Monday, February 14, 2011

CHILEAN CINEMA: LA VIDA DE LOS PECES (THE LIFE OF FISH, 2010)—The Evening Class Interview With Matías Bize

Matías Bize's La vida de los Peces (The Life of Fish, 2010) boasted its U.S. premiere at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF). Programmed in the Awards Buzz sidebar as Chile's official submission to the Academy Awards®, the film didn't make the Oscar® shortlist but it did go on to win Best Latin American Feature at the 2011 Goya Awards.

The plot revolves around 33-year-old Andrés (Santiago Cabrera) who has been living for 10 years in Berlin, working as a travel writer. When he returns to his native Chile on holiday, at a friend's birthday party he rediscovers the world he left behind, including his old love, Beatriz (Blanca Lewin). Bize explains: "My idea was to tell the story as simply as possible and follow Andrés through his process. I wanted to tell the story in an emotional way, using the camera to penetrate deeply into the characters. The dialogue is very important in this film, but in some cases, what is not said—the silences and looks—are even more important." Taking that cue, PSIFF synopsized: "It is not what the characters say so much as what they don't say. Their smallest gestures speak volumes. Their collective pain is never fully articulated but is all-pervasive. The weight of missed opportunities leaps off the screen making you question your own."

Variety, Boyd von Hoeij appears to have the best handle on why Bize's latest effort is his most accessible. Though he's quick to characterize The Life Of Fish as a "slow-burning yakfest", he nonetheless finds it "loquacious and ultimately poignant" and discerns that it represents "an impressive leap forward" for Bize whose "by now familiar Linklater-esque approach finally feels like a solid fit for the material, with both the mise-en-scène and the screenplay ... less claustrophobic and inward-looking than usual. ...Real-time pacing is thankfully accomplished through artfully edited sequences rather than endlessly long takes, and the naturally acted dialogue is what will keep auds hooked." He concludes, "The strong suit of Fish is that it focuses not on possible things in the future or concrete ones in the past, but the nebulous notion of what might have been."

My thanks to Adrián Solar and Matías Bize for honoring my request for an interview at PSIFF.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Matías, congratulations on such a lovely film. I've seen your previous feature En La Cama (In Bed, 2005) and am pleased that La Vida de Los Peces (The Life of Fish, 2010) exhibits your considerable growth as a filmmaker. What's interesting in both films is your fascination with creating the cinematic illusion of real time. Why is that? Where does that fascination come from?

Matías Bize: Because for me that is the most important part of the story. In this case, the story is about what happens to Andrés and Beatriz when they meet each other again. Not only what happens when Andrés reconnects with his old life, but particularly what happens when he reconnects with Beatriz. In that respect, the use of "real time" gets rid of all that is extraneous to the story and concentrates on what is most important. I could have started the story by showing Andrés and his life in Berlin, then his subsequent return to Chile, but that would have added a half an hour or so to the beginning of the film.
La Vida de Los Peces cuts all that out and starts when Andrés is getting ready to leave the party. Normally, a film would start with him arriving at the party but mine starts with his saying, "I'm going." The same thing happens in En La Cama. I was interested in what happened between the two characters once they were within the motel room, not with how they got to the motel room, or why they decided to have sex.

Guillén: I felt you achieved the illusion of real time more effectively in La Vida de Los Peces than En La Cama, primarily through skillful editing. En La Cama seemed to rely more on longer takes to replicate the passage of real time, whereas Peces insinuates the passage of real time through an assemblage of shorter takes.

Bize: Yes, we worked with two cameras and shot a lot of different takes and points of view for each scene. Then we edited a lot. I wanted to be focused on
his experience. You notice that we shot a lot of close-ups of his face? As you suggest, the movie was built in the editing room. Of course there was the script and the shooting; but, the editing was very important. We spent every day for six months editing the film trying to capture a sense of the real. I wanted the audience to feel like they were at the party, that it would be a normal experience for them to be at the party, but in another way we told the story poetically, especially towards the end with the use of slow motion and music. So we were trying to do these two things at once: be real and be poetic.

