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Interview: Fernando Leon de Aranoa

Everybody lies in Princesas except those who tell a truth no one wants to believe. Set in a downtrodden section of modern Madrid, director Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s latest film is a tale of two prostitutes, Caye (the formidable Candela Pena of Te Doy Mis Ojos) and Zulema (Micaela Nevarez in her screen debut), who first meet as antagonists but gradually form a friendship out of necessity and a common longing to escape their environment.

Everybody lies in Princesas except those who tell a truth no one wants to believe. Set in a downtrodden section of modern Madrid, director Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s latest film is a tale of two prostitutes, Caye (the formidable Candela Pena of Te Doy Mis Ojos) and Zulema (Micaela Nevarez in her screen debut), who first meet as antagonists but gradually form a friendship out of necessity and a common longing to escape their environment.

Mr. de Aranoa’s screenplay is a study of loneliness and grief, of two women who tenaciously cling to myths while life relentlessly claws at their spirits. To the extent that Princesas reflects on prostitution, it refuses to embrace clichés. You won’t find any hookers with hearts of gold populating the narrative. The women who swagger down the streets and sit gossiping in the beauty salon of this hardscrabble locale have human hearts, outsized and fragile, that cannot survive without the sustenance their friendship provides.

Having crafted a savvy, minimalist script, Mr. de Aranoa has eschewed melodramatic highpoints and has instead focused on the commonplace with such meticulous detail his actor’s smallest gestures, including their sighs, are often riveting. As a result, a thrilling albeit often unsettling impression is created among the audience that we are eavesdropping on the private conversations of two women who are bent on prevailing despite arduous challenges. After attending a recent screening of the film, the director and I discussed (in an exchange of e-mails) how he achieved this cinematic verisimilitude:

Fernando Leon de Aranoa

Richard Lally: The film is impeccably cast. What drew you to the various actors for these particular roles?

Fernando de Aranoa: I like to be present in the first approach that the actors make to the character. You can find there new perspectives about them, and a lot of ideas for the shooting. I like working with the actors a lot, and the casting is one of the best places to do it because everything is still there to find.

I did the casting for all the characters in the movie, I just looked for the most appropriate actors for the roles. I don’t mind if they are well-known or they are not. Anyway, I always wanted to work with Candela Peña, she is a wonderful actress. She plays always very
real and I knew that she was able to stand both the drama and the comedy in her character. She understands very well both ends. I think that I wrote this character with her in my mind, even when, as a writer, I always try not to do this.

This movie is the first one for a lot of the actors involved, including Micaela Nevárez, who was a beautiful surprise for all of us. I met her in New York awhile ago, when I was writing the script. It was in the Tribeca Film Festival, where I was presenting my (last) movie. Two years later, when I was casting Princesas, I remembered her, and asked a friend of mine in New York to look for her. Miraculously, he found her. Both of them gave to their characters a lot: they gave them their feelings, their pain, their emotions, they were very involved, and I am very grateful to them both because of that.

RL: The prostitutes in the hairdressing salon would be viewed by many as members of an underclass yet, with the exception of Caye, they show little sympathy or empathy for a class they seem to regard as beneath them, the immigrant prostitutes working the square outside the salon. Does this represent a general commentary on the fears and prejudices that keep class barriers in place?

FdA: Of course I was trying to tell about something that happens in every stage of our society, not only in prostitution. But I found interesting the way it happens in prostitution. Lately, most of them in Spain are immigrants. (These immigrants are) younger and, sometimes, because of their illegal situation, they (charge) less money for the same services. The customers choose them, and this makes the native ones angry, like in any other activity with the difference being that here, a union does not exist where you can go to ask for a solution.

The film starts when Caye meets Zulema and realizes that she is not an opponent, that in fact they are in the same side of the problem; they both walk together by the same tightrope. Of course, this puts Caye in trouble with her native colleagues who don’t know about their relationship.

