By Paul Risker.
If a film is a journey that starts with a germ of an idea and grows into a fully formed creative and narrative entity, then Argentinian filmmaker Javier Diment’s The Rotten Link (2015) encapsulates this journey that every filmmaker is required to steer and guide their film on. First shown as a work in progress at the Cannes Festival, in a gala organized by Blood Windows, which aims to champion cinema from Latin America, The Rotten Link is now ready to take that crucial first step as Diment sends his film out into the world. When Film International spoke with the filmmaker he explained: “The thing is the movie is not finished yet, and so it’s only on Friday 28 August at FILM4 FrightFest that it’s going to begin its journey.” And anticipating the moment Diment added: “Without a doubt this is an excellent first step and one for which I’m very thankful.”
In conversation Diment discussed the way in which his relationship to horror has evolved over time and the influential role religion has played in shaping the identity of narrative fiction as we know it today. The filmmaker also offered a thoughtful and penetrating critique on the intricate relationships between the filmmaker and genre as well as the triangular relationship of storyteller, story and their audience in a conversation that delved deep beneath the surface of The Rotten Link and the creative process.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Most of my best moments have been spent watching movies and reading books. So when I had to decide what to do in life it had to be something to do with that, to have a job in which I could say while I was reading books and watching movies: “I’m working.”
As a filmmaker, do your experiences of understanding the behind the scenes process influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?
I guess they do. Being a spectator and a director have a mutual influence. But I spend more time being a spectator than being a director. I watch hundreds of movies a year and I make one every once in a while. I still think I have a certain innocence as a spectator, which allows me to get very much involved with the movies I watch, and that captivates me.
From adolescence to adulthood, as we become less impressionable our relationship with horror inevitably changes. How do you view the way in which this relationship with the genre evolves?
In my case it changed a lot. When I was a kid these movies used to be the most intense emotional roller-coaster, and I used to become really scared while watching them. I’d react to all of their tricks, but nowadays I’m not scared by horror movies and most of them do not even bother me. What I find interesting about them is their capability to talk about pain and the feeling that there are things which are worse than death; about family and social structures, which imply the most real, profound and invisible horror.
The Rotten Link was first shown as a work in progress at the Cannes Film Festival in a gala organized by Blood Windows. What are your thoughts on this initiative that has just completed its second year, and how has it impacted international attention towards The Rotten Link?
It is an excellent initiative! In Argentina horror movies are neglected, and the ones that get a release usually don’t have much of an audience because through lack of money they have no promotion. Having more incentives for these kind of productions is great and so more of these movies can get made, of which the audience will find out about and who are curious enough to go to the movies! The impact on The Rotten Link is not clear yet, but we have been invited to FILM4 FrightFest because of that, which means we are on the right track!
The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
I think in general I could say through actions, which are a combination of both things. There usually is a particular action that is the germ of my work and the plot develops from there. Action always implies images and ideas at the same time. But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure if it’s just as I have said.
When you were writing the script did you have any actors in mind or rather did you picture what the characters were going to look like? If so how does this help you during the writing? But then how does the reality of the person who eventually plays the role feed back into your earlier musings?
I sometimes write thinking about someone in particular, but most of the times I don’t. And I adapt very well to the impositions of the production, even when they imply a sudden change in the cast. But if the acting is good then it seems impossible to me that the part could have been played by some other actor.
Could a genre such as horror be described as an emotional or sensory experiment? Could it even be compared to composing a piece of music that when orchestrated on the screen will hopefully resonate with the audience the way you had hoped and intended?
I think horror as with all genre cinema needs the three basic levels of experience: the physical (fright, laughter and adrenaline); the emotional (fear and the identification with the character’s conflicts), and the mental (ideas that are exposed, the point of view of reality and the author’s world view transmitted through actions). A failure in any of the three affects the movie. It also has to be said that not all spectators will relate to the three levels. Each spectator has their preferences and capabilities and for some the intellectual is imperceptible or boring, and so for example they are only interested in the adrenaline. But the three levels, whether you like it or not, exist for both the spectator and the author. So how it sounds as an orchestra will depend on how these levels are organized and on the capability of the audience to appreciate the ensemble.
They say horror and comedy are the two most challenging genres because they require you to invoke a reaction from the audience. As a filmmaker do you find genres pose different challenges that stretch you in different ways or does coming to any new project represent a challenge?
Any new project represents a challenge. Horror and comedy are a challenge because they have to provoke fear and laughter, but that is also their advantage: you know where to aim. When the genre is less defined you have the complication of thinking more in-depth in terms of the dynamics of identification, the internal rhythms and the actions…. It’s a bit like poetry that either rhymes or does not rhyme. Meter and rhyme are a challenge, but if you decide to work with a free style then you have no rules because you have to invent the music and that implies an extra rigor. Those two genres are particularly thankful to the author when people either laugh or are scared, and when the mechanism works, it is marvelous.
Is it genre that influences and shapes the work of the filmmaker or is it the filmmaker that shapes the identity of genre? Alternatively could one say a filmmaker and genre collaborate?
