An Interview with Lisandro Alonso
By Adam Nayman
In the fourteen years since his radical and extremely influential debut feature La Libertad (2001), the Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso has cultivated a reputation in certain circles and squares as a hardcore art-house starâ€”the kind of filmmaker who was never going to have a hit and probably liked it better that way. It would be glib to suggest that Jauja, which stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish engineer stationed in Patagonia near the end of the nineteenth century, represents a step toward the mainstream: the film, which is named for a mythical Peruvian city and grows increasingly surreal as it goes along, is as uncompromised as anything Alonso has ever made, even as it surpasses its predecessors in several areas, including sheer visual beauty (the stellar cinematography is by Aki Kaurismakiâ€™s director of photography Timo Salminen). But Jaujaâ€™s warm reception on the festival circuit since its premiere last year at Cannesâ€”combined with the above-the-title muscle of its Oscar-nominated star-producer, himself an Alonso fanâ€”has culminated in an honest-to-goodness theatrical release courtesy of Cinema Guild. Hopefully, this marvelous film will find the audience it deservesâ€”and Alonso devotees wonâ€™t mind having to finally share their hero with everybody else.
Reverse Shot: Youâ€™ve worked with a lot of nonprofessional actors. Did you have to change the way that you direct with Viggo Mortensen?
Lisandro Alonso: The most important thing for me as a filmmaker is choosing the people who I work with, whether itâ€™s the actors, or the crewâ€”basically, anyone who is going to support the film. Once I have those people around me, I know how to do a lot of things. When weâ€™re shooting, Iâ€™m controlling everything, but Iâ€™m also listening to everybody who is there. Iâ€™m comfortable and secure about all that. With Viggo, I didnâ€™t really try to â€śdirectâ€ť him. I mean, what am I going to say to him? â€śYou are in focus.â€ť Or â€śyou are out of focus.â€ť I love his work. There were times when I thought that it was strange that I was making a movie with him. I admire him. We talked a lot during the shoot, Viggo and I, and also with Timo Salminen. I really tried to learn. I didnâ€™t want to do the things I had done in the previous films. They mentioned different ways of working, and I said â€śwhy not?â€ť I was relaxed, because how else will I do something else?
RS: There are definitely some major differences between Jauja and your other films, beginning with the fact that it features numerous long dialogue scenes. Can you talk about your collaboration with Fabian Casas, who cowrote the screenplay?
Alonso: Fabian is a poet. He didnâ€™t go to film school. When we met, he was working on a novel where the main character was a dog. I didnâ€™t want to make a movie about that, though! Working with a writer like Fabian meant that there were a lot of new things in this movie, because I canâ€™t invent that sort of dialogue or those sorts of situations. Thatâ€™s the big difference between Jauja and my other films, if I may say so. There are still many of the same elements, but what changed was that I tried to get out of the physical world and into the subconscious a little bit. I wanted some space to create things that are not there in everyday life.
RS: Were you not comfortable with those sorts of things when you made your other movies? Or were you just not interested yet?
Alonso: Before, I wanted to make movies about people without a lot of opportunities. That was my purpose. I wanted to be in touch with people like Misael [Saaverda, the star of La Libertad] or [Antonio] Vargas [the star of Los Muertos], men who have an isolated way of living. But now I feel like making more space for fiction and for my imagination.
RS: There is also some space in Jauja for history, I think. Not only in that itâ€™s a period piece, but because the scenario very specifically reflects the history of European colonialism in Argentina . . .
Alonso: That is a little bit tricky. That was the way I could put somebody like Viggo in the locations where I wanted to see him. If I want to shoot in those locations, I canâ€™t imagine Viggo dressed like itâ€™s modern times, you know? That would seem fake for me somehow. So I had to go back in time to have this character, with his sword and his costume.
RS: Is it maybe fair to say that Fabian Casas had different ideas about history that made it into the screenplay?
Alonso: I donâ€™t have any ideas about that. I told him that I wanted to make a movie about a father who lost his daughter.
RS: Thatâ€™s actually the same story that youâ€™ve already told in Los Muertos and Liverpool.
Alonso: Yes. But Fabian helped me tell the same story in a very different way.
RS: In Liverpool, you have a main character who comes back to his daughter and then leaves immediately. Mortensenâ€™s character in Jauja spends the whole movie looking for her. He wonâ€™t give up. Is there a reason that this dynamic has been altered in this way, from abandonment to this obsessive searching?
Alonso: Yes. I have a child now, a boy. I have a family, and it changed how I believe in things. The relationships between people are interesting to me. You can run away from someone you donâ€™t know, but you canâ€™t get away from people who have the same blood.
RS: The daughter does run away here, or at least thatâ€™s how her father sees it. Sheâ€™s been taken away from him, and he doesnâ€™t want to let her go.
Alonso: Itâ€™s something that was going to happen. People find their own lives. She wants her own life. She is curious. She has been seduced by another man and goes with him. Thatâ€™s life. Viggoâ€™s character feels guilty about being there. What the fuck is he doing there? He doesnâ€™t belong there. Itâ€™s not his place. Itâ€™s another thing I really wanted to talk about in this film: where is the place that we should be? The film is called Jauja, which means a land of plenty, but who goes there? I donâ€™t know if you ever met the couple that was murdered in the Philippinesâ€¦ I used to be friends with Nika Bohnic, if you know all about that. [In 2009, Bohnic, the editor in chief of the film magazine Ekran, and her partner Alexis Tioseco, also a film critic, were killed during a robbery of their home in Manila]. The whole film is based on their history. I remember that I received an email from a friend of hers, and it said: â€śNika is gone.â€ť I said â€śwhat do you mean, gone?â€ť And it said that they had been murdered in Manila. I was shocked. I thought that it shouldnâ€™t be that way but suddenly it is. And I thought about life. Thatâ€™s how it is. You receive an email and the people you loveâ€”your brother, your sister, your lover, your wifeâ€”theyâ€™re just not here anymore. I didnâ€™t want to write anything about it but then I started thinking about Nikaâ€™s father, going to the Philippines to collect her body. I think thatâ€™s the whole plot of the movie, even if Iâ€™ve sort of been talking about this sort of plot since I started making movies. Except in La Libertad.
