Netflix is a great place to find obscure, yet well-made international genre films. The only problem is that more often than not you really have to dig for them. Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran's Veronica is such a film. A stylish, slick and modern mindbender that showcases the potential of these two young Mexican directors. Carlos Algara was nice enough to answer a couple of questions about their first feature, revealing some very interesting bits on how exactly Veronica came to be.
Niels Matthijs: After having written and directed a couple of short films, what prompted you to make Veronica, your first feature film?
Carlos Algara: My co-director, Alejandro Martinez, had just finished drafting a new short film back in 2011, and we were going back and forth with the idea of producing said short film. It was going to be a big one, with a much bigger budget than our latest short, so instead I proposed to turn it into a feature. He was, of course, saddened to let go of his short film at that point, but I think we made the best decision. There’s a point where you have to let go of projects you feel “comfortable” with, in order to do something bigger and riskier.
Most directors prefer to fly solo, when and why did you decide it would be interesting to team up with Alejandro Martinez-Beltran?
Alejandro and I started working together as a directing team back in 2010, directing short films, music videos and advertisements. We felt so comfortable working together that the notion of co-directing our first feature appeared obvious to us when the script for Veronica was ready. In fact, back when we first teamed up, we agreed to co-direct our first 3 features together, regardless of who wrote the screenplays and what the subjects of the films would be. We’re one-third into that agreement now, hehe.
Was there a clear agreement between Alejandro and you on who did what, or did you work on everything together?
What happens with us (we know not all directing partners are the same), is that we plan everything together during pre-production. That is, we develop the shot list together (with the cinematographer), we plan the shots together (with a storyboard artist) and we rehearse together with the actors (weeks or months in advance, if possible). Then, once we step onto the set, we divide the tasks. Alejandro works exclusively with the camera and the cinematographer (he even operates most of the camera shots) and I work exclusively with the actors on set. We found this to be very comfortable and actors actually have thanked us for working like this, because they feel they don’t have to “share” the director with the camera and other departments. This way, I can fully pay attention to the actors’ needs and Alejandro can devote all his attention to being behind the camera. All of the other decisions on set (sound, art, wardrobe, etc) we make together.
Veronica is a mystery/thriller of the mind-bending kind, an established niche. Did you draw direct inspiration from other films and/or directors, or did you try to close yourself off from outside influences and make Veronica as distinct and unique as possible?
We are firm believers in collaboration. And we think that you can even collaborate with people you’ve never met, or even with “idols," if you will. Nobody is discovering new ways to tell stories, or even to make films. So we know we have influences in our “filmmaking voices”, if you want to call them that. What we do is, we take advantage of these influences and inspirations, to make something of our own, to tell the story in a slightly different way, but distinct enough so it can be a whole new film.
With this in mind, once the script was done, we immediately knew what our inspirations were, and where we could draw our narrative tools from. Some of the most obvious influences were: Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”, Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”, Chan-wook Park’s “Stoker”, and of course, every Hitchcock film there is. Some of the not-so-obvious sources of inspiration came from films as modern as David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method”, or David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and “Gone Girl."
I always wondered how a writer approaches a film like this. There needs to be a token twist, but audiences these days are aware that one is coming from the very beginning. Did you still try to make it as surprising as possible, or did you see the plot twist as a genre essential and instead focused more on setting and characters?
SPOILERS AHEAD hehe ... This is a very good question. Truthfully, I didn’t even know the twist was going to be as “twisty” when I first started writing the script with co-writer Tom Nepomuceno. We just focused on characters, setting and structure, and we figured the ending was going to be quite non-climactic (maybe a murder or a mysterious finding, but nothing too exciting.) It wasn't until we were writing the third act of the film that we realized: “wait a minute, what if the whole story is told from the point of view of the character who does NOT exist, instead of from the point of view of the character that DOES exist?” This was not an idea that came to us from the start, but rather, it was something “we discovered” as we were writing the first draft of the film. And we loved it so much, that we used it as a concept, and also as a tool to manipulate the story enough to create this big twist at the end.
All the characters in the film are women. Having seen the film there's a solid reason for that, but other films have worked around it before. Was it a conscious decision to go all-female or did it just work out that way?
To be honest, this was a conscious decision from the start, though in the original screenplay we wrote, there were only male characters. Tom and I had heard somewhere that Lars von Trier usually changes all his characters’ genders once he’d completed his first drafts, so we figured it would be cool to give that a shot (by the way, I’ve never actually checked whether this von Trier story is true, so don’t take my word for it). This sounded interesting enough to try in a psychological thriller, so after we were done with the screenplay, we intended to change the characters to women. We kind of liked it with men though, so we just left it like that. It wasn’t until the script was bought by Producciones a Ciegas, that producer Juan Carlos Segura asked me to revisit the idea and change the characters to women, just to see what would happen. So I did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
One of the most eye-catching features of Veronica is its stark black and white photography. While not completely unheard of in arthouse cinema, you hardly ever see this in modern genre cinema. When did you decide that black and white was the way to go?
