“I’ve Never Understood a Traditional Screenplay:” Carlos Reygadas on Post Tenebras Lux
Born in Mexico City, Carlos Reygadas was a lawyer specializing in armed-conflict resolution in Brussels when he decided to try his hand at making films at the age of 30. He quickly became a unique voice in cinema with his first feature, Japón (2001), which received a special mention for the Camera d’Or at Cannes that year.
In his three films since, Reygadas has developed his cinematic language and abilities, as well as his reputation for making aesthetically uncompromising and provocative films. If his second film, Battle in Heaven (2005), cemented his reputation as a provocateur, his following Silent Light (2007), set among a Mennonite farming community in Northern Mexico, was hailed as a spiritual masterpiece by the likes of Martin Scorsese.
His long awaited follow-up, Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for “after darkness light”), tells a loose story of an artistic Mexican couple living in the country and the people who work for them. It talks about the deep divisions in Mexico based on class and heritage, but even more about the ways in which human beings create their own suffering through an overreliance on reason. It is a stunning mix of observation, artifice, scripted scenes and autobiography which was awarded the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival when it premiered last year.
Post Tenebras Lux opens today at Film Forum; to see exclusive storyboards and script segments from the film, go here.
Filmmaker: The title of this film – Post Tenebras Lux – could almost be the title of any of your films. Whatever else is going on, in the middle is a man who lives in paradise but can’t see it.
Reygadas: I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right.
Filmmaker: But my sense is that you don’t believe in this moment of redemption. Like the guy in this film, Juan, dies – but if he were to live, he’d get fucked up again.
Reygadas: [laughs] You’re right! You’re totally right.
Filmmaker: So what’s interesting in this film is that he dies, but the problem continues, now you move onto the character, El Siete, he has the same problem with his wife. His wife is not present, although everything could be perfect in that moment.
Reygadas: I totally agree. You know, I make things in a very instinctive way, but it’s like anything you have done. If we talk about what you did yesterday, you went to a party and this or that. You just did it because you felt it, but today we can analyze why you decided to go to a party and read this book or that, and it makes sense whenever someone else is talking about it. And it totally makes sense. It’s like you went to the psychotherapy session, for me.
Filmmaker: I was thinking that your films are comedies, in a way. I wasn’t brought up Catholic, but Catholicism seems to be a tragic genre, and your films are more comedic because it’s like what’s essential to a human being is this getting fucked up and then having a moment of relationship to reality, then getting fucked up again, and so on.
Reygadas: For sure. And very often those moments of joy or success are moments that are not connected with the success of reason, but with the success of physical connection and sensual connection with life. Everything I have done, and thinking about the last film – in this instance you were saying in the end he dies, but in the end because it’s not a romance, it’s not about what happens to him, he dies. It’s about the broader thing. So everything can be analyzed also thinking about ordinary life from the micro level – we’re talking about you and your conflict and everything – and then of course we can enlarge and go to the other extreme which is the macro level, and you and I are just dust. And at the same time, everything we know is ourselves, and we have to be the center of everything. Every human life is the center of everything, but at the end we’re just dust. Grains of salt, whatever, sand. So very often these things, we look into this house, we look into this family, we look into the problem and then he dies and we realize that, poof – it’s a fucking tragedy, but he died. You know, in the end, the film opens up, and that rain of blood starts coming down. I didn’t think problematically, like you’re making a screenplay in a typical way, like this element means this and this element means that and this is this device and this is that lever for this and that. For me it just comes out much like in a natural flow, in a sort of trance. So there the rain came. And every time I see the film, you know when I’m editing and I’m in color correcting or whatever – at that point I feel Mexico. Seriously. It’s a moment when I get really detached from the film, I don’t know why, at that moment of rain, and I just feel that country is covered with blood. There’s bloodshed all over the place and if we would touch it in a map or in a globe probably it would stain your finger red. It’s a feeling.
