Alexis Dos Santos, Unmade Beds
If there’s a restlessness to the filmmaking of Alexis Dos Santos, you only have to look at the background of the young Argentinian writer-director to understand why. Born in Buenos Aires, Dos Santos relocated with his family to a small village in Patagonia when he was eight. He returned to the capital city to study Architecture at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, then moved on to study acting, and finally settled on filmmaking as his vocation. After completing his undergraduate studies at the Universidad del Cine, he moved to Barcelona for a screenwriting course, and then on to London, where he studied under Stephen Frears in the directors’ program at the National Film and Television School, getting in on the strength of his black-and-white short Meteoritos (1998). During his time at the NFTS, Dos Santos made more shorts – Watching Planes (1999), Axolotl (2000), Snapshots (2001) and Sand (2001) – which played at festivals worldwide, winning both prizes and acclaim. After an extended period in London, he returned to Argentina to make his debut feature, Glue (2007), the story of three awkward adolescents coming of age in his own hometown in Patagonia.
Dos Santos’ latest film ,Unmade Beds is his second feature, though it is a project he has been developing since 2001, when he was still at film school. Set in London, the movie presents a double narrative as it follows two attractive foreigners, messy-haired Spaniard Axl (Fernando Tielve) and pretty but delicate Belgian Vera (Déborah François). They are two lost souls looking for answers: Axl has come to London to track down the father who abandoned him as an infant, while Vera is recovering from a painful break-up. Dos Santos’ sophomore effort enthusiastically conveys the energy and vibrancy of London’s hipster squats and live music scene while offsetting this with two sensitive, emotionally insightful portraits. Featuring a smart, original script, a great indie soundtrack and strong performances from its cosmopolitan cast Unmade Beds is a charming and idiosyncratic crowd pleaser.
Filmmaker spoke to Dos Santos about the film’s long gestation period, his justification for throwing parties on the set of Unmade Beds, and his desire to work with Macaulay Culkin.
Filmmaker: There was a very long gestation period with Unmade Beds. Didn’t you start writing it first in around 2001?
Dos Santos: Yeah, I think I was still at film school when I started writing notes about the film, so it’s been a long time. But in between there were probably 20 drafts of the script and hundreds of pages of notes and characters’ diaries and things.
Filmmaker: From what I’ve read, you don’t always write a conventional script.
Dos Santos: The thing was, I was working on Unmade Beds for quite a long time, and then I wrote a little story that was Glue. I went to Argentina and shot something, and it ended up being the whole film. It was all based on improvisations, but that came out of being tired of the process of writing and rewriting and just thinking, “You can make a film even if you don’t write every single line of it.” Things are going to change anyway with the actors and in the edit, and I like improvising as well. I went back to [Unmade Beds] after I finished Glue and we made a final draft, and that was what we shot.
Filmmaker: How fleshed out was the script? Did you still leave room for improvisation?
Dos Santos: Yeah, because my experience with Glue was very good, very positive: I worked with the actors and basically we wrote and shot a film in three weeks. That gave me the confidence to keep improvising, and I felt that I needed to be not very respectful with material that I’d been working on for very long. With lines of dialogue that I’d written years before, I’d be like, “Whatever, change it. I don’t care.”
Filmmaker: How clear a picture of the characters and the story did you have when you went into production?
Dos Santos: It was somehow very clear because they’ve been with me for such a long time. Character is the thing that I develop the most. I write notes on characters for a very long time usually, and during rewrites I always go back and write characters’ diaries; I had hundreds of pages of Axl’s diaries and Vera’s diaries and their thoughts.
Filmmaker: How much does that picture you have of characters change once you’ve cast the movie?
Dos Santos: In this case, the nationalities changed, for instance. And then they become real, because suddenly they’re a person and it’s very different. When I write, I tend to think about someone even if I know that they’re not going to be right or they’re going to be too old by the time I make it. [laughs] With Unmade Beds, for a while I had different people in mind but then whoever comes brings a lot of their own world as well.
Filmmaker: Almost every single movie with a twentysomething boy and girl is a romance between the two of them, but you changed it up with a parallel narrative about two people who are not, in fact, destined to be together.
Dos Santos: It was always in my head that you were witnessing these two lives and sharing stuff with them. Maybe we’re so used to romantic comedies that we think they’re probably going to meet at the end, but it doesn’t make sense for them to have anything. And then what they have is this night that one of them doesn’t remember. I think it was more about the challenge because I didn’t have any models to follow. When you look at films, you think “Oh, this is like this other one,” or it’s like The Catcher in the Rye. But I didn’t have that with Unmade Beds because they are two different stories: one is a love story and the other one is a father-and-son kind of thing.
Filmmaker: Glue was about struggling with growing up, and this feels like a continuation of that sort of narrative.
