A conversation with Uruguayan filmmaker Daniela Speranza (part two)

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Daniela Speranza on the set of Rambleras
  • Nico Soto/Guazu Media
  • Daniela Speranza on the set of Rambleras
In the first part of my conversation with Daniela Speranza, the Uruguayan writer-director explained that it took ten years to complete her recent feature Rambleras (which had its local premiere last weekend at the Chicago Latino Film Festival). Speranza's perseverance is admirable in itself, yet it also accounts for the innumerable little pleasures of the finished film. Speranza refined the script as the years went on, making the characterizations more lifelike and evenhanded. A similar refinement took place during the shoot, as Speranza and her art director honed in on each visual detail. Rambleras feels handmade but hardly unprofessional—as we discuss below, the film often resembles golden-era Hollywood productions. In this part of our conversation, Speranza reflects on her filmmaking influences and how visual style can shape how viewers regard a movie's characters.

Ben Sachs: Rambleras strikes me as a very generous film. For instance, Gustavo is clearly a louse—he's having this romantic affair with Patricia, but showing no sign of leaving his girlfriend—and yet he never seems like a bad guy. You make it clear why someone would fall in love with him.

Daniela Speranza: I think a director has to defend each of the characters. It was hard to do that with Gustavo, but I worked with the actor [Nicolás Pauls] to give him a backstory that would justify what he does.

When we first see him, he's giving this lovely speech about the constellations. His bad side only comes out later.

For me, how a director looks at the characters defines whether I like or don't like a film.

What are some movies you like?

The Dead, by John Huston, is one. There are scenes where characters are just listening to someone singing in another room, and another character sees someone and that makes him reflect on something. You know, there are all these emotions and this turbulence, but it's very quiet also. Doris Dörrie's Cherry Blossoms is another one like that. And I like most films by Jean Renoir, John Cassavetes, and Vittorio De Sica.

When I was in my 20s, I thought the best filmmakers were the Coen brothers, Ridley Scott, and Martin Scorsese. But around 2000, I read Raymond Carney's books on Cassavetes, and I started to think about what I wanted to do through filmmaking. I thought that the films I would make would have more spirituality to them. I mean spirituality in a loose way.

I see what you mean. There seems to be this calm hanging over each character in Rambleras, almost like there's an aura around each one. How did you do that?

I set the story in spring, so there'd be this subtle sense that summer's coming, but it's not here yet. You know, Jacqueline might be going to work somewhere else for the summer. Nelly tells Patricia, "Maybe in three months, you'll save enough money to live on your own again." So, things are changing, but slowly—in Uruguay, everything changes slowly.

Rambleras
  • Rambleras

Eric Rohmer would often write scripts with a particular time of year in mind, which was an economical decision as well as a stylistic one. Since Rohmer made movies for very little money, he would take advantage of how a season looked to determine the mise-en-scene. You could say he used the seasons the way other filmmakers build sets.

We actually couldn't film in November—which is spring in Montevideo—we had to film in the autumn. But the light was pretty similar.

Coming back to Uruguayan cinema on the whole, what do you think triggered this period of creative activity that started around 2000?

More funds. At the end of the 90s, the municipal government of Montevideo started getting this fund from the company that provides Uruguay with cable TV. This fund gives out three prizes a year of about $80,000. And about ten years ago, the national government passed a film law that also gives out funds. When filmmakers get one of these prizes, usually they look for a coproducer in Argentina and apply to this program in Spain, Ibermedia, that gives money to [Spanish-language] coproductions. And you build the budget like a puzzle—a little bit here, a little bit here . . .

How many coproducers did you need for Rambleras?

Basically three. The money's from Uruguay, Argentina, and a little bit from Mexico. But the Argentinean producer changed—one day, we had nobody from Argentina, which was very bad. If we lost the Argentinean part, we'd lose the Ibermedia part—everything's connected. But the Argentinean producer [who left] quickly found a substitute from the Argentinean Film Institute. If she hadn't, all the money would have been lost.

Despite all these challenges, it seems like such a fertile time for cinema in South America. Also I've read that many of the exciting new filmmakers there are female.

I've noticed this change too. If you went to a film school in Uruguay ten or 15 years ago, the students would be all boys. Now it's like half and half, if not more women than men.

