Albert Serra Talks Not Using Scripts, Avoiding Clichés, and Pacifiction

Movies Features Interview
Albert Serra Talks Not Using Scripts, Avoiding Clichés, and Pacifiction

Catalan classicist and arthouse hellion, Albert Serra is a rare breed of auteur that–20 years into a singular career–has only recently drawn attention from the U.S., whose cinematic head his previous five features have soared over with the jet stream ferocity of a confident, evolutionary artist. But his newest–Pacifiction, which debuted in competition at Cannes–offers more mood, visual aesthetic and momentum for the average moviegoer to grab onto.

The narrative is as nebulous as ever. In the radiant pastel glow of slow, droning Tahitian island life, a French foreign dignitary wrestles with his dawning insignificance in the phantom political machine he’s always served. But the mystery creates an enveloping tone–one heightened by the immersive experience of dodging beautiful, life-ending waves on a jet ski or discussing flippant nuclear tactics with a military general in the club. The music is languorous, the conversations intriguingly veiled, the gauzy light intoxicating, the pace meditation-inducing, and the source of tension almost always invisible.

Writer-director Serra splits his time between Barcelona and Paris like he splits his directorial efforts between strict formal classicism and unnerving new wave subversion. Where the misguided filmmaking renegade wrecks tradition to create something so uncinematic it could be an ad, Serra’s punk outlook lends him to a fresh cinematic language imbued with the wisdom of film history and the daring of modern art. He is uncompromising in his several-minute shots, unpopular subjects, interest in sexual perversion and unapologetic approach to new, more challenging, often less likable kinds of films. And Pacifiction is his most breathtaking yet.

With the film’s recent arrival stateside, Paste sat down to talk with Serra about it:

Paste Magazine: You’ve made six features and this is your first in the modern era. Why did you break from the period piece?

Albert Serra: Just to do something different. At the end, I’d realized that choosing this exotic place where I didn’t know anything going there, in fact, was not so far from making a film about history, a period film. Because everything is totally unknown, it’s a reality you don’t know. And, in fact, I think that even if I tried one day to make something that is really my world around me, it would be detached somehow. It would be separated. So, I realize that maybe period films are a metaphor for all kinds of films when you do it the way I do it, the way I shoot it, in my perspective. You can imagine what I’m referring to: The three cameras, not checking the image, you know, just being the spectator a little bit outside your own film and trusting what the camera does, what the camera can discover, and treating all elements as opaque elements. It’s the same then with history, you know. You don’t know anybody from that period, and you have to trust the visual elements, and that’s all. So, here in this exotic place it was a little bit the same. But this I discovered after. I really thought that I would be closer to the subject somehow. Because I created the subject. I never do research or anything like that, but I like to randomly get closer–especially before writing the script–with the ambience of the place. But then, I don’t know, it was not so different. I didn’t see a huge difference. Except that people love it better. Because, I don’t know, they can recognize, they can see things of their own world.

Did you feel like that might happen while you were writing it?

[Scoffs] No, no. When the film was finished and we were showing it to the Cannes selection committee, we didn’t know anything. We didn’t have time to adjust to see the film. We didn’t have time this time to show it to anybody. So we really submitted to Cannes and nobody had seen it, except the producers. But usually I show it to friends of mine, to random people, diverse kinds of people with different backgrounds just to understand. I like it. “Did you find this boring? Did you understand this? Did you, you know, like this character? Did you like this costume?” Questions like this, just to understand the impressions of people. But, in this case, we couldn’t. So I don’t know, I was totally blind with the film. 

Do you like any of your films more than others?

Yes. With time. You really will wait. You like more the ones that open some doors maybe that you are dealing with still. That it gives you some…for me, Story of My Death was a very important turning point, you know? Inflection point. Because, I don’t know, a lot of things. The way I work with dialogue. The roughness of really building a character from nothing, from zero.

Why do you choose so often to linger on faces in scenes without dialogue? If someone’s talking, that’s one thing. But lingering on someone in thought, mid-drink, more inactive moments.