As soon as Tom and I started drafting the script, we also started sending bits and pieces of it to Alejandro, just to get a sense of his thoughts on where the story was going, and wether he liked it or not. It was in these first back and forth’s that Alejandro and I first talked about filming in black and white. We are both fans of classic films and we love black and white cinematography (especially in thrillers). So we figured that if we were going to do it at some point in our directing careers, this would be the best time to do it (since, ironically, you can usually take more risks in your first features compared to when you’re an established director). We found that using this type of cinematography was going to be great in a psycho-thriller, as it would be justifiable as part of the story, rather than just be there as a stylistic choice.
Would you say that filming in one single location is either more limiting or more inspiring. I feel it often helps to push directors to be more creative, but I'm sure it doesn't make things easier.
You’re right on the money. It sure doesn’t make things easier, but if you can find the right amount of inspiration (as you put it), and turn things around so that you can make the location work for your story (instead of the other way around), then it becomes almost a relief not to have to travel to other places to finish the film.
Another important aspect of the film's success is the impeccable soundtrack. Most directors seem to underestimate the impact of a good score, did you give Daniel Wohl special instructions?
We actually searched for a music composer for months. Both Alejandro and I are very musical filmmakers. We love music, and we love scored films (generally liking them more than films with no score and/or only songs in them.) So we figured we would have a musician score this film for us from the beginning. We also knew exactly what kind of gritty, scratchy, distorted sound we were looking for. We had a dozen composers score a 3 to 5 minute fragment of the film, but we were just not finding what we wanted. So, right when the producer was starting to get nervous and we started doubting ourselves, along came Daniel Wohl. He turned out to be neighbors to Olga Segura, the actress who plays Veronica in the film. She met him at a party and told Alejandro and me to take a look at his music. We were immediately grabbed by his music style and asked him to score the same 3 minute fragment we gave the other composers. He NAILED IT from the start. In fact, part of the theme for the opening credit sequence of the film was drawn directly from his first take on that fragment. Once we set the tone with Daniel and the “palette” of instruments we wanted to use, he then proceeded to propose music for the key scenes. After that Alejandro and I travelled to LA (where he lives) to work on the final details for a couple of weeks, together. It was one of the best experiences of making this film, to be honest. Daniel is so talented, it will be hard not to work with him on every film we make after this one.
In Europe, Mexican cinema is very much uncharted territory. Most people here probably won't get past Guillermo del Toro. Is he considered a kind of father figure in Mexico or is he simply an outlier who just happened to make it big on a global scale.
Del Toro is much better than a father figure (at least to Alejandro and me). He’s more like a brother hahaha (and we have never even met him in person). The way he portrays characters and entire atmospheres based on the themes of his stories, is just amazing. We think he’s one of the best directors in the history of filmmaking (not only in Mexico). We admire his films a lot, but we also try to separate ourselves from his stories, which is something we actually think he’d appreciate. To sum up, we hope we can be as big as him one day, for sure.
I was surprised to learn you also founded The Visualistas, the production company behind Veronica. What prompted you to become involved in production and did it help you to negotiate the Netflix contract (or was the distribution handled by a different party)?
The film is co-produced by Producciones a Ciegas and The Visualistas. We didn’t really divide the production tasks or anything. What happened here was that once Producciones a Ciegas agreed to get involved and finance the film, we agreed on a co-production contract. It was good for our company (The Visualistas) to start having production credits, plus we also raised about 20% of the financing ourselves. The film was basically produced from Producciones a Ciegas’ headquarters though.
The Netflix sale was handled entirely by our distributor (Corazon Films), who were interested in distributing the film from the early cuts and handled world-wide sales for us.
Do you have any idea why South-American genre films are so prevalent on Netflix and why so many get global distribution deals? Compared to other "foreign" film markets (China, Japan, India, ...) South-America seems more ready to tackle the global market.
I had no idea, honestly, that Latin American films were more popular on Netflix than those in the Middle East or China… I just figured I wasn’t getting that content because of my region. But it is an interesting point to do some research on.
All I can tell you from my film and personal experience, is that I try to tell stories that are universal, that could be spoken in any language and would still be relatable. In fact, I think Veronica could happen anywhere in the world, in any language, and be the same film.
The only downside to broad Netflix releases is that physical releases often seem out of the question. Will Veronica be VOD-exclusive or are you still planning a DVD/BR release?
As you can see, we recently had a DVD and BR release of the film in Mexico, but I know of lots of films that don’t get that privilege. I think it can work either way, but we were lucky to get a physical release of the film as we are collectors ourselves, so this is awesome for us.
Are there plans for a second film or are you still busy promoting Veronica?
We’re currently working on raising the funds for our next film. As you know, it is hard to get means to produce films (especially in Latin America), but we are on the right track and hope to be filming by the end of 2018, if all goes to plan.
Imagine if you would get carte blanche. Some crazy benefactor gives you an empty cheque, no practical limitations, no questions asked. What would be your dream project?
An epic film about the Spanish Civil War (I already have the script, in case you actually know this person haha).