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Interview: Sebastián Lelio Talks “A Fantastic Woman”


A FANTASTIC WOMAN director Sebastián Lelio. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

A Fantastic Woman” was one of those films that I went to see without researching and learning about it beforehand. And, I must say, it was the best experience ever! Page after page, scene after scene, the viewer gets to learn about the strong-willed protagonist – a real fighter with determination. “A Fantastic Woman” is written and directed by Sebastián Lelio, and flawlessly – like by the book – performed by Daniela Vega.

During my interview with the director Sebastián Lelio, I found myself fully unprepared and pleasantly surprised to learn about the true movie experience. It was a find journey into the world of “A Fantastic Woman”, that I knew little about its existence. Now, I am happy to reveal it to you as well through this interview.

MOVIEMOVESME:    Looking at your filmography, you have made such films as the fabulous “Gloria” and “Disobedience” with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, and now, “A Fantastic Woman”. All of these films are about women. Why have you chosen to explore women on the big screen?

Sebastián Lelio:        This is a complete mystery for me. I just feel moved, and I’m just following what excites me and it seems that lately there’s something about women that is very attractive to me as a filmmaker. Just to connect with them. And I think they are fascinating characters to explore, to analyze, to examine, to celebrate, to judge. Just to do this very complex and hopefully multi-layered portraits.

MOVIEMOVESME: Thank you. As you mentioned about exploring women, Gloria is a woman over 50 who is trying to find her freedom. In “Disobedience” there are two women who are in search of their identity. And here, in “A Fantastic Woman” we have a transgender character. So I would like to ask you about your journey as a filmmaker from “Gloria” all the way to “A Fantastic Woman”.

Sebastián Lelio:        Well, I recently remembered that my very first exercise in film school was a small short film that was called “Solas” which means “lonely”. And it was about four women. And I just realized that it seems like I’ve been doing this for a while. So I have this inside me forever. And only recently it has bloomed with great strength. But more or less in my previous films, because I made three smaller films before Gloria, women are there as an important subject.
So I don’t know. I mean, I guess you can see “Gloria”, “A Fantastic Woman”, and “Disobedience” as kind of a trilogy, maybe.

MOVIEMOVESME:    There is something about “A Fantastic Woman” that fascinates me. I tried to watch it as a viewer, not a film critic, knowing nothing – not even that Daniela Vega is transgender and playing a transgender character – Marina Vidal. And through the camerawork – in front of my eyes I see Marina Vidal changing without having any significant makeup or anything. I would like to ask you to talk about this approach of transforming the character.

Sebastián Lelio:        Right. Well, I think your experience is the best possible way to see the film. Coming without information. So you are learning everything as the film evolves. And your perception keeps changing as the film progresses. I was fascinated by Daniela because she, as a cinematic presence, she’s so magnetic. And at the same time, there’s something cubist about her. Like, it depends on where you’re looking at her or which lenses you use, or how you move the camera. Then her transgender condition, which is an inter-zone between femininity and masculinity, there’s something mingled there. And that’s something the camera can grasp it, can portray it. So I always knew that she was going to be a very strong cinematic presence. Because she would keep changing in front of your eyes.

MOVIEMOVESME:    Was she actually your first choice to portray this character?

Sebastián Lelio: Yeah, she was. I mean, at the beginning I was looking for a consultant so I could write about the subject. Because I didn’t know any transgender person, I didn’t have any transgender friend. I was living in Berlin for a few years, so I was a bit detached from what was happening in Santiago. And so I met her, and she became our consultant. Not for the script, but for someone to talk to – just to know which kind of experiences she had lived so we could enrich our script. But while doing the script, I realized, first of all, that I was not going to do the film without a transgender actor, and in the second place, I realized that she was the one. That she was Marina. You know, so I offered her, at the end of the writing process, I sent her the draft and I offered her the role.

MOVIEMOVESME:    How was the actual process of developing Marina Vida? How did you envision her before you started, and how much she changed throughout the process?

Sebastián Lelio:        Well, I think the nature of the process of writing and directing and editing a movie, it’s all about the change. I mean, nothing is completely created until the film is done. So I would say everything kept changing all the time, and in a certain way, Daniela’s presence pushed the film and the script further into unknown territories.
I was trying to make a script that was as free and as complex as its own character. I wanted the film itself to be un-label-able. You cannot say that “A Fantastic Woman” is just a romantic film, or just a ghost story, or just a funeral movie. It’s a trans-genre film about a transgender character. So, and that’s something that Daniela provoked.

MOVIEMOVESME:    She did. And what is it that you mostly liked about Marina Vidal?

