Lisandro Alonso and Viggo Mortensen are like the heroes of the world’s unlikeliest buddy comedy: a teasing, rib-nudging, jocular duo bridging two totally different worlds—Alonso’s the international arthouse, Mortensen’s the blockbuster mainstream. So what do a celebrated Argentine auteur and a Hollywood movie star have in common? A great deal, it seems: carousing through the press tour for the new film they’ve made together, Jauja, the pair talk and laugh about movies, history, philosophy, and any other subject that flits into view with the familiarity of life-long friends. Perhaps that accounts for why Alonso’s first time working with anything like a professional actor feels so much of a piece with his usual work. The Lord of the Rings star clearly put his trust in vision of his uncompromising director, and Jauja, much to the relief of Alonso’s admirers, is as satisfyingly strange as anything that came before.
Jauja stars Mortensen as a 19th-century Danish general found perilously adrift in the burnt-out flatlands of Patagonia, where the threat of death or capture loom large, and mysteries both physical and metaphysical abound. It’s a period epic and a Searchers-quoting Western, but it doesn’t play out quite like either, ultimately morphing appealingly into what you might call an existential thriller—a heady reckoning with the world and our unsure place within it. A stray dog, an enigmatic old woman, a child’s mysterious figurine: things shimmer into view and fade away as if in a dream, and it’s never entirely clear what any of it means. Following Jauja’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Alonso and Mortensen. In customarily high spirits, the two discussed how they came to work together, how their unusual movie was made, and why it doesn’t matter if you don’t really get it.
Let me begin by asking about the genesis of this project.
Lisandro Alonso: It began when I received an email saying that a couple I know were killed in Manila, in the Philippines. They were both film critics: Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc. I got shocked by the email, and I couldn’t move for a couple minutes. And then I start thinking, well, “this is it,” you know? It was the first time that I had been shocked, because I know the girl, and, you know…
Viggo Mortensen: … suddenly they’re gone.
LA: That’s it. The girl was from Slovenia, and she fell in love with the guy. I just saw her before she moved to Manila, to the Philippines, and she said, “no, Lisandro, I fell in love, and I decided to change all my life just to follow what I feel. I feel that I have to follow this guy, so I’m moving to the Philippines.” And I said, “oh, perfect!” And she was telling me, “You should do the same, etc.” But after what happened, I realized that there would be a father who has to go there, and bring the dead body of the girl, and I keep thinking, you know—this is the worst. Man. So I kept thinking about making something based on that experience. Then I started to get in touch with Fabian Casas, who is a poet, a very close friend of Viggo’s. I just called him to say I know some of his work, not all, because I don’t read poetry that much. He said to me, “okay, well I like your films, some of them,” so I ask him if he wants to start writing with me.
And you began working together on the script?
LA: Not right away. He told me, “Okay, first we should try to be friends, no? And then maybe we can try.” It took like two years—now we are very close friends. We have children the same age. Suddenly Viggo got on board. He didn’t know, but I was dreaming of that since I met Viggo here at TIFF in 2006. You were presenting Captain Alatriste: The Spanish Musketeer. Then I just meet him, and I say, “Whoa, I’ve never worked before with real actors.” So once I meet Viggo, we start talking, because I was from Argentina. He’s a normal guy—well, more than normal, you know? And then I get this feeling to do something, and suddenly it got connected from different angles. Fabian told me you have a Danish passport, and I say, “Okay, even better.” Of course in reality the soldier should be, like, an English guy.
VM: An English soldier would be more likely at the time, although there were other cases. I did research and found out some Danish people—and usually a guy like that, a military person—would’ve left Denmark under kind of complicated circumstances. You had the option there, sometimes even with murder, or something, a serious crime: you either go to jail here, or you leave the country and you don’t come back. It could’ve been that. We don’t explain it. It doesn’t matter. Maybe he just simply got this job, to be an engineer for the Argentine military; in any case, he goes.
LA: Whatever it is, I just get that for me it was much better to have a Danish guy, because that makes more unique this fairy-tale, this story.
VM: The fable. The story becomes more unique if it’s a Danish guy rather than an English. The connection with the English and the Argentine goes back a long way, you know—a love-hate relationship.
LA: Especially hate. [Laughter]
VM: But it’s still the same idea of a northern European, rational sensibility—someone who’s trying to, in the end, do the character work as the audience, in some sense. You’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and gradually starting to lose the ability to make sense of it, but you still insist, looking for logic. The rational man, from a European-centric point of view, in a place where none of those rules still apply, where it doesn’t work—he tries, and keeps trying. He keeps his uniform on, and his medal, and he’s still trying to…
LA: … find it. The right way to do things.
