We've had the usual rotten start to moviegoing in 2013, but this Friday brings the first truly great film of 2013 in the shape of Pablo Larrain's "No." The third film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain following the excellent "Tony Manero" and "Post Mortem," it again delves into the history of the country during the time when it was ruled by the dictator General Pinochet. But in something of a break from his previous work, the film is a warm and human comedy that follows an advertising executive (Gael García Bernal) who's enlisted to aid the campaign to vote 'No' in the 1988 referendum to keep Pinochet as leader.
The film — shot on video cameras of the time, giving it a unique and brilliant aesthetic — has won rave reviews since debuting at Cannes last May, with ours calling it "extraordinarily well-made, superbly acted, funny, human, warm, principled and, yes, as enthrallingly entertaining as it is fiercely moral and intelligent." Friend of the Playlist Ashley Clark sat down with Larrain during the BFI London Film Festival last year and got the skinny on the film, its distinctive look, and what the future holds. Read the interview below, and be sure to check out "No" (which is also one of the five Foreign Language nominees at the Academy Awards this year) in theaters starting this Friday, February 15th.
Your films so far have dealt with different stories set during the Pinochet regime. But what drew you to this story in particular, this time around?
It's very unique. Dictators don't usually leave power through the democratic process. Of course, having the chance to tell this story to the world is very interesting. Most people know how Pinochet got into power, but they don't know how he got out. So I thought we had a great opportunity, and the material is so original. It could work in two different levels, on an entertaining level, people can get their popcorn out , enjoy the movie, feel emotions, watch this epic, real story. And it could also work, and this is the ambition, on a more intellectual level, a thorough political analysis of the subject.
Were you aware of the story of the ad men and the No campaign at the time?
Yes, because the people who made the campaign were very well known after that, they changed the course of history, so of course I knew them. Before making movies, I did a lot of commercials. I never worked with them, but they were icons, people knew them.
It's surprising, given the subject matter, that the film is as funny as it is.
What I remember from when I was very young, is that it wasn't funny. The first time we approached this story, someone said "We should do a dark comedy!" And I go, "You are crazy. You don't make funny things with Hitler, it's not funny." But then I started looking at the material, and realized yes, it is funny. It's funny now, because time changes the perspective and meaning of things. And I have to say, Pedro Peirano, the writer, is so smart, he was able to compress this enormous amount of information we had into this story, and also be fun, and funny, and dark, and epic at the same time. It was so funny to shoot, we were laughing all the time when we did it. Making a movie, for me, it's so important to have fun when you do it, especially when you're shooting it, because otherwise it's such hard work.
The ending's uplifting, but not in a straightforward way. Was that always your intention, to have that element of ambiguity?
It's very contradictory, it's a paradox. The 'No' campaign won, which is wonderful, but we kept some of the 'Yes' in our system, in our logic. We have a system today – I think the No campaign is a sort of map to what happened in Chile after. It was the wonderful thing, but there's a bitter taste at the same time.
Do you think there's a reason that Chilean filmmakers keep returning to this era?
It's still an open wound. We never had justice. The people who actually were the killers, we have a few in jail, but most of them are walking free in the street. Pinochet died free, a millionaire. You only have a couple of generations to finish the story. But I'm not a social activist. I'm not a politician either. I just approach the stories I think are interesting to me, and I'm assuming I'm not that weird, so if it's interesting to me, it might be interesting to others too. Maybe not to everybody, but to some. So I don't figure that I have a role, I make these arbitrary decisions, it doesn't follow any canon. You do it because it makes sense, and feels good. It's not that rational.
Did you see [Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman's] "Nostalgia For The Light"?
I think it's a masterpiece. A beautiful film. I cried, I couldn't believe it. He just reached a level where he could combine cosmic, astronomic issues with a woman looking for her son's bones in the middle of the desert, where there's no apparent connection. But through his eyes, and his art, you can see there's actually a lot of connection.
Going back to "No," I have to say, I didn't know about the aesthetic going in, but I thought it worked amazingly well.
We were very scared, because in the HD era, you don't go back and shoot with a lo-res, 1980s video.
Where did the idea of giving the film that look come from?
As a spectator of moviegoing, every time I see a movie, I just think that a movie that uses HD, or 35, and it cuts into archival footage, when it comes up, you can tell the difference, and it pulls me out of the film. Since we were going to use a lot of archival footage, 30% of the movie, I was very concerned with how we were going to do this, how we were going to create the illusion. Because movies are illusions. You create a tone, and if the movie's good, you grab the illusion. How were we going to do this, have Gael García on Super 35, or state of the art HD, and then cut to this lo-resolution old video, so people would be in-and-out. And in-and-out is only for sex, man! So we tested, a lot of formats, and decided to use the original cameras, so it would merge.
Were there difficulties involved in working with the technology?
It was a pain in the ass. We used the Ikegami camera, it has three tubes inside, red green and blue, so it creates a very special look, it's not possible to do in post-production. We discovered this during testing. It's an obsolete format, we had to find cameras all over the world. There was a company in Hollywood, that bought twenty old cameras all over the U.S., and managed to get four of those twenty working, mixing up the parts. They'd stop for no reason, and it drove us crazy. But we managed to make them work, and created this strange post-production process. It's a long story, but the technology is so different. The way that they're created, they have absolutely nothing in common, there's not one single device in the whole camear that they have in common with an HD camera. And the post-production workflow is based on the HD system. But we managed.
And what would you say to critics who've called the film 'ugly'?
Well, that's cool. But they can keep looking at HD things for the rest of their lives. If they think it's ugly, then we have very different perceptions of beauty.
It's also the first time you've worked with a big name, in Gael García Bernal. Are you interested in continuing to cast stars, moving forward?
I just want to work with the people that it could be interesting for the movie. I'd love to work with Gael again, but I'm not looking to work with stars just because they're stars. I'm just looking to make the movies that make me feel good, and if those movies for any reason need a specific actor that happens to be a famous person, then so be it. But I could also work with an actor that no one's ever seen before.
And does Hollywood hold any attraction?
If it's a movie that feels right, and makes sense, yeah, why not? I would work here, in France, in India. I want to make good movies, wherever they are.
So do you consider this the end of your Pinochet trilogy?
It's the last one, yeah. I mean, I can't say what'll happen later, but yeah, I'm done with it for now.
Have you started planning your next film?
Yeah, but I think it's bad luck to talk about it. It's good to keep it in the lab until it's ready.
— Interview by Ashley Clark