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Damián Szifrón – Argentine Director Unleashes Wild Tales, Gets Oscar Nom

Updated: May 7, 2023

Damián Szifrón at the New York Press Day for "Wild Tales."  Photo ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Damián Szifrón at the New York Press Day for “Wild Tales.” Photo ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Damián Szifrón

Argentine Director Unleashes Wild Tales, Gets Oscar Nom

by Brad Balfour

Opening this Oscar weekend, Argentina’s Best Foreign Language Feature nominee Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes), lined up with breaking news of the homeland. Boy has Argentina been in the spotlight lately.

Ever a media subject, Pope Francis – the former archbishop of Buenos Aires before being elected the Roman Catholic prelate – railed against ISIS extremists for beheading 21 Christian Egyptians in Libya. Then there’s the simmering controversy over Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nesman’s gunshot death, which happened while he investigated the country’s president, Christina Kirschner. The matter has stirred outrage and protest by people who believe he was murdered by the government. Conspiracy and ethical lapses permeate Argentinian culture; such ideas also permeate this film’s multi-story structure.

Writer/director Damián Szifrón’s 2014 black dramedy stars an ensemble cast that’s a who’s who of Argentine actors including Ricardo Darín, Óscar Martínez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Érica Rivas, Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, and Darío Grandinetti.

Composed of six stand-alone shorts running at a brisk 122 minutes, this anthology is united by ongoing themes of injustice and the powerlessness of the common man in face of the powers that be. The reaction is vengeance and inchoate violence – when pushed. “Pasternak,” the first story and prologue, tells of a revenge served up insidiously on a planeload of targets.

Next up is “The Rats (Las Ratas),” which features a waitress serving the man who’s ruined her family – and the cook who makes sure he gets what he deserves as a result of his crimes. Following that comes “The Strongest (El más fuerte),” which tells of two men driving on a lone highway; they take road rage to its totally illogical and deadly conclusion. Then follows “Little Bomb (Bombita),” in which a demolitions expert, fed up with have his car towed away repeatedly, exacts a toll on those who have done him wrong.

In “The Proposal (La Propuesta),” a rich kid who hits a pregnant woman with his dad’s car drives off without helping. As the law closes in on him, his family finds an unseemly out for him that goes horribly off base.

The frenetic final story, “Until Death Do Us Part (Hasta que la muerte nos separe),” illustrates a wedding reception gone awry when the bride at her wedding discovers that her groom had cheated on her with a girl who is also there. Once she confronts her betrothed while dancing, she abruptly leaves to the roof where she has sex with a worker who comforts her. When her husband interrupts, she threatens to sleep with any man who cares. At that, further mayhem ensues – but ironically, concludes with an unexpected happy ending.

Besides this notable format, the filmmaker garnered support from the brothers Almodóvar, Pedro and Agustín, who joined his production team. After its May 2014 Cannes Film Fest debut, Wild Tales was released last August in Argentina and at such festivals as Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian and London. Made for only $3.3 million, it has made $23.9 million and broke all box office records locally.

Born on July 9, 1975, in Ramos Mejía, La Matanza, Buenos Aires, the lanky Szifrón was previously known for his films On Probation (2005) and The Bottom of the Sea (2003). He had established himself as a notable creator in Spanish-language TV as well. Earlier this year, the 39 year-old spoke to a small group of journalists in anticipation of both the Oscars and its release.

Damián Szifrón at the New York Press Day for "Wild Tales."  Photo ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Damián Szifrón at the New York Press Day for “Wild Tales.” Photo ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

You were  best known at home as the creator of the 2002’s Los Simuladores series, its 2003 follow-up, and of Hermanos y Detectives. What techniques did you learn from work like this?

To talk about the DNA of Wild Tales, I would go back to when I was six years old, reading anthologies of literature. I remember Master Tales of Mystery – that was the first reference – and [books of] various genres.  There was Edgar Allan Poe, [Jorge Luis] Borges, and writers from all over the place. I fell in love. I remember looking at the index of all the titles in the book. Each story was five or 10 pages, so the brevity was [interesting to me]. [As for] TV references, besides what I made there was Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, New York Stories, JD Salinger’s Nine Stories. All those made me feel like I could do a film like this one. So probably, yes, that did affect my process.