There must be a pleasure in doing that. I mean, I think that is the pleasure of cinema. Most of these things are so complex. Most of these faces, you really try to penetrate what the character thinks, and how this connects with what he is doing, and how this connects with the people around, etc. When it’s done in my way, where there is no direction, no previous meaning–when you do this, it animates that character. It’s very, very difficult to describe the effect or the qualities of what you see there with words, with literature. You will need the complexity–no, not the complexity, but the impression that it’s so ethereal or so, you know, blue. It’s very difficult to describe with language. In fact, you cannot describe it. You can find things in the written language that can create the same sensation. But, describe it as you perceive it? It’s very, very difficult. So much that this is linked with the idea of an image. And a moving image.

I mean, for me, it’s intriguing and I like it. It has potential, and I get a lot of pleasure doing it. Because, there is always, you know, heightened irony. I don’t know why. Because with the people I work with–even if it’s a famous actor–there is such a joy of doing this thing, that’s it’s an irony. There is always a line of irony, because we enjoy it so much, and it’s so crazy, and it’s so funny that we cannot avoid not taking it seriously from inside. From, really, the deepest part of your spirit. So, then, even this liar is there. And for me, it’s so enjoyable. I don’t know if it is for the audience. But I don’t do a film for the audience, or to please academics, or to please normal people that go to see horrible films. I don’t know, I do films that I think I enjoy watching. Even if I don’t know exactly why.

But this is strange, you know, this idea of faces. And I know it’s linked with my idea that the camera sees things that you cannot see in the shooting, the human eyes. This is a very important thing. And when I see these things I discover in the edit, I say, “Woah, fuck…this is intriguing.” And then I try to check if it’s really intriguing or not, or if it’s my fantasy. And when it really stands the test of time and the test of two or three edits, and it’s still really intriguing, then we go for it. But, uh, I don’t know, it’s the potential of cinema, no? Maybe people can get tied up, or maybe other people prefer other kinds of cinema with more clear meanings, but I don’t know. I like different kinds of cinema, but I think, you know, this is quite essential, this approach, for contemporary cinema. I was just doing a list of ten films of the last ten years–they asked me, best films or my favorite films.

Is it like one each year or can you pick any ten?

No, no. Any. I put one of mine.

Which one?

Story of My Death.

What else do you have on there?

When you arrived, I was writing them out. I have the Bi Gan, you know, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Climax by Gaspar Noé. Story of My Death. Hard to be a God by Aleksey German. Then I was trying to think of more recent films–which, for me, were not shocking…we’ll see, we’ll see. 

How poetic do you get in your scripts? And do you get into the aesthetics of the image? Like, for Pacifiction, did you write about the glowy, gauzy look it would have?

Well, first, I go as poetic as I can. Inside the parameters that this is a script, it has to be used for financing mostly, and then, of course, for production on our side. For me, it’s very sad when you write a script and there is something good there and banality gets in. I cannot stand it. It’s boring. It’s a predictable film, you know? These kinds of films of people getting into some place and saying, “Good morning,” and people answer, “Good morning.” This is already boring when you see it most of the time. But when you read it, I can guarantee you that it’s always boring! I’m scared of that, so I try to make it as poetic as possible.

Dialogue is difficult, because if it’s not realistic, it can be ridiculous. But if it’s realistic, it can be banal. For example, on the last films I got used to–well, not in Liberté where the dialogue came from a staged theater piece I wrote–but in the last ones, for example, there was no dialogue at all. There was thinking. It was like a novel: The thinking of characters in every situation, in every scene. I felt more of a flow in the writing in the thinking of the characters. But with dialogue, you have to imitate, somehow, spoken language. So, it’s very easy to fall into the banality of things, you know? I want the script to inspire me, to give the sensation that the film will be good. I need some kind of strength, to be brave, to think that the film will be good. So, it’s practical reasons always, all the decisions I make with the script. 

Are there certain things you’ve learned to include or not include? 

No. I don’t care about that. I don’t care about the technical. I mean, every script is different. This one was like a flow of the minds of the characters. The other one was dialogue. The other one was conceptual ideas. The other one was, I don’t know. But now, I discovered that this idea of the flow of the minds of the characters is quite interesting, in fact. Because it helps you to remember things and remember the atmospheres. 

