by Fran Ayuso Ros
Photographs by Rafa Montilla
“Dans ce bassin où jouent des enfants aux yeux noirs, il y a trois continentes et des siècles d’histoire… Il y a un bel été que ne craint pas l’automne, en Méditerranée”. That’s how Georges Moustaki used to sing it, and that is how Lluís Miñarro has always lived it, like a beautiful summer unafraid of the fall, in the Mediterranean. His relationship towards cinema has always been marked by a passion for art and beauty, by the bravery and enthusiasm of those who never give up in the face of adversity or murky conditions.
He remembers being taken to the movies by his parents, when he was four years old, to watch two and three-film sessions. He acknowledges that his archetypal cinematographic moment, the one he considers essential to his relationship towards cinema, was caused by a trauma: the death of Bambi’s mother. He remembers with delight as well watching House of Wax. Later on would come the cinema clubs, the reviews written for magazine Dirigido por, Pasolini, Bellochio and Buñuel. After that, Advertising would become the means to justify an end: in 1989 he founded the Eddie Saeta production company. Things I Never Told You, Honor de cavalleria, En la ciudad de Sylvia, O Estranho Caso de Angélica or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives have made him one of the most important producers in Europe. He has directed Familystrip, Blow Horn and Stella Cadente, and nowadays, after closing his producing company after more than twenty-five years, he’s preparing his next project as director.
Cinema and education
Taking into account today’s supremacy of the visual, how would you qualify the audiences’ audiovisual education, in broad terms?
To begin with, today’s perception of current cinematography is very different from what it was forty or fifty years back. Why? Because other media such as television, advertising or music videos (without holding any grudge against them), have won the battle. The audiovisual, let’s say, side to all these fields has modified the way in which people perceive cinema these days. That’s why they don’t have the patience to watch a black and white movie, or a silent film, or a scene lasting more than 5 seconds. That’s why they’d rather watch La grande bellezza than La dolce vita, which is exceedingly superior. And that’s why there’s such a generalized lack of culture. Everything has been transformed into little and easily taken pills.
We always bring up France as a recurrent example. Even you say that your own movies are better considered in France and more people go to see them there. Do you think that French cultural protection policies are key to this or is it essentially a matter of education?
Education is essential. In France, students are taken to the cinema or at least have access to films that are considered essential. Even in the US there’s a list of movies that are compulsory to watch in school. Among them, is Citizen Kane. They are considered the country’s cultural patrimony. I don’t think this would happen here with Buñuel, for instance. In Spain, there’s a total lack of interest on the part of the public institutions. In France you can hear a minister say that the more cultured their citizens, the more competitive their country will be. Whereas here, it’s the exact opposite: the stupidest the citizens, the better.
In that respect, Félix de Azúa points out the following: “Spain is a Pharisee country in the biblical sense… The original sin here is envy. Differences are not permitted and, above all, people that stand out is not tolerated. There is nothing as amazing as the bad treatment scientific research, studies or culture have received here. Valle-Inclán portrays this necessity of mediocre people to make everything as mediocre as them”.
It’s a sign of mediocrity that great artists have had to go abroad to succeed. And the moment they leave is, on top of that, used to criticize them, and this is very cruel.
This could be your case, since you are a well-known producer in many parts of the world, invited as a member of the jury in the main cinema festivals, but not in Spain. Although after closing your production company, Eddie Saeta, many appraisals of your work have been written.
Of course, because here we tend towards obituaries. It’s another of the typical treats we’re characterised by, like envy. Now that it’s fucked up, let’s speak wonders of it.
We could also talk about the lack of education in taste, something Alain Bergala explains very well.
In my generation, since we grew up under a dictatorship, we needed to find our own outlet valves. For example, go to the French or Italian Institutes to see a kind of cinema that you could never see in normal cinemas. Or go to France for a weekend, or spend some time in Paris to discover a new world and come back with loads of books. Absence created a necessity; although I’m aware it was only a minority who could do that.
