The purpose of cinema for director Lucrecia Martel has never been escapism. Her films have been consistently disruptive, works that jolt you into a state of alertness, if only for their duration. And though it's been nine years since her last feature, none of that has changed.
Zama is the latest from the Argentinian experimental filmmaker. While it's just as bold as her other films, it's radically different in style and subject. It's clear that Martel's sabbatical was not wasted. Why so long between projects? "It takes time for me to get into something to like it enough to make a movie," Martel said. "I am not that hardworking." She is perhaps too humble. Zama is clearly the result of a deep delving obsession with the material, brought forth by a wild directorial spirit and exacting mind.
At this year's New York Film Festival, where Zama made its U.S. premiere, Martel gave audiences a peek into that mind at a director's talk hosted by the festival. She discussed her methods for working with actors, how to bring life of "the artifice of film," and her obsession with YouTube.
Time as Volume
Martel is in love with sound. Not for the technical reasons that some are, but for how it fills a space unlike anything else. She explained: "If we are subjecting ourselves to the idea of time and vision, we are going in one direction," but, she said, "once we allow ourselves to think of sound, things happen simultaneously that allow us to break through. It's the idea of creating a soundscape, or volume, instead of a plane. A three-dimensional field."
"The line of time forces us into this cost-consequence order, as if that was possible, but I have good news for you, that is really fake. We have organized our existence on a very fake premise."
Martel continued, "This idea of time as volume, when did I start thinking of it? I was speaking to my mother on the phone. When she's on the phone, she talks and talks, and you lose track of what period of her life she's really in." If you haven't gotten it yet, the director is not interested in constraints. "There are these diabolic verbs—past, present—and when we're speaking, this even invention of language forces us to talk about past and present, but with the sound of her speaking, it's so much more than the words. It's the emotional experience of this juxtaposition of past and present, and the emotion of listening to her experience those things simultaneously. Past and present start to blink at the same time, and that's the time I'm interested in. It's the time where cost-consequence cannot be organized in a simple way."
Credit: New York Film Festival
So, how does this work?
When asked to provide an example of how this plays out in her work, Martel asked us to think of a knife. "We're going to make a movie called 'The Killer of the Knife.' I think that's an interesting title." She broke down all the ways in which we relate to the word: "We all know it's something that we use to cut food, but it also something that can be a threat. It has a body language in the ways it can be held. In general, we think of some kind of metallic shine that has to do with a knife. If it falls there is a sound that is associated with it."
"So, let's say we're in a room with the killer, and we're seeing everything from a distance and the light is dim, and we all know by the title that there's a knife somewhere. The first thing on our minds is the word knife, and all the things we know about knives. So, if somebody comes in carrying something, we are already warned that it could be 'the killer of the knife.' To make it even clearer, there's maybe a shine. You can apply all those things that we know about knives, but we haven't seen the knife yet." With just those implications she said, you can enrich everything.
"This is all just with one little prop, now imagine how it explodes when you start working with something bigger like desire."
"You need classical cinema because this is what creates expectations. And then within this system, we try to disturb that narrative."
You need the rules in order to break them
You might not think Martel would advocate for a classical cinema language, but she does. The reason,though, is exactly on brand. "You need classical cinema because this is what creates expectations. And then within this system, we try to disturb that narrative. So that the spectator can withdraw from the constant search for consequence, and the narrator too."
"How does this translate in the real world? The suspension of that narrative?" She imagined an audience member viewing the beginning of one of her films, "They would think, 'I have no idea what this film is about, I already paid for the ticket, so maybe I will stay.' And that's all you need. And that's the kind of faith with which this system gets completed."
Keep yourself uncomfortable
Martel is no less fearless with her imagery. In fact, she embraces the unknown. "Every time you make a movie, you have to find its limits," she said. "You have to find those limits that will allow you will to discover creativity within them. We have a very strong system to increase creativity, which is that we never have the budget we need." She laughed, "that was especially true with Zama."
With her cinematographer, Martel set restrictions for the look, ones that would push them creatively. "One of the very first decisions we made with the DP was to get away from candles and fire. Because when you see a candle, you're immediately put into the past, a period piece, so we had to go into other elements to find this perception of time."
"We have a very strong system to increase creativity: we never have the budget we need."
"We also had to work and light without much contrast in the frame, because the idea of chiaroscuro is very dominant in all the period pieces. It's almost like our idea of the past is related to high contrast. And those kinds of photographic decisions allowed us to steal away from the commonplace, not because the commonplace itself is bad or dangerous, but the problem with it is that you get distracted."
To drive her point home, Martel asked, "Where is it easier for your wallet to be stolen, on the street, or in the jungle? In the jungle, you pay more attention. It's an unknown territory. With film language, we have to try to offer to ourselves and to the audience that unknown territory, because it's only there that we recover our animal instincts."
