The film follows two timelines, the first of a struggling mother, Nana Kunning (Connelly), caring for her two young boys and her evolution to becoming a renowned healer. The second follows one of her sons as an adult. When young journalist Jannia (Laurent) tracks down Nana’s son Ivan (Murphy) 20 years after she abandoned him, Jannia sets in motion an encounter between the two that will bring the very meaning of their lives into question.
The gorgeous film is imbued with Llosa’s use of magical realism to convey themes of loss and healing, and the frozen tundra of Northern Canada, imagery of falcons in flight and soft cinematography to convey an other-worldly ambiance. The film premiered in Berlin earlier this year and opens tomorrow, May 22. We caught up with Llosa and star Connelly at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about “Aloft,” as well as the current state of women in the industry.
Tell me what inspired you to write this story.
Claudia Llosa: I think it started with “The Milk of Sorrow,” the process of telling the story of my country, the recent history about the civil war and the question of how we can heal ourselves, how we can rebuild a life, as a country, as a person. I needed to explore that further. I needed the audience to know not to hide in the idea of, “OK that could only happen in Peru,” just to make it more universal. And this process of how a person tries to control so much, to find a way of security, and how we use hope and faith or whatever we can, in order to survive or try to at least hold onto something. All these questions came through that film, and continued through the process of writing “Aloft.” That was the starting point of it.
“Aloft” feels like it could be taking place anywhere, or it could even be a fantasy world. Were you going for that other-worldly, no-time, no-place ambience?
CL: Yes, in a way everything about a film is something that is primal and archaic. It’s like going back to our roots and how we’re trying so much to domesticate. For instance, the falcon, it’s this beautiful and strange creature. It’s so beautiful but so aggressive at the same time. An idea of how we’re always trying to domesticate and control that beauty. And how is it even possible for Ivan to get and accept that aggressiveness and beautifulness in that creature, and not in other human beings, or the person that he loves.
It’s like talking about accepting that dichotomy in life. It’s kind of accepting our primal roots, our primitive side. Sometimes when we live in a big city, near to institutions, we feel secure. But what happens when that doesn’t work, what happens when that doesn’t respond. Where do we go, where do we perch? That’s sort of the separation that Nana feels, from the very beginning of the film, and how she’s feeling that she’s drowning, and the only thing that she has is nature, is nothingness, is her breathing, and her strength. It’s going back to sort of confronting the audience to that feeling—what happens when you don’t have those buildings, these surroundings, these structures? That is actually the real thing, this is just fantasy. So the whole film is trying to understand the mechanisms that we use in order to hold onto life. If it’s faith, what is it that we need in order to create a sense of security? That’s why the whole ambience of the film supports that feeling.
Jennifer, what drew you to the role?
Jennifer Connelly: I had seen “The Milk of Sorrow,” and I thought it was really spectacular. I met Claudia, and I just felt like she was someone that I was instantly enamored with, and I wanted to go on this journey with her. I thought the script was very beautiful. I liked all of the characters, I thought they were all very interesting and complex. I liked that Nana felt very different from anyone I had played before, and very different from me as a mother. It was a challenging part for me, but I found it compelling.
It’s quite a vulnerable role. Can you tell me about how you worked together as actor and director, and how that relationship of trust came to be?
JC: I think the movie is sort of about our vulnerability. All of the characters are wrestling with the fragility of life, or they’re grappling with loss and trying to figure out how to repair after loss, and how not just to survive it, but how to live again. I think they’re all very vulnerable, as we all are. But she also has a real strength that I found intriguing and interesting. There’s something very stoic about her. She’s not sentimental.
How we worked together, it was very collaborative, we talked a lot about the part, the movie, the ideas of the movie, more conceptually and theoretically, and also more concretely, about concrete scenes and how they supported what Claudia wanted to express. Those very connected relationships working together, it was very collaborative.
You mentioned the role is different from things you’ve played before. Can you elaborate on that?
