P:O.V. No.7 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, GOODBYE MOM

An interview with Ariel Gordon on GOODBYE MOM

Richard Raskin

You're only 20 years old now. That means you were even younger when you made Goodbye Mom.

When I wrote the script, I was just 18 years old. It was actually the first script that I ever wrote... I heard the whole story [which actually happened to someone I knew] while having lunch one day and I liked the story. I wrote the first draft of the script in about two hours. And after that, I spent about two months reworking it, thinking about each moment and trying to make the situation work. After I finished writing the script, I tried to get the film produced but I couldn't raise the money. It was at that time that I got accepted into film school, so I left the script in a drawer.

I wanted to make the film at film school, but I couldn't do it in the first year because the first short has to be between three and five minutes long but with no dialogue. And for the second short, in the second year, you can do a film with dialogue but it has to be ten minutes long, and mine is a five minute short. After I finished the first year of school and my first short, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to make Goodbye Mom in school. So I entered the script in a short screenwriting contest in Mexico to see if I would get lucky and something might happen. And by some miracle it won!

Thanks to that, I got the opportunity to direct the short even though the prize didn't necessarily give you the chance to direct. The Mexican Film Institute had the right to do the short and they wanted a big director to do it. But I convinced them to let me do it. I showed them the first short I did. I actually don't like it. I think it's horrible. But they liked it. And based on that, and on the advice of the actor I had in my first short, who is a very well known actor in Mexico, they gave me the chance.

May I ask what the production costs were?

About $40,000 to 50,000. It cost that much because it's done professionally and everyone had a salary. That makes it a whole lot better because you're not asking anyone for favors. You're not begging anyone to work for free. Now this was a dream situation where I had everything that I wanted. That's not the main thing but it makes work easier.

Now you told me when we were speaking earlier that the real work in filmmaking doesn't take place during the shooting but at the desk. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

I think you have to plan everything like clockwork, like an architect. I like to think through each scene, where I'm going to put the camera. In Goodbye Mom it wasn't that hard. But sometimes I can spend about three or four days or even a week thinking about a single shot - hearing music, drawing possibilities, trying to find the best way to resolve the dramatic moment that you're looking for. For example, in Goodbye Mom, the camera is always very static. But there is a moment when there is a small dolly-in when she hugs him and he tries to push her away. In that moment, after the camera has been static so long, that small movement is like a comma or a period. Great directors, like Bergman, do that much better than I can. They have a way of pointing things out.

But I guess you have to think not only where the camera goes, but how to direct an actor. I think directing actors is the most difficult thing in the world because you're playing with human emotions. You never know how people are going to react and everyone is different. There is no key formula for every actor.

So you need to try to understand, first of all, the line of thought that runs through the script and to work on that with the actors. I don't care whether they learn their lines by heart. For me, that's not important. What I care about is the emotions that come through and that makes them say the lines. If you don't have that emotion, you can say the line perfectly but it will be false. Often in Mexico, you don't see a doctor in a movie, you see an actor dressed like a doctor. I think what you have to try to do is to get those emotions. To make the actors live the characters, become the characters.

To do that, you plan everything. Like for this short, while directing I decided that the actress playing the old woman should play the part as though everything the character said were true; not as though her character was going to betray or rob anyone. She was to play the role as though she actually met her son. It took me a long time to convince her. These are things you have to think through carefully.

Also the art direction, what colors you are going to use and why... In Goodbye Mom, we tried to use cold colors in the setting, and the only warm colors were on our two characters. It's not very noticeable. But what I wanted to create was the only humanity point between these two in the supermarket, in such an impersonal place. These things you have to think about at your desk. You can't get to the set and be a genius and start improvising. I think you have to work really hard clarifying for yourself what kind of lens you want in any moment... and also to let yourself be touched. When I was working on the shooting script, I started to cry, even though I knew the ending. I think it's important to let yourself be moved all the time and to work with your feelings. Because in the end, that's what it comes down to in filmmaking - feelings. So you can say many intellectual things but if it doesn't cause the emotion, it won't work...

Can you tell me about the casting of your two major roles? Did you choose the actors yourself?

Yes, I chose the actors. I like them both very much. Daniel Giménez Cacho I think is such a wonderful actor. I think he did an extremely good job. And my "old lady", Dolores Berinstain, I liked the way she looked. I went by her looks. I feel in love with her eyes, they were so expressive. She had the face I wanted: sweet but hard, old but homey. I don't know, there were so many things in her that I liked a lot. She is also a big name.