RS: Itâ€™s strange because all of your movies get compared to La Libertad, because it came first, but in retrospect, itâ€™s the one that seems different. Itâ€™s the only one of your films that I consider political, for instance.
Alonso: Why do you say that?
RS: I think itâ€™s political right down to the title. Itâ€™s about freedom, but not really.
Alonso: Yes. Itâ€™s ambiguous. You are free but you are the only one. Most people choose not to be that person, who is free in their own world.
RS: The woodcutter in La Libertad may or may not be free, but he is alone either way. Your characters are always alone. Which is why I found the scene in the cave in Jauja very moving. Itâ€™s about someone arriving somewhere and being welcomed, so that he isnâ€™t alone anymore . . .
Alonso: I never expected that I could shoot a scene like that. I wanted to give a positive message to Nikaâ€™s father, if I could, through the film. I was saying maybe your daughter isnâ€™t here anymore, but sheâ€™s around us. Sheâ€™s waiting in the cave or whatever. Itâ€™s also why I chose to end the film with the girl waking up, because I wanted to see her. I didnâ€™t want her to just disappear. The film could have ended without the scene in Denmark. Viggo could have just been lost in the rocks. It was too sad for me to end the movie like that. I didnâ€™t want that.
RS: To talk about something else near the end of the movie: why are you so interested in toys, in trinkets, and in dolls? Thereâ€™s the action figure in Los Muertos, the keychain in Liverpool, and now the toy soldier in Jauja.
Alonso: I know this, but I donâ€™t know. I have no idea. Iâ€™m just talking shit hereâ€¦ but I think itâ€™s that human beings die and those little things like thatâ€¦ they stay. And these things, the toy soldier, the keychain, they help me to make connections between the characters and the audience. For the characters, theyâ€™re just toys. The audience knows that they mean something else, even if the characters donâ€™t. In Liverpool, the little girl doesnâ€™t even know how to read, but we know what Liverpool is, and what it might mean.
RS: The end of Liverpool always made me think of how big the world is, and how Liverpool is just one more place in it. Itâ€™s a real city, whereas â€śJaujaâ€ť isnâ€™t.
Alonso: It is a real place. Itâ€™s a city in Peru.
RS: But it has these mythical connotations, unlike Liverpool. Although I guess that for the girl in Liverpool, this British port city is just like Jauja, or it might as well beâ€”itâ€™s so far away from her, in every way, that itâ€™s basically another planet.
Alonso: Yeah. Itâ€™s like: where the fuck is this other place?
RS: So Jauja is a kind of â€śother place?â€ť
Alonso: At the beginning [of the film] we have to explain a little what Jauja means. I mean, â€śJaujaâ€ť isnâ€™t that easy to pronounce for anyone. Not here, and not in Europe. So we wanted to explain that word a bit. I like the title because it puts you in the space of a legend, one of those cities like El Dorado. Maybe we think weâ€™re in something more like a fairy tale, or a fabula. The film doesnâ€™t exist. Itâ€™s not real. Itâ€™s been created. I like the film in that place.
RS: I have to say that I thought of some old Westerns while I was watching Jauja, including The Searchers, which seems to have been a reference point for a lot of other critics, too.
Alonso: You wonâ€™t believe me, but I havenâ€™t seen it.
RS: I believe you. The very last section of the film made me think of David Lynchâ€”the sudden shift to a different time and place and the suggestion of a dream, like Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire.
Alonso: I love David Lynch. I love Inland Empire.
RS: Were there any films you actually did have in mind when you were making Jauja?
Alonso: Different films have stayed in my mind for a long time, but when Iâ€™m shooting, no movies are on my mind. Itâ€™s not conscious that I do that. But it never happens anyway?
RS: Do you think itâ€™s helpful when critics make these sorts of comparisons? Or is it too far to the side of what youâ€™re trying to do?
Alonso: Itâ€™s good to try to link directors to one another. Sometimes I need to also. It helps me to find a better way to say things when itâ€™s not clear in my mind.
RS: Would you say that youâ€™re more comfortable talking about your work at this point when when you made La Libertad? Iâ€™ve interviewed you a few times now and you seem more at ease.
Alonso: Iâ€™m more comfortable because my priorities in life have changed. I didnâ€™t ever know what to say about the first film I made because I didnâ€™t know what I was doing. I had an instinctive way of making films, but I wasnâ€™t clear about it. With Jauja, itâ€™s going to take me a while to understand why I did certain things, and I love that. I enjoy that. Itâ€™s keeps me feeling alive, and keeps me feeling curious about my own process.
RS: In Jauja, you brought a movie star to Argentina. Would you ever make a movie outside of that country? Would you consider going to Europe, or making a film in the United States?
Alonso: I can maybe do little things elsewhere. If Iâ€™m being totally sincere, the next film Iâ€™m doing is actually not in Argentina, but Brazil, in the Amazon.
RS: So youâ€™re just going into an even deeper jungle?
Alonso: Itâ€™s my dream.