Guillén: Speak to me about the metaphor within the film's title.

Bize: First, the metaphor is spatial. Because the party happens in a close space, it's similar to an aquarium. Watching what happens at this party is like watching fish in an aquarium. Second, I think the title is beautiful.
La Vida de los Peces is more poetic than The Party. In fact, the Chilean distributor wanted to change the name because they thought La Vida de Los Peces was too long. They wanted to call it The Party. I protested, "No. Please. I like the title."

Guillén: The sequence shot through the aquarium with the fish swimming in the foreground is beautiful. In that final sequence when Beatriz agrees to go with Andrés and they begin to leave the party together, they move very much like fish. Was that intentional on your part?

Bize: Yes. Like a school of fish following a current.

Guillén: I understand that you meant the party to be the world in microcosm, but what interested me most about the party was how quiet it was, and how—in your focus on intimate moments—the house seemed at times almost empty except for these two characters. That intriguing choice was then offset by scenes where you'd go into a room with a lot of people and hear music and conversation and laughter.

Bize: It's true that within the movie you don't hear the music that is at the party. For example, there's the one scene where Andrés walks through the middle of the party and there are a lot of people dancing, but you don't hear the music they are dancing to; you hear the music he is hearing in his head. The party is necessary for the story but it's not the most important part of the story. The party is always a little out of focus as a backdrop behind them.

Guillén: So is it more appropriate to say that the "real time" you're striving for in your films is intimate time, psychological time?

Bize: Yes.

Guillén: You're trying to conflate real time with psychological time?

Bize: Yes. I'm interested in
moments in a life. What happens when two people fall in love in one night, as in En La Cama? What happens when two people have a second opportunity to fall in love, as in this film? This second opportunity is what is most important, most real, to La Vida de Los Peces and my task is to remove all the elements that are not at the specific center of the story.

Guillén: Speaking of the music he hears in his head, your score for the film is evocative. Can you speak about your score?

Bize: It was written by my half-brother Diego Fontecilla. He's worked on the music for all of my movies. He also acted in
La Vida de Los Peces as Jorge, the brother of Andrés's dead friend Francisco. We work well together because he knows me so well and knows my taste in music and—in developing the score—we can just talk about emotions. I don't tell him how to do the music, what instruments to use, anything like that, we just talk about emotions. In fact we developed the music and the script at the same time. It helps during the shooting to already have some of the music for the film. Sometimes I don't even say anything to the actors, I just put on the music so they can feel the emotion in the scene.

Guillén: Is the soundtrack available?

Bize: Yes, it's available at the film's website. You can buy it there and download.

Guillén: This has been a great year for me in terms of Chilean cinema. I've had the opportunity to speak to two of Chile's master filmmakers—Miguel Littin and Patricio Guzmán—and now I'm here speaking with you, one of Chile's youngest filmmakers, acknowledged as its most promising. How does that feel for you to be considered in that way? Is it a burden or a boon? Does it excite you or intimidate you?

Bize: In a way it helps me a lot—at film festivals, in the release of my movie outside my country—but, I'm not interested in being hyped as the new Chilean guy, no. I really like the stories that I tell in my movies and I feel like a student, I feel like I'm always learning a lot with every movie that I make. Just as you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that you see growth in my work from
En La Cama to Vida de Los Peces, I feel the same. I want to continue making movies, continue growing, and it's essential for me to feel that the story is close to me. My movies have to be very personal movies. It can be difficult at first when you make a movie and it gets accepted into a festival and then as a director you start to think, "What kind of movie do I have to make to get into this festival again? To get into Cannes?" For me, it's become different. I have to make the movie I want to make and—if I get an award or something—that's great; but, I remain the first audience. I'm the one who has to love the movie first. I feel good because I do love my movies.

