'Neruda': How Pablo Larraín 'Discovered the Movie While Making it'
Pablo Larraín's Neruda brings the writer to life by interpreting his poetry through the lens of cinema.
When Jackie, a biopic about Jackie Kennedy, comes out this fall, Pablo Larraín will quickly become a household name. But newcomers to Larraín's filmography will be surprised to discover that his previous films are quite different. No, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2013, and The Club, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, are lyrical, highly stylized meditations on difficult subjects (Pinochet and excommunicated priests, respectively).
The same can be said for Neruda, not at all the traditional biopic its title connotes. Rather than reconstruct the life of revered Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Larraín transposes Neruda's sweeping poetry into a cinematic language rife with lens flares, graceful dreamlike sequences, and long shots that seem to glide through rooms and landscapes like the birds Neruda so fondly depicted in his poems.
Both your hands
closed on my chest
like a pair of wings
ending their flight.
—Pablo Neruda, "Your Hands"
"You can't put Neruda in a box," Larraín said at the film's screening at New York Film Festival. "It's impossible. You will never grab him. This movie is like going to his house and playing with his toys, dreaming with his dreams. It's like making a movie about the Beatles and creating a new song. It's a very cubist movie: in pieces, grabbing the atmosphere."
Part detective thriller, part political treatise, and part rollicking dreamscape, Neruda follows the poet as he eludes the Chilean government (he's wanted for leading the country's Communist movement). It's a cat-and-mouse game that adheres to the logic of poetry; reality and fiction are blurred, and everything is built of metaphor and light.
"Bringing poetry to cinema is always complicated and dangerous, especially with someone like Neruda."
No Film School sat down with Larraín at NYFF to discuss his free-wheeling process, involving a 190-page script, cleared sets for 360° of unplanned cinematography, and a film that came together in the editing room.
No Film School: At the film's New York premiere last night, you mentioned that you didn't have a vision or structure for the film; you developed it as you shot. How did you first find your way into this version of Neruda's story?
Pablo Larraín : It's not just on Neruda; it's the way I work. There are people that I admire so much, like the Coen brothers, who make wonderful movies, and they do shooting boards. They really control everything they're doing. The actors have to know every line by heart. It's very controlled. I don't know how to do that. I think it's amazing they can do it, but it's not how I can work. What I do is I bring different ideas with the writer to the script. I fight and struggle with the script while shooting the movie, grabbing multiple potential connections. In the editing's where you really prepare the dish.
"I tried to grab [Neruda's] poetic rhythm and bring it to the camera movement, put it into the way the actors move. We fabricated an accident that we could control."
It's like going to harvest. Harvest things out there, and then you go and cook them while you're shooting. The movie is the way you actually present the dish to the people who are going to eat it. It's something that you only finish in the kitchen, at the very end. In the beginning, I don't know how it's going to taste, exactly, but I do know what kind of food it is, and I love that.
We had a 190-page script. My brother kept asking to cut it down and we couldn't. So we shot a very long movie, and with the material, we understood what we wanted to do. We fabricated an accident that we could control. We shot a seven-page scene in a bar between the mains that is not in the movie, and I thought at the time that it was the most important scene.
I enjoy the process so much because I am discovering the movie while making it. It's fascinating to do that. Especially in a movie like Neruda, because it's a movie about fiction. You're not doing something realistic. When you get rid of realism, you are in a space where you just have to connect with the characters and with what they do. It's an interesting cocktail that brought us into a movie that has elements from the noir movies from the '40s and '50s, a cat-and-mouse kind of movie, a thriller, police procedural. It's also a road movie and it's a black comedy.
NFS: Do you have an example of a time on set where you were trying to set up a shot and you saw a connection that you didn't see in the script? What did you do?
Larraín: I remember that we were shooting at the beginning, and Neruda's wife Delia was going to be played very seriously. In the chase scenes, she would be like, "We have to hide." She would be part of the paranoia. Then, I saw it and I said, "Why don't you just enjoy this?" Just the same character, but instead of being serious and paranoid, she was like, "We have to run now? Really? We're going to have to hide?" We changed the whole tone in those first takes.
NFS: In terms of form in the film, one of my favorite things was the dream logic: characters would be having a conversation and then you would cut to a different setting. The same exact conversation would continue.
Larraín: We all know in cinema theory that environment has a specific impact on the image and on the storytelling—the way that it's lit and everything. We are having this conversation right here, at this office, in New York, and then I do this. [Snaps] And then we're in the middle of a desert. Again, and we're in the snow. Again, and we're downstairs in a Starbucks. Space has a psychological impact. You can't respond with words. It goes into your bloodstream, into your emotional space.
