Willing spirits: Ben Rivers versus Albert Serra

Two of Britain and Spain’s most distinctive go-it-alone filmmakers compare notes on the magical power of narrative, the variable spirituality of non-professional actors, courting or controlling the unexpected – and the elusive subtleties of their art.


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Ben Rivers (left) and Albert Serra (with the 2013 Locarno Film Festival’s Golden Leopard for his The Story of My Death)

Ben Rivers (left) and Albert Serra (with the 2013 Locarno Film Festival’s Golden Leopard for his The Story of My Death)

This month’s London Film Festival saw two superb new films from S&S favourites Ben Rivers and Albert Serra – respectively, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell) and The Story of My Death – that confirm their status as two of the most unique voices in contemporary cinema. We invited both directors to our office for a wide-ranging conversation about their ideas and working practices.

Serra works only with digital cameras and famously shot more than 400 hours worth of material on his new film. Rivers has hitherto worked exclusively with film.

Albert Serra: You never thought of using digital?

Ben Rivers: I think about it most times, but there’s never been an adequate reason for me to do it so far. I’m sure at some point I’m going to want use it. At the moment I like the constraints you get with using film.

AS: For me it’s the same thing but opposite. I like the constraints of shooting digital. You don’t have a beautiful image, for example.

BR: But this isn’t quite true, because your film is beautiful.

AS: But that’s at the end, after a lot of work. You have to spend a lot of money in post-production. The reasons I use digital are the number of cameras you can use, but mainly the length of the shot. Shooting on 35 you get 11 minutes; for me, with my actors, that would be impossible. I would never even have been a filmmaker without digital, it would have been impossible.

BR: Because it’s so much about things that are happening in between?

AS: Yes, in between, and because you are shooting all the time, and things are happening all the time, so you’re following the inspiration. And with digital the camera can be further away, so the actor is less aware of the camera. Would that bring you to digital – working closer with the actors?

BR: Yes, what Ben and I wanted to do in the first part of Spell was these conversations with people, and that’s become much harder with film. We had two film cameras, but still we had only ten minutes. The conversations were just getting going and you’d have to go and change the roll, so it makes it really difficult. I feel like we could have really benefited from for digital for that part of the film.

AS: But don’t you think with a 35 camera you already have a little more magic in what you are doing? Because sometimes with digital cameras I think you have to add the magic in the edit. I’ve never used it, but 35 seems to already add some kind of intensity and closeness, some kind of mystical thing in the image. It’s more difficult to get this thing with digital.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

BR: Yes, I think that’s true.

AS: You feel you have something that is beautiful?

BR: Yes, but you have to be careful and wary of that, the inherent beauty of using film.

AS: You have to contaminate this beauty?

BR: It may be too easy to think ‘this is a beautiful image’. The film itself, the material, is going to carry it regardless of whether the content is good or not. I’m always trying to be aware of that, at the same time that I’m really excited by that magic, the light. So maybe it’s more of a challenge if you’re using some slightly dirty old video.

AS: It’s the same problem for me; if I shoot a lot, I will always find something interesting. I shoot two hours and I know I will get one or two minutes which will be good. You get comfortable, then maybe the magic disappears. If it’s easy, then it’s not so good. You need to give yourself some difficulties, such as something has to be done really fast. There has to be some tension always – maybe a time constraint, or some other, artificially created one.

It may be too easy to think ‘this is a beautiful image’… You get comfortable, then maybe the magic disappears

BR: There’s also the time between shooting something and seeing it. I find that interesting with film. Some people use a video assist, but I don’t, so I don’t know quite what I’ve got. So there’s this interstice.

AS: I never use a monitor or see an image before the end of the shooting. But why do you like that interstice?

BR: Various reasons. If you’re constantly watching back what you’ve done, maybe you’ll be thinking about it too much. Repeating or trying to improve it, which I think is a bad idea. You would lose that magic. But one way in which we differ is I shoot all my stuff, so I am looking through the camera. I set up the shots.

AS: So how do you control the actors if you’re looking through the camera at the same time?

BR: You get used to it, it’s what I’ve always done. I can talk to people while I’m setting up the camera, it’s the way I’ve worked. In fact I like to have this channel of the camera to look at stuff. Last night you were saying how much you hate this idea of composition, but I enjoy composing images.

The Story of My Death

The Story of My Death

S&S: Both of you work exclusively with non-professional actors.

BR: This idea that people know how to perform: it seems bad to me.

AS: [Laughs] It sounds very bad!

BR: I mean, in your new film, if you had an actor playing Casanova it would be terrible. This guy is so amazing, and so is the one who plays Dracula. You would never get the same quality, this awkwardness. It’d be impossible.

AS: Cinema is about some subtle magic, more about the photogenic magic. You shoot, and some people are interesting, others not.

BR: There is a mystical nature to good film art, a spiritual dimension.

AS: The approach is mystical, but the reality, the quality of what you get is objective.