Guillén: As a filmmaker who admittedly makes personal movies, is there still a national signature to your films? Do your films represent Chile? Does the fact that you were chosen as Chile's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards® indicate there is something specifically Chilean about your personal sensibility? In other words, does your desire to create personal movies inflect a national mood?

Bize: That's a difficult question to answer because in a way my movies don't talk about Chile, especially in the way that most people think about Chile and its political realities. I talk about stories that could happen anywhere. Second opportunities at love happen all over the world. But, in another way, it is a Chilean movie in very specific ways. For example,
En La Cama is set in a room that could be in any country—they even made a remake of it in another country—but a Bolivian filmmaker who saw En La Cama told me that it was the story of Chile. He said that through the relationship of the two main characters the audience could feel the sense of political compromise that characterizes the history of Chile. I think it's great that he saw that in the movie but—if I had tried to make the history of Chile set in one bed—it would have been a horrible movie. If I choose to have one point of view in my movie, for sure it could be similar to some point of view in some part of the country; but, it's not my intention to do that. In La Vida de Los Peces, I'm not trying to show Chile to the world but in the end it could happen. So, again, along with it being absolutely important for the story in my film to be personal, it also has to be universal. I've traveled a lot with Peces to many film festivals in different countries speaking different languages and many people have come up to me from the audience to say, "This was my story. This happened to me." For me, that's wonderful.

Guillén: The moment in Peces that I considered—perhaps not a Chilean moment—but possibly a Latino moment was when Andrés was talking to the elderly woman in the kitchen. She recalled serving him cereal with condensed milk, which reminded me of my own childhood. I'm not sure if it's a Latino thing to serve cereal with condensed milk, but it certainly felt like it during that scene.

I was amused by how long it took Andrés to leave that party. He keeps saying he's going to leave, but then he doesn't leave. I'm aware that the ritual of good-byes is important to you. Can you speak to why?

Bize: Yeah. Two things: first, prolonged good-byes are common among Chileans. You're at a party and you say, "Okay, I'm leaving" and two hours later you're still leaving but always staying. But, second, a good-bye is important because it's the moment when you have the last word and you never know if you will see the person you are leaving again.

For my story it's important that he be saying good-bye throughout the movie. In a way it shows Andrés as a tourist in his own country. He's Chilean but he lives outside of Chile, and—though he's with his familiar friends—he still feels like a tourist.

Guillén: You've stated this film is somewhat autobiographical. Are you 33, like the character of Andrés?

Bize: No, I'm 31.

Guillén: Are you starting to experience doubts about the decisions you've made in your life? Of the roads you haven't chosen?

Bize: Yes! The film is definitely autobiographical in that sense. I'm always thinking about what could have happened. I end a relationship and I think, "Oh, but she could be the girl of my life. What if we meet 10 years later?" So yes, that's what I've been thinking about. At first I thought I was representing my generation, but now I think that even someone at the age of 15 could relate to this story. Because if you've had even one relationship, and it ends, you think about what could have been. It's important for me that people can identify with that.

Guillén: I've long said that regrets are illuminations come too late and there's a sense of that in your film.

Bize: Great! When a couple splits up, I don't know why but usually it's the woman who feels the loss while men usually need some time to realize what they have lost. People react differently to loss.

Guillén: Along with your maturation as a filmmaker, Blanca Lewin's performance in La Vida de Los Peces is one of her finest. You've worked with her two or three times now. Why do you like working repeatedly with her?

Bize: When I have a new project I usually say, "Okay, I'll think about another actress"; but, in the end, I come back to Blanca because she's great to work with. I wrote the script for this movie with her in mind. She's a very hard worker. I'm a very hard worker too so I feel comfortable with her. She loves to rehearse and I usually rehearse a lot. In the beginning we read the script together and then we talk a lot about it. Then we rehearse and I film the rehearsals with a handheld. We talk some more. I usually don't want actors to think too much about their performance because then they become mechanical; but, I want them to have the
experience of the scene during rehearsal. When we shoot, we film multiple takes. I usually do very long takes until the actors feel comfortable, which is when they start to work well with each other. It's important for me that my lead actors are friends.