I rehearsed with the actors before filming. I don't like to start directing on the set. I like to get on the set and tell what's next, take care of some little touch. I don't like to do everything there. I like to work more closely with people. And with Daniel it was really easy. During the shooting, I almost didn't have to say anything to him. He had everything really clear. He did everything I said in the rehearsal. So it was really easy. For my actress, it was the opposite. The second day that I shot all the dialogues, she completely forgot her character as we had worked it out. And that was really scary because she started to talk like herself, not as the character I was looking for. So when that happens at two o'clock in the morning, with an angry crew of fifty people and fifty extras, it was hard for me. I had done my previous short with a crew of eight people and two actors. And for this one, I had trucks and fifty people, three assistant directors, and the first night I had 110 extras! It was too big for me. And my actress started to fight with me, saying that I didn't tell her anything. So if they fight, you fight! I told her that I did, but that if I didn't then I was telling her now. I had to break the whole thing up and start shooting line by line... And every time she changed her acting tone, I had to cut and lie to her, saying: "You were very good but let's take it over and try a different tone." I guess for me, my personal achievement with this short was that she seemed to act in the same tone throughout the film, even though she was fluctuating a lot from one tone to another. So I had to push her to the limit...

I guess it's really nice to work each scene to get what you want. You have to know at the desk that what you need in this scene dramatically is this moment. So when you're on the set, you have to look for that moment. Because if you don't look for the moment, it flies away!

Does that man that your original intention was to use fewer shots of her and that you needed to break her dialogue down into more shots than you had planned?

Yes. Even though when I do my shooting, I like to always make a storyboard, showing what's going to be in a close-up, what's going to be in a medium close-up, what's going to be in a master. What I wanted to do was to film everything in close-up, everything in a medium close, everything in a medium, to have different possibilities to choose from later, but I just couldn't do that with her. With Daniel it was really easy, I just set up the camera and he said everything twice and it was great. But with her, we had to go line by line, because she forgot. It was amazing, because we began shooting on a Monday and on the previous Friday or Saturday, at the last rehearsal, she was so marvelous. I was so sure that everything was all right. I knew that she had problems with her memory but it didn't worry me so much.

You mentioned earlier that your film got a mixed reception in Mexico.

I guess I got into jealous territory. Since I won the script contest, people started to hate me because even big, established directors sent scripts to the contest. So many people started saying, "It's stupid he won. Maybe he's somebody's cousin." I asked my school if they were interested in making it a co-production, but they refused. They said because I won, the academic process - with script revisions made under the supervision of the teachers - didn't matter, and so on. They made a big fuss about it. The academic advisor at the school, who is now the school's director, told me: "If they offer to let you direct, don't accept it. You're not ready. Look for a great director and you will become his assistant." I wasn't going to do that! (Laughter.) But when I got the chance to direct, when the Mexican Film Institute told me they would back me up and give me the money, my school told me that it was an extra-curricular activity, it wasn't a school activity. So if I was going to direct, and I missed classes and had more than my permitted 20% of absences from classes, that I was out. So from the start, it was actually a very difficult situation because I was really scared. I thought that if I didn't do a good short and got kicked out of school, I would end up with nothing. But sometimes you have to take a chance. So I thought: at my school, we shoot in 16mm, we don't have money for anything, I want to try the big thing and see what happens. So I took it and at my school, they failed me in two subjects, because at the time I only had two courses. And you have to flunk in three to get kicked out. Then I thought to myself that I didn't care about the bureaucracy, that what I cared about was my fellow students, my own generation. And just after I had completed Goodbye Mom, I was supposed to turn in a script for the second year short and I just didn't have it. But I had explained a thousand times that in that period, I had to work intensely on Goodbye Mom which had to be completed quickly for political reasons. So the academic advisor of the school flunked me in front of everyone. And all my peers just started to laugh at my expense... Because people got angry that I had the chance, that a nineteen-year old with no experience gets a chance with a big budget filming in 35mm. How in earth did I get that while they didn't? So they got really mad about that. And I asked for a one-year leave of absence from the school. Then my short was selected to be in the critics week in Cannes and I guess that was just too much for the school.

So you didn't get the leave of absence?