Now we seem to mistake excess with communication, and consumption with knowledge.
Now consumption is king, even with Photography. Joan Fontcuberta explains this quite well. Before, when you took a picture you had to take actions, let’s say. You had to select it from the contact sheet, take it to get developed on paper and then put it on an album or a box. There was, let’s say, a kind of dedication to it, an added value that it’s not given now. Then the pictures you selected were the ones that had had an emotional impact on you. Now it’s a disposable thing, without emotion. Virtual. This abstraction can turn into an enormous problem: we have lost touch with reality. We’re embarked on a transformation process towards we don’t know exactly where.
How did you end up in Advertising?
At first I thought about becoming a journalist, but at that time it was difficult: you had to write between the lines. Finally, I followed the advice of a good friend who recommended Advertising, saying that I’ll have more of a future there. And she was right, since it was thanks to Advertising that I was able to start making movies.
Cinema and Advertising have always had a kind of love-hate relationship through which they’ve both nurtured each other. In your case, Advertising allowed you to finance your cinematographic works. In general, when Advertising is mentioned in the cinema world it’s in terms of it being a bad influence. Isabel Coixet, for instance, rejects it when she talks about her films, and when people want to discredit Ridley Scott they talk about his previous work in the Advertising business. Nevertheless, Advertising enjoys a wide recognition because of its artistic and creative values. How do you reconcile these two fields, being both a business and an art?
This thing about discrediting is typical of our country. In the US nobody cares if you do adverts. In my case, there came a time when Advertising ceased to interest me. Maybe because I did it for a long time and I was tired. Maybe from an artistic perspective the level is now way lower than before. This has happened for many reasons, not only due to the economic crisis, but particularly because of the ever-greater control over the process on the part of the clients, the brands, instead of the creative teams, the agencies. It’s as if now the one taking the creative decisions is the one that pays. It would be the same as if when you went to the doctor, the people in charge of taking decisions were the health insurance company guys. Apart from that, now’s not so well paid anymore. In my case, when it was well paid I could afford to invest my benefits on the cinema. The problem is that the cinema I like, suited for a minority, is more difficult to make profitable. Particularly in a moment in which subsidies are starting to disappear and television channels are no longer interested in this kind of format. I don’t know what I’ll do in the future. I guess I’ll keep on directing my own films rather than producing other people’s; and in case I do, it will be international co-productions such as with Apichatpong or Kawase. Because whether we like it or not, the fact is that a film by an international director can find better distribution around the world than one by a Spanish one, except for Almodóvar. This means that, because it’s going to be sold in twenty or thirty countries, the return on investment will be higher. Unfortunately, Spanish cinema has a bad distribution and marketing internationally.
Which of your Advertising campaigns do you feel prouder about?
I’ve been lucky enough to take part in very important campaigns from a creative point of view. The period I consider the best when it comes to contents is when I was at *S,C,P,F… I remember a very good campaign with Isabel Coixet for Evax: you got to peep inside the handbags of Rosy de Palma, of María Barranco, of Emma Suárez. We worked with improvised scripts, to see what they carried on their bags, and it meant also working with actresses. I also remember several campaigns with an eminent director called Luca Maroni, also others with the Argentinian Lucho Bender, for consumption products but very touching, very moving. I think that there are a lot of highly talented people in the world of Advertising, and it’s a great school for those interested in pursuing a career in film. It gives you the capacity of solving things in a short period of time and also of sharpening your wits. It’s obvious that Advertising’s goal is to help sell products; nobody’s trying to hide that. On the contrary, in the written media, for instance, propaganda is used to sell other kind of concealed social and political products, and I think that’s much more perverse.
After watching Stella Cadente several times, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s a subversive film, a bit punk. I suspect this is something that hasn’t been appreciated enough. It’s a film that relates to a whole tradition of cinema about discrepancies: the cinema that current circumstances deserve.
Stella Cadente is a film made with total and absolute freedom all around. I even let the actors speak the language they wanted, with no restrictions. This makes sense due to the anarchist spirit of the film, close to 70s cinema.
