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Pregnant Pauses: Matías Piñeiro on Isabella

Isabella (courtesy of Cinema Guild)

Matías Piñeiro’s sixth feature and seventh Shakespeare-related film, Isabella, begins with purely abstract images whose use here is new in his work: four different shades on the blue spectrum, alternately lighter and darker in smaller and smaller concentric rectangles. The smallest, central rectangle fades to purple before three different shades of that color pulsate outward to the largest rectangle. The rectangles then dissolve into one unified purple that fills the rectangular frame containing the film itself, which starts gently pulsating in different shades under silent opening titles. 

These abstract color studies (whose resemblance to the work of James Turrell was noted by Jessica Dunn Rovinelli in her Brooklyn Rail interview with Piñeiro) recur throughout Isabella, cooling pause points that eventually reveal themselves as parts of a large-scale theater set being built for a new production of Measure for Measure. In Piñeiro’s features, Shakespeare is often a starting point for largely separate narratives, but scenes of actors rehearsing from the text in question are frequent. Here, that first happens during a hike as two actresses, Mariel (María Villar) and her brother’s lover Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), rehearse a scene in which the titular Isabella pleads for her brother Claudio’s life before the remorseless Duke Vincentio, who demands her virginity in return. “It’s not a light comedy, it’s a problem play,” Piñeiro told Rovinelli. “I think that has to do with becoming older. I didn’t shoot for four years. Those four years resonated very strongly, personally speaking, with my issues with immigration and issues that heated my personal life, but also living in the land of Trump and the right-wing in Argentina. These topics are not in the movie, but there’s an awareness.”

Struggling with her career, Mariel has come to visit to ask her brother, once again, for a loan. First, though, she marches to a nearby pool on multiple days, trying to fake a serendipitous meeting with Luciana, who she’s never actually met and who, unbeknownst to her, is auditioning for the same part. While the film zooms backward and forward in time, its path toward the moment of production is the through line. Just past the halfway point, considerably rougher footage from a Portuguese film shoot where Luciana is acting establishes, via Mariel’s voiceover, that she ultimately lost the part to her. Having thus revealed the end of its narrative timeline, the film makes its way back to the chronological middle. Mariel grows visibly pregnant, a condition that appears and disappears throughout these timelines. 

For all its narrative fractures and chronological contortions, Isabella is hard to get too lost in, with the patented rhythmic snap and go-to camera movements Piñeiro has refined over his films setting a brisk, invigorating tone that’s also welcomingly charged by his affection for his regular collaborators. Frames are often charged and camera movements determined by the actors journeying in and out of them, with close attention paid to foreground–background relationships and very minute focus adjustments. The first live-action shot proper, for example, begins as a study of a pier leading out onto purple-tinted water, with a man eventually entering foreground frame right and strolling to the pier’s end. (This borderline Lynchian purple body of water resurfaces in the final shot before an end credits sequence that continues the color experimentation.) Next, Mariel enters from frame right, in blurry foreground, and eventually re-emerges far down in the frame, herself crossing to the end of the pier—the time it takes her to make her way down partly determines the shot’s duration. Mariel’s oft-dispirited shuffle contrasts with Luciana’s sprightly, confident stride down Córdoba’s streets on her way to her own audition, introduced each time with a sharp whip-pan that starts with a piece of red wall on the left that matches her top. 

An inveterate repertory cinemagoer and artistically omnivorous director, Piñeiro gains resonances and poignance across his collected body of work from recurring collaborations with a group of visibly aging performers. All four lead performers here (alongside Villar and Muñoz, the cast includes Pablo Sigal and Gabriela Saidon) have appeared in at least one of his previous films: Villar and DP Fernando Lockett have worked with him since his very first feature, 2007’s The Stolen Man, while Muñoz joined his core ensemble with 2011’s medium-length Rosalinda. “Time has given us a few blows,” Piñeiro told Rovinelli. “We also share life, and we’re here for each other, we learn from each other.” Isabella is out August 27th from Cinema Guild.

Filmmaker: I was told you had this Joseph Cornell-ish box in your living room that you used to work out some of the lighting and color for the stage.

