By Peter Fraser
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas came to worldwide attention with his debut feature film Japon . Despite its title the film is set in the Mexican countryside and attracted plaudits for its ambiguous depiction of a man rediscovering his soul after a suicide attempt. Reygadas' second film Battle in Heaven, set in Mexico City , is an audacious portrayal of spiritual struggle.
Was there a particular inspiration for Battle in Heaven?
Yes, making a film in Mexico City was the basic inspiration and the idea of intercutting within sequences much more than I had done in Japon. In Japon it was camera movement, here it was cutting: I wanted to construct, to edit, the space and the colour and the sounds of each Point of View shot. Those were really the inspirations.
Do you feel that there's been an evolution in your filmmaking between Japon and Battle in Heaven?
A technical evolution: I have a better idea of exactly what I want. I can handle the tools better. I can materialise much better. In a deeper sense the evolution is maybe that I got a little more radical in the language, trusting further the method with the actors. Letting cinema construct the characters rather than actors constructing characters. I took that to a further extreme. Some people think that I took it too far.
Can you talk about that method?
I would say that my point of departure is the Kuleshov effect*, which for me is a complete insight into the essence of character construction in cinema. For me it shouldn't have anything to do with the theatre method of character construction but unfortunately this is how the characters are constructed still in cinema today. The method is basically not giving psychological information to actors, just giving them practical, spatial, temporal information and then letting the editing and the whole of the cinematic process construct the characters. So this is why I don't give them the screenplay or do any rehearsals or give them any psychological background of the characters at all, not even who they are. I would rather trust the energy that the actors give off by the fact that they just exist. This is the method. This is why I don't want them to express emotions. I think that a stronger kind of emotion can pass through if they don't express emotion. Unfortunately this pushes away some viewers who are not willing to accept different codes compared to what they're used to but, well, it's a price to pay.
* The construction of meaning through the juxtaposition of images (montage) to create ideas not present in either image by itself.
In that case how do you decide who your actors are going to be?
It's true that if I got the casting wrong then the film wouldn't work because it's not a matter of technique. If you don't give off the right energy then it doesn't work. The funny thing is that you can only do it by instinct. The main actor Marcos was the point of departure for Battle in Heaven . I have known him for twenty-five years and I wrote everything around him so with him I couldn't get it wrong. The rest of the people: the moment I saw them I knew that they were right. It's exactly like a photographer. If you want to find the right tree for a photograph and you're out in the woods looking for trees then eventually you will see a tree that you like and something will tell you that it's the tree that you were looking for.
Doesn't that require a leap of faith for the actors to trust you sufficiently?
The only element that could compel them to do this film and not to run away during the middle of it is just trust: absolute trust. It's not money or a career or anything. They're just going to do the film, probably nothing afterwards for most of them and they have to do it because they trust that I will do something that they will like.
Your relationship with them must also be very important. Is it important that you work with people that you like, for example?
Yes, it is very important. If you don't like them then you have to spend a whole lot of time pretending and that wouldn't work. Although I will tell you that for example I liked the main lead in Japon but he could be a pain too, a real pain. So sometimes you do spend time taking a lot of crap but then that's part of the job you know? There I do feel very different from a director that would hire actors because you hire them for the work and that's it. Then if the actor doesn't work you don't have to speak to him afterwards if you don't want to, but here you have to have a strong human relationship so you have to take care of the actors all the time and this takes a lot of energy.
Were there any moments during the filmmaking when trust was a particular issue?
Yes definitely. For Bertha Ruiz, the fatso lady married to Marcos, the sexual scenes; for Marcos the scenes where he had to walk on the street bare-footed, he hated that. Some people asked me about the sexual things for him too but he couldn't care less about the sexual issues. He hated walking without a shirt and bare-footed in the street because people in cars were calling him a crazy bastard. He hated it, I don't know why. For Ana it was especially when she had to get up very early and had to wait around for a long time and all that. Those were the difficult parts for each of the three actors.
Given how visual your films are, how important is the preparation beforehand compared to the editing afterwards?
Preparing the film, when I write the script and do the storyboarding, is so important that I would say that the film would be pre-determined up to about 98%. Then of course I try to be open to the surprises that real life gives you. It doesn't mean that I'm closed to the future at all. It means that I have visualised the film in my head and that I want to materialise it now. It's very similar to what Hitchcock did except that because Hitchcock worked with actors and in studios and he had all the economical means he wouldn't get surprises. Since I have the luck that I don't have any of those three things I do get a lot of surprises and I take them willingly. Then the editing is very important too although that doesn't mean that the film is made in the editing room.
