Strange Capers: Wordplay with Matías Piñeiro


Matías Piñeiro at New Directors/New Films. Photo: Samantha Thomas

Among the diverse array of films on offer, this year's Latinbeat film festival will feature a special spotlight on the exciting work of young Argentinean director Matías Piñeiro. His films The Stolen Man and They All Lie will be screening this weekend, while his most recent film, Viola (ND/NF '13), will be playing with the short Rosalinda in an extended theatrical run starting Friday. His talky, female-centric films explore theater and literature, using the works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (Argentina's seventh president) and William Shakespeare.

The filmmaker, who currently resides in New York, spoke with FilmLinc Daily about filming the supposedly uncinematic, his process of creating a film, and the challenges and creativity of the act of translation.

Your films often focus on written texts and on theater. Those are generally seen as uncinematic art forms. So, what was it that made you interested in exploring that through film specifically?

Because I think the opposite.  I think the cinema is more generous than that. I think that cinema is open to the world, and it’s open to all the different stages that are in the world, like the course of a river, the face of a lady, and the text of a novel. Everything can be included in a film in a way. I think that cinema, somehow mixes everything that’s in the world. You have a camera, you are objectively capturing things, how someone talks, how someone hears, how someone moves, and then you mix it all in order to produce a film - a fiction in my case. So, I try to capture these elements with my objective camera and, in a peculiar way, that becomes subjective and you work out a narrative from that. It’s the fuel. I think these materials, like theater and literature are the fuel for my fictions. Andre Bazin, the theorist, talks about his theory of an impure cinema – that cinema is all about impurity, about the idea that you can see new forms of telling a story in cinema through putting yourself in contact with other arts. And I like this, it gives me a certain freedom that cinema’s not only one thing. That’s why that book’s called What Is Cinema? Because the nice thing is to keep the question open, and each filmmaker will leave an answer.  My thing is to keep that question open and not limit what cinema is and what it is not. It seems a little bit like a policeman, instead of a filmmaker, you know? Saying what is and what is not.

Your work has been compared to Rohmer and Rivette, and Rosalinda and They All Lie have some references to Renoir. Do you find a particular kinship with French film? What sort of films do you find influence you?

I try not to think in national terms because those limits are less interesting. You can have a Godard, who is great, but at the same time you can have another filmmaker who’s also French, but that you don’t like. So, I don’t care much about the nationality. I do care about the sensuality and the intelligence and the keenness of the bond that I can establish with them in a very personal way. It means that it connects with what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what happened to you, and so on.

But then I like a lot of films, I like a lot of filmmakers. I like a lot of American filmmakers, I like a lot of Italian filmmakers, I like Argentine filmmakers – I find that I like a lot of things. But at the same time, I think one learns lessons while watching films. So, when I saw Cassavetes, I learned certain lessons. I see things there, and I wonder, how did he produce these? How did he compose this? How was this frame possible to achieve? How was this moment possible to achieve? So, watching a film poses questions. How does Garrel deal with this? And why does it say something to me?


A scene from Viola.

Your films have an improvisatory feeling to them. How strictly do you follow the script? Do you find the structure in the editing, or are you sure of it ahead of time?

I think it’s a mix of everything, but we always start with something very fixed and very structured. I write my films myself and, as soon as I write them, I’m there to shoot them. I don’t have scripts in a drawer. For example, I’m shooting in August and still writing the new script. So, things go very fast. I think that this closeness with the actual shooting gives a sort of freshness or a nerve maybe. I’m not that relaxed that I don’t have the script finished yet! I want to have it finished and give it to the actors and talk about it and discuss it and change it and make it better. So, it’s very strict, but then I rehearse and I put it in contact with the people who are helping me – the DP, the actors, the producer – and they help me to make it better. And I try to include them in the process, and they put themselves in the process and everything adapts itself. And then something is captured, and then you can like or not like that. And then there’s the editing – Alejo Moguillansky is the editor, and he’s also a great filmmaker. He helps me a lot, and many things are transformed. And when I shoot we do think of framing a lot. In each instance, we think a lot, but then we try to bring some air to it, to allow us to change things in the present tense. Like, when we are shooting, even though we have a script, things can change and to leave that open makes you nervous, but it brings some air to the thing.

There’s a common style among your actors – a sort of restraint that lends itself to the ambiguity of your films. Did you cultivate that style, or did you choose actors that fit the style?

I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that I like them because of that and they think similar to me in that way because they don’t hate to do what they do. I saw them and I liked them because of something that I have within me. Sometimes I think that our heartbeat has the same pace and I like to work with the actors and crew that somehow there’s something that – we’re in synch in a way. And then the script has a tone, and I have been working on that tone for the five films for which we have been together. So, we’ve been polishing it. I think that from one film to the other, we polish that style, and I try to keep that polish in the next one. And they work together too, in the theater, that’s something they bring. So, they know each other. It’s not strange for them to be together. It’s not that they have a company, but most of them are somehow friends, some of them are very close, some others just know each other. So, it’s like a little bit of a community there, but it’s not rigid. It’s very porous. Like a constellation that moves.

None of your films use non-diegetic sound. Did you ever consider scoring your films? How do you feel you can control tone and pace and rhythm without music?

