Interview: Albert Serra Reflects On His Feelings About STORY OF MY DEATH

During the Viennale I sat down with Albert Serra, whose Story of My Death recently won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. Due to the fact that one can easily find comments of the director about his working methods and contents, I wanted to ask him more about the emotional side of his films.


We ended up discussing his view on cinema, emotional layers of his film and why cinema is part of a subversive lifestyle.


I want to do this interview a little bit different than usual because you have talked so much about your content, methods and process in your latest interviews that I think we should talk a bit more about the feelings in your film. In my opinion it is a film you have to feel instead of understanding it. So, I'll just describe to you what I felt and you can say something about it.

Perfect.


First I got a sense of truthful beauty in your film. For example, I did not expect to find beauty with virgin's blood on someone's hands.

Those things arrive by chance. I knew that I wanted to change the style compared to my previous films. So I started to focus on the little things, you know. For example look how the daylight comes through the windows, how it reflects, how it changes your whole perception of the place. So that was the attitude about it. Of course, it is a narrative film but at the same time it is boring for me to shoot a narrative film. It always works the same: First you have to shoot something and then you have to shoot the next scene just to stay in order, to narrate a story and stuff. This just bores me. I want it to be moiré like a performance.


I understand.

But sometimes it is frustrating because people do not understand what's happening, they feel lost. But I do not want to spend my life shooting films I don't like just that people understand better. Even if the film was better from an aesthetic point-of-view, it would be too boring for me. I do not respect cinema and I do not respect cinematographers. I consider cinema a second category art compared to literature or theatre. So for me cinema is about having fun and having the possibility to live a more subversive life. And if you shoot an academic film in an academic style you cannot live like that, then it just feels like working. I did not decide making cinema to work. I could be richer working in different fields I know better. I know cinema for its subversive side, the way it changes daily life. It was like a dream in the beginning. I was on a Sokurov film set and it was just boring. The way he works does not speak to me at all. I also try to be subversive in the way I work. The way I work with frames and dialogues, it is all to create something different. It should always be challenging. You cannot do that in literature. It cannot be funny to write. It is hard work. Working with cinema has to be funny.


But I had the feeling that by disrespecting cinema you very much respect it. Your film is very true to cinema, I think.

Yeah, could be. I think I am talented; at least in working with actors. All my actors play very well, very original. There is richness about them, a physical and spiritual richness. In some sense there is even a photogenic richness. All my actors are non-professional actors. The guy who plays Casanova never was in a film before. I don't make rehearsals or anything. For me it is like living in a fantasy. It's the fantasy of making a film but also the fantasy of the film itself. Those two fantasies have to go together. In academic films you don't get this magic. Maybe it happens sometimes. For me it is easier to deserve my goals in order to achieve them. You have to deserve the result. The only way for me to do it, is to do the film in the same way that it has to be shown. The film is a fantasy. So if I shoot it as a fantasy it becomes a fantasy more easily. When I was shooting El senyor ha fet en mi meravelles I shot it as a quixotian trip, so it was easier for it to become a quixotian trip. Maybe coherence and some things get lost, but the final result is better. And there is no other film like this one.


So I just describe another feeling: Sometimes I had the feeling that the wind in the trees is more dangerous than Dracula.

That's an interesting one. Well, I don't know. Maybe it is because I am paranoid about sound. We have a lot of different versions in the mix. I try a lot of different things. The amount of time I spent with sound creates this tension. I work with a lot of different layers but always with direct sound. I have done this in my previous films where sound was a very important element. I always say that when you shoot outside the weather is another character. In a hotel room like the one we are sitting right now it is just a dead environment. But outside there is always something happening. There is wind, people feel cold, they have to react. Sometimes it's hot and that makes actors tired and so on. There is always interaction. In Story of My Death I wasn't too focused on those elements but maybe they are still there, I don't know. There was no motivation for me to make Dracula appear scary. I cannot remember what I wanted for Dracula right now. I just focused on details. I didn't even have a general idea of what Dracula or Casanova should be like. I work with a concept and with an actor but I don't have a general idea. I don't like to shoot characters; I want to shoot a person, a human being. For example, if I know that a person or actor is better for tragic situations then the character will ultimately become a tragic character. Even if in the script it was a funny character. I just shoot what's in front of me. That's exactly what I told you about having fun and being subversive. And I don't accept any conventional ways. Therefore I don't go to the cinema anymore. Especially American films bore me to death. Sometime I discover a good film, for example, La última película by my friend Mark Peranson. It's different, it's challenging. I think all the films should be like this. Of course, recently I have been thinking a lot about biopics. A biopic should have different layers. Those typical biopics are just boring. A biopic needs dialectic fight otherwise it doesn't work for me.


