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Carlos Reygadas and "A Perfect Universe"
By Jonathan Marlow
February 15, 2006 - 1:13 PM PST

"You're just creating a perfect unity. Perfect for you."

You wrote this part with Marcos in mind. Was he ever uncomfortable with the things you had written for him to do? Did he ever have reservations about playing this role?

No. Actually, he's very practical. He knows that I wouldn't do any of these things except for making the best film that I can. That's good enough for him. That's all he cares about. He cares about being paid a salary, about being looked after during the film and, for him, it was an experience. He took it like that and that's it. There's really no more thoughts for him than that.

I imagine that it was difficult to find someone to play Ana. Did you look at a lot of women before making a decision?

Actually, yes. For the other parts, I really could pick them on the street and it wasn't so difficult. Bertha [Ruiz], Marcos's wife in the film, I saw maybe twenty women until I found her. I knew she was the right one. But for Ana, it was difficult. I saw between 200 and 300 hundred girls and none of them would suit me until I saw Ana. The moment that I saw her, I knew she was the one. I didn't need to test or anything because I think anyone can act if they're cast for the right role. If I wanted to do a film about you, for instance, then you wouldn't need to act. It would be you and I would just ask you to be in my film. So as long as that principle is followed then I have no problems. When I saw her, I knew it would have to be her.

Battle in Heaven

Of the various individuals in Battle in Heaven, she seems to be the one most likely to continue acting in films.

You know, Marcos is a great, simple person that wants to keep up his normal life. That's it. The rest of the people, apart form Ana, would probably like to continue but I don't think anyone will offer them a role. For example, Bertha, if she was offered a role, would take it for sure. With Ana, it's not that she really wants to continue in this job but, for her, it's a good option. If she were called by someone to do a film, if it were an interesting film, then she would probably do it. But she would not be looking for it.

How much of the script was locked before you began casting? Since you're using the Eisenstein model of typage, was much of the script rewritten once you brought the actors in?

It's curious because all of it was really in my head and I merely wanted a particular kind of person [for each part]. But the moment I actually find the person, their presence or their energy is so strong to me that they redesign their own characters. I want their presence and I cannot imagine someone before seeing them. I know what I need but only when I see what I need.

I'll give you an example. Let's say that you wanted to take a photo of a great landscape. You go out walking in the mountains and, when you saw the great landscape, you would take the photo. You just know you want a great landscape but, when you say that you know it's the one that you were looking for, like two mountains here and one tree there, it doesn't mean that you knew what it was like before you saw it. You cannot know that. You just know that you need a landscape and then you find it. When you find it, you take it. Casting is the same thing.

Although you don't rehearse with the actors, there is a lot of precision in the camera work. Much of your directing is less about telling them how to play the role as it is focused on blocking the performances.

Exactly. You gave the right word. The "how," I never say it. I don't tell them how to play a role, because I don't want them to play a role. But I do tell them exactly what to do and where. I say, "Go there, sit in that chair, count to ten, say your lines, get up and walk out the window." And that's exactly what they do. And when they have dialogue, I make sure that they learn the lines by heart and, once they learned them, I want them to say them.

Even the timing, very often I keep it for myself, so I attach strings to their legs out of frame. For example, I pull the strings to give them the timing, if I want pauses in-between the dialogue and that kind of thing. I don't know if you remember the shot but when Marcos is on the ground and his wife slaps him and then Marcos gets up, the focus goes back and forth and back and forth. Of course, they had to wait for the focus to be done, but how could they know? So I did have the strings for that to give them the timing. It is a completely mechanical system but I believe in it. Some people might think that it doesn't respect the actors. It's completely the opposite. For me, I care about their presence, which is unique and sacred, and once it's been given to the film, I believe in cinema and I let cinema construct the characters rather than the actors.

And you used that same process on Japón as well?

Yes, of course. With Japón, I did not have strings. I just touched them with my hand.

So you're usually very close to the camera, but you're not the camera operator?

Sometimes. When it moves, usually I am. When it doesn't, no.

Do you storyboard?

