Damián Szifrón, Student of ’70s Cinema

Published September 16, 2014

ABOVE: A STILL FROM WILD TALES. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS.

Wild Tales, the excellent new film from 39-year-old Argentine director Damián Szifrón, premiered to a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Its reception at the Toronto International Film Festival last week was similarly enthusiastic. 

Described as a movie that crosses the line between “civilization and barbarism,” Szifrón’s lurid black-comedy-drama is a bizarre amalgamation of the Coen Brothers, Hitchcock, and David Wain. While certainly influenced by the aforementioned artists, Wild Tales is a singular work written and directed by a singular voice. To attempt to describe the plot of this “rage against the machine” excursion would be a disservice to Szifrón.

At Toronto, we spoke to Szifrón about the dangers of capitalism, his first memories of consciousness, and how we are constantly engulfed in violence.

SAM FRAGOSO: The characters in each of the six stories within Wild Tales are rather angry, and understandably so. The whole film essentially amounts to a hilarious, satirical, and searing middle finger to bureaucracy and big, corrupt governments. Are you drawing from your own life and worldviews?

DAMIÁN SZIFRÓN: Yes, I’m taking images from real life. Mine, people I know, weddings I’ve been to. But they didn’t end like that.

FRAGOSO: I was about to say, you’ve been to weddings like the one in your film?

SZIFRÓN: [laughs] No, but I’ve been to weddings where everybody knew things that the bride didn’t or the groom didn’t, and they were expensive and everything was controlled. And you can feel the violence and the tension there. Then I take those images into the world of fantasy and movies and I play with those ideas and I turn them into something else.

FRAGOSO: You seem to be interested in opening the floodgates.

SZIFRÓN: Yes. But I will say the violence preexists the violent confrontations. One guy drives the Audi and the other guy drives a very old car. One has air conditioner, the other doesn’t. And that’s violence. They both inherited those cars, those lives.

FRAGOSO: This is true. The press release says this is a film about “losing control.” I mean, the story about that car being impounded, which forces the man to go to the DMV … it’s relatable. That frustration never subsides.

SZIFRÓN: Of course, that is the fold of the system. The system is designed, and all the people are fucked by that system. And all the people who work for the system are hostages. We all know the system is not made for our benefit. We are consumers and contributors, but the whole things benefits a very few people. It’s a minor group.

FRAGOSO: What’s disheartening is that you seem to be angrier about it than most people in the U.S.

SZIFRÓN: I think that in more developed countries or more powerful countries, the poor people of the U.S., the people that make the stuff that U.S. consumers buy, don’t live in the U.S. Some of them do, but most don’t. I’m sure that you feel the abuse of publicity, everybody trying to sell you something.

FRAGOSO: Sure, but the benefit of living in America is that it’s incredibly easy to turn a blind eye—to ignorantly exist in this harmful, myopic mirage built for us. Does this happen in Argentina?

SZIFRÓN: Well, of course. It’s the same system all over the place. It’s something global.

FRAGOSO: The “cage” is what you call it.

SZIFRÓN: Yes, yes… I think of a cage, or a room with a very low ceiling that we have to crawl through. But you can feel that in many different things. For example, waking up with a machine that takes you off of your dream. I have a daughter now and she’s five years old. And every time we wake her up, she’s mad. I understand her, it’s a natural need. Wanting to sleep more is like wanting to go to the bathroom. We get used to being interrupted on a daily basis. I think that’s violent. Me? I’m a screenwriter, most of the time. Some of the time, I direct. So I wake up whenever I want. And I truly appreciated that, but very few people can do that. It’s not normal, and I think in a logical world made for us, that would be normal. You wake up and you do your stuff.

FRAGOSO: Haven’t you noticed how difficult it us to keep people in your life when you’re on this bizarre schedule?

SZIFRÓN: Yes, of course. Everything is assigned before we are born. It’s very hard to assign your own life and make your own decisions. If you want to get married, if you don’t want to get married; if you want to live with this amount of money or not.

FRAGOSO: Were you born to be a writer?

SZIFRÓN: I would say, yes. A writer for the screen. I’ve loved movies since I have memory. The first image I have of my life is watching a film.

FRAGOSO: Which film?

SZIFRÓN: Richard Donner’s Superman. That started my consciousness. I often think of your consciousness as a reel, and so the very beginning, the first images that I recorded, are those. And I’ll always go back to those images. That film was bigger than life. A man flying through the stars with a girl.

FRAGOSO: When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

SZIFRÓN: I think the moment I became a director was when I was nine years old. I was on vacation, and I used to have all these cameras in my house because my father used to love to shoot his family. He bought a lot of Super 8 cameras. We had the same camera that Marty McFly did in Back to the Future. A cousin of mine told me that a friend of his made a fiction film in his house, and I found that incredible because I had all the elements that were needed to make a film. So that summer I made some films with my cousins and my mother and my grandfather. 

FRAGOSO: And they were masterpieces, right?

