This interview with Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro took place at the Locarno Film Festival in August 2016. About all that needs be said about Piñeiro’s five previous movies can be read in Jason Di Rosso’s feature exegesis “The Chamber Films of Matías Piñeiro” from the last issue, and this interview was therefore intended as both an addendum to that article as well as an excuse to reconnect with Piñeiro on the occasion of the world premiere of Hermia & Helena.

Piñeiro’s film is the story of a young theatre director, Camila (played by Agustina Muñoz) who travels from Argentina to attend a fellowship in New York, translating Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish (although the film is a continuation of Piñeiro’s ongoing series of Shakespeare riffs, it is not specifically concerned with theatre). She takes up the fellowship after her friend Carmen (María Villar) finishes her tenure and moves back to Argentina. Moving into the apartment owned by the Institute and inhabited by her friend appears to open up a number of social roles left vacant by Carmen’s departure, roles that Camila now fills obligatorily, almost senselessly. While in this new country, she struggles to connect; either her relationships seem forced or they seem unconvincing, and her personality seems to shift from scene to scene.

Hermia & Helena is a series of intersecting interludes. In each, Camila’s whole personality seems to wordlessly transmute. She is in a relationship with a boy in Argentina. She capriciously enters into romances with an avant-garde filmmaker named Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa), an old flame whose name she digs up out of the back of a borrowed book, and Lukas (Keith Poulson), the fellowship coordinator at her Institute. Piñeiro emphasises the mutability of Camila’s sense of self as each scene plays out as variations on an unseen set of character briefs. In subtle ways, the film re-expresses the idea that each social situation demands a certain performance, a readjustment of gesture and speech, which Camila’s role as a translator reiterates. In Piñeiro’s first English-language production, the characters speak a snappy, artificial form of English straight from classical American comedy, again bolstering the notion that, for Piñeiro and Shakespeare both, all this world’s a stage.

Matías Piñeiro interview

The scene where Dan Sallitt appears as Camila’s estranged father seems to be the talk of the festival, at least in my circles.

There was a feeling that when we were doing it that it was good, that there was a nice vibe between him and Agustina (Muñoz), that there was a good vibe between the three of us. We were doing this scene very differently from how I wrote the other scenes – it was more little by little, talking much more, asking “what do you think of this?” and “what do you think of that?” Building the scene together. It’s the scene that has more participation from all of the people involved. Dan said when we were finished that somehow shooting Hermia & Helena was actually like writing the script – like writing the script in the place, on the day. And it’s not just improvising. We did talk, we did have some points that had to be made but then I was willing to be surprised… Though it was written before (the shoot) it was polished there in one take. I trusted Dan – I’ve seen his films so I know he’s good, that he’s intelligent. And I feel that he knows how we shoot.

Is there an affinity there between you and Dan?

I feel like we shoot similarly; in terms of structure, production, economics. I feel that there is a communion there and that I didn’t have to explain things all that much. It was about talking, negotiating: a little more of this, a little less of that. But then it was a surprise for me to hear what he was going to say. And after one take we would take things away or add some more, and then we’d say okay, let’s do a second one. Everything had to depend on the energy produced there. And I knew that we wouldn’t be able to do many takes because he’s not an actor. So there was something about keeping that energy alive. Of course in the beginning I had this hunch that he was going to be good. And I didn’t talk to him until very late even though I had the idea of having him in the film almost from the very beginning. It was the first time I’d had somebody like Dan in a scene this much. And I had a feeling that he would be okay. He wouldn’t be a macho figure, but also he had to represent a father figure of sorts. I think that there was a mix between these things: he wouldn’t be this sort of obvious father character. He has something in his personality that worked. Maybe in a way it is above all an idea of photogenics, but mixed with the ideas of the script that he picked up on and our collaboration on the dialogue. He developed a lot there for himself.

And was it like that for the other cast members?

No, no. Because the others are all somehow actors … it was different. Also Dan knew about Agustina; he had seen her in many, many films – and not just mine. I mean, he sees everything, he’s an amazing cinephile. And then I know how he does his casting for his own films. He does a kind of interview, and so do I. So in a way I tried to make the scene meet with what he’s used to doing. You just have to let things breathe, and that’s not easy. It’s not always easy to let things breathe when you’re shooting. I think that scene works because of that. And then the others had different structures, different approaches, different ideas. Because it’s different spaces and different people, and you have to convey a different rhythm. And so that’s why I like this idea of sitting down and keeping the camera still – saying “in this scene, the camera won’t move.”

It’s like a scene from a Dan Sallitt film – the rhythm of the cutting, the unblinking camera.

