How a Sundance Director 'Prepared Scientifically for Magic' to Shoot Brutal, Surreal War Film 'Monos'
Sundance drama 'Monos,' from Alejandro Landres, is an unrelentingly intense depiction of insurgent child soldiers.
In the first scene of Monos, which premiered at Sundance in the World Cinema Dramatic category last week, a rag-tag cohort of child soldiers performs vigorous training exercises. The boot camp is taking place, it seems, at the edge of the world; we're at the peak of a lush, green mountain, the world below obscured by a bed of drifting clouds. This would be an idyll, were it not for the back-breaking demands of the kids' drill sergeant, who is training them on how to use their AK-47s to become merciless killers.
We learn, in sparse fragments, that the eight young insurgents, known as the monos (monkeys, in Spanish) are beholden to an enigmatic rebel group, referred to as "the Organization." Intermittently, they receive instructions via radio, but mostly they are left to their own devices. From minute to minute their fragile hierarchy dissolves into chaos and reckless displays of savagery and dominance. They run amok, hormones raging, guns blazing. It is a land out of time, and outside of a moral code. Brutality is their currency; to celebrate a kid's birthday, the group beats him senseless as a rite of passage. Despite the fact that these kids have foregone their childhoods ("The Organization is your family," they repeat to their commander) and may lose their lives, none seems to know—or care much about—what it is they're fighting for.
Director Alejandro Landres's decision to unmoor Monos from its sociopolitical context allows the visceral experience to take center stage. But the film's complex themes—the primal cruelty of pack mentality, the perils of anarchy, the duress of a life lived under constant threat of violence, the banality of life in the rearguard—rise to the fore. After all, the Organization is a thinly-veiled proxy for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a paramilitary group which has contributed to years of chaotic, bloody conflict in the country. (The kids' commander in Monos is an actual ex-FARC guerrilla, Wilson Salazar, who deserted, with a price on his head, just two years before filming.)
The second half of the film sees the Monos descend into the heart of darkness that is the dense Colombian jungle. They take with them their one prized possession: an American prisoner of war (Doctora, played by Julianne Nicholson), whom they regard as more toy than human. There, the kids must contend not only with their group's increasingly subversive and dangerous instincts, but also with the harsh conditions of the natural world, which have no regard for the sanity of humankind.
Monos is an unrelenting, tense watch, oscillating between resplendent in its natural beauty and cinematic bravado and grotesque in its depiction of the brutality of guerrilla warfare. No Film School sat down with Landes to discuss the exceedingly difficult prospect of shooting in the remote jungle, how he created a fluidity of narrative that allowed him to switch character perspective seamlessly, and why ardent prep allows for magic to occur on set.
No Film School: This is an inherently political film, but it's not explicitly political at all. You made decisions not to include any details about the conflict that is actually depicted: FARC guerrilla warfare in Colombia. This could be a film out of time. Why did you decide to ground it in the kids' experience, versus making this a macro film about the political situation?
Alejandro Landes: It was inspired by several things. One of them was the fact that Colombia has had six years of continuous civil war. There's this big fog of war [in the country]. It doesn't have those clean lines of World War I or World War II. I think that that war is the nature of war today, right? In Syria, or in different places around the world, the politics of war are all very messy. Are you [supporting] the left or the right? It's not very clear where you stand. Conflict nowadays is never local. We live such an interconnected world that you have foreign actors, fighters on the left, fighters on the right—even divisions from there, and fighters from the government. On one hand, war has this kind of logical component, but on the other hand, it has a completely illogical component, like the conscious/subconscious of it.
I had never seen a war film coming from my side of the world, and so I wanted to play with it—the genre of the war film but told from the specificity of this war. Not that glorious, romantic kind of front-line war but the intensity of the back lines, with hostage-taking, which is such a part of war today. You've seen it with ISIS or with Al-Qaeda, and with the FARC and elements from the left and the right. And so here [in Colombia], the idea of being able to tell that story was particularly relevant.
