Helsinki International Film Festival 2019: Miguel Llansó Interviewed
I interviewed director Miguel Llansó as a part of Helsinki International Film Festival 2019. He was in Finland as a guest of the festival, here to present his latest film Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway – a movie that I found quite interesting, especially in the way that it combined media landscapes, pop culture, nostalgy and religious themes. (Haastattelu suomeksi.)
Toni Saarinen: How would you yourself describe Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway?
Miguel Llansó: I always say that it’s a sociodrama. There are all these layers of surreality and political satire, but there’s also something which is, I guess, the small individual in front of a big and complex world where you feel a bit lost – where you have to find the meaning, perform your best.
TS: And what about you, then: what sort of a filmmaker are you, in general?
ML: Well, for me, separation between life and film is absurd. I think they are one. So I like to make films just to enjoy the experience, and to make them with my friends. I do not do big productions, they are more like friendship-based productions. And they take a long time – two to three years. I enjoy discovering things. So I’d say that I like to escape the comfort region of my home and embark on adventures similar to the ones in my films: this means travelling to different countries and meeting fascinating people who also get to play parts in the films.
TS: So the decision to film all over the world was based mostly on getting to stay in touch with those people?
ML: I was living in Ethiopia, now I live in Estonia: I find a lot of fascinating places and people everywhere I go. I like to portray certain locations, and that gives me new ideas, so then I make changes to the screenplay – I think I can’t leave anything behind. Every time I find a new place, I try to put it in the movie. That’s why my film becomes somehow like a horror vacui: a collection of all kinds of different stuff, or a room where you’ve collected items from the past.
TS: Was it an easy production?
ML: It was kind of an easy production… I work with small teams, so they are very manageable on the set. Normally, there were no more than eight to ten people, including the actors. Sometimes, for instance in the waterfall scene where Batfro appears (below), there were only the director of photography and myself. Just the two of us, filming that. This versatility allows you to travel a lot. It would be impossible to do so with a big production, it would cost millions.
TS: Seems like a fitting way to make movies in a globalized world – moving in small groups, using whatever is there, on the location…
ML: I like it. And since we live in a globalized world, instead of travelling as tourists we make films – to understand the realities a bit better, to experience things and places in a deeper way than tourism would allow.
TS: Jesus Shows You… was a Kickstarter project. What kind of an experience was that, and what are your thoughts on the future of these “alternative” fundings?
ML: First, it was very difficult because there’s a lot of work to do. Basically, what we did was shoot a spectacular trailer, one that grabs attention. Then we tried to work with the people who supported my previous work, saying that this is the only way we can make the film… But then we got the crowdfunding. It opened us doors for more funding, and more people. It wasn’t just about the money, rather a step to make the project a bit bigger, and it was very useful for getting nice people involved. There are many, around the world, who’d like to participate in projects that they find fascinating. This way, you create a small, special community that follows the production and supports you. And there are also other filmmakers in the crowdfunding. They have sent me their films afterwards. Maybe you helped by giving just five or ten euros – it doesn’t matter. What it does is, it creates a certain link.
TS: Religion is a subject that figures heavily in both of your full length movies. What was your main purpose when you wrote these religious themes in?
ML: For me, it’s always a question of a small person in front of a big, hard-to-understand sphere of the world. The world is chaotic, surprising, amazing: it doesn’t have any shape, or God “as a reason”. But it has a collection of amazing, random things popping up. For that, you have to dive into this chaotic magma where things are connected in a kind of alogical, or primary logical, way. This might be very similar to the way the first men in the caves [e.g. in Lascaux], or the first poets in Greece – for instance Hesiodos – were trying to describe the original magma. The poets connect the things in a way that is not logical but still makes sense, like in the world of dreams… I think that the power of my two films comes from these random connections. Even if there’s a certain storyline, the connections are there – in this original push to find a meaning.
TS: And then there are the myths – for instance, the imagery of the 80’s as an example of a modern mythology. And the character of Jesus, a connection between all these worlds…
ML: For me, the figure of Jesus Christ has always been too strict. Well, the times were strict. For example, he didn’t want to see his mother or his brothers anymore – I mean, c’mon, guy! In the modern times, if we update the story, I guess the character would be very cool. More understandable, more flexible.