The non-naturalistic interpretation style of the actors is remarkable, it reminds me of Robert Bresson’s cinema. How did you contemplate directing the actors?
When it comes to the main character, Alex Brendemühl, what I told him was to watch a lot of German expressionistic cinema, to grasp its body language. From Caligari to Nosferatu to Metropolis. I also gave him a yoga mudras manual to make him put his hands in different positions, because every sign, every gesture, is a vehicle for communication. This becomes very relevant when he says “I swear that…” or when his wife leaves, and is reinforced by the use of the music of Brief Encounter. In the end, it was all about taking advantage of the characters, their physical side, how they showed themselves physically rather than the way in which they had to recite or what they had to say.
In due regard, and referring to El cant dels ocells, Albert Serra specified that: “my film consists in filming people I like, the way they move, their gestures, the way they talk.”
Serra’s case is different in the sense that what he, like he recently said at the Biennale di Venezia, finds interesting about non professional actors is that they’re virgin when it comes to creating the fiction. That is, they have no information at the beginning and as the film moves along, they create the character in a spontaneous and natural way. In my case, I’ve worked with professional actors, also because I conceived it as a personal challenge, since it was the first fiction movie I directed. My interest resided in working distractedly with professional actors and actresses: a solid actress like Lola Dueñas, an actor with multiple registers within his own discretion like Alex Brendemühl… That is to say, they were not meant to know where I wanted to take them, but I needed them to have enough perception skills to understand, while the filming process evolved, where I wanted to go. And luckily it worked out!
Did you have an initial well-structured script or you left a lot of room for improvisation during the shooting?
The script was open to all sorts of contingencies that could even occur on the previous night of the first day of shooting. This has happened to me even while sleeping. I remember I told my partner I wouldn’t be able to sleep with him during all that time. I slept alone in a separate room and while I was falling asleep lots images came to mind. I realise that what I’m saying could be perceived as science fiction. It sounds absurd… But it’s about letting the subconscious throw up, and the subconscious is so rich, it’s full of ideas. Whether all those ideas appear in the movie or not, that’s another story.
More so when you’re immersed on a creative process…
Of course, you’re in the middle of the shooting’s creative process. After that there is another important creative moment that comes with the editing. Then, the key to all resides in, precisely, being open to things changing any moment, even though you need to have an initial structured script. Here’s where the power of the producer comes into the picture. You need to have a team that knows that tomorrow you’re shooting here or there, otherwise it’s impossible. You can do it with a small team, but when you don’t have professional actors, make-up, hairdressers, period costumes, scenery… You need a minimum of order. Nevertheless, once you have all those elements from the script covered, the situation can be solved in a complete different way from what was planned. That happened several times during the shooting. For example, what was meant to be a sexual act in the end it’s fingers penetrating a datura flower. I picked it up at the office (at that time I had an office, since the crisis started not anymore) the night before. At that moment, leaving the office that night, the idea came to mind. That flower, which looks like a goblet, was going to represent the situation I was going to shoot the day after.
The relevance of objects in the film, for example jewels, that acquire an important significance, was previously planned?
Jewels, animals and food have a great significance because they’re sensory and sensual in themselves, aren’t they? What I wanted to do was to make a very Mediterranean film, down deep, even if it’s not too obvious. Someone told me: “You can tell that you’ve worked with Manoel de Oliveira”. Well, you can tell I’ve worked with Oliveira, in the same way you can tell I’ve not worked with Bresson, one of the directors I admire the most. It’s not I’ve ever tried to imitate him, but he’s part of what I’ve absorbed. Like Velázquez, Wagner or Caravaggio. Since in my life I’ve been able to have access to seeing some Caravaggio paintings or I’ve been to the Liceo to see an opera like Tristan und Isolde, it all shows up in the film naturally. Before the editing process, I hadn’t thought of the music I’d use for any scenes, except the one where you see the main character dancing. As I started seeing the images I started thinking about the music to use. All this is creative freedom, there’s no other explanation to it. Not being constrained by investors saying this or that, by televisions saying something else, by a producer telling you “this scene can’t be shot”.
