SSIFF interview: José Luis Torres Leiva (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes)

José Luis Torres Leiva competed in the official competition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival with his third film, the ominously titled Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes. Though, given the film, we suspect Torres Leiva to be the love child of Alain Guiraudie and Angela Schanelec, he cites Robert Bresson as his biggest influence. About this influence and much more, Cédric Succivalli spoke to the Chilean director after his film’s world premiere.

CS: First of all congratulations, because for me your film is one of my two favorite films of the entire competition, and I really wanted to have the chance to speak with you about it. It’s pretty rare these days to have a film that deals primarily with womanhood, with a lesbian story at its core in a way that is neither glamorized nor romanticized, but more treated like an uncompromising Greek tragedy. How did such a story come to you and why did you want to talk about those two women and their love story, culminating in the death of one of them?

JLTL: Initially the story came from three friends of mine who all died of cancer. For the first time in my life I had to look death in the eyes and ask myself about the possibility of death at any moment in one’s life. Then I began to think about death, not in a tragic way but more about the beginning of a new life for those who remain after the death of their loved ones, the survivors. And at the time I was also reading a book by Cesare Pavese, The Business of Living: Diaries 1935–1950. It’s his last book, a diary. It is a very powerful book, it’s about work, love, and death, and for me it was very significant for this film.

CS: Your personal loved ones who passed away and this book were your starting point? But it is a fictional story, isn’t it?

JLTL: Yes, my starting point. It is fiction, it is a mix of these things. For me it was important that the main characters were women because the film is concentrated on the details, the gazes, the skin and its texture. The feminine sensitivity was very important for me, and I wanted to follow the pacing of the film according to this feminine sensitivity, as that is more delicate for me.

CS: One of the biggest strengths of the film, and there are many of them, is the time you give each one of them on screen, much longer than we normally see, with very long takes and also silent scenes that are extremely powerful. They give us a direct entry into their soul. The two actresses that you managed to cast for the film are absolutely phenomenal because they really give us a lot of information with an absolute economy of gestures. It is a commitment as a director to do something like that, it is very rare. So how did you work with them, did you do a lot of rehearsals beforehand or was there room for improvisation during the shooting?

JLTL: No rehearsals, only conversations about the characters, about their own experiences with death and their feelings about death. But only conversations. And when we shot the film many things came as if in a documentary, for example in the sequence when they are by the river, when she listens to music and the other woman is looking at her. All of that happened in that exact moment, when she looks at the other woman it was really happening in that moment. For me it was really important to capture the feelings of the actress with my camera.

CS: You gave them a lot of freedom, and it was a question of mutual trust, I can imagine.

JLTL: Yes, because the actresses didn’t know a lot at the beginning of the film. We met a lot, only for discussions and informal dinners, but they built a strong bond together, and for me that was an important process they had to go through.

CS: But did you give them a screenplay, or not even that?

JLTL: Yes, yes. But the screenplay was very simple, very minimalist, a few pages only.

CS: It is interesting that you should be talking about documentary, because to me there were moments where I almost felt I was watching a documentary on the body with the way you film the skin and its very texture. It is something extremely sensual, and this sensuality is all the more powerful because it takes place in a story about death, yet you never romanticize it, you never make it something over-melodramatic. That’s why I was riveted, blown away with emotions because I genuinely had the impression I was getting to know them personally as if they were my friends. That was really phenomenal. That was not a question, just a personal comment.

There is a gay sex scene right in the middle of the film that comes a little bit out of nowhere, which I really liked, but I would like you to expand on it. How did it build up? Why did you want to incorporate that gay encounter?

JLTL: For me this subplot is important because it talks about desire and the discovery of love and desire.

CS: It was another very sensual scene. It reminded me of early Guiraudie’s works, because it is organic and naturalistic but also goes with the elements and with nature. You blend physical sexual desire with nature in a way that is not very common on screen. Because often when we see gay sex scenes on screen, they are either a bit violent or with an element of domination or possession and radicality, so to speak. In your film it’s just a beautiful moment of desire. And I loved how you integrated that sequence in your narrative. Do you know Alain Guiraudie, the French director?

JLTL: Oh yes, of course. I love him! And speaking about that scene, it was important for me to carry on filming after they had had sex. When one of the men is looking at the other we can feel their breath and the movement of their belly.

CS: Yes! And you also capture all these tiny muscular movements with your camera. It’s a very sensual but also sensuous film. Like a detailed portrait of bodies and souls at the same time. A question about your personal references in cinema, if I may? Your film is referencing a myriad of various cinematic universes, Latin American, but also European and Asian ones.

JLTL: For recent reference, I love the work of Apichatpong, João Pedro Rodrigues, and Alain Guiraudie as well. But a very strong influence for me is Robert Bresson, for the gestures, the gazes. The first time I saw a Bresson film it had a huge impact on me. Bresson’s understanding of cinema and how powerful an image can be is incredible.

CS: It’s incredible that you should mention Robert Bresson because I seriously thought about him at times while watching your film, in the way the characters are not too underlined, more like bodies impersonating emotions. You do give a lot to those actors with your camera and we care for them even though they are not defined in a traditional way. We hardly know anything about their life, what they do, what they eat, where they go. We don’t care. What we care about is that love story, the imminence of death, and the continuity of desire. So in that respect it’s not a sad film at all. It could be very sad, but it’s a film about hope and about resilience basically, and how you come to terms with death. In that regard it’s one of the strongest films I’ve seen on that subject in a long time. Last question, you are here in San Sebastian in competition, how do you feel about the film’s reception so far?

JLTL: To me the selection of the film in the official competition was a big surprise because it is a small, intimate film. I know the film is not an easy film. But that is really the film I wanted to make, and that is important. To me it is important because it is a very honest film. And I am really happy with the premiere the other night. I know a lot of people walked out, but what was beautiful was the reception I had from those who stayed until the end. This was very touching.

CS: That’s what happens with the best films! I remember the world premiere of Colossal Youth in Cannes when hundreds of people walked out, but those who stayed until the end, like me, gave a long standing ovation to Pedro Costa, and that was a very special moment.

JLTL: I was there! I was at that screening too! That was something indeed.

CS: Well, those are the films that stay with you. And I hope yours will follow the same path!

JLTL: Thank you so much for that.