I'm glad to see that a number of film bloggers have included Carlos Reygadas' film Battle in Heaven in their year-end wrap-ups (see the lists from Acquarello and Filmbrain, for instance). And if you dip into the blogosphere's archives you'll find that a few others (like Long Pauses) were ahead of the curve and included it in their lists last year. Reygadas' meticulous framing and world-in-a-bubble approach to sound design grabbed me immediately, especially since he accomplished this surgical precision with uncomfortable, non-professional actors and almost no plot, and although I'm sure the film won't have broad appeal, I'm not surprised that it stuck in the minds of the few people who saw it.
Nearly every minute of the movie revolves around a man named Marcos. The baby that he and his wife kidnapped for extra cash died while it was in their care, but instead of filling in the back story, the film follows Marcos from within his consciousness as he's tugged in different directions by competing loyalties to family, faith, and country. It's a tricky stasis for many people, but here the guy-wires are cranked even tighter by the senseless tragedy, as if to find out which one will snap.
Most of the mainstream commentary written about the film as it played at festivals in 2005 and 2006 focused on the explicit, unglamorous sex or the controversies that arose from it. At Sundance, for example, where films often play at unconventional venues and makeshift theaters because of the town's scarce film resources, Battle in Heaven was scheduled to play at the local high school — in the building, that is, not for the students — until hackles where raised and the screening was moved, no doubt replaced by something entirely wholesome.
Readers following such reports might suspect that Reygadas set out to make waves, but when I talked with him in January '06 I found that he had strong feelings about using cinema to capture "bits of life" and seemed to care a great deal about his characters, intent on offering a more hopeful vision than you might guess.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation. Be aware: although we talked in detail about Battle in Heaven, the sex thing never came up. Fine with me; it's covered well enough elsewhere. So if you intend to read any further, put the kids to bed first. smirk
Robert Davis: So Carlos, I was somewhat surprised to hear that there are some autobiographical details in the movie, that Marcos— not the kidnapping necessarily— but that Marcos, who is a driver in the movie, was your father's driver. Is that right?
Carlos Reygadas: It's true, yes. My father worked for the Ministry of Culture for many years, and he [Marcos] is a functionary for the Ministry of Culture. So for a time he was driving for my father, for five years some twenty years ago. So everyone there is very— I mean a lot of the people and the things that happen are not directly autobiographical in the way that I have lived, but they are autobiographical in the way that it's my atmosphere, my world.
RD: Right. So how long has this movie been rolling around in your head?
CR: Well, in it's form— in it's actual form not a lot of time. I really wrote it down very quickly. I tend to write very rapidly, but the things, the issues the film deals with, they have existed since I was a little boy. I don't know, you know, like all this tension that you see in Mexico, it can be either religious and ritualistic tension on one side and there's the racial tension and the different classes tension and, well, a lot of questions that you can ask yourself when you live in that place or even if you go on a visit.
RD: In fact I love how you communicate that. You often show Marcos following other groups of people around as if he's sort of an outsider. We see him following a pack of soldiers but he's not in uniform, he's behind them, and we see him following Ana, the girl he drives around, at the airport but she's sort of in a haze — he's broken his glasses, can't see her very well — or there are pilgrims across the street who he sees from a distance. I think that's really cool. How do you— how do you communicate this really clear perspective to your collaborators? Do you storyboard?
CR: I do storyboard very precisely. And when I write the screenplay it is already a technical screenplay where I describe everything as I intend to shoot it, because I do, let's say, an inverse process. Instead of, like, thinking of a story and then making it filmic I think directly of a film, and that's the way I write, as if I was seeing a film and describing it. So I describe the color, the kind of texture you have, the lens and the music and the sound and the shots. That's how I learned, because maybe I didn't go to film school, so I went the other way around, and I actually — since the beginning — I write the film as I intend it to be, so it's very annoying actually for people funding the film for example to read all those technical things into the actual screenplay, so nowadays I have to hire someone who will transform my technical screenplay into a normal, let's say, narrative screenplay so it can be giving to collaborators and then funders since the beginning of the projects.
RD: Even though the narrative really is not the most important thing in this film, is it?
