17th Berlinale Talents | 2019
Spanish-Argentinian playwright, screenwriter and stage and film director based in Barcelona.
Hi Emiliano thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the Berlinale?
Hi Niger, my pleasure. Almost ready: there are only a couple of practical things left before I travel on Wednesday.
Are there any nerves ahead of the festival?
Actually a bit. But as I am not travelling alone, the nerves aren’t too bad. Ibai Abad, the co-writer/co-director of Calypso (the project I’ve been selected for at the Script Station) is travelling with me, as well as Sergio Grobas, the producer. Plus, I am travelling with Dustin, my partner, so I have a whole troupe with me. I was a bit nervous about the public presentation of Calypso, but they’ve told me that it’s not the classic pitch where you have to convince an audience that your project is awesome in five minutes, but rather a kind of mini-talk show, more casual than usual.
What does it mean for you to be part of the 17th edition of Berlinale Talents?
It’s stimulating and makes me feel lucky, plus it’s going to be a great impulse for Calypso. The team involved in the project is very happy too.
What do you hope to gain from this experience?
A few things! Script Station is one of the best writing labs and I am excited to see how Calypso’s script will benefit artistically from it. I hope to come back with a very solid rewriting plan. Ibai and I will lock ourselves in a room for a few weeks when we come back from Berlin in order to come up with a second version.
I also expect to make international contacts and I hope this will mean real collabs in the future. Nowadays, it’s hardly a barrier not to live in the same country, so finding creative matches is not something you are forced to do in your own city any more.
Apart from that, we will be looking out for co-production opportunities. We already have a Spanish production company, Mayo Films, on our side, and we are looking for European or Latin American partners to co-produce with. Our producer Sergio Grobas will be at the Catalan Films stand during the whole European Film Market, and we’ve already started to fill our diaries with meetings.
Last but not least, I am interested in learning about how others deal with mistakes, which is the theme this year. As a matter of fact, it comes in handy for me, which is a happy coincidence. I have a dangerous tendency for perfectionism and idealism that I am constantly fighting with, but of course in the end it’s nothing more than the fear of making mistakes. But are mistakes that scary? Sometimes they’re interesting, because they force you to connect them with your film somehow and, as you are forced to take a new direction, they become an opportunity for overcoming yourself and reach a new level of quality. They’re quite similar to the role of intuitive choices when you are working on a screenplay: you write something just because it pops up in your intuition, and then it looks like a mess until you discover why it it needs to be there. So the mistake is actually to be paralyzed by mistakes, instead of considering them as part of your investigation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work, what was it filmmaking that interested you so much?
Sure. I am very interested in what I’ve call “expanded narratives”. In the world of experimental cinema there is this simplistic opposition between mainstream/narrative cinema and experimental cinema, and for them those extremes aren’t flexible. But I think it’s in the nature of any language to be flexible. Filmmakers who don’t limit themselves in advance to match a general category are the ones I admire the most. As a filmmaker, you should only serve your project, and this requires the humility to admit that you don’t know much about it at the beginning. So I think there is still a lot to discover in terms of cinematic achievements, as every project has an infinite number of possibilities within it. Of course, the industry has this big rejection for ambiguity and that’s quite an obstacle.
What was the first film you were part of?
I grew up in a flat where downstairs there was my parent’s animation studio and during my childhood, I often travelled with my parents to animation festivals. So I filmed my first animated short when I was eight, in a workshop during the Cinanima Film Festival in Portugal. It was about a flower and a storm, and I guess that was made with a 16mm camera. I remember having a great time filming it, but it was also terrifying to disappoint my father. That started in me a dramatic amount of self-demands at a time when I was just a child and, of course, that had painful consequences afterwards. But before the flower short, there was something else: my father used me as an actor for the pilot of a TV-series which in the end wasn’t produced. It was about an intrepid ship captain who sent letters to his son: the father went on adventures to exotic destinations, while the child (me) stayed alone on a tiny desert island reading the self-referential monologues of his absent father. There was an abyss between them.
"...don’t let daily stress distract you from finding your own way to make a movie."
How much does your background in theatre help you in your filmmaking?
It helps a lot with my relationship with actors because I don’t fear them and I connect a lot with their fragility on set, which during a shoot is the pearl in the oyster. It’s very important for the actors to feel comfortable enough to know that they can be one hundred per cent fragile when the camera rolls. If they are not, it’s harder for them to not lock themselves behind coping mechanisms. And as the director, you don’t want your actor to use their usual tricks: you want them to go much further, and that means dealing with uncertainty even if you are looking for something very concrete because you still don’t know how to reach it. I admire actors very much and they notice it. But my relationship with theatre also helps me to think about scripts in a less linear way, which is important because as a screenwriter you get obsessed with the structure and the way characters develop in time, but the reality is that a script is much more than its structure.
Where do you feel most comfortable in the theatre or behind the camera?
