Fernando Eimbcke on How Listening to Mozart and Reading "High Fidelity" Helps Him Make Films

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Fernando Eimbcke is kind of like the Mexican Spike Jonze. He went from directing music videos for some of the biggest Mexican bands in the late nineties to helming quiet and unassuming indie films. During the most recent New York Film Festival he was selected to be part of the Emerging Artists sidebar – a spotlight on directors in the beginning of their career intended to showcase their entire body of work. For Eimbcke it included screenings of his award-winning opera prima, Temporada de Patos (Duck Season), his second film Lake Tahoe, and his most recent project Club Sandwich.

At the New York premiere of Club Sandwich Gavin Smith, Editor of Film Comment and part of the NYFF selection committee, proclaimed, “We need to stop calling him an emerging filmmaker as soon as this festival is over. He has already emerged.”

I caught up with Eimbcke during his brief visit to New York for the festival. We talked about how reading “High Fidelity” led to his first screenplay, how he listens to Mozart while writing, and how he isn’t opposed to making a music video for the English-Irish boy band One Direction.

You started off making music videos for Mexican bands like Molotov and Plastilina Mosh. Do you think anything carried over from music videos to your filmmaking in terms of style?

The thing that most helped was the attitude that I had towards the music videos. I only did videos of Mexican bands that I respected and that I liked. I had total freedom during the making of the videos. Of course I listened to the band and we worked on an idea but they gave me a lot of freedom. So I took that attitude to my first film. To do the film in a way that I wanted to do it. It was an influence in terms of attitude. But in terms of how to tell the story no so much. Music videos are really fun but I hated telling a story in the videos. I found it very absurd. I think the most important thing in a video is to put on the screen the energy and the power of a band. So it has nothing to do with some kind of story or anything like that.

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I read that your first film Temporada de patos (Duck Season) was inspired by the book “High Fidelity.” Is that true? What inspired your other movies?

I was obsessed with “High Fidelity.” I love that book. I am a music lover, a music fan. I listen to a lot of records. I used to be a DJ. So, I love music. I read the book and I wanted to do a story about characters that don’t have anything to do on a Sunday. So, I kept working on that, on that, on that. And finally I ended up with this story. Then, I quit the story for a time. I dropped the script. A month later I met with Paula Markovitch and she told me, “Do you remember that story of those characters trying to survive a Sunday?” And I was like, “ah yes.” We started to work on the story again and it turned into Duck Season. But it’s very, very influenced by “High Fidelity.”

Lake Tahoe was influenced by the story of “The Little Prince.” And Club Sandwich — the character of the mother was really influenced by a book called “Lo que me queda por vivir” (“What I Have Left to Live”) by a Spanish writer named Elvira Lindo. It’s a book about a mother, a woman in Spain, having a very difficult time with a kid. I fell in love with that character and I put a lot of that character in Club Sandwich. It was a huge inspiration.

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Music plays a big role in your films. At what step of the process are you thinking about music? When you are writing, when you are shooting, or just when you are editing?

During the whole process. When I was doing Duck Season there wasn’t iTunes or playlists or things like that. I used to make tapes or record CDs and I made lots of playlists in the old way. While writing the script I listened to a lot of music, a lot of music — very different kinds of music. You never know where inspiration can come from. I remember that during Duck Season I listened to Mozart “The Magic Flute” and it was really strange because it is an opera. And I was writing and listening to the “The Magic Flute” and it was like aaaaaah [imitates an opera singer]. But it gave a very good mood to the film. And then I would edit a scene and I would go to the stereo and put on some Molotov and I was like yelling aaaaaaah [imitates rock singer]. So, it changes a lot. But I kept listening to music the whole time.

In Lake Tahoe there is no music. We worked a lot on the sound design. We realized that the music would be the sound of the air, of the trees, of the space. So, we didn’t put music. We put it only at the end. I love to put music at the end. It is very frustrating because when a film finishes a lot of people stand up and go out of the cinema. That’s very sad. It’s like, “Wait! It’s part of the film! The music is part of the film!” Well, maybe they didn’t like the film but it’s important to be there at the end of the film to listen to the music.

