Pablo Larraín is back. Two years after his Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie” scored an Oscar nomination for Natalie Portman while his “Neruda” was the Chilean submission for best foreign language film, Larraín is getting behind the camera again for a secret project that came together just a few weeks ago.
With his next American project, “The True American,” pushed into 2019, Larraín has begun production on “Ema,” an original story co-written by “Neruda” screenwriter Guillermo Calderon and New York-based playwright Alejandro Moreno. The movie stars Gael García Bernal, who previously worked with Larraín on “No” and “Neruda,” opposite newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo. Seeing an opening in his schedule, Larraín and his co-writers conceived of the project earlier this summer and plan to continue writing it throughout the six-week shoot, which commences Monday at the Chilean seaport of Valparaíso.
In “Ema,” Bernal plays the choreographer for a local dance company, while Di Girolamo — making her feature debut — plays his wife, a schoolteacher. The cast also includes Paola Yanini and Santiago Cabrera. The couple deals with the aftermath of an adoption that goes awry as their household falls apart. Larraín said the story would find several characters expressing themselves through contemporary dance, including reggaeton, but the movie was not a musical. ”I think this is a melodrama, which I’ve never done before, where people’s affections for others are essential to the story,” said Larraín. “There’s a lot of music and a lot of scenes where people are basically sharing their feelings.”
Larraín has been developing the dance scenes with local choreographer Jose Vidal, and plans to shoot throughout Valparaiso’s hilly streets, basing the scenes on real-life street dancers. “It’s a way to transmit a message — it could be a political message, or a religious message, or a kind of vandalism,” he said. “Instead of yelling, they go out and dance. They’re expressing themselves by leaving a trace on the city. It’s very visual.”
Larraín conceived of the story as a meditation on family life. “I just want to put in crisis the idea of what a family really is nowadays,” he said. “I think that idea has changed in a way that’s unique and surprising. There’s a new understanding of the family dynamic that I would like to deal with as a reflection of the contemporary world.”
Bernal joins the cast only weeks after wrapping “Chicuarotes,” his first feature-length directing effort since 2007’s “Deficit,” and has yet to read the script. He’s not alone: Following a template Larraín established with his 2015 beachside thriller “The Club,” the filmmaker plans to share scenes with his actors the day before each shoot, so even they don’t know the entirety of the story until production wraps. “It’s a great environment,” Larraín said. “When we decided to make it, we were very happy and excited.”
Larraín said he was relieved to return to his home country for a new project. “I personally feel that I’m lucky to make movies in different languages, places, and circumstances,” he said. “When you have the chance to work in a different industry the size of America’s, it’s nice to come back home to make a movie that might be smaller, but you never lose your integrity, or the feeling that you can’t protect the elements that really matter.”
Larraín is producing the movie with his brother and longtime collaborator, Juan De Dios Larraín, out of their Fabula Films banner. The company recently produced Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in February, and they’re currently in post-production on Lelio’s remake of “Gloria,” starring Julianne Moore.
Since early 2017, Larraín has been attached to direct “The True American,” an adaptation of Anand Giridharadas’ nonfiction tome about a Bangladeshi Air Force officer shot by an American terrorist hellbent on killing Muslims after 9/11. Earlier this year, Amy Adams was attached to the project, while studios vying for the project including Amazon and Annapurna. Now, the movie is moving forward as an independent production with a cast that has yet to be announced, but Larraín hopes to begin production by early 2019. That gives him plenty of time to finish “Ema,” though he wasn’t sure about the specific timeline for its release.
“There are many sequences with a lot of people and multiple cameras, so it won’t be easy to cut,” he said. “I’m not in a rush.”
If all goes according to plan, Larraín will complete both “Ema” and “The True American” next year, following a pattern similar to 2016, when “Jackie” and “Neruda” opened in the U.S. just a few weeks apart. Larraín said this was not by design. “I say to myself, ‘Why does it have to come together like this?’” he said. “I’d like to have single children, but they keep coming out as a twins.” However, he stressed that the two projects have little to do with each other. “The only thing that these movies have in common is that they were both made by cameras, so you have to protect them as separate pieces,” he said.
Needless to say, he was happy to continue balancing English and Chilean productions. While Fabula opened offices in Los Angeles last year, the Larraíns continue to shuffle back and forth. “It’s exciting that my brother and I can keep working in different circumstances with different people to deliver material to the world that feels dangerous and beautiful,” the director said.