The San Francisco International Film Festival is in full swing. Amongst the more than 150 movies that will screen this year are several must-see Latino films at SFIFF. Ernesto “Neto” Villalobos was in town to present his film Por las plumas (All About the Feathers), the first Costa Rican production to screen at SFIFF in its 57-year history. The deadpan comedy tells the story of Chalo, a security guard who acquires a cockfighting rooster and names him Rocky. It is the feature film debut of the 34-year-old ‘Tico’ who studied sociology in his homeland, works in advertising, went to study cinema in Spain (Barcelona), and is now making headway in the world of cinema. A child of La Sucia Centroamericana Producciones, the film is one of the few coming out of the region. We got the chance to chat with Neto during his visit to San Francisco about the challenges of making a first film, working with non-actors, and what the Costa Rican film scene is like.
How difficult was it to make your first film?
I started seven years ago. There was the fear and uncertainty of making the film, how it was going to come out and all that… But most of the time I was seeking funds to develop the script and attending workshops. At some point I decided to make it ‘nomás,’ even though I did not have all the money. I decided to work with a very small crew.
Three months later I was already shooting, and in seven or eight months the film was ready. But there was no money for post-production so I had to start to attend [workshops] at different film festivals where the film got awards — Encuentros in Miami, BAFICI in Buenos Aires, and another funded by Cinergia [Central American and Caribbean]. The film premiered at the Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals, followed by screenings at other festivals like Vancouver, Stockholm, India, Cuba, Rotterdam, Frankfurt, Miami, and now here in San Francisco.
Do you think it was worth it?
I believe that ends do not matter as much as the route taken to get to those ends. Obviously you want to do well, but if not, at least you met people, learned things, made friends, lived new experiences.
Why did you choose to do a comedy?
I feel more comfortable in comedy because of my personality. I cannot imagine myself doing a drama. It is ‘dry comedy’ or ‘deadpan comedy’. The comedy is perhaps easier to measure since you know how much it is affecting people by how much they laugh.
Jasón’s character is very endearing.
Latin American audiences tell me, ‘’I know people like Jasón in my country.” Although he is very Costa Rican, the characters and the atmosphere in the film become very international. Its singularity makes it general. At first I thought, “This is not going to work out in a foreign country and not even in Costa Rica either.” Well, it worked out internationally and also at home.
There are movies that seem easy to make and you say “Hey, I could do that.” Can you talk about your working method?
My working method was to have a casting call for people who met certain criteria in term of features of the characters I had written in the script and that could enrich those characters. Most are not professional actors.
Allan Cascante (the actor who plays Chalo) was a farmer, laborer, a Hare Krishna, and now is a dancer of contemporary art. Marvin Acosta, who plays Jasón, is a motorcycle messenger and was working for McDonald’s doing deliveries at the time. Sylvia Sossa, is the only one who is an actres, but also works as a masseuse and sells catalogs. And Erlan Vasquez is a young person we found in the community where we filmed, he is in high school.
We rehearsed with them three months prior to get them used to the camera. At some point I developed a very detailed script but decided to delete it before the shooting and work with just a basic framework. I had a breakdown of general situations that I knew needed to happen but I never told them, “You have to say this and this text” but rather, “Let’s start here, touch this and that, and finish here.”
The script was very bare bones then?
Yes, because you cannot ask non-actors to do things like actors. The rehearsals consisted mostly of getting them used to me and themselves. A lot consisted of having a beer and spend time together, create bonds among them so that the film would begin to emerge.
There is a scene where the main character arrives at a construction site. It looks very natural.
In the script the main character goes to a vacant lot but while we were searching for the location I came across the construction site and said, “No, let’s do it here.” I asked permission from the workers and told them, “Reply whatever you want [when we shoot] and we will see what happens.” So we made it happen.
It was so nice; we had time to look around. If a sequence did not work we would shoot it again elsewhere and that’s it. I remember the Assistant Director telling me, “Today we did not meet half the plan” and I replied, “It’s all good.”
So, much of the filming happened on the fly?
In the film there was not much intervention. It consisted of looking for locations I wanted or locations that ended up being something better than what I originally wanted. I adapted to the locations rather than adapting them to my script.
For example, when I arrived at the main location I saw a parked ambulance. I adapted the ambulance to my script and became an integral part of the story. The TV antenna was also something that came about at the time of exploring the location.
The process consisted of being open to situations. And although the film gives the impression that we did it in single takes and not much rehearsing, there was actually a lot of repeat and repeat, and rehearse and rehearse, until you reached a point where you said, “This is it’” and decide to shoot it.
Is it hard to make movies?
In Costa Rica there are no funds, no laws about cinema or support for films. There is only a fund but for all the arts, not just film. You have to hustle. Every place has difficulties. In Argentina you have the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) but it is not easy because many Argentines want to make movies. In New York, you may have aid because it is the U.S.A. but what opportunities do you have to make a film there? The advantages in Costa Rica may be that almost nobody makes movies. So if you are one of the few trying to reflect the culture and identity of the people on the screen there is more chances.
What’s the film scene like in Costa Rica?
María Lourdes Cortés, a film historian in Costa Rica, says that throughout the twentieth century just eight films were made in Costa Rica, six of them last year alone. After a hundred or so years since cinema was invented, it’s now that we are creating a national identity through film. Now there is film studies in a university and students are doing things. There is a movie I like called Agua fría de mar by Paz Fábrega.
Tell us about your new projects.
I’m writing a script for a new movie. It will also be a comedy. It’s about a motorcycle messenger who has a cleft lip. We call them ‘majijos’ in Costa Rica, ‘gangosos’ in Argentina, ‘ñatos’ in Panama. They speak with a very nasal sound.And at the same time I’m working on a film that will take me maybe six, eight or ten years. It follows several characters. There is no script, there is only an idea and a premise to work on long term.
The San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 8.