Sebastián Lelio:        Well, I guess I admire her braveness. The fact that she is one of that kind of people that are going to live their life on their own terms. Despite whatever is going on out there. It’s an energy that’s coming from within. It’s a decision to live urgently, dangerously. Beautifully. And I really admire that.

MOVIEMOVESME:    And as you were trying to study the life of the transgender, I wonder what is it that you have learned and that you would like to share with the readers?

Sebastián Lelio:        Well, that we own our lives. And we can shape them. Not only identity, but we are the owners of our lives, and that’s something that no one can take away from you but yourself. So someone that owns his own, her own life, like Marina does. Someone that can create… Someone that can become an inspiration to others. I have that feeling with Daniela as a person, and with the character has always been an inspiration for me.

MOVIEMOVESME:    In Hollywood, there are not many male writers or directors who make films about women. Then, there are projects like HBO’s “Big Little Lies” with Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, where they all came together to produce the film. Because nobody would have talked about it. And then you-

Sebastián Lelio:        That’s so crazy, I know, yeah. That really surprises me, because cinema seems to have been invented to explore humanity. And men and women. And transgenders, and whatever shape or configuration we adopt. I think it’s just the side effects of four thousand years of a phallocentric understanding of the world. You know, a patriarchal understanding of the world.
So I think making films about women becomes effortlessly, like a political manifesto. I mean, “Gloria” is a film about a woman that wants to keep on living. And there is a political energy to it, even though the film’s not directly political. Only because it speaks about a woman.

MOVIEMOVESME:    Which is true.

Sebastián Lelio:        So the cultural boundaries and the national boundaries can be faded away through cinema, or with cinema. The films, they are strong or weak. They are not in Spanish or in English. So either they work and they communicate and they are strong and they are alive, or not.
And then they are in Spanish, and then they are in English, and then you can analyze the story of the film and where does it come from, and how the production was put together, etc. But I have the feeling that I could make a film in French. I would love to make a film in French. And … any language that I can understand.

MOVIEMOVESME:    ” A Fantastic Woman” has a universal message in it-  in terms of what women or transgender are going through. Of course, there are seven billion people in the world, you can’t expect everybody to have the same reaction but what is it that you would like your viewers to see and is that anything that you’d want them to avoid misunderstanding?

Sebastián Lelio:        Well, I think we are going through a crisis as a species today. That crisis has to do with the limits of our empathy. So where is our loyalty? Is it with our family, is it with our nation, with our race? With our political tendencies? All those boundaries are exploding, and there is a huge crisis today. Not only Brexit and Trump and Kim Jong-un and all that crazy shit that is happening in the world.

                                    I think it has to do with the limits of empathy. The illusion that we are divided, that we are different. That we belong to different families or origins, and that we should compete and I think this film is not a ’cause’ film. It’s a love story. It’s a ghost story. It’s a musical. It’s a film about revenge. Humiliation and revenge. It’s a portrait of a woman. So it’s a complex trans-genre film. But more than anything, it is a film about empathy. And so the film allows you to step in everyone’s shoes and see the situation from their perspective, so you have time to think what they are thinking, to consider it.
But then Marina is looking at you as a spectator. And she’s asking you, “What do you see? How do you feel? And what do you think I am?” And hopefully, toward the end of the film, the spectator can find the place of empathy within himself or herself and connect with Marina. And not only see a woman but maybe just see a human being, period. And that discovery, that revelation, if it happens, for me it would be a small triumph.

MOVIEMOVESME:    I have noticed something that I’d like to talk about. Yesterday I watched “Battle of the Sexes” with Emma Stone, “Disobedience”, and then” A Fantastic Woman”. Afterward,  I was checking the social media for reactions and comments.
And many people say that if the person in the film is disabled, why won’t they hire a disabled actor to play the role. If the director makes a film about a gay couple, why wouldn’t they hire gay actors? Why do they hire straight actors? Or if a director makes a film about a transgender, why won’t they have a transgender actor? That’s something that upsets me. And I am wondering about your perception of accepting this.

Sebastián Lelio:        First of all, a filmmaker is free to hire whoever he wants. It’s an artistic, ethical problem, and the beauty of this is that it’s precisely about freedom. So if you want to hire an actor or a robot, that’s an artistic choice. You know what I mean?
In my case, it felt absolutely wrong to hire a non-transgender actor for this film. It seemed like an aesthetical anachronism. And it seemed like a political need, like a must to have a transgender woman being portrayed it in this film. Because apart from being all these genres that I mentioned to you, these fictional genres, at the center of this film there is a documentary attitude. There is the portrait of a real woman that has lived all these transformations and whose skin has impregnated that history. And that’s something that you cannot fake or that you cannot act for my film. But I invite all filmmakers to feel free to do whatever they want, I’m not dictating anything.

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