“If tomorrow I have to quit filmmaking, I will. I’m not going to sell my house for a project, that’s for sure. If I have to go back and work on my family’s farm, fine. I don’t have any problem with it. But I would cry a lot.”
Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool, one of the most strikingly original films of 2008, seems headed for relative obscurity. A hit on the festival circuit, from its premiere at Cannes to its final leg at Rotterdam, where I saw it last month, it has mesmerized and befuddled in equal measure. A slow-moving tale of a cargo-ship sailor who decamps onto Tierra del Fuego in search of his mother, it utilizes long takes, non-professional actors, and stunning landscape photography to evoke a luxurious, lonely regret. It’s a film where atmosphere trumps story, and plot details are elided rather than underlined– demanding an active, searching spectator–and it has been lingering in my cortex, refusing to reveal all of its mysteries. While unlikely to obtain stateside distribution, Liverpool will hopefully surface in museums and repertory theaters, where his similarly melancholic Los Muertos found life in 2004. I sat down with Alonso in Rotterdam to chat about his working methods, the life of a sailor, and the merits of Clint Eastwood.
Rumpus: What led you to Tierra del Fuego?
Alonso: I was home in Buenos Aires, and I was reading a magazine. I discovered wonderful pictures of a sawmill there, and I decided to go. I got in my car and drove for three days, and finally I saw the people from the photos. It’s a very isolated place, filled with people who are hiding from something or someone. And I like that. People who are escaping, watching through the window for ten years. They didn’t say too much, and I didn’t ask too much. If you’re lucky as a filmmaker, maybe you can uncover something. Or maybe not, but I imagine things that might be in their heads.
Rumpus: How did you find the lead actor, Juan Fernandez?
Alonso: He worked in a Caterpillar, clearing the snow from the street in Tierra del Fuego. I was looking for a location and I discovered him. I was traveling with a digital camera. He saw it and ran away. But I stayed inside for three or four hours because it was very cold outside, so he had to come back. After he returned I lied a little bit. I told him I was taking photos of everyone there when I was really focused on him. So after that day, we had some coffee, and I started to talk, not mentioning anything about the film. I asked him if he wanted to grab a beer together. Finally I told him for real what I’m doing there. He said, “What kind of film?” I told him he wouldn’t have to interpret Shakespeare or anything, that I would ask him to do what he would normally do in his life. He responded, “OK, how much?” I told him how much money I could give him, and that it would last two weeks. He’d have to stop working, but it wasn’t a problem. He works with the government, and they allowed him to take time off. He asked his wife, and she approved. I didn’t show him a script or anything.
Rumpus: Did you have a story already?
Alonso: I had around 20 pages. In this case I used the script as a guide to manage the film, just so I didn’t lose my way. But I didn’t care what I wrote. It’s more a frame for situations and places. When I get to a place I talk to the actors and the crew, decide if something is logical or not. That’s why I travel before doing the film, for weeks or months, trying to watch the everyday life of the people. When I’m with the crew it’s impossible to discover. The cargo ship that Juan’s character, Farrel, works on, I did the trip twice before shooting. It takes five days from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego.
Rumpus: You stayed in the same room as Juan?
Alonso: Yes, the lowest level. You sleep a lot, there’s not a lot to do. You eat a lot. It’s not about the legend of the sailor. What’s not normal is their life out of the water. The ship is their real world. They don’t care about cars, telephones, traffic lights. Who cares about Obama? Their worries are tied to the ship. It is sad and hard. Once they go onto the land, they stay for a couple days, just for a drink and see some family. But they live on the water. It’s not very easy.
Rumpus: But it’s their choice.
Alonso: Yes, but once you get into that life, and they are very well paid, it’s tough to run away. Maybe they can, but after five to ten years, they don’t know what to do, how to make money otherwise. It’s like everybody, once you know how to do something, you can’t change and say, “Now I want to be a tennis player.”
Rumpus: How did you work with Juan?
