In a noisy world, Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas makes cinema centered on presence.
In that presence, something much bigger occurs beyond the topographically satisfying plotlines and homogenized aesthetics of film and television today. In the present, life happens. While many see his films as maddeningly withholding, Reygadas’ generosity with time, rhythm, space, and beauty gets to the core of humanity in all its profundity and folly. On the occasion of his latest film, Our Time, an imperfect work about the fraying of a marriage by cuckoldry, Reygadas discusses his daily routine in the deep outskirts of Mexico City, his filmmaking process, thoughts on marriage and morals, and the function of cinema.
Christine Haroutounian, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): I found that one of the most captivating aspects of the film was being immersed in your amazing world in the Mexican countryside. The experience of watching Our Time makes it hard not to conflate your life and your art, so I want to start with a very simple question: what do you do every day?
Carlos Reygadas (CR): I live in the countryside, but not in the place where you see in Our Time, which some people assume. I live in the house where I shot Post Tenebras Lux. Basically, I always like to do a couple of hours of physical work. I always do some gardening. We plant a lot of trees and we make sure that the canopies in the countryside are in harmony. I also do a lot of construction when I’m not shooting, so I go and work with the workers and depending on the kind of work I have, I get more or less involved physically. And then I usually go to the computer and it’s the part that I enjoy the least, which is the bloody emails. Then I have time to write usually and I write for three or four hours before my children come back from school. We’re together and then I write for a couple more hours and then I stop. I usually never work after five. Then I just walk around or I read and then I play badminton with my children. At night, I feed my dogs and I read a little more or watch a film and then go to bed. That’s more or less what I do.
MM: What do you write?
CR: I write down ideas for new films. Right now, I’m writing some theoretical ideas on cinema, very varied sort of things. Recently, I decided that I have to write ideas of my work. I needed to put them down and I don’t know what I will ever do with them, it’s more like developing certain ideas that I express in my interviews or Q&As that sometimes seem too abstract. I realize I need to clarify certain ideas. My wife convinced me to do this because she has heard me many times and she says that very rarely do I fully develop what I’m trying to say.
MM: It can be challenging to talk about your work which is so much about experience. From what I’ve read, it’s almost like a subconscious process for you until you’re able to look back on the film.
CR: This is what I find the most interesting thing to do as a filmmaker and the one I enjoy the most as a film viewer. It’s when a film lets me be transported to another world that is unknown to me, and I can really see the presence of things, emotions, and life itself, rather than information that represents whatever it needs to represent at a level of signification so a story can be told. I find it much more interesting to be able to see life rather than being told a story. I’ve heard of a lot of people, especially confused critics, that want to be told stories. When they’re not told stories, they get bored. They cannot observe and they cannot be taken in by just observing and being there. That’s not enough for them. They want to be told the story. But for me, it’s exactly the opposite of what is most interesting.
MM: I watched Our Time at AFI Fest on Hollywood Blvd., and the stark contrast between where I was watching it versus the world that you come from was powerful. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s cinema in that it requires many viewings to grasp or even remember parts of it. It’s like you’re in the room watching the film, but you’re also elsewhere. How do you achieve this conceptually and technically?
CR: When you feel powerfully for the places, people, objects, and time you are going to shoot, you let them come through into the camera. Everything that you capture in your sound device and camera will not be just a tool. It will be something more meaningful for you as a filmmaker and for everyone who sees the film and manages to connect. The clue in what you’re asking is time. It is to be able to be at the right place and be able to become humble and passive at the time of the actual capturing of life. That’s a very interesting point in cinema that we’re not used to, in fiction, in constructive cinema. My cinema is about pre-visualization and everything is constructed. But there’s a point when you are shooting when this process—that is will-driven or ego-driven—transforms into completely the opposite. You have to be completely calm like a fisherman. The moment the fish are fumbling around the end of the line, you just have to be still and let things happen. At that point, you have to be ready to trap and know what to leave out and to discriminate what it is that you have to keep for your film.
If you saw how I write my screenplays and how I design the storyboards and then see my films you would probably think that my films are fixed and not very alive because everything resembles the original design. The truth is that, because we are shooting on location with real people (not actors), and there are so many things that are not controlled, there’s always new information coming into the film that I don’t produce, but I capture. This is why I think, in opposition to some filmmakers that [believe] a film is always less good than what you had in your mind. I believe Orson Welles talked a lot about that. For me it’s exactly the opposite—a film should always be much better than whatever any human mind can think of. The power of reality, of life, is something that goes far beyond any human minds.
