[Editor's note: Some might consider a turn of a phrase here and there in the interview that follows a spoiler. If so, they'd be very minor spoilers, but if you're an absolute purist when it comes to this sort of thing, please consider yourself warned. Thanks.]
Julio Medem is the most engaging and exciting filmmaker to come out of Spain since Carlos Saura in my opinion - and that includes Pedro Almodóvar. Medem doesn't direct so much as weave his films. Fumbling characters, criss-crossing stories and recurring images and motifs intertwine, blur and transform through time. As much about his country's distinctive landscapes and natural mysteries as they are about his restless and obsessive characters, his films burst with narrative games, visual puns, and a passionate embrace of fate, fantasy and the illogical power of love.
Vacas (1992), the story of two clans who feud and flirt through the three generations between the Carlist Wars of 1875 and the devastating Spanish Civil War, shows the tragic lives and compromised heroes of Medem's later films as well as his amazing eye for images and his fascination with mysterious nature in its simmering primal form. The Red Squirrel (1993) is a dense mind game of cinematic delights about a suicidal pop star (Nancho Novo) who rescues an enigmatic motorcycle-riding beauty (Emma Suarez) and, when he discovers she has amnesia, spins a fantasy where she becomes his old girlfriend. The complex weaves of lies, deceptions, and past lives that refuse to stay buried take on a life of their own as they "recover" together at a remote campground. Medem constantly shifts the foundations out from under audiences' assumptions with sly revelations, shifting perspectives and a squirrel's-eye view to the games people play.
Tierra (1995) remains Medem's masterpiece, threading character and landscape into a rich expression of human nature in all its contradictions. Medem moves from views of the earth, seemingly from an orbiting satellite, to microscopic examinations of the underworld beneath the red soil of a desert region where our hero, Angel (Carmelo Gomez), is fumigating. Medem changes perspective, scale and even reality (Angel is watched over by a his own guardian angel who may just be his conscience) to create stories and characters with empathy, transforming "wrong" choices into a revealing insight into the beautiful contradictions of human nature. His fourth feature, Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998), swoons with romantic abandon. The fateful love story weaves reality, fantasy and memory into a narrative tapestry of recurring images: airplanes, cars, gas gauges and a big red bus forever pulling into the paths of our characters become motifs enriched with each fresh appearance.
In 2002, Julio Medem was honored as an "Emerging Master" at the Seattle International Film Festival (never mind that he had, as far as everyone else was concerned, emerged years ago). SIFF had launched the American premieres of Medem's first two features and invited him to present his latest film, Sex and Lucia (which earned him the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director). Medem, now in his mid-40s, was making his first visit to Seattle and, with the help of an interpreter, discussed his films, his themes and his creative process with me between screenings.
Lovers of the Arctic Circle
I'd like to know about your approach. Where does the process begin? The images and the settings and the stories all seem inseparable and organic.
How can I summarize? There is, of course, the first moment, the epiphany, when the idea first comes, an idea strong enough to motivate you to write. The idea always comes to me with an image, an image that defines the narrative tone, the visual tone and the atmosphere. It all comes together with the idea. The essence of what I want to portray. And it's usually something that comes from the subconscious, like I'm in a half dream state when I get these inspirations and that's how it all starts. The story is not clear at the beginning. It's more like a mystery that I have to solve, to open doors and let the ideas come out. In a sense, it's like I'm walking one step at a time and experiencing each step, not projecting myself ahead. There's nothing structured. It's just walking through the idea, opening the doors in front of me, and taking the ideas that come out one at a time. When I get to the end of the road, I look back from above, like a bird's eye view, and try to look at my journey objectively, looking for a linear path. In a sense, it's like the image of an explorer that goes into a new landscape and hikes around and, when he gets to the top of the mountain, looks back and draws the map.
It's interesting that you describe it as a linear pathway, because your stories seem to circle around and weave stories together in a complicated way, and then draw them together in the end.
The linear description is not an accurate description. The path I follow is not a linear path, it's sinuous, and I don't know where it's going to take me. When I get to the end, I look back on the landscape and see certain repetitions. Themes start emerging, narratives start appearing. My work in making this path is to get them to flow together and make sense.
You use the word landscape, which I think is telling: the landscapes of your films are so rich and evocative, like another character. For instance in Tierra, the red soil affects the color of the entire movie, while in Sex and Lucia, on the island, the bright sunlight defines the look and the feeling of the movie. Do those visual ideas come at the time of shooting, from the landscapes you've chosen, or is it part of the initial journey?
The landscape is, of course, a very important part of the story, a central part of the story, and there's a mutual relationship between the landscape and the characters. To me, Tierra is about a man who's alone on this earth, a fragile man who feels very small in this world and in this life, and the redness increases this sense of loneliness and isolation and how small we are. The landscape can also be subjective and contradictory. I like my films to play out in natural landscapes, in open landscapes, and this is because I think it's easier for characters to find their essence in these open landscapes, to let their instincts come out as they work through their problems and find answers to their primal questions.
In Lovers of the Arctic Circle, I knew that the movie had to end in the forest, and I know this because of the development of the story. As kids, their first kiss happens in a geography class in front of an atlas open to a map of the Arctic Circle, so the cycle has been established; something important must happen in the Arctic Circle. It's like they have a date in the future in the Arctic Circle. The strange thing is that the story is directed to this place that is cold and inhospitable, and in a love story, we think of warmth and passion. It's also a place where, in a sense, time stops, and in a sense, time stopped with that first kiss. When I was filming Vacas, I went to the Festival of the Midnight Sun, which celebrates a time when the sun never sets in the Arctic Circle and, when I saw the sun that never set, I felt that life stopped right there. That's when I first got the idea that I later incorporated into Lovers, relating it to that first kiss, and then bringing everything together in the Arctic Circle.
A week before I started shooting Lovers, I went to the island where Sex and Lucia was conceived [Formentera, an island just off the coast of Spain] and I fell in love with the island. I was leaving for Finland but I knew that the place was waiting for me and I wanted to make something happen on that island. It was very hard for me and for the crew to deal with the heaviness and the death of a major character in Lovers, so when it was finished, I went back to the island and played with my video camera, trying to get to know the island and see how I could use it.