Interview with Francisca Alegria and Birgit Gernböck, Sundance Winners

Rain Falling on Woman

With: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Director: Francisca Alegria: Francisca did her undergraduate studies in Audiovisual Directing at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. In her fourth year, she went abroad to UCSB (California) where she took screenwriting and film theory classes. One of the latter opened new narrative possibilities for her: Experimental Cinema. That year she also wrote and directed the short film “Of Her I Sing” produced by professor/poet/screenwriter Paul Portuges and won a Corwin Award for her Feature script, Dirt in the Mouth.

Back in Chile, she wrote and directed her undergraduate thesis “On the Table”, which got into international film festivals and was part of the international competition of Chile’s most prestigious Film Festival (Valdivia International Film Festival). After graduating, Francisca was selected for the Buenos Aires Talent Campus (2011), made a music video for pop singer Francisca Valenzuela and wrote a feature film script, which was re-written and revised at Columbia University, with professors Jessica Keyt and Andy Bienen.

Francisca entered the Film MFA in Screenwriting/Directing at Columbia on 2012. In May 2016, she graduated with her Thesis Film, And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye, with the mentorship of professor Eric Mendelsohn, as her directing advisor. The short film, produced by Columbia collaborator Birgit Gernböck, received two Jury Selects and the Audience Award during the Festival in New York and was selected to be shown in Los Angeles in June, 2016. It also received the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Award for Film Production.

She plans on making The Cow that Sang a Song About the Future in 2018 with Jirafa.

Producer: Birgit Gernböck: is a hands-on independent producer who works side by side with all creative departments involved in getting the film made from development, to production, to completion, to festivals and distribution efforts, both in the US and international arena.

While at Columbia University, Gernböck received two producing awards for her outstanding work. Her work premiered at TIFF, NYFF, Telluride, Austin IFF, Miami FF, San Francisco IFF, and Warsaw.

Gernböck produced Sonya Goddy’s feature directorial debut, Holy New York, which is currently in post-production. The film is a stylized independent drama shot on location in New York, starring Victor Rasuk, Ione Skye, Gillian Zinser, and iO Tillett Wright.

Gernböck is currently in post-production for Darya Zhuk’s feature film Crystal Swan, shot on location in Minsk, Belarus in collaboration with Vice Media and supported by the German Film Fund. Crystal Swan won in the Tallinn WIP competition and Film Festival in 2017, and was a contestant in the WIP competition at the Cottbus Film Festival in late 2017; it is aiming for a festival run in 2018.

And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye: is a heightened drama, with strokes of Folkloric Realism. The world in which this film lives is a space where the sudden death of 55 cows can be caused by a lightning bolt or a curse. It’s a place where the dead visit the living to have a cup of tea and where the tear of an old woman is so weighty that it can flood a house. This film is charged with mystical and absurd elements, within a grounded, naturalistic setting. Emeteria (85) is visited by the ghost of her patrón, Teodoro. She believes he has come to take her to the afterlife, but he has more devastating news.

House

Faktorovich: During your college studies, you were able to attract interest from top filmmakers like Paul Portuges, who helped you win awards even before graduation. Why do you think your cinematic experiments stood out from among your fellow students? Is it a matter of hard work, inspiration, luck, or something else? What do you think separates your films? How are they distinctive?

Alegria: I can’t talk about me standing out amongst a group of people, because that’s something only others can determine from the outside. In my experience, I have been surrounded with highly talented peers whom I look up to and whose work I admire. What I can say for myself is that I have learned that others are drawn to your work when something in it speaks to them, in an instinctual—subconscious—way. I think that when someone recognizes part of him/herself in a work of art, there is an invisible, yet undeniable connection that takes place. Prior to the work being completed, when I am in the process of making it, part of my journey requires a great deal of perseverance and hard work. I dedicate big amounts of energy to the work I do, and I think that always translates. “Luck” is a tricky one for me… I mean, by definition, “luck” is an elusive concept; it’s “a force” that we cannot control. I always say that I am lucky, but I what I truly believe in is synchronicity. When things happen at the right time-space, doors are opened, and this has happened to me. Are my films distinctive at all? I don’t know. All I know is that I want to keep working from a place that feels true to who I am.

