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Colombian filmmaker Alejandro Landes takes us deep inside the extreme filming conditions of his acclaimed jungle thriller Monos, and the art of letting life come onto the page.
“You’re in the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, but it’s hell.” —⁠Alejandro Landes
Alejandro Landes’ second fictional film Monos follows a ragtag group of Colombian teen soldiers enlisted to care for an American hostage known as Doctora (played by Julianne Nicholson) and a conscripted milk cow, but struggling to function under power-trips and adolescent recklessness.
The film has been gathering awards all year, including Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award, and praise for Mica Levi’s score. Monos is Colombia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar (the Academy Award category that, until last year, was known as Best Foreign Language Film). Hot on the heels of last year’s Birds of Passage, Monos is a fresh source of pride for Colombian movie lovers.
With Landes’ raw approach, Monos belongs in the same club of gritty war films as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Come and See. Letterboxd members dig its “captivating, alluring atmosphere” and “the immensely physical performances”; it’s “a brutal, unflinching fever dream that takes you hostage for 102 minutes.”
We caught up with director Alejandro Landes, a journalist-turned-documentarian who has made his way to dramatic cinema, and asked him to take us into his experience of making the film.
What inspired this jungle thriller?
Alejandro Landes: Coming from Colombia—a country that’s had six years of civil war—inspired the idea of making a film that is in part a war film. The nature of that conflict that’s in the shadows is very similar with what’s happening with war today. It doesn’t have those epic front lines that maybe our great-grandparents or grandparents experienced in WWI or WWII. Most operations are done by special forces or drones in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
The idea of creating a film from the backlines is something that speaks to my generation, and creating a mirror to the conflict of adolescence when you’re between a child and being an adult. You want to belong but also be alone, hair comes out of places, your voice changes—and so the film is this exploration of this borderline.
You’re in the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, but it’s hell. You don’t know if they’re fighting for left-wing guerilla forces or the right-wing paramilitary force. I wanted to create this allegory where you’re forced to latch onto the humanity and presence of the characters instead of a big ideology. That was very much what drew me into the film.
When it comes to the back-stories of the characters, and even the time and place where it’s set, you leave a deliberate ambiguity. What motivated that decision?
Many times we latch onto first names and last names, ages, dates, names of places, because they make us feel safe. They’re kind of stickers. Like when you fill out a sheet at a job application or at a doctor’s office. But these hard facts can feed into your prejudices. I thought it was interesting because the world is so polarized today.
You don’t know if Doctora is a CIA operative or an NGO officer. You can’t look at the character through the lens of their occupation, or their last name even. That’s why the characters have a nom de guerre and I think that for me was key for the metaphor to act subversively and kind of just work against any prejudices you might have.
We always want back-stories to justify and explain actions and a lot of the time it ends up being expository or a filmmaker’s psychoanalysis. Here, I wanted to enforce something very radical which made people feel uncomfortable in war. I wanted you to experience it from the humanity of a group which is basically the lowest rung of the ladder—and many times they are kids.
As fantastical as it sounds, it’s actually very common. I read a lot of first-hand accounts of people who had been kidnapped by well-known organizations and although the high command had been the one negotiating—be it for political leverage or money—the day-to-day custodianship ended up being the youngest soldiers. The people that were kidnapped experienced being in the hands of kids going through their adolescence and it was a peculiar situation.
The film relies on its ensemble, so you really depended on efficient casting. What do you think it was that pulled these young actors through the brutal challenge to be a part of this film?
I think it was the time that we spent together before we even started to shoot. I looked at over 800 kids all over Colombia and ended up bringing that down to about 25. We did a mock training camp and had them do acting improv exercises in the morning. They were doing pieces of the screenplay without knowing they were scenes from the same script. They thought they were random exercises.
In the afternoon they would do military drills; not classic military boot stomping, but sometimes dancing, barefoot drills, carrying a weapon. We were trying to create this clandestine army and by seeing them live together I was able to see who flirted with who, who fought with who, what chemistries there were, and that way we were able to build the group who would be the final eight.
During this process of the boot camp we wrote the screenplay, trying to bring the lives of each one of them [into it]. I knew that Boom Boom was a big hip-hop dancer. I knew that Rambo’s most important thing in her life is her brother. Certain things helped the screenplay and the emotional states that the actor would later go into during the shoot.
What were you looking for when recruiting the Doctora role, and why did Julianne Nicholson fit the part for you?
