“Perhaps I’m a Twisted Person:” Damián Szifrón on Wild Tales

The Oscar-nominated Argentine film Wild Tales is an anthology of six bizarre stories written and directed by Damián Szifrón—a mash up of Jorge Luis Borges, Rod Serling and Grand Guignol.

Produced by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, and critically acclaimed since its world premiere at Cannes last May, the Sony Classics Picture opened in the U.S. February 20, 2015. Despite the accolades, Wild Tales, with its sly and subversive humor, was an unlikely Oscar contender in the Best Foreign Language Film category. (The winner this year was the Polish Holocaust film Ida directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.)

A few years back, the actor Fred Willard (Best in Show), who was on the Foreign Language Oscar committee, told me that most of the foreign films he had to watch were “obscure and so depressing, you want to commit suicide.” Wild Tales inspires an opposite reaction: exhilaration. Characters face injustice, inequality and stress, and make the wrong choices. Screwed over one too many times, they explode, sometimes in dragged-out fights. Like wolves, tigers and sharks, and the other predators featured in the film’s opening credits, Szifrón’s characters give in to their baser instincts.

In the opening story, which has a Twilight Zone vibe, a beautiful woman boards a plane for a mystery vacation she’s won. A flirtatious older man strikes up a conversation and tells her he is a music critic. When she brings up the name of her former boyfriend, a musician, it turns out the critic gave him a bad review. Soon all the passengers chat and discover they have a connection to the never-seen boyfriend—and somehow they’ve all wronged him. The plane doors lock…

Meanwhile, in the final and most elaborate tale, “Til Death Do Us Part,” action is centered on an over-the-top Jewish wedding. The bride, Romina, played beautifully by Erica Rivas, discovers that her groom (Diego Gentile) has cheated on her with the sexy guest seated nearby. After first contemplating suicide, the bride goes berserk in her quest for revenge, and the action turns into slapstick chaos that is as hilarious as it is horrifying.

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Érica Rivas as Romina. Photograph by Javier Juliá, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Last month, the Argentine director was in Manhattan to promote Wild Tales and to receive best foreign film honors from the National Board of Review. He had just returned from a roundtable coordinated by The Hollywood Reporter, and spoke about his excitement at meeting legends Robert Duvall and Francis Ford Coppola. “Robert Duvall saw my film and he enjoyed it, and so I shook hands with Tom Hagen himself,” Szifrón said.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You have six films in one. Talk about who inspired you.

Damián Szifrón (DS): Before I shot the film, I went to see some films that I could relate to because of the stories—for example, Duel, the Steven Spielberg film, for the road rage episode in Wild Tales. And then for the episode of the rich father that defends his son from going to prison, I thought of the Coen brothers and their mix of drama and humor.

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Walter Donado as Mario in Wild Tales. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I just went there and imagined each story, tried to separate one from the other, and at the same time I tried to turn them all into a single ride, a single experience. At the beginning of pre-production we were talking to the cinematographer [Javier Julia], who’s a genius, and we were going to take a very different take on every episode. One was going to be black and white—the one about the rich family. We were going to do the road rage episode with anamorphic lenses and 35mm to feel like film. And then the last episode, the wedding would be shot with video cameras like the ones in social events. But at the end, I thought it would feel like a film made by different directors and all the stories were going to be disconnected. That is what I was trying to avoid—I wanted to turn all of the stories into a single experience.

MM: How did you decide the order of the stories?

DS: The order you see them is the exact order in which I wrote them. It’s not that I wanted to keep that order—I even tried different orders, but in the end I decided on this order. I screened the movie at Cannes and realized that I loved them like this. It has progression; also variation. The opening scene—the one on the plane—can only go at the beginning, you cannot put that at the end. And the wedding episode with that final plot points and turns… when a character, or two characters, changes so much and they go full circle, something like that can only go at the end. It’s like an orgasm—when it’s over you want to go eat, you don’t want to keep doing it again.

MM: In the road rage episode you have a scene probably never done in a movie before: a man defecating on a car. Where did that idea come from?

DS: I don’t know what happened. When I showed my mom the full film for the first time, I felt uncomfortable wondering what she was going to think, but she laughed. Perhaps I’m a twisted person. As a filmmaker, negativity affects me, and pressure, and depression and anger. Every time I see abuse of power in any form I get so, so, so angry. I think I use all of that as fuel to create fiction and I release the anger through my work.

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Leonardo Sbaraglia as Diego in Wild Tales. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

MM: Do you have a natural aversion to bureaucracy?

DS: Yes. I hate control. I hate lack of freedom. When you realize that everything is designed for the benefit of others, and you’re just an element of something that’s much bigger, that drives me mad. I hate to lose my time. Time is precious. We have a limited amount of time on this earth, and I want to use that time how I want to use it. Not standing in line, paying taxes, or just looking at a screen.