Because of the words. I tend to like the movement of the camera, the actor exiting, the other one entering, the word, the thing, the sound – there’s a pace there, and I think the music would be like painting with a brush with too much paint. But I think that I shouldn’t be so stubborn. Sometimes good thick brushes can be good. But I think that you have to be choosy there. I know that I haven’t done it, so that gives me a lot of desire to do it. So, in my next film, I want to do it. I even want to start with it. But I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to do it. We’ll see what happens. I like that the world will provide the sounds and rhythm by itself and you compose that. Putting in that dramatic music would kill it. It would be like grabbing the face of the spectator and shaking it too much. And I’m not that fond of that. Without music, you can think a little bit different, or think something I hadn’t even thought. So, I like when things give you the space to think about your own things. Iit’s kind of very artificial in a very bad way. It’s very insensitive, it kills your sensibility. So, I try to control that.


Matías Piñeiro at New Directors/New Films. Photo: Samantha Thomas

Even without a score as such you do use a lot of music in your films. How do you feel music functions in your films?

I like to see people playing music much more than listening to music. It provides a true act to be done in front of the camera. It’s like shooting a game – you shoot a relationship, you don’t shoot the thing. You shoot the relationship between a person and an instrument. And you have something you can’t exactly control. If it’s a dialogue and we rehearse it, somehow it’s much more controlled. In my films there are many games because I like that they provide something that I don’t know exactly how it’s going to be. So, imagine that there’s a scene where you play tag – I would tell you try to go to that wall, then run there. But maybe I surprise you and the camera can capture something that is real. It’s not that the dialogue is unreal – it’s also real. But it’s a little bit more manipulated. It’s doesn’t give little corners where things can be different. So, I think that music and games, for instance, provide this air that gives a sense of improvisation. And what I’m working on is that everything, every scene should have that. And I think for instance in Viola, in the scene with the loop of the Shakespearean text, the loop is also a game. It’s a rehearsal, but there’s something in the middle and you just see how these two girls will respond. And there’s moment where I see the actresses are responding in a very true way because one of them had no idea the other one was going to be so close. So, she’s really surprised because in the film that was the first take. Then I did other takes, but I realized the first one had that energy because one of them was surprised by the move the other one did. And you can see – there’s an energy there. That face that she does in that moment - I think that she is truly intimidated because she had no idea that this girl was going to be so close, she thought that they were going to play it safe. But suddenly one of the actresses went a little step forward. So, in those kind of things, you lead a march to something new. So, I think in playing music, there’s something like you miss a key, but there’s something nice – the reaction – so it doesn’t keep being so concrete, so rigid.

How did you end up choosing the texts that you worked with? You used Sarmiento texts in the first two films, then Shakespeare in the other two.

It’s because I like them, because I extract some pleasure out of it. In the case of Sarmiento, I was surprised by the novelistic structure and power of the texts. They are essays, but they are written with a  true literary sentiment. So, it’s that hybrid.

Do you feel there’s a political edge to those?

Yeah, but I’m focused much more on the literary part. The nice thing is to see this other corner that sometimes gets faded away because of the political aspect. As for Shakespeare, it had to do with the relationship I had with these actresses. It was really everything. As You Like It surprised me because of Rosalind and because I said Rosalind – Maria [Villar] could be a good Rosalind. And I find them very spicy and very contemporary. The same thing happened to me with that scene in Twelfth Night. I read it and said, wow, there’s no need for any change here. You can say this now, that was written more than five hundred years ago in a land very far away with a culture so different from mine. And I still share his ideas on love, on fidelity. And that was a surprise – wow, I have a bond with this text that’s so far away from me. I chose it because of its closeness, because of its contemporariness, and specially because I thought that I knew people who could do something new with that.


A scene from They All Lie.

Are there any particular people you feel influenced your approach to Shakespeare?

In cinema – Orson Welles, of course. I like the American comedy from the 30s and I realized that there were a lot of hidden bonds between the Shakespearean texts and those films. For instance, many actors performed Shakespeare, like Katherine Hepburn. And there are films that even take a lot, like To Be or Not to Be. [Lubitsch] takes a lot of liberties and he’s even pretty disrespectful with it. And I like that. I think it’s awesome. He has fun with it and he makes a new thing out of it. He also uses The Merchant of Venice. He feels free to do whatever he wants to and I think that must have been how Shakespeare worked. It’s like one of the first lessons, there should be another kind of respect for the text. It’s not not touching, it’s not not doing. It’s not that you have to have a degree. You have to try to make a bond and stay true to that bond in a personal way that you think truth is.

Translation plays a big role in your films. You translated Shakespeare into Spanish, then back into English when you wrote the subtitles.

Yeah, that was a nightmare.

And you translate the texts from one medium to another. What, for you, is the goal of translation? To recreate the original as closely as possible, or is it a more creative process?

It’s more of a creative process. It’s impossible and that’s why we should do it. That’s the sense. Because what will it do? It would help the original to be closer to people. Maybe someone will go to the original book and see the difference. It’s like an introductory letter to his work. Even if you change things, even if it’s not such a good film, it will always send someone to the original text. And I think that translation gives me a lot of freedom too. Because the sound poetics change, and it’s impossible to translate that. I can do something new, I can do something else, and it can belong to me again. So, I’m not afraid of doing it – it frees me. But at the same time I try to find another kind of rhythm, another kind of thing in the Spanish. And I think that those adaptations somehow communicate with the Shakespearean process. It’s not that rigid. I think rigidity is the worst thing.

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