Why Sebastián Lelio Approached Romantic Drama 'Disobedience' Like a Science-Fiction Film

Disobedience
Oscar-winning Chilean director Sebastián Lelio felt like he was shooting 'Disobedience' on a different planet.

Fresh off his Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards for A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio is back with an English-language film that similarly explores cultural taboos and misunderstood love.

This time, our setting is a cloud-covered England and our lovers are Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams). Ronit was raised in a traditional ultra-Orthodox home, daughter of the revered community rabbi; her best childhood friends were Esti and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). We meet Ronit after she has long since left the community for a secular life, and as she returns for her father's funeral we discover along with her that Esti and Dovid have married, they keep a strictly religious home, and that Dovid is in line to succeed her father as the "rav." What we don't learn until later is that Ronit and Esti had fallen in love as teenagers, and Ronit's presence in and subsequent abandonment of the community has haunted it ever since.

Small moments of anguish—like when Ronit discovers an obituary that mentions her father left no children behind—are peppered throughout the gorgeously crafted script, which Lelio collaborated on with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz of Oscar-winning Ida fame. The agonizing tension that plays out on the faces of each character, particularly McAdams who has few spoken lines, lures us slowly into the drama, which then builds like a massive British thundercloud and ultimately explodes into a passionate storm. Though the film takes place in a very small, specific world (which felt like 'a different planet' to Lelio), its universal elements of longing, belonging, faith, and identity should make it relatable for a wider audience.

No Film School spoke with Sebastián Lelio during the film's Tribeca Film Festival run and just prior to its US theatrical release about how he prepared for a movie whose story was so far outside his own life experiences, capturing nuance in the visuals, creating trust on set, and more.

No Film School: Being from neither a British nor Jewish background, how did you prepare and research for the scriptwriting and shooting?

Sebastián Lelio : I'm very interested in the actors and the people that are interpreting the roles. I tend to try to get to know them as much as I can and to generate trust between them and me so I can find ways to capture something with the camera that is somewhere in the intersection between the character and what belongs exclusively to that human being that is interpreting the character.

For example, my relationship with Daniela Vega [lead in Lelio’s film A Fantastic Woman] was essential to learn about what being a transgender woman meant. That made us become friends. And that created the trust for her to trust me enough doing the shooting and et cetera, et cetera.

In the case of Disobedience, since I'm not Jewish or British, I had to count on the help of many consultants and advisors from within the community. It was great to talk to them, and they were very generous and open, and it was just like visiting an unknown planet, a completely foreign planet. And I learned a lot, and I was very obsessed with getting right the aspect of the cultural texture of the community.

Then during the pre-production process, the amount of consultants increased probably up to 12. So all the team was really getting a lot of help so we can get it right, and then we could finally forget about it and really concentrate about what I care about the most, which is with the characters, and by that I mean the actors, and the human beings.

"It's a set where you can risk space for going beyond what is strictly written on the page."

NFS: Speaking of your actors, in this film in particular, much of the angst or the drama takes place when things are not said, rather than in scripted lines. How did you pull out those performances from your actors?

Lelio: I think it has to do with, again, the amount of trust. I was very lucky to have the confidence for them to know that they could get lost and explore and be foolish, and then I would take good care of them in the editing room. But I think it has to do with a certain way of filming, with the energy of the set. It's a set where you can risk space for going beyond what is strictly written on the page.

NFS: As a director, how do you create that type of set?

Lelio: It comes out naturally. I wouldn't know what else to do. I think a script is a map, never territory. Territory is always somewhere in the shooting. That's where things finally [come together], so that moment is crucial, is sacred. So I love to keep things slightly open, because you never know what you will come up with.

Disobedience
Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz in 'Disobedience'

NFS: In the film, there's all this tension between desire and expectation,  between tradition and modernity. I'm curious about how you tried to reflect the tension in your visual choices.

Lelio: Well, there is a very big choice here. It's quite subtle, but it's there, and it designed the film, which is the fact that the camera is always framing one of the three main characters. There’s not one moment in the story, apart from the very, very opening, I mean the prologue, where Ronit, Dovid, or Esti are not trained. They are always trained, even if it's from over the shoulder. So that creates a feeling that the stories live through them. 

I think that that's one of the main sources that generates the feeling, hopefully, of deep emotional connection with the characters. That comes from a formal choice.

"We were really playing with this idea of creating almost a sci-fi feeling to the score, because this is kind of like a planet in itself."

NFS: Building on that, I'm wondering about your lighting philosophy in the film, particularly because England has such a specific type of light. 

Lelio: Yeah. Everything was shot in real locations.

NFS: So what were some of the conversations with your camera and electrical team about how you wanted things lit?

Lelio:  [Cinematographer] Danny Cohen, he's so great, and so respected, and he has a great team, and he understands England. He's very flexible at the same time, and he really, really was very generous and understood that this thing was going to need to a level of flexibility in order for us to capture precisely what we were talking about—all these nuances and all these things that are floating somewhere between the script and the shooting time. He understood that and he adapted to everything in order for us to be able to capture this.

Disobedience
Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, and Alessandro Nivola in 'Disobedience'
NFS: One thing that really surprised me about the film is that some of the music felt very whimsical or light at times when the subject matter was actually really dark. What were you were going for with the music choices?

Lelio: Well, paradox and contradiction. The composer is British, Matthew Herbert, the same composer of A Fantastic Woman's score, and he's great. We were really playing with this idea of creating almost a sci-fi feeling to the score, because this is kind of like a planet in itself. That's how I understood it. So, yeah, we were always trying to avoid overloading things that were already there, and trying to create tension with true contradiction and paradox.

NFS: Disobedience is your sixth feature. Do you have advice for longevity and the emotional ability to move from project to project in the way that you have?

Lelio: I wish I knew [Laughs]. Coming from Chile, the only thing that makes that industry move is a very genuine hunger. At the very beginning, we were making films just because we had them inside, and we didn't know what was going to happen with them. There wasn't any international press attention like there is for Chilean cinema now, and we were moved by just like hunger, if you know what I'm trying to say. And I think that is still the case for me. It's the same hunger. If you lose that and it becomes routine or easy or you’re just doing it because it's possible, then I think you're in trouble.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.     

For more information on 'Disobedience,' click here.

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