Within these six short films, you address a lot of genres and sub-genres.

I love them all. As a filmmaker, this project was beautiful because it’s like a menu of what you can do or try. There are scenes and environments you can try. There are twisted genres. When I was filming the road rage episode, I was talking to the actors. They were in a Michael Hammock film. Everything was dark, obscure, and they were under pressure. But the rest of the team, we were doing something like Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, something cartoonish, so there were a lot of small actions…

Your pacing was great throughout the sequences. Did you live in those locations to write it like that?

That was during the shoot. When I wrote it, I was in very natural places far from the city. This made me feel truly free as a writer more than anything else. I could feel what a painter or musician feels. They just wake up in the morning, grab their tools and create.

It doesn’t have to be a long process of creation.

Yes. And the next morning, they’re working on something else. The musician has a drink, grabs a guitar, and composes a song. As a screenwriter you can’t do that. You live with the same characters in the same universe for years or months. It’s always a long process. You have to dream the same dream every day and keep it going, so you feel tired or pressed by your own creation. But in this case, no. I was in my car on the road. I was the guy in the old car and this asshole came up behind me, and I wouldn’t move. I started thinking, what if a few miles ahead he got a flat tire and instead of me, it was some huge guy? So I went to a rest stop in the middle of nowhere and I wrote the story in two hours. Then I went back to [working on] my science fiction trilogy.

What’s your sci-fi trilogy?

It’s a very complex and long story. I won’t tell you about it now.

Does it involve spaceships or aliens?

It involves aliens, but in a very new way, unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

If it’s aliens, Hollywood could tap you to direct the next Guardians of the Galaxy.

No, it’s not like that. (laughs)

Well, there are not a lot of heroes in this series of films, just the cook who stabs that guy who had ruined the waitress’s family.

And the engineer who blows up the tow truck. I thought of a sequel where there’s these male prisoners and the mayor gives a dance for the male and female prisoners. [That way] the engineer with the tow truck meets the cook and they plan a breakout.

Will you have a problem if someone wants to hire you to make a movie with a regular hero?

I love heroes, but a different kind of hero. In a way, it’s not that I consider them heroes. Like the bride, the women love her and she’s the first female character I wrote from the inside. I have made some other stuff where there were women characters, but I was writing as a man for men, and the women were just there. This time I was the bride, and it was heroic what she does. She runs up to the roof and sets out to commit suicide [after realizing her brand new husband had sex with another]. She sees the terror in the streets and you think she’s going to jump. [Then she’s comforted by the waiter and has sex with him]. She goes back to the wedding, tells the truth and doesn’t care. She’s brave [to do all that].

With six films in one, there’s a need for coherence, but also ways to distinguish one from the other. Which of the six films are influenced by who or what?

Before I shot [any of] this film, I went and watched some films I could relate to. For example, Duel, the Steven Spielberg film, for the road rage episode. For the episode of the rich father with the fence, I thought of the Coen brothers and their mix of drama and humor, as well as for the staging. I tried to separate one from the other, but at the same time turn [them] all into one experience. At the beginning of pre-production, we were talking to cinematographer Javier Juliá, who is a genius. We were going to take a very different approach for each short. The rich father one was going to be black and white. The road rage one was going to be shot on 35mm with anamorphic lenses to feel like film. Going back to the last of episode, the wedding, we would use digital cameras like ones used at social events. But at the end, I thought it would feel like a film made by different directors. It would feel disconnected and that’s what I wanted to avoid. I wanted it to be a single experience.

How did you decide on the order?

The order you see is the exact order I wrote them in. It’s not that I wanted to keep the exact order. I tried different orders, but in the end I decided this order and screened it at Cannes. It must have been subconscious, but that was the right order. It has progression, variation. Looking back, that opening scene with the plane has to go at the beginning. You can’t put it at the end. The wedding episode with the turns – something that changes characters so much and they go full circle – that can only go at the end. It’s like an orgasm:  when it’s over, you want to go eat, you don’t want to go doing it again. Some do, though.