Dos Santos: Something that I realized when I was doing Glue was that the film was mainly focused on the boys, and the character of the girl grew a lot when we were shooting because of course we were improvising and she was really good. Then I realized that I was almost doing the Unmade Beds thing and going into her point of view. Because it hadn’t been planned – it came halfway through the film – I quite liked this idea. Splitting your point of view is something that you can’t do in life, but that you can do in fiction. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Axl wears a school blazer and you wear an identical one. Does that mean the character is partly based on you?
Dos Santos: I don’t know if Axl is like me. [laughs] You know, I put myself in a lot of the characters somehow and I don’t look at them from a distance. I tend to put little personal things inside each one, but then they are their own people and they have their own stories and they’re fiction. The first note that I wrote about Axl’s character was based on something that happened to me, which was one morning waking up and not remembering [what had happened the night before]. I had in my pocket a book of poetry in German that it was dedicated to me, and I had no idea where it came from. Or why. And I don’t even read German, so why would I have that? And I sort of remembered kissing someone but I wasn’t sure if I did or not. Or who it was. So then I started writing notes about someone who doesn’t remember the night before, and that’s how I first thought of the character. That’s the only personal trait. [laughs]
Filmmaker: It seems like the vibrant London you portray is something you maybe experienced yourself while a student at the National Film and Television School.
Dos Santos: The world of music is something that I discovered a bit later in London, because I was at film school eight hours a day or watching films at home. Suddenly I saw how all artforms are melting together. The people doing art and music and film and fashion all live in the same area of London and all hang out in the same places. There were people from all around and I tried to do things that were creative and quite fun. And then the other thing was that I was hanging out in a couple of squats, and one of them was where my best friends were living. I shot a music video there, and that’s where the idea of the squat [in the movie] came from.
Filmmaker: How much do you feel your identity as a Latin American filmmaker is present in this film?
Dos Santos: The thing about nationality is that I’ve been living abroad for 12 years so I don’t know how I feel about putting [that tag on myself]. I don’t even think most Argentinian directors want to see themselves as that. It’s weird, if you ask me how I see myself amongst contemporary British filmmakers, I would probably find my place better. I think probably the only other Latin American director that I relate to is Gerardo Naranjo, who is making films in Mexico. But otherwise I don’t know. I haven’t seen so many films, because living 12 years in Europe you don’t get access to everything produced here.
Filmmaker: A lot of people talk about your work and the French New Wave. Was that a big influence for you?
Dos Santos: It was when I was in film school, like early Godard films, and I was watching obsessively Wong Kar-wai for a period. But when I was shooting the film, I was really just trying to do my own thing and make a film that belongs to its own world and try to not really have references [to other films]. I have them anyway in your head because my whole idea of film language is based on films that I’ve seen, but I don’t go back to them before filming and study them.
Filmmaker: What was your set like? It seems like you were surrounded by friends, and I’d imagine it was a fun place to be.
Dos Santos: It was mainly friends, partly because we were working low budget and we had to keep the crew quite young, but also because I quite liked working with people of my generation. It was fun. We were throwing parties in the squat location because we needed the trash from the parties for the art department. That was our excuse. [laughs]
Filmmaker: At film school, you were taught by Stephen Frears and Joachim Trier was one of your classmates. What memories do you have of your time there?
Dos Santos: It was good to have Stephen around when I was editing two of my shorts; he would sit there and watch things with me. He doesn’t tell you a lot or come up with stories. When you ask him “How was this film?”, he’s always like, “Oh, I just happened to be there. They’re just great actors and did a good job.” But when I was editing, he made me go back and forth between rushes and what I had cut and look for new things. That was the one thing that I learned from him. And me and Joachim just talked about film constantly for the three years, basically. He was the only one I had an affinity with in terms of film interests, so we became close friends.
Filmmaker: Before you went to film school you were an architecture student. What did that training teach you that you have managed to use as a writer-director?
Dos Santos: I think it helped me to visualize things and to have an idea for a project and how to work [towards that]. It made me understand scriptwriting and I think because of architecture I’ve developed an eye for framing. It’s weird, they’re such different disciplines. I was doing acting at the same time as architecture. It kind of makes sense that acting and architecture would add up to film directing.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Dos Santos: [laughs] Yesterday. Because I don’t know what to do with my life at the moment. Now I have to write a new script, and I see myself painting and playing the guitar and doing things that have nothing to do with writing.
Filmmaker: Which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Dos Santos: Macaulay Culkin. [laughs] I’m looking forward to seeing another film with him, but I don’t seem to be able to find him anywhere. I think the last thing I saw him in was Party Monster. That was a while ago. I would love to make a film with him.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Dos Santos: I would do a contemporary interpretation of Ernst Lubitsch’s Design For Living with Macaulay Culkin, Michael Cera and probably Soko (I’m betting on Soko although I haven’t seen her acting yet). Design For Living is an amazing film, so avant-garde for its time and when you watch it now it still feels incredibly contemporary. At the moment I’m finding Lubitsch films incredibly inspiring.