BR: You need a good face. Like Jake in Two Years at Sea: I wouldn’t have made a film about him if he weren’t charismatic.

AS: From the most visual point of view, it’s superficial. The person can be not beautiful, but still you can fall in love with them in the cinema, whereas in reality you never would.

BR: Pasolini was good at this. It’s about casting. He’s one of the models for me, he really got that early on. The woman in Theorem who’s floating above the building – you would walk past her in the street, but look at how he captures her in cinema.

The person can be not beautiful, but still you can fall in love with them in the cinema, whereas in reality you never would

AS: This is the best and most beautiful part of cinema for me. You can create some kind of beauty, but fix it. Perhaps it is already there but nobody has seen it; you have to see it and transform it.

BR: There’s a spiritual element.

AS: It’s not spiritual, I don’t think. Do you think that an actor has to have a spiritual richness to be able to show it?

BR: No, they don’t need it. Maybe spiritual is the wrong word.

AS: It’s the wrong word; it’s charismatic. It’s superficially visual charisma, it’s nothing else than that. Obviously I prefer to work with non-professionals I like as a person, but I think you don’t have to have inside this beauty or spiritual richness.

BR: I think it’s more about getting the sense of not just their superficial quality, but also something inside.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

AS: That’s too humanistic, I don’t think art works like that. It’s not necessary. Perhaps it helps, but it’s not necessary to get the top quality. I don’t think the camera needs this side to show it.

Perhaps the camera finds it even if it doesn’t exist. This is where the filmmaker creates it from nothing. I can create it from someone who has no spiritual interest. Some of my actors in real life are horrible, I mean really prosaic people. Some people in A Spell might be prosaic too in reality?

BR: That’s slightly different. Previous to that one, all the films I’ve made are with people I like and want to spend time with, and I wouldn’t make the film if I didn’t want to spend time with them.

S&S: When you start shooting on the first day, how much of an idea do you have of what will be in the final film?

BR: Just a few ideas.

AS: Same: just a few ideas.

BR: I have a list of things I’m interested in getting, but I don’t write a script.

AS: I write a script to get the funds. I follow the script but not as a script. It’s just for the planning of the day. I shot 175 scenes for this film; at the end you use 45 or 40 scenes. Some are in the script, some I created on set.

BR: So you add things?

AS: Yes, but they are always like variations. The concept is closed. Everything is thought through, but not in concrete details.

BR: In a way my process is quite similar. I’m always courting the unexpected. The idea of knowing exactly what a film will be seems very boring, so you have certain blocks – I want to achieve this and this and this, but all the things that happen in between are like unknown, mysterious things, which you hope the world is going to present to you.

AS: When I started in my first film, I was looking for the unpredictable, shooting a lot, but now I’ve developed my style with the actors, the concept is so closed it’s as if the unpredictable cannot appear. It’s something very strange that is happening.

The Story of My Death

The Story of My Death

Now I feel I’m getting more power, more control over everything, more intuition about what will happen. I communicate less with the people on set, and things arrive in the way they arrive. You choose your actors, you realise they are good at the beginning of the shoot, and so it doesn’t matter what they do. So I relax, I know it will be good – we can do it this way, that way, the other way, it will be good. Everything is predictable because it’s inside the concept and the actor is good.

BR: I worry a lot during the shooting.

AS: Why’s that?

BR: I’m generally high blood pressure when I’m making a film. I’m having a good time generally, but I’m never that relaxed, or confident that all the elements are really perfect and are just going to produce something.

AS: Do you have your own imaginary? How do you decide on the subject of your films? It seems like you can go it doesn’t matter where – now Morocco, now Scotland, so what is the common point? Where is your imaginary, or is it just about looking around at the world? And why do you always go so far away to shoot?

BR: One projects leads to another, so it happens by chance.

AS: I always use the same actors more or less, but for you it’s different people in different places. Do you just go there?

BR: Yes, I just go there, but there are various starting points for me. Literature is often a big starting point: what I’m reading will lead me to thinking about something. With Two Years at Sea, I was reading Knut Hamsun, and that led me off into the wilderness to find a guy living in middle of a forest.

AS: And how did you discover him?

BR: Through friends of friends, just asking around. Sometime I’d just go driving, talking to people, with a bottle of whisky in the back. So it’s usually word of mouth. And when you’ve discovered someone, just talking and finding out if there’s a spark between me and this person.

AS: But you don’t think about the film in formal terms before you find these people?

BR: I try not to, or if I do, I want the film to go against that, because I want the film to surprise me. I don’t want the film to just illustrate what’s in my mind, I want this adventure.

AS: Mine is more formal, conceptual.

