By Simon Miraudo
April 18, 2013
Pablo Larrain is over it. After three consecutive films detailing life under General Augusto Pinochet in his home country of Chile, he is eager to tackle a different subject. Thankfully, his unofficial trilogy of darkly comic social commentaries is capped with his best feature yet: No. It follows the alienating Tony Manero and Post Mortem, but where those pictures were uncomfortable and cringe-inducing, No is triumphant, warmly funny, and perhaps even inspiring. Fear not; he hasn’t gone full Hollywood with his latest. Shot on grainy video and comprised of “30%” archival footage – Larrain’s figure – it’s still an ambitious and strange endeavour. Gael García Bernal stars as an up-and-coming ad man recruited for a marketing campaign encouraging Chileans to vote ‘No’ in the 1988 plebiscite, with the intent of bringing their despot’s 16-year tenure to an end. (No actor has been cast as Pinochet; he is forced to represent himself in real videos from the era, much like Joseph McCarthy in Good Night in Good Luck).
I spoke with Larrain about adapting Antonio Skármeta’s play El Plebiscito for the screen, his controversial decision to shoot the picture on video, and how his bittersweet ending reflects the turmoil still felt in Chile today.
SM: Tell me a little bit about how you came to direct No, which I understand is based on a play that was never staged.
PL: Antonio Skármeta, the writer of the play, came to us. It was a very short play, and had never been staged before, you’re right. What was interesting in that play was that it was from the ad guy’s perspective. The point-of-view of the play was this ad guy. I thought it was fantastic. We did research for nearly three years, and afterwards we started writing the script, which took us another year. So, what happened basically was we discovered how they actually did the ‘No’ campaign, and whether it would be interesting for us. If you think about it, Pedro Peirano – the screenwriter – and me were very young when all this happened, but we grew up in a country that was always remembering those days, especially the ‘No’ campaign. We were very curious of how they did this. The play was a starting point, and then we came with our own perspective.
SM: With the film you’ve made two very distinct stylistic choices, shooting it not only in 4:3 but also on video. How early into the process did you decide this was the manner in which you wanted to shoot No?
PL: Most of the time when you go to see a film with archival footage, the audience should really be able to realise what is archival footage and what is the movie. We were going to use nearly 30% of archival footage, which is a lot. If we did that and shot on HD or film, we were always going to be waiting for the audience to be in and out, you know? The new material would be so different from the archival. So I did a test on seven different formats, and one of them was the Digimatic system, and we were able to create illusion; something like the cinema must do. You create an illusion for the audience. We were able to create something that the audience weren’t going to be able to know if they were looking at something we shot or not. That was very interesting. We don’t want to lie. We just want to create an illusion.
SM: Well, it certainly worked to great effect. But when you were setting up the film, was the decision to shoot in video contentious for financiers or the people backing the movie? Were they encouraging of your decision?
PL: [Laughs] That’s the first time I’ve heard that question that way; that’s smart. I wouldn’t say we had problems. I would say most people – the people who supported the film and financed it – were shocked at the beginning. This business is like every other business and every other activity; it’s based on trust. They really asked me if I was absolutely confidant with this, and I said, “Yes,” and they said, “Okay, cool, let’s do it.” And it worked out. This is a team decision. It’s not something that I decide by myself, which is why I think it’s a good question. I’ve never got that question before man, and I’ve done hundreds of interviews, and nobody’s ever asked me about that before. I thought it was going to be harder, but they said they know. Nobody’s trying to doubt anything. I always wanted to make a movie that would be more connected to the audience compared to the films I did before. So, it was obvious I wasn’t trying to create any kind of damage to the property; I was just trying to create something that was honest and necessary. Otherwise, again, with any HD state-of-the-art, latest technology, I’m sure people would be able to recognise what we shot and what is archival footage, so it wouldn’t be a movie; it would be a speech or docudrama that would never work like it works now.
SM: You’ve got Gael García Bernal as head of the ‘No’ ad campaign to oust Pinochet. Did he have much knowledge of the period, or these warring TV campaigns when he came onboard?
PL: I’m not sure if he knew a lot about it. I don’t know how much he actually knew, basically because most people don’t know it. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do it; because it’s something that’s so unknown by a lot of people. Gael was aware of the bigger issues; maybe not about the conditions.
SM: Were you tempted at all to cast an actor to play Pinochet? Was he ever going to be a character in the movie, or did you just want to have footage of the real man throughout?
PL: I don’t know. Nobody in my country has been able – nobody has the guts so far – to make a movie about Pinochet. Me neither. Someday, somebody’s going to do it. Maybe me. Maybe some other. I don’t know. We wanted to use archival footage because it was more interesting than trying to cast other people.
SM: That said, you have dealt with Chile’s political history in past features. This is definitely the most explicit manner in which you’ve dealt with it yet. Do you find yourself continually drawn back to it, or has it merely been coincidence?
PL: No, no, no, no. I did three movies in a row on the subject, and I’m over it. I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I’m not – definitely not – going to make a film about the political past of my country. Not now. Maybe in the future I will do it, but not now.
SM: There is a bit of a bittersweet ending to No, I suppose hinting that not all is cured in Chile with Pinochet out. It’s interesting; with Margaret Thatcher’s recent death, there was a lot of celebration about that being the end of an era. Things are still pretty tough in the UK. Do you think it’s meaningless when figures like Pinochet, like Thatcher, are finally expelled from politics, or is there still a significance to it?
PL: What we do in the film is try to look at it from our perspective. We don’t want to handle the truth here. We just want to make a reflection of what happened. We have a filter. This movie is not a history statement in order to be used in schools or so people can remember what happened. We don’t do that. We create a reflection through our own eyes. We believe that’s what happened when the ‘No’ campaign actually did win. It was fantastic; we got back to democracy and many things that were very necessary were back in order. At the same time, I would say that the ‘Yes’ sort of won a little bit too, because we kept their social system, economic system. We keep the constitution still today. We were never able to jail him. He died free and a millionaire; not only him, but most of the people that committed the violations of human rights. The movie had to, in my perspective, show that balance in between what we won that night and the way that we were going to carry on for a lot of years. This film would be so different if somebody would make it right after the referendum, or after 100 years. It’s made after 25 years, and it’s very connected with what’s going on today.
No is now showing in select cinemas across the country.