Hollywood has never been shy about syphoning talent from smaller, foreign industries. In many ways the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood was built on the works of Central European refugees like Billy Wilder (The Apartment), Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) and Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), or Soviet defectors like cinematographer Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront); while since the earliest days of silent film countless Mexican actors, directors, cinematographers and technicians have managed to cross the so-called “barrera de nopal” and make an indelible imprint on the global collective imagination through their work.
Then, of course, there are the Spaniards. Most film nerds can tick of a list of modern classics by Pedro Almodóvar, and the crossover success of Alejandro Amenábar — who brought the world Vanilla Sky and The Others — is enough to make any international auteur shudder with envy. But beyond the big names and arthouse brands, Spain has given Hollywood one of its most influential image-makers of the past several decades, and you probably don’t even know his name.
Javier Aguirresarobe was born in Spain’s Basque Country in 1948 and came up with a generation of filmmakers like Imanol Uribe and Montxo Armendáriz, who were just beginning to articulate new representations of Spanish society in the wake of the Franco dictatorship. Flash forward forty years, and he is one of the most prolific and sought-after cinematographers in the world today, working with the likes of Woody Allen and Milos Forman in the U.S., Alejandro Amenábar and Pedro Almodóvar in Spain, and even Luis Estrada in Mexico. (Then there are the two Twilight films, the popular comedies and a host of other box office-oriented Hollywood hits that have placed Aguirresarobe squarely at the top of the big leagues.)
But don’t let his pedigree fool you; speaking with Aguirresarobe one realizes that behind this veteran’s humble demeanor lies an genuine artist who is deeply passionate about his work, never shies from a creative challenge, and takes great joy in the act of creation. Now, as his latest film — a remake of 1982’s Poltergeist directed by Gil Kennan — prepares for nationwide release, we took the opportunity to chat with Aguirresarobe about working on stories you’re passionate about, falling in love with Mexico, and his dream of shooting a film in Argentina.
“The screenplay has to tell you something, it has to inspire you, and I can assure you that, in a way, films are made before the shoot.”
Many cinematographers mention getting into the business with the idea of eventually directing. Others come from the world of still photography. How did you find yourself working as a cinematographer?
As with any semi-professional, my first photographic experiences were through family connections — my brother was a professional. He’s ten years older than me and I would follow him everywhere; you can imagine me at 15 and him at 25. Later on I had the opportunity to study at a film school in Madrid, always with the idea that I was fundamentally an image guy. When I finished school, I wasn’t familiar with the industry and it took ten years until they gave my the opportunity to shoot a film with Fernando Colomo that was titled ¿Qué hace una chica como tú en un sitio como éste?, which was my first job as a director of photography and I’ll tell you that since then I haven’t stopped working. I think my next film will be number 64.
Yes, I’ve seen your filmography and it’s quite impressive. Now beyond the obvious, technical responsibilities, how would you define your role as a cinematographer? How do you feel you contribute to the bigger picture of a film?
I have to say that over time I’ve become less and less technical, more conceptual. By that I mean that I approach each film thinking about what it means to me, how it inspires me, what might the audience feel when faced with a certain image; then I attempt to find technical responses to those first questions, which have to do with concepts of atmosphere, ambience, tension or happiness. These sensations come forth from specific images and that’s my point of departure in all my work. I always say the same thing, and it’s true: the screenplay has to tell you something, it has to inspire you, and I can assure you that in a way films are made before the shoot. Afterwords you bring it to the screen, because you have experience and you know how to resolve things in a technical way, although you may have difficulties once in a while and not achieve the image that you first dreamed. But I can tell you that films are made well beforehand, keeping in mind that you’ve worked with the screenplay, worked with the director, spoken with him at length, you have your references, and then comes the time to make the movie. That’s when you apply the technique, which is fundamental but at the same time it’s not. It’s much more interesting to have a clear idea of where you want to take it before shooting.
You’ve worked prolifically between Spain, the United States and Mexico. What for you have been the primary differences working between these three countries? Do you have a preference?