Piñeiro: This model was where I was trying visual effects, this mix between color as pigment and color as light. The box was some foam that I cut and created [for] this model. The box had different colors that I could work with a remote control. From that came the idea of the theater that is part of one of the plotlines. The model appears in the beginning of this film.

Filmmaker: When you were building it in the theater, were you using the same kind of lighting principles? Does everything translate when you make it bigger? 

Piñeiro: It required more precision because in my modeling, I didn’t need precision. The technology was a little bit different, not just bulbs that I put there, and the surfaces were different. When you make a real-scale thing, other issues [emerge], but the production designer, Ana Cambre, is very good, and she has a lot of knowledge around color.

Filmmaker: What were some problems you encountered that you didn’t expect?

Piñeiro: That is maybe a more interesting question for the production designer because I didn’t actually do it myself, you know? But all that preparation didn’t allow me to explore as I would have liked to. For instance, the possibility of making mixed light—there were different technologies, also the way of manipulating the light and dimming and change of colors was different than what I was used to. It was a whole technology that we needed to learn very quickly. Also, the director of photography, Fernando Lockett, had a lot to do with it, because he was the one also in charge of the lighting. It was a nice cooperation between production design, cinematography and [me] as a director. It didn’t work if the holes were not as they should have been, or the distance between the panels didn’t make the light work. And if the light didn’t work, it didn’t work for the actors and my idea of staging. So, it was a truly collaborative moment that I wish we had been able to explore more.

When you create this sort of machine, that requires a lot of people and more money. Once it is established and working properly, it’s more about the process of making it than the process of experimenting with it. I did everything that I wanted but would have liked to have more time to experiment with the real machinery. This has to do also with the limited resources that we have—I guess it’s always a little like that.

Filmmaker: So, let’s talk about resources. This is part of what you’ve been working on for the last decade, the trade-off of less money for more freedom. In this case, you had the freedom to stagger the shoot over different months. How quickly were you able to set up those shoots? Did you know how far apart you wanted them to be from the beginning? 

Piñeiro: I live in New York but shot this movie in Buenos Aires. I knew that I wanted to shoot in Buenos Aires because I shot the previous film, Hermia & Helena, in New York. So, I wanted to produce this change. We didn’t have much money—so, if you don’t have money, you have time. I knew that I was going to need time in order to find more money. But I didn’t want to stop production, then go [back] into production once the money was found. I just wanted to keep myself in a state of shooting. So, shooting was organized when I was free. I work in New York, so at the moment of the holidays, I would fly to Buenos Aires and make the film.

The film was shot over two years [2018 and 2019], in two Januarys and two Augusts, and started in a very quick and kind of irreverent way: OK, it’s the summer, we want to shoot. We don’t have much money, but we can do a little something with this money—we can go one week to Córdoba, then see what happens. Of course, it’s not that I just came up with things there, I have ideas. But I need to know that there is a possibility for me to think. So, for instance, I know that I can shoot something in November this year. Once I get that confirmed in a couple of weeks, I can start thinking who, where, how and so on. The same happened here: I knew that when I came back to Buenos Aires in July/August, I was going to be able to shoot more. But it was by watching what I did in January that I could think of what I was going to shoot next. This is thanks to a very collaborative and positive group of people I work with, a film family bond of trust and excitement and working together. And also, with a city that always supports me and helps with providing the equipment, which is the place where I used to work and where I taught and also graduated from [Universidad del Cine]. And in between those stages, I was editing and rewriting, finding a little bit more money. During post-production, I was a tutor and guest artist at Le Fresnoy, the film school in France where [Eduardo] “Teddy” Williams and Mati Diop and many other people went. They helped with money in order to finish the film. When I started making the film, I didn’t know that that was going to happen, you know? The process is the mise-en-scène, in a way.

Filmmaker: It occurred to me while I was rewatching the film that there’s a lot of wide landscape shots with the possibility for you to do a lot of ADR and change everything if you wanted to. I don’t know if you availed yourself of that?

