"I wanted to see what would happen with that kind of freedom, without a script"
Our latest Best Picture winner, "Bonsai", is a minimalistic post-apocalyptic drama that stays in your heart. Thanks to the natural performances and unique chemistry between the lead actors, Bonsai stands out and brings a fresh story about two people who have been left alone in the world for two years.
In the following interview, Ignacio F. Rodó, director of Bonsai, takes us "behind the scenes", and reveals his technique with Bonsai - working with no script, giving his actors a complete freedom to tell the story.
Ignacio, you are able to weave in and out of many genres and styles: directing thrillers, one-minute films, love stories, dramedy, advertising, documentary, experimental films. Why do you choose to explore these boundaries of filmmaking? Do you think that at some point, you'll be choosing a "genre"?
I believe you have to try things in life to find out if you like them and also to see if you're good with them. In cinema, I think the same rule applies. And by trying different roles in filmmaking and doing different genres, you just learn things that will be useful later. In my case, I think I've finally found a place where I feel very comfortable, which is the thriller, combined with the theme of love. And I find the previous experience very helpful and enriching for where I am now.
You also directed for stages. What kind of story-telling do you prefer - on screen, or on stage?
They are both wonderful. In theater, there is the adrenaline and the pressure of the moment, which many times helps connecting with the truth of the characters and the truth of the story. But I find theater is for actors, as they have the last word there, once they're on the stage, acting. In cinema, the last word is for the director, in the editing room. That's why I prefer to direct cinema.
Your short film, Tuck Me In, got into more than 200 festivals and has millions of views online.
What sparked the idea to shoot it? While filming Tuck Me In, did you ever imagine how well it would do in festivals worldwide?
Some time ago, I found these two-sentence horror stories. I really liked one and I researched more about it. It was almost as a urban legend, written in many different ways, but always with the same concept. If it had been successful as a story, I was sure it could be successful as a short film. I decided to make it a 1-minute short film, and shoot it in English, to make it easier for the film to reach a bigger audience. But to be honest, we didn't expect the huge numbers it has today: more than 15 million views on different platforms, more than 200 film festival selections and 30 awards. A one-minute short film has literally changed my career. It's mind-blowing, but I'm very grateful for it.
Tuck Me In
Bonsai is a romantic drama with a unique setting... Can you tell us how the idea came about? Did you base the screenplay on events/conversations from previous relationships?
Yes, the idea of the short film came from my personal experience. I came out with the idea of exploring this feeling almost everybody I know has experienced. When you're in a relationship and you believe that if it ends, you won't be able to be with anyone else. It would be like the end of the world. So I just made it more dramatical by taking it to the limit: what if there is no one else at all, because the end of the world has happened? What if you have a relationship crisis when there is no one else in the planet? Would you still make the same choices? Would you break up? We live in a world where we change our phones as soon as they start giving trouble. We behave almost the same with the people that surround us, including our couples. So I thought that was a theme that I needed to explore, one many people could connect to.
Santi Bayón and Alexandra Agulló are wonderful together on screen, and the chemistry between them is off the charts! How was it like to work with them off screen - as producers?
I had previously worked with the two of them, separately. They're good friends of mine. They have a lot of power and truth. They had also worked together in different short films, always as a couple. So I proposed them to try to take that to the edge. It was an interesting proposal because I decided to work without a screenplay. I told them this would be an experiment. We would rehearse their relationship and their past events, but nothing from the real short film. I wanted to remove as much pressure as I could. And we wouldn't scout the location or anything. We'd just go there with a DP and a sound guy. I wanted to reduce the production costs to the minimum so the team wouldn't have to worry about making mistakes. I wanted to see what would happen with that kind of freedom. And I was lucky enough that Santi and Alexandra were brave enough to give it a try and trusted me with this process.
What was the trickiest scene to create in Bonsai, and how many takes did you need to do to get it right?
We shot chronologically and most of the scenes were shot in 2-3 long uninterrupted takes. It was all about the acting in this film, making it easy for them. The tricky part came when we had to shoot this scene about the two of them making peace and coming to terms with each other. For the story I had in mind, it was essential, but as all dialogue was improvised, and I was giving them a lot of freedom, it was becoming impossible for them to stop fighting each other. So we needed some extra takes to explore different objectives for their characters so they could make up on a truthful way.
You shot in a fantastic location. Especially the climactic scene towards (spoiler alert!) when she takes her leave, the scenery is stunning. How did you find this location? What were the challenges involved in shooting there?
As one of the premises of the film was not spending any money in pre-production, in order to loosen the pressure and the expectations, we had to scout via google. We found an amazing village that has been totally abandoned for 40-50 years. Luckily enough, there were lots of pictures on the internet and we decided to try our luck with that one. The moment we arrived there, we fell in love. We started shooting as our actors discovered the place for the first time, to make it all feel more true and alive. The energy of the place was very special and incredibly suitable for our story. The abandoned village became another character for us. It was perfect, it gave us no trouble at all.
What was the most important lesson you took from working on Bonsai?
Making Bonsai has changed the way I make films. I really mean it. Now I'm more aware than ever that you have to have the need of making a film, of telling that story. If it connects with something that beats inside of you, you'll be able to give life to the film. A project comes alive and gains a soul as long as you have something to give to it, and also as you let all your team give to it as well. You can make a film that is perfect in all its aspects, and still people can feel it has no soul. My lesson has been opening a new door for me, a door to create in a different way. And I'm trying to use it to create and protect this creative environment where it's easier for everybody on the crew, and specially actors, to connect with the truth of the story.
Among the many awards Bonsai received at LAFA - was the Best Score award. Gabrielle Stone, our lead judge, really enjoyed the music throughout the film. ‘It really was a character all in itself’.
Can you talk about the scoring process? How did your composer, Javier Bayon come on board?
At what point did you start working on the score?
Javier Bayón is the brother of Santi Bayón, our lead actor. The project was becoming so personal for Santi, Alexandra and me, that he (Santi) suggested his brother, an award-winner composer, to write the music for the film. We approached him and he was very open to it. So when I had a locked cut I sent it to him and he loved it. Me and my editor, Brian Ramírez, had been using some temp music for the editing. But I decided with Javier to get rid of it so we could create our score without any influence. We didn't want a copy of something else. We wanted something new, something alive. We had some sessions where I explained him what the story meant for me, the tone I wanted and the storytelling analysis of the short film, to make sure he understood my vision. Then we had our spotting session and it was obvious from the first moment that we were on the same page. Working with Javier was amazing. We didn't need many versions of the score, as he connected to the story from the first moment. It was also special and emotional for him, composing for a film where his brother had such a dramatic role, so that was an extra motivation.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? Do you plan to divide your time between creating films in Spain and in the US?
I feel very connected to the USA. I've grown up reading their authors, listening to their music and watching their movies. I tend to write my own stories thinking of America. My dream would be living between Spain and the US. I'm negotiating several projects at the moment, and many of them are set on the US. So that's exactly how I picture myself in a year or two. Spending my time between the two countries.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
All of them are feature films and they are all thrillers (mixed with traits of other genres). That's all I can say for now!
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Yes. Thank you! For the selection, the awards, the personal treat and all you do to promote short films. Thank you so much!
Interviewer for LAFA: Nami Melumad
Bonsai - Official Trailer