Lisandro Alonso: Who’s John Ford?

This interview was originally published at Senses of Cinema.

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The basic narrative outline of Liverpool – a solitary man journeys home – will be familiar to anyone who has seen Lisandro Alonso’s earlier feature, Los Muertos (The Dead, 2004). When we first meet Farrel (Juan Fernandez), he is napping in the bowels of a freighter, surrounded on all sides by ear-splitting machinery. This claustrophobic, metal-and-grease environment is something new in Alonso’s cinema, and the contrast created by it and the vast, snow-covered landscapes Farrel explores in the second half of the film is telling. I ran into Alonso the day after our interview and asked him one last question: “Is there any John Ford in that shot of Farrel standing in an open doorframe?”

He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, “Who’s John Ford?”

In Liverpool, really for the first time, Alonso’s protagonist struggles with the social order – one more instantiation of the Fordian hero. Unlike Argentino (Argentino Vargas), the recently paroled killer in Los Muertos who remains a blank slate even after the final frame, Farrel is a man of complex psychology – so much so that even Alonso, who claims to have no interest in explaining his characters, can’t resist speculating here about his motives. In the final act of Liverpool, Farrel wanders away from the small mountain village where he has travelled to visit his dying mother, but Alonso stays behind, turning his camera on the people Farrel long ago abandoned. The final shot, of Farrel’s daughter holding a small keepsake, is multivalent, intensely satisfying, and further evidence of Alonso’s place among the world’s great filmmakers.

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I love when a film breaks in the middle and becomes something unexpected.

You mean the girl?

The entire final sequence, really, from the moment Farrel leaves. What was your starting point for the film?

Before shooting a film, I first think of a place. So, the first thing that came to mind was the little town.

How did you find it?

I was looking at a magazine and saw some pictures of the camp and I thought, “I have to go there.” I got in my car and drove 3,500 km and met the people I saw in the images. I started talking with them and thought, “Okay, maybe I can make a film with them.”

How long did you stay with them?

Before shooting the film? I visited several times for a total of about 15 days. Something like that. Did you see my earlier film, Los Muertos?

Yes.

Maybe you remember there was a scene where Vargas kills an animal in his boat and then a child appears eating fruit?

Right.

Suddenly the film changes for this kid. And I’ve always kept the thought, “Why can’t I stay with this kid?” And so that became the point of departure for Liverpool.

The girl seems to be the heart and soul of the film.

She’s just the female character. I don’t know. I cannot say. Whatever character you want to think is the heart or the soul of the film, it’s okay. Why do you think it’s her?

Maybe because I had a personal connection with the film. I knew someone very much like Farrel and saw the damage he left behind. I was glad that in this film, unlike in Los Muertos, you gave your protagonist a society and a family. It doesn’t explain him, but it gives him some context.

I don’t like to explain characters, because as soon as you do you also judge them. I’m not interested in judging them. I just observe them and use montage so that the spectator must make sense of the sensations of the film.

Your montage is different in this film. I’d come to expect whole sequences to be shot from a single, fixed position, but in Liverpool there are a few more traditional shot breakdowns, especially indoors. I’m thinking especially of the little café where everyone eats. You came indoors with Fantasma (2006), but was shooting inside small locations a challenge you gave yourself in this film?

No, actually, it was freezing. [Laughs.] No, it’s true. It’s a very different kind of environment than in La Libertad [2001] or Los Muertos. It’s totally freezing. No birds, no cars, no trains, no planes, no voices, no animals walking around, nothing. Everything that happens there happens inside, because outside it’s too cold to have a conversation. So, I preferred to be realistic and to shoot inside.

After Fantasma, I became more interested in trying to generate a kind of strain from interiors. When you are shooting realistically in nature – with the trees and the birds and the movement of the camera – it’s easy to create something unrealistic. But when you’re shooting in a bedroom, what can I do? It’s more difficult for me.

The opening shot of Los Muertos is a good example. What most interests me about that shot is that you’re using what could be described as a contemplative style – long takes, non-professional actors, elliptical editing – but you’re injecting into this “transcendent” moment the experience of dread or violence. Are you interested in …

… which part? [Laughs.]

Well, both, I guess.

Hmmm, I don’t know. If I had to choose, I would say I prefer the boring parts of cinema. You know what I’m trying to say? In Los Muertos, I thought it was a good first image – a kind of dream or memory of this character who was in jail, the day before he’s released.

I know what you are asking. I’m trying hard to change my way of shooting, but I can’t. Each day when I shoot, I shoot with the same style. Maybe in the future I will introduce some more elements. The thing is, when I was studying in university, I chose to walk this way. [He grabs two pens and aligns them on the table to illustrate divergent paths.] Now I can move a bit to the left or right, but I’ll always be walking this way. I don’t want to go back and take the other path.

Also, I don’t think I’d be good working the other way. It’s not so easy to say, “Oh, now I’m going to make my commercial film. Now I’m going to make an art film for festivals. Now a comedy. Now a Western.” I just do what I think I can do, so it’s not a matter of choosing what kind of film I want to make.

In the future, there will be new questions and, so, maybe new answers. Maybe I’ll change. Maybe actors, maybe not. Maybe more dialogue, maybe not. Maybe a film totally without humans. Who knows?

In interviews you have said that this process – driving 3,500km, exploring new places, meeting new people – is your favourite part of making a film.