This is not Colombia's first peace process. It's the first chance in my generation. But the peace is so fragile, and it carries the ghost of the peace agreements that have already failed. Those ghosts are what drove me to make the film. I wanted it to have an atemporal feel: is it now, is it in the future? This is our chance to speak to past and present, because violence, particularly in Colombia, unfortunately, has been very cyclical.
It was that inspiration, mixed with things that touch me, like when I was an eighth-grader reading Heart of Darkness or Lord of the Flies, or watching films like Apocalypse Now or the Russian film, Come and See. Adolescence is a topic I hadn't worked with before. These books take place in, for example, a little remote island, and they have an allegorical power. They burst beyond time and place.
Landes: My previous film was about a man in his mid-50s in a wheelchair who hijacked a plane by hiding two grenades in his diaper. The whole film is very rigorously shot—very static. The whole film is shot at the wheelchair height. So Monos was almost a reaction to that. lt is about movement, and people that have their life ahead of them.
I thought the conflict of adolescence meshed really well with the greater conflict of this war. Adolescence is a time of great conflict. Your body's both beautiful and grotesque and there's this metamorphosis. You desperately want to be alone but you also desperately want to belong.
This is not really a child soldier film. It's not moralizing about how kids shouldn't be part of war, because that's a pretty obvious point. I don't think anyone needs to go out and make a film about that. This film is more subversive and more allegorical than that.
"I thought the conflict of adolescence meshed really well with the greater conflict of war."
I was very keen on taking the metaphor of a river and shaping the film like a river, so it continually ebbs and flows. There's a fluidity of the point of view. All of that actually ended up matching the locations, because we shot in the mountains in this place called Chingaza, a wetland plateau that holds the country's reservoir of water. The water there trickles down the mountain all the way to the rivers. I think shaping the film like the river was a great idea, but a mess to do.
Not that this in any way makes me more adept at telling the story, but, unfortunately, my family has suffered from a kidnapping. So many families in Colombia have, and I read a lot of first-person accounts, including about who was taking care of them. And generally, the cheapest way to take care of a hostage in any conflict is the lowest rung of the ladder. Many times it was the younger soldiers—they were kids. They don't have either free-market ideology or some Trotsky-ite ideas. And when I went to meet some people that had deserted these armies, they weren't some big ideologues.
So the idea was to investigate: who are the people that are really fighting on the ground? The film is about a subversive army, so the film in itself had to be subversive.
"The real protagonist is the group. It wasn't important how good they were individually, but how good they were as a unit."
NFS: Your cast of kids is exceptional. Each is so different, yet they form a true tribe; it's like they've known each other for years. The actors are able to express so much through their physicality. How did you cast them?
Landes: The kids came from all walks of life. Some of them, like Smurf, and Wolf, come from neighborhoods in Medellín that I couldn't even visit unless I asked for permission from some local boss. Others come from urban centers in Colombia. Then you have Moises Arias, who comes from Hollywood. And Julianne Nicholson.
The idea was to create this motley crew. When you encounter them, I wanted you to really believe that they've been together [as an army] for a year. So I was into the idea of a very intense pre-production.
For over a year, we looked at 800 kids from all over Colombia. We chose 30 to participate in a mock training camp in the Andes. They did improvisation and acting exercises in the morning and military drills later in the day. But not the classic Full Metal Jacket boot-stomping, because these are clandestine armies.
Landes: I found a guy who had deserted the FARC guerrilla army only two years earlier. He had risen from a child soldier to high in the ranks and was a feared combat commander. He was so important that when he deserted, the FARC put a price on his head to find him, dead or alive. I got him to train the kids, and he was so good that I ended up casting him as the messenger [between the kids' remote army and the Organization] in the film.
I had the 30 kids together for weeks and started to see the dynamics between them—who likes who, different things like that. At the heart of it, the real protagonist is the group. It wasn't important how good they were individually, but how good they were as a unit. And of the group of 30 kids, I chose the final eight that would be the monos.
NFS: The cinematography feels surreal. You feel like you're floating on top of the world in this extraterrestrial universe. Can you talk about the concept behind it?
