With only four features under his belt, Ciro Guerra has already established himself as one of Colombia’s most important filmmakers and earned the country’s first-ever Oscar nod for 2015’s “Embrace of the Serpent.”
Guerra’s latest feature, and the first in English, is the cinematic adaptation of the same-named J.M. Coetzee novel “Waiting for Barbarians,” which world premiered on Friday at the 67th Venice Film Festival.
In the film, Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance plays an imperial magistrate in the throes of a crisis of conscious after witnessing the inhumane torture of an indigenous woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) on the frontier he is meant to be protecting.
After helping the woman escape, the magistrate is captured and replaced by a younger officer, played by Robert Pattinson, and charged with treason. Johnny Depp plays a colonel tasked with leading a special forces unit dedicated to the capture and often public torture of the “barbarians.”
Guerra talked with Variety about how his experience of working with indigenous populations on previous films helped him on “Waiting for Barbarians,” adapting someone else’s writing, and his recent go at TV with the Netflix series “Green Frontier.”
This film was a lot of firsts for you, but at least thematically it wasn’t a drastic departure. Can you talk about how this film fits into your body of work?
From the beginning, from the moment I read the story, I felt it was deeply connected to the themes that I’ve worked with in previous films. The production model was completely new to me, being my first time working in English with an international team, but all the things that motivate me in a story were there. I felt a strong connection between Coetzee’s novel and my work.
The novel felt like an allegory of a distant time and place at first, but in the time it took us to bring it to the screen, the real world started to catch up to it in a way. It became more and more current, and now that it’s finished, it’s become a film about here and now.
You’re work frequently focuses on cultural clashes, but this time the cultures are invented. How did you approach creating the “barbarians”?
We had to decide how to represent Coetzee’s “others,” and in this case we worked with Mongolian actors, to tap into Western imaginations of barbaric invasions. We put together this wonderful group of Mongolian actors, led by Gana Bayarsaikhan, who shared with us their culture, and enriched the film by doing so. Their world directly influenced the world of the film in much the same way the native people of Colombia have in my other films.
This is your first time adapting someone else’s writing. How did you find the experience?
I was very fortunate in that when I came onto this project there was already a script by the original author. At first, I was concerned that an adaptation from the same writer might be too literary, too like the text, but what he did was quite the opposite. He got right to the marrow, to the essentials of his novel and created an adaptation I found formidable. Obviously throughout the process I had to adapt the story a bit as I wanted it to fit with my own sensibility and to my own style. But, in doing so I worked closely with Coetzee and producer Michael Fitzgerald. They were both very generous in every aspect and Coetzee accompanied the project with great enthusiasm.
As you pointed out, this is an Italian production, and the first non-Colombian production for you. What was that experience like for you?
It was an enriching experience, to be able to work with amazing teams from Morocco, Italy, Colombia and the U.K. It was thrilling to work with true legends who have themselves worked with some all-time greats. Everything was new to me, and to be able to count on these people was a wonderful learning experience for me.
You recently directed an episode of “Green Frontier” for Netflix. What attracted you about doing a series for a digital platform?
After rebuilding the Amazon of the past with “Embrace of the Serpent,” I felt the best way to talk about the Amazon of the present would be through noir. This triple border between Colombia, Peru and Brazil is a perfect setting for a noir: All kinds of traffic and transit of animals, skins, other human beings, organs, drugs, weapons, wood and more. At the same time, it’s the frontier of Western civilization, where people are confronted with ancestral knowledge. When we started working on the series, I saw the opportunity to explore that border in detail, and to explore our own limits as human beings.
And can you talk about what you’ve got planned next?
All I can say is I’m about to start the biggest project I’ve done yet. It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve done in my career.