Trojan Horse: Sebastián Lelio on the Music and Writing of His Oscar-Nominated Movie About Movies, A Fantastic Woman

In using his power to uncover explosive strength in previously vulnerable individuals, Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio has dedicated himself to exalting triumphant beauty born out of adversity.

With Marina, the unwavering protagonist in A Fantastic Woman, he has once again surpassed his own artistic pinnacle achieved in 2013’s Gloria, and yielded a movie as cinematically sumptuous as it is philosophically engrossing.

Concerned by his own ignorance about the rich and multifaceted lives of transgender people, Lelio humbly set out to be educated before carving out a character or a story that could feel truthful. His search led him to Daniela Vega, a trans actress whose role was initially just as a cultural consultant. Vega and Lelio developed a creative friendship over long emails and calls that would serve as the framework for the titular fantastic woman that he was looking for. Once the writing process had concluded, the director couldn’t envision anyone but Daniela Vega as the indomitable Marina Vidal, a transgender woman on an infuriating quest to mourn the man she loved.

Vega’s training as an opera singer guided Lelio to adapt the heroine on the page to her own natural abilities, giving birth to one of the most extraordinary actress-director partnerships in modern cinema. Beyond the film’s unflinching commentary on the moral injustices suffered by people like Marina and Daniela, A Fantastic Woman is also enamored with movies of all genres and infatuated by the whimsical possibilities of the medium. Lelio’s prism reflects pure cinema, as his shifting artistry asserts itself at every indefinable turn.

Over the past couple months, Lelio and I have crossed paths on several occasions for Q&As and other required rendezvous in the awards race. Recently, we were finally able to sit down to scrutinize some of the less talked-about elements that make his Berlin-winning, Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated tour de force so irresistible and affecting.

Director Sebastián Lelio on the set of A Fantastic Woman. Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Powerful performances have become a signature in your work, what practices help you work with actors to obtain these? Are you a director that believes in rehearsal or do you prefer to dive into the scenes not knowing exactly where they’ll go? 

Sebastian Lelio: I don’t rehearse. The most I do are readings, which I do to generate trust, listen to the actors, see if they have any questions, share my own questions, and to explain how we are going to shoot the film. It’s a time to get to know each other. What I care about the most is to achieve trust before shooting so the actors have confidence in me. I want them to know that they can get lost and be foolish, that I’m going to take care of them in an open space.

There is always a certain level of improvisation during the shooting. Gloria was one hundred percent improvised, with not a single line of dialogue written. I come from that school. For example, Disobedience, a screenplay co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, has long chunks of written text that carried quite a bit of weight but there were still spaces to change, move, or modify scenes in the location where they physically take place. I really believe in the process of shooting. I believe you have to break your back writing in order to design the map, but the map should never the territory.  The territory itself is the shooting and that is, as we say in Chile, “donde las papas queman” (where it goes down).

MM: Did you start leaving dialogue out in Gloria or was this something you used in all of your previous films? 

SL: I used this method a lot before. My first movie The Sacred Family had no written dialogue. Since then, I’ve slowly learned to write dialogue and befriend dialogue, but I have a tendency to sabotage the dialogue, especially because I believe in the discovery that improvisation provides. I believe that if the film is completely discovered in the screenplay, then what’s the point?

MM: Did your approach change with A Fantastic Woman or did you continue to work without having specific lines of dialogue before shooting?  

SL: A Fantastic Woman has the most planned-out writing of all my movies because of the nature of how the narrative machinery works. The script is comprised of very precise gears and, because it flirts with multiple genres, there is not as much room for freedom during shooting. Thus, A Fantastic Woman is different from some of the more impressionistic tales that I’ve done, such as Gloria, where there is a vibrant sense that each moment is valuable in itself beyond the overall course or direction of the story. In A Fantastic Woman, each piece had to fit so that the various tangents in many different directions could work as a singular piece, a singular body.

A scene from A Fantastic Woman

MM: Tell me about your relationship with Gonzalo Maza. How is it different from those with other collaborators you’ve had when writing a film?   