VM: And it’s also funny. It’s nice that there’s some humour, too, because of this culture clash. It’s not like slapstick, it’s just the circumstances: the situation is humorous, these different worldviews, different aims that the characters have. Like the first scene, with the guy with red trousers: One guy wants one thing, and the other guy is like, “nah,” and he’s just overwhelmed by the guy. The guy’s just stubbornly insistent that he wants to seduce the guy’s daughter, and that’s it. That’s all he really cares about.
But you can sympathize.
LA: I can understand the character.
VM: I mean, there’s no women around, right? But also the attitude, just the attitude culturally about the indigenous people, is just a whole different—the European has a scientific approach, and even, I think, there’s an implied racism there as well: “I’d like to study these subjects, and what are they, and what do we really call…” and the other guy’s like, “nah, you just gotta kill them all.”
LA: Yeah, but actually, I think—I mean, you kill the guy, too. I mean, the character does—you know what I’m saying. Everybody knows how to kill over there. They’re surrounded by death.
VM: My thinking is practical: I’d like to know what I’m killing. Am I catching a brown trout or is it a rainbow trout?
There’s that line, “how can we hope to understand them if we don’t have a name for what they’re called?” The other guy’s just sort of like, “who cares?”
VM: Exactly! “No, we don’t have to understand them, we just have to exterminate them!” And he looks at me, and I sort of pause, and he thinks I don’t understand: “We have to kill them all.” I’m like, “yeah, yeah, I get it.” [Laughter]
I like the idea of your character wanting to get the names down, the classifications down, but it’s a film of so much inscrutability. The idea of trying to get a name for everything in the film would be impossible.
VM: But he tries.
Yes, he tries, and I guess tries and sort of fails.
VM: Yeah. Ultimately, yes.
It’s like life itself—where should we go on? What direction? Did you enjoy the ride, or whatever you want to call it? That’s how I feel. Also, I really enjoy doing the shooting when I’m not sure about what I’m doing. Even if I control the situation, I just get bored.
I read this great review of the film in Cinema Scope the other day—the critic described the setting of the film as “cinema itself.” Do you guys think that feels right?
VM: Maybe the format helped, too, the aspect ratio. Very cinematic.
LA: Yeah, the format. I know the guy who wrote it, he’s a close friend, Quintín. But he’s not just a friend, for me he’s more. He used to be the film director of the BAFICI film festival, and probably he’s the guy that I most respect in film criticism, but I think he’s trying to describe the lack of inhibition of cinema—that there aren’t limits. Not even the filmmaker knows the limits, you know?
I like the idea that it takes away any obligation to try to understand everything that’s going on in the movie. Do you know what I mean?
I would hate for someone to walk out of the movie frustrated that they didn’t “get it.” For me, it’s more that you don’t need to understand everything in the film; you’ve just got to give yourself over to it.
VM: And let it just fill you. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have seen it, and it just comes in little waves. You’re like, “Oh, but actually that means that…” Even just the story of this little wooden soldier, what does that mean in terms of layers, time, past, present? Or whose dream is it, if it is a dream? Is it the girl’s dream, is it the wooden soldier’s dream, is it the dog’s dream?
I like that.
LA: That’s the wonderful thing in the film. I didn’t know, maybe nobody else knows. It doesn’t matter. What matters is, did you enjoy the film?
VM: That’s the main question, exactly. That’s the question.
LA: It’s like life itself—where should we go on? What direction? Did you enjoy the ride, or whatever you want to call it? That’s how I feel. Also, I really enjoy doing the shooting when I’m not sure about what I’m doing. Even if I control the situation, I just get bored.
VM: Yeah, you planned it to a degree, and then all of a sudden other things happen. The person that you’re filming does something different, or has a different expression, or something in the landscape gets your attention. Subconsciously it makes me think of something else, and it takes you. You had the foundation, but you kept discovering things as you went along.
LA: I like to have the 20 pages of script here, in my pocket, just to feel secure, but it doesn’t mean that everything had to be like it was written. I don’t know—I don’t think there’s too much improvisation in the film at all.
VM: No, we were pretty faithful to it, but there were little layers, just the odd word or reaction. There’s certain little things in Danish, like when I fell by accident; we were walking up the hill, and I fell down, sore, and I’m like, “fucking shit.”[Laughter]
“What a shit country.” So great.
VM: The Argentines are watching and they’re laughing really hard, and the Danes are watching and loving it.
LA: Yeah, everyone’s like, what are you doing here? [Laughter]
VM: Yeah! And if you asked the guy, “why the hell are you wearing these slippery boots, and spurs, and a fucking sabre?” It’s ridiculous, your fucking uniform. It’s like, “take your coat off, for Christ’s sake. Take your spurs off at least!” But that’s his desperate attempt to have a sense of reality. This is the way things are done. He’s about to rush out of his tent with his gun, and it’s like, “wait a minute. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” The rational man. “Okay, I’m gonna put the uniform on, I’m gonna get the whole outfit on, I’m gonna get a horse, I’m gonna do this right. The correct way.” And then they take his gun, and they take his horse, and they take this hat, but he’s still got his little service medal.[Laughter] But to someone from that part of the world, or us watching, it’s absurd. He’s like a Scandinavian Don Quixote character.