I'm not into realism. I love people who can do it well, like Mike Leigh. I love those movies, but I can't do that. I'm just not interested. I'm trying to find tools that would create an atmosphere that would support storytelling in an undetermined direction.
"Cinema is about capturing time."
NFS: What are some other tools that you've found help support this free-form storytelling?
Larraín: I think cinema is about capturing time. So there's something about the speed that I tried to bring from Neruda's work. His mostly unknown poems are full of rage and fury. He has a rhythm. He has a speed. I tried to grab [Neruda's] poetic rhythm and bring it to the camera movement, put it into the way the actors walk or move. The camera moved faster with somebody and slower with somebody else. It's very handcrafted.
When Neruda got the Nobel Prize, he wrote a beautiful speech that refers deeply to these two years of his life [depicted in the film]. At some point, he says he doesn't know if he lived it wrote it or dreamt it. That opened the door for us. What I understand after this process is that Neruda was able to describe who we are better than anyone throughout history. Poetry can be an amazing instrument to understand humanity.
My approach to cinema is the way that magicians used to work: somebody is pulling a rope, somebody is pushing smoke, creating an illusion. It's obviously fake if you think about it, but then you are able to get into that game, and connect with the illusion, and get rid of this space, and just understand something through a more emotional approach, rather than a broader, intellectual one.
That's why we shot in scope—so that the environment would be relevant. We were always very close to the characters. The medium or close-up shots have a lot of information in the background that would continue to change.
NFS: Can you talk more about the cinematography? There were some incredible moments where characters would walk through half-lit rooms, coming into and out of darkness. How did you conceive of the visual language?
Larraín: We were looking for some type of lighting that would be intentional. Sometimes, the lights are in the frame, and we're creating super-strong flares. It could be the sun or artificial light. We would set up very long shots—sometimes I cut it in the movie, but they're usually very long shots. We would go through different spaces and have different lights and atmospheres.
"For cinematography, I need a 360 [perspective]. If there's going to be any artificial light, it has to be hooked up to the ceiling."
For cinematography, I need a 360 [perspective]. If there's going to be any artificial light, it has to be hooked up to the ceiling. We don't use tripods or anything that you could see in 360 degrees. Everybody would have to leave the set, because we were, most of the time, strewn around. [This technique] helps when you want to be more playful. I don't do shooting boards. I just show up, and with the DP think of how to set up the scene. We set up, the actors show up, and we make the corrections that we should.
NFS: You brought elements of Neruda's poetry into the film— the way he viewed life and the way that he made people feel with his poetry. What are some specific emotions or ideas that you wanted to transpose from his poetry?
Larraín: Bringing poetry to cinema is always complicated and dangerous, especially with someone like Neruda, who's so well known from his love poems. We didn't focus much on those poems. We focused more on poems that had a kind of rage and fury, that maybe aren't in the anthologies. Not the greatest hits.
His work and poems would inspire us. He was someone who was mixing politics and ideology with poetry, which is something that, today, would be impossible. I don't see anybody writing like that today. It was a different world, a different moment.
When we were shooting, Neruda's work was everywhere. You were sitting on a chair, and it was like, "Okay, move the poem." We were reading them all the time as we waited on set.
NFS: The film seems to dart all around Chile. Were you constantly doing company moves?
Larraín: It's exhausting when you're changing sets every day. It's like a road movie. Every day was different—the place, the light, the actors as well. We had secondary actors that were coming only for a day or two. I've never done a movie like that. You usually have a ton of locations, but they're main locations, where the cast sleeps, or they work, or they spend more time in the film. Here, they were moving every day. The most we had was three days in one place. Everything else was just one day, and sometimes we had two locations in one day, sometimes three. So we had to be moving very quick.
NFS: That's insane. It seems like it would take a lot out of you. How long was the whole shoot?
Larraín: We shot nine weeks in Santiago, three days in Buenos Aires, and two days in Paris.
NFS: Since your process was so open-ended and you shot so much footage, did the movie really come together in the editing room?
Larraín: Yeah. The first cut was 3 hours and 35 minutes.
NFS: How did you make some of the choices you made?
Larraín: We had a lot of things that we took out. Look, I remember when I was a student, I read an interview with Stanley Kubrick. They asked him why he would do 100 takes of the same thing. The actors were like, "What's the difference? How do you choose between 100 takes?" And he said, "Because it feels right." The most brilliant, smart, super-calculator filmmaker ever—Stanley Kubrick—will tell you that the decisions that he makes are just because they feel good. So I guess that's the answer.
NFS: It's kind of indescribable.
Larraín: It's like talking about music. You have to listen to it.