SZIFRÓN: [laughs] No, they were trying to imitate some Hitchcock films that I loved, like The Birds. I also made a kind of a Psycho Halloween take where I put a mask on the lens and chased people around the apartment. And I thought I was making horror films, but when I screened them at night for my family they all laughed. 

FRAGOSO: Your father gave you the camera? 

SZIFRÓN: Yes, that’s why the film is dedicated to him. He gave me everything. He died a year ago, and he was my mentor. A true movie lover. I’ve been Hitchcock and Kubrick since nine. I saw The Godfather at eight. Those images stayed with me. 

FRAGOSO: There’s something about watching great films when we’re not old enough to fully comprehend them.

SZIFRÓN: I don’t think directors from this generation did films that can match some of the classics that I love. I truly love their work, but in terms of ambition and discovery, I don’t think we have our Jaws or our Godfather

FRAGOSO: Do you think that’s because you’re actually alive and living in this time? 

SZIFRÓN: No, because I think when those movies appeared they were breathtaking and game-changing. And I don’t know if I feel that now. I go back and read the reviews in the newspapers from when those films came out, and I don’t feel those fresh and powerful ideas and ambition. This is probably because the way the studios work, and I don’t know if there are a lot of people chasing those kinds of scripts or ideas or ambition. Some are. 

FRAGOSO: Is more about the money now?

SZIFRÓN: It was, in part, about the money. Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a huge amount of money, as did The Godfather. But I think a lot of people [that] run the studios today studied economics, and they are not as much impulsively attracted to films as the producers who founded the studio system. Perhaps you’re right, and I’m just idealizing old stuff. But you know, I truly love the 1970s more than the ’50s and the ’40s. The kind of films they made back then are the ones that made an unforgettable impression on me. 

FRAGOSO: You seem very much opposed to capitalism. 

SZIFRÓN: There’s something there. Obviously, capitalism has good things also. Of course, they gave us the medium to do a lot of stuff. But I think that perhaps it’s time to think about what we need and what we don’t need anymore. I truly don’t need to change my cell phone every year. I truly don’t need that. I don’t think I need a cell phone, but in case you need it and want to have it, I think we can build one that lasts for five years or 10 years. And you have your cell phone and you can stop looking for the new one. 

FRAGOSO: But then the people creating those new phones wouldn’t be making money. 

SZIFRÓN: But the people who make money… are very few people. Most people spend money. Few people make real money. And the difference between who makes large amounts of money and the rest of the world is huge. 

FRAGOSO: What’s the economical disparity like in Argentina?

SZIFRÓN: I will not know the numbers, but each year it gets bigger. But I think it’s a natural thing of how the system works. It gets bigger. That’s the formula. 

FRAGOSO: And where is this formula going to take us?

SZIFRÓN: I think it’s exploding in some countries. Often, people who criticize other systems say that they didn’t solve the world. But I don’t think that capitalism has solved the world. I think that new stuff is going to appear at a point, and I think we have more technology and socially we cannot compete with the technology we already have. It’s amazing, the cell phone that can send information and shoot images. The actual use is completely stupid. People are just chatting or tweeting and criticizing others. And so I think that the engineers and the amount of decisions that happened in the world to get to this is amazing and made by amazingly talented people. We’re not able to establish priorities and make decisions that help the majority of us and would result in a better life for all. 

FRAGOSO: But if the technology is so stupid, why do so many people use it?

SZIFRÓN: The technology is not stupid. What I’m saying is kind of obvious, and I think a lot of people feel like this. But you have to be very brave not to use a cell phone today, and I have to force myself a lot to read a book. It’s very hard to read a book in this day because the Internet distracts you and you spend hours looking at a screen. So it’s very hard to have a serious, deep conversation with somebody or spend a considerable amount of time understanding something.

I would say that stupidity is an addiction, and I know many, many addicts. And sometimes I notice that I am one of them. Just reading things that I already know, or things that I don’t really care about. We are losing our time. Everything is made for us to consume, and the reason things are the way they are is because they benefit a very, very small amount of people who probably have some kind of illness. For me it’s not that natural that once you get something you want more and more and more.

Most of the people I know, if they had $10 million they would go rest forever and ever. They wouldn’t want $20 or $500 million. That’s something that happens to very few people who are extremely ambitious that want things that they then don’t know what to do with. Most of us would like to go to the beach to spend our lives with the people we love—with friends, with family and enjoy, not accumulate. The enjoyable things of life are very easy to get. They are all there. It amazes me when you go to a very expensive hotel boutique… there’s nothing there. It’s expensive because you don’t have things. You have the forest. You have the river. You have a cabin made of wood. A fireplace. That’s it. And that’s extremely expensive today, just to get out of the cities and concrete and not to have cars and traffic. I feel that nonsense all over the place. I feel trapped in a world that I don’t like with the thinking that we could have a much better and beautiful life.

WILD TALES WILL SCREEN AT THE SAN SEBASTIAN AND HAMBURG FILM FESTIVALS LATER THIS MONTH AND AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL IN OCTOBER.