Faktorovich: Is it typical for those selected for the Buenos Aires Talent Campus to have an opportunity to create a music video, “In My Memory,” for pop singer such as Francisca Valenzuela? How did you meet Valenzuela? How did you convince her to choose you for the project? What were the most surprising tactics you learned that are needed for an outstanding music video?

Alegria: I would think that many of the people selected at the Buenos Aires Talent Campus have gone on to make great projects. It was Francisca who contacted me to direct it. She called me one day to talk, we went to the same university, so we knew of one another. She was looking for female directors who would have a strong vision, and with whom she could collaborate creatively. I admired her a lot as an artist and I still do, so it was an honor to work with her. More than tactics, I learned that a music video is very different from a film, where I am the auteur (for lack of a better word). I needed to make sure that Francisca’s essence and vision were the driving forces of the video. This was the most important thing I took out of it; the idea of becoming a sort of vessel for someone else’s art/soul to be seen. It was a great experience for me to learn to remove the ego off of my work. In the end, art is a generous act at its core.

Faktorovich: The video is filmed in a spacious house with wallpaper that’s falling apart and cracks in the walls. There is a lot of light though as the windows are tall and there is a grand master stairway. Did you suggest this location or was it Valenzuela’s idea? What were your main functions at this shoot and in pro and post production?

Alegria: It was another one of Francisca’s idea. She had been offered this wonderful place, called the Majadas Palace, in Pirque (Chile), to use if she ever wanted to make a video there. After we chose the song I would be directing, she thought that place would be perfect for the mood we were looking for. I couldn’t agree more, it was a beautiful location. My work consisted in listening to her song over a hundred times while brainstorming with her over the course of a month. We came up with a script, which I then directed and edited. Francisca was present throughout the whole process, and her feedback was essential for the final cut of the video.

Faktorovich: At the end of the video, the girl lies down in a shallow grave and appears to go to sleep in it, smeared with dirt. Do you prefer telling tragic stories to comic ones? Do you see more room for dramatic tension in them? Why are you more interested in them?

Alegria: I love comedy! I think that life is both tragic and comic, and these two poles are operating constantly, and in parallel. I think that there’s potential for drama on both sides of the coin. This being said, I sometimes navigate towards one more than the other, depending on the project. In this video, I chose to go for the main emotion of the song, which talks about the death of a loved one. I didn’t feel there was space for comedy, especially because music videos have such a short format, usually.

Faktorovich: How are you progressing with the production process for The Cow that Sang a Song About the Future? Did you win the award? If yes, what stage are you in? If not, what will you attempt next?

Alegria: I am currently developing the script for The Cow that Sang a Song About the Future, which will be shot in Chile, in 2018. The script was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in January 2017, and then I went to the Director’s Lab in June 2017, where I shot five scenes from the script. In terms of production, we have gotten finance from our Brazilian co-producers and are working on getting funding from Chile, the US and France.

Faktorovich: Why did you decide to focus on producing rather than directing during your MFA studies at Columbia, unlike Alegria? Did you know that this would be your focus when you started in this program, and if so, did you consider receiving an MBA instead? Would you recommend an MFA (especially an Ivy League one) to somebody that wants to run a film production company or who wants to organize film productions? What types of things did you learn in the MFA that you couldn’t have learned by reading books about the industry, or working on projects in minor roles?

