In Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja,” a Danish explorer (Viggo Mortensen) wanders into mysterious region of the Argentinean desert in search of the eponymous mythical land. In the process, he loses track of his teenage daughter (Viibjork Mallin Agger) as she runs off with one of the officers who has joined them on their journey. Set during some non-specific time in the 19th century, “Jauja” assumes a dreamlike logic as it follows Mortensen on an increasingly expressionistic quest that finds him trapped by the mysteries of his own mind.
When “Jauja” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the Argentine director was hardly a fresh name on the circuit, having garnered acclaim for slow-burn narratives including “Liverpool” and “Los Muertos.” Nevertheless, “Jauja” marked a new stage of his career, finding him collaborating with a name actor for the first time as well as a co-writer, the poet and novelist Fabian Cases. Last fall, “Jauja” screened to great acclaim at the New York Film Festival while Alonso spent several weeks in the city as a filmmaker in residence for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Now back in Argentina as “Jauja” opens in New York and Los Angeles, Alonso spoke with Indiewire about the whirlwind of the past year and how it has impacted his expectations for the film.
Are you happy that the movie is finally getting released?
I think the distribution guys from Cinema Guild are working out well. It’s a small film and everybody knows that. But Viggo is there for it. He’s doing Q&A’s and presentations of the film. He’s a great, great supporter. He’s the best producer, actor and human being. I’ve been extremely lucky to have him onboard for this film.
Your last film, “Liverpool,” received a very modest release at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. While “Jauja” isn’t opening much wider, it certainly has received more exposure, starting with its premiere at Cannes last year. Did it feel like a bigger project when you were making it?
There were like six years between those two films. I was a little bit worried about working with the same tools and going in the same direction. So I stopped the game, in a way, and tried to get people as I admire as different kinds of artists. I was working with them, using new tools, new languages. I had a new director of cinematography and a co-writer. It took me like six years to put them all together and make a film. That was the most important part of the job — to find the right people to work with and find a job. We were doing a strange, unconventional film. The script was only 20 pages. With Viggo onboard, he has a great charisma and is this kind of strong, famous actor, but nevertheless worked as one of us. He was the first one to wake up in the morning and would talk with us late at night trying to organize ideas and new scenes. He was talking with my crew, my collaborators for more than 15 years. They were like, “Who’s this strange guy coming to our studio?” But after a few days everyone was laughing together and on the same level. There was no hierarchy.
What’s different about the reception this time?
It doesn’t seem bigger, but Viggo gives a lot of structure to the reception. That’s a platform we all want to explore and explode at the same time. What we tried to do was use this famous face to make the ideas of the film more pronounced. We tried to present to new audiences a kind of film that they wouldn’t always watch. I don’t know why, but aside from my first feature, I enjoyed making this one the most. I wasn’t worried, maybe because Viggo and the cinematographer Timo Salminen [Aki Kaurismaki’s usual director of photography], who I also admire, were both involved. And there was my co-writer, Fabian Casas. So I felt strongly that whatever we did was the way it had to be. Nowadays, I’m not in a hurry to start writing because I don’t forget what we just experienced a year ago with the shooting and presenting the film in different places. I still have some questions to resolve about what I’m going to do next.
You’ve said that you were inspired to make this movie by your friend’s death. More specifically, how did that happen?
I think it was the main germ of the idea. I heard she’d been murdered in the Philippines and was shocked and surprised to receive that news via e-mail. I thought, “OK, this is the way it is: You hit enter and just receive that kind of news.” I couldn’t stop thinking about her parents taking a plane to where she was to recover the body. I started to work on that kind of plot with Fabian and Vigo. We just decided to develop questions about how it feels to be a complete foreigner in a strange land — and then we started to think about what it means if you can’t see the one you love anymore, and how you need to find the body and take it back someplace. After that, we started to consider, if you lose a daughter or something, how can you keep going in your everyday life? Can you recover?
I don’t know if there are any answers to that, so we just started to think, “How we can continue with the film once the daughter isn’t on the scene?” That’s how we figured it out even though there are no answers in the film. I’ve been lucky until now. I’ve never felt this terrible feeling, but I know it will happen, and I think I’ll deal with it by trying to think that the one I lose is still in some way in this time and space around me — in a different way, she’s still alive.
There is more dialogue here than your usual films, but it’s still quite visual — sometimes your characters wander out of frame and the landscape becomes a character itself. How much of the visual component of the movie did you devise in the 20-page screenplay?
The first script I created was when I was scouting for locations with my camera. I traveled 3,000 kilometers out to Patagonia, Argentina. Once I discovered those places, before we finished the script and Viggo was involved, I had already traveled to Denmark to see so many different castles and people, to hear them talking. In terms of the landscape, you’re right, it is a character. For most of the scenes I wrote with Fabian, I already had an idea what was going to happen. I showed him some pictures. He said, “OK, this is good — we can start from this ocean and then move to these darker places.” We tried to force the character into a labyrinth where there’s no way out. So we wanted it to feel like there was no sense of geographical orientation.
