Last Sunday, the Leopard for Best Director at the Locarno Festival went, for the first time, to a woman. The filmmaker in question was the 33-year-old Chilean Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, who premiered her magnificent second feature Too Late to Die Young in competition. Unlike many of her fellow filmmakers in the lineup, Sotomayor is not content with a single set of visual schemata; her wondrous, protracted style builds out from the corners of a scene, developing character and space in congruent ways. Her way with the contours of space, as with the particulars of performance, is bold and non-classical. This movie’s chill vibe is a peculiar one; this is one of the few shaggy hangout movies to possess a sharp-edged visual rigor, far from the loungey pleasures of the genre’s highlights.
Too Late to Die Young, then, is at times loose and at times heavily choreographed. Each shot, each configuration of the space of the commune in which the film is set, is a true original—Sotomayor is capable with images of depth, of people passing through distant brush as toddlers snooze in the foreground, and she’s capable with potent single images, as when the main character, Sofia (Demian Hernández), sings for a crowd at a New Year’s celebration. The pleasures of the film range from the pictorial through to the gestural. When I think back on my experience of seeing the movie in Locarno, I think first and foremost of startling moments of physical beauty, like the moment when a sedentary child presses his foot up against a car windshield in the foreground of the frame.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious about your relationship to Chile in 1990. That’s when the movie is set, though much of the turbulence of time is unseen.
DOMINGA SOTOMAYOR: I was very young when Pinochet was kicked out in 1989. I was four years old—I was born in 1985. But I remember my parents talking a lot about this change. In 1989, we moved to a community much like the one in the film and even though I asked my parents, “Are we moving because democracy has arrived?” they said no. I think basically it was a need to look for hope, for another beginning. To be free. Free from the city, which I remember was very grey. Santiago was grey. There were no spaces for artists, et cetera. My mother is an actress, but at that time she was almost exclusively in soap operas. From that time, my images are mostly blurry. For the film, I didn’t want to make it that concrete, to base it on my own experiences exactly; I think it embodies the spirit of the 90s but I didn’t want the first layer to be political. It’s a political film but it’s not about concrete things. More about the spirit of change.
NOTEBOOK: You give us some signifiers to indicate when the film is set but it took me a while to realize that, okay, this isn’t the 70s, this isn’t the 80s...
SOTOMAYOR: I like to play with this timelessness. I was captured initially by the idea of making a film about teenagers, about adolescence. But also about a country—Chile—that is adolescent. I was trying to portray a period so full of hope for the future that it may have been necessary to forget the past a little bit.
NOTEBOOK: You lived in a community similar to the one portrayed in the film?
SOTOMAYOR: Yes. We moved there in ‘89. Pinochet was kicked out in December ’89 and in March ’90 the first democratically elected president took office. So that summer, between December and March, was like a parenthesis, a transition itself. It was a specific summer when we arrived to this place. The community was an hour from the center of the city, at the foot of the mountains, with nothing around. There was just nature, this river... My parents and another ten families bought this land, built their own houses, and it was a very particular moment.
NOTEBOOK: Is the commune you built for the film similar to the real-life community?
SOTOMAYOR: I didn’t want to make a documentary of my own childhood. And in fact, I don’t think the community in the film is realistic; it’s not directly connected with this community. But of course, it is inspired in some elements. I wanted to have some limitations to approach the project, so I decided to shoot in the same community, even though now there are four hundred houses, it’s relatively modern, there is electricity. We tried to find places closest to the mountain that are still open, away from the build-up of houses. We used some houses that are actually in the community, which we “de-constructed,” in a way. We tried to get them back to the way I remember them. And Clara’s house, for example, which is the house under construction, we built from nothing. It was a set we built from scratch. I like the gap between the real spaces and the spaces I imagined and remembered as I was writing. The daily frustration of these places doesn’t exist anymore; we had to create a world where you feel that.
NOTEBOOK: The frame in the film is also so full—somebody in the foreground, a guitar off to the side, the grass beyond the edge of the house, a colored tablecloth, et cetera. It’s hard to know how you began to build this.
SOTOMAYOR: There was a collection of references—pictures of the period, things like that. I worked with an art director who worked with me on my first film [De Jueves a Domingo, 2012], we get along very well and she’s very talented. I think it was a lot of work for her, a prolonged period for sure but I don’t know how much time exactly. We were really rebuilding and constructing the whole place. Sofia’s house is pretty much as you see in the film, whereas Lucas and Clara’s were totally rebuilt. When I started the project, I was inspired by some fixed images. I wanted to create these colors, these visual qualities... the film was ultimately just a collection of images I wanted to put together.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a lot of depth to your images. Frames within frames.
SOTOMAYOR: I can’t separate the film itself from these references, or from the way it looks. I had the colors I was looking for in mind, and everything was really a lot of work to get right. This is a film without any distinctions, without any limits between interior and exterior space. I took pictures as research. I made a couple of exhibitions before the shooting in which I was trying to find the form of the film. It was a long road.
