“The majority of the film is realistic and the ending is more surrealistic, but for me surrealism is realism too. It’s just not as common. It’s as real as the other part of the film. The point is that what we shoot is as real as reality.”
In El Árbol, first-time director Azcona withholds the backstory of his enigmatic lead, Santiago. He’s a well-dressed, roughly handsome loner who has chosen the life of a vagrant, circling central Madrid in endless loops, sleeping on park benches when he tires; over time the smallest slips in his routine take on the force of revelation. Receiving its world premiere at the recently concluded Rotterdam Film Festival, El Árbol is a rigorous, 70-minute tour of self-destruction. Interested more in Santiago’s everyday trials than what led him there, the film employs deft handheld camerawork to follow him around his own circles of hell: his trysts with lonely tourists, a pickup soccer game with some teens, and awkward interactions with the shadows of his former life. With an assist from producer and cameraman David Valdeperez, Azcona has lensed a thoroughly convincing portrait of middle-aged malaise that ends in a surreal burst of divine intervention. I talked with him in Rotterdam about his work with actors, his favored hash delivery methods, and the influence of the Dardennes Brothers.
Rumpus: How did you end up casting Mexican painter Bosco Sodi in the lead role?
Azcona: Just by chance. Carlos Reygadas invited me to the premiere of Battle in Heaven in Cannes, and at the after-party I met [Sodi]. I wasn’t thinking that he would play the role. He was very easygoing, very cool. Two years after this, in 2006, I thought of him in regards to the film. I asked Carlos about him, and got his number. I phoned him, he came to Madrid, and he agreed. He had never acted before. None of the people in the film are actors, just friends.
Rumpus: What attracted you to this figure, of someone living outside of society?
Azcona: The story talks about someone who is self-destructive, which is very common today. I wanted to have an idea of someone who’s going through all this pain, but also something spiritual about him. It’s very painful, but opens the possibility of an awakening.
Rumpus: The film has very controlled handheld camerawork, were all of Bosco’s wanderings plotted out?
Azcona: Everything was controlled, but there was also room to be easygoing. We improvised a little bit. A lot of the movements were free. The cameraman David Valdeperez, we discussed this a lot. He’s brilliant and very intuitive.
Rumpus: The film’s narrative withholds a lot of information about the character. There’s an aspect of mystery to the screenplay.
Azcona: I tried to make the film open to interpretation. It’s not so important how Santiago got into his situation. We worked the structure of the film in the editing, because there is not a complicated plot. He’s a very isolated character, so we cut away from most of his personal interactions. There’s no intimacy anymore. I tried to create a claustrophobic atmosphere.
Rumpus: How did you work with Bosco?
Azcona: He was very professional. We didn’t know each other, really. I didn’t give him a script, none of the actors had one, but I told him the main outline of the story. The way we did it was go to the set, and I would tell him do this, say this. In a mechanical way, like how Bresson used his actors as “models.” But Bosco was very intuitive, he’s an artist, and very sensitive. He imparted a lot to the film. I gave people very little instruction. Some of the jokes in the film, which people don’t laugh at, were improvised.
Rumpus: Could you talk about the influence of The Dardennes Brothers on your work?
Azcona: I’m a big fan, for me it was a very important reference. Just by chance, I was reading a book written by one of the brothers [Luc Dardennes’ “Au dos de nos images”] and it gave me a lot of clues to their work that I used in my film. Before filming I was watching the Dardennes’ and Antonioni: La Notte, L’eclisse, and also Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Amazing sound design in that one.
Rumpus: What did you learn from the book?
Azcona: Many things. For example, this idea of not showing things. To make the audience work. I had already decided to make the film this way before reading the book, following the character from behind, and showing his neck. While reading the book by a Dardennes, I don’t know which one, he was saying that the back of the neck is the weakest, most vulnerable part of the body. I wanted to follow him from the back, the idea that he is running away, straight ahead. Away and ahead, not knowing where he’s going.
Rumpus: Where did you film it?
Azcona: In the center of Madrid, in a neighborhood called Malasaña. It’s very well known there, the center of the art movement. After Franco died, this was the neighborhood where all the new directors and musicians and painters were creating and living. It’s called the brilliant explosion, people like Almodovar started there.
Rumpus: I also like how relentlessly the camera stays on Bosco, there‘s rarely any shots from his point-of-view. He‘s almost always on screen…
Azcona: When I was filming I shot more of these point-of-views, because I wanted to cover myself, being a first-time filmmaker and all. I was a bit insecure, wondering how it would work. But in the editing, I really forced myself not to use them. For example, up on the hill with his dope dealer, I filmed it from different points-of-view, and some of them were much more beautiful than what I used. But I forced myself to keep this long shot from the back, because I think it’s more appropriate for the tone of the film. Even Carlos Reygadas, who was helping me with the editing, made very clever changes to it, was wondering if I should insert the more beautiful shots. But I said no, I wanted to have unity to the film, and this would break it up.
Rumpus: The conversation with the dealer is really funny too, I think, the most heartfelt connection Santiago forms…
Azcona: Yeah, there’s one little joke there that’s pretty disgusting. He says that the dope smells bad. Many smugglers go to Morocco, and bring hash back in their ass. So it smells like shit. I thought it was funny, but it’s also indicative of Santiago’s lifestyle.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the ending, which breaks free from Dardennes style realism into something much more surreal.
Azcona: This idea was in the film from the beginning, and for me it’s very important, this idea of a mystical or spiritual journey. There are little drops of this in the film. Like when he’s walking through the street, I had this Hare Krishna music playing. And when the girls come and start singing, they have the orange color from Buddhism or Taoism, but the ending is more Christian. The majority of the film is realistic and the ending is more surrealistic, but for me surrealism is realism too. It’s just not as common. It’s as real as the other part of the film. The point is that what we shoot is as real as reality.