SL: Gonzalo knows me well. He knows that the movies that I’ve co-written with him were co-written to be filmed without having set dialogue. It’s a peculiar way of writing, but we still write a lot. Not writing dialogue is not a way to avoid writing; it’s just a different method of writing. In the case of Disobedience, I did the first two drafts of the adaptation, creating the structure of tale before Rebecca came in and helped with the texture of the dialogue—because the film is in English, I have a limitation. She helped with many other things but that part was fundamental. Her lines of dialogue were very alive, so there was very little room to change them because it wasn’t really necessary.

 

MM: Another powerful storytelling tool in A Fantastic Woman is Matthew Herbert’s score. How did the collaboration come about and how did you discover his music?  

SL: I’ve known his music since the ’90s. In Chile electronic music came in strongly and rapidly at the time, because a lot of the children of Chileans exiled in Germany came back to Chile in the early 90s, they started coming and many of them were great electronic musicians. Electronic music took over my generation very quickly and among the musicians that I listened to most was Herbert. He created a masterpiece called Bodily Functions, which is a fucking amazing album that left a profound impression in me. I continued to follow his career and what I really liked about him was that he was a trans-genre musician. He had a Jazz big band called The Matthew Herbert Big Band and made an album titled Goodbye Swingtime, which marked the end of that period of his career. He also has different identities when he makes electronic music, such as Doctor Rockit or Herbert, among many others. He’s also made a career as a DJ. What he did in Bodily Functions is very postmodern in the sense that he redefines musical traditions, remixes them, and elevates them into another place.

Thinking of that, when I was making A Fantastic Woman I thought that was exactly what the film was trying to do but with cinema. The film wanted to observe and take from certain traditions from different genres and recombine them to construct a new type of spawn, with the underline theme of being trans, which can also apply to cinema. I wanted to make movie about cinema, and sometimes it’s difficult to talk to people about this because the transgender theme of the film is the loudest and it’s the only thing people focus on. Few people realize that the movie is also a movie about cinema.

I was at home in Berlin one Saturday scratching my head and thinking, “This film needs a remarkable score. I need someone like Matthew Herbert that’s a able to blend tradition with a breakaway without problem, just like he does it. Who could it be? I need someone like Herbert.” I was searching for someone who was like him. He’s done a pair of beautiful soundtracks that I would listen to, like the one he did for Vida y color. I would listen to it repeatedly and I would say to myself, “I need something like this.”  Suddenly, as we say in Chile, “me cayo la teja” (the penny dropped), and I thought, “Why don’t I just contact Herbert himself?” I have an English agent, I called her immediately and I told her, “There is a n English musician named Matthew Herbert can you help me contact him? In a matter of two days Matthew had the link to watch the film in his email. He watched a very primitive and early cut of the film, and luckily he loved it. He loved the film and he said, “I’m in.” I couldn’t believe it.

MM: Aside from that score, you have a few songs that are very important to the story: The Spanish-language salsa song “Periódico de ayer” and the arias “Ombra mai fu” and “Sposa Son Disprezzata.” I’m curious to know how you chose them. 

SL: Periódico de ayer came about because I wanted Marina to begin the film singing salsa. The question was, “Which salsa song should she sing?” I work with a music consultant named Marisol Garcia, who is really good at her job, and she recommended that song. I knew of the song, but it’s not as famous in Chile. It’s a much more famous song in Central America and the Caribbean. The original signer Héctor Lavoe is from Puerto Rico. He is a genius. It’s an incredible song. I really liked it because of the dark humor in the lyrics. She is singing to Orlando, “Your love is a newspaper from yesterday, and why read a newspaper from yesterday?” She is flirting with him, and the guy is about to die in a few minutes in the film. That flirtatious game in the song was temping.

The other two songs came once I understood that I couldn’t fight against the fact that Daniela is a lyric soprano. We incorporated her talent into the screenplay. The first one, “Sposa Son Disprezzata,” which is an Italian baroque aria, was suggested by Daniela. It’s a song she used to sing. I knew Ombra mai fu, and when looking for different arias or baroque pieces that weren’t too long, I found this one and felt it was perfect. It’s only 2 minute and 50 seconds and it exists in an exquisite suspension for the ending of the film. What I really like about Ombra mai fu besides its musicality is that is a song about gratitude. The lyrics say, “A shadow has never been as tall and wide as this tree’s shadow. Thank you for sheltering me.” It’s very simple but it’s a song about being in a state of gratitude, and I thought that ending on that energy was the perfect conclusion for the character’s arc.