Landes: Well, I kind of structured the film like a downward spiral. But not a downward spiral of pity, because that's what I didn't want. You know, I've seen child soldier movies where it's like, okay, they kill the parents at the beginning, and then worse, then worse, then worse. So it wasn't about that. I conceived the spiral in terms of the how the different characters are engaged in this almost pinball machine. You know, you're with one kid, you don't know where or how that's going to end up. And the kids are living this fantasy that we all have at some point, where you're like, "I want to go with my friends to the middle of nowhere and have no one tell me what to do."
So when you encounter them, there's almost a hopefulness at first, and an energy and intensity. A wildness that's almost attractive. But when it comes to sense of scale, they're small within that vast environment, so you understand where they are within the universe.
"In the jungle, the cinematography starts breaking down, getting more and more abstract."
When you go down into the canopy in the jungle, you start losing that sense of scale. You can't see yourself. The group starts fragmenting, the shots become tighter. I think that fragmentation mirrors that downward spiral. Because at the beginning, there's a greater sense of order. There are more camera setups. Later in the jungle, the cinematography starts breaking down in a way, getting more and more abstract.
Those were two main ideas for the cinematography: the breaking down, the fragmentation. And like I mentioned earlier, the meandering, like the ebbs and flows of the river.
NFS: How did you shoot in the jungle? What kind of challenges and obstacles did you encounter? I can imagine it was really difficult.
Landes: We found this amazing river called the River Samana, which is about three hours from Medellín. Probably the only blessing of the violence in Colombia is some of the places are so dangerous that no one would go, so they're left unspoiled. This river has gold, so a bunch of illegal gold miners was there. And the guerrilla army and the paramilitary were there before. Fortunately, now things have calmed down some and we were able to get down there.
We took all the gear down with mules and food. We had Colombia's national kayak team help us go down the river to find a base camp. The production location manager hired a big family of illegal gold miners out there who lives and works on the rivers. They know the river better than anyone. They helped us.
Landes: And water. It was all the production "no's."
I got carried out on a stretcher one morning because I couldn't get up and the medic was sure I had appendicitis because the pain was so bad. I remember being taken up on a stretcher because they couldn't get a chopper in because it was raining so hard. So they took me up, these gold miners, and I remember I was crying not because of the pain, but because I felt to get Pete Zuccarini, that wonderful water photographer from Life of Pi and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Julianne Nicholson, and these kids, these gold miner family, the kayakers, the meals, everything...it's like aligning the stars. If I didn't come back, this film would not align again. I think when I saw the hospital they took me to, I got scared stiff. And fortunately I was okay and I came down and we finished it.
"I would never expose myself or my team to any production situation like this unless I had almost complete creative control."
This film is a testament to all the people that just abandoned their life to make it, at least for a time. I remember the DP had a shock when he left the jungle. He sat on a rock because, you know, his phone rang for the first time, and he realized that he hadn't spoken to his kids in three and a half weeks. And it was like a moment of reckoning for him. He'd lost all sense of everything.
NFS: It's incredible that you were able to retain that sense of intentionality onscreen while having complete chaos all around you in production.
Landes: We did try to do that. I believe there's a lot of emotion in form. I put together a big, strong formal proposal, and no matter how things got, it was not going to let go of this proposal. Yes, the story is going to engage you and keep you pulling that yarn in a very classic narrative way, but also a pure, always to that, subconscious to that, kind of [inaudible] idea of the waking dream, where you're awake but still dreaming. Cinema at its best is that for me.
NFS: Absolutely. And that is exactly what you evoke with this film.
Landes: That was the original idea. It was a beast to put together.
NFS: I can imagine the process of working with Julianne [Nicholson, who plays the hostage] was different from the rest of the kids. How did you kind of bring her into the process and work on her character?
Landes: It was a very physical role, so we started with very physical things, even before she came to Colombia. So she started not dying her hair, not shaving anything, reducing her diet. So maybe we did some method things early on. I sent her a few things to read that she looked at—accounts of Americans or other foreigners that have been kidnapped.
