San Sebastian 2023 interview: Eduardo Williams (The Human Surge 3)

Argentinian filmmaker Eduardo Williams wowed the Locarno film festival this year with his highly innovative 360-degree cinema in The Human Surge 3. Since then the film has already travelled the festival circuit quite a bit, landing in San Sebastian this week. It was there that the director spoke to Cédric Succivalli about the locations used in the film, casting as diverse as possible, the pitfalls of working in languages you don’t speak, and about how to create floating people.

CS: What struck me is how your film talks about the global south, as opposed to where we are right now, and I loved how connections were built through the flow of languages. I have poor eyesight, but I didn’t even have to read the subtitles, because the connections were made through body language and eye contact. The film spans three countries, and it starts in Sri Lanka. Why that location?

EW: My life is very much like that actually, I’m often in places where I don’t understand the language at all, so you have to learn to express yourself in different ways. Anyway, I wanted to go to three countries again like I did in my last film. I had been to Sri Lanka before, and I passed through the village with the spherical houses where the film begins. And it left an impression on me, because I never expected something like that in rural Sri Lanka. In general I like this duality between the fantastical that we see and the normality of it to the people that actually live there. My intention is always to go to a place I don’t know very well and discover which of my ideas I can develop there. I’m interested to see what happens with my ideas in new places; which ones survive, which ones turn into something else, which ones die. I don’t want to do a film about just my ideas, I want to see how they connect to different places and people. After that I went to Peru, because I wanted to go to a place that was flooded, and I found in Peru a location that is actually flooded for half of the year. It was also close to the Amazon jungle, a place I was curious to go for the film. And it was also close to my home in Buenos Aires (laughs). Taiwan was a bit different. One of my producers said they could help me if I wanted to film in Taiwan, and I followed the flow, interested to see what would happen in a place that wasn’t really chosen by me. While there I discovered many things I didn’t know about the country, and since I’m also interested in languages, as made clear in the film, I wanted to explore the tonal similarities to the language in Vietnam, where I had filmed before. But the main reason for me for all of these locations was to see how they would connect.

CS: When you first discovered those Stanley Kubrick-esque homes in Sri Lanka in the middle of nowhere, did you already have the intention to shoot with a 360-degree camera?

EW: For the people who live there it’s not the middle of nowhere! (laughs) But yes, I knew from the beginning. I liked the connection between the spherical houses and the 360-degree shots. But I had shot a short film before with a 360 camera, and when I finished that I could do the framing in virtual reality, so I knew I wanted to do a longer, more narrative film with this system of framing with my body.

CS: Your casting process was very open and spontaneous, I believe in some cases even through WhatsApp. Were you connected to the people you chose intuitively, or did you have a vague idea of the type of person you wanted to cast? Or did you simply want to be surprised?

EW: The only things that changed for me, in casting, from my previous films was that I encouraged LGBTQ people to apply. I knew and understood that if I didn’t encourage them it would be more difficult for them to come. I felt I needed them in the film, and I also didn’t want to film with just heterosexual people. I wanted the group to be as diverse as possible. I also tried to cast a wider net in terms of age range, but that was more difficult. Older people have more responsibilities, more stress. Unlike younger people they are already caught up in the rat race of making money, so they are less inclined to dedicate themselves to a project like this and become actors. Because it takes a lot of energy. I had to find out who really wanted to be there. After that it was mainly about how we felt together as a group. Sometimes one of them would tell something about their lives that would interest me or that I found peculiar, so I could use that. But generally I just wanted to start with a group of people, and then while we shot figure out who worked better in front of the camera, who would have the best memory so I could give them the important lines, and so on. I wasn’t looking for any type of person in particular, I just aimed for a group that was as diverse as possible, and to find that group in a natural way through the people that I meet, and figuring out who best flowed with the energy of the film.

CS: But already by choosing a wide range of age, and in particular by insisting on including LGBTQ people, yet not have that be a theme of the film, for once the queer element is not forced on the audience, it is simply part of the film’s world, as it should be. Is the film queer or not? I don’t really care, but what I do care about is that we have a form of natural queer representation in it that never feels forced. As a queer person myself, I really loved that.

EW: I also like that it’s not a theme in the film. Sometimes in films you have this situation that as long as queerness is not the theme, then queer people don’t seem to exist.

CS: Regarding what you said about memory capacity and the idea of script versus improvisation: did you have to use translators, given the different languages that were spoken? Because I assume you don’t speak Mandarin.

EW: I always translate my scripts, but when I speak to the actors I have someone helping me. For me it is important that they find the right words and their own way of saying them. I don’t care if they change the meaning a bit. Another thing I’m interested in is the loss of information in the vortex of communication: I write the lines, which are then translated for the actors, who give their own twist on them, which is returned to me again through translation. Some dialogue in the film is as written, some is improvised, but most of it is somewhere in the middle.

CS: The film is almost like ghost cinema towards the end, where we collectively have almost an out-of-body experience, and we see what seem like floating souls who take care of each other. That was one of the most transfixing, poetic moments in contemporary cinema for me. How did you create that floating effect?

EW: It was actually very simple. We asked many people with experience in shooting in 360, but most of them were afraid to do it. They usually work in more industrialized environments, and maybe they were afraid employers would see that they did this strange experimental art film. Even shortly before shooting somebody quit on us, so three days before the actual shoot it dawned on me that I would have to do it myself. So I just googled, “How to do flying people?” (laughs) We shot it before in Brazil, in front of a green screen, and then somebody back in Argentina helped me to make it look better. In the end it was a good thing that I did it myself, coming from a person with ideas on a computer. Many of the film’s ideas and what you see on screen come from living on our computers all the time, which is what I do and what many of us do. So there is some logic to the effects being very DIY. The imagery comes from my own dreams too; I float a lot in my dreams.

CS: I know we will never have The Human Surge 2, but will you directly jump to number 5?

EW: I would like the next one to not be a Human Surge, to tell you the truth. I prefer the next one to have a different, another title, and then maybe after that come back to The Human Surge.