BR: There’s always an overriding concept, like with Two Years at Sea wanting to have an enclosed world within a larger space. It’s about a hermetic world, and that’s the simple concept behind the film. Within that concrete circle you then try to find those surprises. There’s a bunch of things in my mind, I have a picture in my mind of how it might work, but it’s messy. It doesn’t feel very solidified. I usually have to go somewhere, with this messy concept, definitely less solid.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

But I’m getting more interested in the idea of using narrative. I’ve kind of avoided it – well, I haven’t avoided it, I think all my films are narrative films in a sense, it just depends on what your idea of narrative is. I think more in terms of plot and narrative. For example, you wouldn’t say your film has a plot, but it’s got a narrative.

AS: It’s more narrative than the previous ones.

BR: But even the previous ones… Birdsong is three guys walking through the desert, and that’s a story.

AS: But at the same time the story is completely open. You can do what you want in the edit and it will be the same thing. But in this new one you cannot change the pieces. Narrative is this moment when you cannot move a lot without changing the meaning or the sense. It’s a constraint, but perhaps it can be useful, to be more creative with my style.

BR: That’s how I’m feeling – I want to try that constraint, to see what happens if I take my style, my way of filming, and apply something a bit more concrete narratively. Within reason, because I still don’t want to script things too much. Like the idea you have, A meets B equals C: there’s these stories happening.

AS: Narrative creates interesting things by itself. Even without having a script, just thinking about it a little bit makes the film really go up to a different level. You just take a little bit of narrative and psychology appears by magic, even if you didn’t work on that a lot.

Narrative creates interesting things by itself… you just take a little bit of narrative and psychology appears by magic

Narrative makes for reverberation, incorporates different layers in a film; it gives it some richness, some subtle things. I think that narrative in some sense can help with our kind of films. As we already have this purity, this organic side of making things, of working with actors, I think that narrative brings something else, it will make them richer. In a film that is structured, it’s the opposite – narrative kills what it could be inside.

BR: This is exactly what I’ve been thinking. I want to try it. I like narrative cinema, but I only like it when it still allows this space, this fluidity.

S&S: What do you look for from the non-professional actors in your films?

AS: For me the actor is good when they have some mystery, and this gives you the possibility of creating something in the edit, or with the narrative.

BR: I would apply the same thing to the people in my films: this inherent mystery and hidden history.

AS: But I worry that with non-professional actors, the beauty we find is too subtle for the audience. Even if you put it in a narrative film, or spectacular form, the beauty of the performance and the details of these actors are too subtle. You have to be a little bit sensitive to see this. Sometimes a great actor can put a little bit of hesitation in what they do, and it’s even better, but never to the level of real mystery I have with all my actors.

One of my fears for this new film was that it was going to be a hidden achievement. People wouldn’t discover the beauty, it’s not evident.

BR: People are very impatient.

AS: Even if they are patient, sometimes they are people who do not have the possibility to see this beauty, they are not as sensitive as they should be. It’s a fucking problem.

The Story of My Death

The Story of My Death

BR: I don’t really think about the audience too much; it’s a dangerous thing. Like you I don’t care how many people see the films. If people walk out it’s fine, it’s not for them or they can’t be bothered. If half the cinema is still there at the end, they’ve found this hidden thing.

The kind of cinema we make is about practice. We’re used to these films, but if you’re not used to watching them, you can’t really expect people to click in to them. I sometimes think about the 1960s and the 70s, when Pasolini and Bergman would be in the multiplex, and you can’t imagine that happening now. At the same time there’s a lot of great cinema now; it’s just that people have to watch it at film festivals.

AS: A Pasolini film is really beautiful, but in some senses it’s less sophisticated than our films on all levels. Just in the edit, we have computers, we can do hundreds of things, we can control every minimum reverberation. It’s like tennis – a tennis player who is 600th in the world would beat every tennis player of the 80s and 90s. Same in football. Some films of Pasolini are really rough.

We are living in one of the best times now for cinema… it’s just that people have to watch it at film festivals

BR: We also have the knowledge of everything that has gone before us.

AS: We are living in one of the best times now for cinema. The 90s were horrible, but the beginning of the new century with the digital – it encouraged new people, people previously working in 35, from all over the world, with all their different styles and imaginaries. Cinema is really more interesting now than it was.

BR: And there must be an audience for it or it wouldn’t exist.

AS: But you cannot take risks with these kinds of films nowadays, because the audience is not supporting them any more. Sometimes there’s a film like Tabu, which was seen by 200,000 people in France.

BR: It’s a freak occurrence.

AS: In some senses it was an easy film, beautifully made. Even if it’s for the wrong reasons, people can love it. It’s like Almodóvar – he’s a big success and everyone loves him, but for the wrong reasons, or for different reasons than we love Almodóvar.

 It’s like censorship, where you couldn’t say something and you had to try in another way. But nowadays you have to make something that is apparently for the audience, but in fact the true values of the film are hidden, so some people understand and recognise. You have to create an envelope appealing to the people: it’s censorship by audience.

And Miguel Gomes, by chance, obviously, made a film that apparently could appeal to normal people, but then there are other values we love behind that. So stupid people can love it too. This is the point – to make a film that stupid people can love.

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