Behind the camera. But this doesn’t mean that I prefer cinema over theatre. Filmmakers are often desperate when they see their raw material for the first time. But theatre directors are always in despair because for them there is only ever raw material. Nothing is ever actually fixed. People sometimes think that theatre is a happy-clappy endeavour, but in fact, theatre is always a violent struggle, and it requires even more energy than cinema. That’s the reason why many actors have to stop doing theatre in their forties or even before.
Since getting into filmmaking what have been some of the challenges you've faced?
The list is too long, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Being young has been a challenge. When you are young, you have all the challenges in front of you but you don’t have many resources nor the experience to go through them. When I was a teenager, I felt very impatient to reach my thirties and leave youth behind me. I knew things were going to be easier then, and I wasn’t wrong. I think there are people who actually get younger with the years because there’s less weight on their shoulders, or because they achieve true artistic freedom in their adulthood or even in their old age. My German grandmother, who had a harsh youth in a small southern German town during the Second World War, became a prolific short story writer when she was in her seventies, and she kept improving her skills until she was ninety.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
No, but it started soon, when I was eleven, I think. There was this weekly booklet in the newsagents with a VHS of Hitchcock’s whole filmography, and I became fascinated by those movies. I recall how intense my enthusiasm was, and the feeling that behind every one of those VHS tapes was a whole exciting world I was impatient to discover.
How important is the collaborative process in filmmaking for you?
Besides the fact that movies are always the result of a team’s work, I am interested in writing and directing with four hands from time to time. This means a total collab with someone else, and it’s not split in separate roles. That’s something I did on several occasions: I’ve always had very creative friends, and conversations often end with ideas of working together, of course, most times that impulse ends when the beer ends. But sometimes it doesn’t. So my first published play was written with a friend, Adriana, at the age of 17, and I also wrote a book of poetry and a theatre play in Buenos Aires with another friend who was a trans activist artist and has now passed away: we used to work over the phone during her work time at a video rental shop. But the most significant collaboration is this long-time creative relationship I have with Ibai. We started making movies together when we were teenagers, and we even founded a “production company”, Sognatore Films, when we were fifteen, and now we are writing and directing Calypso together. I feel very lucky to have him in my life. I owe him a lot.
When collaborative work works, it’s even easier that working alone, and more pleasant. But when it doesn’t, it can really turn into your worst nightmare: I’ve experienced one of those, and luckily for us, we cancelled the project after eight months of useless anxiety and struggle. That’s when you realize that all those opinions about the wonders of horizontal and democratic work are just "New Age" bullshit or things directors say when they feel guilty. Nowadays we are all experts in well-intended generalities, but it’s stupid to expect reality to match this naïve simplicity. More often than not, human relationships are so difficult that loneliness is wonderful, and the classic vertical way of working in cinema is a great way for everyone to actually be alone in their fields. That’s not my main reason, but I have a strong need to write and direct “alone” too. The reason is that I love spending a lot of time in this parallel world of dealing with the craft, maybe because I have this chaotic energy inside me that needs to find a healthy occupation, so I can’t wait for others to join me or to coincide with my intentions every time I need to be there.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
I guess not much. I took it very seriously when I was a child. I remember feeling extremely frustrated at the age of nine when my neighbours, who I was directing for a number of plays, didn’t rehearse seriously or got tired after one hour of work. I felt very lonely too, because I had many of those unrealistic expectations, and I still have them so that hasn’t changed. Maybe the difference is that now I tell myself that I’ve learned to focus on artistic research, and not on the struggle for perfectionism.
What are you currently working on?
Calypso is my main project now. It’s a satirical dramedy about a group of rich collectors who ignore an impending volcano eruption to hold a long-awaited auction. It’s located on a kitsch resort on the Canary Islands, a place with fascinating landscapes. It has a lot of humor, but not as much as it seems: there is also a sad story with lonely, twisted, non-communicative characters, so Ibai and I are writing it with ironic humor while, at the same time, underlining the melancholic and somber aspects of the story.
Besides that, I also work as a screenwriter for the Argentinian animation company El Perro en la Luna, where I have developed a number of series and we are currently finishing the scripts for a new one. I also have a short film script on my desk which I like very much, but as it has to be shot in Buenos Aires I’ll have to wait a bit for that.
I find myself with an urge to produce either cinema or theatre without waiting for financing. There’s a number of things I want to explore. After Berlinale, I’ll decide which one to focus on.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips for any thinking about getting into filmmaking?
Well, of course every person has such different needs and contexts that it’s impossible to address all of them. But it is useful for me to remember to not let idealistic scenarios stop me from doing something. Instead of fighting your circumstances, you can work on learning how to find a possibility in them that really moves you. It’s also a good idea to find two or three colleagues in your same situation and join forces. If you didn’t go to film school, as is my case, you always can introduce yourself to cinema students and make contacts anyway. I found the whole crew of my short film Reverso by doing that in Buenos Aires. And be relentlessly focused: don’t let daily stress distract you from finding your own way to make a movie.