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“Nothing is Simple, Nothing is Easy”: Two Shots Fired Director Martín Rejtman

Two Shots Fired

Its title threatens a sudden loud blast, but Two Shots Fired wrongfoots viewers when its first sound isn’t from a gun but the jolting bass in a club where young Mariano (Rafael Federman) is dancing. He leaves, goes home, mows the lawn, finds a gun in the shed and fires twice — once at his head, once at his stomach, an action taken with the same blankfaced lack of passion as all the ones preceding it. “It was an impulse,” he non-explains. “It was very hot.” 

Mother Susana (Susana Pampin) removes all knives and other potential implements of self-harm from the house and has Mariano move in with his brother Ezequiel (Benjamin Coehlo), who can’t quite bring himself to flirt with Ana (Camila Fabbri), the fast-food worker who regularly takes his order. They almost lock eyes in the CD section of a bookstore and eventually go to a party together. The story steadily expands outwards in concentric circles from Mariano’s initial starting point, each encounter providing an opportunity to branch off into another narrative, then follow the newest party introduced to yet another story and person. There’s a lot of raw information to process quickly and discard as necessary — characters to log, trips out of the city to new destinations to observe, a man dropping his recipe for mussels into conversation.

Writer/director MartíRejtman’s films use counter-intuitively elaborate structures to organize low-key comedy that initially seems inconsequential and lingers for months afterwards. The pervading tone of low-key drollery — raised voices would be unthinkable — can obscure the degree of organizational ingenuity and density of different types of dialogue and situations. This has been the case since Rejtman’s first feature: 1992’s Rapado often seems like it consists of little more than young people riding mopeds slowly and killing time in video game arcades, but its beginning and ending mirror each other so perfectly the film goes beyond bookending itself, as if the repeated encounters could be part of a retroactively perceptible Moebius loop. 

Two Shots Fired is Rejtman’s first fiction feature since 2005’s The Magic Gloves. In between, he made the 2006 documentary Copacabana and collaborated with his former student/theater director Federico León on 2009’s hour-long TV project Elementary Training for Actors, whose lighting — stark stage beams pointing down on potentially imperiled children at the whim of a megalomaniac acting coach — veered unprecedentedly close to the visual language of a horror movie. If there’s something that’s been picked up since Magic Gloves, it might be this new ability to momentarily indulge a darker shade without seeming to strain for it. 

I wanted to interview Rejtman when he came to show Two Shots Fired at this year’s NYFF because, as much as I enjoy his films (quite a lot), I was hoping a conversation would clarify what he’s after. Since it’s not a good idea to ask “What exactly do you want from us?,” I stuck to specifics and hoped a larger picture would emerge. Though I’m not sure if Rejtman has an all-out Philosophy of Cinema he’s keeping to himself, I achieved a little clarity: he’s found a way to film scenes that interest him (he must, at least, find them funny), and connecting these disparate parts brings out all his ingenuity. It’s important to understand that in Argentina he’s revered (by a certain kind of similarly cinephilic viewer/filmmaker anyway) as someone who changed the country’s cinematic language, a director who can be talked about in terms of Cinema rather than modestly inconsequential drollery. Because there aren’t many English language interviews, I wanted to stretch out over the bigger arc of his career before honing in on this film as a potential decoder key, so we started with his initial training.

Filmmaker: What did you get out of your time at NYU?

Rejtman: I went to the undergrad school for the first time in ’81 or ’82, for one year. I liked the school very much. I took a course called “Sight & Sound,” I think they still have it, and it was great. [“Sight & Sound” is the first film production class you take; the format used to be directing five 16mm shorts in a semester as a director, alternating duties with a crew of four who all have to do the same.] But I was young, and I wasn’t comfortable in New York then; my friends were all foreigners. I traveled to Europe and spent one year there, then I went back to Argentina because there was democracy at the time. The dictatorship ended and I wanted to be there for this change. In ’85 I went back to NYU for one more year and I hated the school, I have to say. I was older than all the other guys, who were very young and coming from high school. Also the school had changed, I think, and they were much more commercially oriented. People were saying that all these new buildings and the Tisch school were paid for by TV, so they wanted people to become more conventional filmmakers. So I felt a little bit like an outsider. Then I dropped out. So it was just two years that I went to NYU.

Filmmaker: And how did you complete your formal training?

Rejtman: I made a short film in New York, and then I wrote a script and I found some producers who wanted to produce it in Argentina. Then we went and started shooting, and after a week they just disappeared. So it took me a while to write another script and find the money for it, and that was my first feature film.

Filmmaker: Though you may not see yourself as someone determined to change the course of Argentinian cinema, were there certain normal things that you did not want to do or wanted to fight against?