MM: You work with your wife Natalia who is an editor and has cut Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux, among other films. Can you talk more about working with her?
CR: In the editing room, there’s a three-process procedure. One, and the most important, is to put all the material together in the right rhythm. So it’s a place where the final rhythm is fixed. In opposition to what I’ve heard so many times, the main rhythm will be defined by the camera. The way you make the shots is what is going to define your rhythm. But here is the fine tuning of rhythm. The second thing would be like a garbage can: it’s the time when you drop the things that don’t work, which is always something that happens in cinema. No matter how many people may read the screenplay, no matter how many times you visualize a film, there’s always certain things that are in excess that you have to drop. The third part of the procedure would be something like the hospital, a place where there are certain things that you shot that you need to have in the film because they are constitutive of the whole mechanism of the film but are not very good. You need to find a way to make them work in the best possible way. Sometimes in the editing room, you find good solutions for this, sometimes even better ideas than the original. My wife is especially good for the first of these processes. She feels like a musician and knows when a shot is a second too long or short.
MM: Why did you edit Our Time and what was that experience like?
CR: I’m not credited [in other films] because then I’d have credits in all the departments, but I’ve edited my films since the beginning. I’m very used to editing in the way I make cinema, which is a pre-visualization method, where the film is constructed in camera rather than in the editing room, so it makes sense that I cut it myself. When you’re the kind of filmmaker that pre-visualizes shot by shot—and they all work as a system—you cannot change the position of each one of them because they are designed as a system, as a sequence of shots. You are the one who knows how they work together. I did it this time because the shooting was so long that no one else wanted to be with me for so many months editing there in the countryside. Not even my wife!
MM: In response to Our Time, many critics have asked, why couldn’t Juan just call it off [the open marriage]? These things happen all the time, yet I find that you’re criticized for showing these truthful aspects of modern life and human nature in your films. Considering this contrast of perspective, what is the function of cinema to you?
CR: It’s true what you’re saying. I’ve been reading some of the reviews and it’s like they were written by Kant or something, like white people living in a monastery thinking about very high moral standards, like all this was so extreme and foreign to them. It’s probably just very closely connected to the Calvinist approach to life where everything is about what you show, not what you really are. I’ve also heard, especially in the U.S., this concept of oversharing, which is so pathetic. Isn’t the ultimate goal of art to incarnate your life in your work? So how could you overshare? It seems to me to be so hypocritical that there’s a limit. It’s so bourgeois–this you can show, but you don’t show your bedroom to others. Just show your living room. Who says what the limit is? I don’t understand why so many people seem to have a problem with that. The fact that there’s no moral is very disturbing to many people, but not for moralistic reasons. What people really can’t stand is that not having a moral takes you out of the concept of classical cinema with clearly defined conflict, clearly defined characters, and clearly defined morals.
MM: Aside from the taboo subject matter which will always elicit that type of response, I think that a lot of the reviews of Our Time are preoccupied that you didn’t follow your own cinematic rules so to speak. With this film you use non-diegetic sound, there’s voiceover, you show texts and emails that tell more than what one is used to in your work. But on the flip side, critics claimed that you box yourself in with recurring motifs and landscapes. What are your thoughts on the festival circuit and the film world today and what is expected of you as an auteur? Do you feel like you truly have space for freedom and imperfection?
CR: The space is very limited. Even film festivals that are meant to be vanguardist don’t want these kinds of films, especially the bigger festivals. Things have to be clear cut and defined. The space has been reduced and I feel it, not only in my case, but also for filmmakers who are independent in their language, looking for their own ways and not wanting to submit to the rules. There’s less and less space for this, and there are so many reviewers, especially in the U.S., that are so into television and Hollywood films—of course not just the subject matter, but the whole way the film is presenting itself is something that doesn’t have much room. Films made for presence rather than for drama are not welcomed nowadays. But at the same time, ordinary viewers, like real viewers that come to the screenings think differently. This is the crazy thing! When I hear people talk about the film and the things they see, they are usually so different than the people writing about films, it’s amazing. It’s like the writers have their own standards and rules and they come from a different world than the ones reviewing these kinds of films should come from. MM
Our Time opened in theaters on June 14, 2019, courtesy of Monument Releasing. All images courtesy of Monument Releasing.