It’s not everyday that American audiences see a film depicting a Costa Rican security guard’s purchase of a rooster with hopes of winning big at the cockfighting arena. Ernesto “Neto” Villalobos’s All About the Feathers is a Costa Rican deadpan comedy showing how the aspirations of bored security guard Chalo can bring together an unlikely family in supporting a common goal. Feathers may start as a movie about Chalo and his rooster, but at its core is a warm exploration of the quirks and aspirations possessed by a wide variety of working-class characters.
FilmLinc spoke with Villalobos about finding inspiration, his bold approach to production, and bringing a film about cockfighting to audiences outside of Costa Rica. The film will screen in the Latinbeat series currently underway.
FilmLinc: First of all, I saw your Indiegogo promotional video. I wanted to ask about the financing process, since I noticed in the film that there were many contributors who came together for it.
Neto Villalobos: Yes, it’s because in Costa Rica we don’t have government support of any funds at all. So it took me around five or six years just to lose the fear and find out how to get some money for my film. I won some production funds and some pre-production funds: I got the Ibermedia pre-production fund, then Cinergia, and then I was going to shoot the movie with that money, but I thought, “Why don’t I do a crowdfunding campaign?” So we did the Indiegogo and I asked for $14,000 and they gave me 16 and a half. They were people from all over the world.
I think half of them were Costa Ricans and half of them were from elsewhere, because the website supported the project a lot. They put me in the top 10 pitches of the year on the newsletter, so I got a lot of people to watch the video. And then, when we finished shooting the movie with that money, I didn’t have any money for post-production. So I started to apply to some work-in-progress funds in the festivals and we won at Miami, then we won a prize in Buenos Aires, and then I got another prize from Cinergia.
FL: So it was an ongoing process.
NV: Yeah, it was very complicated. But at the end we had a five-person crew and a very low-budget movie, so we just did it.
FL: A security guard purchases a rooster to participate in cockfighting… where did the inspiration for the story come from?
NV: It was because a real security guard invited me to go to a cockfight arena. So I went. I had never been before [and] it is illegal in Costa Rica. I found out that I didn’t want to make a film about cockfights, because it doesn’t interest me and I didn’t want to make a violent movie or anything like that. I studied sociology before film, so I thought I’d like to do a film about people and I also wanted to make a comedy. My kind of comedy is more deadpan. I started writing and creating the characters, getting inspired by people that I already knew. Practically all of them are non-actors, so I picked them because they look like and feel like the characters I wrote. But they’re even better, so the whole movie was built around reality. It was first the idea, then the script. I went to a lot of workshops and at the end, I threw the script away and just worked with the structure, and then I improvise a lot and I play a lot.
FL: You have quite a few long takes in the film, with static cameras and scenes playing out as conversations between characters. How did that change your approach to directing, especially since you were working with non-actors?
NV: That was one of the reasons I did one shot, or tried to do one shot, per sequence. I couldn’t ask them to repeat themselves a lot of times like, “Now we’re doing the close-up. Now we’re doing this. Now we’re doing that. Can you repeat the same?” because they’re non-actors and they don’t have the tools to do that. That was one of the reasons and the other was that I feel like the world of security guards is a very boring and static world. I was trying to make the audience feel that. I could make this film like a 007 movie, but I didn’t want to at all. I thought that this was a different reality and I didn’t want to make this like an action movie about security guards and cockfights. It’s more like a slow, dry comedy. I felt like the language had to be like that.
FL: Did the actors themselves improvise?
NV: Well, they didn’t have a script. They only read the script once. What we did was I told them, “I need you to talk about this and this, and you start here and finish here.” But I didn’t tell them exactly what they had to say in any sequence. In some sequences I had it really clear in my mind, but in all of them I didn’t want them to memorize dialogue. So there was improvisation with dialogue and also with some sequences that I didn’t write but I saw on the street. We went to a small village 45 minutes from San José to live and to shoot the film. It was a nice thing to do because we were like a small family. We got to see a lot of things happening around us and I had the time to shoot them. Like the sequence when Chalo goes and takes a photograph with the rooster: I didn’t have that in the script. I just saw a place and I thought “I have to shoot something here, so let’s do this.”
FL: How did you find these non-actors?
NV: I made a general casting call in the newspaper and on the radio and I was asking for people who didn’t have any experience but wanted to appear in a film, but did have experience as security guards or something like that. I saw around 300 people and after that, I selected some of them and I started to have some tests and rehearsals. Then, I chose the ones I wanted for the movie. The only actress is the girl who plays Candy. She’s a theater actress, but she also sells Avon in real life [just like her character in the film].
FL: Going back to the visual style of the movie, aside from the acting, but having shot the film the way that you did with these long takes, there are so many atmospheric sounds that really bring the viewer into that world. It’s very accessible to understand what the region is really like. What was your approach to how you established the environment?
NV: It is super fun because when people from Costa Rica watch the movie, they always tell me that it’s how Costa Rica sounds. There are a lot of birds everywhere here and even in the center of the city you can hear birds. You don’t notice it if you’re not looking for it. I remember showing the film outside of Costa Rica and some of the Costa Ricans who live in other places were like, “I really miss Costa Rica, those sounds remind me of it.” I was planning on making a portrait of Costa Rican life. There are a lot of nice places here, like beaches and forests, but I think this is also beautiful: the small things, the destroyed things, and the messed up, crazy Costa Rican stuff.
