One of the highlights of this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival is the Chilean movie Things the Way They Are (Las Cosas Como Son), the auspicious fiction feature debut of writer/director Fernando Lavanderos. (You can read my capsule review, in which I call it “the reason why film festivals exist,” here.) It is a gripping naturalistic drama about the intersection of three people from vastly different walks of life: Sanna, a twenty-something Norwegian woman, Jeronimo, a thirty-something upper-class Chilean man, and Milton, a working-class Chilean teenager. Things the Way They Are won the main prize in the Latin American section of the prestigious Mar del Plata International Film Festival last November and is now in the process of making the rounds of many more festivals around the globe. I spoke with Lavanderos (who, in addition to being a great filmmaker, is also a heck of a nice guy) at his Chicago hotel yesterday morning, the same day he introduced his first CLFF screening. Things the Way They Are plays for the second and final time tomorrow night with Lavanderos again in attendance for a Q&A. I could not recommend seeing this movie more highly.
MGS: You teach film production. Do you hire your students to work on your films?
FL: (laughing) Yeah, sometimes.
MGS: (laughing) For free, right?
MGS: That’s funny. I’ve actually done that as well. I teach film history.
FL: Whole history? Or you’re specializing in . . .
MGS: Whole history. It’s sort of Intro to Film History – so we start in the silent era and go all the way up to the present day.
FL: Lumiere brothers?
MGS: Yeah, of course! I love their films.
FL: Yeah, I love it too.
MGS: So, the first thing I wanted to say about Things the Way They Are is that I was impressed by how subtle it is. Are you familiar with Robert Bresson?
MGS: He said something I love. He said, “Hide your ideas but don’t hide them so well that the viewer cannot find them.” I thought of that when I saw your film because your film seems to be a commentary on society but when I watched it I was so wrapped up in the drama and the characters that I didn’t really think about what it was “about” until it was over. Was that your intention?
FL: Yes. My intention was to make a film about a simple story of a few characters living together in some . . . not drastic, dramatic action or problems or . . . I don’t know how to say, “heroes dramaticos?”
MGS: Not a heroic story?
FL: Yeah, I like to hide the topics of society, the social problems, things you can think about afterwards. So, yes, I wanted to hide some things, to make the audience to think about, to not put everything clear. At the end it’s like that, you know, it’s so open.
MGS: Yes. The ending is very ambiguous.
FL: Yeah. So the reason is, I like to end with a question, not with morality. I like to make things happen so the audience thinks about that whatever they want to think.
MGS: Right. I loved the ending. It reminds me of Italian Neorealism because, like you say, the ending is open; it’s like the ending of Bicycle Thieves. But also the acting and the dialogue in your film seems very realistic, very natural. Were you influenced by Neorealism at all?
FL: Yeah, I use non-actors and I’m influenced not only by Neorealism but also Iranian films like Kiarostami and maybe, in some kind of way, the first films of Lars Von Trier and Dogme 95. In my first film (Y las Vacas Vuelan), it was a cross of the fiction and documentary and you couldn’t know who is who — who is acting, who is being. It’s a mix of real people that are in a film and they don’t know they are in a film, and there are people that are acting and they are lying to them.
MGS: That sounds very much like Kiarostami. He got his start, of course, making documentaries and he frequently mixes fiction and non-fiction. And you’ve made documentaries as well, yes?
FL: Yeah, I made a feature documentary about children of the streets. And then I made a television documentary show that was a very rough documentary without a narrator. It was only observation. We spent like a month shooting with different kind of families in Santiago. It was a very good experience. I spent like two or three years making that thing. We work together with Sebastian Lelio. You know him? Gloria? Gloria that won the Best Actress Golden Bear (at the Berlin Film Festival)?
MGS: Oh yeah, of course. Cassavetes.
FL: No, no. This year was the premiere of Gloria, a Chilean film influenced by Cassavetes (laughs). The film won the Golden Bear for Best Actress this year. We worked together on that series. So, I like to make documentaries but I like more to make feature (fiction) films that I stole some kind of things of the documentary. You know, Godard say something like, “Every fiction has some things about the documentary and documentary about the fiction.” I cannot say it in English . . .
MGS: Yeah, I know the quote. (“All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction… each word implies a part of the other. And he who opts wholeheartedly for one, necessarily finds the other at the end of his journey.” – ed.)
FL: I believe in that mix and I believe you can make it appear spontaneous in the fiction, make it natural, make it more credible. I work with non-actors and I made a lot of improvisations in the dialogues.
