Child’s Play: Carla Simón on Directing Her Young Stars and Revisiting Her Memories in Summer 1993

Stemming from true events in her childhood, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 is a delicate, accomplished debut feature and was selected as Spain’s Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category last year.

Simon’s film semi-autobiographically revisits the year her life was upended when her parents died of AIDS, leaving her in the care of other family members. Such devastating loss at such a young age was accentuated by the realization she would have to move from the city to a small rural town.

The young lead, six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas), goes through this ordeal and is unable to process the traumatic experience, so it manifests in what’s perceived at misbehavior. Frida’s partner in crime, Anna (Paula Robles), her younger cousin instantly turned her de facto sister, is a source of both conflict and companionship. Assembled from small moments within Frida’s new family dynamic, including the way the adults around her deal with this new reality, exemplifies the ignorance surrounding the virus just a couple decades ago.

Brimming with compassion and tenderness, while never underestimating its fresh-faced protagonist, Summer 1993 is carried by Artigas’ indelible performance and the way in which director was able to facilitate the right setting and tolls for her to achieve it. Simón talked to MovieMaker about her with child actors, creating distance between her own memories and the screenplay, and why it was necessary for the film to be in Catalan.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The story is deeply personal. Did you have any reservations about making a film about it on an emotional level?

Carla Simón (CS): My interest was to talk about children facing death. I made a short film first about two kids who found their grandma dead. When I finished the short I [realized] I wanted to keep working with children.  I wanted to portray my point of view about it. That was the main reason. I was also studying at the London Film School, and there they always told us that we should start talking about what we know best, and I guess the fact of being in this kind of school where you have people from everywhere, makes you think about what defines you and makes you who you are. That’s why I realized that my story was so important to me, and that it could be interesting.

MM: How much of what we see on screen was directly taken from your actual experience as a child going through this situations? 

CS: The first draft was a collection of my memories; things that I was told, inspired by while looking through some photos of my childhood. I spent some days in my parent’s place and I got all this information. I wrote the first draft of the script from moments that happened in real life, but then I realized that this didn’t have a film form. In order to make it a film, I read a lot about children facing death, the adoption process, and child psychology. This helped me a lot to understand the emotional journey of Frida, Then, these moments that I had written at the beginning I decided to transformed them a lot.

MM: During this process did you ever feel like you wanted to hold back? 

CS: During the writing process, it was ok that I was, in this small way, digging into my feelings and asking questions about my family. All of that was fine, but then when we started the pre-production, and we were doing the casting and finding the locations, even though we shot in the same area where I grew up in, I realized that it wasn’t going to be exactly how my life was. It was difficult mainly during the shooting because I had these images in my head that were memories. They weren’t images that came from the scene. When we started shooting I realized that if I tried to really put these images into the screen, I would lose a lot of things that were happening in front of the camera–with the girls, with the actors, with the locations. I had to give up my images and focus on what was happening in front of the camera, which was telling the story and telling it better. That was quite difficult.

MM: When you are working with two very young performers on a project that deals with difficult subjects, how do you explain to them what their characters are experiencing? 

CS: We never really talked about that. At the beginning, I realized that, because Laia had never experienced any death because she’s very young, she didn’t need to understand much about the character of Frida. It was better to find other ways to portrait sadness. For me, what was important was to have real intimacy and complicity between the actors, so we spent a lot of time together before the shooting, and we kind of improvised moments that I thought happened to the characters before the summer of 1993, for them to understand what the characters were going through, just to have some shared memories between them. For example, with Frida, we rehearsed a lot of the moment where she thought her mom was at the hospital, and she wanted to go and visit her, and she is told she can’t go. We also spent a lot of time together with the characters of Anna, Esteve, and Marga, because they were the closest family.

MM: Were the adult actors allowed to read the screenplay? How did they help you shape the performance of the children on screen given that they share most scenes with them?

CS: Yes, they did read it. Maybe just a couple of times. I told them not to memorize anything because since we were working with the girls, it was good that they could also react to what they were saying. If I wanted the adults to say very specific things, I told them, “Now you say that.” I use to talk a lot during the takes to guide the girls, and when I wanted a specific sentence to be said, I said it, and the girls repeated it.

MM: Tell me about the casting process to find Laia and Paula. How difficult was it to find young actresses who could tackle these complex and emotional parts?

CS: It was a long, long casting process. We were looking for the girls for five or six months. I was looking for girls that were a bit like the characters in terms of personality. Laia has a lot of Frida, and Paula has a lot of Anna. It was important that once we had some candidates we put the girls together. The relationship between Laia and Paula was very similar, to the point where they could have conversations between them that could have belonged to the script.

MM: Why was it important for you make the film in the Catalan language, despite the difficulties in terms of casting and distribution this could present in Spain?

CS: For me, it was important that it was in Catalan mainly because I lived my childhood in Catalan, and also because the people in the place that is portrayed don’t really speak Spanish. I think that some of the characters have something very Catalan, just in their personality, in the way they express emotions or the way they don’t express emotions. They’re very closed off people. I think that there is something cultural that also made sense to portray. When I talked to my producers, they agreed, even though we knew that the distribution in Spain could be a bit more difficult. The film had to be treated like a foreign film, because it needs subtitles. But eventually we also dubbed it into Spanish, so at the end it was released in quite a lot of cinemas in Spanish.

MM: You’re doing a period piece without the need for big set or costumes. Instead, the essence of the 90s is in the small details, like the Barcelona Olympics shirt Frida wears, or her toys.

CS: This was a very beautiful part, because it’s a period piece, but it’s about a period that all the people in the crew and I remember. Photographs of my childhood were very inspiring because they were from this period, and in terms of costumes, we took a lot of things from the photos. In these villages, the locations don’t get old, so some of them needed work, but the house was quite okay. It was more of a matter of working on repairs. Also, for all the toys, we didn’t have to build or buy anything. A lot of the toys in the movie are mine that my mom kept at home, and other toys are from other members of the crew. We obviously had to rent all of the clothes, but then there were things the art department needed that people still had at home and that could be used.

MM: In terms of its cinematography, the film is very luminous. The energy and colors of summer contrast with the feelings of loss and alienation it expresses. Where did this notion of juxtaposing the two come from?

CS: For me, it was important that the film had a lot of light, because at the end, the plot is very dramatic, but Frida is still a kid. She plays, and she can feel that summer is also fun, so to have this tone was important, and we talk a lot about that with the cinematographer. The difficult decision was to decide to shoot the film in these long shots, because at the beginning I thought that it would be good to make a film that was very aesthetic, but then I realized that it would be me portraying my memories, and I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the girl. So we decided to use this handheld camera and shoot at eye level, and these long shots were difficult because if they looked at the camera once we had to redo the whole thing. But I think it was worth it because it allows you to feel this sense of reality, of being there with the characters. At the same time it was interesting to have this resemblance to home videos that we took from the photos of my childhood. I wanted to translate the feeling of those photos to the screen.

MM: Was it all shot in natural light, since you were doing long takes and hand-held shooting?

CS: No, we had to light some scenes sometimes, because with the girls, we never knew how long it would take to shoot the scenes, so we didn’t take risks in terms of having the sun going down or the light changing. We just tried to set it up in a way that we could work in the way we needed to shoot the scene, not as long as we needed because we didn’t have much time, but we didn’t want the light to be a problem. Sometimes, depending on the hour of the day, we could do it with natural light, but some other times, we just lit the scene so this was not a problem as the light changed. MM

Summer 1993 is currently playing across the US courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Photos Courtesy of Oscilloscope Labratories. 

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