“This Is Cinema and People Will Understand”: Talking to Lisandro Alonso About Jauja

03/19/2015 10:00 AM |


The cinema of Lisandro Alonso has always privileged the journey over the destinationhis films tend to feature silent and solitary travellers traversing harsh and desolate landscapes, frequently to no avail. But with Jauja, his fifth and latest film, which opens in New York on Friday, the Argentine director ups the ante of his creative M.O. by obliterating the concept of finality altogether. Named for the town of ancient legend that no man has ever been able to reach, Juaja unfolds in a world removed from the pesky restrictions of time and space.

Casting a professional actor for the first time, Alonso uses a stoic Viggo Mortensen as Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish captain stationed in Patagonia at the end of the 19th century. There are a host of deprived and depraved men lusting after his his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg  (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), and when she absconds with a young soldier in the middle of the night, Dinesen rides off into a strikingly hyperreal sunrise in desperate pursuit.

Jauja’s minimal dialogue makes it the chattiest film in Alonso’s oeuvre, following a script collaboration with the poet Fabián Casas, but the real alchemy here is the result of the director’s pairing with cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for lensing Aki Kaurismäki’s work). The square frame, presented in the 1.33 Academy ratio, imposes an unyielding visual border onto an otherwise borderless world, so that movement itself—whether within or beyond the picture’s edges—becomes the film’s primary source of drama. Inspired by the sudden death of the filmmaker’s close friend in the Philippines, Jauja draws heavily on classic Western iconography to create an endlessly hypnotic work about the search for something that’s already long vanished.

We  spoke with the affable Lisandro Alonso from his home in Buenos Aires to talk about everything from the productivity of language barriers to the hidden philosophy of Mad Max 2.

I know one of the seeds of inspiration for this film was a personal experience but, like all your work, it’s so heavily grounded in a sense of place. Did the story inspire the location or was it the other way around?

In this case it was a mix between this incident with my friend in the Philippines, and being moved by some places that I discovered through pictures in a magazine—and then I [later] traveled to see them. When we developed the script with Fabian Casas, my co-writer, we started thinking about shooting outside Argentina and Denmark and starting looking at locations and castles. I really like discovering places far from where I live—I live in Buenos Aires, which is a big city. Most of the time these kinds of places are very isolated, there’s no houses or roads or internet or whatever, there’s nothing around. So it’s a challenge trying to make a film there. But I just put the locations and the characters on the table and start to organize a few ideas of how to shoot them both together in terms of the cinema I want to see.

A lot of this film is wordless but it’s also about language and communication: you’ve planted a Dane in Argentina. It sounds like the role was created specifically for Viggo with mind.

In this particular case I’d been thinking about Viggo since I met him in 2006 at the Toronto Film Festival. I had a few conversations with him and discovered he spoke wonderful Spanish. This [film] was my first experience with a professional actor—until this film I didn’t feel I needed professional actors for my movies. In this case I wanted to show how a father could survive a loss as he does in the film and I don’t think a non-professional actor could do that. And also the [multiple] languages in the film made it difficult. So to find an actor like Viggo who can easily speak Spanish and Danish and English and so many other languages, I was lucky. He’s also a great guy and got involved in the film as a producer and musician; he does many different things outside of cinema that makes him just a great human being. I feel extremely lucky and I hope I have more chances to work with him.

A lot of the crew was Spanish-speaking, your lead actress spoke only Danish. How did it work practically on set? I’m sure it must have proved frustrating and amusing in equal measure.

We needed to get involved with each other even if we didn’t understand anything anyone was saying because we were out in the middle of nowhere. The crew was about 20 or 30 people—some came from Finland, Denmark, Argentina, Mexico, Poland. But we just made it work. Viggo helped a lot and we managed to laugh a lot at the end of the day and give each other ideas.

The first scene of the movie was not in the script—it’s not even my idea. The sound designer of the film [Catriel Vildosola]—I’ve known him for more than ten years—he just came up to me and said, I think we should add something to make the relationship warmer between the father and the daughter. So we created that scene with Viggo. I’m open, and I know that these kinds of films are not for everybody—I’m not stupid. But this is something new; I’m working with actors and my DP from Finland and shooting in Denmark. I like to surprise myself when I’m making films.