None of my actors–except Jean-Pierre Léaud, for reasons we will not get into–has ever read the script. So, why do you have to write the dialogue if nobody will memorize? What is the point? Just tell me! What is the point of writing dialogue that nobody will say like that? It’s ridiculous. And, for example, the idea of giving the actor a single script–it’s bad. Do you have a script of your life? No. Do you live your life from a script? Do you happen to know what you will say now, what you will do, how you will move, what it will feel like? No. Of course I understand that it’s good for finance and that people have to understand how the film will look or what kind of film they’re financing or what kind of film they’ll get in the end. But for the rest, for practical reasons going forward, it’s zero percent useful. Zero. And especially for [the actors]. I don’t use scripts on the film.

No shooting script of any kind?

It’s there, sometimes for the production people. But, I usually transform the script in a notebook, where I have more or less what I need. Well, I wrote the script, so I have the script in mind. I don’t need the script there. But, in case I forget something, I have a stock of motives. Motives for dialogue, motives for action—you know, poetic ideas, whatever. But I have it here [gestures towards self] randomly in lists of things. This, I wear. I use them. These are lists that are taken from memory from the script that I wrote myself, so. 

I avoid cliché. You can say the film is violent. You can say the film is whatever. Everybody can say whatever of the film. But there is not one single cliché of specific moments. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid cliché. The subject is a cliché. Dialogue is a cliché. But, the reactions come out of physical moments. I don’t have a script for the reasons that I prefer not to have very concrete dialogue. Because it’s just an idea, then it will transform into something, and I speak very little with actors, and they will transform it into something else. So, it’s very unlikely that the main idea I had in mind when I wrote the script will go through purely as it was.

I understand also the limitations of this. Well, I don’t think it has limitations. But I understand that some people cannot love this way of working, or even the results for some people are not interesting. 

Have you ever been challenged by a cliché or filmmaking tradition that you think makes things stronger in any way?

Not for the moment. Or not that makes sense for my style.

I know you shoot with three cameras, Blackmagics. But where did the three-camera structure come from for you?

My first film. It was very simple. I was making a film and I realized that there are very subtle things that you cannot repeat. Or, that if you try to repeat so much will get lost on the way. The same scene, it’s not the same if you shoot it from another angle or if you shoot one character or the other. It changes a lot. So, you know, I felt that there was something at that moment, but sometimes you cannot capture it. And you cannot prepare it. And you cannot stop. You have to really be there ready for capturing these moments that are more magical. This was at the beginning. Then I realized that it was not only that. It was that the real good things were not visible to the human eyes. Then it was like, let’s try to look for and create good things. Then, it was even more abstract, the approach to everything. And the reason now, I always say: I work with three camera operators. One understands 100% what I want, what we are doing. The other one understands 50%, and the other understands 0%. But it’s perfect! Because in this system I’m telling you about, using this idea that cameras almost create good things that are not visible to human eyes, the person that knows 100% will never shoot the kind of images as the person that knows 0%. And the same for the other one.

So I think that this is a balanced way of embracing this idea that images are really not visible–not visible even for me or the person that knows 100% what we are doing, or what our system is, or what we like, or how my taste as a director goes. But this was an evolution of all these things, of just being there and living, living with your eyes, living with your body, having nice moments with actors and thinking you cannot repeat, that it will never happen with the same intensity, so…just make it safer. And this was almost a childish idea. 

That reminds me of the way Jerry Garcia used to dose his camera people with different amounts of acid so they’d all have wildly different imagery at the end of a show.

Yes! You know, they were very experimental and everything with the hi-fi. And they went bankrupt and broke several times because of that. Once, for sure. But I think several times because they were experimenting so much with hi-fi. This was the perception, you know? This was to really be inside something important and spending the money and really going for it. Nowadays–as a friend of mine said–everything is about compressed music, you know? Compressed mp3s, portable. Before it was hi-fi, expansive music. Like LSD on the ear, you know? The most not compressed music ever. He has to go broke because of that. 

How involved are you on set with cameras and lensing and whatnot?

I am involved, because I’m analogic and I do analogic pictures. And I am involved, because I know how it works and I know these basics and I’m very intuitive with that. But then, I like to check with the cameras. I especially like to do it on the internet–what people say on blogs or forums, fanatical people that really go in deep. Because I know what I need from the camera. There are very few people in the world that need exactly what I am asking for in a camera, because it’s something that has to fit my methodology. So, I try to be technically skilled. Because I need specific things from a camera. So, I’m really involved in this first approach. 

