Nacho Vigalondo, Timecrimes
Nacho Vigalondo is part of an exciting new generation of Spanish filmmakers who are reinvigorating genre filmmaking with their creativity and invention. Born and raised in the insular town of Cabezón de la Sal, he grew up on 80s studio movies before discovering the work of cult directors like David Lynch and Peter Jackson, whose idiosyncratic visions inspired the teenage Vigalondo to eventually become a director himself. He studied Visual Communication at the University of the Basque Country, where he began making a series of playful and distinctive shorts which include Shock (2005), Sunday (both 2005) and, most famously, the Oscar-nominated 7:35 in the Morning, which quirkily combined obsessive romance, a musical number and explosives. As well as writing and directing shorts, the always active Vigalondo has also acted in a lot of his and other people’s work and written for TV shows (including the Spanish Big Brother); he’s also in the “electro-gothic” band Tentirujo.
While his shorts are predominantly fun, lighthearted affairs (sometimes with a dark twist), Vigalondo’s debut feature Timecrimes shows just how mature and sophisticated he can be. The film begins simply enough: a man (Karra Elejalde) is moving into his new house and, while scanning the surrounding area with his binoculars, sees a young woman taking off her top, and then a sinister man with his face obscured by a pink bandage clutching a pair of scissors. While Vigalondo sets the film up with a hapless hero, a damsel in distress and a terrifying villain, the introduction of a time machine changes things radically. What follows is a truly virtuosic piece of filmmaking in which Vigalondo brilliantly deconstructs and reconstructs the narrative, adding layers and angles to the story with effortless sleight of hand, and ultimately creating an infinitely more complex and thought-provoking film than seemed possible. The young writer-director has an unerring grasp of the tropes and rules of genre movies and how to twist and subvert them, and watching him play with our expectations is a genuine pleasure.
Filmmaker spoke to Vigalondo about time travel movies, playing Norman Bates in a spook house, and his love for the films of Rob Zombie.
Filmmaker: What first got you interested in cinema?
Vigalondo: I wasn’t raised as a young filmmaker because when you’re living in Spain and you live in a town like mine – it’s called Cabezón de la Sal, which means “big head in the salt” – if you’re realistic and your family’s not got very much money, you cannot think of yourself as a filmmaker. When I went to the movies, I saw those movies as something given by the gods. So when I started playing with a camera, I was in high school and I was making stupid things in front of the camera only for the pleasure of being able to watch it again. I started thinking of myself as a director when I was in college, and at that point I started making short films. I cannot say that I was this kind of child who knew that they wanted to make films from the very beginning, so my education is from the 90s – the Sundance years, Tarantino, Rodriguez – when there came along all these auteurs who showed to us that you were able to make genre films that at the same time were auteur films, so they were my heroes at the time.
Filmmaker: Did you watch a lot of movies growing up?
Vigalondo: When you’re a child in the 80s, you’re really into Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Back to the Future – Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis and stuff – and when you become a teenager, you escape from that. At that time, I discovered cult directors like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and David Lynch. David Lynch really changed my way of watching filmmaking because all these other directors are about architecture and logic, and David Lynch was all about magic – something that can’t be explained, closer to poetry than narrative. When a guy is making poetry with a camera, you can realize there is a camera behind, so it’s much more interesting. Terry Gilliam also comes to mind. I also discovered Spanish directors, and it’s funny because I discovered them from the outside. I discovered Buñuel, Zulueta and, of course, Almodóvar and I started seeing things in a different way. But from the very beginning, I knew I was going to make genre films because my first concern when I write a story or make a film is to make something that isn’t boring. For me, boring is the original sin. I don’t care if I make something confusing or maybe too twisted or too dense, but if it’s fun it’s OK with me.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen a number of your short films, and they’re really enjoyable to watch and seem like they must have been fun to make also.
Vigalondo: It’s fun when you transmit this feeling, but making movies is never fun. Sometimes your mind plays tricks on you and you remember the shoot as that amazing moment in your past when you were younger and you were laughing all the time, but it’s always a lie. It’s not true – you were suffering all the time, because shooting is about repetition, and repetition is never fun. My short film A Lesson In Filmmaking was fun because there was only one take, because I didn’t have the opportunity of repeating. In that case, it was OK but all the rest of the shoots are horrible.
Filmmaker: Considering that you hate repetition, it seems strange that you made a film like Timecrimes in which repetition is totally central to the movie.
Vigalondo: Repetition in real life can be horrible, but if you think of repetition in terms of sex, for example, it’s great. Repetition can be related to pleasure but when you’re dealing with repetition in fiction you have very big limitations because with repetition there are predictable elements, things that people are expecting to see again. If you are playing fair you are going to show a lot of predictable things in your movie and Timecrimes is dealing with predictable things. The challenge is, “How can we make a movie that is predictable in so many ways, but we find a way to show something new each time?” So when a movie is not about “what” but turns into something that is about “how,” it’s pretty interesting. For example, my favorite part in Psycho is not the killing sequence in the bathroom. It’s an incredible sequence, but what comes after is Norman Bates dressing the corpse, putting the corpse in the back of the car, taking the car to a swamp. There’s nothing new in that sequence, but it’s so well shot that it’s the part where I almost get hypnotized by a guy hiding the corpse of a beautiful lady.
