“The Hardest Path is Always the Best Path”: Oliver Laxe on Fire Will Come
Oliver Laxe’s first two films, You All Are Captains (2010) and Mimosas (2016), take place in his adopted home of Morocco. In this year’s Fire Will Come, however, the writer-director returns to his childhood stomping grounds—not Paris, where he was born and raised, but the mountainous enclaves of rural Galicia, an autonomous region in the northwest corner of Spain. Born to Galician parents, Laxe spent formative summer retreats visiting relatives among the natural splendour of the Serra dos Ancares, parts of which overlap with the religious pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago. Drawing from childhood memories, Laxe exalts the region’s staggering, uncanny beauty, imbuing its distinct iconography with an enigmatic, extra-temporal elegance.
The first Galician-language film to premiere at Cannes, Fire Will Come tells the story of Amador, a mild-mannered middle-aged man newly released unto the world after serving a prison sentence for committing arson. Alone and destitute, he returns to his remote hometown in Galicia to live with his mother, Benedicta, along with her three cows and pet dog. Using non-professionals whose characters go by the actors’ real-life names, Laxe weaves the mundane everyday of rural life—warming bread on a stovetop, tending to wandering cows—with transcendent natural imagery of verdant mountain flora shrouded in dreamy, wet fog.
But as the title warns, fire indeed comes—a common occurrence in the region due to local farming practices. These fires arrive at the film’s striking climax, a violent entrancement that interrupts the story’s gentle uneventfulness. Cinematographer Mauro Herce’s cool green color palette is here replaced by luxuriant black and orange dancing blazes that fill up the screen, while questions of Amador’s guilt and intent play out in haunting ambiguity. If anything, Laxe encourages us to consider how devastation and beauty might exist along the same continuum.
At the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Filmmaker spoke to Laxe following the North American premiere of Fire Will Come. The film receives a virtual theatrical release from KimStim beginning October 30.
Filmmaker: Your films up to this point have all taken place in Morocco, where you lived for a good part of your life. You grew up in Paris, but your family is originally from Galicia. Fire Will Come seems like a homecoming of sorts, consequently. What inspired your return?
Laxe: My parents were housekeepers in a rich neighborhood in Paris. Every summer we would visit Galicia, but we were never able to enter the village proper, because there is no road. I remember we had to park our car kilometers away, take the luggage to a donkey to make our way in. So you can imagine the values that this place had at the time. It was the middle ages. There was this sense of humility the town and the people had, an acceptance of life and nature, that really touched me. I became a filmmaker in that valley. The world felt rich. You could touch and smell things here more than anywhere else. It was an essential feeling.
Filmmaker: Did you know back then you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Laxe: When I was in Paris, I always wanted to escape from the sight of my parents. I was in my own world. I don’t know, it’s not that I was not social or maladjusted. I felt that my parents loved me. But I relished being with myself, invading myself, experimenting with my thoughts, which is perhaps not entirely healthy.
Filmmaker: It’s something artists have trouble with, getting too lost in themselves.
Laxe: We have too much of an interior world, and so we don’t necessarily experience life in a good way, or have completely healthy social habits. But I always liked to paint and draw since I was a kid. I’ve always liked images, so the idea of translating interior images into cinema was something I was attracted to.
Filmmaker: Was there a particular film or filmmaker that was a catalyst for you?
Laxe: I was in school when I saw my first arthouse film. I don’t even remember what it was, the nostalgia is not particular. But I had my first connection back then. I’m the son of working class people. I watched television all my childhood, good and bad. I was extremely frustrated because my mom never solved my problems, she never had any easy solutions for what I wanted to do.
Filmmaker: It’s difficult to pursue being an artist or want to pursue a career in the arts as a child of immigrants and working class people whose experiences have nothing to do with art. I experience that myself.
Laxe: I remember asking my mom to buy me some books at a young age, and she told me I had to make photocopies from the library. But I think this lacking is also what gives you in a way the need to make and create. La hambre [hunger]. All I ever saw my parents do was work, and now that’s all I ever want to do. And that idea of constantly working has translated for me into an obsession with cinema.
Filmmaker: I want to step back a bit and talk about the dangers of having “too much of an interior world,” as you said, and this sense that you feel yourself fundamentally alienated from others. It reminds me a lot of your characters: Shakib in Mimosas, who is an innocent, naive, and of course Amador here in Fire Will Come, who is an outsider, and innocent in his own peculiar way, but also criminal. What draws you to these types of characters?
Laxe: Beauty that is innocent and fragile is something I’m attracted to. I remember when I was in high school, my friends and I used to protect the kids that were bullied, or stood up for them. I’ve always been one to cry a lot. When I was younger I used to cry all the time, it was embarrassing.
Filmmaker: So you were sensitive?
Laxe: Not really. It’s more like fragility. The smallest problem didn’t make me cry or feel pity for myself. It just happened. I understood very soon when I was doing my first film, You All Are Captains: that maladjustment, or being unable to adjust to society, is something that’s deeper than racial, class, or gender differences. It’s something spiritual, a true mystery.
