Almost 15 years ago, María Alché debuted on screens as the leading actress of Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl. Now, after a successful career in short films, the Argentine writer-director presents her long-awaited first feature, Familia sumergida (A Family Submerged), a mysterious film in which a woman questions her past to unravel the future.
We interviewed the filmmaker about her feature debut, directing a large cast, working with sound and music, and her inspiration from Lucrecia Martel, ahead of the film’s world premiere as part of the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the 71st Locarno Festival.
NOTEBOOK: What is your inspiration—your point of departure—and how do you develop initial ideas into a story with characters?
MARÍA ALCHÉ: It started from a very random situation. One day, I went with a friend to row in the river in a place very far away. Suddenly, a relative that I haven’t seen in a long time—and who has no connection at all with my friend—appeared in the house we were staying at. This guy asked me about my family. How was everybody and how was this and that. Then, my friend who was going abroad decided to do a farewell barbecue. He invited a lot of friends, telling us to go to visit him in Colombia. A few weeks later his trip was cancelled. He was very sad, and he was trying to hide his feelings. He didn’t want to see his friends anymore. This situation inspired me for the character of Nacho. That was the starting point. This guy who is going to do a big trip, but he finally doesn’t. Later, what else occurred was that two brothers of my mother died. It was my mother who had to do all the work of taking care of their houses and there is a lot of work to be done when someone dies. I felt that these houses, like the objects inside them, were going to disappear completely. So the inspiration came also from the experience of someone else’s death and the feeling that we are not infinite. That our time and possibilities are going to reach an end. Sometimes you are more conscious of this and it allows you to experience more your possibilities. I wanted to describe this process.
NOTEBOOK: From a personal experience to a fictional story, what was the screenwriting process like for you?
ALCHÉ: It was a very long and delicate process. I started writing in the end of 2013 and I finished the script three years later. First, I started working alone and I did a draft—later, this draft changed a lot. I worked in detail with an Argentinean writer Iosi Havillio. Every two weeks, we were meeting in his house for a couple of hours. We were reading and discussing some scenes. We were correcting the dialogues together. Then, he was suggesting some changings. I would go back home and work for another two weeks and then returning to meet him again. The process was very delicate, almost like it was handcrafted. He is used to working with writers. He helps them to write their novels. I worked with him for one year. Also, many of my friends read the script and made suggestions in different stages of the writing. At the beginning, the script was not so focused on her. It was a film about many characters and all the stories were completely developed. It was difficult to know what the film was about. It was hard but after having all these stories I decided to focus on her. It was an interesting decision because I also knew a lot about the other characters. I had written many scenes for them. I really knew many details of all the characters and I think this was good for me to know them well.
NOTEBOOK: How was the casting process like and how did you guide the actors from the text to the shooting?
ALCHÉ: It was a different process with each one of them. I think the process should not be symmetrical and I think each actor needs a different approach. Some actors were cast. Some actors were friends. For example, I knew Mercedes [Morán] because I worked with her before many years ago. She was very generous when she read the script and said to me: “I will do whatever is necessary to be done.” So we were meeting at her house once a week to talk about the script. She does not like to rehearse a lot, which is something that I was doing with the other actors. Everybody was very involved in this project in creative terms and this was something very beautiful to notice. With Mercedes, we started like this and as we were approaching the shooting dates we were including some other actors in the meeting. Sometimes the husband. Sometimes the son. Sometimes the whole family. It was a kind of a smooth arrival to the whole thing. With the kids, I knew very well Laila [Maltz] who plays Luisa, but I cast the other two kids and with them I rehearsed a lot. With the father too, because I was trying to create a particular language between them in a particular and very extreme way of relating to each other. The idea was to generate this chemistry, this exciting energy which in the rehearsals was very strong. The shooting was an exercise of tuning all the different energies that I had been working with separately before. We took the time to organize individual encounters and rehearsals with everybody. I wanted all of them to feel that they were part of the film and that was important.
NOTEBOOK: You focus a lot in the atmosphere that springs from the character’s encounters and for me a very strong sense of mystery remains. Can you talk about your understanding of creating mood in cinema?
ALCHÉ: I work a lot with a very good friend of mine. His name is Luciano Azzigotti and he is a musician. He composed the music for the film and he was present in the process with the sound designer Julia Huberman from the very beginning. I worked with them on the sound since the script and we really work in the sound, thinking the objects in the scenes, the colors, and many other aspects not exactly related to sound but connected with it. I also worked a lot with the cinematographer Hélène Louvart in order to create this mystery, which is a combination of all us, the artistic direction, the actors, the camera, the art, the sound. All this took a lot of discussion and preparation even in the pre-production process. It was all planned very carefully, and I had two kind of references. First, were recreations of family anecdotes. Before my aunt passed away, I was trying to develop a project about family stories. I was very attracted by the way my aunt used to tell family stories. Some stories were first hand, but others were just heard about and this created a lot of images in my mind about family characters. I particularly liked when they described the life of someone in three or four events, like: you are born, you have kids, you do this or that, and then you die. As you go far in time, what you do in your life can be summed up very shortly. So these ideas were gravitating around me and I was obsessed with this idea of time. People coming to the world and leaving it. Many of these images of mystery in the film came from these stories. Others, came from some photographers I like, such as William Eggleston, Larry Sultan and Tina Barney. For each part of the film, I had different kind of inspirations to create images, colors, atmospheres, textures, pictures and all kind of details.
