Tony Manero concerns itself with Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), a man in his fifties obsessed with the idea of impersonating Tony Manero, John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever; an obsession situated in the midst of the tough social context of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. Raúl leads a small group of dancers regularly performing at a bar located in the outskirts of the city. Every Saturday evening he unleashes his passion for the film's music by imitating his idol. His dream of being recognized as a successful showbiz star is about to become a reality when the national television announces a Tony Manero impersonation contest. His urge to reproduce his idol's likeness drives him to commit a series of crimes and thefts.
My conversation with Pablo Larraín, conducted during the Toronto International Film Festival, is not for the spoiler-wary.
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Michael Guillén: Congratulations on Tony Manero. When I was in San Francisco preparing to attend TIFF, Tony Manero was the film my friends were most envious I was getting to see; that's how good the word-of-mouth is on this film. And after seeing it, I have to confirm that the buzz is well-founded. I've never seen a film quite like Tony Manero. I know you collaborated with Alfredo Castro and Mateo Iribarren on the script. Where did the three of you come up with this story?
Pablo Larraín: I was in a museum, the Reina Sofia in Spain, and in the museum store I picked up a book called Drink. I was alone and bored and started reading it. It included a beautiful black and white photograph of a guy, maybe 55 to 60 years old, sitting in a chair in his underwear, with his shoes on, looking out a window with a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I couldn't believe the image. I kept wondering, "Who is this guy?" I turned the page and there was another photo of the same guy in the same room in bed with a woman with a strange body giving him a blowjob. He was similarly positioned and seemed to be in the same state of mind. I bought the book, returned to my country, phoned Alfredo Castro, and showed him the image. I asked him, "What do you see here?" Alfredo answered, "Wow. I see a murderer. A killer. And I don't know why, but I see a dancer." I asked him, "Do you want to do it? Do you want to be this guy?" He said, "All right! Let's do it." That was exactly two and a half years ago. We started writing the script and then for some reason I came up with the idea of connecting the story to these popular impersonation television shows. We thought, "Who could be the reference?" This was at about the fourth version of the script. It's been a long process. When you ask me how I got here, I would be lying if I said it all happened instantly. That wouldn't be true.
Guillén: The script went through a metamorphasis?
Larraín: Right. Exactly. It was a journey. It was a dynamic idea that was always in movement even up until the shoot. Even while we were shooting, we changed many many things. Then we came up with the idea, "What if this guy was wanting to be someone 30 years younger? A young dancer like John Travolta?" So we figured out whenabouts the story would be happening. We figured out that Saturday Night Fever was released in Chile in 1978, which was great and beautiful, because it allowed us to reference Pinochet. We pulled all the elements together. We had a conflict. We had a dramatic plot. And we had a context. What I like about the film, and what I wanted to show, was how these two polar opposites create tension. The context was not just a background but was the floor on which everyone was standing.
Guillén: So Alfredo Castro's character Raúl Peralta was based on this photograph you found in a book and then you came up with the idea of having him be a Tony Manero impersonator. Is his character a metaphor for the state of the Chilean people under the Pinochet regime?
Larraín: I hate when directors talk about metaphors because it's like they're manipulating the audience. His character is more an allegory. You could easily say and it would be all right to say that the character of Raúl Peralta is a metaphor for the Chilean people; but, what if—on the other hand—you don't describe it as a metaphor? What if you play it straight? A metaphor seems to be something that stands in for something else. It's not played straight.
Guillén: Then perhaps I should have phrased it more that the character of Raúl Peralta exhibits the consequential pressures of the time?
Larraín: Raúl Peralta is the result of a society. He acts with impunity. He is enraged. His desires reflect the enraged behavior of a government.
Guillén: I am perhaps not as fully informed as I should be about the Pinochet regime….
Larraín: But it doesn't matter if you are. This film is not a political statement on the Pinochet regime. I'm not preaching.
Guillén: Is it about the loss of identity?
Larraín: It's about identity. I had an argument with the film's sales agent regarding this because I had written down for the press book that Tony Manero was about loss, identity and obsession in recent Chilean history. He took out the comma so that it read that Tony Manero was about the loss of identity. When I saw the press book in print, I said, "No, no, no, man." It's about loss, identity … not the loss of identity. That's not the same. You don't lose your identity. You change your identity. What interests me is where and why identity changes. What do you grab and what do you give up when your identity changes? I like to think about loss and about identity, but not about lost identity, which is like trying to fit an idea into a square and maybe that square doesn't have enough space to encompass the idea….
Guillén: Or the image?
Larraín: The image, right.
