Cannes 2023: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka
Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka, which premiered as a Special Screening at this year’s Cannes, begins as a parodic reworking of the filmmaker’s last feature, 2014’s Jauja. There, Viggo Mortensen played a Danish captain crossing inhospitable Argentinian territory in the 1880s with his daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), while encountering what from his perspective are “natives” to be fearfully avoided; Eureka renders that feature’s “not without my daughter” elements as a black-and-white Western set in an indeterminate any-Western-town of America. Mortensen and Agger are once again father-and-child, but this time he’s a considerably dirtier and more disreputable cowboy type. In impeccable academy-ratio black-and-white with rounded edges that looks startlingly close to classics like 1946’s My Darling Clementine, which it seems to nod to, Alonso offers a revisionist Western of badass violence.
A transition too good to spoil launches viewers into the second, arguably main section of Eureka, shot in in 1.85 in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Here, police officer Alaina (Alaina Clifford) does nightly rounds of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, sighing with great weariness as her tasks—which include visiting an old couple’s filthy house to look for a missing young woman, arresting a belligerent drunk and responding for a request for help at a casino where a shooting incident took place—keep piling up, with no support forthcoming. This is the film’s most compelling section, with a quasi-Lynchian array of visuals locating the uncanny in the mundane, among them rooms full of meticulously coordinated garbage and the police car’s red-and-blue flashing sirens imposing themselves on each scene with stroboscopic intensity.
The film’s final sections, which introduce a third aspect ratio (1.66, again with rounded frame edges) make multiple geographic leaps; as Alonso explained in an interview on Cannes’s website, “I also filmed in Mexico, in Oaxaca, close to a Chatino community. They speak a very particular language which only certain people understand. Although the whole of that section of the film is fictional, they speak their language in it: Chatino. And then the part I filmed in South America is supposed to take place in a jungle, in a small, uncertain place, near to Brazil and the neighbouring countries. We also set up our cameras in Portugal, and in Spain—in Almería, in the settings for Sergio Leone’s westerns.”
These latter segments also contain a gigantic bird, presumably the titular Eureka, whose unexpected appearance adds an additional oneiric dimension to a film that begins in entirely new terrain for Alonso, both literally and in terms of its visual language, and ends somewhere in the jungle in ways that bring the project full circle back to Alonso’s first three films (2001’s La libertad, 2004’s Los Muertos, 2008’s Liverpool) and their recurring emphasis on nonactors in nonverbal motion. If the thematic overview is clear-ish—the experiences of indigenous tribes in relation to often-violent colonial oppression in the past and present—the particulars descend deeper and deeper into Alonso’s characteristic opacity of intent.
The filmmaker, as a rule, is not particularly keen on explicating intent (another Lynchian similarity!). When I spoke with him two days after the premiere, I proceeded accordingly.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about the shooting order of the production?
Alonso: We started [by] shooting the last part of the movie, in Mexico. We shot the Western between Portugal and Almería in November, then we finally arrived in Pine Ridge last November.
Filmmaker: What were you shooting in Almería?
Alonso: A couple of scenes where they used to shoot the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. It’s a small set called the “Sergio Leone,” because that’s the same one he used for Once Upon a Time in the West.
Filmmaker: The part where Viggo comes into town?
Filmmaker: Was the set decrepit?
Alonso: That was the main intention. It’s a ghost town with guys who drink and have sex.
Filmmaker: But was the set itself in good order? Do people still shoot Westerns there?
Alonso: I have no idea, but I think Almodóvar shot his short [Strange Way of Life, which also premiered at Cannes this year] in the same place. [He did, and Jacques Audiard recently shot The Sisters Brothers in Almería as well.]
Filmmaker: You haven’t had a chance to make this kind of film with choreographed violence before. Did you enjoy blocking all that out and figuring out maximum impact for the gunshots?
Alonso: Oh yeah, I loved it. It was a game, my dream. It’s just fantasy. We enjoyed it a lot, because we could control everything: we were with professional actors, just one location, having fun shooting my Western in black-and-white with Viggo Mortensen. But then we had to go back to reality.
Filmmaker: Is it black-and-white film stock?
Alonso: We shot in 35mm color.
Filmmaker: And then you desaturated?
Filmmaker: Can you just not get black-and-white stock 35mm anymore?
