Sebastián Lelio discusses his collaboration with actress Daniela Vega, balancing heightened style with realistic character work, and his thoughts on ‘political’ filmmaking. Read our Berlin 2017 review of the film here.
Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman follows Marina, a transgender woman living happily in a heteronormative relationship with her partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), until he suddenly dies. Unfairly treated, both by his transphobic family and by the very institutions that are supposed to help her, Marina fights for her right to be present at Orlando’s funeral and say goodbye to her lover.
After praising the film in her review back in Berlin last year, Elena interviewed director Lelio in Toronto last September.
Seventh Row (7R): How did this project come about?
Sebastian Lelio (SL): I made a film called Gloria before this one, which was met with success. After that, I just wanted to get myself into bigger trouble! The idea of having a film centred on a transgender woman seemed to offer that. It seemed exciting and full of dangers — very challenging.'I think film is all about ambiguity and questions, rather than answers and clear messages.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you work on the film? Did you already know any transgender people?
SL: I didn’t, actually. We started with a situation: what would happen if the person you loved died in your arms — but your arms were the worst place in the world for that person to die because, for some reason, you are the unwanted one? You’re rejected, but you have to inform the family, let everyone know what happened… That was the original premise.
Then, the idea of making this story happen to a transgender woman appeared, and it was like when you hear this special sound in baseball, and you know it’s a good hit. But at the same time, we knew it could be a disaster. So, I felt the need to meet some transgender people. At that time, I’d been living in Berlin for five years, so I was away from my country, detached from what was going on out there. I met three or four transgender women, and they suggested I talk to Daniela [Vega]. They all said, “She’s fantastic.”'Identity itself is explored not only in the character, but in the film itself as a cinematic device. The film’s own identity is being self-analysed.'Click To Tweet
I wasn’t looking for an actress at the beginning. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to make the film — I was only investigating. Then I met Daniela, and she was so great. She became a consultant on the film. Not a technical consultant for the script, because she’s not a scriptwriter. But I was talking to her for a year, and we became friends. I really loved her, and in a way, she pushed the script further. By the end of the writing process, I had understood two things: I was not going to make the film without a transgender actress, and this actress had to be Daniela!
7R: Was Daniela an actress at this point?
SL: She had made one student film, and she had some experience in theatre. She’s also a very dedicated lyrical singing student. So she was already an artist.'The film needed to have quite an enigmatic character, because it’s all about perception and point of view: what do the other characters see in her? How do they define her?'Click To Tweet
7R: What was very striking to me in the film was how conventional Marina’s life was: she led a very heteronormative life with her partner. Why is that?
SL: Well, I guess it was just to make things more complicated! I was trying to run away from the usual representation of sexual minorities, which tend to be very attached to social realism. I wanted to make a flamboyant film — that’s the game proposed by the film. It’s like a Trojan horse. You sit down, and you watch this film that looks beautiful and well-filmed; it’s not lit with the raw light of social realism, the camera isn’t handheld… It looks like a “proper” film, following classical codes… But then, within it, something is hiding. And this thing, in a way, runs against the film’s façade. It’s a narrative strategy.
At the same time, it seemed interesting to propose a relationship between these two people that was completely healthy and devoid of problems — not conflicted, without any drugs, not in an alley or somewhere downtown…
I don’t think the film is realistic. It proposes a world. And of course, there are moments that are clearly not realistic: she flies in a windstorm… The film portrays a real human being — a transgender woman — but through artifice, by visiting different genres.
7R: The film is, in a way, very political: it is very much about the oppression that transgender people often face. But at the same time, Marina still feels like a real person. What was the challenge in making this character, who’s in some way a political statement, feel like more than a rhetorical device?
SL: That was one of my main concerns. I think ‘cause films’ might be necessary, but for me, they’re not interesting enough. I think film is all about ambiguity and questions, rather than answers and clear messages. It’s the nature of the medium. It’s like a spiritual Google! You have the chance to explore different moral situations from the safety of your seat. That’s why I added all these layers, these different tonalities, and different genres. I wanted the viewer to feel trapped and lost, so they could not tell what they were seeing.
