Director Alejandro Landes and I envisioned Monos as a subjective war fable. We wanted to create an intense, intimate, and sensory experience—a fever dream channeled through the perspective and emotions of a strange group of kid soldiers who watch over their American hostage (Julianne Nicholson).
The film starts high above the clouds on a hilltop and quickly delves deep into the South American jungle—two extremely confined spaces that act as both our characters’ natural habitat and their natural prison.
Fittingly, Monos owes a debt to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Elem Klimov’s Come and See, a plethora of still photography known for its diaristic quality (such as the work of Bill Henson, Jim Goldberg, and Tim Hetherington), and Henri Rousseau, whose paintings heavily in influenced our understanding of the jungle.
The bunker where these soldiers reside sits atop the Páramo de Chingaza—a 4,020-meter mountain in the Eastern Ranges of the Colombian Andes that’s beautiful, yet rough and cold and feels as if it exists in another world. The altitude was of course a factor and the weather was capricious, changing quickly between sun, rain, and fog.
The jungle was the opposite: a hot, humid, and dense area of Antioquia, Colombia that surrounds the Samaná Norte River’s wild stream. The brutal conditions and inaccessibility of both locations prevented them from ever going before cameras… until now.
From the moment I read Alejandro and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos’ script, I was completely taken with its exciting cinematic possibilities. Alejandro and I shot-listed the whole film up front, which established a great creative synergy between us that we maintained throughout our shoot. Besides being well-prepared, we wanted to be bold, fearless, sharp, and spontaneous—to be open to the realities of the moment, and to adapt whenever we saw opportunities to improve the material.
Defining Monos’ visual identity began with camera movement. We decided that the aforementioned river—with both its unique flow and the symbolic power of water—would be our iconic motif, the spirit of the film around which our camera moves and pacing would be centered.
We wanted Monos to be a sensory experience—to create a feeling within audiences of being physically present in each scene in a hyperrealistic way. To capture this heightened tone, we shot in wide-angle CinemaScope, which added an epic dimension to the oddly fascinating behavior of the soldiers. This shooting scheme also added a sense of weight to the harsh environment in which they’re placed, and even to their abstract set of values. Because the film treats this group of soldiers as one character in itself, we wanted our camera to be an omniscient observer of the group—not quite a human presence, but instead like a spirit, all-seeing and all-knowing, with its own conscience and point of view.
One key to this approach was our extensive use of long takes during dramatically significant moments. Initially, we thought we’d lean in the direction of using a Steadicam for these shots, but we reconsidered and ultimately decided to shoot almost all of our camera movements with a Movi. It was also important to me that I operate and frame the film myself—not only to be exacting and instinctive with my composition, but also to be as close to, and connected with, our actors as possible. I needed to be there with them, to absorb their energy as it radiated through their eyes and bodies, to capture all the intimate nuances of performance.
Midway through Monos, the soldiers leave their bunker and their story continues as we move straight into the jungle. (The use of this elliptical storytelling device at such an important transitional moment in the film was laid out in the script.) We designed two long takes for this scene to be stitched together with a wipe through a plastic sheet that hangs in the entrance of the bunker. The length of the take (about 12 minutes), the timing of the transition, and the shots’ multiple shifts in perspective all made the sequence especially memorable.
The Movi paired well with the Alexa Mini, and also pulled double duty as a stabilized remote head. Our grip custom-built a lightweight crane from aluminum pipes, which was easily portable even on the most remote locations. It traveled with us deep into the jungle on the back of a donkey and was even compact enough to stow on a raft when it came time to set up shots of the river. We initially planned to shoot Monos in 35mm anamorphic. This felt like the right choice when considering how the format portrays faces and captures harsh contrast, dynamic light conditions, and the colors and textures of natural formations (especially the green hues of the jungle). But after assessing the logistics and taking into account the fact that we would be shooting a great deal of footage, we decided to shoot digitally with the ARRI Alexa Mini.
Imbuing Monos with our desired aesthetic—timeless yet futuristic, even post-apocalyptic—required a lens that would feel uniquely modern. I eventually chose the Hawk Vantage One, which I particularly liked because of its outstanding rendering of skin tones. I like to shoot at low light levels and change the character of the lens depending on which stop you use, and the Vantage One has an amazing close focus range that I knew I’d take advantage of frequently. And when completely opened, the lens also becomes very impressionistic, which was a perfect match for the film’s hyperrealist style.
For our lighting, we aimed to capture the quality of natural sources by shaping light with negative ll—a technique used to cut any light that’s bouncing back into the shadows or fill the side of a shot. Interiors (like the bunker) and nighttime exteriors, on the other hand, required more practical lights: torches, army lights, neons, interior fluorescents, and even flame bars to supplement our fire fight sequence.
Monos is surely the most extreme film I’ve ever shot, but also the one that’s dearest to me. Alejandro is an incredible moviemaker, always inspiring you as he takes you along on his journey. I can’t wait for us to go on another one.
Arri ALEXA Mini
Hawk Vantage One Lenses T1
Angenieux Zoom 24-290mm T2.8
Colorist Laurens Orij @ Crabsalad
Monos opens in theaters September 13, 2019, courtesy of NEON. All images courtesy of NEON. Featured image: Wolfpack: DP Jasper Wolf (C) and his crewmembers gear up to shoot Monos in the Colombian jungle. This article appears in Moviemaker‘s Summer 2019 issue.