But don't you feel close to any other filmmakers? For example I was thinking about Carlos Reygadas while watching your film.

Yes, maybe. But still. His films are easier to watch, he is more conventional than me. In some way all his films follow some structure.


So, it is all about finding different ways?

Yes and that's a kind of suicide. A financial suicide. I won't be able to do a normal film and I don't know if I will be able to make another film. But it is better to suicide...there is a Spanish saying: It is better to stand up dying than to live on your knees.


And winning the Golden Leopard in Locarno doesn't help at all in terms of finding money for your next projects?

No, not at all. And I don't need it because I don't need cinema. I have no dreams about cinema. I have to stop dreaming. It was Marcel Proust who said that you have to stop desiring in order to achieve your goals. So I just stop thinking about money and one day I am going to be rich. I am a poor guy right now.


Let's continue with another feeling: In your film I felt a strong desire for the women, their innocence and the way you show them. But at the same time I also had the desire to die.

I am cold and I am passionate. Maybe it is the mix of those to attributes you feel there.  I am dangerous. I have a lot of determination but without a goal. The same is true for the characters in the film. They desire but they don't have a true object of desire. There is no proper goal in my film. It is just a dead desire. There are no concrete feelings for me. Though it may be sensual and sometimes erotic the characters cannot feel true desire without objects. And as you mentioned the women in the film,  I like them, too. Especially one of them, she has a very provocative face. And that is exactly why I don't use her face in my film. I think of filmmakers as spectators. Let me explain that. I see the girl and I like her. But I don't want to interfere, I don't want to touch her or give her any meaning. I feel very close to Andy Warhol in this aspect. He talked a lot about manipulating without touching. Of course, I manipulate. I shoot, I edit, I change things until long after the shooting. But I won't touch materiality. It is almost a catholic thought. The idea of sacred materiality, it is a kind of spiritual metamorphosis for me. At the same time I feel it to be more respectful. What ultimately arrives is a strange mixture of naturalism and artificiality.


Yeah, that's what I wrote in my review. I said that your film was one of the most realistic fantasy films I have ever seen.

Exactly and by using non-professional actors you can create this ambivalence. They all have both sides in them: The pervert and the innocent. Therefore a mystery is created. It all happens unconsciously. You can never achieve that with professional actors. Every professional actor can play a pervert. That is because a pervert is a calculating figure. But nobody can play innocence because innocence is an attribute others give to you. You cannot look at yourself being innocent. Innocent girls in movies are always fake. Only non-professionals can do it. There is not a single film in the history of cinema where innocence is played convincingly by a professional actress. Well, maybe in some silent films, maybe with Murnau. The same desire for being innocent is within me. That is why I am thinking about distractions and details. By this I avoid thinking about the big topics and the movie as a whole and therefore I can keep the innocence on the film. It's again Andy Warhol who said that you should avoid judging your own work. Another aspect of innocence appears in the symbolic figures I use in my films. In Story of My Death we have the character of Pompeu, he has obviously some symbolic sides to him. There is some purity about him; he is a symbolic figure of innocence.


I can't get the last shot of your film out of my head. It's like waking up, like living while dying. I wondered what it would be like to write the story of my own death.

Yeah, that is what my film is about. It's about the afterlife. Obviously with Dracula it's alive. The story in some way never ends; I wanted it to be like this. It is an eternal movement. One thing that occurred to me while watching the film with audiences in cinemas was that maybe I should have had music during the credits. It's hard for people like this. First I rejected the idea of music during the credits; I didn't think it was important. But now I think that music would help. In the end people have a strong feeling about my film but they often do not know what it is. Music would stimulate them to searching for the reasons of their feelings, set them in a passionate mood. Without music only intelligent people will understand.


Is it important to understand?

No, not at all. It is just frustrating sometimes if people don't get it.

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