I think that, as the film made me explore the question “What is a woman?”, this question pushed me to ask another one, which is “what is a film?” The notion of identity itself is explored not only in the character, but in the film itself as a cinematic device. The film’s own identity is being self-analysed. The film oscillates constantly between different genres and tones, and it doesn’t want to be labelled. I think if this film is against anything, it’s against labels.
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7R: The character of Marina is very strong and stoic, and Daniela Vega’s performance is almost completely wordless. What was the challenge in getting this character’s emotions through?
SL: Daniela has a very strong, magnetic presence, so just filming her was almost enough. The film needed to have quite an enigmatic character, because it’s all about perception and point of view: what do the other characters see in her? How do they define her? Their perception of Marina reveals nothing about her, but a lot about them. We’re watching them judge her. And she’s watching us looking at her, sometimes straight into the lens, asking us “What do you think? What do you see?” For this triangular game to work, I needed an enigmatic presence. It’s a bit like a heroine from the 1940s. A character like Marina touches on the film noir, which is one of the noblest genres. It was my opportunity to visit Louis Malle or Douglas Sirk, with this kind of mysterious female presence that I love so much.'Imagine being in such a fragile position that, even if you could win the fight, you’d rather walk... It’s so sad!' Click To Tweet
7R: The film is also very romantic, and the narrative arc of the film is her trying to get to her partner’s funeral. She needs him, but not in a cliched, submissive manner. She remains in control.
SL: Your question contains the answer, because Marina is more than one thing: she’s claiming her right to say goodbye, because that’s a human right. It doesn’t really have anything to do with her being a woman.
Saying goodbye is a human right. We know this very well in Chile, where so many people disappeared, and so many families were left without the chance to say goodbye to their beloved. Not getting the chance to say goodbye creates a trauma that is very hard to overcome. There’s something deeply human in burying or cremating the body — you can let that body go; you can somehow ritualise the loss, then move on. The film is, at the same time, romantic, desperate, and urgent, because Marina is a widow. But she’s a human being. Those two things are coexisting. You can’t reduce her to one thing.'“No guilt” is the motto of the film.'Click To Tweet
7R: When her partner dies, we start to learn about Marina’s past through seeing her handle her oppressors. She knows how to deal with transphobic people. She’s got safe spaces and friends she can contact when she needs it, etc. You say the film is not realistic, yet this aspect of it feels rather realistic. Did you work on that with the transgender people you met?
SL: This is one of the things that came from Daniela. She was telling me that when she was younger, her survival strategy was to just walk. Every time there were troubles, she would try to avoid them rather than confront them, because she could have been hurt. Now that she’s older, and has more experience, I think she’s tougher and maybe deals with it differently. But I took that element because I felt so touched by it. Imagine being in such a fragile position that, even if you could win the fight, you’d rather walk… It’s so sad!'We wanted a touch of a dreamlike quality that can become a nightmare: although the film has bright, beautiful colours, it’s also extremely brutal in the violence Marina faces.'Click To Tweet
7R: Why did you opt for such a bright look for the film?
SL: Because of the Trojan horse element. We wanted a film that, just like Marina, wasn’t afraid of sensual pleasure: a film you can enjoy without guilt. “No guilt” is the motto of the film. Even though Gloria has a little stylisation, it’s a more impressionistic film; everything seems effortless — although, of course, it’s not. But here, in A Fantastic Woman, there’s more tension in the style. Everything is staged and stylised a lot more. We wanted that fiction flavor, and a touch of dreamlike quality. A dream that can become a nightmare: although the film has bright, beautiful colours, it’s also extremely brutal in the violence Marina faces. This project was all about trying to make these polarities co-exist.
Sebastián Lelio’s approach to his transgender character in A Fantastic Woman can be described as confrontational, as Marina never has to explain herself: when Orlando’s family insults her, she does reply to their offensive questions, and at no point are we given an ‘explanation’ for why she decided to transition. Sean Baker’s Tangerine is similar in that regard, while Japanese drama Close-Knit opts for a more assimilating approach, via the coming-of-age story of a little girl in awe of the strength and courage of her transgender aunt. In our interview about her documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, director Sophie Fiennes touches on the same ideas of identity and self-determination with inspiring yet level-headed pragmatism.