At the same moment that he loses focus on where he is — he loses his horse, his rifle, and he’s lost in this strange land he can’t understand — he starts to lose his mind because he’s shocked by the realization that his daughter is gone. We tried to sync the natural images with the idea of the main character losing focus. At the end, in the cave, I don’t know if the old woman he sees is his imagination, if she’s the girl or whatever. There are a lot of questions about who is who and I have no answers for them. But I think they work in the film. I cannot explain why, but it makes a strange sort of sense. It’s the way I feel when you go to a museum and you see a painting. Maybe you think, “What the fuck is that?” But you keep looking at it, because there’s something in it that you feel a connection to.
The frame of your movie does add a painterly quality. It’s the Academy ratio, with curved edges, as if we’re looking at a framed picture.
I think it helps to have a more direct perspective for watching the film. If it was more panoramic, I think you would be waiting for more of an action movie or something else — like they’d be fighting the Indians or something. In a way, we feel more familiar with this image — it was used in the fifties — but it’s not the image we see today. So you get involved in the film in a different way. That was, for me, the right angle to start thinking about how to make a period movie in a very particular way. There’s a lot of artificial elements in the film: the way they talk, how they refer to the Indians, the lighting. These kinds of elements make you feel that there’s something weird going on.
This is the first one I’ve shot with this ratio. I have no idea what format will come next but I like this one because it’s less manipulated by contemporary machines. There are a couple of filmmakers from different places who starting using the ratio of the image to tell different stories: The Oscar-winner “Ida,” Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy,” Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money.” There’s a diversity to these approaches, which is good for cinema.
Since you bring up all these filmmakers, what’s your relationship to the international film community and how does it enhance your work?
I have a lot of colleagues my age and older and I’m curious to see what they’re doing. I have friends from Portugal like Miguel Gomez and Pedro Costa. From Thailand, there’s Apichatpong. From Mexico, Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante. I am curious about what they’re doing. For example, I just read that Miguel Gomes’ new film is like six and a half hours. Even I’m not ready to see something like that, I’m very curious about it. The same goes for Lav Diaz, whose films are so long. But if I feel like these films have a strong curiosity about cinema, if the filmmaker is being honest about that, I will probably love it — whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson or Bela Tarr. It’s not about bigger or smaller films. It’s about a deep perspective of the possibilities of cinema, to show the audience — who I do respect — something different, or something old in a new way.
Are you worried that most audiences just go see big blockbusters?
There are a lot of minorities that also deserve to find something different. Or maybe the same people can see both. I enjoy some very commercial movies. It’s not a problem — it’s better that I can go see Bela Tarr and Christopher Nolan films. But it’s a pity that there are fewer chances that these films we also like have the same kind of windows as other films. That’s nothing new. It’s just money.
As an Argentine filmmaker, what did you make of the success of “Wild Tales”? It was a hit in your country, acclaimed at Cannes, and wound up getting an Oscar nomination.
That was amazing. Damian Szifron, the film’s director, beat all the box records. He’s a young guy. We studied in the same film school with the same teachers during the same hours of the day. That’s how it should be. At the end of the day, he makes “Wild Tales” and I make “Jauja.” I know he loves this kind of cinema, which isn’t my favorite, but the opposite is true as well. We’re friends. I feel good about the films he’s able to create. If I had to be honest — I believe his next film is going to be shot in the U.S. in English, so what I don’t understand is why everybody in Argentina is passionate about the film’s success. The guy’s final goal is to shoot in the U.S. So to me, it’s strange how four million people love this film, but the result is to say “bye bye” to the guy. He finally got what he wants — to get to Hollywood stuff. I’m not going in that direction. Is it a good thing Argentinean cinema? I don’t know. It’s a good thing for him.
You give off a kind of rebellious attitude on par with the way your work defies mainstream conventions. At the New York Film Festival, when an audience member asked you how to pronounce the film’s title, you replied, “It’s pronounced, ‘Fuck you.'”
I feel really bad about that. I was trying to be funny. I didn’t even think about what I was saying. There were a lot of people who had asked me that question since Cannes. But the thing was, at that screening, I was a little bit drunk. Apart from that, I was thinking, “Is that the question you really want to ask? I spent six years organizing my ideas and getting these people together.” I mean, you can ask if if you want, but ask the people sitting next to you. After you see the film, that’s the only question you want to ask? Come on. Ask me something better. But I didn’t mean it. I just reacted.
Still, a lot of filmmakers are more diplomatic in front of audiences. That tells you something.
Yeah, it tells you that I’m not that kind of politically correct guy. I can’t be that guy. I don’t how to manage that. OK, it was funny to me.