In 2014, maverick artist Amalia Ulman crafted an Instagram performance piece entitled “Excellences & Perfections” in which she performed the part of a made-up wannabe ‘it girl’ and curated pieces showcasing how social media profiles can easily captivate and dupe individuals as a form of social capital. The piece becomes even more prescient as Covid-19 has forced many people to take to social media to engage with the outside world. Hailing from Argentina, Ulman had always wanted to be a filmmaker and her directorial debut El Planeta, which had its world premiere at Sundance and is now in theaters, heralds a major talent in the international cinema scene.
El Planeta is an offbeat comedy centered around the story of young woman Leonor Jimenez (Ulman) and her mother Maria Rendueles (played by the director’s mother Ale Ulman in her acting debut) struggling to adapt to an upcoming eviction in post-crisis Spain. With Brexit forcing Leonor to move back to Spain after living in London, she naturally begins grifting to get their meals and lower their bills. Not only marking Ulman’s directorial debut, she also wrote the script, produces, and stars. As the film begins its run at IFC Center, we spoke with her about the project.
The Film Stage: How did it feel to have your first feature premiere at Sundance?
Amalia Ulman: Well, it was extremely exciting because, at that time—until that moment—we weren’t sure where it was going to be premiering. And because I come from fine arts, it was really validating to have the film premiere at a major festival. Mostly because I wanted to be making films, so it was very important for me.
How did you approach the triple-duty of directing, writing, and starring in your first feature, and what were your main considerations when planning the scope?
So, as an artist, I’m usually looking through the camera a lot. And I already had to work like that before where I write performances, but also the photography and plan the costumes––so technically I do a lot of production, and in this film I did a lot of the production, too, which is something that I love doing. So all of that came naturally to me. I think I struggled the most with being in front of the camera––for me that’s a necessary evil, and what I enjoy the most is behind-the-scenes and the process of putting it all together.
And for the scope, I had a very clear vision of the film from beginning to end and the scenes and how I wanted it to look like, etc, so I just tried my best to do that. I don’t know if this is because I’m also producing, but I was very aware of the limitations so that my vision was always based on that—you know, I didn’t have any crazy ideas of explosions or something.
I knew that I wanted to make something that was achievable to a certain degree, and that was always the plan to make that kind of film—because it has to be doable. I mean, I knew as a first-time filmmaker there were going to be limitations, complications. So in a way I try to do my best to be on top of it as much as I could, knowing that last-minute issues will just arise. [Laughs] So I guess I will always try to be realistic about what I can achieve with the budget and experiences I’ve had.
That is very true. Any work of art has to go through that, and you went through that a bit with being an interdisciplinary artist. With that in mind, did you always know you wanted to be a film director?
Well, I always liked films more than fine arts, or whatever; I just happened to land in the world of fine arts. Sort of by—I wouldn’t say by accident though—but I started performing for the camera at a very young age cause there was a camera in my house laying around and then like that led to that, but I also was inspired by cinema as an artist. I’ve always been weirdly narrative, which, in fine arts, is not that common. So it became a natural progression until the moment when I was able to do the film. Not only was it a financial issue but also being mentally prepared to do it, and encouraged—which didn’t happen before. It just happened in time, so I don’t know. [Chuckles]
And with cinema you can reach a wider audience as well, so that’s always a plus.
That was very important for me, because I am from a small place—as you can see in the movie—and also I have a physical disability. So sometimes, like for me, when I was hospitalized for two months and my only access was through the computer—like films and TV shows, whatever—and I realized how important it was to have that access to things in that way. And then, on the other hand, growing up in a small town, I was able to watch any movies at the theater and being, like, suddenly going through life changes and experiences. I think that’s important and I care about that. I don’t know—maybe because I went through that life cycle and I care about how other kids have access to that media.
What was the approach with having the film be black-and-white, and how did you and the cinematographer Carlos Rigo plan for that on set? And do you think it gives the film a more timeless feel?
