In his imaginative new film, Wild Tales, Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifron weaves six stand-alone, thematically connected shorts into a compelling feature about venting frustration and exacting revenge that’s funny and terrifying at the same time. From road rage to political corruption to a deceptive lover, the outrageously subversive satire pokes fun at what happens when ordinary people are pushed to the limit by extraordinary circumstances that bring out the worst in them. The impressive cast includes César Bordón, Rita Cortese, Ricardo Darín, Darío Grandinetti, Oscar Martínez, Osmar Núñez, Érica Rivas, Leonardo Sbaraglia, and Julieta Zylberberg.
In an exclusive interview, Szifron revealed how the project originated, why he had fun writing a series of shorts inspired by a common theme of revenge, his desire to direct a strong, economical story, how an excellent script and a short shooting schedule made it possible to attract a talented cast of Argentinian actors, the creative contributions of DP Javier Juliá, Production Designer Clara Notari, and Composer Gustavo Santaolalla, how he arrived at his first cut, what drew Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar to produce, his reaction to the film’s Oscar nomination, and his strategy for choosing his next project from an array of possibilities.
DAMIÁN SZIFRON: It was a non-desired project. I wanted to make other feature films. I was working at the same time on a science fiction trilogy, a Western, and a romantic comedy. It was a very creative period of time. So, with these new ideas that kept on coming, I tried to compress them, to stop them from turning into more feature films, because I already had too many in development. As a result, I had these powerful short stories. I didn’t know what to do with them, but I used to write them. I had a great time writing them. As a filmmaker, you have to live with the same characters and universe sometimes for months or for years. Sometimes you envy the musicians or the painters that just wake up in the morning and create something and that’s it, and then off they go. With these stories, I could experience that. I would write one in a night, the other one in an afternoon. When I had the third or the fourth, I noticed that they were all connected through the themes, and that they all belonged to the same universe, and that they all came up from the same DNA. I realized that I had something that was bigger than each [individual] story. They belonged to the same album in a way. I thought of rock or jazz albums where you have one track that’s seven minutes, another track that’s 25 minutes, but they are all created with the same instruments in a way, with the same material. Without even noticing, I had a new film in my hand. As soon as I gave it to my producers, to Hugo Sigman and Matías Mosteirín from KNS Film Company in Argentina, they read it and they were like, “No, no, no. You have to do this right now. This is powerful and it’s beautiful and you feel the creative freedom in it.” So I said, “Well, yes. I’ll do this.”
SZIFRON: Yes, it is. For me, in a way, it’s like a menu of different things I like to do. I was speaking to Michael Barker from SPC, Sony Pictures Classics, who is our distributor, about the one-sheet for the U.S. poster. He said, “This film is like a full meal. It has everything. You have the first course, the second course, the main course, then dessert and coffee. You have everything.” I felt that during the shooting and while I was writing it as well.
What inspired the theme of revenge that runs through all of the short stories?
SZIFRON: I have to be honest. I didn’t think of the theme before I wrote the stories. I wrote the stories and then I discovered the theme. I would say that the themes come from reality most of the time. I can connect with the beginning of each episode through experiences that I have personally had. But I’m talking about only the first image or the conflict. For example, I’ve been at weddings where everybody knew something that the bride or the groom didn’t know. I remember this guy from my childhood. He was a loan shark, a very nasty guy that used to bother my father with phone calls and threats in the middle of the night. When I invented the character of the politician that enters into the restaurant in the middle of the night, I was thinking of him. And then, the tow truck took my car from the street and you couldn’t tell that it was a “No Parking” zone. There was nothing telling you. So, I understood how the system works. Afterwards, when I went to discuss the ticket, I had to get in one line and then another line, and then go to here and there.
I understood that the bureaucracy was perfectly designed. It’s not an accident. It’s made so you get tired and you finally pay, so your complaint doesn’t go anywhere. And then, for example, I was driving my car and I had this argument with another driver. I was the one in the old car. This guy insulted me and left very fast in his Audi. That’s when I turned from reality to fiction. I kept thinking, “What if a few miles ahead, I found this guy with a flat tire? What if instead of me, I have this huge, very strong guy driving this car that wants revenge?” I said, “Ah, that’s a nice idea. Beautiful.” I stopped in the middle of the road just to write that story. What I did was to take elements from real life into the world of fantasy and fiction, and you feel that the movie celebrates fiction in every single shot. You experience this film more as one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories than as a drama about reality. It’s fresh.
How were you able to assemble this amazing cast?
SZIFRON: They are very important actors in Argentina. You never see them together in the same film because each one is the main actor of their films. But the nature of this project allowed us to call them. They adored the screenplay, and at the same time, I needed them for only ten days, not three months, because these are short stories. So, I could have them all together. They are very different actors. Most of them started as stage actors. I wanted to really work with talented people. One of the huge pleasures of this movie was to share a creative process with people that I admire – not only the actors, but the composer and the cinematographer as well, and we had great producers.