And in Club Sandwich the music was really important to define the characters. I wanted to create a contrast between Paloma and Jasmin. Paloma, she’s 35 years old and is supposed to be the adult. She listens to rock music, to Prince and the Pixies and stuff like that. And Jasmin who is supposed to be the young girl, she likes Perez Prado and that kind of music from the fifties, sixties. So it was like a very interesting contrast.

Music is very important in my films. I love music. But, I don’t want to put too much music in the the films. I think if you put too much music it loses importance. You have to be very precise with the use of music.

You are such a huge music fan. Do you think you would ever return to making music videos?

I would love to make music videos. But now it’s really difficult. The most interesting bands have their friends, a lot of times, or they know how to use a camera. They know how to use Final Cut, they know how to express themselves with images. So, that’s very organic. I think that’s changing the music video industry. I think that’s very good. And other videos of huge artists or something like that, I don’t know.

If One Direction Comes to me and says, “We want to make a video, a crazy video.” I would say, “Ok, let’s do it.”

You don’t want to make a Lady Gaga video?

If she gives me her trust and if she says to me, “Do whatever you want to do” I would do it. But, if there’s a company worrying about the look and everything, then no. But if Lady Gaga says let’s do something crazy then of course I would do it. Lady Gaga or whoever it is, I don’t care. If they love to take risks, I would love it.

If One Direction comes to me and says, “We want to make a video, a crazy video.” I would say, “Ok, let’s do it.”

I will put the word out there.

Yeah! (laughs) It’s about freedom.

At the screening of Club Sandwich during the New York Film Festival you were asked a question about the aesthetics of your films. I was surprised to hear you say, “It’s not a style. I don’t think too much about style.” In all of your films the camera tends to stay still. Do you really believe that your movies have a lack of style?

I think that the story asks for a certain style. Every film has his own style. You have to respect that. You have to put yourself, as a director, aside. You have to work for the film. The three films needed that kind of visual treatment. But, I don’t know. I tried to move the camera in Club Sandwich because I was afraid to be like a cliche of myself. And then I didn’t care.

If I made a film and I was obsessed with moving the camera that would be too aware of the style. I don’t think that one must look for a style. I don’t believe in style.

But even beyond the visual style, your three films have other things in common. Like the atmosphere, tone, and lack of dialogue.

Yes. In Club Sandwich I had a lot of dialogues and at the end I took them out. It was like an instinct because I don’t believe too much in dialogues. I prefer silence. But it depends. In Duck Season I had scenes with a lot of dialogues. Where we used a lot, a lot, a lot of dialogues and where the dialogue is that kind of absurd part of the scene. But, it changes with every film.

It’s interesting that you bring up removing dialogues from Club Sandwich. In the film most of the humor and emotion is conveyed through looks and glances, not so much through dialogue. Can you talk about what it was like to direct those scenes? How do you prepare the actors for a quiet scene?

Mariana Rodríguez — my editor who worked with me on Duck Season, Lake Tahoe, and Club Sandwich — she told me something that was really amazing: that silence is tension. Maybe everybody knows that but for me in that moment I was like, “Oh!”

In this film silence creates a big tension. We worked very hard to create a relationship between Maria Renee, the actress, and Lucio who plays her son. We never rehearsed the script. I didn’t care about the script during the bonding process. I wanted to create a relationship between a mother and a son and when I created that and I saw it in the scenes I was like, “Ok. I can put a silence here.” Because where there is tension, there is a relationship. The silence had power because the relationship was really strong and it was real. They actually love each other. It was really, really true.

I let the actors play. I never want them to use the script because I want to know who they really are. So, it’s just games, games, games.

Silences are so important. I am always obsessed with silence because you can create very important things in that space. As soon as the actor isn’t allowed to talk there is a need to express himself but he can’t talk and he can’t move very widely — I only let them make minimal movements. So, they express a lot in that movement. They put all their feelings in that small movement or in that one look.

