It’s All About the Pleasure, Right? An Interview with Director Fabián Bielinsky

Fabián Bielinsky greets me with a warm and hearty handshake. At once relaxed and fervent, he’s clearly pleased that his first feature film, Nine Queens (Nueve reinas) has won fans on the international film festival circuit, not to mention winning seven 2001 Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards, out of ten nominations, as well as the People’s Choice Award from MTV Argentina and the Audience Award and Best Director Award at the Lleida Latin-American Film Festival.

He made his first film in 1972, while a member of the student film group at the Buenos Aires National High School. He went on to work as an assistant director on some 400 commercials and several feature films and spent some time teaching Cinematographic Production and Film Analysis. He says that teaching helped him to focus his energies: “When I analyzed films with pupils, it helped me to take the time that I couldn’t always take — to watch it, to absorb it, to understand it.” Bielinsky brings the same kind of enthusiasm to filmmaking and to talking about filmmaking.

You started making films when you were 13?

Absolutely. It was a little before that, but they weren’t “films”. My family had a Super-8 camera and so my friends and I filmed things. When I was 13, I started the first year in high school and there they had this cultural program, for the first time in 1972, and they had film classes, after school, actually. I got into these filmmaking classes, and there was a group of like 15 guys. It was the first exposure I had to film classes.

From the 15 people, only one could direct the first exercise, an adaptation of “Continuidad de los Parques”, a short story by Julio Cortazar, and our teacher selected me. Not because I was any better than the others, but because I was so passionate about it, and he noticed that.

It was like a miracle. When I first heard there would be this filmmaking program, I went crazy! I feel lucky that I knew from the very first years of my life that I knew what I wanted to do. With a lot of passion and a lot of pleasure — I knew it. I know it’s a privilege too, to be able to do it. And one has to be grateful for that.

You mentioned pleasure. From all reports, it appears that you’re very aware not only of the pleasure to be taken in watching a film, but in putting it together.

Yes. I came into this idea of pleasure, as a definition. For me it is all about pleasure. I know that some people do this because of possible results, money or fame. But that’s not my particular case. From the first moment, I am doing this since I’m a child because I love it. I can remember the feeling of being in the theater: it was The Moment.

I still have this feeling, this nice warm feeling, a vibration, when I see the logos of the studios, the mountain or the lion. I have a happy feeling for the two hours to come. The idea of film, of narration and stories on the screen, is made out of pleasure. And all my life, I was conditioned.

I worked as a first AD [assistant director] on a lot of commercials. I didn’t make the step to become a director until a couple of years ago. What finally pushed me into writing the script and directing was that I was beginning to lose the pleasure of being there as an assistant director. I was doing things on automatic pilot, losing the tension and the vibration. I was becoming an old AD. And then I wanted to recover that feeling, the excitement.

I was lucky enough that everything happened well for me, but I was seeking that. There’s nothing you can plan about the pleasure of the work, because shooting a film is hard, and can be a really bad experience. In this particular case, for Nine Queens, I followed my instinct and my experience as a first AD. Which is: the knowledge that you’re going to spend your life doing things, not enjoying things. Going to the festivals, talking to critics, that’s all nice, but that’s a small amount of time. The great amount of time, you spend doing it — it’s your life. So if you’re going to have a bad experience doing this, it doesn’t matter if the reviews are great or you earn a lot of money.

For your work, you have to have great people and great conditions, to have pleasure out of that. So, don’t choose the best DP [director of photography], if he’s a son of a bitch. I chose Marcelo Camorino, someone you can talk to and go out with for a beer after work. That was my philosophy on this, and we had a great time, believe me. The actors were wonderful, and helped me.

The acting was something that I never actually studied; I dealt with it in a kind of intuitive way. I had to tell them, “Look, this is not working, but I can’t tell you exactly what to do.” So they could do that, they could say, “Let’s take a little out of this,” or “Do that,” and they were great and funny. I know that’s a cliché, to say, “I hope you enjoy the film because we did,” but this is real. I’m not going to suffer while involved in the film business. The very moment I realize that I’m suffering doing films, I’ll go home. I have no trouble with that. I have no plan about the path I’m going through. That’s bullshit to me. The only plan is, enjoy it while I’m doing it.

Nine Queens works a kind of tension when it comes to viewing pleasure, in that it delivers enough that is familiar that you can anticipate, but also, keeps pulling out the rug from under your expectations. Your characters here, for example, don’t really “develop” in a usual way.

Yes. I make you believe that we are going to go from A to D, but then we go from A to E, then back to C. This film is about manipulation. And my own thinking in writing it was to cause the audience to be — emotion-wise, information-wise, and identification-wise — at specific points. And then I wanted to shock everybody at particular moments, to let people think they could think ahead, and then contradict that.

I had the advantage, which is that most of the films today are so predictable, so by the numbers, that it’s very easy to fool somebody. In terms of character, I didn’t want anyone to predict anything. I wanted to have an internal contradiction, so the moment you start thinking, “Okay, he’s going to do this,” that the guy is going to be friends, but you open a door and out comes a monster.

Which is appealing as well as startling, because often, pleasure is about being able to predict. They say formula films are popular because of that in certain cultural moments, say, in times of crisis.

The film, when it begins, looks like a buddy film, a particularly predictable structure. You know the ending, the way the relationship will evolve. Which is the most terrible thing. You can always have a new permutation of the same pieces, but if you know how it will end, that’s it, the film is over.