Gernböck: I always make a distinction between producing and production. I will explain why these elements of filmmaking are separate but also go hand in hand. I have been working in production for many years prior to making the decision to go back to school and receiving my MFA at Columbia. Columbia’s film program focuses mainly on storytelling, screenwriting, and the craft of directing bringing the story to life. A producer should focus on the story and vision of the filmmaker, know the craft of screenwriting before deciding to go into production. Having the skillset to set up a production and cater to the filmmaker’s goal as well as knowing the monetary needs and limits at the same time is key. Besides that, the producer should have a good grip on sales and audience based on the kind of film that is going to be produced. To me a producer (or creative producer) should be savvy in both territories—the creative storytelling part and the financial or business side of it. In this particular industry, these two things can hardly be separated.

Columbia University’s MFA film program made me a better storyteller and producer while I am applying my experience in production to projects. The screenwriting and development process is essential and I have surely learned a lot in that regard obtaining my MFA. I indeed took a class in entertainment law at the business school. Funny, but the focus of that particular class was strategic storytelling and how to apply it to a successful marketing campaign in the industry.

Faktorovich: Did you hesitate before accepting a producing job in Belarus for “Crystal Swan”? What about filming “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye” in Chile? Do you think the best films are made in remote or exotic locations because the change of setting helps filmmakers gain a new perspective on the world? Do you think you might have approached this project differently and might have missed some great shot, location or other opportunities if you had been filming around the Columbia campus instead? Have you deliberately thought out distant locations? Do you enjoy travel? Do you think international work is beneficial for a filmmaker’s resume?

Gernböck: Being originally from Germany, my previous career in producing for many years has been either in Germany or in Co-Production with other countries. Producing has always made me travel depending on the screenplay that was in development or ready for production—either Europe, Asia or Africa for example. My decision to move to New York and pursue my MFA in Creative Producing at Columbia University School of The Arts was also determined by not only learning more about screenwriting and storytelling but to broaden my network of talented filmmakers in the United States and from around the world. My decision to work on “Crystal Swan” and “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye” was not only determined by exotic locations and a travel opportunity. My decision was more based on the story and the talent of the writer/director. The stories are deeply rooted in their own culture and upbringing and are very personal. The visual approach and story were essential for me as producer. The filmmakers’ vision and the creative idea behind these intriguing stories were the most important to me. Both films were more than an opportunity tied to the University but a chance to bring a great vision to the screen. “Crystal Swan” is an independent feature film entirely shot in Russian and is not part of the school’s thesis. Francisca Alegria’s film was part of our thesis work but was larger than the usual student films and was meant to become a bigger success. I approached this film slightly differently because of its scale and Francisca’s very personal relationship to the story and her home country. Besides enjoying traveling for production, I specifically enjoyed learning more about the culture and people in the respective countries. It is enriching and I am always learning while working. It is a privilege that comes with the job and I am more than grateful for that.

Faktorovich: The terms “folklore” and “realism” are on the opposite sides of the artistic spectrum. Realism attempts to depict life as it really is, while folklore is the myths regional groups of people tell each other to build a sense of a spiritual, mutual identity. In your film you depict the realities of the difficult life farmers face in Chile, while also showing their spiritual, religious and supernatural beliefs. What would have been lost if you left one of these two halves out? Why do these elements work better together?

Gernböck: In my opinion, Francisca’s underlying motif of culture, folklore and very specific spiritualism go hand in hand and are connected and based in the Chilean culture. All elements help an International audience to understand—or feel—the very unique emotional bond between the characters, their life, work and believes. Magical realism can mirror the lives of locals in a very special way without over-explaining. It is a strong cinematic tool that makes the audience explore the lives of others. Telling the story without the spiritual element, the film might have lost the emotional layer and depth that has a big impact on the audience. By leaving out the spiritual elements, we would not only have changes the overall story and essential theme of the film but also change the tone which was a big element as well. We would have made a different film about a hard-working mother’s endless love for her son—an emotion and bond that is understood universally across the world. The theme of love and self-abandonment, life and death, a mother’s love, the strength of a hard-working woman in a very specific environment and her believes are the center of the film and this includes all the elements mentioned.