You’re missing the third factor: the audience (or as it is now constituted: ‘The Market’). Genre goes forward and backwards. The audience is enthusiastic and that enthusiasm stimulates the author to try to play with the limits. But the audience is also conservative and they need the movie to confirm its suspicions and ideas. But this also limits the author who wants to move the limits more than is recommended. The game between the work, the author and the audience constitutes the internal movement, growth and the setbacks of the genre.
From your previous experiences of dealing with horror-comedy how important and equally how challenging is it to strike a balance between the two so that they compliment rather than impede one another?
When you make a movie you’re operating on the spectator’s brain. In the case of watering more than one genre you have to equilibrate that by parts. So in this part a huge tension was generated and so you have to relax with a joke later. Now they are laughing and so you have to scare them so that they don’t forget that death is lurking. Humor and horror help one another if you know what you want to do to the spectator with each scene; at each moment. And when it works…if they overlap and you are able to make the spectator feel scared while they are simultaneously laughing, then you have achieved something important. Anyway, it’s not just these two items because there are usually other issues and other genres. In my case I like to combine horror and melodrama, for example. Humor is just there because I otherwise get bored and I don’t like the risk of solemnity.
How do the writing, directing, and editing processes inform one another? Are you directing while writing, and how does the editing impact your future approach from a writing and directing perspective?
You’re always writing; you’re always directing and you’re always editing. While I’m writing I’m watching the movie internally and seeing myself as a director solving certain situations, directing actors through dialogue and thinking about the rhythm of the edit. When I’m filming I’m producing the material for the edit. I’m editing mentally all the time and rewriting with the actors, adapting situations to locations and allowing myself to improvise. And when I’m editing I’m rewriting the whole movie: directing actors, changing dialogues, dismantling time, changing the rhythms, modifying the relation of plots and subplots and so on.
The spatial setting is intrinsically linked to the feel of any drama. Alongside the spatial setting, language or accent will also inevitably play a part in creating a certain sense of feeling. When you look abroad to foreign dramas and then return to dramas in your native language, do you see space and language as something that creates a distinct sense of feeling?
Yes, of course. But there are also ways of looking as a more specialized spectator that allow you to get to the intimacy of the drama; to the feeling of any movie; of any period of time, country or genre, as long as it has an internal rigor. If we’ve learnt something from the arts, it is that there are identical human feelings in all places and historical times.
Religion and God are referred to in the film. How influential do you view religion to be on storytelling and narrative fiction? If religion had happened to never have existed within human civilization, then how would that change the shape of narrative fiction and storytelling as we know it today?
Religion and belief systems are tales, stories and fictions invented to ease the anguish of the unknown and the fear of death. If there were no religions, then that would mean that human beings don’t need to tell themselves stories to deal with anguish, and therefore cinema and literature wouldn’t exist. It would mean that human beings don’t need to try to communicate what they don’t know, and therefore music would make no sense. It would mean that human beings don’t need to leave a trace that allows them to feel that they can stay in the world after death, and therefore plastic arts would make no sense. The source of the arts is the same as the source of religion. The marvelous thing is that they can then confront and collide. Religions try to chase, destroy and control the arts because they are a powerful enemy that plays in the same unconscious field as them, or the fictions try to destroy religion because they are abusive, manipulative, controlling, liars and psychopaths.
Reflecting on contemporary Argentinian cinema, are you optimistic about its future both at home and on the international stage?
Yes, and I think we’re experiencing a great time. I mean it’s not that right now is a great moment, but we’re getting there. It is also going to depend on political issues, whether we can follow a certain path and whether we will be able to carry it out.
How do you view the way in which The Rotten Link has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
This is a very personal and a very particular movie. It’s not a horror movie; it’s not a comedy and it’s not a genre film. It’s a world with its own rules – structurally, not classically, where for example we could see it has having two acts instead of three. It made me confront a lot in order to see what it was that I wanted to tell – why was I making this movie; what was it I wanted to provoke in all the possible and different spectators? And besides, it made me think about the career I wanted for myself in this moment: whether to go on a recognizable, commercial path or make a movie that no one else would make because no one is expecting it. And I just made it because I wanted to.
I think the story might have lots of elements that have to do with myself and which intrigue me. There are reflections in the action that sound in a strange way and there is even the risk of the film being more lonely – less festivals calling; less interest from TV channels and not being allowed to sell it. I made that decision and now the movie is starting its path and I’ll see how it goes. The experience was a great but a complex one. I worked with marvelous people who understood and enriched the movie, but also with people who didn’t understand a thing and were not helpful. I watch the movie and I’m moved by the fact that it is alive and that it is going to be watched. I’m moved by the fact that there will be spectators that will be moved by it and will think and laugh along with it. And this confirms for me my approach of directing and filming from the most personal point of view that I can.
The world premiere of The Rotten Link took place at FILM4 FrightFest on Friday 28 August. For more information on FILM4 FrightFest visit: www.frightfest.co.uk.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.