Article/ No: The Fight for Democracy

Pablo Larraín’s latest film No offers a fascinating account of the last days of Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Here, Larraín and his star and producer Gael García Bernal discuss the inspiration and process behind this powerful political thriller with James Mottram…

James Mottram: Why did you want to tell this story of how Pinochet was overthrown?

Pablo Larraín: Everybody knows how Pinochet came into power with the coup in 1973. However, nobody knows how he was removed. It’s really unique: dictators usually die in power – very rich with Rolls Royces, like the (Sacha Baron Cohen) film The Dictator – it’s crazy, but it is like that.

JM: What do you remember of the ‘No’ campaign that helped defeat him?

PL: I was 12 [in 1988]. I was the age of Gael’s son in the film. When I was with him, I felt he was pretty much like me – playing the Atari. And then my dad would come in and say, “Put on the news”. What I remember is that when the campaign came on, everybody was watching it. It’s like when Chile is playing in the World Cup: no cars in the street, the country has stopped and is just watching TV. We witnessed everything through the TV. That’s why we have TVs in every scene of the movie.  Sometimes they’re switched off, but they’re there.

Gael García Bernal: I grew up with a lot of political exiles from all over Latin America. I’m from Guadalajara, but I moved to the south of Mexico City, where most of the political exiles from Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Peru lived. So I knew a lot of kids that were born from Chilean exiles and of course I knew about Pinochet. How Pinochet came to power is perhaps the most horrendous, dramatic and unjust story. Chile was the first country that democratically elected a socialist-communist leadership and it was overthrown by a military coup. It was the first country to overthrow a dictator through democratic means. Now we can laugh about it – it was done with the rudimentary means they had in those days.

JM: What were the TV commercials like?

PL: I remember the campaign being so serious, and people really concentrated on them. Nobody would move – everyone was watching the campaigns. Now, with the hindsight of 24 years, I’m interested in how the meaning of those commercials has changed with time. The perception is different. Some people think they’re funny. Some think they’re ironic. Others still take them seriously. It’s amazing.

JM: Gael, you play René Saavedra, a PR spin-doctor who helped lead the ‘No’ campaign against Pinochet. What did you think of the approach they used?

GGB:  It was something young: let’s do something, let’s promise the sun is going to come out in Chile after Pinochet leaves power. In those days, Chileans were incredibly depressed – it was just a grey country. The culture had been cut down. All the fabulous poets and singers that Chile had were silenced by the dictatorship. Then, all of a sudden, these guys said, “Let’s start the rebirth of Chile”. That’s why it worked so well.

JM: Pablo, Gael’s company Canana Films was behind your previous film Post Mortem (2010). What was it like working with him as an actor?

PL: If you see the film, he talks for the entire movie. The guy is talking and talking and talking – but you still don’t know what he’s thinking. And that’s Gael. He carries a mystery.  I believe film actors need that. When I see an actor and I know what they’re thinking, it’s boring. I don’t want to know anything else. Gael keeps that mystery.

JM: Why did you shoot the film using equipment from the 1980s?

PL: It was very important. I don’t like these movies where you see this difference between the [old] footage and the beautiful HD 35mm. I thought if we used original footage and we shot the movie in the same way, it would merge in a way that people wouldn’t really notice, or wouldn’t know what is new or old. I think that’s interesting.

JM: You’ve made three period films: Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem and now No. Are going to work on a more contemporary project next?

PL: I need to – I’m tired! I’ve been doing movies all set in the past. It’s exhausting! I’m dying  to  shoot in the street, to go out and make something with real life. I’m done with it. I’m over with the period. I did this trilogy – that’s it for me!

With thanks for Curzon Cinemas

No screens from Fri 8 February. Watch the trailer and book your tickets here.