Tucking away in the “lounge” of the crowded downtown multiplex last year that hosted the Toronto Film Festival, this writer managed to wrangle a wide-ranging interview with directors Matías Piñeiro and Dan Sallitt regarding the former’s new film, Hermia & Helena. This is the first work by the acclaimed filmmaker to take place outside his home nation of Argentina, something that pays off in the film to ends both bittersweet and totally strange. Coming off as less an interview and more a moderated discussion between the two directors (the latter’s involvement in the film being a surprisingly effective acting turn), this was a great opportunity to bask in the kindness and knowledge of two kindred spirits.
As the film opens at Film Society of Lincoln Center and Metrograph, read the conversation below.
The Film Stage: What was the image you had gotten of New York, at least before living there?
Matías Piñeiro: Well, at first, when I moved to New York, I wasn’t doing it in terms of a career, I went because my boyfriend moved there from Buenos Aires to do his PhD, so I followed him. And actually, for me, that was cinema: I thought I wasn’t going to be a filmmaker if I left the people that I tend to work with. So for me it was a challenge, but I thought, “Okay, maybe it’s a good thing to change a little bit.” I thought it was a situation where I leave the circle that has become for me, and I’ll see what happens. Maybe in Buenos Aires I’ll keep on making films like Viola and The Princess of France. But for me, New York was very uncinematic in that sense. But then, after four years of living there, I made friends and I made acquaintances and connections — connections in a friendly sense, a fluid sense — that somehow they achieved something that Maria Villar, one of the actresses that had started this shooting, said: “It’s like your friends in Buenos Aires but here in New York.” So somehow I felt it was possible to make a film because I had those friends. I don’t know if I ever told you this, Dan, but when I saw The Unspeakable Act, it was the first time that I was watching a film that I felt could’ve been made in the context that I made my previous films, like with friends. Watching The Unspeakable Act, I thought that it had an energy and way and idea of production in connection with style that are similar to searches that the people of Buenos Aires are having. And that film gave me the impression way before ever having the idea that I wanted to make a film in the U.S., that maybe it was possible to do it.
Dan Sallitt: Matías is a very open and likable person, so he gathered a lot of people around him in New York — and it’s kind of an extraordinary crowd. I was saying to him the other day that I think historians might take note of this assemblage of talent you can see just walk into these gatherings. There’s so many good filmmakers around and he’s friends with a lot of them, so however alien New York might’ve been to him, I think he has definitely positioned himself in the centre of a very nice group of people.
I remember when a friend of mine on Twitter was asking “What are some good recent American independent films?,” another friend just linked to Dan’s list of favorite films by year. So did you show him films and get him into the scene?
DS: Oh, no. It was a later meeting.
MP: Yes, it was a meeting through cinema in a very simple way — that, if you go to the cinema and watch films and you meet and you talk, and you’re not thinking about making films. I was not meeting Dan because I wanted him to be in the film, but it’s something like you meet people, even Keith [Poulson], I had the idea of putting him in the cast because I was meeting him in bars and / or after a screening. The way one moves, talks, behaves, and thinks one can be part of this, like we share a similar idea of how filmmaking can be. And that is not that easy.
DS: Keith Poulson sees a lot of movies, by the way. He’s a real cinephile.
MP: And he’s also a musician and he’s working in films — and, outside of films, he’s a very open person. There is something that brings in a sense of community in a way, and I think, in New York, the cinephile field is very open and enriching and very big. Somehow there’s connections that appear through that way, like people you meet at the cinema or the next series, talking about this or previous films, someone that you’re helping. Everyone is mixed, and, as it gets mixed, filmmakers like Dan can be an actor, for example. And as things get mixed, there’s an impurity aspect that made me think it was possible. I don’t know how it was for you to do the film, but for me it was hard to be an American filmmaker. It’s not that easy.
DS: It’s just not that easy.
And this is beyond just acquiring the money to make the films?
