After a run-up of short films, Fernando Eimbcke makes his feature directing debut with Temporada de patos (Duck Season). The picture scored 11 Ariel Awards (Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars), including the Silver Ariel for Best Director. I spoke with Eimbcke at San Francisco's Clift Hotel on February 24, 2006.
G: I wanted to talk first about the first moments of the film. I thought they had the quality of a photo book—the composition to them. I wonder: do you have a background in still photography?
FB: I used to work like an assistant photographer. But just like an assistant. I love photography.
G: How did you come to the decision to start the film that way?
FB: Because I want to sell the place. Because it was important for me to explain in a cinematographic way that it's not an easy city to stay playing for the kids. So there's a lot of streets—avenues. So it's not easy for a kid to be there. So they must be in a house playing videogames.
G: I was going to ask about the city too. It's stereotyped as having a high crime rate, right? What dictated the choice of that setting?
FB: The reality. I think I understand your question. In Mexico, it's kind of difficult to be a kid because you can't go to the streets and play. There's a lot of cars; there's a lot of insecurity. You can live with that. It's not so terrible. But it's not so easy. You can't go on your own and say, "Okay, Mom. I will go to play in the park." It's not so easy.
G: And I noticed that the apartment building is called "Niños Heroes," which I assume is named for the war martyrs—the Mexican-American War martyrs, yes?
G: I wonder, again, why that choice? Was that a way of saying that all children are sort of martyrs when they lose their innocence, or...?
FB: No, I thought that all kids are like heroes. Because I saw them like heroes that save Ulysses, the pizza guy. So I always thought that they were heroes. Actually, I wanted to use that name for the film. The film, in one treatment, was called "Niños Heroes."
G: That was the other thing that I thought: we're all sort of the heroes of our own stories. And so, for these kids, they are...
FB: The kids are? Yes.
G: Heroic. Right. I want to talk a little bit more about the visual style of the film. One of the things is the wide-angle kind of medium shots and the idea of looking through the TV or the screens over the frames. Why did you make that choice?
FB: Because we wanted the camera to be like a witness—not to get into the story into the character like in close-ups. We wanted to be like a witness. And it was easier for me to direct a scene in that way. Because in that way, I saw all the action—all the interaction between the characters. So I had the possibility to change things that I saw in that moment. When you are working with cutting with close-ups and master, it's kind of difficult to make it. It's the way you must do it.
G: Right. You can do more in one take, have the flexibility of allowing the actors some improvisation, maybe?
FB: Yes. And, for example, we came to the set, to the apartment about, I don't know, eight in the morning everyday. So we put the camera—and like, okay, this is the place. And we started rehearsing and playing and rehearsing and playing and the actors forgot the camera. They didn't become aware of the camera. So it was a good decision. Because sometimes with the actors, it's very difficult for them to put the camera here and put the camera there. It's difficult for the actors. And since I was working with teenagers, they didn't have the experience. I thought that it could be a good option—a good choice.
G: I think it was a good choice. I also wanted to ask about the choice to shoot in black and white. What was it that turned your mind to seeing it in black and white—the story?
FB: I think that I was influenced by a lot of the films that I was seeing at that time. A lot of classic films—like from Godard, Fellini. Also, I thought that it maybe could work in the film. And I was like, no, no, no. You are very influenced by that film. Forget it. But I was like, well, maybe, because this story is so simple. The conflicts are so little that maybe it could help. And I talked with the photographer, and he was like "Why black and white?" And I said, "Well, like the story." And he said, "Okay, maybe. Let's do a camera test." And we did it and we saw it, and we were like "Wow, it's really, really good. It helps the story."
G: Was it something to do with the place, as well, that you were shooting that convinced you that black and white would work?
G: What impressions from your own childhood, from the small to the large, made it into the film? Is it in any way autobiographical?
FB: I think there's no way that the characters [do not] have a biographical aspect of you. You must look very deep inside of you to find the conflicts of the characters. So there are things, but there's a lot of imagination also. Yes, a lot of things. But I found myself in the characters of Moko, Flama, Ulysses, and Rita, you know. For example, I even fight very strong with them...the idea of loneliness, of being alone in your home someday.
G: What did you notice about the chemistry of these two children that led to your casting them?
FB: Well, it was really hard work for the casting director—who actually was not a casting director—but a theatre director. And we decided to choose the characters in terms of the vibe between them, not in terms of their histrionic capacities. We, for example, chose three Mokos and we chose three Flamas, and we mixed them. So we saw the vibe between them. And we found that the best vibe was with that Moka and that Flama. And with Rita, it was a very, very different story because we were looking for a character, an actor—an actress, sorry, that could intimidate those characters, Flama and Moko, in real life. We found it.
G: I wanted to ask you about that too. Obviously, a lot of the young actors' personalities are coming through. But also, you did a lot of acting work with them, right? So how much was of themselves, do you think, in the film, and how much—
FB: For example, when Moko and Flama—the relationship between them was different—was the opposite. The real Flama felt admiration for the real Moko. And we talked about the characters—their biographies—we talked about a lot and they worked on that. And it worked—I think so.
G: You developed very detailed back stories for the characters, right—backgrounds?
G: What were some of the details that never expressly come out in the film but that were still important for the actors or for yourself in understanding those characters?