Then, how the aesthetics of the film will be. Of course, we decide a little bit of the light, and we do tests before, and we check, and we see it. But nowadays, we have to admit that everything is done in post-production. Or a lot of the work is done in post-production. So, we have to say that it’s done during the shooting. Of course, lighting is important. But with three cameras it’s very difficult to place good light for all cameras at different angles. So it means that we will have to apply more in post-production to make it better, because it’s not a perfect situation for lighting. So, it means that it evolves a little bit. With the shooting, and then in post-production. And then when you do the edit, because the edit means everything. So, it’s very difficult to decide what kind of look will fit better the kind of movie you are building with the edit, the kind of movie that is emerging, what kind of image.

But here, for example, we also did blow up the 35mm and re-scan. It gives the unpredictable glow a little bit of color that you can only achieve with digital post-production. 

Did y’all have any filters or gauzy materials or anything like that in the camera to get that glow? 

It depends. Usually, it’s post-production. 

What lens(es) were you using?

I don’t remember, but I think it was…because we did several tests and I don’t remember which one we chose in the end. The Canon, I think…I can ask for you.

[Serra pulls out his phone, calls cinematographer Artur Tort, and has a three-minute conversation about the lens.]

It was a Canon Super 16mm zoom lens. We only use zoom lenses.  

It seems like there’s so much shooting at magic hour. Is that true or post-production?

There are one or two moments, but in general, no. We might be there shooting something else, and I am shooting all the time. So, if we see outside that it’s the magic hour, we pick up the camera and put it outside. Because we are constantly shooting all the time. Early morning, it’s not so easy because we like to start very late in the morning. I don’t like to wake up early for the shooting of the films unless it’s necessary for production reasons.

But, no, it’s so practical with these cameras. You don’t have to prepare anything. You go there and in one minute and thirty seconds the Blackmagic is ready and we go, and then we stop everything and go over there and put the actors there. It’s a perfect way for my philosophy [laughs]. I am not sitting there the whole day waiting for the camera, you know? 

Does discord ever form on set because of your methods, like deciding on things on the day? Do people get mad at you over any of that?

No, because in general I talk to everybody before the start of the shoot and I explain how it goes. So, people know. If you talk in advance with people and you explain, “Listen, it will be like this…” people are cool. Of course, it’s not comfortable. Or, maybe it’s more uncomfortable than other ways of working. But with this mindset upfront at the beginning, there is nobody getting upset. Well, and I also only pick up nice people and people that really want to be part of this mindset.

Is it typically the same people from crew to crew?

Yes. I tried to change a little bit or so. But now I am so happy with what I have that I’ll always have new people. On this film, for example, two actresses left. Not for things about me, but for aesthetics and through conversations with a producer. It’s not sweet all the time. But there is some joy. Because there is some cause, some energy, you know? For me, it’s like a concert. It’s not like recording a record in a studio. It’s doing a live concert. Or, even for an orchestra conductor, there are some of them that prepare everything and like to do rehearsals and feel that that’s better. There are others that prefer not to do rehearsals. Historically, both are great. There are different approaches to get something that comes from the soul. Some of them didn’t like to perform live–like Glenn Gould, who said everything was full of mistakes–and some others didn’t like to make studio recordings, because they felt something was lost in the process. I don’t know, up to you, but I am with the ones that say, “You know the score, I know the score. Let’s see on the day of the premiere. Let’s see with the whole orchestra. No rehearsals.” I’m more on this side. I don’t like to prepare things. Because, I mean, music it’s very subtle. But also, you know, the face of somebody is even more graphic and subtle. So, you have to destroy any expectations of what this man is looking for or what they’re waiting for. I like this way.

And, it’s more fun. This is the main reason. It’s more fun. I don’t give a shit if you don’t like my film. If someone tells me? I don’t give a shit. I did it for me. I did it for my fun. You don’t like it? It was a pain in the ass for you? I didn’t do it for you. I do a lot of things for people, but not my films. I think that I’m above average when it comes to being generous and being a good person. But, the films? I did them for me and the people around me. It’s more honest.

Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin