From My Screen to Yours: Carlos Marques-Marcet on 10.000 KM
Technical pyrotechnics are a relative concept, to say the least. Hollywood-style CG can create alien worlds or giant explosions in tentpole films as well as illusorily seamless cinematography in mid-level independent dramas such as Birdman. Still, seldom do these applications seem to come from a place of necessity as opposed to an external, directorial flourish. The 23-minute unbroken take — realized practically, without effects — that opens Carlos Marques-Marcet’s quietly transfixing debut, 10.000 KM, is the best kind of pyrotechnic: scarcely noticeable and utterly essential.
Over the course of these 23 minutes in a dimly lit Barcelona apartment, Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) move from coital bliss to the brink of disaster when she reveals she has been offered a photography residency in Los Angeles. The cinematography perfectly complements these final moments of unbroken proximity between the couple before they attempt to keep the relationship alive through Skype across the titular distance for the remainder of the film.
Intelligent in its design and execution, 10.000 KM probes past the millennial preoccupation with technology into the greater picture, challenging both its authority and formal limitations. I spoke with Marques-Marcet from Berlin about the logistics of using computers as canvases, cheating Barcelona for Los Angeles, the benefits of an editing background and why the film speaks to more than just the obvious generation. Broad Green will release 10.000 KM in March.
You’ve predominantly worked as an editor. How have your experiences editing other films shaped your own very economical yet expansive film? You began shooting 10.000 KM right after you co-edited Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, correct? Yes, well, I edited a couple of other projects in between — we shot one year after Eliza’s [film] — but obviously It Felt Like Love was a really amazing experience that, not necessarily on purpose, helped me a lot to prepare to direct. I think editing is probably the best school for directing because you work the closest with the directors, you see what works and what doesn’t. You need to get into the directors’ minds, almost under their skin, because many times when you are directing you know what you want — Eliza always does — but you don’t know how to express it. I learned so much from her. We have completely different ways of directing, but thanks to her, I became so much more precise with my directions and my writing.
Still now, when people ask me, “What do you do?” my first impulse is to say, “I’m an editor.” I think it is weird to call yourself a director when you’ve only done one feature film. Somehow, I feel writing and directing are just preparation for editing. For example, I would never have written such a long scene, or I would never have shot such a long master shot, if it wasn’t the beginning of the movie. As an editor, you know that a long master shot in the middle of a movie has many possibilities to be left out [of the movie] or broken into many pieces. Many times during editing you rediscover what the actual pace of your movie needs to be, so now you have a big stone in the middle that throws off the pace. At this point, you realize that the master shot that you like so much and worked so hard to do doesn’t fit anymore in your movie, so you have to sacrifice it. But if you are starting a movie, you are actually setting the pace for the rest of it; you are still establishing the language, so you don’t have this problem. Of course, then you have to pay extreme attention during shooting, because you have to be conscious that the rhythm is already fixed. In a way, you are editing while directing. You have to think that when you move your camera and actors to go from framing composition to framing composition, you are actually doing your “cuts” and establishing the rhythm of the movie.
As a general note, I think that my editing background helped me to be much more precise and trust more in my own choices. Although we left several scenes in the editing room, I didn’t cover myself; I only shot the camera angles that you actually see in the movie. That allowed me to have lot of time with the actors to do 10, 15 or 20 takes and to wait for the unexpected little accidents that make a scene special. I could always be searching for something that surprised me.
How did you conceptualize this opening scene? Given that Alex and Sergi share almost every frame, it stands in clear contrast to the gulf of distance between the two for the rest of the film. I had originally the idea to do several scenes in long takes in Barcelona, but it was our script editor who suggested to combine them all in one. It would be much more powerful to convey the feeling of physically being in the same space if there weren’t any jumps in time or space. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure about the idea of doing such a long master shot — it seemed to me the kind of decision that a filmmaker would do just to show off. But then, when I was rewriting the script, I realized that I was actually writing the scene as a master shot.
How did you sense that that was what you were doing? Well, I normally write a lot of looks into the script, like “Character A looks at something,” but I wasn’t doing that this time. It was as if everything was contained in the same image, the same shot, instead of a shot/reverse shot. Also, I was following the characters through space instead of doing the normal small ellipses you would create for an edit.
Initially, I was concerned [the long master shot] would be too metaphorical, but finally I decided to do it because of the energy that it would create for the rest of the fragmented movie. Basically, the idea was to do a master shot where you don’t realize that it actually is a master shot, where everything is fluid, and you’re following the characters seamlessly in space, and only at the moment of the cut you would say, “What? There hasn’t been a cut yet?” Although, I guess I didn’t take into consideration that many people could read about it before, and were thus already aware.