Rejtman: Oh yeah. There were many things I did not want to do. People were coming from advertising or they were trained to make political statements about things changing, because we were coming out from the dictatorship. It was more like delivering a message than using film as film; they were just using film for something else. I thought everything was kind of wrong, I didn’t find any elements in the films of the time that I could use in my movies. I had to look elsewhere, or invent some things, like the way people talk.

My first short film in Argentina, it’s almost silent, because I didn’t know how to make them talk. In Rapado I introduced some dialogue and then more and more, because I found a way that I liked. In the studio era here, there was a system of talking, they were talking a certain way, but that’s not the way people talk in reality. In Argentina that was not happening in films; it was completely artificial in the wrong ways, so I tried to find a way that I liked. At the same time, I tried to be very simple in the mise-en-scene. Many of the films of the time were made just with close-ups, for example, so I tried to value every shot. Every time I was placing the camera in some position I was giving it a certain value. I think before, most of the films that were made it didn’t really matter, it was more like making television.

When I made [Elementary Training], we had this strange situation where we wanted a table to be lifted a little bit, and they would never do that on TV. They would just move the camera and have a close-up in some way, it wouldn’t matter. In film, you really have to be a little more careful than that. It’s not just getting the character doing something, but getting the character doing something from a certain point of view, for a reason, and this was not happening really in the main Argentinian films at the time.

Filmmaker: How does your work as a director overlap with your career as a literary writer?

Rejtman: I only write short stories. The last book is three long short stories. Before that they weren’t revelations, they were regular short stories. I started writing in New York, because it’s easier to write a short story than to make a short film. I didn’t just want to write scripts for films that I wouldn’t be able to make. You need a whole structure to make even a short film, so that’s why I started writing short stories that really looked like scripts in the beginning. They were very objective, most of them written in the third person and present tense, describing actions with some dialogue. So I would say that my main influence as a writer is screenwriting. Then the short stories evolved. I also started writing in the first person and they changed, but they still look a lot like my films. It’s the same kind of characters.

Filmmaker: Two Shots Fired begins with a sudden bass line kicking as Mariano is dancing at the club — and, because of the title, I’m already tensed up and anticipating a gunshot. Later, a bird flies into the window in front of Sandra with a loud crack. These types of jolts aren’t what I associate with your work.

Rejtman: I had this image for opening a film for a long time. I think opening shots are very important, and I wanted people to be awake. That’s why the music is so loud, even though it’s the end of the day in the film, it’s dawn and it’s the end of a long night out dancing for Mariano. Also my last fiction film, The Magic Shoes, ended with the main character dancing on his own in a discotheque, so I wanted to build a bridge between the two films. It’s an older guy in The Magic Shoes, he’s almost 40, and here we have a younger guy. Maybe with the bird, I also wanted to the audience to be shaken a little bit at that moment. That’s what happens to Sandra, the character. She’s startled by the bird that hits the window. I don’t know why I did that. I found it funny. It made sense to me to have that situation at that moment, just to wake her up.

Filmmaker: Does she wake up at that point?

Rejtman: Not really. She registers that, but she doesn’t wake up. In the same way that the real two shots don’t kill Mariano, it’s the same thing. 

Filmmaker: I’m wondering if these more confrontational jolts relate in anyway to the equally uncharacteristic sinister lighting in Elementary Training for Actors.

Rejtman: That was because it was a theater studio. They have theater lighting, so it’s never general lighting. It’s very directed to certain points, so there’s always more darkness and light, more contrast, and that’s maybe why it looks more sinister. That was a problem with the lighting, because it’s a film that we made for television. The television people didn’t want us to make the film, the crew was not too happy to be working on something different from what they usually do. We had a DP, but they were getting him to do other things during our shoot, so he would set up some lights and then disappear for the whole day. So we really didn’t control the lighting.

At the studio, they wanted to have one theater director and one film director working together, assuming that the theater director would work with the actors and the film director would work with the camera, the technique of cinema and stuff like that. But we did everything together — we wrote the script together and then we directed the actors together, we decided the mise-en-scene together. We agreed on many, many things and we decided to leave everything in the film that we agreed on and to take out things that we couldn’t agree on. So the film is the result of our real agreement. This was my first collaboration, and I’m very happy with it.

Filmmaker: On one hand, your films are very droll and modest as far as the events that take place. On the other hand, they’re structurally very complex. How do you find that structure?

Rejtman: I think of characters. There are scenes I know I want to have in the film, and then I try to make sense out of all of those scenes and find a storyline somehow. That’s the beginning of the process. Then when I have a storyline more or less, I continue writing to see how to connect all the dots. It’s a long process and it could be endless. I have to finish at some point. In this case the script was much longer at the beginning and I started trimming it. It was 20 minutes longer, maybe. I never shot all of that.