Filmmaker: So you’ve always planned the film so that after Juan dies, his problem is continuing on?
Reygadas: That’s all written down since the moment I wrote it. But I never thought that that had been in other films, only now that you say it. In the end, you really never know what happens afterwards. You never know what happens to the guy in Japon afterwards. You never know if the guy in Silent Light will actually remarry his wife, or if it was just a vision, or if she will come back to life and they’ll reunite, or even divorce her, you know? That’s beside the point. And even in Battle in Heaven. But I had never thought of that, only that now that you are saying it, that in the end you really never know what happens. It’s just that it’s not so important, because it’s not about telling a story but rather about looking into a moment of life. That’s what it is, for me, all about.
Filmmaker: In terms of the writing, you have these beautiful moments in the film which are really just about “being present,” particularly with the children because they are so present. Are these written in the screenplay?
Reygadas: Those are all totally written in the exactly the order they happen. I’ve never understood a traditional screenplay. For me, cinema is not about illustrating literature. Unfortunately, most cinema is illustrated literature. It’s basically writing literature and then adapting it to images so you can tell literature in a photographic and audio way. But it’s still literature. It’s not just because you don’t have to read it that it’s changed. I really think cinema is not at all literature, it’s something else. So, since I did not come from film school, when I wrote my first screenplay the only place I had been taught was watching films. So I would write:
“First: there’s a tree. Ten seconds of silence, and then this sound comes, and then that comes afterwards. And then there’s a cut. And second: there’s a mountain, and blah blah.”
It’s like I am describing a film that I am watching, it’s being projected and I am describing to you what I am watching, as if you were blind and deaf. Well, not deaf or then I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But somehow that’s the idea. You weren’t at the cinema and I would write down for you everything I saw. That’s the way I do it, and probably that’s the way it should fucking be done, so we would make cinema instead of illustrated literature.
Filmmaker: And then what happens in the editing process? Is that still a part of the writing for you?
Reygadas: Basically, very little. It’s not about writing but about rhythm. I could tell you that 96% of the film I edit in a week, basically just putting everything together. Then I spend probably about three months solving that last 4% where it’s just about a second here, a second there, three seconds maybe. Maybe eliminating one shot or two. Maybe finding out that a shot was missing and I probably should retake. Those little things. In that sense, someone like Sergio Leone or nowadays Bruno Dumont – in my opinion, Bruno Dumont is probably the strongest filmmaker today in the sense of cutting film and the way one shot interacts with the following one and the previous one. What the French call decoupage, the cutting of the film. How it works. You do it from here, then from there; from closer, then from further away. That is such an important part of cinema. It’s like the way it sounds, like music. Like the space and the time of a film. And that’s another very important way of making cinema work, not just telling a story in any way you like – illustrating it – but making it work in a rhythmical way. That’s why I love to draw the film before, too. I use the real format, and I love to pre-frame the film when I’m drawing it. That’s the moment when I see how shots will interact with each other. That’s the moment in the editing process where it’s almost like there’s a metronome, and then you really feel it, it’s like tak, “It has to be here, and it has to be there, and it has to be there.” You really feel the cuts.
Filmmaker: I think the way you use distance – the relationship to the subject – also contributes a lot to this. It’s something that doesn’t exist in American film. In American film you are the subject –
Reygadas: Yes, exactly!
Filmmaker: – but in “international art film” you have a relationship to the subject. And it’s something you do beautifully. That’s part of editing, that what’s inside the shot is already functioning as editing. But what’s interesting in your films is that it is not a static relationship. In German and Austrian films now, it’s a static relationship, it’s always the same distance. In your films, sometimes you’re at a distance, sometimes it becomes a little more subjective…
Reygadas: Yes, exactly. All this comes from the fact that it all comes very much from internal vision, which is very closely connected with the way you dream. And if you think of the way you dream, you never know, “Oh, now these images are seen from a subjective point of view, now these are an omniscient point of view.” It’s just things flowing there, and that’s the way you relate to life. It’s never, “You are in this position, sometime you are attached, sometime you are less attached.” You are involved in so many different levels. I’ve always have felt free in that sense of approaching things depending on a special state of mind or whatever, so you can be very flexible with that.
