Ahead of this weekend’s Oscars, a ceremony that packs the potential to make a difference both culturally and politically, we sat down with Sebastián Lelio, whose provocative feature, A Fantastic Woman, a universal story of love and loss that happens to a transgender woman and our personal favourite for best foreign language film. We chat on-screen trans representation, universality, compassion as source of social change and the power of a film that changes along with its character and with the society it aims to shake.
Talk us how this film came about and what your initial intentions for it were.
I was simply following an intuition – we were playing around with the idea of what would happen if the person you love dies in your arms. Then due to the scriptwriting process, that changed into what if this happens to a transgender woman. that was like a milestone. I heard a *clack* in my head. It sounded very moving, very dangerous as well. Full of traps. I didn’t have initial intentions – I was looking for something. Then we met a few transgender women in Santiago. And, to make a long story short, we met Daniela. And I didn’t know if I wanted to make the film back then. She became like a consultant, a friend of the project – and we became friends. Then I started to have intentions. If I made the film I was only going to do it with a transgender actress. And then the idea that I could make a trans-genre film about a transgender actress popped up. Then I understood that Daniela, who was talking to us about what being a trans woman in Chile meant, was the star.
So Daniela Vega was what made you sure wanted to do this project.
Yeah, it was a gradual project of understanding. This notion that there might be a film here grew and grew until the point that it became an urgent need. But you don’t start from the urgent need, you get there. That’s how it works for me.
I read that you adapted variations of Daniela’s experience into the script, with Marina and Daniela’s lives intersecting in more ways than one. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process, about how you managed to approach experiences so personal to her?
The film is not biographical, and I would say that there’s nothing that has happened to Daniela like it’s happening to Marina. She was sharing a lot about how she had to deal with these micro-agressions when she was treated as a man and how that has been so painful and difficult. Those things made their way into the script but, ultimately, the character of Marina is very different to Daniela. The main thing that she brought to the film is her presence, her body and the history that that body carries. Which is something that the camera knows.
People were also hoping for Daniela would get an Oscar nomination for her performance. How did you direct her, given that she had not acted in many movies prior to this one?
She is a natural, a force of nature. But then everything is an artifice. That’s the beauty of it, for the spectator to believe that Marina is real. She was very brave and generous, and willing to be guided. I think we both trusted each other and we jumped to the other without knowing if this was going to work or not. I remember 2 years ago when we were shooting and we were like – we have no idea. Now it’s easy to pretend that we did all along, but we didn’t.
The film quite literally projects Marina’s internal world from the very symbolic mise-en-scène to those moments of a break in realism in the dance scene or the wind scene. How did you start visualising her world?
Somewhere in the middle of the writing process, this idea of making a trans-genre film appeared. And I realised I could do anything – this device is capable of containing so many different tonalities, which gave me the opportunity to think about who I was going to homage. I decided to do a Buster Keaton sequence of her walking against the wind. I really like Busby Berkeley and his flamboyant choreographies and I thought maybe there was space for that too. When she’s flying towards the camera, it’s inspired from Berkeley’s kind of escapism. Suddenly there was room for that and there was room for a ghost. There was room for different layers of existence and I think what sustains that is the central question about identity. The main character’s identity is a subject and the film’s identity is a subject. We explored the question what is a woman, but as a filmmaker it also made me wonder what is a film – or what can a film be. If human identity can be in flux, can the film’s identity be in flux? Then maybe both things connect and resonate – character and movie.
How was the film received: from the very beginning to recent developments following the Oscar nomination?
I was expecting to be destroyed. I remember almost a year ago in the Berlin Film Festival, the film was about to start and I was like this is it, this is the end. But people loved it. I just couldn’t believe it. My experience with the subject was that it was so divisive – there was a National Geographic special issue that came out about a month before the Berlinale, about the shifting landscape in sexual identity. I saw the comments on the Instagram account – half of them were hateful, while the other half was talking about how inspiring it was. I was at least expecting division. But the film generates, first of all, a strong emotional connection with her. That’s probably why the reception was so intense. In Chile it was a process that escalated. Initially, it made half than what Gloria, my previous film did. It was re-released so it’s back in cinemas now. There is a great awareness of the existence of the film – it’s made its way into the fabric of society. People are talking about it, Daniela is kind of a celebrity, people are talking about transgender people. A film becoming more than a film is something beautiful to witness.
At the moment of the film’s conception the transgender community was not as visible in mainstream media, though the world was a more balanced place, politically speaking. Whereas now the tables have turned and whilst politics are sort of taking a step backwards, trans representation in media is evolving rapidly. And your film is at the forefront of that movement.
As the film was evolving, interestingly, trans visibility was exploding. This is something you cannot calculate – when the film was released, not only had trans visibility grown a lot. But the entire world had changed and turned 180 degrees towards the Middle Ages. Brexit, Trump, extreme rightwing success everywhere. Suddenly, the film became urgent.
In the film, the state is complicit in the trans abuse that Marina faces throughout. To what extent did you hope to actively challenge social norms with it?
Up to a certain level I was very interested in the political dimension of the film, but at the same time I was deliberately trying not to stay in that lane and to create a more complex animal. Under the belief that if you manage to create a strong cinematic experience, then the political dimension can find a stronger vehicle. But my cause is cinema. I connect with her story at a human level, but the main connection is hopefully making a great film and then, by default – it’s like a Trojan horse, when you create a device and there’s something hidden inside. In this case the Trojan horse was this very polymorphic, multi-tonal experience that was hiding something inside. Even with a classical calligraphy in which suddenly there’s something hidden – not only that the film itself starts to change and change and change – but at the same time, so does this character. The change is, perhaps, since a transgender actress is performing it.
A Fantastic Woman is released in cinemas nationwide this Friday, March 2nd. Get tickets here.