Filmmaker: What I love about your films is that they can be very avant-garde at times, but they’re also accessible, classical cinema with a narrative. Is this something you’re thinking about when you develop your script?
Laxe: That’s what I want to do, this cross-cutting. Today cinema is too polarizing and I don’t want to be on the margins of culture because people can’t understand or relate. I don’t want to be in a museum. The world is ending. I want to serve people and the community and invite them into our caravan. We need to be reminded that cinema is high culture but also popular culture, of the people. I want to get off my high horse and let the spectator in as a gesture of wanting to help and understand the other, building a bridge and riding together. Nowadays spectators are yearning to make better sense of things, to save themselves by understanding reality more fully. As a filmmaker I want to find a balance between classicism and the upper ground so that this is possible.
Filmmaker; One of my favorite scenes in Fire Will Come is when Amador and the town veterinarian are driving through the valley, and the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne” comes on. The camera just sits with them for a moment, and pans to the back of the truck, where Amador’s cow is hanging out. Then it just stays with her for a while, and drifts out into the valley. Nothing about what’s happening here is particularly anguished, but I was incredibly moved.
Laxe: In one sense, I am becoming more of an idiot. I just like animals, I like bread, I like music, I like my village. My attraction to these things is organic. But finding these moments is a matter of finding a balance, or a spiritual geometry, between images and narration. It’s what happens when the proportion of the images provokes something in you that’s not related to the narration. It’s a rhythm you feel with architecture, for example. Sometimes you look at a building and it makes you feel something, but you know, it’s not saying anything specific to you.
Filmmaker: Can you speak more about working with different animals? There’s the Leonard Cohen cow scene, of course, but some of the most poignant moments in the film feature animals—Amador’s dog chasing after him before the fire, the burnt wild horse.
Laxe: That horse we got from an animal rescue. It had been abused and was undernourished. Obviously there are safety and ethical rules we must follow and we waited for her to recuperate. When it was time to shoot she was much healthier but still very thin. We applied makeup on her to create that appearance you see in the film.
Filmmaker: I imagine it was difficult to work with a rescue horse.
Laxe: We took risks. We’re working in an industry where we could’ve easily gotten trained animals. Instead we took the most difficult path. In my experience, the hardest path is always the best path. I don’t trust the easy path. We could’ve gotten a trained dog, but instead we used Amador’s real dog, which was hard because a trained dog goes where you want it to go, but a pet dog is always hanging around, bothering, doing what they want. The biggest risk was maybe casting Benedicta, an 85-year-old woman who had come to our casting call wanting to be involved in the film and was someone who had no experience as an actor. It was unexpected, but that beautiful energy was something I wanted to use.
Filmmaker: How you filmed the actual fires, that’s certainly something that I’d consider taking the difficult path.
Laxe: Exactly, we were around real wildfires. There’s the danger, but we also we had two, three weeks to shoot it. The technicians needed to close their dates, but you’re telling them, “we don’t know when we’re going to be able to shoot.” We didn’t know when the fire was going to come. Wildfires happen all the time in Galicia for different natural reasons. But it’s also intentional, with farmers using fire for regeneration purposes. But while we were there, there were no fires! We had to wait for them to come, the film relied on it.
Filmmaker: In which case, the English title Fire Will Come, must’ve felt like a prayer, rather than a source of dread.
Filmmaker: This idea of fire, and nature as something innocent but also guilty, or potentially violent, also resonates with Amador, who is a pyromaniac.
Laxe: You know, as I grow, I have less and less questions. Life is clear, beauty is clear. It’s a matter of accepting beautiful things in the world when they speak to you, even if they are flawed. I don’t like to participate in the type of skepticism where you automatically don’t trust another human being, that you can’t seem them as beautiful if they do not meet certain rules.
Filmmaker: Do you find that this distrust is particularly true today, in our modern times? The decision to shoot in a place full of nature, that you refer to as “in the middle ages,” feels relevant.
Laxe: The acceptance of fragility is rare. Today we have to fight to be nobody. And you know, I make films for reasons others make films—for egotistical reasons. But I also want very badly to destroy the author I have inside. To be an author comes with collateral damage. But my hope is that sometimes beyond all the ego in my work, spectators can connect and through me find a form of expression.
Filmmaker: What’s next for you?
Laxe: I’m making a psychedelic road movie, an adventure but also a spiritual tale about punks and raiders that are looking for a party in the desert in Morocco. I’ll be shooting in France, then finish in Mauritania. My references are pre-apocalyptic films like Mad Max, but also Easy Rider and Stalker.
Filmmaker: That’s like the opposite of Fire Will Come, which I find very tranquil for the most part, even when there’s crazy fires.
Laxe: Well, I am actually very quiet now in my own life right now. I am working on a five-year-long agriculture project. I’ll be restoring the house of my grandparents, and restoring chestnut forests. It’s sort of an Alcoholics Anonymous for filmmakers and neurotic artists where we can learn to sit, breathe, walk, and smoke outside of an [objective-oriented] culture. Sort of like a school for the ego to die.