But to him it seems fine.
VM: To him it makes perfect sense—this is how you do these things. You have to go look for somebody, and there may be people out there, and if there’s an enemy then I have to represent what I am, because if I don’t represent what I am, I’m lost. I mean, he’s not thinking that, but I think subconsciously it’s saying, “if I don’t represent very clearly who I am, I don’t know who I am, and then I’m in big trouble. Then I’m lost.” By the end, when there’s the insistent question—what is it that makes a life function and continue and move forward?—he’s thinking, “man, I don’t know,” and he gives up. Exactly.
LA: Actually, when we were shooting, I was asking myself in silence, “Should this guy show more feelings?” Because now it seems like it’s, “okay man, hurry up, your daughter is gone,” you know? You take your time, but I think at that time, military people were cold guys. Even if your daughter had been raped by the Indians, I think at that time it should be more that way. Nowadays, that feels more ... insensitive.
VM: Yeah, but he’s pretty upset. Once he’s looking, he thinks they got her, and the guy takes his horse, and he’s running around, and he’s pretty desperate.
Yeah, he’s not cold.
LA: The first time he finds the little toy you feel something is happening inside you.
VM: But there’s also hope. It’s like, “okay, I’m gonna keep going.” And then there’s just these things that happen, layer and layer. At the end, the dog leads her to the same toy, like he led me. And it’s like...
LA: … I don’t know—I think the film is mutating.
VM: Yeah, mutating, evolving.
LA: Not all the time, but at least three or four times. It starts showing who’s who, where the place is, the situation, the roles, and then it goes a little bit like a Western, and then suddenly, from the part when he’s completely alone, walking on the rocks, it’s a little bit like—not Stalker, but you know. With the dog, and things, it’s starting to…
VM: … affect him mentally.
LA: Yeah, there’s something in that. I feel like it’s happening more in his head than in the film itself. Then it gets completely like, I don’t know, what is happening in the cave? Calum, I’m asking you: who is the lady in the cave?
I don’t know! His daughter in the future? Either way, I love that scene.
VM: It’s because there’s this jump, and then this final jump to Denmark. But you do it in a way that just … happens. Some people are gonna be impatient, especially some critics that go and see one movie after another, and they’re like, “Oh, c’mon, nothing’s happened, what the hell is this.” [Laughter] But there’s something about it—if you just let it happen to you, without judging, just watching it … I think that for most people the rhythm becomes seductive. You go over your preconceptions and how you look at movies and you look at this movie—that’s what this movie does, I think. This movie specifically seduces you into changing gears and accepting a different kind of rhythm, in terms of time and place, but especially time.
You just follow it, trust it.
VM: You go with that, and then that becomes a concrete reality. Then it mutates, and then the reality becomes a little stranger. It’s done with the lighting, it’s done with the music, it’s done with the sound, and it’s done with the type of editing. And then, by the time you get to the end—if you’d made that jump from the beginning it’d be too much—by the time you get to the cave you’re like, “yeah, okay.” And then when you get to castle in Denmark, and she’s hearing the radio, and she’s getting up, and she’s having a glass of milk, you’re like, “okay.” And then the dog! “Oh, of course, the dog! There’s the dog! There’s the dog!” And then it’s over. It seduces you into accepting the rhythm.
LA: That’s what this guy is talking about in Cinema Scope. That’s what cinema should be: little by little, just get seduced, and let yourself go to something that will provoke you pleasure, or something. I don’t know.
The way that the toy comes back at the end, in the final scene, reminded me of your film Liverpool.
LA: With the keychain.
Yes. Was that a deliberate echo for you?
LA: Yes, it does have a lot of elements from my previous films. Like you say, with the keychain.
Yes, the keychain. The idea of it representing something that’s totally incomprehensible to the beholder.
LA: But actually, if you see the previous film, Los Muertos, it’s always a father losing or trying to get to a daughter, or son. With Los Muertos, the end is with a toy, too. I don’t have a lot of imagination. [Laughter]
VM: But I love props in movies in general—props have a power. I always place great importance on them. There’s things that happen—there’s movies where there’s been a scarf, or a bandana, that has its story, and it goes from one character to another, or a hat that has a story.