Piñeiro: Piñeiro: Yeah, but I didn’t do anything too off course. Sometimes, it’s nice to take out also, you know? I tried to make Isabella a film that would be less talkative, to make the characters shut up a little bit. Not fully achieved, but…

Filmmaker: The opening shot does a lot of the things that you like to do. How did you go about figuring [out] María’s relationship to the length of the shot?

Piñeiro: I knew that I was going to shoot in August. What element of change in nature could I make a shot with? In winter, the sun comes out quicker, so the effect could be seen more easily. That purple color is something that only happens for a couple of minutes—I actually remember now that the moment we were able to shoot was between 6:33 to 6:38 [p.m.]. I could do two or three takes. So, that also gave me the idea of shooting it from a distance, so in the shot you would have a little bit of action. Because after all, I’m not such an observational filmmaker. I’m not like [James] Benning, who would not have any problem waiting for the light to happen. I prefer to plot things a little bit more. I did that distance so that the shot could be longer, so that the moment of that purple could be captured. Then, of course, in color grading we could exaggerate color. But I needed to have something, you know? You cannot fully paint the image. It’s very interesting to see the different takes and see which is the good one, the one that could capture that color. The shooting schedule organized by nature was something I was also interested in.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about a few of the locations. When María goes to the pool, there’s a girl who’s kicking a soccer ball, and its distance from her changes slightly on every iteration.

Piñeiro: Yes, but that’s chance because we did the shot many times. María was actually coming in and back and forth for minutes without cutting. We made her do the coming back and forth many, many times—she really walked a lot, and she needed to do this very strange thing of stopping in the middle and going back. She wasn’t there to go to the pool. She had another motive, and she’s a little bit clumsy in doing so. What I like is how she doesn’t interact at all with the people there, as if her mind is somewhere else. She’s doing something weird, something that might produce fiction. It’s not that she just goes to the swimming pool and finds someone by chance. No, she’s trying to create chance by her own means, which is not chance.

That is just people there having their nice time in the swimming pool in the summer in Córdoba. It was a very nonintrusive shoot—the camera, the sound and a few more, trying not to bother the people enjoying their time there. But it’s nice to insert this element of fiction in this world. 

Filmmaker: The other big, repeated walking shot is with Agustina. You start on the red wall, and it’s a very quick pan to the right, so you’re changing the background distance very fast as the rest of the street appears. And she’s walking very purposefully. It looks hot. Did she just keep walking around the block over and over again?

Piñeiro: No, that was the opposite, in a way, a very simple shot. She just needed to walk through the same street [from different starting points]. We shot one, then walked two blocks and shot the next one. I wanted to record this avenue in Buenos Aires where people go to fix their cars—a very masculine, very heavy avenue. I like this idea of having this young woman walking through there with a lot of decision and strength because, in a way, she’s walking toward her destiny. I enjoyed her very specific, very sure way of walking and navigating part of the city that could actually be a little bit aggressive to her as a young woman, actually. My objective there was that once you see the cutoff wall [with each repetition], you would think, “Ah, Agustina will appear!” It’s a memory thing. This film was going to be going in different directions with multiple [timelines] and multiple shifts and so on. I needed to be very, very clear to say, “Now we’re back here.” Imagine if I shoot it in a different way: first the wall, then her shoes, then [a wide shot]. You lose the rigor; you lose the grammar.

Filmmaker: The red wall, did you match her shirt to that? 

Piñeiro: No, no, I’m not so anal in that aspect of things. I was looking for colored walls, but I was not painting anyone’s wall. This is a very, very low-budget film, and I like what that gives me. 

Filmmaker: When they finally get to the theater, what is that theater? Do you have a personal relationship to it? 