Guillén: It's precisely the image of this character Raúl Peralta in Tony Manero, much like the photographic image that inspired him, that I loved about the film. Raúl is rich and complex. I came out of the movie deeply conflicted. It's correct that he doesn't stand in for any one thing. Many things come out of his character. One thing I considered was the effect of poverty. If you come from impoverished circumstances, what does that do to identity? Do you lose your morality in attempting to overcome poverty? Clearly, within the audience I was in last night, they were so shocked by Raúl's lack of morality and his ambition to better himself. If not a metaphor for the Chilean people, is his character indicative of an amorality among the Chilean people at the time, or is his a singular portrait?
Larraín: The first thing I have to say is that I was two years old during the Pinochet regime so all I can say is what I've heard. It's important to realize it's not my direct experience. I don't know if someone like Raúl—with all the elements that make up his character—existed during those years. I am trying to say that the police during those years weren't worried about common crimes because they were working in collusion with the oppression of a military government, thus common criminals could act with impunity. They could steal or kill and the police wouldn't get involved. In some cases at least, if not all cases. The other thing is that in 1976 a whole bunch of Chilean students studying in Chicago came up with new economic ideas and Pinochet appointed them to the Ministry of Economics. They succeeded in changing Chilean economy and culture. Chile ended up importing many things and maybe in that importation lost many things from our roots. That combination interested me.
Raúl is not really an immoral character. I would agree with you that he is amoral. He doesn't have a morality. That's why many people in my country don't like my film because they want Raúl to be redeemed somehow. They're right in questioning, "Why doesn't Raúl change? Why is he always like this? Why are we only seeing one side of this story? Of our history?" That's precisely what the film is about. I don't think that everyone changes. I don't think that everyone achieves redemption. If that's what you want, turn to a Hollywood film, where the bad guy at the end turns into a good guy. As we were saying a little bit earlier, the lack of morality in the character of Raúl Peralta suggests a lack of morality in a government. It's important to remember that the character of Raúl Peralta was born in 1928, at a time when 30% of Chileans didn't wear shoes. Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm talking about a lack of educational opportunity. A lack of ethical training. Maybe Raúl Peralta was from that 30%? Maybe he was raised on a farm? Maybe when he came to the city, he changed and started to get information from cinema imported from other parts of the world? From the U.S. especially, because the Chilean government didn't allow many European films in those days, especially any that reflected an ideology they deemed dangerous. So you end up with this guy who's an alien. Society has transformed him. They encourage him to come watch a film Saturday Night Fever where the protagonist Tony Manero is a working class hero who can change his life through the American dream, through dance. What I find amazing and extremely beautiful is that Raúl believes that American dream is possible for him in Chile. That Tony Manero's dream is possible for Raúl Peralta, even though Raúl doesn't dance like Tony Manero, doesn't look like him, is Chilean, and 30 years older. Raúl doesn't know how to treat people. He's extremely violent. All these combined factors of dance, law, politics, reflect something much bigger than his self. Raúl is a copy of a copy of a copy.
Guillén: That's fascinating that you describe him that way. As I was watching the film, I was likewise watching the audience receive the film, and—even though he's this amoral character who commits some truly horrific acts—the audience still wants to like him, to understand him, to support him. Specifically, I noted how much the audience sympathized with Raúl in the scene where the young girl is in his room and ends up masturbating rather than having sex with him. I could hear the audience audibly feeling sorry for him rather than focusing on the fact that he had seduced a minor to his room. That was an especially subtle exchange. Further, it intrigued me that all these women were drawn to him despite his being a somewhat obvious cad. Even if he was a copy of a copy of a copy, he had his own unique charisma. He still had something that had gotten him this far. In the televised competition with the audience applause, my heart broke for Raúl. I honestly couldn't tell the difference between the applause for Raúl and the applause for his main competitor. The final decision seemed a thoroughly arbitrary choice on the part of the program host, who preferred a younger contestant as the winner. Did you intend that?
Larraín: Yes. It's actually the same applause. We copied it. I actually told the sound engineer to use the same applause. The intention was precisely to have it all be in the hands of the host. He was the one who decided the winner. But to get back to what you were saying before, which I find interesting, I think all audiences like or not like a character in a film. It amazes me because audiences usually like the good guy or the guy who's in trouble; but, sometimes—and I think this film is proof—audiences can get to like somebody who's a loser, where things don't work for him. That's an ethical decision on the part of the audience. It's compassion for the stupid guy, for the guy who is from the Third World trying to make his living and he can't get an erection. In the end it's that kind of compassion that allows you to like Raúl. Humanity is based on many things but mostly on compassion.
