His films are full of troubling issues, from the internationally acclaimed Tony Manero to the Oscar-nominated NO to the recent El Club, which won a Grand Jury Award at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. On the verge of his first Hollywood project with the upcoming remake of Scarface, the Chilean filmmaker talks about his inspirations and the eternal paradox of Latin American cinema.
Text: Pamela Biénzobas | photos: sebastián utreras
Pablo Larraín has “the most interesting job imaginable.” He makes movies. He imagines them, writes them, produces them (for other directors) and – above all – he directs them. Directing is what truly fascinates him. “On set, you start to try things and to understand the characters. The greatest pleasure comes when it’s being made. There’s something to the term ‘filmmaker.’”
And Larraín is clearly a “maker” – with a faithful team, he creates without pause. After a modest debut with Fuga (2006), he made the enormous leap to the striking Tony Manero (2008, Cannes), followed by Post Mortem (2010, Venice) and No (2012, Cannes). These three films ended up forming a trilogy about Chile’s military dictatorship, and they made a name for Larraín on an international scale. In February of this year, the extraordinary The Club – about Catholic priests protected by the Church in “retirement homes” – made a huge impact at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize.
The Club is just starting to be distributed internationally, and Pablo Larraín is already hard at work on several new projects, including Neruda, a police drama set in 1949, with Gael García Bernal playing the officer pursuing Pablo Neruda. The idea came from Juan de Dios Larraín, his brother, partner and producer. After he wraps up the filming of Neruda, Larraín will direct Natalie Portman as JFK’s widow in the Darren Aronofsky-produced Jackie, which focuses on the four days following the president’s assassination. Meanwhile, he’ll continue preparing for the third version of Scarface (a new take on the original by Howard Hawks and the remake by Brian De Palma) for Universal.
The Latin American Factor
International awards, an Oscar nomination, Hollywood contracts… All of these things are usually considered hallmarks of recognition and acceptance, a special step for a Latin American filmmaker who has reached the heart of the U.S. industry, which is seen by many as the final goal. “I don’t think the fact that you’ve made a Hollywood film immediately makes you a more – or less – interesting artist,” Larraín counters. “There are people who have never been there, and they’ve still played key roles in the history of film, working in completely different cinematographic realms. I’m interested in a few of the opportunities I’ve been offered [in Hollywood] for what the work means aesthetically and politically. But that’s not why I feel I’ve achieved something that’s going to result in something artistically valuable. You have to play the game. The U.S. filmmaking industry may be the most powerful, the most well known and the largest in scale, but many movies essential to the history of film have been made elsewhere, in Europe, Latin America.”
What challenges does Scarface present?
“Movies made with lots of resources are very difficult to make; they’ve got huge teams that have to think globally. It’s all conceived on an international scale, literally. It’s a wonderful opportunity to reach the whole planet, to be seen by millions of people. What’s important here is that the product is good; that’s how you can live with yourself.”
“It happens in Latin America in general. There’s a kind of disassociation, a lack of synchronicity between what we’re making and what people want to see. It’s a highly complex paradox because you want your film to be seen by as many people as possible, but maybe the only way for that to happen is to make one that’s truly honest. And to do that, you have to connect with your imagination, which at times doesn’t line up with everyone else’s. And so we go from one paradox to the next.”
You often talk about the need to support “Latin American film”. Do you identify with that label?
“You can’t question your origins. I feel comfortable because these are my circumstances, and I work with them. My point of view isn’t based in Europe or North America. I’m a Latin American, and I work with the materials around me, which are ideally as universal as possible. It’s a label I’m very proud of.”
Getting back to your films, does your chosen subject matter impose a dark, despairing tone or do the issues emerge because the tone is already set?
“Up until now – and this might change – I’ve leaned towards subjects I find uncomfortable and that elicit a sense of danger. And that’s what has motivated me to make the films I’ve made. There’s a lack of conformity, something that’s actually rather elusive. They’re small approximations of something that may turn out to be uncomfortable. And I think that in that discomfort, there’s a lot of beauty, too.”
What feeds your creative process?
“I think the things you absorb that could potentially become material for a film are everywhere. That’s why I don’t separate filmmaking from the rest of my life: it’s a constantly ongoing activity, and I consider it a privilege. Ultimately, what you’re looking to do is to show humanity on the screen. For example, The Club started with a photo that I saw in a news article on a Chilean priest accused of abuse and sent to live comfortably in a house in Germany, far from the Chilean justice system. It really grabbed my attention. I began to investigate and realized that this is something that’s done all over the world. And that’s where the film came from.” in