Visually, I liked the idea of that big shop window (in the hair dressing salon), a glass dividing the Spanish girls from the (immigrant prostitutes) coming from outside, like in a jail’s visiting rooms. Two different worlds isolated by a glass. The prostitutes at the beauty salon spend the whole day looking through the window, as if it was a big TV screen, talking a lot about them but without knowing a single thing about them.

RL: Robert Altman has described a screenplay as a blueprint that changes as the building rises. How much did your screenplay change during the shooting in response to whatever surprises the actors brought with their interpretations of their roles?

FdA: In fact, the word in Spain for screenplay is “guión”, which means “guide”.. So, the script is just a guide that you need to do the movie. I started working in my country as a screenwriter. I wrote several movies before I directed my first one. So even though this is my fourth, I still consider myself a screenwriter who directs movies, which means that on the set, I keep very close to the shooting script. The final dialogues in the movie are very similar to the ones in the script. On the other hand, I use the essays to test them with the actors. If something doesn’t work, we remove it.

RL: How much rehearsal time did you allow the actors and were you open to improvisation?

FdA: We talked a lot about the characters, about their dreams, even about our own dreams. I think that what we want in life defines us more than what we really achieve, so is a good thing to talk a lot about it. The characters are the meeting point for the director and the actors; you have to look for them together. We start working from the moment they join the movie. This way you get close to your actors, to the people you are going to work with. Especially in this movie, where the characters show their emotions so widely and they talk about everything in their hearts. Three of us we did a kind of a deal. We could talk about everything in our minds. Whatever it was. We realized soon that this movie, despite the “prostitution” issue, was not about undressing their bodies, as much as about undressing their souls. The only way to achieve this was being on very close terms.

RL: You use close-ups sparingly and they came to feel like elegantly placed punctuation marks, highlighting a moment without manipulating our reaction to it. What attracted you to revealing the narrative in so many long and medium shots?

FdA: I think that close-ups are a very expressive way of telling something, I just don’t feel like using them all the time. They lose their meaning. At some points, I just had the need to be closer to the characters, maybe in their closer moments. I used to place the camera very far away from them, so the actresses could feel like being in a bar by themselves even when there were fifty people looking at them from behind the camera. In real life, you don’t have close-ups of all the people you deal with along the day. When you have a close-up of someone it is because something special is going on. I try to use the camera to look around in the same way that I see things in life. I don’t like those movies in which every single line is told in a close up, as if all that happens in there were so important. You don’t need to do that to catch an audience’s attention. I think it is just a bad influence from advertising, where close-ups are so usual.

RL: Each character in this film, to some degree, lies or erects a fantasy and yet the
women in this story have the courage to daily face the grimmest realities of existence. Is this also a comment, that many of us, to some degree, construct fictions to cope with the unpleasantness of life?

FdA: Absolutely. I think that, in some degree, we all have to lie to ourselves a little bit to keep on going. Especially if your life is not very easy, as the ones described in the movie. It is a kind of self-defense mechanism. They can’t stand reality the way it is, so they just re-invent it. We all do. And, on doing so, we make it better, sweeter, more comfortable, setting up a customized reality, the one we would like to have. Their lies are like small fictions, In fact I think fiction has that function too, to make real life more comfortable. That’s why I like it.

RL: Caye’s fantasies reveal, to some extent, her inner truth, the longing for a life she hasn’t had but has memories of. Doesn’t that reflect what this film does as well by creating an illusion, a kingdom that does not exist, it reveals truths we might not confront so easily in documentary form?

FdA: Caye is the best example for this. She doesn’t like her own life, so, in her mind, she lives in the one she would like to have. She keeps talking about her dreams, about how things should be.Zulema steps more in reality, because she is forced to. She is an illegal worker. And I think that is why they become friends. They can help each. Caye helps Zulema to fly away from reality for a while, and the opposite: Zulema helps Caye to land, to face her own reality and to make a couple of decisions which are going to be important for her.