Alegria: I think that it’s all a matter of how you see the world. I cannot conceive a world where these two ideas (realism and folklore) are separate. I do understand intellectually that they can be placed in opposite sides of the artistic spectrum, but it’s just not the way I have experienced life. So I guess that part of my identity would have been lost if I took one of these halves out and I would have made a completely different film.

Faktorovich: Films typically either ask the audience to suspend their disbelief or invite objections that they are relating a fiction that is not to be believed. The character of Don Teodoro in your film, is perceived as a ghost to those he encounters, but does not see himself as a ghost. You don’t use any special effects on him, so he appears real enough. Why did you leave room for uncertainty about his reality?

Gernböck: We had a discussion about this but only because people asked how we want to show the ghost while developing the script. I always saw Don Teodoro as a “real” character and I always supported Francisca’s idea to not go down the traditional ghost route and use CGI to make him a ghost. The character is translucent enough in the performance and leaves room for the audience to encounter him just like Emeteria. I also feel that showing him as a person makes his goal stronger, more threatening or real. Nobody knows what a ghost or impersonated death “looks” like, so adding an effect seems like a fake and heightened tool that is actually weakening the film.

Alegria: I believe that death is not the opposite to life. They are pretty much the same to me. I see this ongoing process that loops into eternity. So when I think of a ghost, I think of someone that is still in his/her own human process. This is why I chose to show him, cinematically, as a person of flesh and blood, with his own wants and needs.

Faktorovich: In your “Production Notes”, you mention that you benefited from filming in your grandparents’ village, San Esteban, because village authorities made it easy for you to film. Is it difficult, otherwise, to gain filming permits in Chile? Is it expensive? Are many jurisdictions corrupt and don’t allow filming without bribes? What laws, rules, or cultural differences distinguish shooting in rural Chile versus let’s say, Brooklyn?

Alegria: It’s not difficult to film in Chile actually, but like many places, you do need special permits to shoot, and some of them take time to get. It’s also not expensive, and there are no corruption problems in these regards that I know of. What I meant was that I had the privilege of shooting mostly in my family’s lands, which gave me and the crew complete freedom. We had the blessing, the access and especially the time to work as much as the film needed. I would say that the main difference between shooting in Chile and Brooklyn is that in my country you can get away with things like jumping off of a pick-up truck without the need of special permits.

Faktorovich: You served as the Master Fellow for Producing Faculty and Chair of this program for a year after serving as the Coordinator of Columbia’s Film Festival when you were a TA in the MFA. How common is it for a fellow to be chosen for the Chair post right out of an MFA? I guess the reason you might have jumped over some hoops is that you worked as the Head of Production for U5 Filmproduktion in Frankfurt for eight years before applying to Columbia. Since you were managing budgets of up to $3 million in this post, what was the reason to take on an MFA? Do you think it was a good decision to take this step? Should all filmmakers complete an MFA if they want to reach the top of the film hierarchy?

Gernböck: As mentioned before, I decided to pursue an MFA in filmmaking as a producer specifically from Columbia University was the clear focus on screenwriting, directing, and storytelling. To understand these underlying elements as a producer is—to me—the most important part besides juggling a schedule, budget, cast, crew, sales and distribution. The budget number does not necessarily determine the success of a film. A very expensive film can tank at the box office if the story and characters don’t work or the audience does not connect emotionally whereas a smaller film can still do that. If you apply all the tools and knowledge as a filmmaker, artist, and storyteller. In cohort with the director, a producer can guide the process along the way creatively while applying all the resources smartly to get the film made as envisioned. The top of the hierarchy is an interesting question. I am not sure, what that means to me. I think, that a good producer is building a distinct reputation within the industry by making good films that are (ideally) also successful financially. Your work should be seen and memorable.

Faktorovich: When you produced the Festival filmmaker interviews, was there an answer from these filmmakers that surprised you the most? Was it difficult to coordinate these talks in terms of busy schedules, or the interviewees’ photogenic or anti-photogenic qualities? What do you think is the most important question for an interviewer to ask a filmmaker? Please answer this question for your own work.

