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“It’s Not That Strange, and It’s Not That Weird!” Pablo Larraín and Mariana Di Girolamo on Ema

Mariana Di Girolamo in Ema

With Ema, Chilean director Pablo Larraín moves away from the biopic (Jackie, Neruda) and the past history of his country (Tony Manero, Post Mortem, No) to turn towards its future. The film centers on Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a young reggaeton dancer who sees her marriage with celebrated choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) crumble after their “failed” adoption. A simple enough story, but already in the film’s earliest scene, the surprising behaviors and reactions of the characters hint at their extremely modern identities. Ema and Gaston are unspeakably cruel to each other, but in their own way, they are incredibly close—and this despite Ema’s repeated affairs with other men and women. Relationships, love, sex and the concept of the family are all given an exhilarating update—yet, far from didactic, Ema instead imbeds these progressive ideas into a similarly expansive, open, wilfully undefined aesthetic. The popping colors of the city of Valparaiso, the dance sequences, the dynamic camera and the practically omnipresent score by Nicolas Jaar, all participate with the story in crafting a film that obeys no rules and demands us to engage more deeply and less literally than we might be used to. As Gael García Bernal himself said during the Q&A after the Toronto premiere, Ema is a film that goes “a little beyond our understanding.”

We talked to director Pablo Larraín and lead actress Mariana Di Girolamo about the development of the film, the working methods of its three writers, Larraín’s interest in facilitating an active viewership and more.

Filmmaker: There is a lot going on in this film. It’s about motherhood, but also about dance, marriage, deception, etc. How did the project start? What was your initial impulse? 

Larraín: We started around the idea of adoption, then we discovered that the world of adoption is very particular. It’s a world full of generosity, I think. I have friends who have adopted, and others who are adopted. But I discovered that there is a part of that world that is very painful, the so-called “failed adoption.” That was the starting point. 

At the beginning, the role was going to be for someone in their sixties, then it switched to someone in their 40s, then I met Mariana. When we found her, we adapted the movie around her. When we did that, we realized that we were dealing with a generation that wasn’t very different from ours. That’s where the planet of dance and the city of Valparaiso all came from. It’s strange because, usually the main elements of a movie are built before you find your actor. We adapted the movie around Mariana’s age, her physicality, her personality. That’s how we decided to set the film in a dance company, etc. But it started with the idea of adoption. 

Adoptions in general, not only those [which] fail, are very idealized. There can sometimes be a lot of issues and problems; many times, it is complicated and painful. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in our country, when you’re a father or a couple and you want to adopt someone, you go through a test, checking boxes, like “How old are you? What is your sexual orientation? How much money do you make? Do you have other children? What’s your past? How do you live? What environment would the child live in?” When that happens, there’s a certain types of children you will be able to bring to your family, and others you won’t. We tried to create a couple that was complicated for the system. In such cases, you’re likely to get an older child who might have a past of abuse or some kind of trauma, which brings another layer of complications. We slowly built the journey from that starting point. 

Filmmaker: How did you two work together? Did you collaborate on making the film? 

Larraín: We had an outline, a structure, then wrote most of the dialogues during the shoot. I hid the script from Mariana, so she had no idea of the details of the scenes. She had an idea of the structure of the film, but that’s it. We gave her the scenes just the night before. We put the actors in a place of uncertainty where they didn’t really know where they were going. That created a really specific type of work. 

Di Girolamo: For that same reason, the way we worked was based on dialogue. Pablo was open to our ideas and suggestions, and always ready to change things. 

Filmmaker: How did you prepare for this role? I assume you were a dancer already. 

Di Girolamo: No, I was not! I’ve always liked dancing, but just to have fun. Most of the help came from Jose Luís Vidal, the choreographer who created the contemporary dance from the film’s first sequence. The construction of the character started from the external aspect of it. Her clothing, her hair—from the outside to the inside. It also affected the way she related to people, her interpersonal relationships. 

Filmmaker: What you said about the outside influencing the inside brings me to the look of the film. These are these very complex characters; someone could have shot this story in a more conventional way and it would still have been interesting. But here, it feels like the look of the film, the sound design, and the score are fully integrated into the story. 

Larraín: The story is quite simple; it is divided into three acts and has beats, plots and subplots. What you want to do is basically try to find a tone, an atmosphere. I think movies are defined more by their tone and atmosphere than by anything else. The cinema that I like, as an audience, it’s not really much about the story, but about what is hidden and what is not there. The way you achieve that is through finding a tone with all the tools that you have—camera movements, framing, use of color, music—then basically hiding all the narrative ideas that are there, which are very simple, so that the movie is sweating something. This sweat is the water and the element that the audience will eventually absorb. 

It’s also about finding an atmosphere in the process of cutting the movie, and all of this lies on the shoulders of Mariana and her mystery. Mystery is the key of cinema. Even if something is being told, something that’s going on that we can all understand, there is an element of mystery, and that is where I think the audience can work. You can have an active audience. You’re not showing everything to the audience. It’s not a box that is thoroughly digested. Everyone in the audience can see the movie and determine what they ultimately saw according their own perspective. So you work with the audience’s biography, their background, their ethics, their aesthetics. That’s probably the most ambitious thing that this movie does—it tries to be a different piece of cinema for each viewer, depending on how the viewer connects to what they saw. 

