SXSW ‘12 Interview: Omar Rodriquez Lopez Talks Spirituality, Storytelling & The Symbolism Of ‘Los Chidos’
One of the more talked about films of this year’s SXSW has been Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s “Los Chidos.” Shocking, violent, funny and made in a style unlike anything else at the festival this year (unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen), the film is divisive, but its differences are what make it interesting and worth talking about (read our review here). Using, but also breaking convention, stereotype and tropes, “Los Chidos” is a crazy fable that explores socially ingrained cultural problems like misogyny, abuse and consumption. Not everyone is going to get it, but Rodriguez Lopez doesn’t seem worried about scaring off those viewers who don’t in order to maintain the clarity of his vision.
The great thing about festivals, is that after you see a movie like “Los Chidos,” you can sit down and ask the director what was going on while the film was made. We got a chance to do just that with Rodriguez Lopez in Austin last week. It’s a wide ranging conversation that spans religion and spirituality to Rodriguez Lopez’s filmmaking inspirations and his creative process, to deconstructing the meaning of some of the symbolism in the movie. There are a few spoilers ahead about some of the more shocking moments in the movie, but we’ll warn you before you get there.
How did you transition from doing music into making films? What inspired you to want to start creatively working in film instead of other channels of expression?
I never understood music as something that could be done as a career. Music is just something that happened. I come from a very musical culture and a musical family. I have no musicians in my family but everyone plays music, everyone plays piano. My mother sings, my father sings. In our culture, dinners usually revolve around writing songs about what’s happening in the room. Actually, I always wanted to make movies. In 1987, my father got his first VCR and camcorder and I started playing with that; that was really where my energy was focused all of the time. That’s what I wanted to be doing. Music is something that just happened that I was fortunate enough to have happen to me as a career. All along the way, I made short films, and then I made my first feature in 2000 and I just thought I’d put myself directly inside of the process, which is the most important thing. I can’t articulate enough how much that is the thing. The end result is just like icing on the cake.
Is 2000 when your filmmaking collective started to come together?
That’s when I started forming it. Very much in the way that a theater group functions or a musical group of like minded people that were interested purely in the process and expression as a form of therapy. The expression as having some sort of medicinal property to it and not just entertainment… Musicians are some of the most awful bunch that you’ll find on this planet, and the drive usually is girls first and foremost, and second to that money, and I just didn’t relate to that at all. Right away it’s like going through a crowd and then you find someone who’s not talking about either of those things, and is talking about the things that are important to you, and you grab onto them. You grab onto them and twenty years later I still know those people.
What was the shoot like? What it was like working for with these people and doing this crazy, wacky film?
It was amazing. It served exactly what it was supposed to serve, which was the addiction to the process and to therapy. Everybody, the crew that didn’t live in Guadalajara, mainly the editor and the cameraman and one of the lighting guys came and stayed at my house. This is where I lived until recently, and the rest of the actors and the rest of the people who were involved were all people that I met while living in Guadalajara and going to see theater and going to see plays and seeing children’s plays. There’s this theater group called Opa, they do anything from kids stories, to issues about the murdered women of Juarez. Immediately I said, “I have to know these people.” I snuck backstage one day and I said “It was beautiful, I want to make a film, would you like to be a part of it?” And once we sat and talked about it and understood where I was coming from and saw the script and realized that, more than anything, it was this social commentary, they were on board, and said anything we can do to help. So they gave me access to all of their facilities where they rehearsed, their own actors, their people, their locations, I really couldn’t have done it without them. The shoot itself is like any independent movie, which is 18 hour days, absolutely insane, but also done in a third world country, which means that the rules are made up as you go along. The hotel that we shot at was in a very dark part of town. Very nice people who run it, but it was a place where people come to do drugs and to have sex and things like this. They gave us full run of the place but we definitely had to respect the ecosystem there and not get in anybody’s business—just stay focused on what we were doing. And humor anyone if they wanted to, if they had questions or wanted to be a part of it somehow.
How did you come to cast Kim [Stodel, who plays the American interloper]?
Kim worked before on the previous film called the “Sentimental Engine Slayer,” and I thought he was interesting, and I needed a character that would represent consumerism and globalism and corporate America. I knew that he would get it and he had enough of a sense of humor about himself and his culture to participate.
How did you direct your actors? Was there a specific direction that you gave them?
Kim was really good about sitting me down and doing something that I just absolutely, generally don’t have the patience for, which was ask me a lot of questions. I would rather talk about things that are lateral to the film more than the film itself, because I feel it’s a more effective tool. But he asked me a lot of specific questions and so, respecting his own process I humored that. There was a lot of work in pre-production done with him. I’m one of these annoying people— I love the process so much and I love actors’ choices so much, that as we’re doing a scene I’ll give them new lines because their choices inspire me. It’s all about the process, so his choice in a way that he says a certain line that was written that I would have never thought he would say it like that makes me go oh, it means this now so I’ll throw another line at him right during, and some actors really don’t like that. And some of them love that energy. It was different for each scene simply because the overall concept was to have it be German New Wave and at other times have it be very Buñuel, and so it depended on what was happening and what the intent of the scene is.
That’s a nice segue because I wanted to ask you about one of your filmmaking inspirations, not just filmmaking but artistic inspirations. Do you have filmmaking influences? Or people that inspire you in that way?
Definitely without a doubt, I can’t stress enough, my biggest influence is my mother. Everything goes back to her, because she is god and she is life. But having said that, I grew up with cinema since I was young and luckily my parents were really into film so I was turned on to Fellini’s work very early on, and especially very fable-like cinema like Fellini’s “Satyricon,” Pasolini, Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Buñuel of course,Jodorowsky. I consumed it just like I consumed music and art and literature and anything else. One thing leads you to another, because then you read an interview about one guy and he’s talking about someone who came way before him and then you go there. That’s really the exciting part of getting beneath the films and beneath the surface of the text that’s there.