Alonso: I don’t know, but I think [there’s] something [about] the latitude of the film that the DOP just asked for color.
Filmmaker: Did you do any digital tests? Did you consider that as an option?
Alonso: I used to shoot on 35mm for all my films, but now it’s expensive and hard to organize the logistics, especially if I shoot in Mexico or in Pine Ridge. It was more difficult for us to find labs. For example, shooting in Oaxaca—because I tried to push them to shoot on film, but they said, “No, film is not an option”—we would have to ship the film to a lab in LA, not even in Mexico.
Filmmaker: Sorry, so is any or all of the film in 35mm?
Alonso: Just the Western.
Filmmaker: And the rest is actually digital?
Filmmaker: Oh, I couldn’t tell.
Alonso: Oh yeah? Why?
Filmmaker: Because of the rounded frame and your track record, I just assumed it was film.
Alonso: You got confused! Yeah, I did that on purpose. I used all kinds of framing from the lab.
Filmmaker: You’d never shot in the cold before. What were some of the things that were particularly difficult about dealing with all that snow?
Alonso: Surviving. I made a film called Liverpool, where I shot in Ushuaia in the south [of Argentina], but the maximum low temperature was three below zero. But in Pine Ridge, it was minus 32 when we shot at night. One of the DOPs got affected by the cold.
Filmmaker: Did he get frostbite or something?
Alonso: No, he collapsed.
Filmmaker: Oof. How long were you out there before you started shooting? I assume you were there for casting.
Alonso: We cast in the three weeks before we started shooting. But to get in touch—they are not professional actors, so you never know for sure if they’re going to be there or not. So, we were always dancing with destiny. Was she or he going to be here at night? We don’t know. “Should we go pick him up?” “No, he’s not at home.” “So, what are we going to do?” “I don’t know.” “OK, let’s improvise.”
Filmmaker: Where did you find your first main actor, Alaina?
Alonso: That was the only one that we had the chance to meet. She’s a real police officer on the reservation and our main character is a police officer. We just [looked at] three of them [during casting]. There are not that many female officers—there aren’t even that many officers, just 20 of them on the reservation. So, I had a fast look at three of them that could work, we chose Alaina, and after we chose her, which was a year in advance, she got pregnant. But we managed to put the dates in sync so that she gave birth three weeks before we started shooting. We were shooting with the baby on the side.
Filmmaker: When she’s walking into the rooms, like when she’s looking for the young girl, these are very cluttered rooms. Did you build those or was it just like that?
Alonso: It’s a real house where that old couple lives for real, but we put some more stuff in it. We changed stuff, because there was a lot of garbage when we arrived. So we put it all out and put in our own garbage. It looks different, you know? Art directors like to do it with their own [materials], so we changed things and colors.
Filmmaker: In some of your past films, often your nonprofessional actors have tasks to do, like walking or manual labor, that I think would make it easier for them to be present on camera. But in this film Alaina has a lot of sitting and looking to do.
Alonso: She’s a police officer. [laughs] It’s more like what’s happening in here [points at head]. As a police officer, she doesn’t give [off] a lot of [what’s happening inside her externally]. So, she did whatever she wanted mostly. I would just tell her where the frame was and she would do normal police actions.
Filmmaker: When you’re meeting nonprofessional actors, how do you present yourself? Do you show them your past work or give them the overall shape of the project?
Alonso: We just [proceed] little by little without telling them that much. I open the door, share a glass of water or whatever, spend time trying to guess if that is the right person for the part. We just tell them, “OK, we are planning to make a couple of scenes of the movie, maybe next week.” I just go little by little. I don’t tell them like [extends arm in handshake gesture] “My name is Lisandro Alonso, I am a filmmaker, do you want to be in my movie?” They will say “Fuck off from here,” you know? It depends. Every person is different. For some of them, it’s just like a job: “How much are you going to pay me?” For others, even if you offer double or triple, they don’t even consider that. They just don’t care.
Filmmaker: One of the big visual things in the movie is the red and blue flashing sirens. Did you know that that was something you were chasing once you realized the character was a police officer, before you started shooting, or did you just discover that while shooting?
Alonso: We discovered the color once we started shooting. I didn’t think about that effect.
Filmmaker: What does a script look like for you?