Have you been to interesting weddings – anything like this one?

I have been to weddings where everybody knew something the bride didn’t know – and something the groom didn’t know, also. It was weird being there in a tuxedo and celebrating something that was a lie. But nothing like this happened there. Years after it came to me: the idea of a bride [who] discovers during her wedding [that] her husband is cheating on her with a guest.

Did anyone get hurt while filming the wedding sequence given the wild dancing and slamming around?

No, nobody was hurt during the filming of the wedding.

How did you shoot that?

I had a great crew, special effects, and everything was very quantified. I did two TV series and two films before Wild Tales, and I was getting used to writing an episode while directing another, while editing the one from two weeks before. Everything was very rushed and there was pressure all the time. At [some] point I decided to stop doing that and avoid that mechanism. It was a tool by then, but it was becoming a defect. I wanted to have time to write and think and go to the scenarios. I slept in the ballroom in the rich house of the family. I walked this place as the character, thinking from the inside of the character. So when the crew was there to shoot, we knew what to look for and what to take care of.

What did you think about the man defecating on the car?

When I showed my mom the film for the first time, I felt uncomfortable, wondering what is she going to think. But she laughed. Perhaps I’m a twisted person. As a filmmaker I can do something with the negativity and pressure and anger that affects me. Any time I see abuse of power in any form, I get so angry and want to do something with that and use it as fuel to create fiction and release the anger through my work.

You seem to really hate bureaucracy, given several of the episodes.

I hate control and lack of freedom. When you realize everything is designed for the benefit of others and you’re just a cog, that fills me with anger. I hate to lose my time. Time is precious. We have a limited amount of time on this earth, and I want to use it how I want to use it – not paying taxes, talking on the internet to a company, looking at a screen.

Are you a social idealist?

I’m growing old, so it’s time I feel more attracted to those people [who] want to change the world. It’s possible to change the world, and we should do it now because I will enjoy the benefit of the changes.

What is your background?

I’m Jewish. My grandparents on my father’s side were in WW II and they came to South America.

They were refugees from the Nazis?

All the families were killed, but the grandparents survived. My grandfather was a Polish soldier, then he was captured by the Russians and fought for them as well. He was in one of the trains on the way to the camps when he escaped. He was a blacksmith. The train got stuck in the snow, so he and a couple of mates managed to break out. My grandparents on my mother’s side, they came from Russia, but a long time ago. My father was born in 1948 and my grandparents were very poor when they arrived in Argentina. They didn’t know the language or have anything. The first job my father got as a teenager was at the cinema. He had to bring the cans to the booths. He could watch the films for free. He became a huge cinephile. I have a memory of being taken to the cinema by him.

Are you of the generation born after the dictatorship?

I was born during it. I was born in 1975 and the last dictatorship went from 1976 to 1983. But I was very young. My family was not involved. They knew the military was in power, but they didn’t know they were killing all these people. It was something a lot of people didn’t know. We all discovered that from ’83 on with all the investigations.

Do you think all of humanity is screwed up or are you just talking about Argentina?

I think we’re very complicated. In the underdeveloped countries, I would say we’re complicated in a lot of aspects, but you have a lot of responsibilities, too. Countries like this exteriorize poverty, and stuff that is consumed here is made in other countries. It’s a world issue, injustice, and the feeling that this system is not for us.

You certainly take issue with injustice. Part of your heritage?

Injustice, corruption, abuse of power, and I have to say, stupidity. I’m against that as well and I couldn’t blame any government on that. People are constantly attracted to things that are worthless, or spending lots of time looking at a screen to buy things. They’re trying to sell you something all the time. When you go to the bathroom at the mall, there’s a screen with ads when you pee. We’re distracted by superficial things. It’s very hard to get into deep consciousness or to think that you have to go very far to do right. Facebook, cell phones, telephones, traffic, horns – you are always in this surface thinking. You have to be brave in thinking, to read a book today, to spend three hours reading something.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: February 19, 2015.

Photos ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.


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