This is Part II of my interview with Alejandro Springall (Click here for Part I).
As a producer, Alejandro Springall’s films have been nominated for an Oscar, and as a director he has won various awards, including Sundance’s Latin American Cinema Award and the Grand Prix de la Découverte for his 1999 “Santitos.”
When I spoke to Raquel Pankowsky, who plays Esther, she told me how she felt unprepared for the role, and how you helped her.
Raquel is a comedy actress, she didn’t want to perform, didn’t feel she could do it, didn’t like her own religion, etc. She asked me to give her a small role, but I knew she could do it, so I told her no: “Be my clay, I’ll be your sculptor; let me take you, just trust me.”
After two or three days Raquel would cry when she entered the set, so it became quite easy! And my mantra with her was “the less the more.” "I’m going to have your face, just be there,” I would say, “I’ll do the rest with the lighting and the editing.” You see, film is a director’s medium, not an actor’s medium; it’s not like theater.
How do you work with actors?
I love working with actors and I’m very patient with them. They trust me. I know the story like no one else, and I tell them “it’s not your character, it’s mine. I’m lending it to you.” Actors can never see the entire picture: they just don’t know the interrelations of the characters like the director does.
In the editing room, I can move performances the way I want. I can make a character tragic or comedic. Great film actors trust the director because he’s the one telling the story. “I’m going to manipulate you,” I try to convey, “just let yourself go.” I take the pieces and sew them together and make them intelligible.
Did the actors see the whole screenplay?
Yes, but I didn’t want to go deep with them; I kept most information for myself and my editor, Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten that irony and innocence I wanted.
So from the get-go you knew you’d be highly invested in the editing process?
When you make a movie you make three: one when writing, one filming and one when editing. I enjoy editing the most. All the material you’ve shot becomes your pen and paper. You need to rewrite the film completely because you have to extract its meaning from all the audiovisual material you have. I then forget the script, which I work with on a script level, and which during shooting, I leave it with my script girl.
Once the actors speak their lines, they take on a new meaning, and you have to be open and ready for this part of the process. As a director you need to sensitive enough to know what all the new heads coming to the project are bringing, and you need to be very receptive to this; to be reading constantly the maximum possibility you have with your material.
How did your approach to “My Mexican Shivah” differ from in past films?
I‘ve produced seven movies, so I can have a very rational approach to filmmaking. But in this film my biggest challenge was to direct from intuition, apart from much rational process. And this I think this makes the film a rich emotional experience.
I worked with the actors, saw the scene in place and then decided we’re going shoot it this way or that. It’s like working with the catch of the day: one day they go out and catch red snapper, the next it’s sole, and that’s what you have to prepare, you work with those elements. It’s rather the same with human beings. I don’t believe you can really plan it all as a director, anyway. When you consider that you’re working with human beings, you’re more open, you’re flexible, and things don’t break.
“My Mexican Shivah” comes from a short story whose idea you introduced to Ilan Stavans. What are some of the challenges you encountered in going from written words to the silver screen?
You end up telling different sides of the story with different media. Really, films are short short stories; In film, you don’t have the time to divert yourself dramatically as you can in writing. So film is a limited medium, but it has other powers that writing doesn’t: the impact of a smile, of a look, of a cut from one image to another, a well-delivered line; that flavor, you get only in film.