Yeah, yeah. I think that he frames a little wider, but it’s true. I hadn’t thought of it that way. And yeah, make him feel comfortable and trusting and part of the group. And to get him to have fun in a way, and I think that he did. I like that. I had a hunch, spoke with Graham (Swon, the producer), and eventually said okay, let’s commit to Dan. And I think that he was very generous with us.

With the exception of your group of regulars, do you usually cast in this way, based on faces or posture?

I have this impression that I need to see the way their bodies move. They come to meet you and you see their body moving. And somehow what I was always feeling was whether or not they match with Agustina. I met Mati (Diop) in the presentation of one of her films in Lincoln Center and we spoke about things, “you’re doing this, you’re doing that” la-la-la-la. And I said: there’s a similar energy to Agustina. That might sound a little bit esoteric and a little bit stupid but it has to do with the feeling you have when you’re talking to the person – that you won’t be exposing them in a bad way and that you won’t be confusing the feeling that this person produces to the outside world. That you’ll be representing them fairly. And with Keith (Poulson), I had seen many films that he has made, that he has been in, but it was mainly when I was meeting him in the street in New York, talking with him. And at one time initially I was thinking about using him, and doubting myself – I don’t know, I don’t know – and then suddenly one morning I meet him and I say: okay, it’s him. It works with María (Villar), it works with Agustina. He has an inner rhythm and an energy that works. It’s kind of a trust in photogenics, in bodily photogenics. I could be wrong, but this is especially true if you want them to be a bit more crazy, a bit more awkward – that maybe you want them not to match. With Gregg I wanted to make you think: this is her lover? This is the guy she’s going to? It’s strange to see them together. I like that. He didn’t have to be warm, or whatever. He had to be this specific thing: it’s weird, perhaps another life inside his character.

Matías Piñeiro interview

Was it any different working in English?

It made the film slower. In the delivery of the texts, they had to think it all through – there’s a delay in that sense. When María and Agustina are speaking on the terrace in Argentina it is like this (clicks fingers rapidly). As usual. In English, they are thinking things over twice. In the case of María, she is modulating things much more. She’s thinking things through. The pace is different – la-la-la-la-la. I liked that. It was one of the reasons I wanted to do this film, for this change of rhythm. What happens when I go from one place to another? The comparison can be made many times. In that sense, I decided that Agustina was going to be the main character because she was doing a fellowship in Amsterdam, where she spoke English regularly, all the time. So, again: you don’t have to overdo things. You don’t have to do any artificial work. It goes naturally. It becomes a gesture of the prolongation of themselves, from which you create the fiction you want.

Her character in the film is attending a fellowship. Is that how you start with these things, basing them on some actual facet of the actor or an event from their or your lives?

It helps. In cases like that, it helps you close that idea or choose that idea. I have the idea, but then when something like that appears you say: ah, there it is! It’s hard to say what comes first and second. I knew that I wanted her to be a translator of Shakespeare, that I wanted New York and Argentina – then, okay, why should she travel? I did a fellowship, so that’s close to me. And the idea of her leaving Buenos Aires and coming to New York like that worked. It’s not a film about miscommunication. It could be. If you’ve seen In Another Country (2012) by Hong Sang-soo there’s a lot of this: people speaking Korean around her back, etc, etc.1 This is not a film about that; I needed a different approach. If I wanted to do that, María would have had to have been the main character. She doesn’t know English well, so it would naturally happen that these mistakes and mix-ups would appear and form the tone of the film in this way.

Is Hong Sang-soo a point of reference for you?

He likes many filmmakers that I also like, like Luis Buñuel and Éric Rohmer. Both are really good to think about (when it comes to the use of) words in film: very wordy and very structuralist, very playful. About structure, writing, different orders of sequences, etc. And also about shooting scenes in a very direct way, even Buñuel. And Hong is like that too, but maybe more importantly is the system by which he produces the films. I do think that this … is a system that I have been using also. There are differences, of course. He works with famous actors; I do not. But it’s similar. He did a Jeonju project, and I knew one of the producers.2 She told me how it was done and it reminded me of the way my friends in Buenos Aires work. So I said, okay: there’s a similarity of approach there. The economics of a film produces the aesthetic, as well. Then there’s a taste, too. In Hong Sang-soo, the idea of drinking leads into the moral and sentimental roots of their characters. In my films, eating food and drinking is not a part of them, it’s different. But I do think there’s a bond, and one which can be connected to other filmmakers as well – even Rohmer – is that the production system in which the films are produced are somehow closed also.

It’s like the boundaries of the film are staked in advance.

