by Steven Prokopy
Considered one of the foremost filmmakers of post-dictatorship Chilean cinema, Sebastián Lelio (much like his contemporaries Pablo Larraín, Andrés Wood, and Sebastian Silva) has been making some of the fascinating movies of the past decades, many of which focus on characters who don’t often stand at the center of contemporary films. In the case of his latest film, A FANTASTIC WOMAN, Lelio centers on a transgender woman named Marina (newcomer and transgender actress Daniela Vega) whose older boyfriend dies shortly after they move in together. To make the experience all the worse, the family he abandoned to be with her comes looking to kick her out of the apartment and leave her destitute in the process.
While A FANTASTIC WOMAN takes a hard look at the way trans people are treated by law enforcement (who treat her like a suspect in the boyfriend’s death) and others in society, Marina can’t be bothered with the inability of others to accept her; she’s too busy trying to find a quiet moment in her life to grieve for the man she loved.
Lelio made name for himself in Chile with the 2005 breakthrough THE SACRED FAMILY, but became best known for his 2013 portrait of an “older woman” in GLORIA, starring the legendary Paulina García. In fact, Lelio is in the middle of shooting an American remake of GLORIA, this time with Julianne Moore in the title role. And scheduled for an April release is the filmmaker’s next movie (and his first in English), DISOBEDIENCE, starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz in a story set in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Much like his Chilean counterparts, Lelio is moving into English-language productions and working with actors whom they’ve admired from afar and now get the chance to direct. But A FANTASTIC WOMAN is very much a Chilean work (and is the country’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, for which it was nominated recently), although the messages of prejudice, identity, and acceptance seem all-too global in a time when the personal is political. Enjoy this spirited conversation with Sebastián Lelio…
There’s a great deal going on in your movie, but at its core, it’s about a woman just trying to find a moment to mourn the loss of a loved one. She isn’t really given a chance to do that and she’s just searching for a time and place where she can just be with her thoughts, but her life can’t stop for that. Talk about that aspect of your story.
SL: Yeah, that’s precisely what the story is about. It just so happens that the woman that is experiencing all of this is a transgender woman, and that puts everything in a different dimension, not because of her but because of how the world treats her. Marina already transitioned years ago; she won that battle. The film is not about that, it’s not about the consequences of transitioning. Marina is ready for the world; the only little detail is that the world is not ready for her, but that’s not her fault. So yeah, you’re right. The film is combining a story that is the main story, which is a story of mourning or the attempt of mourning and saying goodbye to a loved one, but everything is so distorted, because of the way in which the world is perceiving Marina as a threat or a danger. The question is, why? Why is everyone so afraid of her? Why is she considered dangerous? What is the problem?
I had read somewhere that you studied journalism at some point in your life. Are you a very research-heavy writer? Do you immerse yourself in a world—especially one you are not a part of—before you start writing about it the way a journalist might?
Not in that sense, but, for example, when the idea of making the story happen with a transgender woman appeared, I felt that I needed to stop writing and meet some transgender woman in Santiago, especially because I live in Germany, so I needed to find out what was happening in my city. Then I met Daniela [Vega], and that was very important in the process. She agreed to become a “cultural consultant” for the project. I was still trying to understand if I wanted to make the film or not, and knowing her was very important because I realized I wanted to make it and I wasn’t going to make it without a transgender actress.
Then at the end of the writing process, I realized that she was the one, that I didn’t need to do casting, and I guess that’s because I spent a year talking to her. In that sense, you can consider that research. In a very organic way, I was deeply getting to know a person, and then I built a narrative around that, a fiction narrative, but what remained real was her presence and the fact that Daniela is Marina, and Daniela is a transgender woman, and her body carries a story that is hard to reproduce. It would have been hard to reproduce for a cisgender actor, for example.
What was it about Daniela specifically? Can you put it into words why she was the one that you ultimately wanted to play this character?