I think that in a documentary would have not been possible to go over most of these issues, at least not in the same way. Maybe it would have given you a more realistic social portrait of prostitution in Spain, but I was not interested in that. As somebody in Spain said, Princesas is not about the nights of the prostitutes, it is about their days, which means it is about the light in their lives, their hopes, their feelings, their tenderness. That is the reason why I did not want to have a lot of sex scenes in the movie. We have seen them thousand of times before. Sex in movies is not provocative anymore, and neither is violence. Today, tender is provocative. Especially if it comes from a couple of prostitutes. I personally expect that the audience forgets they are prostitutes after ten minutes of watching because that is what happened to me.

RL: Raw, naked emotions are on continual display throughout this film.
How did you create an environment that allowed your actors to work with such trust?

FdA: Just by talking about everything. Trying to make them feel comfort. In the set I always try to give actors a lot of time, I don’t want them to feel the pressure of the schedule. Sometimes we placed the camera very far away from them, to make them feel like if they were by themselves, having a drink in a bar and at some point I had the feeling that when I cut one of the takes they looked at us like saying “Who are all those guys there looking at us?”

RL: Antonio “Morris” Duran is so ordinary looking in this role, his appearance is so utterly devoid of menace, yet he’s a terrifying presence because of his physical banality. Was that part of the reason you cast him, to show us that demons don’t always resemble demons?

FdA: I am sure of that. The worst demons are the ones that don’t look like that. This character appears in a few sequences. I did not want him to look like a stereotype, the one of the bad guy. By having a regular looking guy I was trying to say that you don’t need to be a “crime professional” to do something like that. He is just somebody who has a very small power over Zulema, the one of giving her a green card and he uses it by asking for sex in exchange. It happens very often. And, as far as she is an illegal, she can’t go and complain, because they’ll keep her in the country until the trial and after it, they’ll return her (to the Dominican Republic). This is how it works. I have to say that Morris, the actor, is a really nice man. He gave me a call a few weeks after the release in Spain to let me know that women, at his hometown were afraid of him because of his role in the movie. He is a great actor.

RL: The soundtrack by Alfonso de Villallonga and Manuel Chao, never seems to comment on the film from a distance but instead rises organically from the moments you’ve captured on film. How closely did you work with them to achieve this synthesis?

FdA: Manu Chao was very involved in the movie from the beginning. I onsider him a friend, and for a long time I wanted us to work together. He saw a rough cut of the movie and started working. A few hours later he had the first draft of this beautiful song, “Me llaman Caye,” that won the Goya award for the best original song in Spain. I’ve always admired his music and this movie gave me the opportunity to work with him. If his music brings a lot of life and vitality to the movie, I think that the other musician, Alfonso de Vilallonga, brings the melancholy. I wanted his music to background the conversations of Caye and Zulema, their feelings.. When Alfonso watched the movie, he told me that he had found a lot of fragility in the characters and that is what he was looking for: something very fragile, very delicate, like the characters themselves. I think he did the music for a tale instead of for a movie. Maybe that it is why it fits so well.

RL: You recently finished filming a documentary in Uganda, part of the Doctors Without Borders collective. Which form do you prefer, the documentary or the fictional narrative of cinema?

FdA: I like both. I usually work in fiction movies, I think that I feel more comfortable writing and directing my own histories. Reality is a very difficult issue to deal with. I’ve just realized that in Uganda, by doing some interviews with children who have been abducted and forced to be soldiers in the north of the country.. Documentaries give you the chance to be in touch with this kind of reality, and, of course, to let people know about them. When you have done both fiction and documentary, you can use the expressive tools of one in the other and the opposite. Sometimes they are not so different. I’ve learned from documentaries to respect the one who is sharing with you his life experiences. Now I try to do the same when I write a fiction, to give the same respect to the characters and deal with them as if they were real people. Because they have to look like that.

IFC First Take released Princesas on August 23rd in New York and Los Angeles with a wider release to occur in the weeks to come.

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