SZIFRON: The DP is Javier Juliá, the Production Designer is Clara Notari, and the Composer is Gustavo Santaolalla. They are all very talented people. It is a dream team, I have to say. It was an honor to share a creative process with them. When you work with people that you admire, something different happens. It’s like a couple, a wife and husband. When there’s mutual admiration, you have a better life. Gustavo, for example, won two Academy Awards for Babel and Brokeback Mountain. He’s from Argentina, but this is the first time he’s done an Argentinian score. To have him working on this film is amazing. He’s very talented, of course, and a great person. I think when everybody loves what they are doing, that energy transcends the film and the audience notices that.
How many days did you shoot?
SZIFRON: The entire film was an 8-week shoot.
How long was your first cut?
SZIFRON: What I do is I work a lot in the editing room. I spent months. I shipped the editing device to my house and I lived through the film for six or seven months. I don’t show things that are not ready for me. I like to work and when I think it’s done, I show it. Probably this was not the first cut, but I showed it and interacted with people that worked on the production, and then I reedited it, and that’s it. I do the same with the screenplays. It’s not that I show parts of it and say, “I wrote this scene or that scene.” I only show things when I think they are ready. For me, the producers are the first audience. I want to impress them. So, it’s not that I have a first cut of three hours. No. It’s like pure fiber, pure muscle. You don’t have any [fat]. In the screenplay, anything that I could leave out, I left out. I wanted to do this very strong, economical story.
I learned a lot about screenwriting working on this with this basic idea. I tried not to use, for example, ellipsis. So, you had one expanded situation, but it’s one. You don’t cut to three hours later. Sometimes I did, but most of the time, no. It’s one only. It’s also like that with the locations. You stay in a place and you take advantage of this place for everything you do. Hitchcock used to say that if you have two men fighting in a hospital, they don’t have to use guns. They have to use all the things that are available in a hospital as their weapons. So, if it’s in a car, this guy used everything that was inside the car. I liked that one.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this?
SZIFRON: Oh, I learned so much. I didn’t have the tools that were needed to make this film before I made the film. I had to create them and invent them during this process. I made four things before Wild Tales. I made two feature films and two TV series. I was getting used to shooting an episode while writing another while editing the one that I had shot before. That was a tool, but at a certain point I felt it was a defect for a director. I wanted to really plan the shooting and work a lot during pre-production. When this film arrived and I started working on it, I went to the locations and I slept at the locations. I walked the space, and I asked the characters before deciding where the camera goes in order to feel the story from the inside and at the same time from the outside. I think that there is something in this film that goes like that all the time. It’s like you switch from, for example, the interior of the car to the exterior, and then you understand the stupidity of the whole thing. But then, when you’re inside the car, you’re trying to survive and to escape. That’s terrifying and funny at the same time.
SZIFRON: Actually I had met them before. They saw a previous film of mine in 2006. It’s called On Probation. They went to the theater to see this Argentinian film, and they truly liked it, and they called. They told me how much they liked it. Then Agustín came to Argentina and we went to dinner. He wanted to know what I was going to do next and told me he would love if Pedro and he could be producers. Of course, I was truly honored and very happy. As soon as I decided on this project with Hugo Sigman, who was my producer in Argentina, we sent the script to Pedro and Agustín and they were immediately on board. Creatively, I can say that Pedro has his own company. He shoots what he wants whenever he wants. He truly believes freedom is the main thing for an artist. So, when he produces, he creates that same environment for the director that’s coming. He said, “The script is fantastic. Don’t change a single comma. You are the one who knows how to shoot this better than the rest of us, so you do your stuff.” That was it. Then, I showed him the first cut and we talked about what we saw. Of course, he is a very well-known artist worldwide. But I have to say, when the film needed, for example, to go to Cannes for the Cannes Film Festival, he was the first in line and became an ambassador of the film. He did a lot of press in Cannes. He came to San Sebastian with me to present the film. He came to different countries to talk and to show it. In a way, he’s a great godfather to the film.
What does it mean to you to have your film nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film?
SZIFRON: It means a lot. It’s a big deal. Of course, I have watched the Academy Awards since I was a kid to know everything that’s nominated. Sometimes I don’t feel that the competition is something that I feel comfortable with in a way. I mean, to beat this guy, it’s not the real thing while making films. You’re not working against anybody. You do your own stuff and so do the rest of the directors, and then you are competing for the same award with other people. But once that’s understood, it’s a huge honor, and I feel so lucky about the film being nominated. It is nominated by people that I truly admire — people from the industry that created the films that I love the most. I would say that nine out of my ten favorite films of all time were made in America, in the U.S. So now, they are introducing me to all these people that actually made the films, and it is an honor to be nominated by them.
You mentioned you had several projects in development. What are you working on next?
SZIFRON: I wrote some things before Wild Tales. They include: The Perfect Couple, a love story, The Foreigner, a science fiction tale, and Little Bee, an English language Western. One of them might be my next project. But I’m also writing new stuff now. I’m developing new films. Because of Wild Tales, I received a lot of screenplays and invitations to work here in the U.S. that I found very attractive. But I don’t know yet. I’m going to spend two or three months reading, thinking, writing, and then I’m going to decide which one is the next.
Wild Tales opens in LA and NY on February 20th.