Alejandro Landes on Monos: “I got carried out of there on a stretcher”

It’s the last interview slot for the day, and Alejandro Landes is probably tired. The director of Monos – the phenomenal, hallucinogenic experience that is shortly about to win the top prize at LFF – is sitting back on his chair, at an oversized table in an oversized hotel suite thousands of miles from his native Colombia where Monos was shot.

The film, which we reviewed (and kind of raved about) here, follows an armed band of children through a mythical, heightened reality of remote mountains and dangerous jungle. We sat down with its director to discuss the process of making such a risky film in an inherently unreliable environment, and the political intentions behind the piece.

James Witherspoon: This film is anchored by a group of very powerful performances from young people, which can be hard to achieve. I was wondering how you went about casting such unique, distinctive actors to play your characters.

Alejandro Landes: Well that’s the real foundation of the film. We looked at over 800 kids, all over Colombia – on the street, in schools, and online. Whilst I was looking for locations, I was looking for actors too. There was a casting director at some point; my art director was looking; my co-writer Alexis Dos Santos was looking, I mean we cast a really wide net. And, of course there isn’t, like, a bunch of 12 or 13 or 14 year-old actors in Columbia – that doesn’t really exist – and I don’t really think that you should be a professional at anything at 12 or 13. *laughs*.

In the end, we chose 25 – kind of instinctively, because what can you know from a short video or from people on the street? We invited them to this sort of boot-camp like scenario on a mountain, not far from the opening scene, where they would do improv and acting exercises in the morning and in the afternoon, they would do physical training. They would do barefoot formations, learn how to carry a weapon, dance – these types of things – and they were living, eating, and doing everything together at the same time. It was almost like a Big Brother experiment: they were in the same bunks. After these gruelling two weeks, we could see who got along with who, who didn’t get along, who flirted with who – what you would see in a schoolyard. And that’s what gave us the idea, out of the 25, who would be the 8 that would work – not necessarily the best 8 individually, but the best 8 to be an ensemble.

The real heart of the film is the spirit of this mini-society – this squad – and I say that’s the foundation because I also rewrote dialogues and parts of the screenplay by learning more about them and spending time with them. Of course, you know…. “hey, can I have some coffee” – how I write is not exactly how a 14-year-old would say it, so I wanted to rewrite those dialogues for that.

Getting to know them was also key because they’re not professionally trained, and there had to be certain scenes opposite a really renowned Hollywood actress like Julianne Nicholson. I need to find out what Smurf’s [a character in the film] life is like, what his greatest fear is, what he wants, who his family is, so in the scene at that moment I could create scenarios that could speak to him in a way that was familiar enough to bring him to such high emotional stakes. You know, he’s tied to a tree and he’s begging for his life – I couldn’t ask that from a 12 year-old or a 13 year-old if I didn’t try to know them.

JW: Sexuality is so powerful in the film, and it’s one of the things that sticks out the most whilst watching it. Did all that tension come from the script, or did that evolve from the characters and the way they were interacting with each other as the shoot went on?

AL: That all came from the script. It was all set up, but the way they interacted off-screen – where there was chemistry – was what made me decide who would play who. It doesn’t mean they’re actually interacting like that…. *laughs* outside of the screen, but there’s a connection. They want to hang out together and there’s energy.

JW: The film feels very remote. It starts on this mountain top, and then we descend through a very inhospitable jungle. Whilst watching that, I couldn’t help thinking about Aguirre, and wondering what it was like to film in those conditions.

AL: Yeah, I mean it was an absolute beast. Everyone cried making this movie; it was really really intense. The difference from Aguirre is that Aguirre is more colonial and that it’s like these people discovering this remote, far away land – like what happens in Apocalypse Now. In Monos, the jungle is their territory – they’re born out of this land in a way. But yeah, it was legendarily hard.

First day of shooting, we took someone down in an ambulance who had had an epileptic fit; I got carried out of there on a stretcher. I mean, we were really on the limits of what we could do physically. It was just a film with a lot of bets, right, because it doesn’t have a single point of view – it navigates between several different ones like a pinball and it has that energy. There’s underage kids, animals, special effects, digital effects, a Hollywood actress, helicopters, underwater, remote locations where we don’t have a lot of lights or anything, and the idea was to use natural lighting. But all of a sudden, you’re enveloped in a cloud and five minutes later there’s torrential rain and five minutes later the sun is just blaring. You just get burned out on top of this mountain.