And then in pre-production, I tried to isolate her. She did not live in the boot camp with the kids. She lived a 20-minute walk away. I wanted her to have some contact with the kids but not too much. I think the language barrier between them helped a lot. I asked Moises not to speak to her in English. As much as I could, I wanted to create that distance, without it being overwhelming for her. She committed to it. And she was very brave.
I focused on pack psychology with the kids—the kind you see in prison experiments. So the kids might like [Doctora, Nicholson's character] but when you have eight kids all of a sudden running around her, things can kind of get out of hand. And I remember Julianne being concerned but also saying, like, "Let's do it. You know, if I'm here, let's do it." For that scene where she got chained, I remember we were all just taken aback by what she delivered.
Then there were a couple of times we tried to get a stunt double to do Julianne's stunts and she was like, "No." I think that once she had committed so much, she was like, "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it all the way."
"The most important thing was always to create some type of mirror to the violence—be it in your imagination, or be it in the reaction of the character that's suffering the violence, or the executioner of that violence."
NFS: Can you talk a bit about the way that you shot the violence? Sometimes it was head-on, sometimes it was more subtle, or off-camera. Sometimes it was seen through infrared. You were making different decisions throughout the film about how you were going to cover the violence.
Landes: Yeah, that's a great question. I wanted to make sure that the violence did not desensitize you in any way. I did not want to shy away from the political truth, but I also wanted to keep it sensible. If you don't, it's like those superhero movies where everyone's shooting and it starts becoming like a video game. I haven't seen a war film yet where the violence is not romantic—where the violence is as chilling for the person who commits it as to the person that suffers from it.
With the violence in Monos, the most important thing was always to create some type of mirror—be it in your imagination, or be it in the reaction of the character that's suffering the violence, or the executioner of that violence. You can sometimes infer it. You can see a reaction to a gunshot. I wanted there to be fragmentation, like a hall of mirrors. So we're going to perceive the violence through different points of view.
In the scene when Doctora [Nicholson's character] is killing a little girl, we stay almost entirely with that little girl. We're not seeing her doing it. But once the little girl floats away in the river, then you go to Julianne, and you see that she's lost her humanity for that moment. The effects of that will linger on her forever, even though a lot of people would say, "I would do that in that situation."
With the kids, I didn't have to really prepare them for the violence because it's something that's in their everyday lives. They've seen the images on TV, in their memory, even in their neighborhoods.
NFS: In many ways, this was a crazy undertaking. Like you said, it was all production "no's." So much had to happen for you to pull it all together. Do you have any advice for someone who has an idea for a film like yours, with so many complex production challenges, not to mention narrative challenges?
Landes: I would say that you have to prepare meticulously, but then you have to try to inject it with elements of the unknown to surprise yourself. For example, the character Boom Boom, even though we had prepared and storyboarded everything, he wasn't originally in the screenplay. I just brought him in at the end to try to create something new.
But I would say that, in a film like this, I would never expose myself or my team to any production situation like this unless I had almost complete creative control. This is the type of film where unless you fully go for it, it's not worth it. You have to kind of press the accelerator all the way down.
"When you're on set, let life seep in and try not to control everything."
Also, have faith that you will not have everything solved and every answer at the beginning. When you're on set, let life seep in and try not to control everything. Maybe you wrote a scene to take place in the bright sunshine, but, you know, in a remote location in the mountain, weather changes a lot, so if it rains, bring it in. Don't try to impose the page on life when you're on set. Bring life into the page.
[On set] I was rewriting to do that. I was rewriting for the locations when we found them, rewriting for the actors when we met them. Don't try to force things because you've prepared this screenplay that a lot of people have supported or paid for. Don't be like, "Wait, I can't really change anything because this is what everyone says works." I would say that it's fine if that works on the page, but it's another thing to shoot it and another thing to edit it. You have to go about it with a freshness and invite happy accidents.
It sounds like I'm talking about faith, but I guess it is more like intuition. I remember when I was at Sundance with my previous film, they invited Walter Murch to speak. The guy spoke truly like some type of high-level accountant because he was so incredibly meticulous about his creative process. But he was always inviting the unexpected into his process. It was beautiful. It was like someone trying to prepare scientifically for magic. That struck me.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.