Filmmaker: There’s also enormous amounts of information being delivered constantly, like the scene in which a man gives his entire recipe for mussels.

Rejtman: But I want it to be light at the same time. The information, it’s not important, it’s just a recipe. The audience knows that somehow — somebody’s giving you a recipe but you don’t have to take notes. I wanted to be thrown into the film the same way Mariano is thrown into the music at the beginning of the film. At the same time, I think I’m giving the audience some space, because of the tone of the acting, which is never dramatic or extreme, so I think that gives you some space. If all that information were given with extreme acting or extreme scenes, then I think that would be a problematic thing, but I think I’m trying to find a balance between those things.

Filmmaker: Elementary Training begins with the teacher saying children are in the same class as animals, because on-screen they can only play themselves, and here you have a child and a dog sitting in the same shot in a truck, bringing the two together.

Rejtman: For me, Elementary Training was very important because I had almost never worked with kids before, so it was an opportunity to do it, and do it in a safe way, because I was working with a co-director, so it was easier. Then I dared to write a scene for a kid, and putting him together with an animal was just a coincidence. Also you have the kid who goes into the dog’s house with his pillow, to sleep with the dog right after that. It’s one more digression in the film, just trying to play around with things I like. It’s all about the scenes, I think, for me. I need to like a scene to include it in the movie. I don’t care so much about anything else. Of course we have to build a plot, but the plot has to be built out of things that I really like. I don’t want things there because something needs to be explained.

Filmmaker: Do you introduce children and animals to allow for elements you can’t control to see what happens?

Rejtman: I worked with animals before in The Magic Gloves, and I said to myself I would never work with animals again, I would never shoot in a car again. And then in this movie, I’m shooting in a car and I’m working with animals. Also I swore during the shooting of this film that I would never make a film again, because it was very tough. Some moments I said “Why am I putting myself in this situation? I want the actors to say exactly the lines I write in a certain tone, with a certain speed, and sometimes they can’t.” I was really stuck with one scene, the actor couldn’t read it. It took him a long, long time to do it right. At that moment, I was almost giving up. It’s really like torture somehow.

But then, when I finish a film, I just forget about that. I forget about not working with animals again, I forget about not shooting in cars. After my first film, I said to myself I would never shoot at night again. It’s like I think I’m going to make an easy film, and it never happens, because films are never easy. I make films that look very easy, they look like there is nothing really challenging there. I mean, all the shots are very simple, everything that happens is very simple, but nothing is simple, nothing is easy. Every single shot takes a lot of work.

Filmmaker: Do you feel like the time since your last fiction film, plus your experiments in TV and documentary, reset your sensibility and method somehow?

Rejtman: I wrote books at the time as well. I think when I started shooting Two Shots Fired, I had the feeling that it was my first film. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to put the camera, I think I was lost during the whole process. Before, in my previous films, I used to do storyboards, I used to plan everything very carefully in the beginning. Then less and less, and now it really didn’t feel like planning. Even though it looks planned, it’s not. I would get there and make a decision of what to do the moment we were supposed to start shooting something. Many times I really didn’t know what to do, and so I was lost. I think that’s because I spent a lot of time working without a film crew, which is larger than what I used for the other films, and you have a lot of people, and it’s a very complex script because there are many locations and actors. So that required a professional crew. Also they were all people that I didn’t know, so it was really starting all over again. I think I put myself purposefully in that situation somehow. Maybe I just wanted to be lost, to find out again some kind of feeling in the way of making films. In retrospect, I think maybe that’s the reason why I chose not to work with people I knew, only a couple of actors. I’m always very reluctant to work with somebody new, I’m kind of shy, and so it was really putting myself in a difficult position for no reason.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about some of the particular settings. What is the fast food restaurant?

Rejtman: We had to go to a fast food restaurant that was a chain in the ‘80s in Argentina, Pumper Nic, which was very popular. They had a hippopotamus, their version of the clown McDonald’s has. It was the first Argentinian fast food chain, but it disappeared in the late ‘90s, I think. In the ‘80s, I shot a film in Buenos Aires [Dolly Goes Home], and some of it takes place in another fast food chain, Pumper Nic’s competitors Cheburger, so I’ve come back to my origins somehow. This was in a shopping mall in the outskirts very far from Buenos Aires, like 60 or 50 km away. It was the last one left with some kind of structure — there was a sign, but the name was a different one, and some of the furniture was there. So we had to bring in furniture, build it up; the bar was there, some of the furniture was there, and all the rest we brought. We shot that the last day.

