Always a frontrunner for the IFF Panama’s inaugural Primera Mirada prize, where it has just won a cash second prize of $5,000, Ariel Escalante’s “The Sound of Things,” though still just in post-production, announces above all a filmmaker of studied style, an artist who uses image, pacing, a static camera to portray the feelings of a nurse who is unable to confront her deep grief at the death of her flat-mate, cousin and best-friend who committed suicide two months before. Unable to deal with her pain, Claudia retreats into the confines of emotionally aseptic routine, until she re-meets a former friend from happier times, who’s ill and needs her support.
A two-time best short winner at the Costa Rica Film Festival, Ariel Escalante worked as an editor on Canadian movie “El Huaso” and Costa Rica’s “Red Princesses,” which played at 2013’s Berlin Forum. Variety talked to Escalante about “The Sound of Things,” which points to a director of promise who was indeed to return to the IFF Panama two years later with his completed film.
The key to “The Sound of Things,” and one of its major achievements, is I think that you find a way to reflect a mind-set, a deeply wounded person who adopts a life of rigid routine to avoid confronting her feelings, in visuals, editing, pace, and camera-set up. How did you prepare such a precise and studied mise-en-scène?
I felt that the camera and the editing were there not just to follow Claudia, but to say something. Something that would help us transcend Claudia and speak about something else, that is bigger than us. So, I looked for some sort-of ‘flatness’ in the way we portrayed her world. I want the film to feel natural, but also a little odd, and then sum up all the ‘oddness’ into a feeling of revelation at the end. I went to the set with rigid guidelines of what I thought the film should be, but with the company of such talented young filmmakers that helped me spot what the location and the scene were saying to us, so I could cheat on my own guidelines when needed to. We used a lot of intuition on set, even though we strongly knew what we wanted.
The effect of the mise-en-scène is that rather than eyes being windows to as soul, it’s noted context, which is rather unusual….
I don’t want audiences to feel like Claudia. I want them to understand her. And that’s a big difference. Have you ever been at a party, and someone you know –a friend of a friend or so– tells you something deep about how he or she feels, and then you go on with your life and not see that person often, but every now and then you still worry about how they have been? That’s the relationship I want people to have with Claudia. So, this sort-of distance in the mise-en-scène, this ‘noted context’ as you put it, is very important to me: it is the way I feel we can achieve audiences to transcend Claudia’s personal journey and think about themselves. That’s a goal I have.
Were you influenced by any filmmakers or literature or painting in creating “The Sound of Things”?
I love Yasujiro Ozu. I don’t want to seem like a fan, but I am. Ever since I saw “Tokyo Story”, I knew I wanted to make intimate films about the everyday lives of ordinary people like myself. I think “The Sound of Things” moves in that direction, which makes me deeply happy.
Also, I rely a lot on the plastic arts. Ma Yuan, the Chinese painter from the Song Dynasty, influenced my mise-en-scène a lot: he has, in my opinion, the loveliest interpretation of void and loneliness in his one corner compositions, and I felt Claudia’s story could only be told by translating her void into loneliness, and the other way around. And of course, music. While we were shooting “The Sound of Things”, it seemed like Nick Cave and Sigur Rós were part of the crew, you know? We constantly ‘asked’ them questions about what to do with this or that scene in particular.
What kind of direction did you give to the lead Liliana Biamonte in a role where she largely suppresses her feelings?
We rehearsed a lot prior to shooting. We were aiming at finding out who Claudia was, and we did not stop until that became clear. Liliana knew Claudia from hair to toe before we started. Also, I gave her a sixteen hour long playlist, from P.J. Harvey to Erik Satie, so that words would not be so necessary on set. And from there, we took it one step at a time, take after take, until we got it right. Funny thing is, on the first days of shooting, my favorite part was directing her; but as days went by, she did not need me anymore, she knew what to do. That was sad for me on one hand, but wonderful on the other.
Unless you have a tutored ear or know Costa Rica, I think it would be very hard to know where this film takes place, apart from in a Spanish-speaking country. Why is that?
Claudia is a middle-class nurse. She works at a Public Hospital. She is accustomed to go to work and then come back to her apartment. She avoids crowds and doesn’t really like to go downtown. I was committed to portray HER city, this sort-of quiet and peaceful San Jose. If she would like the beach, the rain forest or the City’s Central Market, I would have shot them. But she does not. It was Claudia’s grief that set the tone of the way we portrayed our City. Actually, what I do feel as a landmark of Costa Rica in the film is the idiosyncrasy that Claudia represents: we are a very repressed society, and we are not used to talk about emotions. We have been catalogued as ‘the happiest country in the world’ several times, and come to think about it, of course you always seem happy if you don’t let yourself feel bad from time to time.
Did the film receive funding from Costa Rica and how easy is it t make films in the country? Is there a state film fund, TV networks which support local filmmaking?
“The Sound of Things” was a very difficult film to finance. We had funding from the government and from private investors, yes, but it was scarce. We don’t have a National Film Law, and as of now, TV networks have shown no interest in the arts whatsoever. Institutions like Cinergia Fundacine, and funds that are not exclusive for filmmaking such as ProArtes, have managed to support the ‘small’ but convincing Costa Rican cinematography for the past decade. Even so, things are changing. The actual Government just announced the creation of a Film Fund for the second semester of the year, which makes us filmmakers feel satisfied and supported. I feel this question will have a different answer six months from now. And that is exciting.
When do you aim to have “The Sound of Things” ready?
As of now, we are still in the middle of the editing process. As a debutant director, I feel the need to concentrate on that: on going back to the editing suite and not come out until we have a great film in our hands. So I’ll give the film all the time it needs to finish unraveling in front of our eyes. Nevertheless, I think an August/September premiere sounds just right.