Filmmaker: And that’s all done beforehand?
Reygadas: Yes, it’s always done in the moment when I write it down. You know, I write my screenplays in one or two days. I change very, very little. But it’s not like a “genius” kind of thing that comes up out of the blue, not at all. It’s a process that probably takes a year or more. I’m thinking, but I don’t even take notes or anything. I just think about a general subject matter. Probably images, ideas. Some thread. In this case, it was this man who is partially blind and eventually holds his own light, in the sense of “sensual” light as opposed to “reason.” Post tenebras lux was this motto for reason in the ‘”century of lights.” Voltaire and all those people said, “Now reason is the light that has liberated us from all this darkness before.” And in this film it’s exactly the opposite, because that’s what I think. It’s all this reason that has shed so much darkness on the Western world.
Filmmaker: How long are the screenplays?
Reygadas: For my first three films, I did them exactly as I told you: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And they are usually around 40-50 pages. This idea of one minute, one page is such a stupid idea.
Filmmaker: I thought maybe they’d be 500 pages long with so much description.
Reygadas: No, they are two hours long but my films have 200 shots in them. It’s really strange because they’re usually between 200 and 220 shots, and they usually have between 24-28 sequences. Always. It just comes out that way. So for 200 shots, if you write four on a page what does it come out to? Fifty pages more or less. It’s a description: “There’s two mountains, two people, they look back and forth, they say this or that, blah blah blah. This one: the man walks across.” So it’s four shots per page, 50 pages more or less. But I really couldn’t be bothered to do that thing with Post Tenebras Lux. I wrote it more or less in a literary way in the sense that I didn’t write shot-by-shot. Not because I didn’t want to work that way, but because I wanted to deliver it as soon as possible, maybe because I have children and that kind of thing. So this screenplay is 20 pages long. But I did make storyboards and I did make a decoupage – as I was saying, the cutting of it – when I was drawing it. So now, it’s like you wouldn’t even need to write a screenplay. What would be the ideal way of making a film? In these last two films I realized it. It’s like making a house. If you’re an architect, you make a plan, a blueprint. It’s a fucking blueprint. You make the drawing, and you write below the drawing whatever is being said. And that’s it. It’s like you have a comic book of Asterix and Obelix, or whatever.
Filmmaker: Do you already know the locations when you write? The locations are so specific in your films.
Reygadas: Yes, most of the time I know the locations when I write beforehand. And whenever I don’t, I do need to look for them, and then I readapt a little bit the cutting of the film to the place. For example, the sauna house in this film, I didn’t know the place. But I did think that I would have a place with a wall and things going on behind like in the beginning of the film, so I did go to 10 or 12 places before I found similar to what I had wanted. It wasn’t exactly what I had thought of, but there were those mirrors there, I could put the people back in the showers. I remember in Silent Light, that place where the coffin is and the woman wakes up. I did need to find a place that would have a window here, a window here and a window here, and that would be kind of open and with nothing there, and about this dimension. And I knew that most Mennonite houses had that kind of space. So I think of realistic places that will be easy to find. But very often, the people and places are there beforehand. I really like to make films about what I know, so places and people are there from the beginning. Everyone in this last film I knew and had thought of before the film, except the two main characters, which I had to cast. And this was a nightmare, you wouldn’t imagine. Its been the hardest ever for the casting, those two people there.
Filmmaker: And they are not actors?
