Sebastian Lelio was drinking coffee in Santiago with his producers, Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín, when the filmmaker learned he had been nominated for an Oscar. “A Fantastic Woman,” the evocative portrait of a transgendered Chilean woman played by rising star Daniela Vega, was the instant frontrunner in the foreign-language category. “We were like trapped animals,” Lelio said, recalling the moments leading up to the announcement. “Then, suddenly, the cups went flying in the air. It was a good day.”
Lelio has down this road before with less satisfying results. His 2013 drama “Gloria,” which starred Paulina Garcia in as another unorthodox female lead — in this case, a middle-aged divorcee who finds new love — followed a similar trajectory to “A Fantastic Woman”: Both movies premiered to great acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival and landed rave reviews. However, despite the prevalent enthusiasm, “Gloria” didn’t even make the shortlist.
“Everyone was saying, ‘See you in March,’” Lelio said. “I fell into that trap back then… Now, it felt like a more distant possibility. But the film has so many champions that we were very curious to see what was going to happen.”
Lelio has inadvertently become one of the preeminent writers of complex women in current cinema. After “Gloria” and “A Fantastic Woman,” he completed his first English-language feature, “Disobedience,” which screened last fall at TIFF (Bleecker Street releases it theatrically in 2018). That movie follows Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as Orthodox Jewish women who engage in a clandestine affair. Now, he’s finishing up post-production on an English-language remake of “Gloria” starring Julianne Moore. “It’s not that I only want to make films about women,” Lelio said, “but from my experience, I have been very interested in the women who play these characters.”
So it went with “A Fantastic Woman,” which found Lelio researching the experience of trans people in Chile and eventually meeting Vega, a hairstylist with grand ambitions. “She made me pose the question, ‘What is a woman?’” Lelio said. He wrote the project with her in mind. “I didn’t want to make an easy melodrama or romance,” he said. “I think that came out of the process of knowing Daniela and trying to create a device that could be as complex and beautiful as its central character.”
The resulting movie creeps up on you. “A Fantastic Woman” doesn’t make the sexuality of its character immediately obvious, nor does it adopt a predictable trajectory. At first, it follows Marina (Vega) through the romantic life she shares with her older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes). When Orlando suddenly dies, Marina’s forced to confront his homophobic relatives while attempting to stabilize her lonely existence. Much of the drama in “A Fantastic Woman” has a free-flowing, observational quality, as Marina attempts to reconcile her romantic personality with a society that views her as an outsider.
While working on the project, Lelio acknowledged his protagonist had precedents in popular culture. “I knew ‘Transparent’ and saw a few episodes of ‘Orange is the New Black,’ so I knew about the trans actor in that cast,” he said. “Of course, I saw ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ back in the day. But the path that led me to this subject was different… it’s just my curiosity as a human being more than my awareness of any political struggles.”
Vega was struck by Lelio’s emphasis on the textures of everyday experience. “He’s capable of reaching into the actors and bringing out the most beautiful feelings and bringing them into the world,” the actress told IndieWire last year. “He is the person who gave me all the confidence to say: ‘Yes, let’s do the scene without clothes, the violent scenes, the fantasy scenes.’”
There were some rumblings last fall about the possibility that Vega could crack the best actress race, marking the second time in recent years (following a campaign for “Tangerine” breakout Mya Taylor) that a trans woman faced serious awards prospects. It didn’t happen, although the movie’s presence at the Oscars marks two instances of trans-related projects among the nominees (the other, “Strong Island,” is directed by trans filmmaker Yance Ford). “I always knew it was a longshot,” Lelio said, “but with all these wishing for it to happen, we thought it was possible.” He met up with Vega the day after the announcement to celebrate. “I felt how happy, proud and ecstatic she was about it,” he said. “It’s all right. Somehow, the nomination for this film implies a nod to Daniela’s performance.”
She will attend the ceremony in early March, but her next moves aren’t so clear. She avoided signing with an American agency following the exposure of the fall festival circuit and has yet to announce a new acting gig. However, the movie’s success in Chile catapulted her to instant stardom, and she became the leading model for the national mall chain Apumanque. “Before the film, I’d drive around these streets and you’d see the usual models in these large photographs,” Lelio said. “Suddenly, there were big images of Daniela. That’s the way the film is flowing into society.” The actress has been a key aspect of the marketing push behind the movie. “She’s been the perfect bridge between the film and reality,” Lelio said. “She’s like an ambassador between both worlds.”
He said that “A Fantastic Woman” opened him up to the experiences of trans people more than he expected it would. “I didn’t understand much,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I felt attracted to making this film. It was an opportunity to explore unknown territories and get beyond my own ignorance, to get to a new place as a person.”
Lelio continues to benefit from the support of the Larraín brothers, whose work has garnered Oscar nominations in the past for “No” and “Jackie.” Their company, Fabula, recently set up an office in Los Angeles to introduce more foreign filmmakers to U.S. projects. Lelio remains nomadic, dividing his time between Berlin and Santiago. While he said that his work with Fabula on the “Gloria” remake was “joyful,” he was reticent to say that he would be committing to more English-language movies going forward. “I’m preparing some projects in Spanish, some projects in English,” he said. “I’m very open to following the stories that move me and reach that flexibility where you can be more flexible. I’m expanding my horizons.”