LA: And it happens with the old lady, and the young girl, who takes the thing…
VM: But also the toy soldier—that was something that we decided we could add another layer, because there’s a question here: what is he hallucinating, or what are we hallucinating? Is this his daughter? Is this his wife? Who is it? She makes a couple of mistakes, it seems, to give away that she’s the daughter, but he’s trying still, with his last energy, mentally, to have a logical explanation. So he’s trying to answer her questions, and she says, “What was my mother like?” And he’s like, “What do you mean?” And then he just has this feeling, it’s an instinctive thing, and he’s like, “I’m gonna show her this.” So he takes it out and shows it to her, and her reaction, she’s like a little girl. It was beautiful, and you’re going, “holy shit,” you know. Then when she talks about, “there was a girl, who loved a boy,” and that may be her talking about the way I was as a boy, when I met the mother of the girl, and the dog, and the whole… you know what I mean? Time repeats itself, or there’s this idea that there are different Lisandros, and different planes, and there are multiple universes happening at the same time, and you’re different ages.
LA: I guess that a lot of that came from that I worked with the boy, Fabian Casas, keeping a lot of those elements. In the middle of the cave, talking about his wife, like an extreme beauty…
VM: “Unbearably beautiful, like a carnivorous plant.”
LA: What is he saying? [Laughter] I don’t know—that’s poetry, probably. That’s not my world. That’s Fabian and Viggo’s thing.
VM: Yeah, but it’s his fears. It’s like one of these blogs that we write, where he talks about his wife sometimes—he makes her sound like a monster, but really she’s really sweet! But it’s his paranoia. He got very upset, something in this one blog where she’s writing about that he didn’t clean this little wooden knife, and to him it becomes this big existential crisis! All she’s saying is, “I’m just saying, there’s this little thing on the thing, just wipe it off,” and he’s like, “No! Everything’s wrong!”
For me it felt like when you have a dream, and it makes emotional sense even if it isn’t logical.
VM: Well in moment it makes total sense, and then when you wake up, you’re like, “wait a minute…”
Yeah, like, “was it my mother?”
VM: Yeah! How could she be in the cave, and she’s got my hat, and my clothes, and it’s our beds from the tent, and what the hell?
LA: Suddenly, when this guy just appears, saying “hi,” and starts talking Danish—“Who’s he talking with?” And suddenly you just see the old woman with the dog, and it’s like, “who is she?”
I wanted to ask both of you, separately, the same question. Lisandro, would you describe your approach to making movies as “intuitive,” and Viggo, would you describe acting in this movie as an intuitive thing, since there’s not a ton of planning, and not a ton of scripting?
VM: Speaking for myself, I like to make the best possible preparations I can, as thoroughly as I can, everything I can think of, everything. I do this for every character, no matter what movie: what happened from when the character was born until the first page of the script? How did he get there? So then that influences, in this case, the uniform, the sword, his war experience—what does that service medal represent? Specifics: where is he from in Denmark? How should he speak Danish? All of those things. I like to make the best possible preparations for accidents to happen. So then, when accidents happen, you can do something with it. But I prepare, just like you prepare the lines, prepare all the research, and then forget about it. If somebody drops a prop on the ground, maybe you pick it up, maybe you don’t, maybe you look at it, and it changes the way … I don’t know, it feels like you prepare really well, and then you want things to just happen. You don’t want to analyze things in the moment of doing it—you just do it.
LA: It’s difficult not to plan a film when it takes three or four years.
VM: And the locations! You go thousands of miles to find these locations.
LA: Because you are not doing it—you just get images, or feelings, or sensations. But most of the planning work that I have to do is just to get surrounded by a good crew, good people, good people that I want to work with…
VM: But then people do other things, like the director of photography decides to put a light here, or you know.
LA: Things appear with some kind of frame that I already created.
VM: You know what the relationship is with a father and a daughter, for example, and you say, on the last day of shooting, “We need a moment with the father and daughter to understand the affection that they have for each other, how much she means to him, so that the stakes are higher when he goes to look for her—that he will do anything, he will never give up. We’re missing that beat.” And so then, at the last minute, we come up with a scene, and it ends up being the opening scene of the movie, and it’s a beautiful scene. But then you can do that because you already did the preparation and you know what the story is about.
LA: Most of all, I think I know, pretty sure, what I don’t like—what the film should not be. But it doesn’t mean that I know…
VM: … what it should be. [Laughter]
LA: No, no, it’s a big difference. If you don’t know what you don’t like, it’s too complicated.
So how much research are we talking about here?
VM: My research for a character—this one or any other one—I end up having notebooks full of things, quotes, ideas, historical facts in this case, and even clothes, and books, and things, and then you put it in a big pile. The closer you get to shooting, you take this one away, you take that one away, and then the pile gets smaller and smaller. Then it’s time to shoot, and you only have a few things, but they represent all the other things. You know what I mean? It’s there if you need it, in your mind.
LA: A filter.
VM: Yeah, a filter, right. But you have to do the work. You don’t have to, but it’s fun to look for the things that don’t work, and eliminate.
LA: Nobody is obliged to do it! It should be fun, no?
VM: Exactly. It was fun to shoot. It was very fun.