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Alex de la Iglesia: ‘Hollywood Focuses on Entertainment, I Try To Transgress’

Calling himself 'a sad clown,' Spanish director plumbs his creative process in Marrakech

Championed by Quentin Tarantino, whose 2010 Venice jury awarded him a Silver Lion for “The Last Circus,” Spaniard Alex de la Iglesia’s filmic universe might be thought weird. It is certainly one of the most exuberant in contemporary Spanish – maybe European – cinema.

During a directing master class at this week’s 14th Marrakech Film Fest, he bared his heart about his creative inspirations, having previously unveiled a new project to Variety, “The Bar,” which he aims to shoot on the heels of “My Big Night,” skedded for an early 2015 shoot.

One key inspiration for his generation is Spanish cult filmmaker Jess Franco (1930-2013). “For us, he’s a prophet, the greatest amongst the pantheon of directors. He did everything – mystery, horror, thriller, porno.”

Iglesia talked about his family background – he was born in Bilbao, in Spain’s Basque country, into a family with strong Catholic roots — and the fact that his brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 14. He also discussed how his personal life, in particular his divorce, fed into his creative process.

Growing up in Bilbao, in the early years after dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, life was surreal, De la Iglesia remembered. “Spain was a circus. Near to my home, there were bombs going off. There was constant violence. It seemed that anything could happen, but no one wanted to talk about the subterranean violence. It was terrifying. It felt like there were monsters everywhere – like a living nightmare.”

That’s where he first became interested in sad clowns. “I’m a sad clown. I’m fairly pessimistic, closed in on my own world,” he said. “I don’t listen to others. I try to make other people laugh, but I’m not funny.”

He added that in comedy nobody should laugh or be happy. He tells his actors: “This isn’t funny. This is drama, suffering. You must never laugh or you’ll kill the comic effect.”

De la Iglesia initially studied philosophy, then migrated to film. “When I told my parents I wanted to become a philosopher, they had a fit. When I said I wanted to become a filmmaker, they said I was even crazier: It was like wanting to become an astronaut.”

De la Iglesia nonetheless encouraged participants to keep their dream alive however difficult it may seem. “It’s like in a soccer match,” he said. “You can’t remain always in your own half — you have to advance to the opponent’s half.”

He said that he’s inspired by the figure of the sad clown, and by surrealism, and named filmmakers that had inspired him, including Tarantino, Fellini, Almodovar, Tobe Hooper and Hitchcock. But naming other directors is always arrogant, he argued. “I’ve seen Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ more than 50 times but I still don’t understand it,” he said. “I’m just another spectator. Saying you’re a great director because you know the great masters is like saying you’re great in bed just because you’ve seen lots of porno films.”

“I’m more inspired by lousy TV series and trying to cope with a boring Sunday afternoon than watching films by great directors,” he said.

He talked about his debut pic, “Accion Mutante,” produced by Pedro Almodovar, saying that he was terrified throughout the shoot but had to hide his fears or he would be fired.

He rejected the idea that his films are provocative; instead, he believes they reflect human reality. “I think people are obscene, perverse and provocative. We’re all very strange. Hollywood cinema focuses on entertainment. I try to transgress boundaries.”

“People aren’t social creatures, we’re wild animals governed by basic instincts. People are naturally inclined towards constant violence and constant sexual aggression. Art and culture exists to feed that suppressed desire. If you censor art then another subculture has to emerge.”

De la Iglesia tries to fill the screen with action, so that the viewer always has the sensation that he’s seeing only a part of the entire scene. He also talked about the importance of finding the right location. “If you want to conjure up a demon, you have to go the right place — for example a grotto high up in the mountains. Otherwise it won’t appear.”

In “Witching & Bitching,” he shot a scene in Madrid’s busiest square – the Puerta del Sol – in which a gold spray-painted Christ figure holds up a pawn shop, taking his young son with him. He considers it to be one of the best scenes he’s ever shot and revealed that the scene was inspired by his divorce while shooting “The Last Circus.” In order to be with his son, he had asked him to come to the set during the shooting of a war scene with 500 extras and explosions. “That’s what I wanted to recount with the scene in ‘Witching,’” he explained. “Someone who desperately wants to be with his son and then puts him in an extreme situation.”

“What interests me most is what happens to people when they’re placed under extreme nervous tension: For example, someone who laughs at their mother’s funeral, because the seriousness of the occasion is too much for them. Sometimes there’s nothing better than laughing at a funeral.”

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