MM: What is your background?

DS: I’m Jewish. The wedding scene at the end of my film is a Jewish wedding. My grandparents on my father’s side were in WWII and they came to South America.

MM: They were refugees from the Nazis?

DS: Yes, they were. All the families were killed, absolutely, completely, but my grandparents survived. My grandfather was a Polish soldier. He was captured by the Russians, so he fought for Russia as well. He survived because he escaped from the train that was going to the camps. He was a blacksmith and the train got stuck in the snow, so they had like two hours stuck in the snow, and he and a couple of mates managed to break out. My mother is Jewish as well. My grandparents on my mother’s side, and my grand-grandparents, they were all born in Argentina. They came to Argentina from Russia, but a long time ago.

My father was born in 1948 and my grandparents were very poor when they arrived in Argentina. They didn’t know the language. They didn’t have anything. The first job my father got as a teenager was at the cinema. He had to bring the wheels and the can to the booths. He could watch the films for free. He became a huge cinephile, so ever since I can remember I have a memory of being taken to the cinema by him.

MM: Are you of the generation born after the dictatorship?

DS: I was born during it. I was born in ’75 and the last dictatorship started in ’76 and ended in ’83. But I was very young. I was a child. My family was not involved. Of course they knew the military was in power, but they didn’t know they were killing all these people. It was something a lot of people didn’t know. We all discovered that from ’83 on, with all the investigations.

MM: You have a lot of issues with injustice. Talk about how that impacts the film.

DS: Injustice, corruption, abuse of power, and also I have to say, stupidity. I’m against that as well. I can’t blame any government for that. At the end of the day, people are constantly attracted to things that are worthless, and they spend a lot of time looking at a screen, wanting to buy things. They’re trying to sell you something from the moment you wake up. When you go to the bathroom in the mall—I’m sure the same happens here—there’s a screen in front of the place where you pee.

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Ricardo Darin as Simón in Wild Tales. Photo by Javier Juliá, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

We’re very distracted by superficial things, and it’s very hard to get into deep consciousness or to think. I truly have to go very far from home to write and to think because of Facebook, cell phones ringing, television, and traffic and horns, so you’re always on the surface of thinking… You have to be very brave to read a book today, to spend three hours reading something.

MM: Have you been to a crazy wedding like the Jewish wedding in the last episode? What inspired that scene?

DS: I have been to weddings where everybody knew something that the bride didn’t know, and that the groom also didn’t know. It was weird being there in a tuxedo and celebrating something that was a lie to everybody. But nothing like this happened there.

MM: How did you shoot that final scene?

DS: I had a great crew, special effects, and everything was very planned. I did two TV series and two films before Wild Tales and I was getting used to writing an episode while directing another and while editing the one that I shot two weeks before. Everything was very rushed. At one point I decided to stop doing that and to avoid that mechanism. As a director I think it was becoming a defect. I wanted to have time to write and to think and go on sets. I slept in the ballroom [from Wild Tales]. I slept in the rich house of the family, and I walked this space as the character. So when the crew was there to shoot, we all knew what we were looking for.

wildtales_posterMM: Did you learn techniques from television work that applied to this?

DS: Probably, yes. To talk about the DNA of Wild Tales, I would go back to when I was six years old and reading anthologies of literature. That was the first reference. I remember anthologies named Master Tales of Mystery, various genres. And you had Edgar Allan Poe, Maupassant, some Conan Doyle, Borges; writers from all over the place. I fell in love looking at the index of all the titles in the book. Each story was five or 10 pages, so brevity was something I was attracted to. As for TV, there’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories. Fr films, New York Stories. For books, J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. All those examples made me feel that I could do a film like this one.

MM: You address a lot of genres.

DS: I love them all. As a filmmaker this project was beautiful because it’s like a menu of what you can do. You have the action scenes, and all the [different] environments. When I was filming the road rage episode, I was talking to the actors as if they were in a Michael Haneke film. Everything was very dark and obscure, and they were under pressure. But the rest of the team, we were doing something like Roadrunner and Willy E. Coyote, something cartoonish.

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Director Damián Szifron and actor Leonardo Sbaraglia. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

MM: There are not a lot of heroes in Wild Tales. You’ll have a problem if someone hires you to make a movie with a regular hero.

DS: I love heroes, but different kind of heroes. Not that I consider her a hero—but the bride was the first female character that I wrote from the inside. I’ve made some other stuff and there were women characters in it, but I was writing as a man for men, and the women were there, intervening. This time I was the bride, and it was heroic what she does. She sets out to commit suicide, and you think she’s gonna jump, but she goes back [to the wedding] and confronts everybody and tells the truth and doesn’t care. She’s brave. MM

Wild Tales is currently playing in theaters nationwide, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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