Yeah, you work with whatever you have. If you have a house with a living room, la-la-la, you work there. My films are chamber films, small films, in this way.3 For my sensibility, I don’t have a need to do crazy shots, or have a lot of people and extras. I wouldn’t know how to do that. I have this approach to texts, to words, to focusing on the actor a little bit. But then I also see so many differences (between my own work and Hong Sang-soo’s)… he’s very, very good. (Laughs) He’s more clear. Very effective and classical. I’m less clear, I’m a little bit messier. He’s much more in control of the image, of everything. And that’s Rohmer too: it’s some sort of classicism to begin with. Then he messes with things, of course. But it’s always very clear, even if not structurally. You always have a strange idea of control, which is very gratifying. Even in The Day He Arrives (2011), which is crazy. Or In Another Country: it’s perfect. There’s the bottle in the sand, and the walk, la-la-la. They are not overwhelming, they are not baroque. I think I am a little more baroque.

Matías Piñeiro interview

But you have a similar device: an arc that comes back on itself. There’s always this looped device in Rohmer, particularly, of the film coming back on itself, the characters retreating back to some starting point.

It’s almost something very Hitchcockian: it has something to do with point-of-view. Having someone in the fiction who will tint everything you are going to see with their perspective, some additional information that some of the other characters don’t have. When you go back again you have extra layers of the narrative that somehow potentiate the drama. That is also the concept of suspense, in a way. There’s no need for bombs to develop that schema. You can do that sentimentally too. In Viola (2012), that was there clearly. In this scene you meet her, and in the other she comes back – is she going to be kissed or not? In Hermia & Helena, she says she is going to meet Gregg, so you have the question of whether then she will indeed meet up with him or not. I like when you go back to Buenos Aires and you see her kissing the boyfriend again. There’s something that accumulates, when you decide to do that. That’s why I decided to exaggerate this thing that I did in Viola, about planting a seed – you say you are going to do something, it or something else happens, then you play around with the structure. I want to see my father; she goes there, he’s not there, where is he, etc.?

How do you square these structuralist idea with the looser approach of the shoot itself?

It’s in the script. I am attracted to structures. This film is about coming and going, it will be three episodes, in a way. But then there’s a prologue, and then there’s an epilogue. So it starts getting messed up when we shoot it. You don’t see the film and think, “ah, here’s the prologue, here’s this and that”. But I need this idea of structuring in my head to begin with. It’s clear to start with, but then it gets complicated by this – we’re talking and then suddenly the camera pans here, to something else. And then there is this information that the audience doesn’t have, like with the postcards being burnt at the start of the film, but which is a feeling that I trust. It produces a feeling that I like, a sense of weight. As soon as Mati appears, there is a lift, something felt in the nerves. Then it is a matter of how long that should be. Same with the objects that appear here and there – the books, the gloves. To stimulate this retrospective thinking.

It stirs the pot, visually. Like the Shakespeare text superimposed onto the image.

Yeah, it was an idea I wanted to try. To try and move somewhere else and try out things. I knew I would be doing Shakespeare again but that I didn’t want to do theatre again because I didn’t want to fall into the same scheme. So suddenly this idea of shooting in New York – I felt there had to be an English-language aspect to the series. I thought: it could be a translator. Another option would be to do it with English-speaking actors. That would be awesome, but I decided to do it like this … It would be about coming and going, about translation itself, how impure translation is, and how beautiful that impurity can be. And for me that is connected with the idea of the fades that open the film4 – a translation shows both things: the hand of the translator, the editor, the original text.

And fades go from clear, to obscure, to clear again.

What is beautiful in the meantime is the mix, as the two images are merged. Where it starts and where it finishes is hidden, unknown. But the emptiness and plainness of the film’s images produces anxiety in me, so I need these baroque images [the fades] to create something else. I don’t work well with silence and with stillness. I need to fill it with speaking or substance. It’s a part of my personality (laughs), I embrace that. The text appears, and it appears in different ways – sometimes it’s a counter-shot, sometimes it is a part of the action, sometimes it is a graphic element that doesn’t have much of an explanation.

It’s kind of just another layer of the film’s texture.

Maybe I’m a little pushy. But I think it’s okay.

How long did it take to get from the genesis of the idea for this film to its premiere here at Locarno?

In Hong terms it is nothing! He did three in one year, I did this one in two. I think that the economics is where we are similar but he’s so much faster, he’s much more efficient. He’s a master, he’s something else.