TS: And he’d understand the computer world – virtual realities, and so on…
ML: Probably not! But he would try to be chill even in an environment that he wouldn’t understand shit about. He would try to transmit emotions, calm people down. That’s the way I like to imagine it, thinking more about the miracles – bread and fish – than the bloody cross.
TS: I noticed that there are a lot of masks and costumes in your films, in both this and Crumbs (2015) – where does that fascination come from?
ML: All these pop symbols, objects coming to me, are like, basically, a pollution. I grew up eating Kellogg’s Frosties, for instance, and every time you opened a box there was a figure inside. It was nice, to have this Batman toy for example, but at the same time all that publicity and propaganda – it was invading the private space. You had to have the latest G.I. Joe toys. It was exhausting. So now I want to subvert it. To create a distortion out of the objects.
TS: So there are both good and bad sides to this object fetishism.
ML: Totally. And about the masks: when we were pitching the project, they told us, ”this concept is very crazy – to make it commercial, you need stars”. So we thought, okay, let’s put a couple of stars in. Why don’t we put the biggest ones? Let’s take Robert Redford [one of the masks has his face].
TS: Crumbs, at least, has been defined as afrofuturism. But I feel there’s a special sense of nostalgy as well, in both of these films. Crumbs being about living with the past all around us, and Jesus Shows You… has all that old technology and aesthetics.
ML: I wouldn’t say nostalgy comes directly from the past – more like from a sense of a home that you’ve lost or haven’t found yet. It’s about how you combine home and adventure: like how you look back home on an adventure, and find it a little far away… You can’t exactly reach back to that place of your imagination, the place in your memories. Both things work at the same time. You want to produce reality with your mind, but that reality always keeps a little bit away from you. Distant. That’s where the sense of nostalgy comes from, I think, and that’s why I use places that don’t resemble the current times. They can be in the future or in the past: they’re a mix of both.
TS: It felt to me like the issue of immersion is a big thing in Jesus Shows You... The virtual realities look obviously fake, but the characters are still completely immersed in them. Do you see this as an actual threat with fiction, the internet, etc.?
ML: Yes, we of course live in world where it’s very easy to get lost! But in this world, everything looks really familiar even if you get lost. For me, unfamiliar places can mostly be found in the world of literature. I was very much inspired by Philip K. Dick books, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik and Valis. There’s always a distortion of reality that makes you question things, but from an emotional point of view.
TS: You’ve also studied philosophy. Are there any philosophers who have inspired you when making these films?
ML: Lately, it’s been science fiction writers mostly. But yes, ”base philosophers” for me are the stream that comes from Nietzsche. Michel Foucault, and all the biopolitics… They all have a foot in Platonism, I think, which is the division between the world of ideas and the reality. The distortion that you can find in Matrix, for example.
TS: Your films indeed feel a bit closer to the world of ideas than reality.
ML: They’re very iconic. Sometimes people find it a bit disturbing, or boring, or they don’t connect. Because we’re very used to seeing reality in cinema – being dragged into something that is very real, even if it’s science fiction from Hollywood. It still looks so real. But I like to use the ”icon dimension”. Like, when you see paintings in an orthodox church, for example, they don’t look real – but it’s not like the people weren’t able to paint back in the day. They were. But there’s a certain iconization at work, a certain aspect of reality that they didn’t want to portray. Like in the comics.
TS: An abstraction, sort of. Something that we might be losing these days.
ML: Yes. Maybe we are losing the capacity to reflect and dream? Because when everything looks real in the latest Hollywood production, your imagination isn’t adding anything. The world has already been built. In literature you always have to imagine, to do a translation from the words. But if everything is finished, even if it’s a Star Wars… I don’t know if you can really dream, then.
TS: Do you think some films, apart from your own, capture this zeitgeist especially well?
ML: There are many. I’ve always been very fond of Luis Buñuel films – all the early Surrealist movies like The Andalusian Dog and The Golden Age. I also like experimental films from the 50’s and 60’s: Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger… and also David Lynch. Eraserhead, especially. And all the Italians. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex was also shot in Africa and it’s a masterpiece for me, with all its iconic symbols.
TS: My last question is a basic one, really: what’s next?
ML: I don’t know for sure, but it’s probably something similar to these. I would like to travel, make friends, and reflect on globalization and the world from different perspectives.