What was the preparation for this scene like, both with your actors and d.p.? As I said, the preparation for it began during the writing. The first decision was to rearrange the apartment so we could find a diagonal in the house that would allow us to see the whole action from a dolly on rails. With my d.p., Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, we would Skype — she was in New York — and discuss it for several days until we found out the best solution across one of the rooms. We did a bunch of photos trying different lenses. Then, I rehearsed the scene beat by beat for two days with the actors in another apartment while the art department dressed the set. I let the actors do the movements that were more organic to them. Then we rehearsed one day on set with the main furniture in place, and we adapted the blocking to the movements that we were able to do with the camera on the dolly. But I didn’t force the actors to do movements; they didn’t have any kind of marks, I just suggested actions and placed props in specific places, which allowed the camera to move without the actors having to worry about it.
We used another day to light and rehearse the camera movement with a second team, and we shot it in two and a half days. I was completely blown away with Dagmar. From the 17 takes we did, there wasn’t a single one that we had to stop because of the camera operating. She was really dancing with the actors, always reacting to the unexpected new things that would come up in every take.
Did you know which take to use as soon as you shot it? There were several that were okay, and two that were really good: the 8th and the 17th, the last one. It was hard to choose.
Did you ever consider editing the film yourself? I actually co-edited the film with my editor, Juliana Montañés. It was too hard to give the editing over to someone else; I enjoy it too much. But at the same time, you need another set of eyes that are able to look at the material in a more analytical way. We worked in the same way Scott Cummings and I did on It Felt Like Love. Juliana was editing while we were shooting, then we got a couple of months editing together in two computers and finally, I edited for two more months on my own. The good thing is that Juliana would come to see the movie every other week, and she was able to give me notes with fresher eyes while also knowing exactly what was available in the footage to change.
Although a significant portion of the film is set in Los Angeles, you shot entirely in Barcelona. Was it always your intention to cheat the former for the latter, or did it arise out of budget limitations? Originally, we wanted to shoot in both cities at the same time, to keep it as close to the real experience as possible. I don’t believe that you always need to do this kind of thing for the actors, but there was an element for me that was impossible to fake in every single scene without becoming too predictable: the nine-hour time difference and the opposite energies that this difference creates. In the movie, it’s there in some specific moments where we could incorporate it easily, like in the scene when they are in bed, but it was something I was not able make as present as I wanted.
Since it was a Spain-U.S. co-production, it wasn’t actually that expensive to organize a shoot in both continents at the same time, so it wasn’t so much a money issue as a scheduling one. Natalia had several shows with her band Molotov Jukebox around Europe, and David was starting theater in September, so with so much traveling across continents, we would lose too many precious shooting days.
I knew the Barcelona apartment was going to be my producer’s, and I actually wrote the Los Angeles apartment to shoot it in my own in Echo Park. Since we didn’t get Natalia on board until four weeks before shooting, we decided to shoot everything in Barcelona really fast. We were aware it was easier to find an apartment that looked like Los Angeles in Barcelona than vice versa. I knew I wanted an apartment with horizontal windows, the kind of apartment that you find in Los Angeles that somehow reflects the expansive horizontality of the city and is completely opposite of the typical tall, vertical windows you find in highly concentrated Barcelona. So basically, we searched like mad people all around the city, and we posted it in all our social media until a friend of my mother wrote me on Facebook saying he had a friend who had an empty room in an interior patio that had the kind of windows I was looking for. When we arrived, we were surprised to see a giant cactus! We felt it was a signal.
Kismet. Logistically, how did you shoot the scenes when they are Skyping? Were they pre-recorded, or were the actors in different rooms? Did you just use a standard in-camera computer? Something like the cooking scenes, or when she’s folding her laundry, he seems to respond seamlessly to her actions. We did it all “live.” It was very important that the actors could react to one another, and doing it with a video is like acting with a wall. We had two different sets simultaneously in two apartments, each in a different neighborhood of Barcelona, and we used the computers the same way you would use them in a real video chat conversation. We had the main crew in one of the apartments, and in the other one, there was only the other actor, a sound person and a second a.d. Of course, the connection broke in the worst moments, but I think it added to the performances.
It was fascinating to realize that the tools of cinema, cameras in our computers, are what we used to communicate. We become the actors, talking to one another. It’s no longer cinema theory; it’s what we experience in everyday life. So, in effect, the actors were camera operators as well.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Alex shows Sergi her photos of Silicon Valley and we see the vacant parking lots of these companies that are effectively dictating their communication habits, bringing their personal situation to a more macro level. I think it was smart of you to make the character a photographer because you could go beyond the visual limitations of Skype and incorporate thematic elements with just a still image. Yes. It was a way for me to explore the city without leaving Alex’s quarters. The idea was born when a friend of mine, a photographer from Spain, came to visit me in Los Angeles. For me, perhaps the most important thing was to understand the process of creating an art project. It can’t feel phony. One thing must lead into another. That’s why she takes the photographs of antennae, the tools that allow us to communicate. With the project, we wanted to use Google Maps to demonstrate how we discover the world, which is actually through the proxy of a [Google mapping] car. We tried to contact Google to get a picture of a car, but we realized you can’t contact Google. They can only contact you. It’s like the mafia. I’m interested in that observer and observed relationship and the power struggle that exists between it. So we just went to Silicon Valley to try to find a car, and we came across the data centers. At that time, they were a secret. Everyone knows about them now, but we just stumbled across these huge information highways. Once we took the photos, of course, they didn’t care if we used it at all.
