Interview with Julio Medem
The films of Spainís Julio Medem are as much about his countryís distinctive landscapes and natural mysteries as they are about the restless and obsessive characters that wander through his world. Vacas (Cows) (1992), his debut feature, is set in the rolling hills and thick forests of Northern Spain, where two clans feud and flirt through the three generations between the Carlist Wars of 1875 and the devastating Spanish Civil War, and seen through the dull, unimpressed eyes of ever present cows. The Red Squirrel (1993), a dense mind game of cinematic delights, is a squirrelís eye view of a relationship built quite literally on a complex web of lies and deceptions spun in a remote forest campground. Tierra (Earth) (1995), to date his most vital and vivid work, begins in the heavens and lands in the red dust of a remote wine growing region, a world both primal and alien where the enigmatic wood lice lives underground and angels live among the humans above.
Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) brought his work to larger international audience. Swooning with romantic abandon, Julio Medemís fateful love story weaves reality, fantasy and memory into a narrative tapestry of recurring images like musical motifs as two frustrated lovers narrate their own stories in parallel self-titled chapters and offer dream variations one anotherís stories. With Lovers Medem established himself firmly, in this criticís mind at least, as the most engaging and exciting filmmaker to come out of Spain since Carlos Saura -- and that includes Pedro Almodovar. His unique, organic style is a different kind of cinematic experience. Medem doesnít direct so much as weave his films: distinctive landscapes, fumbling characters, criss-crossing stories and recurring images and motifs intertwine, blur, and transform through time. His films burst with narrative games, visual puns, and a passionate embrace of fate, fantasy, and the illogical power of love.
Medem came to Seattle in June of 2002 with the local premiere of his fifth and most recent film, Sex and Lucia, his latest tale of obsessive love, tragic twists, and romantic fate. This densely plotted, time-hopping drama once again weaves the criss-crossing stories of a handful of characters through primal landscapes (a deserted, sun-washed Mediterranean island beach, the dark caves that snake through the center of the island) and emotional trials, and reverberates with the thematic foundation of all of Medemís stories: we donít exist in a vacuum. Our lives affect others, and that gives us a responsibility. For the record, the film earned him the festivalís audience award for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
I had the great pleasure and honor of interviewing Julio Medem while he was in Seattle to be honored as an "Emerging Master" at the Seattle International Film Festival, ten years after SIFF give the American premiere to his debut feature Vacas. As far as I was concerned he had emerged years ago, but the honor was really just an excuse to bring a world class director to Seattle to talk about his films. The 42 year old director spoke a little English in our brief introduction but when it came to the interview he spoke in Spanish through interpreter Carolina Manriquez. The result reads less like an interview than a series of creative reflections, so Iíve structured it that way.
Julio Medem on his creative process:
There is of course the first moment, the epiphany, when the idea first comes, an idea strong enough to motivate you to write. The idea always comes to me with an image, an image that defines the narrative tone, the visual tone, and the atmosphere. It all comes together with the idea. The essence of what I want to portray. And itís usually something that comes from the subconscious, like Iím in a half dream state when I get these inspirations and thatís how it all starts. The story is not clear at the beginning. Itís more like a mystery that I have to solve. I open doors and let the ideas come out. I walk one step at a time and experience each step. The path I follow is not a linear path, itís sinuous and I donít know where itís going to take me. Thereís nothing structured, itís just walking through the idea, opening the doors in front of me, and taking the ideas that come out one at a time. When I get to the end of the road I look back from above, like a birdís eye view, and try to look at my journey objectively. In a sense itís like the image of an explorer that goes into a new landscape and hikes around and when he gets to the top of the mountain looks back and draws the map. When I look back on the landscape, I see certain repetitions. Themes start emerging, narratives start appearing. My work in making this path is to get them to flow together and make sense.
On The Red Squirrel:
I met Emma Saurez on Vacas and she inspired some of the ideas for The Red Squirrel, like the lie that she brings to the situation. The story of The Red Squirrel started confabulating during Vacas, so when I went to write The Red Squirrel I wrote characters specifically for [Vacas stars] Emma and Carmelo Gomez. They were meant to be in it because it the idea had been conceived among them.
The inspiration for The Red Squirrel came while I was camping. I was worrying: "Will I ever be produced again? Will I ever make another movie?" And I could hear all these noises up in the trees, and feel pine nuts and little cone pines thrown at me, and I though that these squirrels were making fun of me. I realized I couldnít be part of that world as they hid up in the trees, chattering and pelting me with pine-cones, and thatís when the idea of The Red Squirrel came from. It comes from their perspective, what they do, how they go about the world, how they laugh about us humans, and the gap between the squirrels up in the tree and me on the ground camping and trying to sleep.