NOTEBOOK: How long did it take to make this film?
SOTOMAYOR: It was about five years ago that I began. I wasn’t working just on this film; I knew it would be my second feature but in the meantime I had made two long shorts, I made a medium-length movie. I was producing work by my friends. It was good because I think since I started, the project changed. I got more freedom. These films I made in the meantime were very small, low-budget films. That makes me approach this one knowing what I want, but also really not knowing anything. I jumped into the shooting with a lot of freedom.
NOTEBOOK: How did the actual blocking of scenes take place?
SOTOMAYOR: I’ll say it was a mix. In some respects, it was clear from the beginning. I had some drawings, and when I’m writing, I have the mise en scène in mind. I can’t separate those—as I’m writing I’m creating the layers of the film. Practically speaking, it is part of the actual description in the screenplay. I was supposed to make the film with the same DOP as my first feature, but she canceled two weeks before the start of filming. Another DOP jumped into the project, which I think gave the movie a lot of fresh air.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe that’s a good technique to replicate!
SOTOMAYOR: It was very nice. I liked it. It was something good for the film. I knew him from before, and we get along together, know what each other likes, and so on. I had all these ideas, all this knowledge, all these drawings, and we spoke for two days non-stop about how I imagined the film would go. Actually, more theoretical ideas than practicalities. What are the visual rules and what are not. Then we just jumped in and I think it was super fluid. I always like to create a system of shots that I can repeat, very concrete things. I’m coming back to these same shots in different moments of the film, creating a rhythm, a repetition. Also, some very spontaneous things with the camera, following not just the characters but also these spaces, which for me are also the main characters. It’s very different to approach people in their spaces than to approach a space invaded by people, if that makes sense. That’s the big difference.
NOTEBOOK: Every shot in this film is a total original. Scenes are always worked through in a surprising way. Were you shooting, for example, with two cameras?
SOTOMAYOR: No. Just one camera, I never shoot with two. I knew it was going to be a film that we’d find in the shooting. I hate films in which the director is portraying a nice script. I think the challenge was to gather a group of people that would form a community, get along very well, with the crew, the cast. We were ourselves a community for these five weeks of shooting. And then, I was moving between things I had designed concretely—moments I knew how I wanted to shoot—and then more free mise en scène. For me, it was a challenge. I’m a rules person. It’s the way to survive inside this freedom I create for myself. I’m usually putting a lot of limitations on my work as director. In this case, it was all nature—so open. I really wanted to try a more open form, to go against my own personal rules, follow my instinct and follow the people and what they were doing. It has to do with the nature of the film. The film is trying to portray a life that, for me, is difficult to describe, to pin down. A childhood that marked my life, determined my path. It was without limits, without borders. It’s not a proper community—it’s not rich, it’s not poor. It’s so indescribable. I wanted the film to be filled with these digressions and this looseness as life.
NOTEBOOK: The first half of the film is radical in that way. It’s political in the sense that, for the most part, it is just people leading a joyous life. The first half is an outpouring of joy.
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah, it’s an Eden. I wanted it to be a picture of an idealistic space—all the music, all this hope of a new beginning. All these people thought they had run away from the dangers and strictures of the city, and they thought they were being free, and being different, and starting to be humans. They are confronted by themselves in this self-exile. When there is no water, you will save yourself first. Or when there is a forest fire, for instance, you will save yourself.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about working with these children?
SOTOMAYOR: All the kids are non-actors. They have no experience at all. I decided to cast in a non-traditional way, I wanted to make a workshop. I worked with my mother, who as I said is an actress and who also worked on my first film. We asked friends with kids, and kids from the same community who live there now. That’s the difference. I wanted to capture the experience of living there, this common past and this common experience. Almost all the kids are from there. We made the casting inclusive. Ten kids were invited for a weekend—to play music, to play games, they even came to my house. I chose the main characters and the others were invited to be their friends in the movie. Then I did the same with the teenagers. We invited ten or so. We picked Sofia, Lucas [Antar Machado], all the others.
NOTEBOOK: Even they were from the workshop?
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sofia thought the casting was totally open but, actually, I was just deciding between two girls for this character. It was very nice because they all became friends and they couldn’t not be selected for the film, which I know is something that is always frustrating for a kid. What was challenging was to mix these non-actors with non-actors from the community now. For instance, Sofia’s father is a painter who lives in the community today and who is not an actor, and Antonia Zegers, who is a famous actress and who plays the mother of Lucas. I wanted them to connect in the same world and in the same tone. At specific moments, but also generally. It was a mass of very different experiences.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like the film was really an extension of the workshop.