Alonso: [groans lightly]
Filmmaker: Is it just for financing purposes?
Alonso: That’s the main reason—also in order to guide, so everyone knows how many nights, how many days, how much outside. But I’m obliged to improvise, because things happen during the shooting. If I have to change [the script], I don’t have any problem. I’m not going to be nervous or anything. I don’t use the script during shooting. Maybe I have a look because I don’t remember what I wrote in the lines [of dialogue], but I don’t really pay attention.
Filmmaker: Do you like to make a shotlist, or do you just figure it out as you go along?
Alonso: No. We just organize the place, then figure out how to shoot it.
Filmmaker: Did you have time between each shoot to review the footage?
Alonso: Yes, review and edit in a kind of informal way.
Filmmaker: Did you find that shooting digitally significantly changed how you do anything?
Alonso: Yeah, it’s different. It’s not like because it’s digital I will [do] more takes or something, but it’s different. In a way, I think it’s safer than film. With film, something could happen with the magazine or something like that. But especially shooting in these conditions, digital could be useful. And it’s faster.
Filmmaker: So you like it?
Alonso: [long pause] I prefer film.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask how Roberto Minervini [director of films including Stop the Pounding Heart and The Other Side] credited as one of the films co-producers] got involved.
Alonso: We’re friends. He just called me and offered [names a meaningful amount of money]. That’s a friend. He helped us in so many different ways.
Filmmaker: Did he come for part of the shoot?
Alonso: Yeah. The day he arrived was the first day of shooting [in South Dakota]. After four hours of shooting, the DOP collapsed. We stopped shooting, we called an ambulance—we finished the day, but he didn’t continue [being] the DOP. Once I saw Roberto, I said “OK, take the camera.” He said “What the fuck, are you kidding me?” “No, we are going to keep shooting. You need to pan.” And he went and got the camera. After that, he stayed and we found another DOP from Spain.
He was very useful to me, because [due to] the films he makes [nonfiction movies often centered around dispossessed subjects], he knows how to approach if I need to help. My English is worse, but he can follow. For example, [actress] Sadie [Lapointe] speaks very fast, so I cannot follow her, but Roberto can read in between the lines. He speaks perfectly and knows how to approach and ask things [when] maybe my English is not the best.
Filmmaker: When you’re directing people in a language that you don’t understand, like Chatino, what do you look for? Are you worried that you can’t keep up with what they’re saying?
Alonso: I think they will say the lines more or less, but I cannot force them, and I’m not interested that they repeat lines that I wrote in Argentina sitting in my home. They know better how to say things, so I just let them do whatever they need to. Sadie remembered all the lines I wrote. We changed things, because maybe it was not the right word. When they had the long dialogue in the prison [in a scene where Sadie visits her incarcerated brother], they were perfect actors. We did the thing two, three, four times and they repeated the lines every time, just like professional actors.
Filmmaker: You’ve been a producer on your films in the past but not on this one, right?
Alonso: No, I have the Argentinian 10% of the production.
Filmmaker: What does producing mean to you?
Alonso: It used to help me more when I did my previous films, when I got money from my own government in Argentina. But now with inflation the money is not good enough, so I need to go and create these co-productions and involve more countries to have the amount of money that we thought we needed in order to shoot this. But producing for me is just a legal thing to transfer money to my bank account.
Filmmaker: Is the bird all computer effects?
Filmmaker: There’s no puppet or actual bird? It’s all computer generated?
Filmmaker: How did you work with the artists on that?
Alonso: This is a new thing for me, I’ve never done this before. It takes a lot of fucking time [to] render things, I could not follow the process. But they would send me references about the movement, and once we finished the movement they put all their aesthetic [external details to complete the work], like feathers or whatever. But it takes a lot of time. That’s why we couldn’t present the film in time to Cannes, because the bird was not there. We presented the film two weeks later than the deadline [to submit to the official competition]. Actually, the film they saw, they didn’t see the bird completely. The bird moved like a rock.
Filmmaker: So when was the bird done?
Alonso: A couple of weeks ago.
Filmmaker: Are you happy with how the bird looks?
Alonso: I don’t have any other options. [laughs] We needed to show the film. I think I’m quite happy. Maybe when it flies I’m less happy, but when it stays [still], it’s better.