CR: Definitely not. I mean the whole thing— There I answered methodically, but if I answer conceptually I would say that it all comes to what I think cinema is for me. I'm not, like, interested in the idea of telling a story. For me, cinema is not telling a story. I'm much more interested in living from within someone. So I do have to give away some information so you know who you're going to— whom are you going to experience life through? Then I try to get into someone so you feel as some other human being could feel, and there you can feel empathy and you probably feel identified or non-identified but then you feel from inside, and that is for me like the most powerful thing you can try to do with cinema, and that's why I say it's much more connected with painting or music.
Music is not about telling a story, it's about feeling. You go to a concert, let's say a classical music concert. I mean you feel and then in the end you say whether you liked it or not, but nobody says, "What is it about?" or "I didn't understand it" or "I understood it." You just feel it. Same thing for— Maybe you go and listen to Bob Dylan. You either like him or not, and you feel, and that is what I think is the most beautiful thing about cinema and not only telling a story.
RD: Yeah It's interesting what you say about getting inside another person or inside a character, [because] the first time I saw Battle in Heaven — I've seen it twice — I felt like, at first, that the movie was moving in and out of Marcos' consciousness, but now I feel like it never really leaves his consciousness. Instead we're sort of pulled in all of these different directions that he is pulled. We hear children all of a sudden from somewhere just as he's thinking about that. And I think that's a really cool, a really cool thing.
CR: Definitely. I really think we're always inside of or within him. But you're right also when you think you sometimes pull away, but it's not that you pull away and then it's me as a narrator outside of it. It's himself when he sees himself from away, as [we do] ourselves. We in life — well at least me, but I suppose this is common to everybody — eventually you are experiencing things directly, and you're there, like, part of it all. But then all of a sudden you can pull out and see yourself from outside and then you wonder about abstraction and what's your place on earth and what are you doing here, etc. So very often I think we look at ourselves from a hill as if we were in the woods and then — or the forest — and then we are within the forest and we're just living and we're a part of it, but we keep on coming out and in of ourselves.
And very often in the film I do, like, shots when you pull out and then you realize things from abstraction. Like, I don't know, let's think of the gas station sequence. Everything is going on in the gas station, but then at the end we pull out and we see from a hillside very little the car and then the whole "stage" where everything is taking part. And then Marcos leaves. And that's like saying, well, after all, you're just in a gas station and you leave, as if you tell someone else what you did the day before. You tell things from an abstract point of view.
RD: The sound design is really critical in developing that point of view, I think, and it seems like you've sort of expanded on what you did in your previous film Japón, where the lead character often wore headphones. But we didn't realize that sometimes. We'd be watching a scene and hear music that's playing, and then we'd realize that the music is actually in his headphones and so we were in his head without realizing it. And now I think you've gone further with that in Battle in Heaven, it seems.
CR: Sure. Actually this is, this is true. Of course the music is very important but also every sound in the film I think is like maybe the way or the key into all of this subjectivity we're talking about. In Japón now when I see all that thing with the headphones I think it is a bit naive. I liked it and it was a— but it is a very clear tool, and now in Battle in Heaven I do that but without having resource to this tool which is subjective already, because when you see someone with headphones you are not listening to the music but you know he is.
But here in Battle in Heaven it's really really much more cinematographical and open and abstract, because the device that produces the music is not subjective. It is usually real music in a real place and we're really listening to it, but then all of a sudden without needing to justify I do make it subjective. And this is very often the case— I mean this is exactly the case in the gas station, like when Marcos moves out and looks at the pilgrims then he turns his head and you see the pilgrims and you stop listening to the music although the music is meant to be in the gas station. Even if you look at the gas station, you hear the music in real life, but here I just turn it off. And then it comes back in, so I'm playing all the time with all those source— or what do you call it in English? Like music source?
RD: Source music, or there's this term "diegetic music."
CR: Yeah, that's what I use, diegetic and extra-diegetic. But you say "source" or "score." This is what is said in English, or at least in the States.
RD: In fact this term "diegetic music," which refers to music that's in the story versus music that's just sort of— we hear in the theater— almost doesn't really apply to Battle in Heaven because— because of the subjective nature of it, I think it's pretty— it's hard to qualify.
CR: Definitely. Defintely. I mean like— I very — as I told you, I'm much more interested in feeling and experiencing bits of life rather than telling a story from the outside of us, the story of the grasshopper and the ant or the I-don't-know-what. So very often this breaking of rules with the sound is not like I want to do something, like, different or I just want to break them to make fun or whatever. It's just because I'm feeling it from the inside, so all these rules tend to melt down.
And the same thing happens with image like when the camera is subjective, when it is objective. Like, you know, in the metro Marcos starts walking away, and then the camera for no apparent reason starts moving and goes on the tunnel by itself and Marcos has disappeared from the screen. So a lot of people, dogmatic people, would say, Who is that? Why is that camera moving? What is that meant to be? But when I say that everything melts down it's like if you go to dreams then you never— in dreams music comes, goes, sound, images, and who knows if that's subjective, objective— Just try to define that. There's no justification for any of that. So I'm much more interested in all that, let's say, energetic feeling and bits of life, as I said before, rather than something structured as if it was a building.
RD: Yeah, there's a similar scene to that where Marcos, I mentioned before, breaks his glasses, and so after that everything that Marcos sees is sort of blurry, but there are also shots of Marcos that are blurry, and so that's— you know— there's sort of this blurry haze even though we're not directly looking through his eyes any more.
CR: Exactly. That's exactly part of what I was saying before with sound that I told you. It also happens to image. That— No need to be always trapped by the book of rules. That's fine for television or for anything— when you are doing a project— but here I'm thinking, I'm wanting, to do something else.
RD: Speaking of Japón, is that the old woman from Japón who's in the gas station? Or someone who just—
CR: Yes it is, it is.
RD: I thought so, we briefly see her. OK.
CR: It is. It is. I wanted to have her as a pilgrim going over there. Like in Japón she was so interested in all this ritualistic part of religion.
CR: But I have to tell you that I realize that that is a mistake.
RD: Oh really?
CR: Yes. I will never do that again.
RD: Why do you say that?
CR: Well at least in the state of mind I'm in now. Because it is a reference to something that is out of the film.
CR: And it's a reference to another film of me, so in a way that's— it's bad to make refereneces to things contained out of the world in [the] film, I think. This is at least how I think nowadays. I think film, very often you ask whether it's a product for the viewer, whether it's self-expression, and very often I think I was— I thought it was self expression to me, but now I've come to a different conclusion and I think it's neither of those two but a larger thing which is trying to create an ideal entity. And that's it. And that would imply that it was self-expressed but also that it was for the viewer or whatever, but it's about creating a perfect [world?]. So having someone from another film like that and making a reference out of the film is breaking the unity of it, so it is a flaw in my opinion.
RD: Well if it helps, when I saw Battle in Heaven at Toronto  I had not seen Japón yet. So I didn't recognize her at all.
RD: I stayed in the movie.
RD: So we've been talking about the actors. A lot of— in fact I think all of— the people in the movie have not acted before. What's your approach to working with non-actors as actors?
CR: Well, the whole thing is— it always comes back to the same concepts of not just simple non-ambiguous story telling. I'm much more interested in— not in hot, direct acting where you feel immediate empathy. I'm interested in something more abstract, so I do not need the, let's say "actors," whatever, to act because acting after all is a technique to represent someone, or some character.
CR: And I'm not interested in people representing something else apart from what they are, not even the role in the film, because I don't want them to have a role in the film. They just give me their presence and that's all. As a tree, a tree doesn't act when you're shooting in a film. He's just there, and if the tree would speak or would make — let's not say a tree, let's say a parrot or a bird — and the bird would sing and you capture his song. And that's it. And this is exactly what I try to do with the humans in the film. I try to have them and take the real presence and have no obstacle between the camera and them. And in my opinion — and this is not my idea, Bresson, Robert Bresson, identified this very clearly — he said the acting was an obstacle between the actual individual and the camera, and I completely understand what he's saying and I believe in it. And I try to do something like that.
RD: So you've mentioned Robert Bresson, I was thinking the same thing about his— He used what he called "models" people who weren't really actors in his movies and there was— they would express very little emotion but the emotion came from the situation or from who they were already, I suppose, but who are your other favorite filmmakers or filmmakers who you feel have inspired you?
CR: Let me just tell you something very quickly about the Bresson thing—
CR: —which, because I realized that although he taught me a lot of things, I do something different after all. He really wanted his models to be neutral and pure.
CR: And I want them to be [as I choose?] not to be models because I don't model them at all. I don't touch them. I want them to give me their nature. So if I would ask them to look out the window— but Bresson would probably say look out in a neutral way and I just have them to look out, and any way they look is fine for me. So in the end, like the one in Japón and the people in Battle in Heaven, they are clearly individualized and they are what they are in real life, so I do take their nature, and in Bresson you feel like all of his actors in the end are very similar because they're just models working for the situation in his film.