Filmmaker: I read that you’ve played Norman Bates yourself.
Vigalondo: Yeah, in a spook house. It was a gift from destiny for a film geek like me. One summer – maybe the best summer of my life – I had this opportunity: it was one of the first jobs in my life and I had to work as a monster in a corridor. I had to be Norman Bates so I was dressed as an old lady with a knife and I was chasing the people. It was not a big luxurious spook house and it was pretty dangerous: my knife was not a fake knife, it was a real knife with a blunt blade. I felt a bit unsafe with that knife because some of the people that went there did not feel the threat of a knife because they assumed it was a fake knife. There came a point where I decided to [not use] the knife and I took off one of my shoes – they were old ladies’ shoes – and I took it in my hand. When the customers came and the lights went out, they saw an actor with a shoe in his hand and they were really terrified because nobody’s going to stab you with a knife but maybe they can hit you in the face with a shoe, so they would go “Aaargh!” And I could actually hit them, and they were more terrified. I like the idea of playing with elements in mise-en-scène in terms of maybe attacking the audience from a different point of view so they can feel more surprised and more terrified. That’s the reason I don’t have a knife in my movie, I have scissors.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea for Timecrimes? And how did you go about structure the script to make everything piece together properly?
Vigalondo: When you’re dealing with repetitions, you’re not only thinking about right and left but also up and down. It’s pretty complicated because when you put in a new element, it’s affecting what happens next and what happens before, so you have to be pretty careful. If you make all the pieces match together, if you make this mathematical equation work, you deserve a prize or something – but if the movie’s boring, it’s not a fair film. I think the first duty of a film is to make you forget about real time so for me the real challenge was making a fun mathematical equation rather than a perfect structure.
Filmmaker: The movie has some parallels with Shane Carruth’s Primer, which also uses time travel in a logical and very inventive way.
Vigalondo: I have a little horror story with Primer: we were developing Timecrimes and were in preproduction and a friend told me, “You won’t believe this, a movie about time travel from a logical point of view won Sundance. I saw a sequence on TV and it’s about one guy looking at himself with binoculars.” I was like, “Oh, my God! Stop the machines, stop the machines. What’s happening here?” I decided to move forward because you’re going to face these kind of problems through all your career – it’s happens to everybody. And when I finally saw Primer, I felt so glad because it’s a great film but it’s pretty different. It’s almost the opposite, because it comes from the same starting point but the directions these movies take are the opposite. I love to think that Timecrimes and Primer are complementary in some way.
Filmmaker: They’d make a great double bill.
Vigalondo: I really like the first half of Primer: there are some devices related to the time travel technique that I really appreciate. In fact, I prefer that type of time travel to mine. in terms of a realistic approach, Primer‘s is the real time machine; mine is like a giant toy – it doesn’t make sense at all. In fact, when we were making the film there were some teachers at the physics college [where we shot] and they were like, “How does your time machine work?” I was like, “Well, it’s a tank filled with liquid…” He was like, “Liquid?! OK, forget about it. What is it about liquids? It looks like a porn movie more than a science fiction movie.”
Filmmaker: The film really plays with our expectations: we are anticipating a straight genre film at the start, but the film begins to reveal multiple layers and really transforms into something much more psychologically complex.
Vigalondo: Something I really don’t like about modern films is that most of the time movies live up to the expectations of the audience. Movies seem to be what they really are and instead of playing with your expectations, they play to your expectations. I remember when I watched Fight Club in Spain. I went to the theater and was ready to see a movie about streetfighting and I found a movie about something much more complicated than streetfighting. I was amazed and felt shaken by the movie at the time because I didn’t know what to expect next. I have to assume that part of the audience doesn’t react very well to this playing with expectations; sometimes when you are not satisfying the expectations of the people there are people who feel you have cheated them, but I definitely love the idea of making films that play with audience rather than satisfy them in a plain way.
Filmmaker: Who’s got the power: the directors, the producers or the stars?
Vigalondo: In my personal case, the director, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing. [laughs] I’m ready to live the other situations. I love to be manipulated by producers and of course I love to be manipulated by stars. [laughs]
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Vigalondo: I would give an Oscar to the British director Terence Fisher. He’s a director of horror and he is, for me, not worse than Alfred Hitchcock. He deserves all the attention you can imagine. This is maybe a boring answer but I will give an Oscar to Rob Zombie too. I really love the work of Rob Zombie. This is not a joke.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Vigalondo: I have seen some filmmakers destroying their careers trying to transform reality in order to match with ideas, making something expensive or something that is really impossible to be made. I always recommend transforming your ideas to match reality – that’s the best thing you can learn. If you are waiting five years in order to make a medieval short film, you’re making a mistake. Experience is more important than anything else and five years waiting for a movie is five years waiting, not working.