programme, playing country music. I liked his face very, very much, but I thought he was going to be difficult. Later on, he confessed he pretended to be not interested, and he was. But I knew there was a game there. He invited me to a restaurant where he ate three or four bowls of shrimp with ketchup sauce. And drank, in less than an hour, about seven vampires [Bloody Marys]. I liked him a lot. Then we talked a lot for about a year and formed a friendship.”
Actors shouldn’t research their characters: “I try not to have that kind of person at all, but if I do, you cut that immediately. Violently, if necessary. I don’t like any of that – that can ruin a film. I don’t want them to bring anything for a character, apart from their unique specific humanity. The one who has to think about the film and the characters is the director.”
Don’t expect an easy ride: “I have over-estimated the masses. I thought this film was easy to read, easy to follow, with great characters. It opened in Mexico two weeks ago, and you know what is the very sad conclusion? It’s just for the elite. Not an economic elite or an intellectual elite, but a human-sensitivity elite. It’s the same for the cello: if you play the cello, you cannot expect to be Britney Spears.”