During the preparation of the project, did you have in mind that the story of this short-lived king would elucidate some of the questions gravitating around the current political situation?
Honestly, it wasn’t my idea, initially. The only thing I wanted to do was making a film, not posing certain critical questions. What happens is that the film is contaminated or influenced by the situation on which it was shot. A moment when Spain lived a huge crisis, with lots of values on the thin line, radical changes in the cinema business and other aspects of society, a general despondency to which we seem to have adapted now, etc. The thing is that the creative freedom I was mentioning nevertheless gets contaminated by the present moment.
This would be one of the advantages of considering the project like a porous body able to absorb anything around it. This is what makes it a more alive and richer film.
The main advantage is that I could count on a technical team and, on top of all, an artistic team with which I work very well. However, the actors were continually on the edge, they didn’t know where I wanted to go. That’s why the movie is influenced by the dynamics of the team. My idea was to do something coherent with different styles of filmmaking. That is, that a pop rock film could coexist with a historical film, with a film that it’s sometimes political, with a drama. Some people say it’s like a gay daydream. And maybe it can be and it should be seen as a daydream, although not necessarily gay. Like a tell tale, even, like Alice in Wonderland.
Not in vain, in Stella Cadente there’s a fragile balance between pictorial recreation, exaltation of joy and beauty, irony, historical reflection, anachronism and sarcasm. In a way, the spectator is continually pushed away from diegetic illusion. Was this anarchist style carefully orchestrated?
The audience is pushed away from fictional illusion, but at the same time is urged to play. I define it as a trompe-l’oeil, like those paintings on walls depicting a garden that looks real and that, when you get closer, you realise is just make-believe. It’s all like a big grand guignol, a mascarade. What it’s meant to be Spain was shot in Italy. The world is upside down. That is, mixing up traditional genre film ingredients.
Then, what kind of outlook you wanted the film to convey?
It’s an invitation to enter that game, without revealing the signs from the beginning. That’s why there’s a more serious first half that is meant to ground an ethical discourse. However, the second half is much more frivolous and mad. More unexpected things occur. I decided it like that, although you don’t find out about it until the end credits, when under the title you read the word divertimento. In the end, it has a musical structure. You have to take into account that we usually perceive cinema as something akin to literature, something very Cartesian: beginning, development and end. Whereas any other disciplines, such as music or painting, are more mysterious, they lack a marked logic. They’re more similar to the way our brains function. Like now, when I’m talking to you and an image comes to mind. Influenced, maybe, by the smell of the paella or by the Billie Holiday tune I can hear in the background.
Talking about that, Chaplin said that the closest art to cinema is music, not theatre or literature.
I wish it were. I think it was like that in the time of silent movies. Because it was much more free at not having to put up with the dictatorship of the spoken word, so a lot of it was open to the audience’s intervention.
Would this be the case of Stella Cadente? I’m saying it because your film has a lot to do with poetry in the way it’s the opposite to what is expected, or redundant, or already seen. So that, when we lose touch with the pillars that support what is recognizable, we’re offered a challenge, a proposal to participate.
A challenge posed with an absolute respect towards the audience’s intelligence, because it’s not told what to interpret or which feelings to share with the characters.
In the film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that you produced, there is a moment in which the ghost monkey tells uncle Boonmee that when he was a kid he fell in love with photography because it could register realities that were invisible to the human eye. You have highlighted in several interviews the importance for cinema to show a plurality of approaches that try to make sense of our existence. What role do you think cinema plays nowadays in that respect?
It’s difficult to classify things, but I’d say there are two kinds of films: industrial or entertaining, trying to make business, where 80% of what is seen in the world comes from the US. Not so true for India or Egypt, but for the Western world. There are certain decent movies nevertheless, and it’s the kind of film that has been made since the first days of cinema as an industry. And there’s the second kind, films made in the margins, linked to the very own individual author creating them.