I thought [Julianne] had this very loveable sweetness to her, and I thought it would be a challenge to take that sensitivity with the maternal instinct that she had with her captors and turn it violent. She was willing to bring that physicality to the screen and she’s got that iconic look to her that reminded me of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I thought of the film as a sort of fairytale. I thought the way Julianne was able to portray that switch was something we haven’t seen on screen.
She was also willing to go down [to Colombia] and make it happen. That was a big thing. She spent time with the kids to really be there for weeks in these incredibly tough conditions. She was willing to go, not just when it was her scenes, but she spent time in [Doctora’s] cell. She drew all the charcoal paintings you see in her room, they were done by hand by her.
Much of the drama depended on your choice of shooting locations. How did you shape the narrative around these limitations and how did shooting in these remote places affect the cast and crew?
Shooting 13,000 feet [above sea level], there was really very little oxygen up there. Going down to the jungle canyon where you have to take a donkey, take an off-road, take a raft, take a kayak all the way to reach base-camp. Everyone is at their limit. On the first day of shooting, we had to bring someone down from the camera department who had an epileptic fit. I needed to be carried out of the jungle [due to suspected appendicitis] on the shoulders on these gold miners that were there. They taught us how to live on the river.
Something the locations gave me that was really special was the narrative arc of the film. That highlands you see in the beginning, it’s a big reservoir of water which is a very delicate ecosystem called páramo. The water trickles down the mountain and gains more speed until it reaches the currents in the lowlands. That path of water was what we were following in the film. The idea of how a river moves in a winding way with different speeds and velocity was what we were trying to echo in the structure of the edit.
Remember too, that once the water reaches the lowlands, it condenses, goes up to the clouds and comes down again in the highlands. So in a way there’s something about the cyclical nature of violence and the circular movement of water that made sense to me. That all sounds great but it’s another thing to make it work in the edit, and we really worked hard so you never thought you were looking from the back of the river—you were always in the river.
The look of the film is remarkable. The clouds, the silhouettes, you have a literal ‘fog of war’. How did you set out to achieve this?
The important thing is to look at what was in front of you. My first film was a documentary. I didn’t go to film school so making that film was my film school and a documentary forces you to look at what’s happening in front of you. As much as we had a very detailed screenplay and everything storyboarded, the locations change on a dime so we couldn’t count on luck every day.
We had to just to be there, be present, and have the confidence to move on, switch and let things come into the page. If a scene was under sun, and then on the day all you get is fog and rain, you discover a new way to come into the scene and let life come onto the page.
Mica Levi [also known as the musician Micachu] has already gained a strong reputation for film composing. How did you manage to wrangle her for Monos?
Mica came on board after seeing a rough cut of the film. She connected immediately with it. I didn’t think it needed music but she was on it very quickly. She sent me a very epic whistle that reminded me of spaghetti westerns. The idea was to create something that was minimal but at the same time had that monumental, epic feel.
We wanted to juxtapose those very primal, basic sounds like blowing into a bottle with a quartet of strings, and later you have sounds that are a shot of adrenaline that sound like they could come out of a Berlin nightclub. That mash of sounds I felt was very important; it allowed you to give emotional cues to the characters, similar to [Sergei Prokofiev’s story-symphony] Peter and the Wolf. It was great working with her and my sound designer Javier Umpierrez because we were trying to make this soundscape that was specific but also otherworldly.
Monos has been submitted for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. That must feel good.
All these prizes help the film get seen and that’s an important thing. This is a film that started on a shoestring and we were trying to build something very radical. It’s a film that was done through absolute blood, sweat and tears of these people who believed in it so I’m just glad that it’s finding its public—and the fact that we’re distributing pretty big in the US for a Latin American film.
It’s going to open in more than 30 countries and it’s blowing up in the Colombian box office, which is really special because Colombia still hasn’t really seen their cinema. It’s a polarizing topic to have a war film after everything they’ve lived. Having more than 200,000 people go to see it in its first three weeks is a huge thing. For a point of comparison, it’s the same amount of people who went to see Tarantino’s film [in Colombia].
What film made you want to become a filmmaker?
Wow. That’s your toughest question. I don’t know if I can point to one exactly. When I was young my dad wouldn’t let me watch TV. We had the apparatus but not cable so he had his own movies and I remember he had that German submarine film Das Boot. I watched it so many times I started to see the stitches of how it was made and that got me onto thinking “ah, okay I understand this, I like this”. I’ve never watched it in a movie theater, that would be cool.
Das Boot has a similar atmosphere to Monos so it’s an interesting choice for you.
Yes, those were the films I was thinking for my second fiction film. I think it comes from that part of time when I watched those epics, including some David Lean films.
‘Monos’ is released by Neon and is screening in US theaters now.