Primal Screaming - an interview with Damián Szifrón

Not only do the Mexicans seem to be holding a curious monopoly over Oscars in recent years, hardly a year passes when an Argentine film is not in the running for Best Film in a Foreign Language. This year it was the turn of Daniel Szifrén's series of short stories in 'Wild Tales', each recounting what happens when normal citizens fail to observe usual self restraint and go beyond the tipping point of acceptable behaviour. We caught up with the Argentine director, in London to promote the film's release, to talk about modern stress and humour and tragedy in human behaviour.
Sofia Mercader

It is almost 7pm in the Charlotte Street Hotel, a week before the Oscars, and what looks like an overgown teenager in a checked shirt and puffer jacket saunters into the hotel's private screening room. The boy is Oscar nominated Director Damián Szifrón. He is followed by the Director of the Oscars Academy for Europe, Carola Ash, the Argentine Ambassador, Alicia Castro, and a handful of film critics. “I am very happy today”, announces the British film critic Ian Haydn Smith “Usually, when I am introducing an Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Film I do so half apologetically due to their usual grim nature. I don’t have to apologize for this film: I promise, you will have so much fun.”

Wild Tales is Szifrón’s third film. He directed El fondo del mar (The Bottom of the Sea) in 2003, and Tiempo de Valientes (On Probation) in 2005, but his most acclaimed work is Los Simuladores (The Pretenders) a TV series he created in 2002. The show was very successful in Argentina and shown in many other countries, including Chile, México and Russia. But it is not until now, with Wild Tales winning several international prizes, including an Academy Awards nomination for best foreign language film, that his name has become tossed around the international film scene.

Wild Tales is a composium of seemingly unrelated short films: a man who gets together every person who bullied him on a plane, a waitress who meets the man who destroyed her family, a fight between two men on the roadside, an engineer desperately stuck in bureaucracy, a millionaire’s son who kills someone at a car accident and a bride who discovers the worst news on her wedding day. The tensions throughout these episodes are perfectly constructed, and the economy of the arguments resembles some classic tales, that in the end are more related than they first seem.

Daniel was in London to present Wild Tales along with the producers Hugo Sigman and Matías Mosteirín to critics and journalists, ahead of the film’s release next month. He talked with passion about his work, about his influences and about Wild Tales’s success.

Have you been surprised by the way that audiences around the world reacted to the film?

“We are very surprised. The film was huge in Argentina, but also during Cannes’ week it was sold all over the world, in three or four days after the first screenings, and it’s being released in many countries. We started in the main competition and we are ending this journey with the nomination for the Oscars. So yes, we are surprised”

Wild Tales is composed of six different stories, a form that is somewhat unusual for the cinema industry. In the UK a filmmaker would have problems to get funding for a film of short stories. How much problem did you have?

“I didn’t know what to do with these stories, I wrote them for pleasure and fun, to take them out of my head and be able to do other stuff. But as soon as I wrote the third one, or the fourth one I could tell that they were connected thematically and that all of the stories came from the same DNA, so I understood that there was something bigger than each one of the stories. And I gave them to Hugo Sigman because we were making other films together. He read the stories and he told me: ‘You should make this right now.’ He is a psychiatrist…. (Laughs)

Usually an anthology is a producer’s idea, who calls four or five directors and each of them works separately and then you mix all of the stories and there is no honest connection there. Sometimes they are uneven, or disconnected from each other, and you like one better than the other. But as a viewer, I feel attracted to something like this, if the same person directs it, if there is somebody controlling the energy of the whole thing. When somebody believes in the whole thing and it’s directing everything, I like it.”

It has been said that the characters in the stories represent the outrage simmering underneath social relations in capitalist societies. Some other critics have said that this is a representative film of violence in Argentina’s society. Do you think there is something about this moment in time or about Argentina in these stories?

“I do, but if you look at history every country and society has had its craziness. We’ve all had wars before and we had corruption before. I think globally people are living under a lot of stress and having to deal with systems that they feel are making their lives difficult and trying to rip them off. Probably now a lot of people don’t believe anymore in this system. They have this feeling that this is not created or designed for our benefit. Whether its isolated outbursts of violence or revolutions, the feeling behind it is for me is very primal, because we are talking about man against the system (in the story about the man and the tow truck), and there can be stories like this in another time or country: the betrayal between man and the woman, and competition between two men, or the story about the plane and the desire of revenge. Probably the episode of the rich father, who tries to protect his son from jail, describes more Argentina or Latin America than, let’s say, the UK or the US, but only in the form that that particular corruption takes.”

The movie could have quite easily played up the humour, but it constantly wrong foots what you are thinking. In the same way the film doesn't moralize and it constantly leaves you guessing.

“I think that a lot of layers are going on at the same time, and I didn’t shoot it as a comedy and the actors, they were not working in a comedy. I feel that the humour that you feel sometimes is a consequence of these characters reacting where most of us would repress. Repression is drama, drama is when something very bad happens to you and there is nothing to do about it. That is the basic nightmare: to be unable to move, to react, and to do something. In a lot of situations most of us would stay calm, we are trained to repress extreme emotions; we dream of doing things, but we don’t do them. But that repression has a high cost for our consciousness, and sometimes you see crazy people who are still discussing thing that happened years before, they keep thinking ‘I should have done this’. Here you have some characters that explode; they react. And I think that you laugh because you connect to the pleasure of the reaction towards abuse of power, bureaucracy, corruption, infidelity...You are in the journey with them.”

Another outstanding thing about the movie is the particular reactions it provokes in the audiences; from laughter to fear, from exaltation to self-identification, the film constantly captures the attention of the viewer. How would you describe your creative process?

“I write for the screen, that is the medium I’m comfortable in. When I write I think in terms of images, music, characters, dialogues. I truly enjoy ALL the elements of the mise en scène. When I see ‘Directed by…’ ‘Edited by…’ ‘Written by…’ I would just put ‘Done by.’ Because for me it is a single work. When I'm writing, I'm thinking in terms of images.

Sometimes I feel like a musician, when I write, for me it is very wild: I wake up in the middle of the night because I have an idea, or because I had a dream, and I put it on paper. I like to write with my hands more than in the computer, or I write in the middle of the night with the music very loud. Everything is improvised and it looks very fresh. But when I go to the film set, I want to recreate that wildness that I felt.  Then I try obsessively to think of what I imagined or conceived.”

You’ve written screenplays for TV and cinema and I was wondering if at any point when you are developing these ideas have you ever said, “Maybe this is something I would like to publish”

“With this film I felt connected to the first books I read as a child, there is something of the literature that it feels more related to this film than to other films, perhaps. I remember reading these anthologies called The Master Tales: Master Tales of Horror, Master Tales of Suspense, etc. I remember looking at the indexes with a lot of fascination, all those titles together in the same book, and each of them was developed in fifteen pages; shorts stories by Maupassant, Poe, Borges, Chesterton. Or Salinger’s Nine Stories and Truman Capote. I think that when I created these stories in a way I was thinking of that. The DNA of this film belongs more to literature than to films. But I wrote it as a film.”

Wild Tales will be out on General release in March 25th

Wild Tales (2014) Trailer - Brilliant Argentinian Anthology Film (English subtitles)