Jason Wood talks to Michel Franco

This is an edited extract from The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, by HOME’s Creative Director for Film and Culture, Jason Wood. Franco’s latest film, Nuevo orden (New Order), features in this year’s ¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival, with a preview introduced by Jason on Wednesday, 11 August.

As a director, screenwriter and producer, Michel Franco is a prolific figure in Mexican cinema. Daniel & Ana (2009), Franco’s debut feature as director, premiered at Cannes and established him as a film-maker with a forensic eye for detail and character. Franco is also incredibly attuned to contemporary issues in Mexican society, in this instance the rise of underground pornography. The winner of the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes, After Lucia (2012) continues the director’s interest in fractured family lives and how technology can act as a powerful and poisonous tool.

A los ojos (2014), a collaboration with Franco’s sister Victoria, adopts a documentary aesthetic to explore the ends to which a parent will go to protect their child, whilst also examining how little we can ever really know someone, a theme similarly explored in Franco’s subsequent features, Chronic (2015), the director’s first film made outside of Mexico, and April’s Daughter (2017), which won the Cannes Jury Prize.

Jason Wood: Can we start by talking about your route into cinema? Were you formally trained? You have multiple skills?

Michel Franco: I didn’t go to film school so I had to start shooting short films without any guidance or training. I used common sense and trial and error. I realised that if I was going to direct something then I was going to have to write and produce it myself. I learned the basics at a summer workshop and then started making short films right away. I started showing them to people and sending them out to festivals but I was pretty much self-taught and without realising it I was trying to do different things such as write, produce, direct, edit and shoot without being really conscious of this fact.

JW: Has being able to work across different disciplines been a huge benefit? Has it enabled you to retain control over your work?

MF: Yes. It has been the only way actually because I am producing very personal films. Everything I write has to be delivered in a very specific way and I am not sure that there are too many producers that would fully understand my work. Or at least I was never able to find one. We also have to consider that we are not going to be able to do these movies for tons of money, especially my first two or three movies. I had to shoot them on very small budgets and the only way to do this was to apply the money where it really mattered. Producers would keep saying ‘No’ to everything because they wanted security and to do everything in a traditional or classic manner. This is not my approach to cinema. For me to be my own producer is an absolute must.

JW: Are there film-making figures you take inspiration from? Those especially with a singular vision perhaps.

MF: I like most of the usual big names: Bergman, Buñuel, Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lars von Trier is one of the more recent directors that could be said to have been an influence. I’m also a huge fan of Korean cinema. My work is often compared to Michael Haneke, and I do like and admire his work. With Haneke, if I don’t mention the name others tend to.

JW: And any works by Mexican directors?

MF: El callejón de los milagros (Midaq Alley, 1995) by Jorge Fons was a film I saw when I was young and that stayed with me. I saw it when I was fifteen or sixteen. I liked the way it was constructed but, to be honest, when I started making my short films I wanted to get as far away as I could from Mexican cinema. I didn’t feel close to it. Films like Amores Perros (2000) and Japón (2002) felt important because they showed that a different type of film could be made in Mexico but I wouldn’t say that they directly influenced my work at all.

Daniel & Ana (2009)

JW: How did your debut feature Daniel & Ana (2009) come about? I read it was based on a real case.

MF: That’s true. I came to know about it via a therapist that had worked on the case who thought that I would be interested in it. I didn’t have direct access to the victims but I did have all the details about the story. I also had to fill in the blanks with the dialogue etc., but the actual structure and the story pretty much reflected reality.

JW: You approach the material in such a way as to put the spectator in the position of the two central protagonists. We feel their fear and we also feel their trauma.

MF: I wanted the viewer to feel the emotions of Daniel and Ana, the brother and sister in the film, and to understand the psychological stress they endure, but I wanted to do it without resorting to the usual tricks. I wanted to avoid music and I wanted to avoid close-ups. I wanted to avoid the type of typical film language that tells you what to think and how to feel. I wanted to give people space but at the same time to make it as effective as possible. I think my choices were also partly a reaction against Mexican cinema as entertainment and heightened melodrama.

JW: The release of the film also contributed to the notion of an emerging arthouse approach to cinema emerging from Mexico.

MF: When it was released ten years ago people would tell me that it didn’t look or feel Mexican and, if I am honest, I took it as a compliment. Things have changed now, but back then it did have more of a European sensibility. I’m not sure how deliberate I was in trying to get away from what was traditionally thought of as Mexican cinema, but I was certainly trying to do a lot with as little as possible.

Despues de Lucia 5

After Lucia (2012)

JW: After Lucia (2012) shares an affinity with Daniel & Ana in that it again deals with members of the same family who find themselves in a
distressing situation.

