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Director Pablo Berger Tells Tales About His Silent Film "Blancanieves"

Blancanieves posterIf Spanish director Pablo Berger had made his third film, Blancanieves, only as a re-imagining of the Snow White fable it would have had enough grit to validate the film. But then to construct it as a silent film was a real leap into the abyss -- both creatively and financially. Keep in mind this Spanish director had had the idea to do his second film this way nearly a decade before The Artist -- a B&W silent film -- came out out the French wilderness and won hearts, minds and the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012.

Opening the 2012 Spanish Cinema Now -- sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- Blancanieves (Snow White), was Spain's 85th Academy Awards submission to Best Foreign Language category this year, but it didn’t make the final shortlist.  Playing on the Brother Grimms’ tale, it incorporates myth, archetypes and wry humor to tell a story set in a romantic vision of 1920s Andalusia.

Intended as an homage to 1920s European silent films, this twist on the fairy tale is set in Seville and centered on a female bullfighter.

This film was a huge hit in Spain and won the Special Jury Prize and Best Actress "Silver Shell" Award for Macarena García at the 2012 San Sebastián International Film Festival.

It also won 10 Goyas, including one for Best Film at the 27th annual Spanish Awards.

Beautifully shot, with an ensemble cast notable for their (shall I say) quiet finesse, it entwines humor, betrayal, greed, deceit and sweet revenge as fundamental story elements. When Berger came to NYC in advance of its theatrical release he spoke lucidly about his film and his time working in this city.

Q: What did you need to learn to make this movie -- this isn’t what people expect from a feature film….  

PB: My favorite period of film history is the silent era -- the '20s in particular -- a time when most types of cinema was invented. Most of the great films from the silent era were made in the ‘20s. And there’s so many great ones that I’ve been trained to follow or think of films visually. 

Even when I went to film school, in the first year, I concentrated on doing silent short films. When I was teaching at the New York Academy my students did silent films. 

When you move to the commercial world to make a black and white silent film, it’s expensive for Europeans, so it’s like a cinematic terrorist attack. It truly is and should be because the director should always remember what makes film different from other media or art forms is the visual story telling. Different shot sizes, camera movement, lighting, the eye, even if you really think about it the moments in film history that stay with you they’re are very few that are dialogue driven. They are these moments. I truly believe it’s visually driven.

Q: How did you cast ? Where did you find her and how did you cast her that way? What did you ask the actors to do that would be different from normal direction?

PB: In terms of [her character] Carmencita, I was looking for a child that had some kind of magical element. I was just looking for eyes. As a reference, I looked at one of the great movies in Spanish film history called The Spirit of the Beehive where the protagonist is this little girl who has amazing eyes.

When I talked to the casting director I said I was looking for girls like that. We saw thousands of girls in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville and there was a team searching in Spain to find the girl. We were only one month away from shooting and had all the famous actors but no Blancanieves. The two last people we cast in the film were the two Blancanieves. 

This girl came as her first audition, her first film audition and this is a girl who doesn’t work in movies but in theaters and I was so desperate that I called a friend of mine, a theater teacher at school in Chile, and it’s an activity not a profession of kids that want to do it extracurricularly once a week and he told me -- I have one girl that I want you to see. And it was her. 

Once she did the audition, we couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t blink, she was so centered and we were like, “That’s her.” Casting is a difficult process, it’s not scientific. You see it and that’s it. 

Q: It had to be perfect because the narrative wasn’t driven by the dialogue.

PB: Yeah it had to be someone magnetic and there had to be something about that person that makes them unique whether you call it charisma or magic. When you work with children, you don’t direct them like professional actors because they’re not professional actors, they don’t even act, they just are and as a director, you have to be a facilitator. 

pablo poster

You have to create the right environment so they feel protected, comfortable and relaxed. Then the camera and me and the other actors are just playing with them.

Q: And the other, older Blancanieves played by ?

PB: it’s her first film too. she had worked on TV but this is her first role. It’s not even a small film, it’s her first role and her first protagonist. I couldn’t have a nine year old Blancanieves that was amazing and magical and then when she became 18 to be like “Hmm not.” 

I was lucky to find this actress who had the same qualities of the little girl -- unique, charismatic, magical. Her eyes are so powerful. The eyes are both young and they talk to you. You get hypnotized. When I see them on the screen, the teenager Blancanieves I don’t think she’s acting. I think she’s possessed by the character. 

