After presenting his complete retrospective at Olhar de Cinema in Brazil this past June, I spoke to the Argentine filmmaker about his new film Hermia & Helena a few days before its world premiere as part of the International Competition at the 69th Locarno Film Festival.
In Hermia & Helena, Camila, a young Argentine theater director, travels to New York to work on a translation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream. With her boyfriend and friends back in Buenos Aires, Camila rethinks old and new relationships. Shot between the two cities, the film is divided into chapters that focus on the different lives Camila experiences, as well as the different people she encounters during her journey.
NOTEBOOK: Hermia & Helena shares a similar aesthetic with your previous films. At the same time, the overall tone feels much more melancholic now. You have been living in New York for the past few years and this was the first time you shot there. Did the first experience of shooting outside your hometown of Buenos Aires affect the way you developed your characters or even the story?
MATÍAS PIÑEIRO: I moved to New York with no intention of making films there. It took four years to built in the context in which it would be possible and exciting for me to shoot outside Buenos Aires. In the project of the “Shakespeareads,” the series of films I have been developing since 2010 around the female roles of Shakespeare’s comedies, changes and continuities are a vital part of its structure. The project is a game of variations.
I realized that the change of territory that I experience in my life could be an axis for one of these films. In order to accentuate it, I thought it was important to insist on Buenos Aires, to shoot also there and produce this dance movement between one place and the other. Living outside your city is being at two places. A similar movement is experienced in translation. You move between two languages. Thinking about not been in my country help me to find the plot of the film: a theater director moves to New York to translate Shakespeare.
This movement produces a sense of displacement that introduces the idea of loss. When you leave a place you lose touch with it. You also win something too. It’s a dialectic movement that nurtures from the sense of loss. Here the work of the translator resonates too, the dance between the findings and the losses that comes from changing states. The challenge is to find the new equilibrium.
For doing so, working with some of the people I have been working all these years was crucial. For me, there is not much worth in making a film without people such as actresses Agustina Muñoz and María Villar, cinematographer Fernando Lockett and production designer Ana Cambre. They all came to New York to shot and built a sense of continuity from one place to the other.
The melancholic tone was not fully intended. But it came natural to this tale of displacement, translation and constant movement. I appreciate it can be perceived.
NOTEBOOK: Once again, as you say, you collaborated with actresses with those you have been working with for many years now, such as Agustina Muñoz and María Villar. But you also welcome new actors to your community and it is likely not a coincident that they themselves are filmmakers, like Mati Diop and Dan Sallit. What was the process of working with “regulars” as well as “newcomers” like for you? Would it be possible to measure the impact they had on your way of working?
PIÑEIRO: Finding the people I would like to photograph was one of the challenges about making a film outside my usual context. I have worked for more than ten years with most of the cast and crew from Buenos Aires. It is always more about the chemistry between the actors than anything else. I realize I like working with actors that do something else apart from acting. María is a German teacher, Romina a novelist, Agustina a theater director, Julián a musician, etc. I feel that there is something in their gestures and faces that shows that multiplicity. I am attracted to this mix, to this lack of unity.
In New York, I go a lot to the cinema, and so the community in which I live is the film community. They all come from different places but I started bumping into them, as I met the Argentine actors in the context of the theater community in Buenos Aires. I find Dan, Dustin Keith, and Mati to be very interesting, intriguing and sensible people. There is something photogenic about that. So I tried to make their energy part of the film. For me, it was important to meet with them randomly, in the street, at the cinema or in a corner, and to see them walking, talking and simply standing to perceive how they would react to being next to Agustina Muñoz. I didn’t have any certainty, just an impression and a desire to make them meet. The fact of them being filmmakers is not at first important, but the fact that I admire what they do is.
The film makes a point in capturing the energies between Agustina and his usual colleagues—Buenos Aires—and Agustina and his new accomplices—New York . Having new people was then a key element for building the particular movement of this film.
NOTEBOOK: You also continue your long-time collaboration with Fernando Lockett, your cinematographer since your feature debut. Yet, in this film, perhaps because of the film’s slower paced mood, the camera seems to behave differently. Could you elaborate on the process of defining the camera concept for your sixth film?