Reygadas: Not at all. Some people get frustrated with this film maybe because of those two main characters, because they don’t give much. They are passive in so many ways, and in cinema – I thought of this while making this film – we always see heroes. Whether they are superheroes or antiheroes. They can be losers, but still from the dramatical point of view, the narrative point of view, they are still heroes, even if they’re losers. They are heroes in the sense that we can identify with them, and even with their weaknesses. But in this film, I really wanted two people that would not be heroes. That would be just longing for something. Human, but at the same time really somehow dead. Not giving off too much. And maybe a little stupid, because most people are stupid in many ways. We all have wonderful things, but these people who just don’t manage to flow, which is probably our greatest sickness as a society.
Filmmaker: That’s a big part of that movie, because you begin with the children and you are constantly looking between the children and the adults.
Reygadas: Yes. As someone said to me, the only beings that seem calm in that film are the plants, the animals and the children. And one of the tragedies that you can feel, and that I personally can feel, too, is that all the time you know those children will most probably grow up to be like their parents. And that’s the way it is. If you think of the Western paradigm of life, it is basically detachment from it so you can understand it. There’s you or you and me, and the rest of the world, and the rest of life. It’s such a mystery that we perceive life in an individualistic way, whereas we’re not really individuals. It’s just an illusion. But this is the way we’re taught to learn life. In the end what can the result of that be? Two things. On the one hand, the positive things which are the development of science, human rights, ideas like freedom and all that. And on the other hand, at the psychological level, or energetic level, violence and solitude, basically. That’s what we have obtained in the West. I’m thinking as a Western Mexican. Mexico, as you know, is half Western and half something else. Basically, what has the West done? Huge advances in all these domains I’m telling you about, and at the same time war, colonialism, and whenever all the world was conquered, war again – the most powerful wars ever – between Westerners themselves. Now there’s a moment of peace and that other solitude, a lot, so much solitude. It’s terrible. That dissatisfaction is a necessary result of that paradigm of separation. That’s what I basically think, and this film is very much about that. And then there’s the other part of Mexican society, which is also fucked up. I’m not trying to say that’s a better way of life or whatever at all. It’s fucked up, too. Basically it’s fucked up because it was destroyed and raped, so it hasn’t yet recovered. But it’s not the fault of individuals as such, it’s the necessary consequence of this philosophical paradigm under which we live. It cannot be any other way.
Filmmaker: The film of yours that operates most on this level for me is Battle in Heaven, which is almost more a portrait of Mexico City. The characters function as types, we don’t relate to the world through them. Is the number of characters in Post Tenebras Lux a way of working on both of these levels at the same time?
Reygadas: We live, we feel, and we think. So thinking implies sociological thinking because we live in society and we have certain ideas of how society is constructed. But we also have an emotional need which is more psychological and in that sense, of course, I always have these individuals living their stories, but in a sociological idea that I have which is the way I apprehend the world around me. So in Battle in Heaven, you’re right, the stress on the film would be more sociological and people will be more representative of ideas. And then a film like Silent Light would be more psychological in that level so characters in the end are defined in another way. And this last film has pretty much both levels. You can really just go into it on the micro level which would be this blind man, this stifling fear, intolerance, impatience for the relationship, love in the sense of support in the hardest moments, the loss of innocence. At the same time you can go broader and see this clash of – not civilizations or cultures even – but this clash of cosmologies, two different ways of looking at life, and the ways those two enrich each other, but at the same time don’t manage to connect. I really think Mexico is a half-breed culture, in the sense of blood of course, and in the sense of culture, too. In the end, this ancient culture from the American continent and the European one did meld to a large extent. But on this cosmogonic level, really not at all. Like, if you would talk to me, we’re talking now – I could be an American. Not in the things I eat, but in the way I perceive life. Or I could be a Belgian. And then there’s all the Mexicans that really are not Western at all in the way they perceive time, in the way they plan things, in the way they want to have things organized. It’s a different kind of feeling for that. Which is wonderful. I wanted to live in Mexico again after 15 years in Europe because I wanted my children to grow up with that capacity.