DS: I’ve never acquired a cent; I’ve payed for every single movie I’ve ever made. So that, alone, is enough to indicate that I consider it very difficult. I have no savings because I spent my savings over and over again on movies. But it has good aspects, too, and what I think Matías is talking about is one of the good aspects: that nobody is competing for funds, everybody knows that it’s impoverished, and everybody’s scrambling, so everyone’s friends. It’s like musicians have always been like that: there wasn’t so much at stake, so everyone hung out with each other. When I was younger, I had the distinct feeling that filmmakers kept their own counsel more; they didn’t seem to want to open up or share things as much. But now it’s not like that. It’s been, like, 10-15 years now that there’s been a real community of independent filmmakers in America, not just New York, because the Internet and festivals have cast the net very wide.
Since this film was made over all four seasons and in the English language, was it a much slower process?
MP: Yes, but in my first film, The Stolen Man, that, I think, has a very similar texture, and rhythm was the same. I shot that film all throughout one year, and Hermia & Helena was all shot throughout a year. I also think that having another way of shooting helps for films to be different. Also, in this particular case, I thought that it was good not to get pushed by myself to get the film finished. The first idea was to finish the film in December 2015, but things changed and it was not that easy, and instead of pushing it, I said that I need more time, I’ll take more time. And then, somehow, the film shows you how the thing should be; instead of you pushing ideas and forcing it, you somehow respond to things that the film is pointing out. Suddenly I had certain ideas about animations and kept on working on that idea and it didn’t work, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll put it because I think it’s a good idea that should work, and I’ll have to show the film to I don’t know who, so I will put it and I will send it.” But no, I just kept on working and didn’t send it to anybody, and I just kept on working and it was not working so I changed the idea and that requires time. There’s a filmmaker friend of mine that once told me, when I did my first film of mine, that film went to very few festivals, but it was okay. I was a little surprised — but nobody cares, so it’s okay. But he was like, “Of course nobody cares, because nobody asked you to do that film. You did it just because of your strength, but at the same time you shouldn’t be asking for anything else because you just did it because you wanted to do it. It’s not like you have a studio. You’re alone, so what do you want? You should be happy enough that you made it.” So in that sense I tried to keep the pace that it takes to finish a film, but it also has to have its own time. [To Dan] How do you work?
DS: I’m more anxious than you are. I try as hard as I can to get it done quickly, but you know you can’t always do it. I’ve noticed, working on the set with you, that your style reflects a certain… like, he’s more in the moment than I can be. When we were working, anyway, I know that he changes his style up, but he crafted each shot at a time, and they were mostly sequence shots. He would bring the actor together and he would talk to them, give us some ideas; he’d sit with us and come up with a vague sense of what we were going to do. Then we start doing it and he would go with Fernando Lockett, the D.P., and start setting up the shot, which almost always involved a lot of panning or a lot of focus pulling, so the assistant director was very busy, and he would start working on this for quite a long time. Fernando would light it very simply and just a little at a time he would come up with a shot which was covering an entire idea. It wasn’t very often a fragment of something else; it had its own existence. Matías changes his style from film to film, but at least with this movie, I saw him be able to work in the moment and make that moment from nothing almost.
MP: I do think that scene, or rather that whole sequence, that third story, was something that we really built together, like with you and Agustina [Muñoz] and myself. It was a whole sequence that depended a lot on you and Agustina. There was something about the text, we somehow worked out together the questions, but the answers were somehow things that you worked out by yourself, and we tried it once or twice, but we polished them from take to take, but you had this idea that it was like scriptwriting while shooting.
DS: I don’t know if the whole film was like this, but I think that maybe we had a less-written script. But I felt that a lot of what were being asked to do was come up on the spot with a lot of backstory about these characters, which is a kind of a writing function and maybe a little more comfortable because I’m more comfortable as a writer than I am as an actor. So were spending a lot of time just on the spot trying to think up what these characters might have done in the past. Sometimes it was really on the spot because Agustina is really clever and she would change things just a little bit from time to time — not so much as to confuse me, just to introduce a little new thing once in a while — and I would have to think about, on the spot, “What would this character do?” And sometimes the results were very strange. She was very much a part of this process. She, in her own way, was kind of directing me or taking her time in trying to find things that would bring out new material.