JC: I felt she was. I felt there was something very unsentimental about her. There’s something sort of raw about her, something almost fierce about her energy. And certainly as a mother, she’s a very different kind of mother than I had encountered before. I think she’s very unusual, that’s one of the things I love about Claudia’s work—all of the characters are very complicated, and they all make very difficult choices. She makes a very difficult choice. Just that, in itself, was very interesting to think about. How we tend to make very simplistic judgments of people. And film, I think, is asking us to look closer at people who make these choices that we might not at first understand.
CL: Usually we separate the one who loves you or the one that you love. For me, this character is learning to accept that would happen. You never doubt for a single second that this woman Nana loves these kids, in a very profound way. But despite that, there are certain moments in life when she cannot express that love. Allowing that to happen and accepting that in life, I think that’s the process of the characters in its own way.
Can you tell me a bit about the frozen landscape? Where did you shoot?
CL: We shot in Manitoba, Canada. Very close actually, half an hour away from Fargo. So you can imagine the feeling. It was far in the winter, so we actually started shooting when everything started melting. It was kind of dangerous to step into the ice road. We had to actually hire people, experts and ice engineers, to secure our team. We were loaded with trucks. It was interesting, because all that kind of fragility was part of what we were trying to tell. It evoked the film in every sense. Of course, it’s hard. Winter with children and animals. But my feeling was, people were so close to each other, we created a beautiful bonded crew. Maybe that’s the reason, you really get together to feel the warmth and love and have a blast. So it wasn’t as rough as it could’ve been.
JC: It was a really strangely fun shoot! [laughs] It might seem kind of counter-intuitive. But it was one of those movies where the crew felt very much, everyone was into the story, everyone felt very close, was very collaborative. It was a really nice environment. Everyone was very invested in what we were doing, got along well.
CL: It helped a lot. We’d have moments in the middle of the night. Cillian almost had frostbite. We had certain moments like, “Oh my god, what are we going to do?” But that was the exception. The rest of the time it was fun and happy.
JC: And sometimes being in an environment that’s so alien, you feel kind of transported by it. You’re kind of moved out of your own sphere. You’re all together in this really different literal environment. I really had a great time.
How did the falcons like it?
CL: Well, the birds were the divas of the film. [laughs] They couldn’t fly when it was too cold.
They refused to fly because it was too cold?
CL: Yeah, or they would just leave suddenly. It was funny because at the end, the most difficult part in this environment was the flying, because of the wind. Usually falcons choose when they fly, because they can get lost. So at the end what we did, all the scenes that for me were the important ones, that were the closeness, the relationship, we shot it perfectly well, and then some of the ones that were the flying things, we did it in different moments.
How do you both feel about the state of women the industry, pertaining to women’s stories and opportunities?
CL: I’ve never seen gender as a guarantee or as a source of difference. I don’t see it like that. For me, it’s something that defines you, of course, but it’s so many other things. In terms of other opportunities I think that balance that we are always trying to achieve is only going to happen if we accept the balance in ourselves. If we really believe we can balance ourselves. I do believe that. Believing in that balance makes the difference. Do I make sense? I’ve never heard someone asking a guy, like a director, how do you deal with being a father and a director, you know? If we are asking that question to a female director, we are in a way implying that there’s no possible balance. And that’s insane. You can definitely have a balance. Just keeping in this sort of mantra… for me, is perpetuating the problem. I think we have to change the perspective of things.
JC: I don’t think that we’ve reached gender parity yet. You can see in the statistics of violence against women, inequality of pay between men and women. We’ve come a long way… I think there are always exceptions to the rule. But by and large, it feels that we still haven’t achieved total equality in our culture.
Specifically to the film industry, is it something you think about in your career? Have any opportunities felt they were blocked to you?
JC: I think they’re inseparable, it’s not a separate thing. It’s sort of an example of the way our culture works. It is that way in the movie industry and in our culture. I don’t think it’s even something that’s only in our industry.