A graduate of the University of San Francisco Quito, Ecuadorian director Joe Houlberg makes the jump from directing short films and producing to directing a feature of his own with “Thirst,” or “Sed” in his native tongue. The film follows Sara, a blind 23-year-old, as she, her cousin and each of their boyfriends encounter something strange and unsettling in a visit to a country house. Houlberg talked about his inspiration for the film, which screened in rough cut at Ventana Sur’s Blood Window, and the struggles of being a first-time director and making a movie with virtually no money.
What was your inspiration for the film?
I actually couldn’t tell until two years after I filmed the movie. When I started writing the movie it was just like on impulse. I had been working for a few years on other projects and learning from other directors, assistant directing and producing as well. And I had this idea and I started writing it, and it was really fast, actually. I wrote the script and I had a few reviews of the script, and I was working for a production company on commercials, and I had the chance to use their camera. So I said this is a great opportunity, and I called some friends. It was a very small crew. And we shot the movie, and it’s actually really different from the original script. After two years, I filmed the movie and I was editing — it was then when I really started understanding where it came from.
“Thirst” is a psychological thriller. More than a story, it’s a movie about sensations, perceptions and atmosphere. Its intention is to get inside your gut. My intention is not for the viewer to think of a story, even though there is a story, but it’s more about sensation. The atmosphere I think is very carnal and savage. Like the main character, that is blind, it isn’t shown. The movie was filmed so that it doesn’t show you things, it blinds the viewer. It blinds you and it communicates more through the silence and the sound and through the images more than the words.
Since I started doing movies or short films, I’ve had a fascination with different ways of communicating. In all my other projects, they all have this idea of communicating not through words but through other ways. For example, in the first short film I did, “Beueu,” when the characters talked it was more with sounds than with words. It’s really different from this movie, but it’s the idea of communicating in other ways. The same with my new short, and I think the movie has a lot of that, mostly because of the main character who is a blind girl. The story is about the fragility of the human mind. I really think that our human brain is really fragile once we are out of our normal social situations, so that’s what I tried doing with the characters. I put them in a different situation and once that happens I think humans start showing their most primitive instincts. We can become animals instead of social people, I think.
Sara, the main character, you see her when she’s a little girl and in the present she’s a 25 year old girl, and she’s psychologically blinded because she saw something that she wasn’t supposed to. So she’s blind, but not because she’s had an accident or something. In the movie, I try to interpret this like a psychological blindness. Personally, I think “Thirst” is the necessity to throw up sensations that I had been hiding inside of me, to hydrate my essence and to see again. I think I was blinding myself when I was working and working, I was not looking at what was going on with me.
You’ve directed short films and produced films, but this is your first feature film as a director. What was your biggest challenge as a first-time director?
I think all of it. I didn’t have the experience of doing something so long and directing for so many days and directing characters in that way. Producing was also a challenge because we did this movie almost with no budget. We are all very young people and had the feeling of needing to make a movie, so for many of us it was our first film. We had almost no budget but I think those limitations made us more creative and I like that. If I have all the budget that I need maybe I don’t have to be so creative at solving problems. That was one of the things, the challenge was to be really creative in solving problems and in situations of time and money and everything. I think that was the biggest challenge.
What other psychological thrillers did you look to for inspiration or influences on your own film?
A lot of movies that inspired me. I’m a big fan of Kubrick. One of the movies that’s a great inspiration is “The Shining,” of course. I watched a lot of Hitchcock. There’s this one that I like a lot, it’s not one of the most known of his movies, “Frenzy.” That was a great inspiration as well. It was weird for me because if you look at my short films and my past works, most of them are like ironic comedies, so it’s the first time I’ve done this genre. But I really liked it. I will be doing comedies and thrillers all my life. Even though they are really different, it’s like the two things I really like the most.
Ecuador isn’t particularly known for its genre thrillers. Was there something about that genre being unexplored in the culture that made you want to make this movie?
I don’t think I actually thought about that when I was making the movie. It’s true that if you look at most Ecuadorian movies, you won’t see thrillers. Maybe there’s one movie that you can call a thriller, but most of the movies here in Ecuador and I think in most of Latin America are social issue films. Social stories about poverty and criminals.
What’s next for you?
On one side I’m finishing this movie. The cut is almost finished, basically the final cut, but I’m working on the sound design. The color correction is zero right now, so I have to work on that. That’s one side. I have a new script, a first draft. So that will take a few years still. In January, I’m shooting a new short film that won a prize for here. In Ecuador, we have this thing called the Consejo Nacional de Cine (CNC) that is a government fund for cultural projects, and there are many categories, and one of those is short films. You have screenwriting, production; actually this movie, “Thirst,” won a post-production prize. And I won a prize for shooting this short film. So in January I’m shooting this short film. Those are the three things I am working on now.