Gernböck: The interviews were not too complicating to put together. Every filmmaker is happy to discuss their work and experiences.

I think what was an interesting and recurring answer was the emphasize on how important a fruitful and successful collaboration between director, writer, and producer is to make the film everybody had in mind. It was less surprising but an answer that I expected since I truly believe in collaboration in filmmaking. For me as a producer, it is part of a skillset we should have. A sensitive understanding of who your partner is and how all of the creative key crew members think and work. Creating an environment while crewing up is essential and has a huge impact on the work.

Faktorovich: You guys showed real dead cows in this film. They are graphically rutting. In the central opening image in the film, the cow’s eye is glazed over, and the blue sky is scene through it (echoing the title). Did you have a discussion about possible using live cows and making them only appear as if dead? Did these cows actually die from disease or some disaster, or were they killed for food or the like (in reality, rather than in the film)?

Cows

Gernböck: Overall, the death of the cows is a symbolic and spiritual image. Having said that, one of the inspirations for the story and film came from an actual incident that occurred in Chile and other countries. It is a strong image that also triggered people’s reaction in a spiritual way.

It was Francisca’s idea to use the incident and the image of the sudden and miraculous death of 50 cows as a tool for her storytelling and visual approach. Indeed, the image was meant to shake up the audience. It is a hint [or foreshadowing] that predicts death and a big incident that may actually happen.

With regards to production, we have indeed explored a lot of options for how to create that image. Even though the scale and budget for the film was significant we faced a lot of logistical and budgetary restraints on how to pull it off. “Real” (dead or living sedated) cows were not an option and CGI was the way to go. Apart from technical issues we had to face and tackle, it was also important to everybody involved NOT to work with animals. It was against our morals to do so and adding digital dead cows to the final film was in everyone’s’ interest. It also turned out to be the most feasible way to do from a production and creative standpoint.

Alegria: I like telling people that I bought the cows and shot them dead, to look at their reactions for a few seconds… But the truth is that I am against any form of animal cruelty, so the cows you see in the film are all digitally created.

Faktorovich: The actors in this film all do a great job being believable and portraying outstanding dramatic range. How did you guys create an environment to get this great performance out of this cast? Did you give them incentives (food, lodgings), or did they respond emotionally because of the intense places you were filming in? Who did Emeteria’s house actually belong to? Does a farmer (or a member of another profession?) currently live there or is it abandoned? Did you consider several other houses before settling on it?

Gernböck: The cast was always set in Francisca’s mind. She approached talent very early on while still working on the screenplay and approaching me. Francisca’s long-standing relationship with the Chilean producers (Augusto Matte, Florencia Larrea at Jirafa Films and Forastero Films) made the dreamcast possible since they had already worked with most of the talent. Francisca’s story is built on and written for the lead of Shenda Roman, Chile’s Grande Dame of cinema. She had already accepted the part and was the one-and-only to carry that tremendous artistic weight on her shoulders. I was more than impressed and moved by her performance and it was a great honor for me to meet her in person and see her create the character of Emeteria.

The environment of the film and setting was always set. Another element that drew me in immediately. The location (house and village) was always set in a town Francisca spent a lot of time in throughout her life. Her grandparents live in a town outside of Santiago that has the feel of rugged rural Chile and is the perfect backdrop for the film. Beside her clear vision, the setting was a big piece of the puzzle. It is chosen in a very genuine way and never feels like a stage. We were more than lucky to be hosted by her grandparents and could tap into all the resources there.

The main location (House Emeteria) we scouted in the area. It fits the character perfectly as well as the story and production needs. The house belongs to a farmer family who lives in the area and it reflects the local life in the best way possible.

The production was set up and run in a professional way and everyone involved was compensated but because of the moving and personal story, we had no issues securing locations or other support from the area. I think, it is also important to show a sensitive lead-in to an existing community and be respectful and grateful for being granted access to someone’s home.