We tried to make a deal with Burger King, with McDonald’s. I wanted to use some of their restaurants that were more run down, old ones, but they never agreed. McDonald’s have a president for Latin America who’s an art collector and supposed to be a very nice guy, and so they really wanted to help us, but they read the script, and they said no. The guy said, “If it was up to me I would have said yes, of course, but this is a corporate thing and I cannot go beyond these rules.” I think it’s because it’s about a young guy who finds a gun and shoots himself twice, so they don’t want to be associated with that. So we had to do it on our own.

Filmmaker: Any particular draw to the space of a fast food restaurant? Do you spend a lot of time in places like that?

Rejtman: Oh no, never. I’m almost a vegetarian. But I’m curious. It’s kind of a neutral place, it doesn’t tell you much. Sometimes I like places with a lot of character, and sometimes I like places that are really neutral. In this case, it is neutral, but it tells you a lot. It’s like having somebody with a uniform; you already know something when you see that character. You go to a fast food place, there is a lot of information there, you don’t need to process too much, you know what it is. Sometimes I like my locations to be a little bit like that, and the characters as well. You look at them once, and you get an idea, because there is so much information that there are some things that have to be clear. There are so many characters, and I wanted them to be recognizable; the next time you see them, to know more or less who that person is. Sometimes I find in films that people look alike, and then you get confused because you don’t know who the woman is. Is she the sister, is she the wife? You don’t know. I wanted to have things clear here. It was a challenge, because there are so many characters.

Filmmaker: What about the CD store? Was that part of a larger bookstore?

Retjman: It’s part of a bigger bookstore. There are no CD stores left. Sometimes I feel like I’m running against time, shooting in places that are going to close down right away. It takes me a while to shoot the script, and when I shoot it the technology has changed. Things change so fast that our film looks like vintage very soon. And I’m not really keen on showing documentaries on technology in my movies. I don’t want them to be retro or vintage, but I want to incorporate different times and periods, because I think that you live with a mix of things, you don’t live only with the latest smartphone, so I want all those elements to be there. So there is the internet for the first time in one of my films, there are cell phones.

Filmmaker: What about the movie theater? There are two movies listed in the end credits, Mostly Martha and an Argentinian film, but when they’re sitting in the theater you can’t see more than a tiny horizontal sliver of the screen, where there’s some kind of rain storm going on.

Rejtman: I needed a storm. I didn’t want the movie to be important. In fact, if you are watching a movie where you can see what’s going on, then it becomes important, no? And I really wanted to just focus on the characters. What was important for me was what happened there with the characters.

The first one is a movie that exists, but we changed the soundtrack. The Argentianian film is one they watch on TV, but there I used the soundtrack for [names a Hollywood movie I shouldn’t specify, lest its rights holders find out]. Then there’s Mostly Martha, which was produced by our German co-producers, so they gave us the rights to use those images, but we changed the soundtrack completely. At the end, we have the scene with the storm in the film, and that’s something we made up. We just shot some scenes in the backyard of the house where we were shooting. It took us five minutes to shoot that, and we used some footage from one of my assistants who went on a trip, and he shot some stuff in the jungle. We mixed everything up and we had that. That’s why I didn’t to show that, I just wanted to have a storm, you know? A storm with light, so you can see the characters.

Filmmaker: You only need the flashing lights to illuminate the theater.

Rejtman: Exactly. Also, at the end of the film, just to show another movie would be a little bit too much, with all the information you got up to then? “Now we are watching a movie. OK.” That’s enough.

Filmmaker: Outside the theater we see movie posters. Does it matter to the narrative that these are the movies that are playing?

Rejtman: Those were the films that were playing, and I decided they were OK. There’s Gravity, there’s Hannah Arendt and there’s one horror movie that I never remember [Insidious Part II]. In my imagination, that was the film that they were watching, because among the three it makes sense that if there is a storm — in Gravity you cannot have a storm, and in the other one I haven’t seen but it’s a biopic about this woman. If there is a storm, it’s probably in Insidious Part II.

Filmmaker: Do you enjoy working with digital? Do you miss celluloid at all?

Rejtman: When we were considering making the movie in digital, I was looking at films at the Buenos Aires Film Festival and I was really scared, because I saw too much. I think it was because of the projection in that movie theater. The lighting was very hard, there was a lot of definition, you could see veins in the skin, everything. It was too much, so we decided to use lenses that were a little older. At one moment, we even thought about adding grain to the image to make it look less digital, but we decided not to do that. And I’m kind of happy, I wouldn’t like to make a movie in celluloid anymore, because it would just look like a gesture. It would add some meaning to a film that I didn’t want to be there.

I think it looks good, there is nothing I miss when I see this film. It’s strange, because before making the film, I was like, this is not exactly what I want to do, but I have to. Also, it was the feeling that I couldn’t go against the trend, you know? This is what’s happening, I have to adjust somehow, even though when I started editing my first film I edited on a flatbed. But imagine Manoel de Oliveira, who started shooting movies in the silent era!

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