Piñeiro: Not at all. I have no relationship with it, but I have a story. I knew that I was going to shoot the last part of the film in a theater—a film that talks so much about theater needed to have a theater. At first, I wanted another theater that was much nicer, beautiful, old-fashioned, everything very Italian. But that place was very expensive, and even though we could afford it, we realized that we were going to pay the theater more than we paid the actors and crew. So, for the three days that we needed to work there, all of a sudden, in proportion, numbers would be unbalanced, and it was not fair to do so. How good is it to pay someone this [low rate] so that you can pay for the big fancy place because your idea is that it has to be that? I’d rather change. So, we gave ourselves a little more time and looked for other places that we could afford. Then, I went to this place [we ended up shooting in], and it was not in use. It was kind of shabby, but with framing, you can make it work—not to look like an Italian super-bourgeois place, but that’s actually much better because it would give a weird feeling of success to the movie if all of a sudden I shot in that place. This class element appears; it would have been a big, big mistake, this idea of success—“Ah, now you have access to the bourgeois, official theater.” It was terribly cold inside of that theater, colder inside than outside. We shot in August, and that’s heavy winter in Argentina.

Filmmaker: You shot on the Dragon this time. Before, you were using the F3. What was the logic behind that decision, and what did it take for you to adjust? 

Piñeiro: I’m a little stubborn, so once I was working with the F3 and was into it, I made three movies with it. But then, the F3 was not available from my university that gives us the equipment—they have new cameras now. So, instead of making that a problem, let’s find solutions. I asked my DP, Fernando Lockett, and Fernando told me, “No, this one is better.”

Again, everything comes from limitations, but we’re trying to make the limitations work for us, instead of crying, because I’m sure that people [who] have millions of dollars to make films still complain. So, I don’t want to be in that feeling of dissatisfaction constantly because we’re meant to feel it anyhow. I didn’t have enough money. OK, let’s shoot this during a couple of years. We have time. No one is pushing us. I don’t have a deal to shoot three movies in two years. No one is truly asking for the movie. I need time because I don’t have all the money at first, so I tried to make a good use of it. Then, there’s things that I could not even control, like the main character that is going to audition for the position for the role of a nun becoming pregnant. That’s not something that I control because I don’t control the fertility of my actors. The film looks good. It looks the way that I want it to look. It sounds the way that I wanted it to sound. We’re making the film that we want. And if we want to change something, as we usually want, we’ll make another one.

Filmmaker: So, this photo that you sent me of the board with all the cards. How many cards did you print?

Piñeiro: That’s my Premiere, my manual Final Cut. This is the way I edited the movie. There’s not that many shots—it’s not a film that is shot with three cameras in the same scene, you know? So, there was a moment that I was a little bit alone because I was not in Argentina with my editor [Sebastián Schjaer]. I don’t know how I first had the idea to do this, but I thought about having each shot as a card. And when there were camera movements, I would print the beginning and end of the shot. As I didn’t have a full script, I didn’t know what would come first and what would come second. But I did know I could think if this shot comes after or before this one. So, I started creating areas, like little pools, and when they became bigger they would start merging and become whole sequences. I [ultimately had] three areas—it’s like three acts, no? 

I could have done that in the computer, but in the computer it’s too small to see the full picture, so I needed something physical. Also, to think about focus. How do you focus? I have problems with trying to get focused. So, all of this activity of putting the papelitos, the little papers, on the floor, taking a step back, looking at them like, “This first, these two together. I need something in the middle”—it was a clear vision, you know? I could have the big picture on my floor. When I was traveling to France, this was good because I could take these little papers, put them on the floor of my room, keep on working, then take pictures and send them to my editor. Also, I could see what things were missing: You know, there are all these brother things happening, so I think that I need another scene with a brother. It was one of my favorite things. I was obsessed with the little papers. I was carrying the little papers with me. And that was also my way of communicating with the sound person, with the cinematographer and with the actors what we were doing because again, there’s no full script.

It was interesting also to see how the color progressed. When I was color grading, I was putting on paper like the last frame of one shot and the first frame of the next shot, so that I could see how the change in color and brightness and opacity would be. There’[re] some shots in Isabella, especially at the end, that if you see them separated are very purple. They’re not [actually] that purple. But as they come from a green scene, a yellowish scene before, it’s more purple when you actually see the film. 