In The Red Squirrel there are two levels of lies. I wanted to address, especially in Spanish culture, men having so many social advantages over women. Itís a total patriarchal system, men dominate women. That part of lie is very visible: Jota (Nancho Novo) is controlling whatís going on. He picks her to become his girlfriend and controls the visible part of the situation. But then thereís also the irony, the contradiction, the way she makes fun of him. She has her own plan and a way of dominating the situation at another level that is less visible. Like the squirrel, which sneaks around behind the scenes. She uses less visible means. In The Red Squirrel Iím satirizing his macho attitude, because at the end of the story it all turns around and you find that sheís been pulling the strings. We see something similar in Sex and Lucia, where Lorenzo gets punished for his lies and the way he tries to control the situation. You get the sense of a hand dominating the situation, Lorenzoís hand: heís writing the story and heís in control, Lucia is hopelessly in love with him. And because heís the dominant figure he suffers the most.
The character of Angel in Tierra had been written for Antonio Banderas, who had originally agreed to make the movie but then declined, and I had written the character of Patricio [the husband of the Emma Suarez character) for Carmelo, because Carmeloís dad was a farmer and it was a world he knew. Carmelo was all set to do that character, so when Banderas dropped out of the movie I had to talk Carmelo into being Angel. He didnít want to be Angel because he was so focused on Patricio, the character that had been written for him, the character he was meant to be. It was hard work to convince him to take the role of Angel.
Obviously the character had to change. The way the character is built is both through my vision and the actorís interpretation of that vision. Their own identity comes into play to while the build and create this character. If the actor changes the character has to change because he brings in all his experiences and identity into the role. When Carmelo read the script for Angel he commented to me "He seems like you, heís very similar to you." When I watched the finished film and saw Carmelo portraying Angel and building the character, I told him "Angel is like you, heís definitely like you." Itís in essence a coming together of two forces into this one character, and you can see both of them in the character.
Itís a symbiotic relationship, everything influences everything else, and itís easier to work with the same actors over and over again because you get to know them better, you learn how they work, you get to know them personally. The interaction and the maturation of my ideas are easier to accomplish with people I know already.
The landscape is of course a central part of the story and thereís a mutual relationship between the landscape and the characters. To me, Tierra is about a man thatís alone on this Earth, a fragile man who feels very small on this world and in this life, and the redness of the landscape increases this sense of loneliness and isolation and how small we are. The landscape can also be subjective and contradictory. I like my films to play out on natural landscapes, on open landscapes, because I think itís easier for characters to find their essence on these open landscapes, to let their instincts come out as they work through their problems and find answers to their primal questions.
On Lovers of the Arctic Circle:
I knew that the movie had to end in the forest because of the development of the story. As kids, their first kiss happens in a geography class in front of an atlas open to a map of the Arctic Circle, so the cycle has been established: something important must happen in the Arctic Circle. Itís like they have a date in the future in the Arctic Circle. The strange thing is that the story is directed to this place that is cold and inhospitable, and in a love story we think of warmth and passion. Itís also a place where, in a sense, time stops, and in a sense time stopped with that first kiss. When I was filming Vacas, I went to the festival of the midnight sun, which celebrates a time when the sun never sets in the Arctic Circle, and when I saw the sun that never set I felt that life stopped right there. Thatís when I first got the idea that I later incorporated into Lovers of the Arctic Circle, relating it to that first kiss, and then bringing everything together in the Arctic Circle.
On Sex and Lucia:
A week before I started shooting Lovers of the Arctic Circle, I went to the island where Sex and Lucia was conceived [Formentera, an island just off the coast of Spain] and I fell in love with the island. I was leaving for Finland but I knew that the place was waiting for me and I wanted to make something happen on that island. It was very hard for me and for the crew to deal with the heaviness and the death of a major character in Lovers of the Arctic Circle, so when it was finished I went back to the island and played with my video camera. Without knowing the story I went there to explore it. I rode my motorcycle around and saw the beautiful sunsets and the full moon and the only thing I knew is that I wanted to make something happier, something lighter, something clearer than what I had just finished.
One day while I was walking around I found the lighthouse and a hole next to the lighthouse. My first thought was to give the hole a sexual connotation. This was before Iíd even thought about the first part of the movie -- sex in the past. I kept finding these holes and it felt like the island was carved out, and thatís when I came up with the idea of the island floating on the water ["like a lid," says one character] and becoming a refuge for lost souls, a hiding place. Thereís also the idea that it is a hole through which you can escape. These holes are on the edge of the island, on the shoreline, so thereís a limit to how far you can escape. And you can fall through the hole and come back to your past, but to the point in your past from which you escaped, so itís like a circle around your present and your past, escaping and returning.