CR: But I do care about the individual nature of each one and then they give it to the film so there's a little— there's an important difference there.
RD: So... you do give your actors instruction, you are manipulating their— you know, they're not being themselves on film entirely, you have a sort of—
CR: No but they are! They are being themselves with their nature, and that's why I only give them spacial and temporal indications. Like exactly as a still photographer would do they would say please sit down on that chair and look at the right and let me take a photograph of you. And if it's a good photographer, he will do a great portrait.
And I try to do the same thing, like I say "please sit down, count to ten, then let's say, say 'I love to have orange juice' then get up and walk out of that door" and that's exactly what they do, and while doing all that they're giving the camera all their presence. And then cinema constructs the rest and that's something I really— I find magical in cinema.
RD: That's cool. It's very interesting. Uhh...
CR: You asked me about other filmmakers.
RD: Yeah yeah. Filmmakers, right.
CR: Well I keep on changing, you know, like every year.
RD: Good, yeah.
CR: But of course Tarkovsky was very important for me. I mean he is a person that I will always love everything— every shot he did. Well not every shot but I mean— not even all the films— but I really love what he did. He touched me very deeply, and he has given me energy to want to do things.
I like Ozu very much too. I really love the way he constructs such simple lines and situations but so deeply emotional. I like Antonioni for other reasons because he's so sophisticated with movement. And Visconti I like very much too because of also the sophistication of internal— of internal life and emotional life of his characters. And I like Rossellini very much too. Umm. I like Buster Keaton also.
CR: Yeah, very much. I think he's maybe one of the greatest American— I like Abel Ferrara. Some of his— I like him because he's so excessive and so — it's true in a way — although you see his films and they are a disaster very often like if you analyze them from the point of view of them being perfect they are a disaster! But they are so powerful and so personal. I saw recently King of New York again, and you know that film really doesn't make sense, there are things— they arrive at a place and then they go and they are somewhere else and situations don't follow one another. But then there's great moments like when Christopher Walken is taking that shower and everything is so slow and there's a great sound effect there. And then he looks at the camera for a little moment and that little moment touches me in a stronger fashion than probably a whole film with a whole story line.
RD: Yeah, I saw his most recent movie Mary with Forrest Whitaker and Juliette Binoche and it is— I felt like it was a mess and yet— and as a film critic I don't know how to even write about it, it's so— I don't even know how to approach it, and yet there is something about it that's really interesting, and he has a lot of cool ideas in there, and yet it's just sort of screaming at you.
RD: Yeah. Well that's a very interesting list of directors. It's almost a pantheon, I think, of great directors. And I like what you said about how your opinions change over time because people change and of course you have to—
RD: —see things differently as circumstances change.
RD: Uh, let's see. What are you working on next?
CR: I'm working on a new film which is about love, romantic love, let's say a classical story of love.
CR: Yeah. And that's all I will say. I never speak about the future films.
RD: All right, yeah, I won't ask any more about that.
CR: Oh don't worry. It's fine to ask.
RD: I wanted to ask you about the title "Battle in Heaven". I always hate to ask filmmakers to explain what things mean, but I think there is a lot of, sort of, "heaven imagery" in Battle in Heaven. It's sort of bookended by these very abstract scenes of characters in just a completely white room and so, you know, you could imagine that maybe that's heaven, or there's also a scene where Marcos ascends a hill in sort of a fog. You know he ascends a mountain, umm—
CR: Yeah, I mean, you wouldn't be a— you don't have to be afraid of disclosing anything because I personally I don't even know exactly— I mean, it's not that I don't know, it's that it's not a real— a real— it's much more like something that the film evokes, and the idea of "battle in heaven" can evoke a lot of things which in my opinion are similar to things that the film can evoke. Well, to start with, the idea of a battle in heaven is a contradiction in terms because in heaven there shouldn't be any battles.
CR: And the whole film is about tension also. Then there's— I don't know you can think of thousands of ideas. I don't know, like the gods in heaven fighting on the destiny of every single individual down on earth, and they're struggling, and one wants him alive and the other one wants him to find his way out, and probably Marcos seems to be just a little tool— not a tool, just a little— just a little insect, almost, in this earth, and — like each one of us — but at the same time his own battle is like the greatest battle and the most epic battle of all, because each one of us is in that situation, you know? We're all grains of sand, but at the same time each one of us has his own life and his own — yeah — complete heroic activity in life, or drama on the other hand. I don't know. I like the idea of the very open and wide title.