I don’t have a preference. My preference is fundamentally to find a good story that I can feel passionate about, and that can occur in any of those three countries or anywhere else on the planet. That’s my only preference. And after that, of course… In the United States, I’ve had the opportunity to work on large films with huge budgets, which always requires more thorough preparation. That has its advantages but it also can be inconvenient in the sense that a thorough preparation on a big project means that you have everything very clearly adjusted beforehand. There is no room for improvisation, no chance for a last-minute creation, a last personal detail. In that sense, the other productions in Spain as well as Mexico — which are of an entirely different sort, with entirely different budgets — have given me the chance to create more personal work. So when I talk about big films with big budgets, you don’t necessarily have more of an advantage because as a Director of Photography your work should have a very personal touch.
Working on a film like La Dictadura Perfecta (The Perfect Dictatorship), which is so deeply rooted in the Mexican reality, did you feel like it was important to familiarize yourself with the landscapes and colors of the country before shooting?
Of course. In several aspects. On one hand, the concept behind The Perfect Dictatorship was to get as close to reality as possible, not to cheat any of the elements, not to create atmospheres where there otherwise wouldn’t be. On the contrary, I have to do exactly what I think should be done in each space, and that was kind of the idea behind this film: look for a type of realism. I always tend toward a realism in which things look prettier: the light serves to create a certain relief, a certain contrast; there’s a tendency toward a certain aesthetic. But within that aesthetic on The Perfect Dictatorship, I tried to make everything as close to the Mexican reality as possible: something that I’m not sure I entirely achieved. I think I would need to live more in Mexico than I already have. But what I’m trying to say is that you’re in Durango, for example, and Durango has a particular look to it’s urban exteriors and a color to the earth… during the time I was there there was a tremendous drought and that’s reflected in the cinematography. Then of course, there are the interiors, the palaces, and that’s a whole other word. I’ve always loved to work in Mexico. I like Mexico a lot because the landscapes and the natural elements are just fantastic. I’m really crazy about Mexico.
With Poltergeist, what were some of the challenges of remaking such a classic film? Did you try to stick closely to the original or rethink the whole thing from scratch?
Rethink the whole thing from scratch. Absolutely. The original version is from 1982 or something like that, and it’s an entirely different style, with different codes, different aesthetics. Of course this version has the same source as the film from ’82, but it’s absolutely contemporary, absolutely in touch with the American reality of today, in which the American dream isn’t what it used to be, families are different, everything is different. There are elements and subtle winks that make references to the present in very deep ways.
Then of course it’s a story about a haunted house that’s built on top of an old cemetery, the disappearance of the little girl, that whole story that we already know. When the family first arrives, they’re totally oblivious to the fact that something could happen in this house, so I tried to stick to the idea of a normal home, a small, unpretentious suburban home, and give everything an air of normality, which makes things more interesting later on when people begin to see the contrast with the strange things that start to happen.
So you could say that I tried along with Gil Kenan, the director — who is a fantastic filmmaker with a vision very close to my own, a great eye for composition, a great aesthetic sense — we tried to avoid the use of visual effects as much as possible. If we could accomplish something with the camera we felt it would be much better, so the film does have some visual effects but very little, and I’m very proud of that. We also shot the interiors of the house in a very natural way, working with a certain realist look that gives the film a lot of power.
I remember when I shot The Others, Amenábar and I came to the same conclusions. If I’m going to make a shadow in a hallway, for example, if I make that shadow exactly as I feel it or as I felt it when I was a child, it’s going to have a lot more potency than if we just tried to scare people. And in the case of Poltergeist we used the same approach, although obviously it has a different palette than The Others. The Others, I think, was rather gothic, whereas Poltergeist is absolutely rooted in the here and now, with lively colors. From there it’s up to the audience to decide if this was the the right approach for the film.
What’s one Latin American country you would love to shoot in that you haven’t been able to?
Well I’ve also shot in Venezuela. I shot two films with Chalbaud in the mid-eighties. But the Latin American country where I would most like to work would have to be Argentina, and I’ll tell you why. Argentina is a country, much like Mexico, where I feel very close to the people, to their way of thinking, to their way of seeing, and to their films.