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Made To Be Free: An Interview with Damián Szifron, Director of ‘Wild Tales’

Made To Be Free: An Interview with Damián Szifron, Director of 'Wild Tales'

Argentine director Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales
comprises six shorts, most dealing with the theme of revenge. They’re
not simple vigilante fantasies, but stories of people who’ve been pushed
too far by bureaucracy, road rage, or the lack of money. Both in content
and structure, the film resembles Jia Zhang Ke’s A Touch of Sin,
which Szifron swears he’s never seen. (That said, his sensibility is
far slicker.) The director has a background in TV, which shows: the
episodes of Wild Tales also resemble a memorable anthology
program. If it’s far from the Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso and
Matias Piñeiro films that are more commonly shown in North American
film festivals, Wild Tales offers a kind of mainstream
filmmaking that’s still intelligent and politically minded. No wonder
Pedro Almodovar hopped onboard as a producer.
Steven Erickson:
You’ve gone back and forth between TV and film. Do you think each
medium has its own advantages? Which one do you prefer? 
Damián Szifron:
Now TV is a very well-recognized place to work, but before, people thought
of it as something lower. The same thing happened with filmmaking. When
it started, intellectuals thought of it as a circus spectacle, lower
than the theater. Of course, you have different advantages. You can
spend time with characters in television. What I truly love about Mad Men
is that it’s full of scenes they would leave out of a film: long
silences. So you can get closer to literature in television than
filmmaking. It’s a more natural place to develop long situations. But as
a moviegoer, the possibility of being in a theater with a big screen in
silence with no interruptions is something I love. I’d say I prefer
film, but I see a lot of advantages in TV. 
Erickson: Is Argentine society as corrupt as you depict in Wild Tales
Szifron:
I would say it is. You have a lot of corruption there, but you have a
lot of corruption here. I would say the system that rules the world is
corrupt. In Argentina, you have some situations you probably don’t have
here. The episode of the rich father that tries to defend his son from
going to jail describes our society more than yours, but the rest of the
film could happen anyplace. 
Erickson:
There was a case of a teenage boy who killed several people while
driving drunk, and he was acquitted because his lawyer argued that he
was so rich he didn’t understand the consequences of his behavior. 
Szifron:
See, you have a different kind of corruption. I like that story!
Terrible. They should make a film about that. Good lawyer!
Erickson: In the press kit for Wild Tales, you’ve talked about how capitalism numbs people and the film as a response to that. Do you see it as a political film? 
Szifron:
I think it is. It’s not that I intended it that way. These characters
are not conscious of how the system works. They just live inside it
and feel the pressure and depression that it causes. Probably, we all
know that it’s not designed for our benefit but for the benefit of a
very concentrated group of powerful people. I think every time you pay a
tax and see that it’s used to save a bank or buy weapons, you
understand and see it clearly, but you just go on working and buying.
You lose a lot of time doing things you’re not interested in. Very
few people truly like their work. A lot of people waste their lives. I
think that causes a lot of suffering and depression. Some characters
explode. You read that in the newspapers. This is a film about them. 
Erickson: Do you think you’ll return to the notion of a feature made of shorts? 
Szifron:
I might do another one. I truly like the format of this film. It made
me a freer writer in a way, because sometimes you envy the way musicians
or painters can wake up one day and work on a different piece of art or
music. As a screenwriter, you have to live with the same characters and
universe for 6 months to a year. I was able to jump from character to
character very quickly. I enjoyed that freedom. I could do another one,
but it’s not the next thing I’m going to do. 
Erickson: Are any of your stories based on actual news events? 
Szifron:
No, but I know where the beginning of each episode comes from. Mostly,
it comes from my real life. For example, I remember this character who
was a loan shark that used to bother my family. So I invented the
character of the politician that goes to the bar, thinking of him, but
the rest, of course, is fiction. I was driving my car and got into a
discussion with another driver, and the guy insulted me. He went away
very fast. That was real, but then I imagined what would happen if the