PIÑEIRO: There is not a concept behind each film, but the idea that every film has to be different from the last one, especially because they have so many things in common. So I build a film in regards to the previous one. The Princess of France  was baroque, a bit cocky, fast, where confusion was part of its composition. Following that, I thought about making a slower film, but without making it a slow film. Attacking differences doesn’t mean making the opposite. It is more about searching between layers of grays that will produce a reaction. If in The Princess of France the first shot of the football field is pompous, in Hermia & Helena we will just pan across the football field in silence: something different. They are similar topics but treated in different degrees. It is about establishing bonds between films at the same time of setting their own keys.
I have worked with Fernando since 2002. We know each other very well, but there are still some mysteries. So we challenge ourselves. We believe in framing. That the fragmentation of the world through the lens and camera produces a rhythm, a meaning, even if it’s an ambiguous one. I enjoy a sense of kinship among the films, so it is a the same technology and the same economics that makes the films possible. The team is completed with the production designer Ana Cambre, who is crucial in defining the color and texture of the film.
Shooting in New York and not being a tourist was one of the challenges. The city didn’t have to photograph itself. But it is not that different to the work we do in Buenos Aires. The way we show both cities is similar. Avoid postcards and work in location with the geometries that the space provides to us at that moment. I think that it was important not to fool each other and just do the film trusting in the elements that the film had right there. That trust has to be followed rigorously.
NOTEBOOK: What the screenwriting process is like for you? Specifically, what is the role of Shakespeare and his plays in your work? What is your inspiration, your point of departure and how do you develop initial ideas into a story with characters? Also, do Shakespeare’s text inspire you with images that already influence your writing?
PIÑEIRO: Unfortunately, I write in a rush, always a bit behind pre-production schedule, but never compromising it. I don’t fully enjoy the writing process taken as a moment of lonesome work. I rather talk about the plans for the plot, rehearse, do a play that take us to the written pages. I don’t have a script fetish, but I do write them in the end. It is just that it seems I need to have the urgency of shooting in order to provoke the writing, trying to bringing them as close as possible. In Hermia & Helena there are scenes, such as the scenes with Dan Sallitt, where we were working the lines with a general scheme but building right there in the shoot. I feel that for that delicate scene that nervousness had to be performed. There was no sense for anticipating and rehearsing. It was much more about the magnetism between the bodies.
Shakespeare helps me to write. It helps me to avoid the white page. It puts the machine in motion. For instance, it gives me the titles of the films. Now I don’t know much about my next film, but I know it is called Portia and that I will work around The Merchant of Venice, with the coffins scene in particular. Making questions to those decisions pushes me into writing. And I write as a way of communicating to others and for myself; so I don’t forget the trail, I put myself in towards that film I want us to make. It has a rather practical quality that I enjoy. In the case of Hermia & Helena, Shakespeare provides lines, the actual text of Midsummer’s Night Dream: objects (the torn pages, the book, the drawings, characters (a translator, the duets), excuses (the institute, the kisses), motives (the father figure, the flowers, the trip to the unknown land). It then all gets mixed. Shakespeare is a clay that we can put our hands in to and starting expanding a new form. There is no need for every element of the final film to point at Shakespeare, it is by putting myself and my crew in contact with a determine play that the film grows as it does.
NOTEBOOK: Many plot elements remain somewhat hidden. Instead, you focus on the atmosphere that springs from the characters’ encounters with each other—without necessarily contextualizing them. What are your ambitions for creating a mood in film and how do you realize it?
PIÑEIRO: There is a moment in the film where someone asks the main character: what are your ambitions? In Spanish, “ambitions” sounds so bad. Okay. I enjoy plot in films, but I prefer to think plot as a form that unravels before our eyes and ears. A mood happens in editing, by crossing a piece of music with a face, a camera pan with a line of dialogue, a color with a gesture. It needs the cooperation of the viewer. It can’t be fully impose in the image by color correction or in the sound by a violin, but it is offered to the viewer with the hope that it produces in her or him something in the order of the nervous system.
There is a search for equilibrium, providing information and stimuli in adequate proportions to produce a new and alternative way for telling stories. I trust in not exposing all that information. I know that the viewer is more intelligent than me, that there is a huge film and image history behind us and that we have to move forward it, even if that means making false steps, because maybe some times walking a crooked way can have its benefits.
NOTEBOOK: Hermia & Helena has a unique formal structure. The architecture of the story is not primarily chronological and instead it is made up of what might be described as different, isolated feelings as well as co-existing relationships. How did this structure come about and to what extent did the editing process influence its final shape?