FB: Wow. That's a very good question. There was a back story about a day when Moko came into school and he was tortured by other kids, and Flama used to be a very kind of nerd guy and came and helped Moko. And Flama—the kids hit him and they ended up being good friends. And that event is not in the film, but that helped a lot for Moko, the real actor, to understand that. And he used a lot of that story. For example, another example is that Moko didn't know English, but he liked a lot all the rock bands that sing in English—and Flama knows English, so Flama translates all the songs to Moko. Those kind of silly things, but helps—
G: But helps to understand the bond.
FB: Yes. And with Rita, the back story, the biography, was really, really long and—
FB: Complicated—with his mother's story and why his mother is out of the house on a Sunday—it was complicated.
G: I think it contributes to the sense of reality even though we don't know the details—you can tell.
FB: Yes. Sometimes, in this case, worth it, but sometimes you can confuse the actor because it's too much information.
G: Right, it could be distracting.
FB: Mmm hmm. But in this case it worked. I don't know if, in the future, it will work. I don't know.
G: One of the things in the press notes that we were given is that you say, "In our youth, we become aware when something is missing." And I wonder if you can talk more about examples of that.
FB: Uh huh. I think that in youth, everything's missing. Like, you don't know who you are, you don't know what you want, you have a lot of conflicts, you hate the world, you hate your parents—your family is your friends. Well, that was my story. My family used to be my friends. So I think that it's a very difficult age, but at the same time it's a very good age for characters—because there's a lot of doubts, a lot of conflicts—
G: And it's a time of transition.
FB: Uh huh. Yes.
G: And change is dramatic. Is that why you think Ulysses relates so well to the kids—that idea of—he's at a place where he anticipates a change?
FB: Let me think. Yes, he stays there at the home because he wants to play. He wants to play, you know? That place becomes related with the idea of doing what you want to do—when you are doing work that you like, it's like a game. So Ulysses is looking for that. So yes, he's anticipating that. But he doesn't find the courage to look for—to take the decision of doing what he wants to do.
G: Right. The opposite of that would be those flashbacks where we see the dog pound. Why specifically a dog pound...?
FB: Well, I love dogs. And I can't believe that people buy like, new dogs, in the pet stores. When I was in the film school, we made a documentary about the kennels and how they killed the dogs, because it's a problem. A demographic problem. That image kept with me for a very long time. So when I was working on the character, I was looking for some job that could be a terrible job—related with the idea of destroying what you love the most. That is the case of Ulysses. He felt so angry with him[self] because he did that kind of work.
G: Can you describe some of the sequences you had to cut to find the right rhythm for the film?
FB: A lot. I have a very, very good editor. And she was very brave to tell me a lot of times, "Okay, this is good, but it's not good for the film." What films. Wow.
G: They say it's like killing your babies when you have to cut those things.
FB: Yes. There was a scene during when they ate the cake—the mysterious cake. You can see a scene where they were dancing. And we had a complete scene of that dance. I thought it could be like a climax for the characters dancing. And the editor, she said to me, "Come on, please. That's not the climax." So she cut it. What other scene? We spent like two days making a scene between them in the bedroom, and we cut it because I directed the scene so bad, and it was a really hard time because it was the first scene of the film. And I was like "What am I doing? I don't know what is this about. I don't understand the scene," et cetera. We cut the scene. I learned a lot from that scene. Another scene we changed at the end—some scenes, the order. No, it was—a lot of people when they saw the film, they were like "Come on, there's not editing in that film." It's very easy—like cut, fade to black, cut, fade to black. There's no dissolves or masters. So everybody was like "Come on." And we spent a long, long, long time—I don't know, like nine months, editing the film.
G: Like a baby.
FB: Yes, like a baby.
G: You mentioned before some of your film influences, and this has drawn some comparisons. You mentioned Jim Jarmusch in the credits, and some people have mentioned Clerks, with the style. I wonder if you can talk about what films you think it compares to, but also what you think makes your work distinctive or what you see in your own style as it's developing?
FB: Wow. Well, I like a lot of the work of Jarmusch, of Kevin Smith—it influenced me a lot. What makes my film different? I don't know. Maybe I'm—
G: Too early to tell?
G: No, I don't think so. Maybe that's for others to tell you. I wanted to ask you as well about [how] the Sundance Institute and NHK pledged financial support for your next film Lake Tahoe...can you describe your vision for that film—where you think you're going?
FB: In terms of the story?
FB: Well, it's a very personal story. It's a difficult story. And I'm working with Paula Markovitch, the girl that worked with me on Duck Season—but like co-writers. Really co-writers. In Duck Season, she helped me like a collaborator, and here we're co-writers. And it's been a difficult process because it's very personal. And yes, it's difficult.
G: This film—I assume part of the idea had something to do with keeping it simple in that four characters in one setting.
G: Was it hard to find funding initially, and will your scope broaden with your next film? Will it get bigger?
FB: I don't know--I don't know. They made a first budget, and it's bigger than Duck Season...I don't care about that. I don't know.
G: I'll ask one more question before we go. At the end of the film, you say in the credits "The duck united will never be defeated." What does that mean to you?
FB: It's a—I saw the film like we were like ducks flying. Because the producer and the photographer—they helped me a lot. So I saw the film like a duck—
G: Very good. Well, I enjoyed the film very much. Good luck to you.
FB: Thank you. And you left me with a very hard question. I will stay all day.
G: Oh, which one?
FB: Which one!
G: Oh, they're all hard.
FB: The style--
G: Well, you did a good job.
FB: It's really difficult to say—to talk about my own style, no?
G: Well, you have time to figure that out.
G: Many more films, I hope.
[For Groucho's review of Duck Season, click here.]