INTERVIEW: To Love and Die in Medellin; Schroeder Returns to Colombia with "Our Lady"
by Manuel Kalmanovitz González
(indieWIRE/ 09.07.01) — There is an image that Barbet Schroeder saw in Colombia as a child that he hasn’t been able to forget. He was looking out the window at the chaos that followed the assassination of a very popular presidential candidate in April 1948. Schroeder lived in the country with his Swiss diplomatic father between 6 and 11. There was a group of six men carrying a stolen refrigerator while another one directed them. One of the men stopped and began discussing something with the leader. After a moment, the leader took out his machete and beheaded the unhappy carrier, who for a moment stood there, headless. “I didn’t think it was horrifying because I saw it all behind a window,” he now says. “It seemed unreal.”
That same kind of gratuitous violence is one of the main elements in “Our Lady of the Assassins,” Schroeder’s latest film, which opens this week in the U.S. The film presents a raw portrait of Medellín, the third biggest city in the country and center of the international drug trade in the mid-90s, where people can get killed for the smallest reason. Adapted from a novel by Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo, it tells the love story between a middle-aged writer that has returned to Medellín to die, but instead finds love in a very young contract killer that becomes his own personal ‘angel of death.’ A love story, but also a misanthropic cry against all the institutions that Colombians, and particularly natives of Medellín, hold dear: the pope, the president, Bolívar (the independence leader), and concepts like heterosexuality, having children and working hard. Filming was tense. Threats were received constantly and the director was accompanied by several teams of bodyguards. The film itself, shot on Hi-Definition digital video, has a hurried, but vital, look to it.
Barbet Schroeder is, in the complete sense of the word, an international director. He has directed Hollywood fare (“Single White Female,” “Reversal of Fortune,” “Barfly“), enigmatic documentaries in Africa (“Idi Amin Dada“) and several films in France (“Maitresse,” “Tricheurs“). More importantly, in 1963, at only 23, Schroeder created a very successful producing company, Les Films de Losange, that financed some of the jewels of the Nouvelle Vague, including most of Eric Rohmer‘s films and Jacques Rivette‘s “Céline and Julie go Boating.” Columbian journalist Manuel Kalmanovitz González met with Schroeder in New York where the filmmaker is finishing the editing of his new project, a Hollywood film starring Sandra Bullock.
indieWIRE: You chose to make this film in High Definition Video. What convinced you to make that choice? Are you happy with the results?
Barbet Schroeder: This is the first film to have been made on High Definition video, the same kind George Lucas is using for the film he’s shooting now. I chose it because it allowed the city of Medellín to become one of the characters. It also had other advantages, we could also shoot with multiple cameras so we could do it faster. If we had chosen to film on 35 mm, it would have taken us another week.
iW: Was it cheaper?
Schroeder: No, the economic difference wasn’t so big. To rent that equipment is very expensive, so we didn’t save in that. And we didn’t save in lighting because all scenes, with only a couple of exceptions, are lit.
iW: Sometimes it looks like a documentary?
Schroeder: That is because it was shot on location, and that reality feel comes from having used high definition. There is nothing documentary in the film except for the fact that we used two kids from the streets. But we treated them like movie stars and as far as lighting and all that is concerned they were lighted as if they were Tom Cruise.
iW: The filming was famously intense and chaotic. All the security risks you had have been widely publicized. How do you remember it?
Schroeder: It was very joyful and very intense. I had great help from everybody, the crew, made up of only Colombians, was top quality. We were happy all the time. The Colombians have a very joyous energy that is very contagious. The security problem was intense and we had a few scares but, all in all, there’s more tension in a Hollywood film than in filming in Medellín.
iW: How did you work with actors of such different backgrounds? A very experienced theater actor interprets the lead character, while his two lovers were kids with no previous acting experience.
Schroeder: It was all thanks to Vallejo’s script. It was extraordinary because it seemed like the dialogue was written for them. Usually in a film you have to change the text a little bit to make it better, to make it fit with the actors. But that was not the case here. And about the two styles, they made lots of physical exercises together, the main actor with the boys. So by the time we were filming they weren’t afraid of having body contact. One of the rules we had for the shooting was that all the contact should come from the boys; we didn’t want to make the old man look like he was taking advantage of them. And that was helped by those exercises.
iW: This is the second time you have worked directly with a fiction writer. How was that?
Schroeder: It is an exhilarating experience to work with a writer and try to bring all the directing and cinematographic elements into the screenplay.
iW: The other author you worked with was Charles Bukowski. Are there similarities between him and Fernando Vallejo?
Schroeder: They have in common the fact that both are anticonformists and anticonventional, but in different ways. Both are rebels but one is gay and the other isn’t — and that makes for a completely different sensibility. And also both have humor, which I think is also the most important thing for me to relate.
iW: After the press screening someone was saying that it seemed like magical realism, but most of the things shown in the film have happened in some way or other in Colombia. How would you describe it?
Schroeder: I wanted to give the idea of reality becoming mad. Certainly it is not a fantasy; it was born of reality. But also it’s not a documentary or a realistic movie. We were using some form of hyper-realism to reach this fantastic side. But on the other side, if you consider Gabriel García Márquez‘s magic realism, then Vallejo certainly is not that; he’s more like its opposite.
iW: The film has been shown in different countries. And in a way it deals with everyday problems of a city that in another country might look fantastic. How has the reception of the film differed?
Schroeder: The humor is the difference. With an audience 100% American you won’t hear anyone laughing. But if there are five Colombians in the audience, the perspective will change because they will be laughing. And the more Colombians in the audience, the more laughs it will get, and that changes everything. I had a similar experience with “Barfly.” When we showed it here, we had people laughing all the time but in France everyone was serious; they wouldn’t laugh at all and thought it was a depressing film about these drunks.
iW: Let’s talk about the homoerotic aspects of the film. The other day I was talking with someone from Medellín and he was saying that it was hard to believe that these killers would be gay. He was implying that it is worse to be gay than to be a killer.
Schroeder: And that is ridiculous: to think that you have to be straight in order to make some specific line of work. There are gays everywhere. And I’ve even met some of these young killers who are also gays, so it’s not a fantasy.
iW: What strikes me is how difficult it is for gay people in Medellín. Was it difficult to convince the young actors to do the love scenes?
Schroeder: They were a little nervous, and rightly so, because they didn’t want to be publicly associated with this kind of behavior. One of them even got beaten because of the film. That is why I’m trying to find work for them somewhere else, in Venezuela or Mexico. Right now the film is a big success in Argentina so maybe there will be possibilities there. But we knew from the beginning that it could be dangerous and that’s why they were so well paid.
iW: You are famous for being an international filmmaker, making films like “Our Lady of the Assassins” and then big Hollywood projects. Do you find many differences?
Schroeder: All movies have problems. It’s the same amount of work and the same amount of problems. You still need a camera, and lights, and actors, and music. And go from one location to the other and make several set-ups.
iW: But you do enjoy working on one side of the fence and then the other?
Schroeder: Well, yes, it depends on the project. Some need all the money to be perfect and others can be not so perfect. In this film, there are some things that I wouldn’t have kept if I was working in a Hollywood project. But what was important was to do it fast to try and capture the energy of the city, which I think we got.
iW: What are you working on now?
Schroeder: It’s a Hollywood film with Sandra Bullock, with two 20-year-old killers I found on the streets (laughs).