PIÑEIRO: I tend to focus much on the structure of the film when I am writing. It is from the structure that the plot starts growing. I decided that this would be a film about the number two. It’s Hermia & Helena, in Buenos Aires and New York, in English and Spanish. And that so it is a film about moving from one element to the other, and then coming back, because it has to be a film in constant movement from one to the other and back. It is a film about traveling that way. The structure had to create that. We will shoot in New York and also Buenos Aires, and the experience of one territory will affect the experience in the other land. And then we shall come back and have that again and again.
Also I enjoyed that the three main sections of the film doesn’t communicate much between each other, because that can be experienced that way. Not everything is connected to everything. It is the same trip of this character but we tell three different moments of it. First it is all around the institute, then around a long-time lover and finally, around the father she never meet. There are connections between these sections and there are subsections—a prologue with Carmen (María Villar) in New York and an epilogue with all the Argentine characters without Camila—but there is no need to emphasize each section all the time. Breaking chronology helped to focus on other elements of the film, such as the multiple reasons of Camila in making her trip abroad, or for adding further layers to its characterization.
The main structure of the film is as it was written and shot. In the editing process we just tried to find the rhythm to it, which is crucial to find the key equilibrium for the whole film to hold and create its own universe. It was a long process that stopped just a few days ago.
NOTEBOOK: There is a graceful balance between your characters’ experience of fiction and of reality. One example being Camila’s experience of the book she is translating. At the same time, the film also embraces elements from reality. For example, Romina Paula, one of the actresses you regularly work with, was pregnant during the shoot and her pregnancy becomes part of the story. To what extent does the interaction between reality and fiction affect your film?
PIÑEIRO: I trust reality to provide the materials with which we can make our films. There is no need to make up too much of these things. They are provided. Fantasy comes out from the combination of these elements. No need to do much. So if Romina and Gabi are pregnant we work with that, and we don’t make much of a fuss about it either. And after some time, things change, time goes by, and today we have Ramón and Aurora with us, living next to the film’s capture of a particular moment of these actresses’ life. There is no need to exploit reality, we just go boating with it. I moved to the U.S. and went to do a fellowship there, so did Mati Diop and even Agustina in Europe, but then I make up all the rest and let myself be surprised by the possible combinations, flirting between following and inventing life. Then it can happen that the film foresees actions of the future. There’s not anything too special about it. It has also to do with writing and the economic context within which I work. As I have strong money limitations, I let all that is around me to be part of the film process. I don’t need to be too imaginative as a scriptwriter, things will inevitably come along with the process of making the film. Furthermore, as I think much about plot and mise en scène with the people we make the film, it’s important that we allow ourselves to invite chance to be part.
NOTEBOOK: Camila’s many encounters allows us to discover and rediscover her character as it expands and morphs into something more complex. At the end, when she visits her father, the scene makes us question everything we experienced with her so far. It also brings a change in tonality. Could you elaborate on the father’s character and what his character represents?
PIÑEIRO: The father figure comes out from my way of dealing with the Shakespeare’s plays. In Midsummer Night's Dream Hermia’s father is the character that puts all the action in motion, when he obliged Hermia to marry the man that she doesn’t love. I took that figure—that not many people remember from that play—and gave it a place in my own film. Horace is not Hermia’s totalitarian father but an inversion of him. I tend to work with the plays in this manner.
Moreover, this role was needed for the sake of variation. I found necessary to incorporate new sorts of characters to my films, in this case, a male role over 50 years old. I thought that it would produce something new in the series and I was looking forward to that. Right away I also thought that Dan Sallitt's character didn’t need to be the typical father figure. Things have to be a bit less simplistic and schematic. In The Princess of France the father of the main character is dead, in Hermia & Helena it resurrects.
I trusted Dan Sallitt so very much. I felt that he was going to be right to perform Horace in the most sensitive and simple way. He was most generous. I admire him as a filmmaker and as a cinephile, and I am honored that he is part of Hermia & Helena. I am looking forward to his new film Fourteen that he will start shooting very soon. He made a special bond with Agustina and was fundamental to create the dialogue for that scene. I am very happy that this film made us closer.