MGS: So the actors in Things the Way They Are are not professionals?
FL: No, neither of them are professional. The main character (Cristobal Palma) is a photographer. It was his very first experience in acting. She (Ragni Orsal Skogsrod) studied acting but she didn’t finish. And, of course, the boy (Isaac Arriagada) is not an actor.
MGS: How did you find her? Was she living in Chile?
FL: No. I made casting by internet. (laughs) I have a friend in Norway. He helps me a lot. And then I start to make interviews by Skype.
MGS: (laughing) She auditioned by Skype?
FL: Yeah, yeah. In Skype I act with her.
MGS: So you read the script with her?
FL: No, no. Not the script. It was acting different things. Just to know a little bit how is the performance. And then I ask her to shoot a thing that I write, like a very short, short film. But not to make it so accomplished, but to see her acting . . .
MGS: Like an audition tape?
FL: Yeah. And she shoot it there in Norway. It was very good. So finally we were together. The only problem was she didn’t speak Spanish. (laughs) So she said she can learn it in very few months, like four or five months. And she learn it in that time. She started classes from zero because she didn’t speak nothing of Spanish, and came to Chile speaking quite well to be a foreigner that is just in the country. And she arrived like one and a half months before the film so she can continue learning there. Of course, we made huge amount of rehearsals, different kind of rehearsals, so she started to take to the language.
MGS: That’s amazing. It seems like how you made the movie kind of mirrors what the movie’s about.
FL: Yeah, because they are three people that come from very different worlds. The boy (Arriagada), I found him in workshops that I made in the school of the working class. So, for him, to be in this movie was very unique, very special. So he came to this world that was the movie. And, sharing with her (Skogsrod) and with him (Palma), the interactions were just like the movie. Also, I prevent the boy to meet with Cristobal, the actor. The first time they meet, it’s in the film.
MGS: The first time they met in person was on camera?
FL: On camera, yeah. (laughs)
MGS: Wow. Now I want to go back and watch it again. (laughs) It seemed like the characters almost represented different ideas: Sanna wanted to help solve social problems in Chile but Jernonimo was very detached and didn’t want to become involved. Was it important to you that she was European? Was that a commentary on globalization?
FL: Yeah, yeah. It was important to me that she came from Europe. Jeronimo is a mix. We are a mix. The Spanish people got here, to that territory, and the Indian people were there. And we, growing up, follow models that came from the first world. And this girl came from the other side of the earth. The first world, they are coming to Latin America, coming to the “wild side.” Some people have the intentions that they can make some things (better). But the other side is that they don’t have the experience to be there.
FL: So I wanted to make these three worlds – he (Jeronimo) is a mix, the boy (Milton) is totally the descendant of the Indian people, like 300 or 400 years ago . . . And now it’s the same thing: the working class follow the upper class that is the colony that is making the rules. So I think they are three separate worlds. Now in the world is globalization; okay, let’s take three characters without judging them and saying “okay she is like very idealistic and so naïve . . .” No, she is making the things she believes and it’s very good. There is a scene in the film where Jeronimo said “So you think we need more Nordic young girls to save us?” But she is saying like “Okay, you prefer to do nothing?” There’s not a solution. It’s not like “Okay, she’s right” or “he’s right” . . .
MGS: Nobody’s right.
FL: Nobody’s right, yeah.
MGS: Your film is mostly serious but there were a few moments in the film where I laughed. I loved the scene where Jeronimo sees Sanna, in his yard, wearing a bikini and then you cut to him presenting her with a new light for her room. It was so funny to me that he just wanted an excuse to talk to her. Is humor important to you?
FL: (laughs) Yeah, it’s very important. I love the humor. I wanted, in everything that I tried to make, to be some irony things of life. But it’s the kind of documentary things. Like they appear, some things, they are so funny sometimes. For example, in the dinner scene when the boy makes some comments that are very funny, like, “So you don’t like to leave the house alone?” (laughs) He (Arriagada) had some intentions, I talk a lot with him, so he knows more or less what he’s going to achieve but he’s very smart to make those comments appear in those places. It’s more the documentary way. It’s funny because it’s spontaneous.
MGS: It’s funny in a way that real life is funny.
MGS: Well, thank you so much for talking to me and good luck with your screenings.
FL: Thank you. It was very nice conversation.
Ticket info and directions to the theater for tomorrow night’s screening can be found here: