Though his screenplays delve into the delicate and provocative, Michel Franco’s direction is restrained. His shooting style remains dispassionate.
The Mexican director tells upsetting stories with emotional detachment. He keeps an observational stance in his movies, avoiding judgment on his characters, leaving stories open to multiple interpretations. It’s an approach you can discern throughout many of the titles produced by Lucía Films, his Mexican company that releases films made by his Mexican compatriots, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles among them, as well as his own movies.
Early in his career, Franco produced commercials and videos, but he made his directorial debut with Daniel and Ana in 2009 at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight selection. The movie called attention to forced pornography in Latin America. The title characters were based on a real-life brother and sister pair who were kidnapped and filmed while forced to have sex with each other. Instead of dealing with the moral consequences of incest, Franco rather set the focus on the traumatic event’s emotional and psychological consequences, the broken communication between the siblings and their parents.
Franco’s later screenplays similarly dealt with dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Three years later he came up with another family drama, After Lucía, which followed a father and daughter who have to cope with the loss of the girl’s mother. They move to Mexico City where Roberto, the father, starts building up a business. He is engrossed in his work too much to notice that her daughter has become a victim of regular bullying and physical assault in her new high school. The movie was premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, where it won the top prize.
At that festival, Franco got to know Tim Roth, the section’s jury president and his future friend, actor and co-writer. The British talent starred in 2015’s Chronic, for which Franco won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes. Roth played a nurse who provides home care at the end of life of his patients.
Franco’s latest, April’s Daughter, took home the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes last month. It reveals another controversial, intricate story set in a dysfunctional family, though in this film, the perspective shifts back and forth between the various characters. Franco employs more close-ups and camera movements compared to his previous movies. Following their collaboration on Chronic, the director worked with the Belgian DP Yves Cape for the second time, who creates memorable visuals with natural light.
A good portion of the movie takes place in a beach house in Puerto Vallarta, with two sisters living out a calm existence. The older one, Clara (Joanna Larequi) runs a print shop. Valeria (Ana Valeria Becerril) is no longer a child but not yet an adult. She is pregnant with her teenage boyfriend Matteo’s (Enrique Arrizon) baby. Clara wants to help the young couple and she gets in contact with their mother, April, and informs her about Valeria’s condition in good faith.
April, played by the famed Spanish actress Emma Suárez, was an early mother and now lives in Spain, far from her children. Her regular yoga practices keep her looking young. When she turns up at her daughters’ house, she is affectionate and supportive, easing Valeria’s anxiety about the pregnancy. But little by little she shows her true colors and starts exerting her domineering spirit over her daughters. Over the course of the movie, a power game unfurls in front of our eyes. Does April bear malice to Valeria, or does she just behave without considering the consequences? Why doesn’t Matteo stand up for Valeria? Of course, Franco prefers to be cagey about his characters’ behavior.
We took the opportunity to talk to Franco and ask him about his screenwriting methods, his visual choices and the social changes he observes in contemporary Mexican society.
Lilla Puskás, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): After shooting Chronic with English and American actors in California and Los Angeles, what made you turn again to Spanish language movies?
Michel Franco (MF): I was about to shoot in the States again but then I felt the urge to go back to Mexico. I definitely want to make movies in the States; the idea of making films there is tempting. But meanwhile, I cannot forget my own country, because it’s where I make the best of my ideas. I find location scouting especially easy in Mexico City because I know the city very well and I immediately know where I can shoot what I want.
MM: And how challenging was location scouting in Puerto Vallarta?
MF: I felt the main location was a strong element in the movie. I wanted a house right in front of the sea. It had to be a house that was beautiful but didn’t have the newest, most modern kitchen. It was not easy to find a house like that. I set the film in Puerto Vallarta because there’s a regular a daily life there, not just tourists, like in Cancún.
MM: You tend to shoot scenes in chronological order. What do you think this working method adds to your movies, and what challenges does it impose on the crew?
MF: For the film crew, it’s a nightmare because we have to go back and forth between the locations as the story requires. Production-wise it’s difficult and not very economical. But I find it very productive; it is of great benefit to the actors as it helps them to create their characters, and facilitates cinematography and editing, because I edit on set. The eventual results of this working method are better. And after all, when it comes to retakes, this turns out to be a cheaper way. Because I always do many retakes, even if I feel that a take is not bad; it could be done better. I reshoot about 30 percent of the scenes. Anyway, I’m the main producer of all my movies, so there’s no bargaining regarding that.
MM: How did you develop a screenplay in order to achieve strong emotional involvement of the viewers?
MF: I always have a very clear idea of why I’m writing, what I’m writing and where I want to take it. But as long as I’m in the writing process, I don’t analyze my work because I cannot calculate everything exactly in advance. I rather let myself go and let my instincts guide me. I try to let the characters come into life and let them dictate what they want to do. When I succeed in creating a movie that is alive and has real characters, I’m not able to control all the tiny details anymore. I think of the viewer while I’m writing; I think if the movie starts to be predictable, then it’s not interesting anymore. I try to create something original, something demanding for the audience. I like challenging the viewers.
MM: Why did you include the perspectives of four characters into your screenplay, not only one?
MF: One of the reasons is, of course, that I wanted to challenge myself. Also, I wanted to make a movie with a strong a female presence. I think it wouldn’t have been complete if I would have limited the screenplay to one character’s perspective. I included three strong women from different ages, besides one guy. He also plays an important part in the story but it all revolves around the women. I like the idea of men reacting poorly to the power of women because I do observe that in real life in Mexico.
MM: April’s Daughter portrays the male protagonist failing to live up to the role of the strong paternal protector. Concerning gender roles, what changes do you see in the Mexican society?
MF: I think nobody buys the myth about men having to be strong and perfect anymore. I think women are the ones who actually make a family work, and they are much more committed to families than men. I think women should be more empowered. They are taking a more important role in society.
Mexico is a very traditional country, families are supposed to be sacred and perfect, meaning that they have to correspond to the nuclear family model. But I think there’s been a big change: People have started to accept that this is not anymore the only way to be happy. You know, gay marriages are now allowed in Mexico and single motherhood is also possible without marriage, even, through insemination. People make different choices in order to seek happiness.
MM: How did you encourage your actors to get to know each other before the shooting, and how did this experience contribute to their work on set?
MF: They read the script, we sat down and discussed it before the shooting, and I took into account everyone’s comments and points of view. Since I shoot chronologically, I keep the locations for the whole duration of the shooting. I rented the house in Puerto Vallarta for a longer term. A week before the shooting, instead of rehearsing, I just let my three actresses to be alone there. The key element was to make them comfortable, make them feel like living in this house as a family. I didn’t even feed them, they had to cook for themselves. I told them, “If you want to paint a wall, do it. Do whatever you want, because it’s your home.” I think it shows in the movie that they developed a strong relationship as mother and daughters. Also, the young actresses lost their anxiety of working with Emma who is a lot more experienced.
MM: What camera and what lenses did you shoot this film on?
MF: We shot on the RED Weapon. To be honest, as a producer I fought a lot more for the lenses than for the camera. We used Leica lenses. The beauty of this optical system is that it makes the image a bit out of focus at some point, because the lenses are not perfect. So you get an image that reminds you of 35mm a lot more than the perfect, sharp-edged HD look that many movies get nowadays.
MM: How did you achieve this compellingly natural look?
MF: Our DP, Yves Cape, is very good at utilizing natural light. He set up some lighting only for the scenes we shot inside the house. Other than that, when we made long outdoor takes and the camera was moving around, we used natural lights. Then again, in some scenes while shooting against the sea, the DP was doing a double exposure, one for the background, one for the actors. And then in post-production, he compiled the two images. I do miss shooting on 35mm but on the other hand, on film we wouldn’t be able to make scenes like this. Besides I do sometimes 25 takes per scene, on film that would be impossible.
MM: You’ve had significant stylistic changes throughout your career. Can you elaborate on that?
MF: I think my first four movies were very similar. I used static shots. But I didn’t think April’s Daughter would require that as the subject matter was very different, and it also had a feminine aspect. You know, the story of all my previous movies started with a very developed conflict, but this one begins with different energies. Including four angles in the screenplay sounds like a simple thing, but it was tricky. It made the movie complicated. I thought the screenplay demanded that the camera move around a little more and follow the actors. Other than that, I didn’t want the audience to have a hard time. I wanted to connect with them. Now I’m loosening up a little bit but that doesn’t necessarily mean that my films will go in a certain direction. We’ll see about every movie. MM