As mentioned before, authenticity is something that is more valuable than any set dressing and helps the film to stay true and believable.

Alegria: The actors are some of the most talented artists I have worked with. The merit is all theirs. They connected to the characters in a genuine way, and the collaboration was excellent. I learned a lot from all of them. In terms of the protagonist’s house, we did consider several locations, but this space gave us many possibilities to work with. The local family that owns it was very generous with us, something that we appreciated a lot.

Faktorovich: In one outstanding scene, Emeteria starts crying as she believes her son shot himself, and in place of tears a small river seems to be pouring down from her face onto her skirt. There are some raindrops coming from other directions, but it seems as if the water’s source is her face until a downpour starts. Did you intentionally give this stream of water a supernatural feel, or was this an accident? Did you pour a bucket of water over this actress as she was performing, or did natural rainfall create this stream? Were you concerned about exposing this somewhat elderly woman to rain, the ground and other elements?

Gernböck: I think Francisca can speak more about the initial thought and inspiration with regards to the “tear-scene”. Again, this is one of the big elements that sparked the creation of the story and film. A very personal one to her and I will leave it up to her to elaborate on that. But it was one element that drew me in when she pitched her idea to me in the very beginning. A spontaneous pitch that happened within 2 minutes on a staircase at Columbia University but was so convincing, exciting and at the same time already emotionally moving to me that I really wanted to make that film. Francisca’s passion for the story and talent was key for me. The love for the story was so strong that I was more than certain that this idea would end up being a strong piece of art that will be a blueprint for her future work and career.

However, on set we only had a container and a pump with warm water that we used for shooting the scene. We gently poured water over the actress while she was performing this intense and emotionally challenging scene. The stream (or endless tear) was created by flooding the field—which belongs to Francisca’s family. It is a mechanism that waters the field. The stream was shot on location without any CGI. Francisca had already incorporated that visual component in the film and we had no issues putting together these scenes in the editing process to bring across the heartbreaking crying of a mother who feels the loss of her beloved lost son.

I want to mention the outstanding work and collaboration with the Director of Photography at this point as well (Matias Illanes). The creative work between him and Francisca (they have worked together before) was key to create the world and emotional stages of the characters.

The tear and stream were both meant to feel real and supernatural, which was supposed to be a cohesive idea that Francisca managed to balance in a genius way. The impact on the audience was noticeable in the theaters, which is more than re-assuring for all filmmakers involved.

Alegria: There was no rain. All the elements that you see were part of the conscious construction of this moment, where Emeteria’s tear becomes a stream. It was always meant as an attempt to transform the metaphorical into the literal. An emotion—the abstract—materialized.

Faktorovich: What advice do you have for filmmakers who want to make an award-winning film? What did you learn during the process of making this film or prior films that you wish you knew before you started?

Gernböck: My advice would be to “click” with the story and creative vision from the filmmaker. Nothing else is more important than that. Do you understand your collaborator and are you willing to walk all the way to make it happen. I think it is crucial to have the same vision and idea to fight for and accept some bumps along the way. I also learned to listen more and how to create an environment for the filmmaker to thrive and work freely. Learning to adjust to the conditions and the way your collaborators work in the respective country is also important and you can learn lessons for life. However, I think it is always the story and the passion behind the film and the energy that is driving it that makes an idea a great film. If a filmmaker can move an audience—and apply a broad but determined creative skillset—the film will have soul and get the recognition it deserves. So it was in this case.

Alegria: Don’t think about the result. Make the thing you truly want to make, and put the love and care you would give to someone/something you love. As long as that thing matters to you, whatever shape it takes (a film, a drawing, a building) it will resonate with others.

Faktorovich: Thank you for participating in this interview. Are there any other comments you’d like to make?

Gernböck: Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to discuss the film, our work and overall work ethic. This is rare and we appreciate it a lot.

Alegria: Thank you for the insightful, thorough interview.

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