BERLIN — “Holy Beasts” begins memorably with a shot of an inky sea, as black as death. Surveying it is Vera, played by Geraldine Chaplin, an actress who travels to the Dominican Republic to shoot the unfinished film of real-life Dominican director Jean-Louis Jorge, who died in 2000.
Vera is most probably dying. This will certainly be her last film, she tells its producer.”Holy Beasts” is a step up in scale for its directors, Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas (“Cochochi,” “Sand Dollars”). Shot at the island’s Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios and extraordinarily plush Casa de Campo Resort, “Holy Beasts” records the bathetic happenstance of movie shoots, the tight budgets and schedules, the accidents, the conflict of creative will. Above all, however, the film turns on Vera who asks what matters and mattered in her life: Her answers, respectively, her grandson and Jean-Louis. Shooting his film may rescue not only Jean-Louis from oblivion but be, through her association with him, her gateway to immortality.
Starring Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, Luis Ospina and Jaime Pina, “Holy Beasts” is produced by the Dominican Republic’s Gabriel Tineo at Batú Films (“Miriam Miente”), Lantica Media and Aurora Dominicana, Argentina’s Rei Cine, (“Zama,” “The Accused”) and Mexico’s Pimienta Films, represented by Nicolás Celis and Sandino Sarabia Vinay, a producer and associate producer on “Roma.”
Varety talked to Guzmán and Cárdenas as they prepared for the film’s world premiere in Panorama at the Berlinale.
This film is a step-up in scale in in terms of production for you. What were the motives?
Guzmán: We were a little tired of how we’d been producing films, and for years I had been investigating this guy, this filmmaker Jean-Louis Jorge. His films are a little extravagant. They try to imitate, or pay tribute to, classic Hollywood cinema.
The film also takes advantage of the extraordinary build in studio facilities in the Dominican Republic.
Guzmán: Thinking on how films are produced here in my country, and the fact that the industry is growing and there are so many new studios, we thought it would be a good idea to do this one in a studio. That idea kept growing. Another indicator of growth is the involvement of major, established actors like Geraldine Chaplin, with whom we had worked on our previous film.
So it was an organic process?
Guzmán: Yeah, she could be a character close to Juan Luis. She’s makes reference to a character in Juan Luis’ life named Bich Belmore, so we decided on mixing her in with non-professional actors who were friends of Juan Luis in real life, his friends Luis Ospina and Jaime Piña. At the same time, we felt she should not be alone, so we found Udo Kier. These things along with the locations all made the film bigger. That being said, filming was pretty much the same, mixing fiction and reality as we’ve done before.
“Holy Beasts” is a crossover movie in a way, with stars, production values of upscale international filmmaking. It could also be seen, in its mixture of fantasy, fiction and reality, as the largest film made to date in a burgeoning Dominican Republic art film production sector. What factors explain the growth of this more arthouse production?
Cárdenas: Although the locations are of a larger scale, “Holy Beasts” is still an intimate and somewhat simple film. When we were paying homage to the work of Jean-Louis Jorge, it was natural for us to work in the studios and explore the spaces that are rarely seen on the screen, backstage and out of frame. We tried to gather characters that made sense of what we had read or seen of the JLJ projects, and we created logic within those worlds that he had created. Filming in these places was special because it’s a dream of many filmmakers from past generations. Filming there is also part of a tribute we wanted to make.
In the case of the actors, it was natural that we wanted work with Geraldine again, and in this case we wanted her to be accompanied by another actor with a similar history to her, that’s where Udo came in. The rest of the cast are more on the non-professional side, but they also made sense within the JLJ world. For example, the character of Victor was played by Jaime Piña, a friend and producer of JLJ. That was the key to having first-hand stories, reactions and the feeling of a time that we know through stories, images and music.
“Holy Beasts” turns on a figure who delighted in recreating a mythical Hollywood. At the same time it presents a realistic shoot process, noting the pressures of scheduling, money, the role of chance, mishap. Could you comment?
Cárdenas: Several of the works of JLJ have to do with what happens behind the scenes of the stage. For us it was important to respect that the drama was right on the edge of fiction.
Geraldine Chaplin gave one of her best recent performances in “Sand Dollars.” How do you direct such experienced actors as her and Udo?
Cárdenas: That part is the most fun. She is always willing to experiment and adapt to our way of working. She works very intensely before and during the shoot and gives everything. It is motivating to see her on the other side of the camera. Geraldine and Udo have a history, having worked together on other films. So Udo got on board with her and her way of working.
What are you working on now?
Cárdenas: We have a couple of projects we’re writing. Surely it will be something very different from “Holy Beasts,” maybe less fantastic.