Would you consider yourself an auteur?
I don't really consider myself anything although I do know that when they talk about our third cinema as opposed to commercial cinema for me it's the method that defines both. It's not whether the films are commercial or not because in the end many commercial films are non-commercial and many non-commercial films are commercial, if it's a question of making money. The question is the method. Decisions for commercial films are taken to extract this big mucus called 'the viewer' - an abstraction that I believe doesn't exist - so you take decisions in order to please as many people as possible. The other method is deciding on your own tastes and your convictions. For me these are the only two ways of doing things and I only take decisions according to my own tastes and convictions.
What is your attitude towards narrative in your films?
Narrative for me is just a vehicle that is probably an evil but a necessary evil. You do need a story but I don't care about story because I know that the same story told in a mediocre way is mediocre and the same story told properly is a great story. So I really feel much closer to painting or music where narrative is not important. Some people think that narrative is important in painting but I don't think that it is. When I go with my mother, who is a psychologist, to see paintings by Rubens she's always saying which particular myth a painting is from. I always say don't be so bothered about who the people are: just watch the painting and feel it.
What about the dichotomy between spirituality and religion that appears to inform both your feature films?
Religion is a very open thing. It has spirituality on the one hand and on the other hand it has dogma and there is ritual and a lot of other things. I am very interested in the spiritual part of man and woman. I wonder what are we doing here and where are we going afterwards and where did we come from? These are obviously the main questions for humankind so in that sense I'm interested. This is part of the film but you can just feel it underneath. Some people do not feel it because it's not stated. On the other hand what I also care about, which is stated, is ritual. That's a sociological issue. That is for me a more superficial part of the film but it's a part that more people talk about because it's stated. That is the means of washing our consciences when we do something bad. Every culture has its own means of repentance and cleaning up. Some people dance, some take drugs, some repent in their prayers, Mexicans have had very open rituals like pilgrimages since pre-Hispanic times. Some people call Battle in Heaven a very catholic film but it's not. It's just that ritual has been monopolised by the colony, which was a catholic colony, so traditional rituals turned into catholic rituals. The thing is ritual itself, it doesn't matter which ritual.
So how important is Mexico to your films?
Mexico is very important but only because the films are set in Mexico . I am not a 'Mexicanist' if you like. If I had to emigrate to England then I would make films in England I think. I would be interested in the same things but then England would be very important because I would try to be very loyal to the context. I just think that if I do a film about a priest in the Yorkshire Dales then suddenly the whole thing would be very English. The context would be very important because it determines the spiritual part of the priest although that's a human and absolutely universal part. Everything deeply universal has to be necessarily very particular otherwise it's just a cartoon.
Do you feel that you have a guiding aesthetic and if so, do you worry about it becoming stale in the future?
The driving force is that I think the most powerful way to create a film is to see it in your head because there are no limits. When I see them in my head I am already taking into account physical limits. I see them as cinema. So I don't get lost. Regarding the future, I don't know. I don't want to manage a career you know? So I don't think about that. I'm so conscious that I could die tomorrow that I will probably only make two films so why bother thinking about what will happen on my seventh film? So now I just think about my third and I want to do it as best as I can. If I'd made Battle in Heaven before Japon then Battle in Heaven would be like Battle in Heaven and Japon would be like Japon except that Battle in Heaven would probably be a little worse because I knew the tools less. I'm not managing a career, I'm just trying to do them one by one as best as I can.
You've achieved a certain amount of notoriety with your first two films and while this may not affect the way you approach your third film it may affect the way that it is received. How do you feel about this?
I wish the film was less controversial but yesterday I was reading how L'Avventura was booed at Cannes but today Antonioni is a classic whatever people may say. In my opinion he's the greatest filmmaker. I think that if some people like the film very much then that is because there is something there and if some people don't like it at all then maybe they just don't see it. It's just a logical thing. It's not that I'm saying that they're stupid. It's just that if some people see it then that's because it's there. I remember I've had teachers in the worst of subjects that said 'I know that you don't care about this subject but if ever one of you is a great chemist, one of you in my whole life, then I will be proud of what I have done.' I thought that this guy was full of crap but now I feel it. If you can really touch one single person - but really touch them - then that is the greatest pleasure.
Do you feel a sense of the sublime in everyday life?
I do feel it. Not everyday but in everyday life. Everything is touched with absolute grace and disgrace. So it all depends upon how you look at it. It's not a question of method, like reading a self-help book and then suddenly everything is great, no. It's very organic. Sometimes it's there and it comes to you. It's very obvious. Some people kill themselves and some people live in ecstasy and the world is exactly the same.