We Skyped with the Golden Bear-winning director about her process, her feminine perspective, and what it was like to work with Jennifer Connelly.
Jennifer Connelly as Nana in 'Aloft' (2015), by Claudia Llosa
Although Claudia Llosa may seem like a hidden gem to the uninitiated, she's one of the most relevant and imaginative Latin American female filmmakers working today. Her career started with her 2006 debut Madeinusa, which is about a small village where god is dead for three days and therefore can't see the sins and vices of the villagers. But Llosa really made it into the international spotlight with her film The Milk of Sorrow, which was released in 2009 and is about a fictional disease that is passed from mother to daughter through breastfeeding. For the film, Llosa took home the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin Film Festival. The film also ended up being the first Peruvian movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
After a few years, she's back with her newest effort, Aloft. This is her first picture in English with a major actress. Although her previous work featured non-actors, this one stars Jennifer Connelly, who won an Oscar for her performance in A Beautiful Mind. The film tells the story of Nana (Connelly), a single mother who abandons her child in search of a different life as a mystic healer. At the same time, the film also tells the story of her son Ivan (Cillian Murphy) trying to find his mother, many years later, in a journey to heal and find closure. The film achieves a perfect marriage between aesthetic poetry, joyful narrative, and strong visual symbolism. It's the kind of work that makes you feel and makes you think at the same time, which is really what all good art is supposed to do.
We spoke to Claudia over Skype from her apartment in Barcelona about Aloft, being a female filmmaker, and how the success of The Milk of Sorrow has changed her life.
Trailer to 'Aloft' (2015) by Claudia Llosa
VICE: What have you been up to lately?
Claudia Llosa: The last two years have been very concentrated on Aloft and publicity. I've been on the go, out on the streets, filming, engaged in face-to-face contact with the crew, with people, with the public. But now I'm writing and in a totally different process, more introspective, more solitary. It's exactly what I need now, after so much turmoil. What I do is basically write, read, research, and spend all day like that. I exercise and then return to the computer.
Something you've said many times is that when a movie premieres, it stops being your own and you give it to the public to make it their own.
Great friends, screenwriters, and filmmakers, have advised me that, when a movie premieres, you have to be onto the next one already. It's a type of mourning, to put it another way, and it's very healthy. The truth is that, in my case, it's pretty organic. I know very well where I'm going. I'm not searching for the next project. I'm already writing with a clear road ahead. The horizon isn't so wide. It's not a completely blank page. In this sense, you enjoy it in another way because you're happy with the project, the theme. And you're already in action mode.
Characters you normally write have a kind of past, a shadow. They have wounds that need to heal. They're characters who are fighting to not be victims. How much of you is in these characters?
It's very difficult to draw a line, a border, like taking a scalpel and cutting something distinct. It's complicated when you work in such a personal way, but also with the freedom to construct from anywhere—from the imagination, from empathy. I believe in a certain sense there's a profound and clear feminine perspective to character creation that's organic and casual. Something frees itself after carrying either a past history or a specific character situation. For me, it's a seductive, overwhelming force. Sometimes this strength shows its fragility. Preconceived strength isn't in the character. It's a strength that's pretty interior, very internal, very hidden, and it goes about taking charge of the character as the film advances, for better or worse. They are characters who always make complicated decisions and I believe it's permitted to explore them. They're prisms that can lead to a new perspective.
That tenacity, that feminine strength, also owes a lot to the fact that you're a woman. Let's talk about being a woman in the society we live in. Do you feel that being a filmmaker and a woman, not to mention being from Latin America, makes things more difficult for you?
It's a very important issue right now. Without a doubt, it's clear we haven't achieved equality, neither in general nor when it comes to work, and even less so in this industry. To pretend that this limitation doesn't exist is to turn your back on reality. However, I am not someone who has experienced much evidence of this inequality in her own flesh. The exact opposite, in fact. So I can't compare. What's clear is that it's a complicated topic and I believe we're far from discovering real reasons why we keep falling into hegemonic discourse. So I just hope there will be more and more examples in which women directors are found. I haven't had experiences in which I've felt a specific discrimination but this doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist.
You've said you wanted to be a screenwriter and ended up a filmmaker by chance.
But it seems you liked it and you're not bad at it. Can you imagine what your life would be like as a screenwriter?
I really like the work of creating a world, but writing is hard for me, even though I came from there. I wrote poetry when I was very small. I only dropped poetry when I picked up movies, you could say. My inroad is much more based on images. I feel much freer. Possibly it's because of dyslexia or a symptom of the era I was born. I feel fortunate to have encountered a balance between these two creative sources. They complement one another very well. And I believe that, finally, looking back, it would have cost me much more to develop as a screenwriter because I have a very specific writing style. I think there are people who are very permeable in their tone in general, in their capacity to explore different types of dialogue. I believe this is the great ability of a screenwriter. In my case, I think permeability would have been hard for me.