Alonso: I had to talk a lot with him. He watches a lot of TV, so he knows what you can do with the camera. I’d tell him to do things like light a cigarette, look out the window, watch your wallet. I instructed him all the time during a scene.
Rumpus: Did he ever act too much?
Alonso: No. I always tell my actors, don’t look into the camera and don’t express anything. Don’t try to be an actor. When they try to be an actor, the scene is fucked. He took it as work. When we finished a scene, he would go cook for everybody. He didn’t act like an artist. I learned not to treat anybody in a special way, not even the crew. We are only 10 – 15 people so it’s easy to work in that way.
Rumpus: Farrel leaves an hour into the film, and the narrative splits off and follows his family instead. What made you decide upon this unusual structure?
Alonso: For me, making films is an excuse to see different places and people. It’s not about the sailor, it’s more about the place he was born, how he grew up in this isolated place. I would like to see what happens when he goes back to see his wife or daughter. He actually knows that those women need him. His mom is almost dying, his daughter is mentally disabled. His decision is to run away again, because he can’t confront it. I want to see what will happen with these girls in this place. I like to work in these kinds of situations, where you don’t know what to imagine. It’s ambiguous. Your head, your education, the way you live, have to be put in his shoes, and you have to work as a spectator. I like that point of view. I have many questions, but I don’t have many answers. If I had the answers I wouldn’t want to make the movie.
Rumpus: Could you talk about your use of non-professional actors?
Alonso: I don’t have a system or anything. I trust them and they trust me. Maybe I’m lucky with the actors I’ve chosen. None of them said, “I’m going home” in the middle of shooting. For them they’re very curious, why me, why am I making a film? At that moment, maybe they’re imagining they’ll be in an action film. During the day they discover the work, and what their job is. Their work is physical, they don’t have to interpret anything. They just feel like part of the crew. They’re treated as an important piece of the film. Maybe in their life this doesn’t happen.
The main reason I make films is to take my friends and crew out of Buenos Aires and see something different, like the cargo ship or a sawmill in an isolated village. They are not easy films, but it’s important to see places people never see, in a situation different from what we know. I don’t want to discover how smart I am, or what a wonderful script I wrote.
Rumpus: Do you pay attention to more mainstream cinema?
Alonso: I know it exists. My father and brothers don’t give a shit about my films. I mean, they are proud of me because I am traveling and living off of the cinema. They just don’t enjoy them, they prefer Clint Eastwood films, which I like a lot too. But for me the diversity is good. Everything doesn’t have to be Hollywood. The only thing that is important is that I’m able to make the movies I want, but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do it. Every day I have trouble raising money. I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve made four films so far, but these foundations, they need the money back in some way. And mine, with no stars, it’s not easy to make it back. My cinema costs about 200 or 300 thousand dollars, but if they don’t see a big star they don’t see a film. If you can imagine the cost of a Hollywood film, about 50 million, try to separate how much it costs per minute. That one minute could fund my entire movie. I cannot compete. The people in the street don’t know my films exist.
If tomorrow I have to quit filmmaking, I will. I’m not going to sell my house for a project, that’s for sure. If I have to go back and work on my family’s farm, fine. I don’t have any problem with it. But I would cry a lot. I’m not just talking about me, I’m talking about many people who make this kind of cinema. It’s a shame it does not communicate to an audience in some way.
Rumpus: Would you ever make a film that would communicate more easily to an audience?
Alonso: No, that’s not the main reason behind my work, but I’m a human being and I can connect with people, but maybe not too many. I don’t care to talk to too many people. One hundred or two hundred is enough.
Rumpus: What’s your favorite Clint Eastwood movie?
Alonso: I really like the one he made with the boxing girl, Million Dollar Baby. I didn’t like the end, I really wanted her to get the million. It was just too bad.
Rumpus: Well, your movies aren’t so upbeat either…
Alonso: I was so down. He’s Clint Eastwood: he can make a happy film.