That last scene of the movie, just before Santiago walks out the door, we did 59 takes. Santiago was incredible in each and every one of those 59 takes. He just kept getting better. I think we used the 35th take.

Guillén: Speaking of Santiago, the actors in your movies are uniformly sexy. The women are beautiful and the men are handsome. Is it important for you to cast physically attractive actors to express your intimate stories?

Bize: For En La Cama it was important because of the physical attraction between the two main characters. For Vida de Los Peces, it wasn't my idea to have a beautiful actor in the lead role, but Santiago is beautiful. I didn't cast the role based on physical type, no. It's important, for sure, because the two main characters in Peces also feel a physical attraction; but, in this movie, they have already been a couple so their attraction to each other is not necessarily a sexual attraction; it's a much more complicated attraction.

What was important was that I needed a good actor for the character. It's a difficult role because the character is in every scene and the movie rests on his shoulders. I had seen Santiago's most recent work in Stephen Soderbergh's
Che. He's Chilean but lives in L.A. In fact, he's similar to the character of Andrés because he has lived out of Chile for 10 years.

Guillén: Can we speak about the film's ending? Why Beatriz changed her mind minutes after she had agreed to leave with Andrés?

Bize: At the moment when they say, "This could be...." it's a moment of feeling, of impulse, it's not intellectual. But as she's intercepted on her way to the door by a friend showing her a photo, the intellect enters back into the picture. They had let themselves go with the moment. They believed their reunion was possible. But that momentum was broken when they tried to leave the party. They also had to confront the social reality of their decision. All their friends were there.

Guillén: What's coming up for you? Are you working on a new movie? Or focusing on seeing this one out into the world?

Bize: I'm trying to be with this movie. I started traveling with it in Venice and have been to a lot of festivals. Right now it's important for me to be with the movie at festivals. I don't have a specific new project I'm working on now but, for sure, it will be some personal story. In a way that's difficult for me because this movie is so personal. I've worked on it for three years, beginning with the script, then the shooting, then the editing and now in its promotion. But as for the next project? It's not like it can be just anything. It still has to be personal and part of a creative process. But I do try to shoot soon after finishing up the previous film, at least within two or three years. I'm 31 and have made four movies. I'm only now just starting to think of some new ideas for the next film.

Guillén: Among your peers in Chile, are there any filmmakers you would recommend to American audiences?

Bize: Hmmmm. I'm not sure who I would recommend. What I like about Chilean filmmaking is that there is no national style. Chilean filmmakers are all very different. Some are making comedies, others are making horror films, and I think all those differences are good. For sure, Chilean filmmaking is an auteurist cinema because a filmmaker is often his own producer and has to do everything. It's not like there's an industry to depend upon. No one comes to you with a script and offers to pay you for directing it. If you want to make movies, you have to do it yourself. Perhaps auteurist isn't the right word. Chilean filmmaking is
personal filmmaking, even if you're making horror movies. Friends of mine who make horror movies personally enjoy making them. But if I were to recommend anyone, I would suggest Andrés Wood (Machuca, 2004).

Guillén: If there's no true Chilean film industry, and most Chilean films are independent films, then do you interact much with your peers? With other Chilean filmmakers? Do you party together? Talk shop with each other?

Bize: Yes. Especially when we meet at some festival outside of Chile. Most of us are friends. Some I studied with at film school. Do you know Sebastián Silva (
The Maid, 2009)?

Guillén: Yes.

Bize: He also was in my school. We all know each other because there are very few Chilean filmmakers. In Chile, we only produce maybe 10 or 12 movies a year so it's a small family.

02/14/11 UPDATE: My colleague from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Richard von Busack, film critic for the San Jose Metro, has reminded me that La Vida de Los Peces screens three times come March at San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival [tickets can be ordered here].

Cross-published on Twitch.

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