And I also like— there's a passage in the Bible when angels and demons finally fight and all the demons fall into the earth in fire, and I don't even know the morals about that story, and I don't care, but what I like is the idea of the demons falling in fire into the atmosphere. And I feel like Marcos at the end is just like falling down also in fire. But I'm not looking at that from the evil or good or redemption point of view, just the idea of falling down.
RD: Yeah. That's interesting. Have you seen— we were talking about other filmmakers— do you know a filmmaker from Austria named Ulrich Seidl who made this film Dog Days?
CR: I do, I do, I know his work quite well.
RD: Battle in Heaven is a really unique movie, and I can't think of anything else really like it, but I think it's in the same world in some ways as Dog Days. He does some very similar kinds of things. He's looking at a very different, very different place. It's in the suburbs of Vienna and [it's about] sort of the malaise that's there, but I just wondered if you were familiar with his work at all.
CR: Yes, yes, and I like it very much, but I think his work — I mean let's speak of Dog Days — I think his vision is much more "rational European" and cynical and critical, in a way, and I would even say bitter, although he's not bitter at all, but the vision is like, like, he's— I get the impression when I see the film that he is really fed up with so much crap and he's angry.
RD: Yeah. I get the same feeling.
CR: Yeah. And I hope that in my films there's much more hope, there's more lyricism, I think, and even though I'm not saying life is crap, I'm saying we're doing things very badly and we're ruining something that ought to be wonderful. And sometimes even though we're ruining it here, at least it should be wonderful somewhere else, I don't know. But I think in my films, I hope — that's only my opinion, of course — there's always some underlying light, like at least there's physical beauty, I don't know, there's always something there and we're missing it very often. But in Ulrich's films he's just saying this is a disaster. I don't know.
RD: Well I find your vision intriguing, I'll say that. And I look forward to seeing your next film. So thank you Carlos Reygadas for talking to us.
CR: Thank you, very much.
Thank you very much for this interview Rob! It's quite illuminating. I like when the questions go where the interviewee wants them to go, to let him talk about his work from his perspective.
I especially like what he says about Bresson, because that's exactly what I intend to deal with at the Contemplative Cinema Blogathon. Bresson had a conceptual, minimalist, ascetic approach to contemplation. And the contemplative artfilms we see today, post-modernism, are less intellectual, less theorical, and look passively at real people, real life, real images. And it results in a different type of contemplation.
I hope you will join us for the blogathon. This interview is the perfect material, if you would like to cross-post it over at Unspoken Cinema. We could say a lot of things about Reygadas's contemplation, just from this interview alone. You're welcome to write something else if you prefer.
And thanks a lot for the mp3 too! Great stuff. I want more of this. ;)
Hey, thanks Harry. That's great. I knew your blogathon was coming up, but I didn't realize I was timing a post so well. Lucky break!
I'd love to write something specifically for the occasion, but this may have to do at the moment. Thanks for the offer to cross-post, but I'll probably just post a link over there -- oh, actually it looks like you already have. Thanks.
I like how you're experimenting with the medium and trying to tie things together a little more tightly. It'll be interesting to watch.
For further reading, see Michael Guillen's report of Reygadas' appearance here in San Francisco (which I missed, unfortunately) and three takes from the critics of Reverse Shot.
Rob, as a source of insight into a filmmaker's process of making movies and his notions about the very purpose of film, this interview is indispensible. I particularly like his ideas about film conveying interiority and about allowing his actors to be natural and pure. And I say this without even having seen Battle in Heaven. It's been on my to-see list for a while, ever since Darren and Acquarello praised it; after reading this, it just moved up on my Netflix queue.
Thanks, Michael. I'm curious to hear your reaction.
It looks like Jonathan Marlow of GreenCine talked to Reygadas within days of my chat. They covered some of the same ground. Interesting stuff.
Carlos Reygadas is one of the most interesting film artists of our generation, along with Kar-Wai and Zvyagintsev. Just his singular characters are worth more than a shitty decade of entire Hollywood output put together. The wife of Marcos in Battle in Heaven - she introduced me a world I've never witnessed before. Carlos has a lot of artistic courage, integrity and vision to be able to seek out and find such amazing textures and colors and bring them to us.
As a filmmaker myself, I'm deeply respectful of what he is doing. As a viewer and audience member I'm deeply affected by his films.