And then in the jungle we had a troop of donkeys bringing things up and down the jungle canyon; we had Colombia’s national rafting and kayak team with us; and then we had, down there in the river, these miners – the only people that lived there, because that river has gold – and those people would mine illegally for gold. Those people weren’t allowed to be there, but they were the only people who really knew how to handle that river and had learned how to live down there. So basically, our production assistants were two incredibly generous families of gold miners, a pack of mules and the mule handlers, and the kayak team. And then there was us.

JW: Speaking of that river, there’s a scene in the film in which people are in the river, and the predominant thing that goes through your head whilst watching it is “how the hell did they manage to film that?” So, how the hell did you manage to film that?

AL: Well, I mean, why would I ruin that for you?!

JW: Fair enough…. The film kind of reads on the surface as being very political, but no country or organisation are explicitly named. I was wondering what your intentions were in making those choices.

AL: That was probably the most radical political statement – creating a sort of ideological vacuum so that you could latch onto the humanity of the fighters. In the wars we’re living today, the battle lines are not clear. You see it in Afghanistan, you see it in Iraq, these are wars that are very different from the romantic front lines in World War One – where you have the two opposing factions each in their trench, the differences in uniforms and the supposed good and bad that fits the perfect ideological framework. Each person knows where they stand and what victory means, where one country starts and the other ends. In Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq, and in Colombia, it’s all about shifting alliances and friend can become foe in a second. War is low-intensity skirmishes fought from back lines in the shadows; wars can be so muddled that people want to look in the other direction – that’s like Columbia. That’s what makes the film modern.

Many times, I’ve had a critic in the United States say “well, war has a historical and a structural nature, and you need to describe that”, and I’m like “does it always? Are you sure?” We just tell ourselves the reasons we’re fighting to make ourselves feel better. Isn’t it sometimes maybe that war is within us, and that war is more personal that we imagine? That’s why the real conflict that happens in the film is the conflict between the members of this mini-society and not between armies. One wants to be loved, the other wants to lead, the alliances shift – you see these dynamics in a schoolyard but here you see them in a heightened situation. It would be a very reductive reading to say “Oh, these are child soldiers in a third-world land”, you know, “let’s donate some money to the United Nations, they can fix that problem”. No; they are us, and I’m glad that has very much landed in the UK.

I feel from the press that this political allegory came through well – political in the human sense. We are political by nature, because we are social by nature. I don’t have a message; I’m posing more of a question, and that’s why the film explicitly ends with a question – it breaks the fourth wall. It asks “where are we going?” which is very relevant to Colombia, but it’s very relevant to a lot of places. We’re so polarised right now – I mean, this country is incredibly polarised – and I’m trying to create that almost mythical fable to allow me to be subversive so that I could communicate that in a way where people’s ideological prejudices would have to be left at the door. You don’t know who these people are – are they communists? Are they right-wing reactionaries? Maybe it doesn’t really matter – the extremes seem more similar than we think.

JW: When you show the film in Colombia, do you get a different reaction than you do at, say, LFF?

AL: Yeah. You know what’s exciting? What people have really felt is that the film goes through the skin and the stomach of the political reality. It’s very jarring and intense, and in Colombia it hits home in a very particular way – but the film is subversive enough to shake people’s very entrenched stance.

I’ll tell you a story. At the beginning, the film had been winning all these prizes, but people back home were skeptical, because it’s a war film in a country that’s had 60 years of war. It has a very fragile peace agreement, and half the country voted against that peace agreement. So, people from the left were calling it right-wing propaganda and people from the right were saying it was a communist movie.

The first weekend, it didn’t do very well, and then people started going and going and going and now it’s the highest-grossing movie in Colombia in the past year, which is more than the Christmas comedies people make for popular consumption. And it’s been incredible – it’s really created a dialogue in a situation where people don’t want to talk, or they want to talk but they don’t want to concede their position. And it’s also exciting that, through the lens of Columbia, we’re talking about something that happens throughout the world. I don’t think it solely belongs to Columbia.

It’s forced people to navigate zones of grey – it takes victims and makes them victimizers and makes the victimizers victims; the place looks like paradise but then looks like hell at the same time. The relationship between man and woman, good and evil – the film forces you to navigate that uncertainty. I understand that life is super complicated, and we like to go into the cinema and say “look, this is the good guy, and this is the bad guy”, because, of course, you feel more comfortable. But I like navigating the uncertainty because it brings you to interesting places. The film is very natural – the places and the faces – but the way it’s put together with the soundscape and the camera language, it’s stylised. There’s a very unique visual grammar. That also juxtaposes something that looks real, but that is shot like a fantasy.

Monos is in UK Cinemas from Friday 25th October

James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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