Yes, I storyboard precisely.

Then you know exactly where the camera needs to move and you control the movement.

Absolutely. Even when I don't do it, because I need to be watching things, I'm giving directions while the shot is going on. I do it before with my cameraman and I explain to him exactly what I want to be done.

Although the plot of the film is a thread under which the characters exist, the plot itself is not important to the film. You're creating a world for these characters to exist.

Exactly. Life doesn't have a plot.

The kidnapping, in particular, is a catalyst that happens before the film begins. However, the unfortunate outcome of the kidnapping pushes Marcos beyond any immediate redemption. Seemingly, his efforts to solve his situation progressively get worse. Every attempt to redeem what he's done has the opposite effect.


That's not even a question. If the plot is not important, what are you after?

Regarding the kidnapping, it's not that it is not important but it isn't, really. Because, as you say, I'm trying to create a world, not tell a story. For me, telling a story is good, but that's for storytellers. I'm not a storyteller. I try to create a clock, if you want, and a clock is a world. That's what I care about.

Is that why Marcos' wife is a seller of clocks?

No, no, no...

I'm not looking for symbolism.

This was just an example. I'll divert a little bit. Very often I get asked, "What is a film and why do you want to make them?" Originally, I thought that there were two options. The first is because you want to please a crowd and the larger, the better. Two, because you want to express yourself. I thought I was very much in the direction of the second but then I kept thinking about the issue and I've come to a third option.

I think both one and two are elements of the whole thing, but the main thing, the main thrust or goal, is to create a perfect universe, a perfect object, not in the sense that it works perfectly but in the sense that it's perfect for you. It's complete, and that's why I thought of a clock - creating a perfect Swiss clock. That's the whole goal and that includes everything in one and two, somehow. You're just creating a perfect unity. Perfect for you.

Battle in Heaven

So, coming back to your question, I would say that what I care about is not how things are done. I don't care how a boy was kidnapped. For me, that has no interest. It's even cruel and horrible to see how such terrible things are done. If theirs was a beautiful marriage, I still wouldn't care because I know how marriages take place. I don't care how things happen. I care about what someone would feel in a particular situation, so I'm trying to establish a status quo at the beginning of the film, saying that this is a man who is married and has some trouble because he has committed a hideous crime and now he is going to try and solve his problem. Let's go with him, this is what I care about. So we try to go into him and see and feel and live through him rather than me telling a story.

When I was a child, my mother and my grandmother told me a lot of stories. I remember that I liked them when I was really young but I started disliking them at a very early age because I would get bored with all these stories.

Because of the fact that the resolution has been established in the beginning...

Because it's so closed. Since I was young, I would prefer someone talking to me about ideas, about physical problems of the world or how the universe is composed, rather than the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper does this and then that.

It's a parable. They have some other meaning that's beyond the context of the story.

Even if it isn't.

When you form this self-contained universe, the characters must remain true to the world that you've created or else the film feels false. When Marcos and Ana are rejoined at the end of the film, you never leave Marcos's perspective.

I think that the whole film is from his point of view. Probably Ana would be in another heaven and she would be kissing someone else that she would really love. Probably her true nature was to be by herself and that is her own heaven. That would be really stupid to think that his heaven is having a blowjob. For me, it's like opening the idea that anything is possible if you believe in it. Maybe not in this world but somehow it can be possible. The idea is that, after all, there is still some hope. I don't want to be deterministic about what it is, so that is why I went to something so material and so deterministic, if you want, because it is a caricature. Of course, that couldn't be any heaven at all, but that implies that what you dream can be possible even though it doesn't have to be possible physically. It's like the idea of moving mountains. It doesn't really mean you move the actual mountain but it means you can do what you want if you really want it. So this is what happens with Marcos, I think.

Please note! If you have not seen Battle in Heaven, please be aware that there are SPOILERS in the answers Carlos Reygadas gives to the remaining questions.

next >>>

"If you miscast, the film is lost."
"You're just creating a perfect unity. Perfect for you."
"Honestly, I really feel that the film is larger than us."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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