It does have a timeless feel, but also the idea of filming in black-and-white was planned from the very, very beginning, and then a lot of the styling and everything was done according to that—to be in black-and-white. And it was because of the bad weather conditions on set—which is very similar to Ireland, Scotland, where it is very overcast, dark, gray—so if you shoot in color it kind of looks black-and-white.
On top of that, the color would have not been too great, and to make it look good it would have required a lot of color correction. And with the limited budget, it was more about how can we make something beautiful and stay on top of things without looking cheap or anything, but just making the best out of it. Black-and-white allowed us to do that. Plus I love working with templates, and this was a European film, and so I played with that idea of nouvelle vibe, you know, and how that looks and neo-realism.
You can definitely see that New Wave and neo-realism vibe, like Raoul Coatard’s work with Godard and Breathless—that influence is right there, that aesthetic.
Yeah, because [Rigo] was using a Blackmagic Pocket Camera, so his choice of lenses and everything was brilliant. He gave magic with that little camera he had. He managed to make a striking film with basically nothing, so yeah. He was great.
I also wanted to talk about the other star of the film. What was it like collaborating with and directing your own mother (Ale Ulman) for this film? Especially since this is her acting debut. Was your mother always your first choice to star alongside you?
Well, originally I didn’t want to be in front of the camera myself either—so for a very brief moment we were going to use actors. I just want to be behind the camera and then because of the limited budget and the language––we had to have it in Spanish, especially from that region, etc. I was like, “Nobody’s gonna care about the project as much as we will or have the energy for this as we will,” and my mom has a great presence—she’s always camera-ready, she’s super funny, and she used to live in La Reina as a teen, so she has this thing where she’s very comfortable in her body. So we did some tests and she was just so good and I said, “Fine, I’ll be in front of the camera.” [Laughs]
As long as you’re acting with your mom, I’ll do it. That’s basically how that came to be.
Yeah, and she wouldn’t have to deal with someone else so we’ll be in front of the camera and we’ll do this together. And it was great, cause my mother knows a lot about independent film, so she had a lot of her own influences and ideas for her character—like what she wanted to do, you know, to bring. You know some of it is very obvious, like Grey Gardens and things like that, and yeah: it was great to work with her because she gets it, so it was fun to do that.
That rapport between you and your mother just really sets the film apart from other similar films and truly makes it work so well on screen.
On that note, how much of your life experiences influenced the film?
Everything is extremely fictional, but there are certain things I only use to elevate the film in a sense—the lived visibility of pain to add layers of complexity to her character, which I don’t usually see done in films to add little tweakings. Which you know might be related to mental illnesses or disabilities or something like that without falling into stereotypes or cliches but to make like a bit more of a nuanced character. And then, on the other hand, the fact that my mother and I, we lost our home, I guess allowed me to be more comedic about it, and come from a place of guilt.
But other than that everything is constructed—like, that’s not our house, that’s not how my mom dresses, you know, so costumes and everything was designed to the very last detail. The address of the house was very important, so in that sense it’s a combination of a lot of stories from friends and my life and everything but to the point where it is complete fiction.
I can definitely see that in play, and I think it was Federico Fellini who said “all films are autobiographical in some way.” So I think there’s a part of that, but it’s taken from other places beyond one’s life—everything that influences you.
I also wanted to ask about your Instagram hoax “Excellences & Perfections,” and how that influenced how you went about making this film and, as your work features grifting or trickery, to convey uncomfortably reflexive truths about our society? How important is social media to your creative output?
Well, first of all, I never use the word “hoax,” and that’s one of the reasons I made the film—because I had trouble in the past using fiction in fine arts. And even though I worked with screenwriting the piece—and as an actress I would act in that—but for some reason using social media you get called a “hoax,” even though I repeated thousands of times that it was a scripted performance and it’s a work of fiction and I think that’s one of the reasons I finally made the film to be like “I’m making fiction and it’s not a scam.” [Laughs] You never ask a stage actor “Why are you lying?” And if so they would respond with “I’m acting.”
Exactly, that’s what it is.