This wasn’t during production though, was it? No, it was from a project I collaborated on four years ago about technology and distance. I took those materials and rewrote the script to incorporate them.
In piecing together the script, how did you build the dialogue? So much of it is circumstantial, with lots of witty but revealing exchanges. Did you adapt it as you went along? Yes, I write and rewrite constantly even while shooting. With my co-writer, Clara Roquet, we would get together every day and read out loud what we had done the day before. We also recorded the audio of all the exercises and improvisations we did during rehearsals with the actors and, at night, Clara and I would detect exchanges that had this very spontaneous quality, and we would fit them into the already structured scenes. I really like to adapt and re-use the “accidents” that happen on the way. For example, the character of Alex wasn’t supposed to be British originally, but when we cast Natalia, I didn’t want her to be worried about her slight accent she has in Spanish, so I decided to change the character. All of a sudden, the situation became more complex between the characters, and this “accident” was, at the end, a key to understanding more of Alex’s decisions.
What was the chronology of the shoot? We shot as much in chronological order as we could. It’s a luxury that I will try to hold onto for as long as possible because it allows you and the actors to discover the movie as you go along and make changes according to these discoveries. We shot the first scene first, then the scenes from Barcelona in chronological order, then the scenes in Los Angeles. We had to stop for 10 days, and then we shot the last scene. The break wasn’t really a creative decision, but it actually helped us a lot because the strangeness of getting back together after a separation, where we all had gone back to our normal lives, was, I think, somehow reflected on the screen.
I want to talk about the production design — her apartment, in particular, feels so sterile and transient. Was that a key counterpoint between the two locations for you? I didn’t want to get too symbolic, but homes are always full of things that say a lot about who we are or how we are. Every time you move to one of these pre-arranged apartments, the place becomes like a white canvas. Canvases that nowadays, “thanks” to IKEA, are the same all over the world. But little by little, you start filling your canvas with your normal activity, and then you start to decorate it and make it more your own. It is actually a symbolic process.
The counterpoint had to do with contrasting the two cities just solely through the two interiors. Like in the vertical/horizontal opposition I was mentioning before, there is also something about white apartments in Los Angeles that are completely opposite from the dark apartments with old tiles in Barcelona. In Los Angeles, everything is so new, so that makes Barcelona feel very old. And it is true that new things that are pre-fabricated feel so sterile because they are stripped of symbols that inhabit our lives. We were very specific in our use of color to make this point come across, but I’m not the kind of filmmaker who puts things on the screen with hidden meanings to decipher. Movies are about what you see and hear.
Broad Green acquired the film out of SXSW. Aside from Break Point, which they produced, you were their first purchase. [Broad Green executives] Daniel Hammond and Michael Nolan watched the movie by chance at the festival, and they fell in love with it and came to talk to me right away. They were so enthusiastic. Our sales agents, Visit Films, did some research on them and told us they were trustworthy people. They made a really good offer also as a symbolic way of saying that they want to start working together on our next project, too. When I met with [co-founder] Gabriel Hammond, I saw that he really had a vision with the company, to try new ways of doing things. They like adventures, and I like them, too; there was a very good connection between us.
The film is already out in Spain and various parts of Europe. Have you been able to gauge a different set of responses to the film, geographically and culturally speaking? I was really surprised by my experiences at the U.S. film festivals — the audience reception has been better here than in Spain. I feel in Spain, people over 40 don’t have the same relationship that young people have with technology. But here in the U.S., I feel a lot of people from older generations have connected very well with the movie. Also, I think people in the U.S. are constantly on the move from one place to another, and that makes you more dependent on technology in order to stay in touch with the people you love. In Spain, it would be impossible to think that when you retire, you sell your house and move to Florida — people are very attached to their places and to their communities.
Are you worried at all that the film may be too specific to the here and now? We did debate whether we should be using this iPhone or that, but really, this sort of technological mediation has been around since the beginning of the telephone. You are conversing with a person who is not there. Now, we can bridge image and sound to connect with the person who isn’t there, but I think the root of the issue is the same. The subject of this alternative reality is universal and continual. The Rossellini movie [L’Amore], with Anna Magnani on the phone, still appeals. It’s readily watchable because of the interactions with the machine. Even if the computers are old, hopefully the essence will stay. I didn’t want to make a trendy movie.