So, as soon as you see these very different characters decide to work together in the first scene, you think, “Okay, that’s what’s going to happen.” And this is tricky — it looks like a buddy film, but they will never go through this relational path. I like to change the previous ideas.

I’m also wondering about the physical spaces that define this relationship.

Yes, the hotel is the perfect “null space”/ I really thought about this, the relationship between these guys [Juan (Gastón Pauls) and Marcos (Ricardo Darín)] and their surroundings. Them and the street, them and the hotel. With them and the street, it was a comfortable relationship: they live there, the street is supporting them and protecting them, it is water for fish. How to create that feeling? I tried to blend them into the scene. Whenever I could, I used hidden cameras, in trucks across the street, working with the long lens. They knew the lines, of course, but I didn’t want the actors to rehearse too much.

So I say “Action,” and the actors had to work in the middle of the street, no lights, no visible cameras, no nothing. They were the characters. And the cameramen didn’t know exactly where the actors would stop, so they had to be very quick on their feet. I loved that. I wanted to mix them into the environment.

And then this relationship between them and their surroundings is completely contradicted, when they get to the hotel. They are uncomfortable. They know that someone is looking over them all the time, the security people or the clients. This is not their own environment. So it’s like they’re aware all the time of where they are. So I hope this produces this little vibration all the time.

Mainly, this tension is visible through the sister, [Valeria (Leticia Brédice)], who works there. When she acts, she’s doing two different jobs — one is her real feelings, and the other is her response to her surroundings. She cannot express herself; she’s doing a picture of herself to her employers. She’s mad at her brother, but has to be so restrained. I love that twisting, that doubled response.

Tell us about the family situation with Marcos and Valeria, which complicates the buddy story, with Marcos and Juan.

There are a lot of things to say about that, but my only regret is that I had to give a lot of information to make this puzzle understandable for the audience. So I had to emphasize a lot of things about how Marcos cheated his family, background information that took us out of the immediate present. What I love is to have two or three characters and let the audience just feel that there is something there, a history, that is not explained. I’m only going to tell you the minimal amount of things.

Remember this Robert Altman film, A Wedding? At the end, the old lady is dying and her husband, Vittorio Gassman, is there. And she finally dies. All through the film you are wondering how come these two are married, this low class Italian guy with this high class woman older than him? And then when she’s dead — I saw it when I was 14, but I still remember — but he puts this napkin over his arm and says, “Madame, I hope you have been well served,” or something like that. And then you know, this guy is a waiter. Nobody tells you anything; it’s just an attitude and a napkin on the arm. I love that!

In Nine Queens, I had to give more information, but I enjoy that idea. And that’s a reason that I used just 24 hours or so in the life of these guys. I knew that before I knew the story. I wanted to do it in one day, no more. It sounds like a limitation, but it’s a challenge. It allows the audience to interpret what went on in the rest of their lives.

Given that the characters are all lying to one another at some level, how were you thinking about setting up a narrative, based on lies but also getting at some kind of truth?

It is a tricky game. As I thought about it, I wasn’t adding information or stories, but multiplying. The informational structure is one thing, and then the relationship between these two guys who lie to each other, that’s something else. They don’t trust each other but they give each other information, which is a way of giving information to the audience — it’s multiplication, because it involves information from two people who lie to each other and to the audience.

In a way, it’s a game, really amusing, a guessing game. Or like a card game: I show you, I don’t show you. Some things are the outcome of the combination of these elements, which can be unexpected. It is like working with materials that you like — whatever you do with them, there is always an enjoyable outcome.

It sounds like there is some tension involved too, in that the plot has to be so precisely laid out, yet there was some flexibility in the production, some play, as to where the actors would end up in a shot, for instance.

Well, there’s a main contrast there, and that’s because the plot is artificial, perfectly driven and drawn. Actually, I would say that I found the end of the film because I could feel this artificiality at the beginning. I was wondering when I was writing at the beginning, “Why is this so artificial?” and then I knew, and I felt, “Of course!” I saw how it came together. Every single problem I had in the first 20 pages, I saw that they would come together. And I wanted to contrast this artificiality of the plot with the form of the film, the way it would look, with camera and lighting.

So I decided to do this kind of available lighting, which was difficult for the DP; he doesn’t work that way every day. He suffered a lot! I told him at the start, that we were going to do it this way, that “You should pretend that you aren’t there.” He made a sacrifice in that way, and I am so grateful. He was trying to understand a mood and convey that, which is, in the end, more interesting than showing your stuff.

Do you want to continue writing and directing, both?

In Argentina, if you get into production on something, most of the time it is because you write your own stuff. There are no freelance writers, looking for a director. If you don’t write, it’s rare that you will come to do a film. It’s like you write in self-defense. You have no other choice.

That said, I wanted to write this film, but it does have a context — that’s the way the industry was. Now, because everything has been so lovely and nice for me in the past year, I have this connection with the film industry here in the States, and they are sending me scripts, so that’s a possibility. But my main advantage is that I’m not looking for it. I can do Argentinean films for the rest of my life and I’ll be happy.

The funding situation is looking bleak right now.

Yes, we’re in trouble now. But I have this privilege, and I can have financing from the United States, or Europe, or Spain. But our industry is financed through the government, the Argentine Film Institute. It’s likely that for the rest of this year we’ll have trouble producing.

But I don’t have to step into Hollywood. I learned that there’s a relationship between the amount of money they invest and the amount of control they want to take over your film. So the less money, the less control. I’m not interested in big, I’m interested in pleasure.