NOTEBOOK: There is a short film within the film. The character of Gregg, one of Camila’s love interests, supposedly made it. It is not the first time that you incorporate “external works,” such as music recorded by your actors, into one of your films. Can you talk about the genesis of this external work? Would you mind commenting on how you conceived this interlude?
PIÑEIRO: It was a way of characterizing Dustin Guy Defa’s role, Gregg. The idea was to provide to this character that appears very briefly in the film with a big inner life.
I like those contrasts. We are very much unaware of Gregg. The viewer knows nothing about him and the main character, Camila, seems to care much for him. So I thought it would be interesting to access all of a sudden someone’s intimacy through his work. As many of the actors were filmmakers, I decided to show one of the character’s work. The way of characterizing a filmmaker for me was to show a film by him and that would be it. He is a filmmaker.
I enjoy the effect that interruption has. This episode is the strangest in the film, and the short called Camila was then good for shaping that tone.
The Museo del Cine Pablo Ducros Hicken in Buenos Aires invites filmmakers to use footage from their archive. I accepted their invitation and decided to include it in Hermia & Helena. I needed to produce a film that would be signed by Gregg Collison, the character, and it seemed that I was going to have to make it. I thought it was such a bad idea to shoot a short as if it wouldn't be me. Imagine: what could have that been? A black & white 35 mm film, with an old man naked, in silence, in second-long shots. It would have been too fake, too foolish for me to do it. So I decided to depart from all elements that wouldn’t belong to me at the first place. The invitation of the museum to use their archive was perfect. Plus, all the text read by the voice is taken from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again… and made some key changes to it.
There are actually two shorts. Camila that is inside Hermia & Helena. And Gregg that the museum distributes. One day we should show them together: Camila & Gregg. Finally, together.
NOTEBOOK: In your previous films, the musicality of the dialogues was always something that grabbed the viewers attention. What was it like for your actresses—and also for you—to switch back and forth between Spanish and English?
PIÑEIRO: It had to flow. It is broken English and that gives another rhythm to the film. Another essential difference. I enjoy that there are many accents in the film. María’s, Agustina’s and Mati’s. But also Keith who is from Texas or Dustin, who has been living abroad for sometime. I am in favor of the mixed sounds. The actresses talk as they do, as they can. And I find a beauty to it.
It is also the core of the film. It is a film about coming and going, about changing states, changing languages and sounds. The actresses move different and react different when they talk in another language. I enjoy this idea of one person being two people. This doubleness. It is not innocent that the film is called Hermia & Helena. Hermia and Helena are all of them and none at the same time. It is much more about the tension of being two, of the energy in between the bodies, the duets that vary each time: Carmen & Camila, Camila & Danièle, Gregg & Camila, Camila & her father, Camila & Mariana, and so on… I think that it also reflects a movement that comes out from the work of translating, about the marks that are left on the thing that we do and say that talk about the process. It didn’t have to be an issue, again it just needed to go with the tide. Also, Agustina had been doing a fellowship in Amsterdam, so she was talking in English for three years, so it was not that much of a deal for her. Part of her personal experience about living abroad merged with Hermia & Helena. Same goes for Mati, maybe. Different is for María, who doesn’t have much of a relationship with the English language, only music and literature, but she engages with the learning process of languages through her German practice. It was curious that when doing the sound mix, the man doing the mix was impressed by María's ability to talk in English. She was just learning the lines by heart and taking the pronunciation from Keith and me. She is a true fake, María. I love her.
NOTEBOOK: To conclude, maybe you could share a few words on your up-coming CPH:LAB project that you will co-direct with Galician filmmaker Lois Patiño? What is your expectations and what intrigued you about the project?
PIÑEIRO: This is the next project Ariel, another project from the “Shakespearead” series, co-directed with huge director and friend, Lois Patiño. His interest in landscape, nature and abstraction will merge most interestingly with Shakespeare’s Tempest. Lois is interested in working with actors. His films moves in interesting fashion towards speech, voices and tales. And I am intrigue into the realm of silence and stillness. We intend to work with some of the actors of Hermia & Helena such as Agustina and Mati Diop. This film family expands! I am very excited about this film, and grateful to CPH:DOX for trusting on us. I feel I will grow so much and learn so many new things with this collaboration. I can’t wait. Actually, right after Locarno Lois and I are going scouting for locations in Spain. We need an island. Then we will continue writing and finishing the search for funding. We are shooting early 2017. It’s happening!