Why did you decide to manipulate the ADR in the way that you did to make it sound overly artificial and dubbed? What was the intended affect?
Imagination. I love forties and fifties Mexican cinema, I love sixties Italian cinema and, anyone who knows anything about either of those two eras can relate to it immediately and it produces a completely different feeling. I do it because I can and because it’s part of the imaginative process. Some people will complain that they say it took them out of the film, and I couldn’t disagree more. I just think it makes you take things in in a different way which is what I’m going for.
You’re listening to it in a different way because it’s given to you in a different way, it’s holding you at a distance a little bit so you have to listen to it differently.
I don’t ever want people to see it for the surface of what it is, and I want them to go deeper. In the Q&A they asked me “Why this choice? Why this farce or this extreme allegory?” I cited one of my favorite quotes by Albert Einstein, which is if you want your children to be smart read them fantasy stories. If you want them to be smarter read them more fantasy stories. That was always a big thing in my culture. I grew up in a household that wasn’t religious as much as it was spiritual, and we fasted on Sundays, I’m vegetarian for 31 years and every Sunday we had a ritual that was created by my mother and my father. Not by a distant figure, not by some indoctrine, some homogenous system, but created by my mother and father. We had all of the great books on the shelf, the books without authors, the Bible, the Koran, the books of the Kabbalah and on Sunday, it would be someone else’s turn in my family, and when it was my turn I got to pick at random one of the books, take it down, open it at random, point at random, and then read one paragraph of that. You say what it means to you and the whole family would discuss what it means. Very early on I was made aware that the bear is not a bear, that fire’s not fire, and heaven’s not heaven and hell is not hell— this type of thinking. I’m so grateful to them for raising me this way because it really opened up my mind. My father is also a psychologist, very early on, at 11 I was reading Jung— his most simple work, which is what he did right before his death, “Dreams, Memoirs, and Reflections.” It’s written for laymen. You go from that you start going backwards, and I was introduced to “Man and His Symbols.” When you think of it in that context, fable and myth is the strongest… Einstein also has a quote that the society that starts to lose its myth is a society that’s starting to go downhill. The fall of every society is when they start losing their myth, their love of myth and their ability to interpret myth, which is what’s happening now. It allows you to open up your head and think in a different way that your normal patterns stop you from perceiving.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
You mentioned you are a vegetarian, so how was the slaughterhouse? Was that something that you wanted to show because of how brutal it was?
The slaughterhouse was very, very intense. I had to write a letter to the municipal government in order to get the okay to film there, and then the place that I wanted to film was the most dangerous place you could be. I had to sign a release. Just behind the image of the cow being slaughtered, you see a cow that is dropped on its head and that’s how they kill the beast. They were saying sometimes that doesn’t kill them completely and so they get up and they charge right through the place. I said I have to film here, it won’t work unless I can have this angle.
But, what I want to make clear is that I’m a vegetarian for me, I’m not a person who’s going to tell other people what to eat. I don’t think eating animals is wrong, I think that consumption without conscience is wrong. That’s what that whole scene represents. Something interesting is that when scene happens, no one walks out. When they saw a real life creature, a real sentient being having its throat cut and vomit, nobody walked out. Thirty seconds later when they see what they know is a fake child’s throat get cut, ten people walked out. I find that so interesting how desentized people are, and that’s the point. Someone asked me last night, “Why is the taco meat the baby, why did you cut the baby’s throat? Did you really have to do that? Is it just for shock value?” It’s not for shock value. I wish you would look beneath it, what I’m saying is that when you consume without consciousness you consume your children. You consume the next generation. That’s what’s happening right now. When you push out farmers and people who are giving you real meat, who give cows grass because that’s what they eat and then you slaughter the cow and then you eat the cow which is supposed to be the food chain. When you replace that with genetically modified corn, you know I could on forever about it. Films have been made about the same subject matter. When you consume without consciousness, which is where we’re at the height of it right now, you consume your children, because there’s not going to be anything left for them.
I interpreted the eating the young through the social ills, the misogyny and the abuse, but I hadn’t really thought about the cow and the conscious eating. I wanted to ask about the teeth removal, what’s that symbol?
Throughout the film Kim’s character complains about his teeth. It’s a Macbeth thing, he thinks he has blood on his hands and can’t wash them off. For him, that’s every awful business deal he’s ever done at the expense of another culture, every single fake social interaction where you smile but you don’t really mean to smile. The people who have told me, “Oh interesting film,” and they smile, there’s this fakeness. For him, every time he smiles he’s reminded about every awful industrialist type colonial mentality thing that he’s done, every handshake, every awful thing that he’s done and so he wants to remove them. Los Chidos give him this gift of pulling out his sickness, getting to the root of the problem and pulling out his sickness one by one. It was an attempted Macbeth thing. He knows the false front that he has, when he smiles and he says yes, I’m everyone’s friend.
[END OF SPOILERS]
What are you going to do next?
Film wise, we’re trying to get this next project funded, called “Nino y Esperanza,” and it’s taking a typical barrio film and flipping it on its head.
You’re continuing with music, but also continuing with film as well?
Film is what I want to be doing. Music is what I get to do for a living. Film is what I’ll continue to do, whether or not it’s funded or whether or not anyone ever sees it. I made three other films before this that no one’s seen and that was the intention, just to do them for the process.
How do you feel about this film being shown to the world? Is that kind of a new experience for you?
The last one also played at Tribeca and, it’s nerve wracking, it’s like a funeral. You’re happy because you know it means another life, but you’re sad also because it’s no longer yours.