MF: It’s interesting for me to explore how violence affects people that are closely linked and this of course applies to the family unit. I am also interested in how a violent or shocking event changes the dynamic within a family. And as I said, violence is a natural part of our daily lives in Mexico. Every time somebody is kidnapped or robbed you just have to carry on in the aftermath and there will be a psychological price to live with.

JW: Your film-making style is very specific and precise. There is very little that is superfluous and this extends to the fact that you rarely show violence on screen. This is certainly true of After Lucia.

MF: My films are economical in every sense and I want to not show too much violence because I am not really interested in the shock value of depicting violence on screen. If a film is more violent than it needs to be I think that you lose your audience. They stop thinking and feeling
because they are too shocked to think and feel. It shuts you down when you are exposed to too much violence. I think that it is better to rely
more on the imagination of the spectator. What is happening off screen may be even more violent, but they can imagine this for themselves. I
also want people to think about the violence and the act of the violence and its inevitable consequences.

JW: Chronic (2015) is again interested in the family unit but this time it is more the idea of the surrogate family. It is however again a departure because it sees you working for the first time outside of Mexico and in English.

MF: It was a challenge to make a film in Los Angeles with Tim Roth. I now count him as a friend but back then we had just met. I had another film that I was going to shoot in Mexico about a palliative carer with a female protagonist but then After Lucia won Un Certain Regard in Cannes and Tim Roth was a member of the jury; he said turn the carer into a man and I’ll do it. Tim wanted us to work together and I regard him as one of the best actors in the world. It was a challenge not to lose my voice and my identity because I was shooting in the States. I was also producing the film. Another challenge.

Chronic (2015)

JW: How did the central idea for the film come to you and how deep did you go in terms of research? Palliative care is such an interesting and emotive subject and to this you add the notion of a human being who, in order to make himself feel, sort of plugs himself into the  suffering of others.

MF: The answer is very simple. My grandmother was sick. She suffered a brain stroke, which left her bedridden and unable to communicate. She had a series of caregivers who helped her. The first or second day I watched how the caregiver cared for her, analysed her and began to develop a relationship with her. I was intrigued and began to think that there was a movie there. Throughout the months, until the final death of my grandmother, I developed a relationship with the carer myself and we talked a lot. This is where Chronic was born.

JW: You reveal the details of the suffering at the heart of the character Tim Roth plays in increments.

MF: I had to invest weeks and months to understand who this nurse was. It was a natural relationship and I didn’t want to rush it and serve it up to the audience as a pill that they could simply swallow. I didn’t want it to be straightforward. I hate it when I go to the cinema and everything is delivered within the first five minutes – who is good, who is bad and exactly what is going to happen. I think that’s a lazy approach to cinema. In this instance, they are very specific people, caregivers I mean, and for me the interest of this movie is to understand them slowly and to take our time.

JW: The family members are slowly usurped in their grief, and realise this too late. Roth is like an emotional sponge.

MF: Yes, and I think because he is deeply depressed. That’s what takes him to the job. I didn’t want to reduce it to the fact that he had lost a child himself, but, of course, there is a clue there. The title of the movie is also a clue to his depression, and that’s why he behaves the way he does.

JW: It’s an incredible performance from Tim Roth.

MF: It’s a film that I know he is very proud of. It’s a very complex role. Most of it was there in the script but Tim certainly offered his own take on the character and his perspective. He also worked for months with patients and became a caregiver himself.

JW: You had produced 600 Miles (2015), which also starred Tim Roth, directed by Gabriel Ripstein. How did the two projects interact?

MF: We were shooting 600 Miles with a different actor and we had to let him go because he was a pain in the neck. We were stuck with a production without an actor. We were in Tucson, Arizona, and with a first-time director and I was a first-time producer for a film directed by somebody else. Tim and I were prepping Chronic and he decided to also get involved in 600 Miles. When we shot Chronic, Gabriel Ripstein became one of the producers. So, we kept the actor but Gabriel and I switched roles.

JW: And what projects are you working on at the moment?

MF: We are into post-production on two movies. One directed by Lorenzo Vigas and my own movie, which is called New Order, although the title might change. The film looks at Mexico and the way that it is going. I wrote it three years ago but there is a strong coincidence between what is happening not only in Mexico but also in Chile and Hong Kong. Lorenzo’s movie is a more intimate work set in the north of Mexico, which is one of the most dangerous areas of the country. It’s a collaboration with our regular technical crew. The film is called The Box, but I think the title will change.

JW: And any plans to work again with Tim Roth?

MF: We are prepping a movie actually. Something I wrote specifically for him.

JW: You should persuade him to direct again. It’s been a while since The War Zone (1999).

MF: He should! We talk a lot about it.

Nuevo orden (New Order) previews on Weds 11 Aug as part of this year’s ¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival. The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema is available from all good bookshops now.