There is this idea that any narrative comes from four primordial emotions. Two of them are positive and two of them are negative: expelling demons, the atonement of faults, pleading, and gratitude. These come from ancient times, from the beginning of civilization and culture. This song is pure gratitude, and I felt that, after a movie like this, for the character to avoid falling into guilt, resentment, grudges, or anger, but instead live in gratitude, was a way to sublimate it all.

MM: Do you consider yourself a technically savvy director in terms of lenses and how to conceive the visual qualities you want for your films? 

SL: There are certain aspects in which I’m savvier than others, but I do consider myself a technical director. I’m less “tuerca” (techie) than some of my friends. I have some friends that are religiously obsessed fans of lenses. I’m more attracted by other things than the technical stuff, but all areas of the process fascinate me. For example, Gloria I was one of the cameramen. I’ve also edited all of my films up to Gloria. A Fantastic Woman is the first movie that I didn’t edit myself. For my first four movies I wrote the screenplay, I directed, I worked the camera, and I edited them with my own hands, so I do I have technical knowledge. I truly believe in handcrafting things, in the artisanal process of making a film.

MM: Has this changed now that you are making the remake of Gloria within Hollywood’s boundaries? 

SL: A bit, but not that much because, for example, for this new version of Gloria, the Director of Photography is Natasha Braier, who also worked on Neon Demon, and the conversations are the same: “What lens are we going to use?” For example, we have gone to the technicians together and I’ve seen how she asks for the lenses to have soft edges, etc. I absolutely enjoy all those conversations about choosing anamorphic lenses or the level of definition of each of them. That’s cinema.

A scene from A Fantastic Woman

MM: Since we are talking about lenses, what aesthetic were you aiming for in A Fantastic Woman and what tools did you use to achieve it? 

SL: In A Fantastic Woman we deliberately used the latest generation anamorphic lenses because we wanted to give it the look of a movie that was aesthetically far away from the aesthetic world to which a transgender character belonged until now. What I mean by that is that most stories with trans characters exist in the social realist world with harsh lighting, or in the realm of films shot on an iPhone, or in the crude and Dardennian handheld camera, which is respectable and beautiful in its own way, but we wanted to make a movie with a calligraphy that is not only classic but essentially démodé. Just like with the score, you hear it and you say, “This is from another era.” This was something that really caught my attention when I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Tread. You watch that film and you feel there is a temporal gap that’s really pretty and makes you wonder, “When was this movie made?” Is as if it was 60-years-old but has modernity inside. I’m not comparing myself to Paul Thomas Anderson at all, but I saw it recently and that’s why I’m mentioning it.  I always understood A Fantastic Woman as a Trojan Horse. You are going to see a movie with a classic calligraphy with a shimmering and attractive façade but there is contraband inside. There is something hidden inside this horse and that is a character that is not classical. She is a hyper-modern person. That’s where the dagger goes in. We first hypnotize the audience and then, “Pow,” here comes the horse.

MM: This might be a strange question, but have you ever thought about what would happen if Marina from A Fantastic Woman would run into Gloria from your previous film in the streets of Santiago? 

SL: I’ve actually thought about it a lot. Daniela and I spend a lot of time playing around to invent that story. We have a lot of different beginnings for that story. One of them is that Marina is at the bank trying to cash a check and the attendant discriminates her because her ID has a different name. This is because in Chile she can’t legally change her identity. Gloria is in line at the bank as well, and she defends Marina. That’s the beginning of a story that we don’t know where it ends. Creating versions of the story is a game Daniela and I have been playing all year. It’s like making a movie in the Marvel universe. Putting together Daniela and Gloria would be like putting together Wonder Woman with Iron Man.

MM: What’s your perspective on the film industry in Chile today, given that you live between Santiago and Berlin? 

SL: I tried to stay as connected as possible. I go back to Chile as much as I can and I work in Chile, and I feel part of what has been happening in the country’s cinema. I’m very proud of my comrades. I’m proud of seeing them grow, both those in my generation and the newcomers that are not so new anymore, and also those who are very new. The last few years have been very inspiring in a generational sense. There is still a lot to be written in this chapter of Chilean cinema. MM

 

 

A Fantastic Woman opens in Los Angeles and New York on February 2, 2018 courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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