[insert-video youtube=maj-C6d35qE]How much do you rehearse with your actors?

It is like a game. For me that part is like a game you play with the actors. In the rehearsals you have to discover them. Rehearsals are not for the actors. The rehearsals are for you as a director. You have to learn how to adapt to them. They shouldn’t have to change to what you want them to be. You have to adapt yourself to the way they are.

So, that’s what the rehearsals should be for the director. I let the actors play. I never want them to use the script because I want to know who they really are. So, it’s just games, games, games. In Duck Season, in Lake Tahoe, and in Club Sandwich we did games not rehearsals. Actually they only read the script one time. While reading the script I asked them to pay a lot of attention. If there is a question they can ask it then, but not on the set, just in that moment. So, we read the script one time and that’s all. And they never had the script again. Each day we gave them the night before the scene of the following day and that’s all. And they were really tired so they didn’t rehearse the scene or anything like that.

Your films tend to take place in one location. Can you talk about the choice to stay in one place?

Well, first of all I think that the location is a character. It’s really, really important and it plays an important and very dramatic part in the film. For instance in Duck Season it is the apartment. It’s very important to the characters. In Lake Tahoe it’s the same. The character is looking around a town to fix his car. So the place, it’s a very important place. And in Club Sandwich it’s the same. It’s a place that has a part in the story. It’s not just a location.

In the apartment, Duck Season

I wanted to play with that to put very strict limits on the story, tying it to a certain place. It’s important to the story to exploit the location. Sometimes it’s really difficult but I love that kind of thing, that kind of problem. To not have not too much options, I love that.

I think if we had chosen another place for Lake Tahoe it would be a completely different story. And the same for Club Sandwich and Duck Season. I spend a lot of time looking for the locations. I don’t have them clearly in my head when I am writing the script. I don’t know the place exactly. In Duck Season we looked for a lot of places in Mexico City. And then we found Tlaltelolco. I didn’t know if Tlaltelolco was a good idea because it has a very strong history about the dead and ’68. But we discovered that it was like a magic place to tell that story.

The same with Lake Tahoe. I really wanted to make the film in another place and Alexis Zabé, the director of photography, he insisted that we shoot in Merida, in Progreso. And I was like, “Why? This is a story about death. I want to make the film in a very grey place, in a sad place.” And Alexis told me, “Well this is a story about death but it is also a story about life.” The town of Progreso gave us that sense of death and life.

And in Club Sandwich the same. We traveled with the art director and the photographer for one year, looking for the right location. It probably looks very simple but the more simple it looks, the more difficult it goes, all the time.

[insert-video youtube=eGFiO4bg15M]Do you think your films are distinctly Mexican? Could they take place in a different country in Latin America or other places?

One thing that really surprised me that I was very, very happy about: at a festival a person in the audience asked me after watching Duck Season, “What part of Argentina is that building? Is it Buenos Aires?” And I was like, great, that’s great. It doesn’t matter. Duck Season you could do it in Argentina, in Romania, or in Brazil. Certainly some things you would have to change but it’s a universal story. Lake Tahoe is the same. You can put that story in Canada, in I don’t know, in Germany. It’s the same. And Club Sandwich is the same. Some elements are Mexican but I am not obsessed with that. I think that comes in a very natural way. It’s like the style. If you are obsessed looking for that, you will lose yourself.

Are you writing something right now? And what are you currently reading? Maybe it will end up in one of your scripts.

I don’t think so. But, you never know. Right now I am reading Los detectives salvajes by Roberto Bolaño. And it’s amazing. I am in love with that book. It’s very inspirational but it’s impossible to make a film about that book. It’s so wonderful and so great.

Right now I am not writing. We are promoting Club Sandwich and we are producing other films. We have a production company called Cine Pantera and we are producing a film from a Mexican director, Rigoberto Perezcano and Elisa Miller, we are making a documentary, and a lot of things.