Since we’re talking about this sense of emptiness… I was doing post-production on this film a couple of months ago, and while doing it I was thinking how I didn’t have any ideas, I don’t want to have any ideas, I’m so overwhelmed by all of this. As soon as I finished colour-correction, that very same day I came up with an idea: ah, I can do a short film, la-la-la-la. So it’s very weird that every time I finish a project, immediately another one appears. I was finishing The Princess of France (2014), in talks with Graham – he was working at Cinema Guild, who were distributing the film – and he said “maybe we can do a film together.” That was June 2014, the talking – nothing much. Then … I went to Buenos Aires to finish the film, and then I came here to Locarno to premiere, and then I started thinking. And we shot October. Two months afterwards.

Really?

Yeah, yeah! Hermia & Helena somehow stepped on The Princess of France, in a very good way but in a way that I’m not sure I’d like to do again. It’s really as if it stepped on its head. So with Princess I didn’t travel so much – it premiered at the New York Film Festival (in 2014) and I couldn’t go to see other films or participate much because I was shooting. And even though it’s better to be shooting rather than not, I felt a real sense of… gluttony. Which is fun, but then I don’t know if there is a need to systematise that. We’ll see. In October, we shot the New York section, then December in Buenos Aires. And then in March and something in May and in August in Buenos Aires. May in New York – the flowers. In August the re-takes. It was a year-long shoot. When I started in October (the María section) I didn’t know the rest of the film. And in December in Buenos Aires, I didn’t know what I was going to do in New York afterwards. I didn’t stress out because I was thinking of it in sections anyway. I knew it was going to be elliptical, that they weren’t going to have anything to do with each other. I like this idea that you would not have to know about what was happening with this woman and this woman. In that way, it’s very different from In Another Country where you see that it’s not the same character. Here it very much is the same character – in life, it’s not that everything connects with everything. I like that she’s slightly different in every section but still she’s the same character. Because we aren’t the same people all the time. I started editing in July last year and it was a long process.

You’ve been editing for quite some time.

Yeah. There were some personal things that happened to me that delayed my life in a way. I was in a limbo for bureaucratic reasons and couldn’t work. It’s a complex film, so it needed that time. Usually when I finish shooting I don’t like to begin editing straight away. We finished in March and I didn’t begin editing until I was in London later that year, in July. You have to do other things; you have to go back to your life. You have to go with your friends, with your family, you have to go back to your job, make a living. I really needed to go back to my life. To settle down a little. And think about it. I also had to think about Gregg’s short.5 It was hard to show the film without that or the writing being in the film. I didn’t want anybody to see it without these elements. This all produced a delay.

And now you’ve got this short idea?

And now I’ve got this short idea, yes. Which I hope to do this December. It’s from The Merchant of Venice. I really like the casket scene; I think I can do something with that, only with that. It’s going back to theatre in a way. A very elliptical film, in a way. Twenty second shots, very gestural. A kind of Cubic film (not Kubrick, “Cubic”!) A shot of you, a hand, a head turning, then a shot of a casket. Cut. A production assistant looking for the caskets in one shot… instead of a film of the casket scene in The Merchant of Venice, it’s about three actresses applying for the role of Portia, and about all these crew members building the set, working on the production, painting the portrait of Portia – it’s an image I like very much, a portrait of a woman without the features of a face. It will have the features of the actress who will be chosen; showing how that face is drawn. It’s not the same but there’s something of the kaleidoscopic feeling of a film by Alain Resnais, Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968). There’s something in the editing of that film that I would like to try, that I never wanted to before. A kind of… (rolls his tongue creating a looped, repetitive rhythm). I like that. It’ll all be motifs around that scene. I would like to make it very gestural, trying to capture little gestures, and that that would be enough. Usually I have these gestures in the shot but then there’s the narrative and la-la-la-la-la. It’s pushy. This one I would like to be relaxed, even though I’m rolling my tongue like this (makes the rolling noise again). But that’s my contradiction. That’s why I’m messier, I’m less clear. But that’s the movement that they have, and that’s the way it is. I’m not tidy.

 

Endnotes

  1. In Another Country features Isabelle Huppert as several iterations of a character named Anne – a French woman trapped or visiting in Korea in each of the film’s variations on a similar set of premises.
  2. Piñeiro has had a strong relationship with Jeonju International Film Festival, and has received support from them since The Stolen Man won the Jury Prize there in 2008. Jason Di Rosso detailed this relationship in his previous article for this website.
  3. Piñeiro has had a strong relationship with Jeonju International Film Festival, and has received support from them since The Stolen Man won the Jury Prize there in 2008. Jason Di Rosso detailed this relationship in his previous article for this website.
  4. This refers to a series of shots of flowers that slowly dissolving into one another over a drum beat.
  5. This refers to a fictional avant-garde ‘documentary’ seen in its entirety within Hermia & Helena.