SSIFF 2021 interview: Iván Fund (Dusk Stone)

Iván Fund’s most recent film Dusk Stone had its world premiere in Venice, where our own Cédric Succivalli was one of the programmers who selected him for the Giornate degli Autori program there. Now the film is in San Sebastián, in the Horizontes Latinos section. In this conversation, the two of them discuss the film’s origins, Fund’s process and what that meant for the actors and crew, and the careful balance between the elements of direction in the film.

CS: The film world premiered in Venice, where we programmed it in our Giornate degli Autori. Now you are here in the Horizontes Latinos section, in a high profile line-up this year. What has your personal journey been since Venice?

IF: I feel very grateful about what happened with the film. Having the chance to premiere it in Venice was amazing, especially as we had the opportunity to watch the film with an audience. A couple of months ago that seemed impossible. It’s actually quite strange, this journey, since it has been such a long time since we shot the film. We started the project in 2018, and shot the next year. So showing the film now is all very emotional and intense, but it feels a bit like introducing an ex-girlfriend to your parents. But I’m very proud of the relationship we had! (laughs)

CS: The film is a slow burn with multi-layered thematics, and it takes a couple of viewings to fully take it in. Where did the idea originally come from, and this is not a spoiler since it’s the start of the film, this story of a kid drowning in the ocean?

IF: I myself am not sure if he died, but that’s just me. I prefer to not be that certain about events or about the motives of my characters. I wrote the original script several years ago, and it was a very sad drama about a couple losing a child, but it had a small fantastical element in it. That was the element that drew me to the story, that stayed with me. Once we got to make the film, the only approach for me was to evolve the fantastical element and embrace the drama. The story is a real tragedy, yet I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell the story in such a sad way. Then I found that inside that drama about a couple’s grief was a story that was bigger.

CS: Very striking with regards to resilience and coming to terms with the loss of a child, whether real or symbolic, is a magical element that is the cornerstone of their grieving process and enables them to find peace with their loss. How did you direct your actors in this peculiar way of being unmelodramatic in what essentially is a melodrama?

IF: I thought the film was a shoreline story. They were literally in between the ocean and the dunes, but they also metaphorically were at a crossing, they had to choose a path forward one way or the other. I wanted to hit the tone of the films that the kid in the film could have loved, or the films that I loved as a kid. Through the absence of the kid they in a way fall into his world. They go through grief, but at the heart of it is the kid’s world, and that creates a balance in the film. For me it’s a film about our relationship with childhood. The grieving process for me is not what happens to the characters, but more how I deal with getting older and with how I relate to what cinema meant to me. That was the way I wanted to tell the story, people supporting each other through these fantastical cinema elements. I wanted to express the references to ’90s cinema and the films that I loved back then through an emotional layer.

CS: Paramount to me is the theme of bonding and friendship. When the best friend of the mother enters the film, she brings everybody together through her charisma and empathy, and she reignites in the couple the desire to live.

IF: Exactly. To me she is kind of the main character, as she is a witness, and through her friendship with the couple that’s what saves them. That is a key element of the film, to have a witness that can tell your story, and to bring sympathy and empathy. Maricel Álvarez, who plays the character, was actually the first actor to be involved in the project, from the very beginning. I made a film with her before, Toublanc, and since then we wanted to work together again. I love what she brings to the film. But it was a privilege to work with the whole cast. They had no script, just a short story we adapted from the original script together with Martín Felipe Castagnet, a screenwriter but also a science fiction novelist. We gave the actors the short story, and then every day we discussed the scenes we were going to shoot. I shoot during the day, edit at night, and then write in the morning. That’s something that works for me. All actors were very open to work that way. Even Alfredo, who is known to pay close attention to the script. He made a huge exception for me, thankfully. We talked on the phone, and he took a gamble on me. And even during the process he was very open to it. I remember on one scene I had given him instructions in the morning, then when we got to shooting it I had completely changed my mind on the character’s reactions: I felt we needed almost the opposite emotion from what I had instructed him. He understood completely and suggested to shoot the scene several times, with different emotions. That’s what we really needed, to understand that what matters is the life of the scene in the moment, not tied to what happens before or after. And I also have to mention Mara Bestelli and Marcelo Subiotto, who play the couple, and who are a couple in real life too. They were kind and clever enough to use that and put their bond on screen, and you can tell it helps the film enormously. So I’m very grateful for that.

CS: There are two specific elements of direction that stood out to me. One of them was the score, which to me was a key element of the narration, almost a character in itself. It was the only real melodramatic element of the film, which mixes the genres and balances the film. What was the choice here for you?

IF: The score is by Francisco Cerda, a composer from Chile. It’s funny how I got in touch with him. I didn’t quite like the composers that I was looking at at first. Then I thought: since there is a videogame element in the film, why not look at someone who composes for videogames? And he does that, normally, this is actually his first film score, and his first time working with an orchestra. He usually does more simple work for games, but I wanted a more melodramatic, classical score, very cinematic in a vintage way, referring back to those ’90s films. He couldn’t understand why I was asking him of all people. But I heard his videogame soundtracks and knew it could work. And it worked out very well! It’s a lot of music, which is not what is usually done in this kind of indie film. In a way it’s a voiceover to the film. The balance for me was to be reminiscent of the world of cinema: some scenes I wanted it to be part of the film, some scenes I wanted it held back, to give the audience a chance to read the dialogue between the score and the film. That’s complex, the process becomes a little intellectual. Some people find it hard to get back into the film after that. When you have just one side, you simply experience the emotions. But when you have two, your brain has to start working and analyzing. Sometimes for me a score is part of the film, not really underlining emotions, but more like an embrace.

CS: You’re also known as a DOP, and the cinematography here is extraordinary.

IF: Gustavo Schiaffino is truly amazing. He worked with natural light only, and that was quite a challenge. When the sun went down we had to shoot a lot. He has a very strong and formalistic history in documentary filmmaking, and only recently has started to move into fiction. Because of that background he knows how to articulate and to be that precise with what’s available. So we were shooting with no artificial light, and no script. For him this was kind of a nightmare, but he was so into the project and so open to it. That goes even beyond the image in a way, because it’s understanding the process, understanding what’s relevant and what’s not for the film. That’s the tricky part when you have to work with your team. What it represents to me is total confidence from the whole crew in my process. And I’m very grateful, because that’s not easy for them.

CS: So the cinematography is a bit like Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon. You did it better, actually, as you didn’t have candles. A film with no candles!