MP: I do really think that moment where the film works better are the moments where communion between the people involved is working in a higher level, like an intense level. The moment with Mati [Diop] and Agustina, the moment with Dan, the moment with Keith. There’s moments where the cooperation with the people involved was very intense.Not intense in the sense of struggling, but a sense of giving themselves, like putting themselves in dialogue with Fernando, with me or each other. So there you get the sparkles. Even in Dustin’s [Guy Defa] part, Dustin was helpful to make sure that character wasn’t somehow empty. There’s something about how we are as people that helps to build a character.
DS: There’s a lot of good personal connections on that set. The fact that Matías is so open and warm kind of sets a certain tone on set. Agustina is also very approachable and easily brings out a kind of intimacy into people, so the whole set had a kind of nice feeling of people who are very pleasant and also giving you a little more than superficial things. It was a nice environment.
MP: I had a sense that everybody was doing what they wanted to do. I was happy about making a film outside Buenos Aires. For Mati, she lives in Paris and suddenly she was doing a fellowship, and suddenly she was asked to do a little part and she had no idea what it was. I think that she was thrilled by that and you see her thrill in the film. And I think that something similar happened to you.
DS: I was a little starstruck by Agustina. I’m not a good enough actor to get myself out of there. At the time I thought to myself that I was kind of fascinated with her and a little nervous around her, but it seemed like it was perfectly fine for her father in this situation. No one needed to know that I had seen the film and was like “Oh, my God, this is the girl from Viola,” but nobody probably sees that onscreen.
In this film there’s a real emphasis on physical objects. In so many films today you see people scrolling through their phones or screens; this has the postcards or the photo of Dan and his band. Is this a conscious decision on your part?
MP: It connects with, maybe it’s an old idea, that film captures objects. Not, like, objects in space or objects in time. It’s helpful that it’s an object, like a post card. Even though now it’s a little anachronistic, it works. Even when I had to shoot the Skype sequences, which was very contemporary, I didn’t go to the object; I went to the conversation. It was like a shot and a counter-shot. I could’ve had ideas of putting the text in the middle of the screen and tried to make it very contemporary, but I thought that it had to be done very easily. There’s no object there. It’s a conversation, so you just shoot air between people. While when you have an object, you can picture the object — like the postcard or the photographs. They have information. What we need in film is information. Like, Keith receives a postcard and the other doesn’t see or one receives one without a name. There’s something about the information in a very Hitchcock-ian way that these elements provide me much more easily than other stuff, like more digital elements. But I also thought it was interesting to work with some digital elements not to make the film anachronistic, but I think that has another treatment. In the Skype sequences I was avoiding the computer, for instance, while in the postcards or photographs that is an older technology; they become an object. I think there’s something different in the shot of someone holding a photograph than the whole picture of the photograph. With Skype scenes, there’s putting the whole screen as a computer, but then I was like, “No, I’ll just photograph it as something ordinary.” I shoot it like that and it’s almost like you don’t see it, because when you are doing Skype you are cooking, walking, naked, I don’t know.
Do you agree?
DS: Oh, I wasn’t there for that. I wasn’t doing any Skype-ing.
I just thought because there was that photo of you. Maybe it was something you brought.
DS: No, they asked for some photos and I gave them and, from that time on, they decided everything.
MP: Actually, I’m very curious to see, because Dan hasn’t seen the film yet. When I was editing I was using his photographs. There was someone there that I didn’t know, but someone who relates to him in a very personal way, I guess. And I was using that image like that, like I’m using it for a certain way — but it will hit him differently, in a very intimate way. I like that, that film can write to people in a very intimate way.
DS: This is very common, especially with very low-budget movies that you forage into your actors’ lives for something from their past that fits you. All the time they’re bringing stuff in that has a story behind it.
Hermia & Helena is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Metrograph.