Some people affirm that any work that is not linked to the experience of its own creator cannot be considered a work of art.
Oliveira said so. Any film following a repetitive formula is industrial, not an example of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship includes the stamp of life. What happens nowadays is that the system is ruled by the dictatorship of performance. It’s the big mistake. I can’t believe that museums need to make profit and for that reason their bookshops and cafes should work better than their contents. The fact that some members of the Liceo cannot go to the opera any more because the ticket price has been increased by more than 100%. They forget that part of the Liceo is made up of the effort of all those people that have been faithful to it throughout the years. Besides, the quality of the shows is a lot worse, so the container is now more important than the content.
In the première of Stella Cadente you defined the film as a vital space devoted to beauty, do you conceive beauty as an ideal or as an artistic and vital need?
I definitely see it as a vital necessity. At least in my case, any difficulties in life are overcome through art, beauty, and nature.
The erotic component plays a very important role in the film.
At first, I had the intention of shooting some pornographic scenes, but I avoided it. In the DVD I included a scene with a melon that it is pornographic. During the editing process I decided that the erotic scenes should be separated throughout the film, to create a sense of postponed interest that is resolved at the end when both kiss, which is the moment of chaos. There was an initial planning of the relationships, which work three ways, because three is the number of creation, the triangle. So this form that means creation is destroyed when they kill the king’s assistant, when the spectre of death appears. It’s an image set in stone in my mind: the representation of passion in Verges, the village of Lluís Llach, where, on the contrary than at the majority of villages, what plays the most important role is the spectre of death. So, as I was saying, at the moment of death an inverted cross appears with an image of the four corners of a pool table. Number three stands for creation, and number four, at least for Eastern philosophies, is the number of stagnation.
Let’s imagine a special exhibition of your film on which it should be placed in dialogue with another film in order to widen the sense of each work. Which one would you choose?
For example, Amour Fou by Jessica Hausner, Cleopatra by Júlio Bressane or some film by Joao César Monteiro.
What do you think about this idea: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman?
I think that because of its focus on isolation and following of one person it would work, yes. Besides, it’s a wonderful film. But when it comes to ambience, my film is closer to those by Raúl Ruiz, Júlio Bressane or César Monteiro than to any other directors.
You haven’t mentioned Pasolini a single time…
Well, of Pasolini my film would have the soul, although his films are much more tragic, except for Trilogia della vita. Of course he’s someone I admire, I consider him one of the key figures of the 20th century. Look at what Alberto Moravia said upon his death: “Don’t you realise that a poet only exists every hundred years?”
There’s no doubt that your professional career has been exceptional. You have succeeded in different fields related to image and cinema. Your artistic and personal experience, because of your relationship with a vast number of people from the world of cinema, is very interesting, haven’t you thought about writing it all down in book form?
Yes, I’ve thought about it, but the pressure of producing films was so big up to now, with up to four films a year, that I had no time left for anything else than falling on my bed, exhausted. And it happens too that nowadays culture is eminently visual, but my experience could be useful to other producers, to institutions. I’ll do it someday.
Oliveira said in an interview that: “the glory of the artist is to be poor and never stop working. Neither Vermeer nor Van Gogh sold much during their lives, but they never stopped working, because the most important thing was the need to express themselves”. How do you express that need now?
I do. I’ve just finished the script to my next film; the only problem is I’m not sure I’ll be able to finance it. In my experience as a producer, I know it’s not going to be easy to find a producer in Spain that will want to invest on an ex producer.
Can you tell us something about this new project?
It’s an update of the biblical myth of Salome, taking place nowadays and in a very particular place linked to an international army. It could be considered a political film and also a chance to deconstruct a myth that has rarely been interpreted as what it really is. That is: an openly homosexual myth, recreated by gay icons such as Oscar Wilde or Richard Strauss. It’s a representation of sexuality very close to the margins, to sex and death. There’s an inherent ambiguity to the topic that I would like to delve into.