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A Woman Under the Influence

By John Magary

I have heard from a few people that tickets for Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman are selling like hotcakes. This is a good sign. This could be a swing upward. Perhaps Curiosity is on the march. If you weren’t able to take it in Monday, and you are not currently among the ticketed, buy some online. If you can’t get them online, go to the Ziegfeld today at 5 p.m., and stand. It’s worth it; at the time of this writing, there is no distributor for this unbelievably thick work of art. Bring something to read -- something that wakes you up -- and have a coffee, because once 6 rolls around and you get inside -- and you will get inside -- you will be asked to engage in a crowded, clammy, centerless world, layered with past revelations and present worries: After running over something in the road, Verónica (María Onetto) suffers a head injury and enters a world of newfound distress; all spinning margins and shifting truths, it's not far off from the world you're living in, you know, right now. Go in fresh and focused. The film is a creeping beauty, but a beauty all the same.

I hope to talk more about The Headless Woman in a future post, but for now, a few words from Martel herself, complete with visual aids:

THE REELER: I’d like to start with the nuts and bolts of your writing process. The Headless Woman feels so lived-in. The characterizations are rich and extremely subtle. How did you build the film from the ground up?

LUCRECIA MARTEL: The writing of the actual script begins after a long period of collecting elements from all over the place. I take notes on dialogue that I hear, abstract ideas, my own reflections, thoughts about people I know. I usually end up with a thick notebook full of notes on all these elements. Then at some point, I come up with a plot or narrative structure that allows me to organize all these random elements I’ve collected.

Lucrecia Martel explains it all

Undoubtedly, all of my films are organized in layers. For example, if I had to draw it, it wouldn’t be a straight line ... [drawing a single arcing line] ... Normally the structure of a film would be a single line: starts here, then this happens, then it evolves, then it ends. For me, it’s like this ... [drawing a wavy line] ... this layer is a storyline ... [draws two more wavy lines on top of the first, causing overlap] ... and these are more layers, more storylines ... so that at any given time within the film, you have, say, three layers. Let’s say that in one specific scene, there’s one layer in the foreground, and then a second layer in the background, and then a third layer even farther in the background. This then evolves, and in a following scene, the third layer, which was in the background originally, then pops up to the foreground. And what was in the foreground now gets switched to the background.

So ... [pointing to a single wavy line] ... say this storyline is “crime.” Maybe in the first scene, we’ll see a knife ... [writes “knife”] ... Then in the second scene, the “crime” storyline moves into the background, and we only hear the sound of the knife, or maybe deep in the frame we’ll see the shine of the knife’s blade. So, in all scenes, all layers are present, but in different degrees. For the “crime” storyline, we’ll start with a knife, then perhaps move to a dead body on the ground. “Crime” will be present throughout the film, but in different ways. Because I use this layer structure, I don’t feel the need to put things out there in a very demonstrative way from the start. By the time we get to a later scene, the presence of “crime” will be clearly felt.

R: Do you worry about losing the audience within these layers?

LM: Of course. It happens. I’ve seen it happen firsthand. But I do it this way, because I feel it’s the best way to share a story with people. And it is my hope that everyone will understand. Actually, I’ve given a lot of thought to this recently. If I see that a part of my audience gets bored and doesn’t get it, but another part is interested and does get it, what do I do at that point, as a director? Should I adjust my filmmaking to those who don’t get it, to make it all clear, or should I not? That’s the question for me. And I have no answer. [Laughs]

R: Beyond these layered elements, do you consciously pursue themes? For The Headless Woman, for example, did you say, “I’d like to talk about class. I’d like to talk about middle age”?

LM: Those elements are part of the movie, certainly. There is a middle-aged woman, who leads a successful, put-together, middle-class existence. And she is no longer desired in the way she once was. She doesn’t have the same sex appeal. These are all, indeed, important elements. They’re there. But I didn’t set out to write an essay about this kind of woman. I didn’t set out to write a social treaty on this. They are simply elements that came together by themselves.

Actually, the issue of social class, and the distance between classes, affected how I composed my shots. Focus became a way to express distance. To talk about social class, or social difference, I didn’t need a character to talk about it, to express it verbally. Just by placing them closer to or farther away from the camera, I’ve said it all.

R: In the early stages, when you were still compiling those random elements, was there a moment when you said, “Ah, now I can write this movie. Now I can make it”?