By way of example, are you aware that the Toronto International Film Festival has more than 3,000 volunteers? They're aware that if they don't volunteer, the festival won't work. So they choose to help. Similarly, you can go to the U.S. and people are wearing their AIDS ribbons or worrying about what's happening to people in Africa. It's compassion for somebody else, for someone, and it can be an interesting tool filmmakers can use. If your character won't change and redeem himself by becoming a nice guy, then maybe you can hook the audience through their compassion. But it has to be done well so that the audience doesn't see or come to resent the puppet strings.
Guillén: I certainly felt compassionate towards Raúl but I want to be clear that it was not out of pity. Even though I didn't approve of how he did it, I had to admire the ferocity of his ambition, of his dream. Like you said, Tony Manero's working class hero dream was Raúl's dream too, even if impossibly. I was laughing to myself at his ingenuity of securing the bones to throw to the guard dogs so he could steal the glass bricks. I respected that he thought it out so thoroughly and that he was using everything he had at his disposal to make his dream work. For that I admired him, even though in the process he was hurting other people, even crushing other people. In another film I might have judged such behavior but you pitched it so perfect in Tony Manero that I accepted it. That's where I must commend you as a filmmaker. You found that place in the audience to hook their compassion. How did you figure that out? Was it during the writing of the script?
Larraín: It was while we were shooting. I discussed it with Alfredo. Do you remember when he danced alone in the room?
Guillén: Of course.
Larraín: At first I pulled that scene out during the editing process and then I decided to put it back in because it's a very important scene. It speaks to when you're alone in your room. We all do weird things when we're alone. We all know we do that, but we don't want to talk about it.
Guillén: Oh, I never do anything weird when I'm by myself.
Larraín: [Laughs.] What's interesting is to gain access to those private moments. When you look into the private moments of others, sometimes you see those moments are somehow connected to you. Everybody at some point in his or her life wants to be somebody different, maybe someone more successful or more beautiful, maybe if you're into basketball you want to be Michael Jordan. Everybody wants to be somebody else. I think an audience connects with that when they see it in film characters. We recognize obsessions in common. Maybe we don't have the guts to act upon those obsessions. Maybe we aren't willing to die for them or to do whatever we have to do to achieve them; but, some do. At least for me as a filmmaker I had the chance, the luck, to make this film, which is all very nice, but I wouldn't stop until I've done it. Raúl's character in a way is the same.
Guillén: I like how you propose that he might not have the guts to die for his dream.
Larraín: He's a coward.
Guillén: But to be fair, he does have the guts to live for it. A very telling scene for me was when the police came to the bar and you realize that everyone else he's been involved with is going to go down. He could have been a hero at that point by trying to help them but he decided that what was more important to him was not to die trying to be a hero but rather to live chasing after his obsession. That's what makes the final outcome so sad. He's given up everything for his dream and still loses it.
Let's talk a bit about Alfredo Castro's performance as Raúl Peralta. I kept thinking after the film that you never really know who Raúl is; you can only witness what he does.
Larraín: Do you need that? Did you want to know more about him?
Guillén: No, it's not necessary to know who he really is. I actually liked that you created a character study that was not based on biographical detail, but more on the most basic of motivations, which was that he wanted to be somebody else. It forced you to wonder as an audience member why he would want to be somebody else, which in turn made you question the culture, and to understand that there might be a million reasons why he would want to be someone else. He's getting older. He lives in a dictatorship. He's poor working class. He's uneducated. He's been influenced by foreign media.
Larraín: For me it's important to show just a fragment, which becomes an abstraction of the whole. I hate when films show you everything. I love that when you show a fragment, it's the audience who completes the picture. Where is he going at the end? What is he going to do? Is he going to hurt the winner? Tony Manero is just four days in the life of Raúl Peralta. Those four days are just a fragment of his whole life. The film starts with movement and it ends in movement. No judgment. Nothing else. We just witness those four days.
Guillén: Which I have to characterize as masterful filmmaking.
Larraín: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Guillén: So to wrap up, what's next for you?
Larraín: I'm working on a few things but I don't like to talk about it. The creative process is very private. When you finish a film, then you show it to others. I hate it when you read where other directors talk about what they're going to do or want to do and then for some reason they end up doing something different or they just don't do it. I think, "What an asshole. Why are you talking about something you're going to do and then you don't do it?" I think it's better to be quiet and keep it private and then—when it's ready—you say, "Hello. Would you like to watch this?"
Guillén: And just be proud of what you've done, which you should be.
Larraín: Thank you. It's been very nice talking to you and meeting you.
Cross-published on Twitch.