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah! The kids didn’t know too much. They were playing in the background, around the set. When I work with kids, I don’t give them the script. I just concentrate on that moment, that scene. Even though the script is close to the completed film, while we were shooting, all they knew was “In this scene we are riding bicycles,” or, “In this scene, we are talking about the horse.” I didn’t want them to be conscious of the whole thing so that they could just play—kids are just used to playing games. All we did was make different games at various stages. I’m also going against my own rules, in terms of the direction. I won’t tell people what it is about or I won’t make a rehearsal. Some times I rehearsed, sometimes I thought—whatever! Some times, I said let’s learn these lines. Sometimes it was all improvisation. It was nice.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about shooting the virtuoso forest fire scene at the end? It’s such a huge shift in the film—everything goes from just people hanging out to this spectacle.
SOTOMAYOR: It’s weird. The starting point of the project was the fire. That is something contained in the whole film. You can see there is a movement, something raging underneath what looks very quotidian and doesn’t seem to add up to anything. The forest fire is the explosion of what has been contained in these early scenes. It also represents the end of an illusion. It has something to do with what Sofia is doing with her hand [she compulsively scratches her wrist at a particularly stressful point late in the film -ed]. Sometimes you need to see concretely some pain. I think Sofia was feeling something she couldn’t describe and needed to feel it and see it on her hand. For me, the film needed to show the fire after feeling it, feeling this tension. In a way, it’s strange—some people told me it’s like an inverted catastrophe. You feel relief when you see the fire. In a way...
NOTEBOOK: Uh, maybe!
SOTOMAYOR: Oh, no? [laughs] I don’t know. It’s a new order, a new order will start and they have achieved everything they meant to. The parents start looking for the kids, people are reunited in a way. The fire makes the connections between people mysterious too. In fact, when I started the project, I found these VHS tapes of a real forest fire. There was a real fire when I was little. My best two friends, male friends, started it at five years old. Not on purpose, of course—they were playing. For this fire, I remember being with a friend and we jumped into the water to save ourselves. I didn’t actually see the fire until much later, twenty years later when I found out that a neighbour was out shooting that day. I was impressed by those images because there are all these people—twenty people, I don’t know—trying to put out the fire with buckets. It is absurd. How can you deal with a forest fire in this way? Nature is much bigger than you. This has to do with the start of the project. To see how small we are, confronted by nature and by this forest burning.
NOTEBOOK: Is Demian, the actor who plays Sofia, happy with the film? Was he at ease when you were making it? It’s shocking to me when you say he is a non-professional actor.
SOTOMAYOR: No, not professional at all. He was modelling a little at the time—maybe not modeling, I mean, people were sometimes taking pictures of him. Now it has been intense for a while. When I met him, he was Mariana, Mariana Hernández. After the shooting, he started this process of transition and now is Demian. It has been more than a film for Demian. We have been talking a lot and he now told me that in a way this the last trace of him as a woman. It was intimate and intense to connect it with his childhood that, in a way, lead him to make the move to transition. It has been a transformative film for him, and for everybody. I became close with each of the actors and Demian is super happy and the first time he has been in Locarno, the first time he has been in a hotel, first time at a festival, first time in a film.
NOTEBOOK: That’s great!
SOTOMAYOR: Yes, it makes me feel connected with this impression he has—we get used to everything and it’s so beautiful to relate with young people who are just discovering new things. The film is about this idea. Trying to remember how it was to feel things for the first time, to have fears for the first time. Also, with Lucas, he lost his father two days before shooting. I told him, “You don’t have to do the film. I want you to be okay. We can find someone else.” And he thought about it and then said, “I want to do it.” Of course, it wasn’t a normal relationship—we were very close and I was very afraid for him, hoping that he was okay. After the shooting, he told me, “I think this film saved me.” We finished shooting and I was planning on going to the south of Chile to disconnect a little bit and he said to me, “No, I don’t want to be alone. Can I go with you?” So, I was with my editor and with Lucas in the south. I get quite emotional thinking about them all. I learned a lot through this situation with Demian. I’m thirty-three and I can see how happy he is with his transition. I feel how free he feels even after this very difficult process. When I made the non-traditional casting, I was looking for kids that you can see are complex. You can’t create complexity, you can’t act complexity. The casting was so important, and I was trying to capture in this way this very real complexity. I was trying to discover special people that, in a way, like us as kids in a similar community, were forced to grow up faster. This childhood was amazing in a way, but we were also exposed. At the time, as in the film, we had no walls. We were just living in the adult world—listening to people talk, trying to understand things that were definitely not intended for people our age.
NOTEBOOK: Which you totally get from the film. From what you’re saying, it is as if the film itself has no borders. It is almost as if, had the film not been released, it would have been okay.
SOTOMAYOR: Yes! It was very, very difficult to finance the film in Chile. At a certain point, I was thinking that this unending internal process of researching—all this exploration I was doing felt like it was bigger than any one film. All of this life, this research, is not contained in the film. It has been a beautiful project for me, personally speaking—the shooting itself was very nice and I have these new friends now. I was obsessed with having a nice team, filling the set with nice people. Not just talented people; nice people, so that we could all get along and make something beautiful.