What do you think accounts for the change?

I don't really know. I guess the idea is spreading that filmmaking is not just a man's job. In Uruguay, there are many women working in film—and as directors, not just as producers or art directors. For example, there's Beatriz Flores Silva, who released a film [known in the U.S. as In This Tricky Life] around the same time that Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll [who directed Whisky] made their first film, 25 Watts. It was very successful in Uruguay, and I think it had some influence on what came after. She was also the first director of our national film school. There are many women making documentaries too.

In This Tricky Life
  • In This Tricky Life

Documentaries from South America don't receive much attention in the United States, though it seems like a great time for documentary filmmaking all over the world. The technology has advanced so that anybody can document the world on their own.

Now everybody has his own camera on his phone. They're all making movies.

That's why I'm so grateful to see new movies that are still shot on film. It's getting harder to distinguish digitally shot movies from cell phone videos, and so going to the movies feels less and less like a form of escape.

With Rambleras we couldn't shoot many takes because we couldn't afford the film. So everything was very concentrated, rehearsed—you could breathe it in the air. If you shoot on digital, you can go again and again. It's different. Our [shooting] schedule was five weeks straight. Everything was very tight. But I kind of liked that.

When filmmakers don't have the time to arrange many camera setups, it's common for them to employ longer takes. This can yield a sense of concentration in the other sense of the word—you end up cramming more ideas into individual shots.

Some people told me they thought the movie was too theatrical. Like, in the bakery scenes, characters are always coming and going in the same shot. But I prefer to keep two characters in the frame, so you can see how they interact.

Most scenes of Rambleras play out in just one or two shots, which is closer to the film grammar of Hollywood in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. There was a stronger connection between movies and theater then.

When you're shooting movies that way, you have to do some choreography, you know? We didn't want the camera movement to be so visible, but sometimes it was, because the dolly [apparatus for tracking shots] was so big.

I love when camera movements are visible. Choreography is a good word for it, because it can look like the camera and the actors are engaged in a dance. You don't get that feeling in heavily edited movies.

I prefer a simpler mise-en-scene: the actors, the camera, little dollies. If the scene worked with just that, I was OK. I didn't need to cut very much. I don't like to use close-ups either. I prefer the two-shot, mainly for how it presents the actors.

Rambleras
  • Rambleras

But there's so much color in your mise-en-scene that the shots don't feel spare.

We were always paying attention to the objects in the shots—you know, the candle, the plant, the maté thermos. Even though we don't see all the pictures that Ofelia keeps in her room, we know that they are there. And all her cookies. That's [based on] a real story, you know. When my grandma died and we had to go through her things, we opened her closet and found all these cookies and candies! She wasn't supposed to eat sweets, but . . .

Are you writing anything now?

Yes. It's a very different kind of story. It's about this woman, Amelia, who's also in this moment in her life where she's thinking about where to go—maybe not even thinking yet. When the story starts, she's on her holidays, and she literally has nowhere to go. It's a little bit like the Eric Rohmer film The Green Ray [known in the U.S. as Summer]. So she has nowhere to go, she has no money, she just broke up with her boyfriend; and then she has this new boss who's kind of a narcissistic person. The boss was going to go camping with her boyfriend, but they broke up too, and so she invites Amelia.

When they get to the camping grounds, the boss makes up with her boyfriend and leaves Amelia alone. Then another coworker of theirs shows up, and she's more of an esoteric person. She's a Wiccan, interested in pagan religions, but also Buddhism and . . . you know those people who go through all these spiritual phases? She thinks that Amelia has to realize something, and so she makes her this hallucinogenic tea. Amelia drinks it without knowing [it's hallucinogenic]—and we don't know it either—and when she wakes up the next morning, the camping site has disappeared.

Amelia starts trying to understand what happens. She doesn't know if she's in a dream or if she's dead or if she's schizophrenic. And what happens next is the woods give to her all the rejected experiences of her life. The people from her life start to appear from the trees, and she has to deal with them before she can come back to the present. Yet it won't be presented this way for the audience. It will be more like a mystery or a lucid dream. When she comes to understand the situation, she can interact with it and change things. Oh, and the esoteric friend, she also drinks the tea and ends up in the same deal. She ends up having to confront her spiritual pride.

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