FL: If you’re using one or two shots for one scene, what was your thought process in how to best demonstrate that scene?
NV: At the beginning when I was planning the movie, I started writing and I was like, “No this has to be in one scene. This has to be in one shot,” and then “Okay maybe two shots.” So I had to make the film the simplest way I can. It was difficult sometimes. I remember a friend of mine, who’s an editor, went to the set. I used to have one free day each week, so that day I started to watch the material, view dailies, and edit. He went there and was like, “Why are you doing this? This is crazy. This is not the way they told you to do it in school.” And I said, “I don’t know, I just felt like I had to do it that way.” “But you’re not going to be able to edit the movie because you can only cut in the beginning or at the end of the shot.” There are no jump-cuts and I didn’t shoot masters, close-ups, and then details, and all of that. I just did one shot. It was like building a scene and building the rhythm of the shot in the place and also trying to think that the rhythm of this has to work with the rhythm of the entire movie. So it was more like a bet.
FL: The film has played in festivals across the globe. The subject of cockfighting is known as more of a Latin American occurrence, as opposed to in America or Europe. How do you think your film, which doesn’t explicitly display this subject matter, reads to audiences from other areas?
NV: It’s complicated because in Costa Rica when people hear the word “cockfight,” they don’t want to see the film, even when you tell them that it’s not about cockfights, it’s a comedy. I think foreign audiences are more open-minded to watch the film because they’re going to think that it’s in a certain festival and they aren’t going to show a bloody, violent cockfight scene. But, I think there are a lot of people who don’t want to see the movie because they think it’s going to be about that.
FL: There’s quite a lot of comedy in the film, but it is not driven by punch lines. How would you work with your actors to establish this deadpan comedy? What was your mentality toward the tone of the film?
NV: I think the most important thing about being funny is not trying to be funny. Usually when people try to be really funny, they don’t succeed. So, I picked some characters and wrote some scenes that made me laugh. At the end, I didn’t decide to write a film, or do anything, for the audience or what I think will make them laugh. I just try to write what I think will make me laugh. So if I’m shooting a scene and I enjoy it, and my crew likes it, I think it’ll be okay. I was really afraid while editing the movie because I thought it wasn’t going to work in Costa Rica or outside Costa Rica because this is just in my mind. But then I realized that the more personal it is, the more universal it is at the same time.
FL: When you bring your film to America, is there any hope that you may portray Costa Rica in a certain way or convey a specific message?
NV: It was fun because I was portraying Costa Rica, but I was also portraying my own personality. Usually when you make a film in Costa Rica, it can work here. But if it works here, then it doesn’t work outside. With films that work in foreign festivals, they usually don’t work in Costa Rica because Costa Ricans don’t like to see those kinds of movies, like independent or art house films. I thought All About the Feathers is not any of those cases. I thought it wasn’t a very artsy movie and it wasn’t a very traditional movie for Costa Ricans, so I didn’t know where it was going to work. When they invited me to Miami to show my first cut and they liked the film, I thought, “Okay, it works outside, so it’s not going to work in Costa Rica.” And then when the movie was finished and I had the premiere here, it worked here. I thought, “So the movie works everywhere because of different reasons." In Costa Rica it worked because they feel that it’s a portrait of characters that we all see every day and usually people don’t make films about them. Plus it’s not any kind of pity movie. Outside, I think it worked because it’s also a movie about friendship and feelings. It was nice to see German, Swedish, or Spanish people feeling the movie and being touched by the story. Even though they didn’t understand what the character of Jasón says, they understand the essence of it. They don’t understand the land, but they understand the general atmosphere and feeling. I think it’s one of those things about being human and being in another region.
FL: There are a couple references to American cinema in your movie, such as naming the rooster Rocky and when one of the characters tries to shoot a gun like John Wayne. What kind of influence does American cinema have on Costa Rica?
NV: I think for the whole world, American movies have a lot of influence. They only show American movies in Costa Rica, but more action movies and fantasy. Actually, my whole background is in the Golden Age of film in the U.S.: Westerns, film noir, silent film, all of that. I love those films. I really like John Huston, Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and a lot of other American directors. It’s a big influence.
FL: Any plans for a next step? Another feature?
NV: I’m working two films right now. One is called Majijo, which is what they call people who have harelips in Costa Rica. It’s a movie about motorcycle messengers and one of them has a harelip. In the ’70s and ’80s, people used to make a lot of jokes about the way they talk, so I’m trying to change that and make another movie portraying San José and portraying the jobs and lives that these motorcycle messengers live.
I’m also shooting a film right now, which is called Jamon. I shoot for one day each month and I’m trying to shoot it for five or 10 years, I don’t know how long it is going to take me. I’m working with a young couple that just started dating and are in love right now. So I want to make a film about love with real people and tell it through time. I’m going to continue working with them in separate ways or if they get married. The theme of the project is love, the way we see love, and the way we feel about relationships.
FL: Are there any words you’d like to say to potential American audiences who come see your film at Latinbeat?
NV: I think it’s the only deadpan comedy they’re showing at Latinbeat. If they want to see something different, if they want to see something from Costa Rica, they definitely should come see it. They told me once in another festival that it’s a film about a guy who’s obsessed with his cock, so I think that’s a very good logline to give to people.