Q: Did you have her train to be a matador? How did you direct her in doing that? 

PB: It was about one month of daily training, four or five hours a day, for both the little girl and the older one because the little girl also had to learn how to bullfight. It’s not easy.

If somebody asked you, it’s very difficult. You look ridiculous. It’s very hard. Both girls were with professionals and were training every day for a month. The father of Blancanieves too, he had to be training as well.

Q: Did you worry about a backlash given the banning and restricting bullfighting happening now?

PB: Writers/directors can’t be concerned about that kind of thing. Nobody can be our sensors of what stories we should tell or what background. I’m not even a bullfighter aficionado. It’s not like I especially like bullfighting, I just thought it was the right backdrop for this story. 

Also, the origin of the film is this photo that I saw in the early ‘90s about bullfighting. I put in the center of this, the idea of Snow White as a bullfighter and that was the image that started it. So how could I make this film without a bullfighter background. 

Also I wanted to make her a bullfighter Blancanieves, I didn’t want to make it the daughter of the king of Spain so at that time in the early 20th century the only people who were so rich were the kings and the bullfighters. In my case, he’s the biggest bullfighter of all times but kind of like a mythical character.

Q: There’s been a trend of re-imagining children’s stories and you have done your own modernized version...

PB: The source is filmmaking is storytelling. That’s the most important part. I’m not a film director, I’m a storyteller. I use film to tell my stories. All these folk tales have passed the test of time because these storytellers have hundreds of years so only the good ones have prevailed. 

It’s a great source and a great turning point and if you had something that was only a few pages long, you have complete freedom to create new characters, new plots, subplots until you make it 90 pages. 

You don’t even have to respect the author because the author is not even the Grimms. The Grimms just tried to put it in book form but it’s oral tradition so it says the Grimms tale but the Grimms didn’t write them. So I’m writing my version of this. From a production point of view, they’re public domain. I think things happen like that. Sometimes comic books, some times superheroes and right now they are adapting folk tales. 

Q: Was it a concept, a choice to use the Snow White element  to draw audiences in?

PB: I didn’t want to make an adaptation of Snow White. I wanted to use the basic elements of the story for the key characters of my film but I think my Snow White is a tale of tales. 

There’s Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, you have elements of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, you can add the gothic novels, there’s all these elements that I’ve put in because really it’s not an adaptation, it’s a story with all these elements and I wanted to surprise the audience and in the end that was my only goal. 

Q: How was it being the Oscar pick for your country?

PB: I was the Spanish entry which was super great. You can’t win the best picture but you don’t have to be for the Oscars but the Oscars are before. We were selected but we didn’t make it to the final five. I’m fine doing the whole Oscar rules but it feels fantastic. I have this permanent smile. 

When I was up in the morning I smile and go -- Pablo, you just woke up, you cannot be sleeping with a smile. It’s been great for eight years. Before this, I had eight years in a crisis because nobody wanted to make this film. This is my second feature film. 

My first, Torremonilos 73 was a success in Spain. I got four nominations, three dozens of awards internationally, it got a Chinese remake and a release in America... 

Q: A Chinese remake?

PB: I’m very proud of that. I felt a little like the king of the world but only for five minutes because in 2005 when I brought the script for Blancanieves to the producers, when they saw first page and it said “Black & White, Silent, Big Budget” they thought I was absolutely crazy. So it took me eight years to get this off the ground. 

Q: Did The Artist have anything to do with that?

PB: No because The Artist didn’t get released eight years ago. By the time The Artist was released my movie was already shot. 

Blancanieves is not a reaction of a producer thinking, “Ahhh, The Artist was a big hit.” When you choose to make a film, it’s like a marriage so you have to make those choices very carefully. It’s very important that every film you make could be your last one so you have to make that decision very carefully. 

Q: So how do you follow this?

PB: I’m traveling all over the world with my megaphone saying -- come see Blancanieves-- so since Toronto, I’ve been doing that and I’m happy to be doing that. I’m the writer, I’m the director and producer of the film so I’m happy to. 

The life of success for an art house movie is one year so when Toronto comes I finish, and it took me eight years. I hope one of my other projects turns out but I don’t know which one it’s going to be.

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