Oliver Laxe’s spellbinding third film Fire Will Come opens and closes with grand, almost mythic natural phenomena involving the eucalyptus trees in the Galician region of Spain, but in between it focuses on the everyday rural rhythms in the life of Amador, a convicted arsonist who’s been released from prison, and his elderly mother, Benedicta. While the title anticipates violence and devastation, Laxe maintains a measured, thoughtful pace and refuses to pathologize or sentimentalize Amador, his mother, or the townspeople around them.
As the film reaches virtual cinemas, The Film Stage spoke to Laxe about the search for “essential images,” his desire to not make a psychological film, and shooting a movie where his family was born.
The Film Stage: The opening of the film is rather startling. What about the image of these machines tearing down these trees felt like the right way to begin?
Oliver Laxe: The eucalyptus trees are eroding the land, the field, the soil, and there is a problem with the fires, too, with eucalyptus. In a way I wanted to put all this rage we have in Galicia with the eucalyptus…a part of Galicians, you know, because another part thinks it is the future because it makes a lot of money, for paper. At the same time, I wanted to transcend this dialect between this rage with eucalyptus, because it’s not a problem with the eucalyptus. It’s a human being problem. So that’s why at the end of the sequence, those machines, when they find this big eucalyptus that’s more noble, it has more dignity, that’s why they stop. I don’t know what they feel in that moment, but probably they are impressed with this dignity, this presence, and they stop. It’s not linear, in a way, it’s a sequence that is not apparently related, narratively, with the film, but essentially the link is strong. It’s more subtle, but it’s there. I think there are a lot of reverberations all over the film, also when the villagers are beating Amador. At the end of these two sequences, there is a kind of merciful feeling, a moment of pardon, I think.
You’ve mentioned also that when you set out to capture some of these images––the forest, the fire, the faces of the people in this village––you’re looking for something that you’ve called “essential images” or “essential cinema.” What happens between what you envisioned and what ends up on film?
You know, cinema is an art of submission. You have to accept that always there is a distance between what you plan and what you finally do, and this is something that frustrates us, filmmakers, but I think it’s also one of the good things, because always what you find or what life gives to you is better than what you planned to do. For me, one of the other intentions is that…my sensitivity is the sensitivity of those mountains. I’m strong, I’m an animal, I’m a beast, I’m full of energy. At the beginning I wanted that scene to be a little more violent. The idea is the machines eat this plantation of eucalyptus with violence. At the end of the sequence, it’s a little bit more atmosphere, a little more levitative. It’s a little bit more oneiric, in a way. And that’s something I like. I don’t like to make an interpretation of the images, because the relation between an image and the human metabolism is a mystery, and it’s strong. To interpret is absurd, in a way, but the only thing I can say is that they are not machines, and this is not a plantation, a field of eucalyptus. It’s like this black night is inside us. I don’t know, but I’m very happy with that sequence, it was the first time I could work with time and a strong production.
I’d like to add: something essential is something that appears in your life, your consciousness a few times in your life, in dreams or rememberings. It is something that is always appearing, ideas that keep inside you. This is because they are related with your essence, and it’s something that you have to do, or something that has a deep meaning. And it’s curious, because it’s a scene that I wanted to do in Morocco eight years ago. I was living in a town when I was doing Mimosas, and people told me a group of tractors were cutting palm trees in order to sell them to rich people in Casablanca and Marrakech for their gardens. I never saw them during the night because it’s something forbidden, but those images are kept inside myself. This idea of those machines fighting against nature, machines that are not machines but are a little bit anthropomorphized or spiritualized. Those images came back, because I wanted to do that in Morocco, but one of my neighbors said, “How are you going to do that? You’re going to cut our palm trees? Go to your home to do that!”
You’ve also mentioned that this was the first time you had a casting for one of your films. Why was that?
We did a regular casting in the mountain. I did it with my producer, we were both doing it, and I’m a lucky man. I found Benedicta and Amador in the first casting. I don’t know, obviously I had to work with people from the countryside, people who know how to be with the animals, people connected with their essence. I’m not against actors. I probably will work with actors in the future. But I was doing a film in the valley where my family was born, and I know each centimeter of this valley: the way they talk, the way they are, their values. So it was a little bit absurd to do it with actors. I needed this layer of truth in the film.
What persuaded you that Amador and Benedicta were right as mother and son?
It was not easy. For Amador, it was very clear because he has this very ambiguous…he has a lot of mystery. He’s inhabitated, his silence, hes inhabitated. This is cinema, it’s the art of mystery, of what is hidden. But Benedicta, I was touched because at that time she was 82 years old, but she speaks too much in real life. She’s a strong woman, extremely interesting…she’s amazing, the life she’s had. But her energy was too strong, and I was afraid that she would oppress Amador. And I didn’t want to make a psychological movie. If I kept Benedicta as she is in real life, the spectators will interpret the film in terms of psychology. “OK, Amador is like he is because he has a castrating mother.” The way I worked with her was to control this energy, to build a silence in her, too. I didn’t want the spectator to read the film or to understand. Obviously we use the conscious when we watch a film, the rationality, but I wanted to keep things open and obviously open to feelings. So it was not clear with Benedicta, but the good thing about Benedicta is that even though she was old, she was very strong and very smart, so it was very easy to work with her. And if Amador is doing himself, with Benedicta we worked as if she was an actress. She’s interpreting all the time. But even if she put on a mask, we are very near her essence. It’s not Benedicta, but in a way it’s more Benedicta than Benedicta.
You’ve talked about how you didn’t want the film to be psychological and why that was important to you. What is it about your approach that you think evokes a different response?