Cinematographer Timo Salminen certainly left his mark on the film. Even though the uncanny doesn’t fully reveal itself until later, it’s there right from the beginning, just in the look of the film. The lighting lends a kind of hyperreal quality (especially in the night sequences) and the aspect ratio itself demands the audience read the images differently.

I really admired the work he did with [Aki] Kaurismäki, especially in the last film [Le Havre, 2011], but really all of them. Timo is not a guy that talks too much. I can give you an example: there’s this night scene where the light is [supposed to be] coming from the fire, and I thought it was a bit too harsh on the actors. I approached him very humbly, trying to be… nice… and said: “Timo, where is the light coming from?” And he just looked at me with a straight face and said, “From the lamps.” Then he was silent for like half an hour, so I didn’t want to ask anything else. But later he came to me with a smile and told me “this is not naturalistic light, it’s not what I do. This is cinema and people will understand and be able to follow the film. Just trust me.” So I just sat near the camera and I learned a lot. We became very close friends and will probably work together again.



We composed the whole film in the 1:85 ratio, which has a wider scope, but when I received images from the lab I didn’t like how the frame was on the faces and bodies of the characters. I asked them to send it to me full frame, without the matte—I was back in Buenos Aires in my house editing already. I got the whole film again and edited again with the Academy ratio that you see in the film. I didn’t think about it when we were shooting, but I got used to it in the editing process and I think it was a better perspective to watch the whole film, to move to some other time [through] image. I think it’s less narrative than the 2:35 ‘Scope [that’s used] in every movie we see. This kind of image puts you in another place for what you’re expecting from the film. I think if you can see right away that you’re not going to expect an action film. This is more like a painting sometimes.

The ratio also adds more drama to the offscreen space.

I know that some people get nervous when the actors go off frame and we still watch the frame without anyone. But that’s the way I like it.

I love the moment where Viggo discovers the wounded soldier and we can see a hand creep into the frame to grab that he’s not privy to—it adds suspense but more importantly a kind of farcical lightness reminiscent of early cinema.

[Laughs] Yeah, it is light. It’s something funny to me to contrast the seriousness of the scene.

Each frame—and the movement within it—is so carefully composed. How do you make sure you get what you need when your locations cover such a huge geographical span and your shoot is so vulnerable to the elements?

I pay a lot of attention to the locations before shooting and know most of the scenes where they’re going to take place. But we covered like more than 3000km between locations so we move a lot. But it’s fun—we’re like gypsies traveling from one place to another and living in tents. The only thing I really take care of before the shooting is the places where I want to shoot. Then we just re-arrange a bit sometimes if location or weather is not what we wanted. When you see all the scenes from the cave, that was very different from what was written because the weather was supposed to be nice—it actually turned out better in the clouds. It made a very different feeling. But we managed to shoot everything in the script and a bit extra. We didn’t improvise a lot—we didn’t have time, even if seems that way. We were lucky.

You don’t usually work with finished scripts; can you talk about your collaboration with Fabián Casas on the screenplay?

Yeah, he’s a poet, and a writer and he is a really close friend of Viggo’s. He helped a lot to get Viggo to read the script and it’s fantastic that he collaborated because he was kind of a bridge between Viggo and I at the beginning. Most of how the characters talk is because of Fabian; in my previous films the people don’t even talk. There’s not a lot of historical precision: the film itself creates some elements from facts of Argentina’s history but for example, the “Indians” are absolutely not real. The characters all want to have sex with the guy’s daughter, he’s from Denmark, why is he there? The film has its own logic.

There’s a great line in the film that seems to encapsulate the themes in a lot of your work. Something like: “What is it that makes us function and move forward in life?”

That was Fabian. I think it’s from the end of Mad Max 2 with Mel Gibson. When the little boy is getting off the bus and Mel Gibson’s character just stays and there’s some voice over or something. I don’t know what he says in the film but I think Fabian told me he took it from that movie [Laughs] He also reads a lot of philosophy so everything is mixed up at the same time.