asshole had a flat tire and this huge, muscular guy came across him. I
stopped in the middle of the desert just to write that story. The tow
truck took my car several times in places where it wasn’t clear you
couldn’t park. I went to discuss the fee, and I had to stand in line,
and then when it ended, I had to stand in another line. The bureaucracy
is perfectly designed so that you get tired and just pay. They could do
it faster and better and create a space where you can talk, but they
prefer that you shut up and pay. That’s the abuse of power. That
connects all the stories: the reaction towards the abuse of power. The
fictional part is the blow-up. I’ve been at weddings where everyone knew
something that the bride or groom didn’t know. I’m sure we could all
feel blame for characters who hurt us during our lives. I know where the
idea comes from. 
Erickson: Wild Tales began as a series of short stories. Are they adapted directly to film? 
Szifron:
I knew they were for the screen, because I think in terms of music,
acting and images. I like the elements of filmmaking. That’s the natural
space for me, rather than literature. But I didn’t know they were going
to become a film that soon. I thought I was writing something for the
future. But I felt the power of the whole thing when I finished it. When
I gave it to other people to read, their reactions were so enthusiastic
I thought, “I should do this first.” 
Erickson: Do you think the kind of loss of control you depict is becoming more common, or is it still a fictional element? 
Szifron: It’s a fictional element. I think you experience this film as if you were watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Amazing Stories.
There’s something fantastic about it, even if it doesn’t have
supernatural elements, but you experience it in that way. As fiction,
it’s all over the place. You can find these characters in real life in
Argentina, but also here. 
Erickson: It interests me that your film has ties to certain Asian films, not just A Touch of Sin but some of Park Chan-wook’s films. I think you’re dealing with something very universal about the world as it is now. 
Szifron:
As a filmmaker, you capture some things that are in the air and belong
to your generation and time. You turn these things into something that
connects with audiences. If you succeed, you’re talking about some very
real issues. But the themes behind the stories are eternal as well:
betrayal between men and women, the competition between two men, a man
against the system. I can imagine these stories in any country, in any
language. The desire to react against injustice is something we
experience very often because we are made to be free. We are animals in
the same way that a dog or bear is an animal. If you put a dog in a
cage and bother him with a stick and don’t feed him well, he will bite
when you open the cage because he’s defending his own territory. We’re
being bothered in that way too, as a species. You can expect reactions. 
Erickson: Do you feel at home in the Argentine film scene? Wild Tales feels a lot more mainstream than the Argentine films that typically play festivals. 
Szifron:
It was the biggest film ever in Argentine history. The amount of people
that saw it in Argentina was huge. I like the word “mainstream.” I want
to connect with a large number of people. Of course, I don’t like Transformers, but if I think back to the movies I adore the most, they were all, in their way, very popular, like The Godfather, 2001, Vertigo, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Apartment,
you name it. In their times, those were huge films. I think
filmmaking’s a popular art. If you think of a theater, there’s a lot of
seats that have to be filled. Of course, I do like a lot of smaller,
arthouse films, but I don’t have an issue with the concept of the
mainstream. 
Erickson: Are you also influenced by earlier Argentine directors like Leopoldo Torre Nilsson? 
Szifron:
Wow, you know about him. I like him, but the ones that truly made an
impact on me were Leonardo Favio and a guy who died young, Fabian
Bielinsky. They were both filmmakers who combined industry with art. 
Erickson: I’ve seen one Favio film, Juan Moreira. 
Szifron: Why did you see that film? I’m curious. 
Erickson:
The director Matias Piñeiro programmed a series of his favorite
Argentine films in New York last year. He chose that one. 
Szifron: I know him. Yes, I heard about that. 
Erickson: My favorite film out of the series was made by an Argentine director in Paris, Hugo Santiago: The Sidewalks of Saturn

Szifron: You should see his first film. That was very good, but you should see Invasion. He made a third film, The Night of the Centaurs,  and in fact he has a new film coming this year.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

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