She's obsessed with YouTube
Martel has said before that if she were to start her career today, she wouldn't produce images but rather edit existing ones. Not just any existing images either, specifically, YouTube videos.
"I am addicted to YouTube, like I think almost everybody else. The hours that you lose when you're reading the newspaper, you gain when you're watching YouTube," she announced.
Naturally, her interest is slightly different than almost everybody else's. "Technology has put us in a place of hyper-narrativity and immediate editing and publication. People are so used to shooting and being filmed, that they act very naturally in front of a camera. So, on YouTube now, you find images that never would've been possible before. I download things all the time from YouTube and I think that one day my future one day will be to edit that. But," she joked, "first you need a very good lawyer."
Credit: New York Film Festival
Inception, not improvisation
To the director, the idea of letting an actor improvise is beyond imagination. "What I do is so artificial, such a lie, that I have to organize myself a lot in order to generate that sense of truth. I would never let actors improvise dialogue because these movies are made with such a precise artifice, that if you allow an actor to wander on their own, it would unbalance the whole movie."
Instead, if she wants a more natural delivery, she'll employ creative techniques to incept her dialogue. "Take for instance, working with a child actor who I want to say a specific sentence," she began. "A kid doesn't have a strong need for precise grammar, because their identity is still unformed, and their poetic capacity is still open and untamed."
She explained her process working with a child actor in La Ciénaga. "The kid had to say something about a perro-ratta, a dog-rat, and those are the words that he needed to use, so I told very long stories, for many hours, that incorporated all the words that I wanted him to use, with the repetition that kids love." The result is a natural infusion of her themes and words into the child's mind. "The kid gets filled with all this information and repetition to the point that when he's about to talk, most likely he will use the repeated concept. But in his brain, there are going to be so many images and sounds associated with those words, that he's not going to be trapped by the specific phrase."
She joked, "this sounds like film school from Guantanamo, but it's actually a very pleasant experience for the kids and for me."
The director cannot do it alone
"One of the things that's absurd is that preeminent role of the director in cinema," Martel mused. Because in reality, she needs every single person on her crew. "Everybody that worked on Zama, we all had a deep awareness of the film that we were making. Every department played a huge part in inventing this world, so without them, the movie would sink."
"The effort you need to exert in order to break a conception, the work you need to do in order to withdraw yourself from certain common places is huge. That's why you need everybody to be on that path, because with the strength of one you will never make it. So, we may be friends, have fun, have long conversations, but what we're really doing is creating an army of people who have to fight against the commonplace."
"Your crew is an army of people who have to fight against the commonplace."
The beautiful language of horror films
Like all artists, Martel draws from a wide array of inspiration. But for her, horror films have been the most educational of all. "The language of horror films has been crucial to my own language," she said.
Despite being heavy-handed sometimes, she admitted, "it always takes you to a place where you think you're safe and then you discover you may not be. And not being safe is a great way of being a spectator." She added, "that's why it's so hard for a romantic comedy to have a revelation about human existence."
"Carnival of Souls is my school of cinema."
"The moment you sit to watch a horror movie, you have the instinct that something is failing, something is not what you expect. You're in a horror film, and you see a wide shot of a school with students walking in, you start cringing and fearing for the worst. So, how do you get there? You're seeing a sunny morning at a school with people walking and you're already fearing for the worst, how do you get there?"
"That," Martel said, "is essential for somebody who makes films, to be able to express an idea of instability or disturbance with an image that looks totally quiet or peaceful. It's a great element for a filmmaker to have. Carnival of Souls is my school of cinema."
It all comes down to that disruptive spark
But why does Martel devote herself so fully to studying this space? "We try to share an experience that only lasts seconds but we try to hold onto it," she explained. "There's that crack when we're experiencing reality, that moment when you realize that your reality is not the way you thought it was."
Perhaps you've experienced this kind of fissure with infidelity, she suggested. "You thought the days were one thing but they end up being something else." Or perhaps, the disruption when you forget a word. "When you're trying to say 'chair' but you cannot remember the name for it. Then somebody says 'chair,' you realize that a word is nothing. The absolutely arbitrary nature of language. That, or death, which forces the question, what is existence for if in one second it can go?"
"You realize that a word is nothing."
"For me," she continued, "those very clear moments of revelation are the motivation to do everything else we do. Movies, books, we're all looking to get that clarity again. For that spark to actually happen, we need to disturb our prejudices of what time is, who people are, what images are, what our experience is.
We do all that just to feel that spark again. And sometimes you're done with shooting and you feel like you haven't seen that spark. It's crazy to call yourself done. The chances of failure are huge when making a film. So, if the chances of failure are so big, why guard yourself? And why does this part matter? Why do we do all this for this spark that may not happen? Because that miserable tiny spark makes us tolerant, gives us patience with people, patience with failure; it makes us embrace the awful things, because we don't know why we're here."