LM: It happens for every film, but for The Headless Woman, I don’t remember specifically. For the film I’m working on now, I remember thinking, “When I can understand what it means for a city to be destroyed, then I will know how to make this film.” The film I’m working on now is a classical science fiction movie, with an alien invasion, all that kind of stuff. So I have a lot of references that will allow me to tackle the subject matter. And I can approach it in many different ways. Deep down inside, I know that I’ll be able to pull it off only when I understand—personally, emotionally—what it means for me to see my city, the city I live in, being destroyed. After I understand that clearly, then I will know how to deal with the actors, how to structure it, cast it, everything.

R: When you started shooting The Headless Woman, was the script entirely finished, entirely set? Were you able to improvise at all on set, rewrite, change scenes around?

Lucrecia Martel

LM: Actually, because of the layer structure I described, there’s not much room for improvisation. It’s very thought out, very important that I have the interplay of elements in the foreground and background just the way I imagined. If an actor were to improvise, then a background element may pop into the foreground, creating an imbalance. What can happen is, separately, in each layer, maybe a new element will pop up that was not in the script. For example, in The Holy Girl, when the young chambermaid in the hotel shows up spraying the aerosol can, I hadn’t written that, but it was already happening in the location. So I incorporated it.

R: Do you draw things out, or make a shot list?

LM: I don’t do storyboards, or anything like that. I take a lot of photos of locations when I’m scouting, but in terms of where the camera is set, that’s something I do at the last minute, with the actors in place. Otherwise, it’s impossible for me.

R: When you get to the set, you don’t know how many shots you’ll be shooting?

LM: I may have an idea, but it’s very difficult. For this movie, it was very difficult to get even five shots in a day.

R: So how long were you shooting?

LM: Eight weeks.

R: Let’s talk about your lead actress, María Onetto, who is extraordinary in the film. She had never been in a film before this?

LM: Not exactly. She’s a professional actress, but had only been in short films. Supporting roles. This is her first leading role.

R: Were there particular challenges with directing her, or particular pleasures?

LM: I had the feeling throughout that I would never really get to know her. Which was, of course, fascinating for me. Because of this, we could never be friends, really, but I find her extremely interesting. She is someone who will never, ever choose the easy way. She’ll do something that feels right, yeah, but never the easy way. That’s a very attractive trait. And she doesn’t come on set caring whether she looks good or bad, or caring if everything feels just right. When she’s fully engaged, she is completely in the character’s skin. The character is all she cares about. I find that extremely fascinating.

Crash and Burn: María Onetto in The Headless Woman, screening today at the New York Film Festival

R: There’s a mix of non-actors and professional actors here--

LM: Always.

R: How do you negotiate that?

LM: The only thing I know about the actors I work with, is that each actor deserves to be treated... individually. In their own way. I don’t have a standard approach or attitude. I tailor what I do to the specific needs of the person I’m dealing with. The rule I follow is, no two people are alike. And then it’s just talking, talking, talking. I believe in conversation. And when I talk to my actors, or when they talk to me, I make it very clear what my limitations are. I want them to know how far I can go. And of course, I want to test my limits, and I want to test theirs. I will say to them, “You have to bring your own energy forward, because I can only go so far. After that, you must jump in.” For me, that’s what matters: for me to know their limits, and for them to know mine.

R: You talk with your actors before shooting?

LM: Yes, but not a specific conversation about characters or whatever. A general conversation about life, friends, family.

R: To get intimate.

LM: Yes. Well, not very intimate, because I’m not friends with my actors. Of all the people I’ve worked with, only one actor became my friend: the lead actress of The Holy Girl [Maria Alché]. We became friends, and now she’s working with me. But I never, generally, get close with the actors.

R: What would you say was your greatest challenge in making The Headless Woman?

LM: Actually, it was following just one character. With my other films, I followed many characters with connected stories, which created its own dynamic—the layers, again. This time, I had a single main character, and I shot close-ups of her throughout the movie! That was a real challenge.

R: What is the status of distribution for the film?

LM: We haven’t managed to get a distributor in the United States yet. In part, because the US market is cautious right now, because of the financial crisis. But also it’s a film that’s not aimed, perhaps, at a very broad audience -- all films like that are going through a crisis. I am sorry for that. With every film, I think, maybe, now this film will be accepted by a bigger audience. The idea that we should only be making films that cater to as broad an audience as possible, a film that suits everyone’s taste, is so bad. To just do something that everyone will like. It goes against a free market.

R: You are making another film, though. So someone has faith in you.

LM: I hope. The film I’m working on now is a genre movie. So there are very specific rules already. What is fun is seeing how I can play with those rules.

John Magary is a New York-based filmmaker. His short film The Second Line is currently making the rounds.

Posted at October 8, 2008 7:02 AM

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