NOTEBOOK: How long did the shooting take and what was the editing process like for you?
ALCHÉ: I was very lucky because I insisted to my producer that we needed a lot of time. We had scenes with many characters. When you do page to page or some assistant director calculates the time the shooting takes, the reference is usually the number of pages but when you have such amount of characters the calculation must be different because it takes more time. We also shoot a lot because Hélène is very enthusiastic about everything. She is really an incredible woman. She is like a child, all the time being surprised by what is happening in front of the camera. Even if it is a very planned shooting, when she discovers something interesting she starts shooting and then she also wants to do another take or from another angle, so we arrived at the editing room with a lot of material. We shot a lot. We had a lot of footage, a lot of options, but it was very good for the editing because it allowed us to select the best acting moments. The film is a co-production with Brazil and because we won a grant from ANCINE [the Brazilian Film Institute] we had to work with a Brazilian editor. At first, I wasn’t sure if it would work because I didn’t know the editor before and because I was afraid she wouldn’t understand Spanish but then Livia [Serpa] showed up. She is a very special person. Very passionate about editing and it was a big surprise that someone so amazing appeared at the end of the shooting bringing all this new energy and enthusiasm. She worked a lot, with a lot of passion and a lot of determination to take out all the scenes that were not necessary for the film we wanted to do. I never edited a film before. I was sitting by her side all the time and we were watching all the footage. I realized how precise she is and especially in selecting the acting scenes. She has a very good taste with actors. We really enjoyed building the scenes together. Sometimes co-productions could not work but in this case, it worked very well.
NOTEBOOK: Was an important decision for you to have women in all head positions?
ALCHÉ: It was totally random [laughs]. We wanted men as well, but every time it was another woman reaching our team. I think it is nice to have mixed people in the team. Of course, I like to be surrounded by women, but the fact that we only have women as the heads of departments was not on purpose. It just occurred.
NOTEBOOK: Music plays an important role in the film. Maybe you can share a few thoughts about it.
ALCHÉ: I have a friend, his name is Luciano [Azzigotti], whoI’ve known since I was 15 years old, and I asked him to do the music for the film when I was still writing the script. He said yes, but he insisted on recording with real musicians. He really fought for the quality of the music. He is very extreme with his ideas. In my previous short films, I never worked with music, so it was something very new to me and I had the feeling I didn’t know how to do it. When we started the editing, we put a lot of music in the film, which helped us to build the rhythm. Then, we took most of it out and kept only some parts. It was a very nice process because the music brings the mood of the film and it is really nice to have real musicians working with you in a movie.
NOTEBOOK: Going back in time, I believe your screen debut was as an actress in Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl, which must have been a very strong first experience. How did this experience shape your vision of cinema?
ALCHÉ: I don’t know if it was that experience only, but since then I worked a lot with Lucrecia and she is someone very important in my life. When I was young, I knew I wanted to direct films, but I didn’t know exactly how difficult was to make films. Then, I made a movie and I saw the process and kind of understood that some of that was possible. Even if it is very complicated, it is not impossible. I believe it gave me some strength. Lucrecia was very tough but she gave me very good advice—and for this film too.
NOTEBOOK: You have worked with Martel in other films as well. Maybe not as an actress but you were involved in the process of other films, is that right?
ALCHÉ: We started to work together in a sci-fi project based on a very iconic Argentinean comic book, El Eternauta. She was going to adapt it into a film and we started to do some research on sci-fi as a genre. It was very moving to think of a city in terms of science fiction. During the research phase, we did a lot of walking and scouting around the city imagining the perspective of an alien and this was very interesting in terms of point of view. Then, I worked a little bit in Zama  as part of the historical research of some characters, wardrobe, et cetera. At the beginning, when she was still working on the adaptation of the novel, she was collaborating with a theater director Ricardo Bartis, and I was in charge of organizing the conversations between them. For me, it was interesting to witness this process of adapting an important novel into a script. Finally, we have an on-going documentary project together since 2010.
NOTEBOOK: To finish, what are your thoughts on independent cinema in Argentina today?
ALCHÉ: I think that in terms of production and politics it is getting very hard to shoot because the cinema institute was given lots of funding and now it has been cut. It is a risky situation for the cinema because many people won’t have the opportunity to make a film. But at the same time, there are many directors doing many different things, and this is very good. I think Argentina cinema has many names and many languages coming up all the time.