When I was a little kid, I didn't necessarily dream of being a filmmaker. I didn't emerge from that sort of early drive. I don't remember a dream of, "Ah, I want to make movies." More so, I remember the dream of, "Ah, I would like to be a screenwriter," because it's a construction of a world and since I was little, it's seemed like something very compatible and close to me.
The cinema I like is that one that stays in my soul. It imprints itself in my heart.
I imagine your life, on a career level, has had a before and an after The Milk of Sorrow . How has life been post-Oscar nomination, post-Golden Bear win, on a professional level?
It's clear this film was very important, not only on a personal and professional level, but also because this film, with its dimensions and the history it carried, had this impact. For me, it has symbolized something very special. You can wish or dream that a film you make one day achieves global recognition, but the fact that it's specifically loaded with history, I take it as a gift. The success of Milk of Sorrow made it possible to get the next project, Aloft, off the ground.
On another level, I can surround myself with a crew and a cast so singular and fantastic and of the highest level, yes, only because of the experience with Milk of Sorrow at Berlin and the Academy Awards. The fact of having been invited to the Academy Awards, the fact of all the invitations and considerations, the fact that the film has symbolized something so important for Peru itself, I am very grateful in every way. I am very conscious of the awards and their relevancy and that they're based on many more considerations than the film's quality. For me, the real professional success was to be the official selection of Berlin. Everything else has been a plus. Being acknowledged in another country, having them recognize your name and do so in Spanish... There are a variety of signs that are very important for me on a daily basis and they encourage me to continue.
Regarding Aloft, how's the the reception from different audiences at different festivals been? Because it's a film one could read in a thousand different ways.
It's curious, but my films are always very economical—that is, either you enter them or you don't. It's a very visceral world. It's like that with each and every one of them. I've never felt any change. Obviously, the new film hasn't won the Golden Bear. That's not the same and we won't pretend it is. But that's not the filmmaker's objective. When it connects with you, it's incredible because the film has such a strong emotional drive. The connection with the public, when provided, is very important and lovely.
Aloft seemed to me like a visually exquisite and narratively touching film, but it's a history that involves a lot of poetry and could be a little inaccessible for some people. Do you worry that there's a type of accessibility barrier for the regular moviegoer?
I personally try to be as honest as I possibly can with the process, because for me, the modes of storytelling and accessibility are also part of the drive and the message. Going out there is important to arrive where I want to go. I can't separate it. It's something that, for me, must be compact and unique. This process, without a doubt, isn't for everyone. The cinema I like is the one that stays in my soul. It imprints itself in my heart. It's not necessarily easy or accessible cinema. I wait for it and it directs me. The reward is so strong for exactly this reason. I try to be honest and there are films that are harder, due to their own needs, and there are films that will be easier, thanks to their own dynamics. But you get in touch with them through their own theme. Each film is made according to its own language. Each film will find its own audience.
I meant it's more challenging to find a wide audience.
What happens is that now we're accustomed to the rapid impulse, the gratuitous impulse, to immediacy, not to effort—and this isn't necessarily something I value. There are films that achieve, without a doubt, a very special and powerful balance. I very much enjoy it when this occurs. And, sure, one looks to achieve a wider audience, but I'm loyal to the intensity of the process and the personal journey experienced by each viewer when it's genuine and real, more than when many people show up, but it lacks intensity.
You said in an interview that when you first met Jennifer (Connelly) and told her about the project, she fell in love with it and she was the reason why the film is on the screen and not on paper. Why do you think she connected so much with the film?
It's very complicated to put words in another's mouth. I had heard she had seen my other film and she read the script and there was a very quick connection.
From your side, how did you experience this connection?
It's been very important for me because mainly the role of Nana was key in the film to designing the other roles. This role was central and without it, we wouldn't be able to continue casting because the son (Cillian Murphy) had to do with her, the girl Ressmore (Mélanie Laurent) too, everything revolved around this character. Everything after it was like a domino that started to fall.
I chose Jennifer because she's an actress I consider brilliant, a very intelligent woman, very sensible, and with access to her own really captivating emotions. She has an important visual force, but also she has this gravity and at the same time this ephemeral air I was looking for in the character. This contradiction between a human being who has the capacity for being very earthy in one respect, but on the other hand, something very ethereal is what I looked for in Nana's character. Obviously the connection and her capacity to understand the film on a generic and on a global level, for me, from the moment I sat down with her, I knew I wanted to work with her. To have her has been a motivating force.
You've said that filming is rewriting the script and editing is rewriting the filming. Which process did you most enjoy rewriting during Aloft?
Without a doubt, the filming was very special, very lovely, very liberating. We all enjoyed it so much and the editing was hand in hand with the editor, whom I adore. We've become great supportive friends. But, in terms of enjoyment, the filming process always produces much more adrenaline.
This interview was translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.
Claudia Llosa's Aloft is in theaters now.
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