Well, I didn’t realize that she was the one when I met her. It was a slow process of understanding. But when I met her, it did have a great affect on me, that conversation, because I was fascinated by her. I found her magnetic and witty and very political and funny at the same time, which is something I really like in people. She was fascinating, complex, beautiful, and strange. I liked her very much, and then we became friends in the process of talking for a year.
When I understood that I wanted her to play the main role, I thought that she had the perfect cinematic presence because her presence on screen would always be isolating in front of our eyes. The spectator was going to be seeing more than one thing because of the game of projections upon projections. Since Marina is more or less an enigmatic character, the spectator was going to be trapped in the game of trying to understand her, trying to see or define what they are seeing on screen. This identity or presence in flux is something that I find very, very cinematic.
I know she had acted a little bit before this. Did you have to convince her to do it, or did she like the idea right away when you offered it to her?
[Laughs] Well, she didn’t know I was writing this for her, because I realized that I wanted her to play the role about halfway through the writing process, but I didn’t tell her anything. She had no idea about what the script was about or anything. And when we had the first draft, I sent it to her and extended the invitation to play the main role, and she thought I was crazy. I had to say to her that I was convinced that she could do it, and the story [she tells] says that she went parking for a couple of days, and when she came back, she finally agreed.
I know you’ve been working on this for a while, but transgender stories have certainly come out of the underground and into the foreground in film and television over the last couple of years. Your timing could not have been more perfect.
It’s not the same, but something relatively similar happened with GLORIA, my previous film. It’s different, because we all know that women approaching 60 exist, but the way in which the film was looking at Gloria connected with a certain zeitgeist that, after the film was released, the subject seemed to be everywhere. Now I feel something similar. When I started writing about this, it was before the subject started exploding in popular culture, and when I started shooting it is when I saw the first magazine covers and thought “Wow, this is going mainstream.” Then the world turned backward. The entire world politically did this big shift, and suddenly the film felt timely and urgent.
Well, yeah. For me, it was always political. But the paradox is that, of course, I’m aware of that, but my goal is timelessness. It’s to make a film that is a product of the times, but at the same time, it will hopefully survive and be seen in the future because it’s a film about identity, about freedom, about cinema, about genre and gender, so hopefully it’s the combination of being timely and being timeless.
A year or so ago, I met Pablo Larrain [JACKIE, NERUDA, THE CLUB] for the first time, who is your producer on this. I also did a Q&A a couple of years ago with Sebastian Silva [NASTY BABY], so Chilean filmmakers have taken over my life over the last couple of years, and all of you have moved on to English-language films as well. What is the appeal of doing that, of moving into American productions?
Well, I want to make film. I want to make films until I die, and I’m from Chile, and it’s very hard to make films there, even though it’s easier than a few years ago. I believe in growing and expanding the limits of what’s possible and in excitement, and for me the two films I’ve made in English—even though they still have not come out—the energy that moved me to make them was similar to the energy that made me do GLORIA or FANTASTIC WOMAN. A hunger for cinema, the feeling that there was hurt and danger in those subjects, and the excitement that those films could be beautiful or provocative or effect people in a positive way, inspire. It’s the same thing. You’re playing the same game in a different arena, if you know what I mean.
You seem very committed to telling stories about people that we don’t typically see on screen very often. Is that something you’re doing deliberately, or is that just how it’s worked out?
It’s easier to connect the dots when you look backwards, and in that sense, I have to admit that yes, of course what you are saying is there, but I’ve been following my intuition, really. What moves me. It’s not part of a big strategy or something that is too planned, but I have to admit that it’s very surprising when people sometimes ask me about this “trilogy” about women for example. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” But I like the idea of taking a character that somehow society doesn’t consider central and put it in the absolute center and film this studies about them that are the same time an exaltation and an examination of them, and there’s something about the gesture that is really challenging and moving to me.
Sebastian, thank you so much. Congratulations again. Best of luck. And please encourage Daniela to keep acting, because I think she’s great.