Filmmaker: I want to ask also about the end credits, and specifically their length. I remember years ago seeing Kelly Reichardt explain at a press conference that the reason the end credits in Wendy and Lucy take so long to crawl is because she had to get over 70 minutes to make her own life easier for festival programming purposes. Your films tend to be short with relatively long credits. In this one, you have the nice pulsing color in the background, but you also choose the classical “one title card at a time.” I don’t know if you’re trying to pad it out a little bit, but can you talk about your relationship to end credits?

Piñeiro: For me, it’s the moment where you say thank you. And not only in the thank you part, but to say these are the names of the people that [worked on this]— there were not that many, so I want people to read their names, you know? It’s the moment to say who was behind stuff. And as we are not that many, I can leave them. I can take some time. That’s why I also like to put my name between them [at the bottom of one of the title cards] because I think that directors, we take a lot of the responsibility and congratulations. But, for instance, I never use “a movie by,” “a film by.” I don’t like it because it’s not only by me. And even though I can be very stubborn in the way that I have an idea of how I want things to be, I need this collaboration. It’s all in the collaboration that the film gets better. I will get the recognition no matter what, you know? It’s me now doing the interview. But for the question around the premise of constructing the thing, Ana would have responded better, no? Of course, I can say things, and I like saying things as we are now talking, but I also feel that it’s important to understand that it’s not a self-made thing.

I’m not so scared about the length because I have already made, like, a 40-minute long film. I have made a 62-minute film. Of course, it’s better to be more than 60. Isabella is a film that doesn’t have that many storylines. If you would have had another one, it would have needed more time to have that develop.

Filmmaker: In rewatching Isabella and then watching They All Lie [Piñeiro’s second feature, from 2009], what was made clear to me by the latter is that there were shots I just can’t imagine you doing anymore. But there do seem to be certain things that work really well for you. Often, they’re ideas about how people move in and out of frames and how that determines your camera movement. Do you feel like you have just some things that you know will reliably work for you or that you are just averse to at this point?

Piñeiro: Yes. This comes from something that a filmmaker friend of mine told me—Hugo Santiago, a very important Argentine filmmaker [who] lived in Paris. We became friends because I sent him a DVD of They All Lie, and he watched it. We were talking, and I was already working on Rosalinda, the first of the Shakespeare films. He told me about this concept of the shot that you do so that your mother would be proud, and the day of the screening, you do like this [mimics nudging someone in the ribs] and say, “Have you seen what I did?” He said, “Well, you did that already. There’s no need to do it again. What are you going to do next?” So, that idea of, “OK, I already did that. What other thing will I do? I never thought about shooting in New York, but all of a sudden after making so many movies in Buenos Aires, then being in New York, why don’t we change something?”

This thing of changing was something that I learned from listening to Hugo. Certain things that I enjoyed doing, I didn’t need to do them anymore, you know? Especially tracking, the dolly. I’m not using the dolly anymore, which is a big thing. It’s an annoying thing. It makes sound. I don’t like it. Maybe at one point I will come back to it, but I’m very happy with this very simple tripod and just moving on one axis. There’s something about this moving in space that seems a little petulant. I like how it is in They All Lie, but I did it already, and that’s enough.

Filmmaker: I think I’m obligated to ask if you have a next project.

Piñeiro: I’m premiering a new film in Quinzaine [Cannes Directors’ Fortnight] July 13th. You know that little short film that appears? Well, that’s real. We were really shooting a short film in Portugal, Sycorax.

Filmmaker: Oh, yeah, the film you co-directed with Lois Patiño.

Piñeiro: Exactly, yeah. Out of the frame in the shots in Isabella was Lois Patiño. So, I was directing two movies at the same time—maybe not directing one, at least half directing [two]. It’s going to premiere July 13th in Quinzaine, Cannes, and I hope that it’s shown other places. We don’t know yet because it’s still brand new. And I’m now here in Portugal writing a film that is a quite faithful adaptation of a Henry James novella, The Lesson of the Master. I also have a project to shoot in November, a short film around Sappho, the Greek poet and musician. So, I’m in a moment of multiple things, but I’m quite happy with that. They’re going to show my first movie at MoMA the same week Isabella opens in New York. So, I’m trying to have María Villar, the actress of both movies almost 15 years apart, come to the screening, so that we can be together celebrating that.

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