First and foremost, it’s normal to read things in a psychological way. We do that and I like that, I like psychology. But the reasons why we do things in life are not only for psychological reasons. I think we are transcended by energies that transcend ourselves. So I wanted to keep those things a little bit open. Why I think I did that, after doing a tour with the film, I hear the spectators tell me what is important in [the characters’] relation is how they take care of the other. The spectator is not investing their energy in trying to understand…I think that it’s not visible, the love in the film. They don’t speak about love. They don’t say, “Mom, I love you.” The only time Benedicta says something nice to him is “I’m happy you are at home,” and she’s saying that facing the other way. She’s not looking at him. There’s not love in their sentences or their gestures, but we feel love between them. And one of the reasons is that we didn’t invest our work in developing the script in a psychological way. We could make it, and it could be easier, but in that case for that film, we didn’t want it. We wanted to make it more fragile.
You shot a few films in Morocco. What about shooting in Galicia was different?
To shoot in Africa, to shoot in Morocco, to shoot in a country that is not yours, you have to be careful with the distance from where you are looking, the distance from where you are shooting, from where you put the glance about that culture. In my two previous features, when I was living in Morocco, I had to put too much energy on that to try to legitimize my voice, my view, my glance. To try to be elegant, to choose an elegant distance, to see a culture that is not mine. Obviously, we are paid, filmmakers, to idealize. You know? Always about subjectivity in the world. Objectivity doesn’t exist. And so most Moroccan filmmakers idealize their country, as I do, but in this case, all of the process for Fire Will Come was to look more inside myself. I was remembering all of the gestures, all of the small gestures: how we cut the bread, how we do the fire, how we speak to the animals. I knew that was a process, a kind of ritual, very deep. I knew that if you are shooting on the fields where generations and generations of familiars, places where they were born, where they sacrificed themselves, where they died, they passed away… I think to shoot those places with an intention of knowing that, trying to honor them, I think that has deep consequences in yourself. Apparently that’s the reason I’m living there. Right now I’m living in the village where I did the film. I’m opening the house again and doing a farm. At the same time, I have more craft, I’m more confident. It was easier because it’s my third feature, so you’re more mature, you have your family of filmmakers surrounding you.
And you’re working on a fourth film?
A little bit, yeah, but I’m not in a hurry. I’m working on that farm, you know? But two years, probably, I’m going to shoot again in Morocco.
There is this sense of patience, asking us to be with these characters and watch them in their everyday lives. What do you think it is that this communicates?
I have to say, if you want to make an essential film and not a psychological one, a film where apparently nothing happens, you need to find people who are connected with their essence. That means someone that you are shooting, even if they apparently are not doing something special, they fill the image with their presence. Their essence is strong, and we feel that in the images, I think. You connect with them, you empathize with them from the beginning. And this is a risk, always, but it’s all in the choices you made with the people you are shooting, and I think I was very lucky having Benedicta and Amador because they carry the film on their shoulders. And at the same time, cinema is an art of proportions. It’s an art of geometry. Editing, you try to sculpt a temple. I have to say, too, when we were talking about this film, we were talking about it as a symphony with three movements. The first movement was the eucalyptus with the trees and the bulldozers, the second movement was mother and son, and the third one was fire. So we knew that the energy, the power, the spiritual geometry of the images of the first scene with the machines eating this eucalyptus, we knew that all of this energy will keep the spectators looking in the second movement. All of this volcanic energy and Dionysiac energy will allow the spectator to be more connected with the second movement between Amador and Benedicta. We are loaded with electricity, and we knew we could dilatate those images because we had a third movement with the fire that was more climactic, more movement, more adagio.
I wanted to ask about the use of both Vivaldi and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” How did these pieces come to you for this film? What about this mix of classical and contemporary music struck you as appropriate?
I have the tradition and the modernity fighting inside myself, like two armies. I don’t know, I don’t like to speak about local and global, I don’t like this dialect. I think we have to do essential movies. Obviously, I did a film in Galicia, and it’s a very Galician film filled with subtleties that Galicians can feel and most of the spectators don’t catch. But it’s more than a Galician film. I think it’s an archetype that’s very universal. This Amador is a kind of martyr. And I was very confident in the essentiality of the film, so I could be freer with the music. I was free to put a song from Canada in. And at the same time, our vet had the greatest hits of Leonard Cohen in his car. We needed a song in English, or a language Amador doesn’t understand. If you remember, she asks him, “Do you like it?” And he says, “I don’t understand the words.” And she answers him, “You don’t need to understand to like it.” Something like that. That, in a way, is what we propose with cinema. You don’t need to understand to feel it. For me, it was extremely risky, that scene, because for all of us, this song means something. It connotates a time of our lives, a moment of our lives, and it’s very difficult to disconnect that. And I knew at the beginning, when there’s this boy meets girl in this car and you put on this song, I knew some of the spectators will think, “Oof, where are we going?” It’s a little bit corny. It can be a little bit corny in the beginning. But I think the scene is well balanced. There is this shot with his cow, it’s a one-minute shot. And the scene is transforming itself, it’s changing all the time. And I know at some point, this image with the cow, it’s taking a KO to the spectator’s rationality. There is a moment where even the spectator who’s more of a cinephile, more exigent, will say, “OK, I surrender. I don’t want to think. I just want to feel and enjoy the image.” I like that, in how some spectators, it’s changing the way he relates with that scene. It’s a KO to the rationality, and I think that’s the purpose, the goal of the filmmakers. To invite the spectators to feel the image on a transcendental way.
Fire Will Come opens at the Metrograph’s Virtual Cinema this Friday, October 30, along with short films by Laxe and a conversation with the director and cinematographer Ed Lachman. The film will then expand on November 6. See more details here.