Maybe it is, because otherwise I would have no excuse to meet these people. I go there with the excuse of being a filmmaker and I can say, “Hello, how are you? Hello, how are you?” Afterwards, maybe the film is good, maybe it’s bad, but I’ve had the chance to meet people who live away from TV and cities and newspapers and radios. I enjoy sharing the way they live with audiences, and I think they enjoy the process of working with us, too – the crew, I mean. There’s never more than twelve of us. It’s a matter of respect.

You mentioned finding this location in a magazine. How does this secluded, old sawmill function today? I assume there are trucks that climb even higher into the mountains to log the forest. Does everyone we see work for the same company?

There’s no company anymore. There’s an owner and there are some people from Chile who live there to keep the place alive and functioning. It was much more active in the past, but today it’s not really producing. Remember Torres, the cook? He’s been there for the past ten years, working and looking through the same window, and nothing ever happens on the other side of that window. Ten years! Maybe some rabbits will pass. I’m very curious about him, about the mystery of what is going on in his head. That’s why I like to be there before the shooting. He looks out that window, I look out this window. I’m thinking about him, he’s thinking about me. “What is he doing here?” “What is he doing here?” If I’m lucky, then some of these feelings are there in the film. Or at least that’s what I’m interested in, you know?

There have been several films this week that have adopted an observational style of filmmaking. There’s such a difference between the ones that work and those that don’t. In the bad ones, the directors seem to think that, if they just point a camera at an actor long enough, audiences will magically intuit some great mystery about the character. Your films are different but I’m not sure if I can explain why.

I don’t know either, but I understand what you’re saying. I see it also at film festivals. So, what the fuck? [Laughs.] What is happening? [Laughs.] I don’t know what’s happening, why I don’t feel anything with some films.

Do you know Pedro Costa’s films?

[Smiles] Yeah.

There’s something about having someone behind the camera who is giving himself to the other people in the room.

I’m not talking about my films right now, but I can feel very easily if there is a filmmaker behind the camera – being honest with the characters, with the house, with the streets, with a dog, with the sound, with the photography. It’s hard, though, because my uncle, for example, will go to the cinema and he doesn’t feel shit about Costa or about the new director who puts a camera in front of a dog; it’s all the same. It’s my hope that there are audiences who can feel the difference.

How do you find your camera set-ups? For example, there’s the scene where Farrel passes out and is carried into a room and put in bed. How do you settle on a camera position? Is it intuitive? Is it just finding the most practical place for the camera?

No, I just talk with the D.P. and say, “What do you think?” We usually have no more than three options. And then we talk to the people who live there, and we ask, “How do you usually enter the room?” “Like this”, they say, and then we’ll decide where to put the camera. Most of the time it depends on the action and what I prefer to see behind the character. We don’t spend much time discussing the camera. For sure, we are not going to put it too close to the actor. Usually, it’s a medium-shot or a bit further away. I want to see them, but I also respect the distance.

Didn’t you get fairly close to Farrel’s face? It is somewhere in the first half of the film. I remember being surprised to see him in such a tight close-up.

Yeah, it’s the only close-up I’ve ever shot. It’s when he wakes up in the abandoned bus. It’s the only time I’ve ever gone like this [creates a tight frame around his own face with both thumbs and forefingers and then recreates the shot, pulling the frame further and further way]. I don’t know why. [Laughs.]

No, I really wanted to understand – and this is me taking on the point of view of the audience – that he asked for permission to go out, he’s in his land, he got drunk last night, he got together with a prostitute. “Now, I wake up as I did twenty years ago, in the same state, drinking whiskey. This is my fate. What am I going to do now? Now I have to go back and see if my mother is still alive. Should I go? Or should I keep drinking here?” I thought, “Let me see your eyes and maybe I’ll be able to understand your preoccupations.” But maybe it’s just a Kuleshov Effect. I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Where did the idea for the final shot come from?

We kept shooting the life of this girl for another half hour. And after Farrel had his final scene with his parents – or whoever he is, the old man – he remembers he has this [Alonso fumbles with a piece of paper like Farrel fumbles with the keychain]. He doesn’t know if she can read because she’s a little bit retarded. So what does “Liverpool” mean? For her, it’s like this piece of paper. It doesn’t mean anything for her. It’s just the one thing given to her by her father.

For me, it’s more important for the audience than for the girl, because the audience is the only one who can recognize that Liverpool is a distant port. Now, we are thinking, “What about Farrel? Where is he going? Is he back on the cargo ship? Or is he dying in the middle of the mountain?” It’s only the audience who can make the connection between Farrel, the girl and the keychain. If there’s some power in that scene, it comes from the spectator, not from the frame or whatever. What do you think happens to Farrel?

I assume he went back to the ship.

How does he get there? By walking?

I don’t know. Maybe another log truck passes by?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m more negative. [Laughs.]

You think he dies somewhere under a three-foot snowdrift?

Like The Shining!

He gets lost in the labyrinth!

He just went back to this place to chase a strange memory. He thinks, “Oh, my mother is alive. She is alive, but she cannot see, she cannot hear. But I had to go back.” So he says goodbye. He doesn’t give a shit about the daughter. No one likes him at the sawmill. No one knows him except for the old man. So he knows: “Soon my mother will die, and now I know. Now I can feel lighter. Now I can drink seriously.” [Laughs.]

You think he’s made his peace? I don’t know.

I don’t know either. But that’s what I like about films. When I know too much about the characters or the subject, I don’t do it.