Leonardo Goi sat down to talk to Mexican director Michel Franco about his powerful set of films, since his directing debut in 2009 with Daniel y Ana.
Michel Franco is a 36 year-old Mexican screenplay writer, producer and director. After his 2009 directing debut, Daniel y Ana, he won Cannes’ 2012 Un Certain Regard award for his second work, Después de Lucía and went on to win best screenplay for his 2015 Chronic, starring Tim Roth. A few weeks ago another one of Franco’s works, A Los Ojos, was finally screened for the first time across Mexico’s cinemas, a belated celebration for a movie he had presented in 2013 at Morelia’s Film Festival and co-directed with his sister Victoria.
Why did you choose to share your camera with someone else, and how was it working with your sister?
I liked the idea of combining my sister’s documentarist vision with my own, which is much more oriented towards fiction. To be sure, the idea came with a number of challenges attached, both on an aesthetic and on a content point of view. We had the privilege of working with a great actress, Mónica del Carmen, as well as with several homeless kids who had never acted before, and our goal was to make sure they would feel just as spontaneous in front of the camera as Mónica. My sister and I have a very similar film taste, and this allowed us, after long chats, to reach an agreement over how we wanted the story to be filmed. Merging together fiction with reality, so to speak.
How did you find working with non-professional actors, especially kids suffering from dire poverty as those you chose as part of A Los Ojos’ cast?
We were helped by a local organisation, Casa Alianza, with years of experience working with street kids. Casa Alianza was there to help us establish a connection with the kids, and we ended up following the social worker’s approach: we would begin talking with the kids, explain them our story and our goals, and eventually got them to be relaxed and spontaneous around the camera. This was a very long process which my sister oversaw, whilst I worked on the story’s more fictitious elements. Mónica del Carmen herself played a key role in these early stages, earning the kids’ trust and fostering the legitimacy and meaning of our presence around them
Elsewhere you mentioned that A Los Ojos’ screenplay was “created” on the spot, meaning that you did not have a set text upon which you based your scenes. Those familiar with your work and the attention you put into writing might find this a puzzling choice. Why did you choose to work with a seemingly improvised script?
We had a very clear storyline we wanted to follow, but we did not want to somehow “impose” a set of dialogues to our actors, professional or non professional. That was especially the case for Benjamin, the young drug-addict whom Mónica will take care of in the film. We did not want the boy to feel constrained when he would tell his story, we did not want his tale to follow a trajectory we had previously defined. So whenever he speaks about his own experiences and his own past he does so freely, and the same happened with the exchanges between him and Mónica’s son, Omar. The friendship that the audience sees building between the two on the screen is real – all we did was just film the chemistry which soon developed between the kids. That’s what I mean when I say we did not work with a fixed screenplay: we had four written pages, a clearly defined storyline, and nothing else.
A trade mark of your directing style is the choice to keep the camera fixed, which allows you to blur even further the boundary between documentary and fiction…
I like the technique because it allows me to leave it up to the viewer which elements of the scenes he can concentrate on. I don’t want to tell him what to focus on, I don’t want to guide his attention by constantly changing frames. Which is more or less the same reason why you’ll never hear music in my films, and very few dialogues. I look for the purest and most direct way to generate emotions in the audience, without manipulating their reactions in order to achieve this. My aim is to elicit an emotional response from the viewer in the most transparent way possible.
There’s a leitmotiv which spans from your first film, Daniel y Ana (2009) to your 2012 Cannes triumph, Después de Lucía: public shame. What is it about it that fascinates you?
I like to focus on human relations, on the intimate connections that emerge and die in our families and outside of them, the way people relate with the outside world and how they project themselves into it, especially when this is something performed by adolescents. I think these are dilemmas which concern their age group more than any other. I like to talk about the difficulties we face when we try to establish a connection with other people, regardless of our educational background or culture. Sometimes the easiest things are the most difficult ones.
In 2012 you won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard award, and it was there that you first met Tim Roth. How did you find working with him in Chronic and how did the film’s production come along?
We were very lucky to be able to work with people we were already familiar with – the Mexican crew of Lucia Films, other Mexicans in the States, and my New York-based casting director – and people we soon established a great chemistry with – Tim Roth’s own entourage. We made a movie that was co-produced between France and Mexico and spoken entirely in English, which of course presented its own challenges. And Tim Roth too was key in these first, pre-production stages.
In Chronic you show the last days of several terminally ill patients. How did you find it working on such a delicate theme, and what is it that piques your curiosity about the idea of illness and death?
I must warn you that the only actor with a real medical condition was the teenager in a wheelchair who makes his appearance towards the end of the movie, one of Roth’s last patients. Except for him, the other members of the cast were all actors, including the first terminally ill girl Roth will take care of, who accepted to lose a lot of weight just to take part in the movie. As for the theme itself, I am fascinated by the vulnerability of our human nature, and the fragility which illnesses unveil as a somewhat inescapable fate. As a director I find it impossible to escape the topic of death, and I like the idea of being able to talk about how much it can teach us about life. I believe cinema is a great means to convey these messages.
Your stories develop as icebergs, of which the audience can only see the top, and the rest is up for us to imagine and intuit, so that one must concentrate on silences as much as words. How do you go about choosing the stories that you then turn into movies, and how does your writing stage unfold?
More than a story, what really interests me is a big theme. In the case of Chronic, I wanted to come up with a character as psychologically complex as possible. And that is how I go about writing my screenplays: I first start with a theme, or a character, trying to say a great deal of things with very few words to establish a dialogue with my audience. After all, cinema is first and foremost a constant interaction between a director and his public. The most difficult part of making a film is writing it, and knowing what to do with one’s story. I normally write, direct and ultimately produce my own movies, so a screenplay is the backbone of my work. But whenever I need to decide whether or not to embark on a new project the question I must ask myself is whether or not the topic will still interest me in two or three years’ time, and whether the public too will find it a theme worth knowing more about. That’s why the stories I film are almost all universal tales – things that ultimately concern us all.