The city of Valparaiso is also very important. It’s this harbor open on the sea. It’s so labyrinthic, complex and difficult to understand. Once you’re out of the main road and you’re up the hill, you can easily get lost in a matter of minutes. But at the same time, it is by the sea, which is the most open space. That brought a labyrinthic structure to the film’s visuals. And the colors of the city, it’s like a punk rock fairytale. They’re the colors of a generation. 

Filmmaker: The film was written by three people, including yourself. How did you work with the other writers? Did you each have a different perspective? 

Larraín: We shot a lot more, a lot of things that are not in the movie. Basically, we met just a few times, because we know each other well, and none of us did the same job. I was starting the process and writing myself too, and then with Alejandro [Moreno] we both managed the structure more: how to place the ideas here and there, how everything should work together. Guillermo [Calderón] basically worked on dialogues. It’s a very dynamic team, but we don’t do the same things. We didn’t know exactly where we were going all the time, so we were sometimes shooting things that actually didn’t work out. We shot different endings, for example. It’s a process where you try things and they don’t always work, but you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared to fail, and to make sure that if it doesn’t work, you can see that and go for a different solution. 

Filmmaker: How did you work at the editing stage?

Larraín: I worked with Sebastián Sepúlveda. It was a very long process. It took us a while to build the architecture of the film because we had so many options. I initially thought that it was going to be much easier for the audience to understand the film, and the first cut seemed very straightforward to me, but people couldn’t understand it. It was terrible. I would show it to close friends, filmmakers, people that I really trust, and they would put their hand on my shoulder and say, “Pablo, we don’t understand.” I was like, “What?! What do you mean?” So we reorganised the story in the most simple, classical way, with three acts: an opening that presents the characters and their conflicts, a second act showing them execute the plan, and a third act with the resolution. When we reached that simplicity, we understood that even then, it still wasn’t that simple, so it was fine. 

Filmmaker: The tone of the film is very offbeat. There are many lines of dialogue that are so abrupt, and Gastón and Ema are so mean to each other. At first, we think their couple is very dysfunctional, but then we get the sense that their connection is very deep. How did you construct this relationship? 

Di Girolamo: In that scene at the bar, where he says, “When you do something this terrible, you need to stick together. At least for two years,” that was funny. But yes, it’s such a painful event. When something like that happens, people tend to stick together because it’s the only way they can deal with it. In their own way, Ema and Gastón love each other. They are both very passionate people and they share a passion for dance, and they also need a family together. That’s what they’re looking for—a family, as an anchor in their lives. 

Larraín: They’re cruel. There’s a lot of cruelty in cinema today. Somehow, we wanted to avoid it. But when we did, we felt that we weren’t really connecting with the characters in the way we should. Maybe this cruelty is in cinema because we are in a cruel society. It’s not what we wanted to do, it’s a reflection of human nature. 

Filmmaker: The film begins in this very cruel world—even the child is cruel—but it ends on this lovely image of an alternative family model full of love.

Di Girolamo: It’s a different perspective on family and love. It’s a more modern perspective. It’s the way Ema perceives motherhood. 

Filmmaker: The extended opening sequence juxtaposes the dance with a conversation between Gastón and Ema, where they talk about what their adopted son did. It’s a beautifully edited sequence. How did you figure out this way of introducing the audience into this strange world? 

Larraín: It’s not that strange, and it’s not that weird! It’s just a narrative. This dance sequence was one of the things I knew I wanted in the beginning. So we basically cut it and threw it into the editing room. Then we start putting together the pieces of this broken relationship. We actually shot another beginning, which showed the moment where they actually return the boy. It was very tough, like a huge hammer of pain for the audience. But we thought that it was too manipulative, like a low blow. We decided to take it out and begin the film at a later point in the story of the couple, after the son has already been returned. Then we discovered that we needed a scene that was very clear and striking graphically, so we shot the scene of her with the flamethrower in the street and placed it at the beginning, like a teaser of things to come. Then there is the scene of Ema and Gastón where it’s very clear, she asks “Where is my son?” He replies, “He’s not your son.” It’s very on the nose. There, we get the tone and the basics of the story. We wanted to begin with this very sensorial opening that combines dancers with the characters. The whole sequence is like a choreography. 

Filmmaker: You mentioned at the Q&A that you already had some of Nicolas Jaar’s score before you started shooting. How did you work on the music? 

Larraín: I told him about my ideas, showed him the world of the film, the colors. Then he just started sending me music, and it kind of worked. We understood that this was like a dance or choreography music. Nicolas is such a wonderful artist; he sent me songs that ultimately defined the tone of the film. I had some of it before, so I was listening during the process of writing the movie, then while shooting the movie, and then afterwards. But most of it came either before or during the shooting. It became one single thing—the music and the image—very early on in the process. After that, we just had to organise it. It’s unusual. Most of the time, we get the music afterwards, and the musicians adapt to the image. But this time, it was something that was created at the same time, which was very interesting and beautiful.

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