Yeah. And so my background, and how I started making art, was as an internet artist. I used a lot of internet, so it wasn’t even particularly with Instagram, but with anything that has to do with the Internet—whether it’s a website or Youtube. At the time of making this performance I had been online since I was twelve, so I already had about ten years of experience online. But at that moment Instagram was the website people were using the most and it was mostly images-based, which allowed for that image. It also didn’t include a lot of text that was more descriptive and stuff, so Instagram offered that sort of gray area for people to construct their image and the story in their heads. Because that was the whole point: to let the audience create their own assumptions, create a story.
And obviously, at the end of it, like, look at how many stereotypes you have in your head and how many things you already construct without even knowing if it’s true or not. So that was the main idea of that performance: to use fiction and social media because a lot of people were using fiction and social media. We thought obviously being a scripted performance by framing reality in a sort of way, which then became very timely with politics and all the fake news.
So I had been seeing that for a long time because I had that background in the arts. So I guess I was paying attention to that earlier than a lot of people. Yeah, I’ve always been interested in fictional stories and narratives, then I had a lot of other works that have nothing to do with scammers. It’s more about creating fiction in unexpected places or blending those boundaries and seeing what happens.
Does being a creative person mean you should convey these important messages through your art, or should there be a message in general to be taken from your art?
Actually, coming from fine arts I don’t think art should have a message more than just being art. I mean, the beauty of art is that it’s this useless thing and that’s what makes it so powerful and that’s what makes it political even without it technically being so. It’s being used to this pure thing based on its own. So that’s my interest in art. And then when it comes to making messages or anything, I feel like anything that could be taken, I could say, “Oh, you could take this from El Planeta is that nothing is black-and-white, and everything’s complicated and you never know what other people are going through, you know.” And that people are not perfect.
Even if you’re poor, you’re not perfect [Laughs] and that people without means are still able to be eccentric or creative and have an interest in being creative and things like that. I guess my main interest as a filmmaker is to show stories under a different light and things that haven’t been shown before.
I’ve read reviews comparing your film to Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, Frances Ha, Pedro Almodóvar‘s early features, and Paper Moon. Would you generally agree that is what you were going for, and are there missed influences you want to point out?
Well, I think all of these references—except Paper Moon—are because of contemporary-linked films, but my inspiration for the film was a bit different. I feel that Almodóvar is only because he’s primarily working in Spain, and especially his earlier films represent Spain very well and people who are not primarily familiar with Spain. The Almodóvar world is considered Spain. [Laughs]
People can have a limited scope.
Right. So Almodóvar and his early films, what he did is that he represented very, very Spanish relationships—like housewives and things like that—so in that sense, yes.
Like his films All About My Mother and Talk to Her, which primarily focused on women.
Yes, so he was not an inspiration besides him needing to be an inspiration—so in that sense, I love his work, but he was not my only. I had this experience myself. And on the other hand Lena Dunham’s film [Tiny Furniture], I think it’s brilliant. I’m not a big fan of Girls the show or anything, but I think that film is a great work of art and she did it with her mom—so I see the reference there. It was not a reference for me, but it is a good movie. And then Frances Ha: I love Frances Ha, and of course it’s black-and-white too, so I can see that connection. I mean, I love the humor in that film and how it’s not the typical love story. It’s about friends. That was very important and very beautiful and not done very often.
And then my references are so far back that people can’t really see it unless they know a lot about film. And with that, my main inspiration for the film was Pre-Code cinema from the 1930s, because you can inject the films with a lot of humor—like you know the characters are going through a hard time, but they’re glamorous and funny, and there are even lines from Lubitsch films in El Planeta. So there’s a lot of those references in there. And of course the nouvelle vibe.
I saw a bit of influence from Lubitsch’s Pre-Code film Design for Living, which is probably my favorite of his earlier work.
Yeah, that was more of an intentional taking from inspiration for the film, because it’s so far back. Because the movie’s so contemporary—like it will never be a copy, there will always be a difference. There’s no way it’s gonna look the same. So that’s really something I was looking at more directly––those kinds of films.
El Planeta is now playing at IFC Center, with further expansion in October. Learn more here.