Yes they gave it to me. I'm supposed to come back in March. But they actually hate the fact that I went to Cannes. I guess they hate Cannes also for choosing me. (Laughter.) They say that it's a stupid dialogue. That it's filmed in a dumb way, in a simple crisscross [reverse angle shots]. That I'm not a genius. But what did they want be do? It's a dialogue! Did they want me to have the camera moving around the people? And they say it's a stupid joke. And they say it's like a hidden camera TV program. Now I like criticism. If anyone asked me: "Who is the harshest critic of the short?" I would say: "I am." I'm the one that can trash it in three seconds and very correctly, because I know all the details and I know all the things I did not achieve well. I have a very clear picture of those things. But you know, when you get criticism that is not founded, that's just pure hatred... Another thing a lot of people tell me in Mexico is that art is about human existence and my short is just a plain joke.

I just wanted to pull the rug out from under people, I just wanted to get an emotion across. I didn't want to do anything else. Because I think that to create a living fiction is very hard. Every detail has to be thought out so carefully, everything has to be correct so no one will notice. It's really a little bit backwards. You do things so that people won't realize that they are done...

So I guess that's why people in Mexico don't like my short. They say it's not art. Actually my producers didn't like the ending of my short. On the set I had some time and some material left. I had a crane, so I did a crane shot - getting a long shot of my actor. But I said: "Heck, I don't want that. I want to finish on the actor's reaction." I guess my producers were telling me that it was going so great, and at the end, instead of saying something about mankind, I just made it a joke. In a way, I think that was my intention: to say "Life is not as serious as people think. Life is sometimes just a joke." So I guess I had to fight a lot with jealousy and many problems.

And for me, it's very clear that I want to get back to school because they will make my life miserable and they will try to show me that I'm stupid... I'm at a difficult moment of my life now because for me, school ended without my choosing that. But also people in the industry in Mexico say: "He was lucky, but he needs to learn more. It was just by luck that he did it." So right now, I'm not really a student and I'm not really in the industry. I'm something in between. Who knows what?

I'm trying to fight and to become a director because I guess that's the hardest thing. It's easy to get a diploma saying that you finished school. To become a director, to consolidate what you've learned, is really hard.

I think to succeed in life, you can't take the highway, the panoramic highway. If you do that, you won't end up at the top. You can get very close but not quite make it. If you want to really make it, you have to go cross-country. There's no road to success. If you want to get there, just take a back pack and walk...

When we spoke together at an earlier point, you mentioned "situations up to the limit". What did you mean by that?

That's something that happens in Goodbye Mom, and I think it should happen in every story. I think that for a story to be interesting, you have to take an ordinary situation and push it to the limit, change it, make it strange. So people are anxious to see what will happen. Because if not, reality - normal reality - gets boring.

In Goodbye Mom, for example, when the customer enters and walks around in the supermarket, that shows that we are in an ordinary reality, that he is doing something entirely normal. And also to get people involved with that character. The people are going to be projected into that character. So we make the public feel that he is the main character, we show that we are in a normal reality. That's the start. But you know, usually the start of a story is a conflict, so that's like a prologue to the story. After we know that this is something normal, the conflict comes and you turn that normal situation into something strange when the woman turns around and after looking for a moment, says: "You look like my son." OK, there you've got a whole different situation. That's not common, in such an impersonal place. So that was the idea.

I guess my producers always questioned me, asking why we didn't start on the check-out line, because it cost a lot and took much more time to show the man walking through the supermarket. But I think it's important to show the public: this is the reality, and now we're going to break it... To make something kind of interesting, you always need to take a situation to the limit. I think that's what makes a story great.

Are there other things, other ingredients as well, that help to make a good story?

I guess I'm a very traditional kind of guy. I believe that Aristotle was right. I would say: you need a conflict which evolves and then a resolution. If you don't start with a conflict - if you don't say: this is a problem, this is what it's about - you don't have a story. You see so many movies and also shorts that you watch and after five or ten minutes you're still trying to figure out what it's about. Where are we going?

I believe that people like to go to the cinema in order to dream. Cinema makes it possible for people to live a human experience that would be inaccessible to them in reality. But people want to live the whole thing, completely. They don't want to be left hanging in the middle. They want to live the whole experience. That's why you need to give the whole experience, and to do that, you need a strong conflict, to show how it evolves and how it is concluded. People say: "No, that's the most traditional thing." For me, I think it's the natural thing. That doesn't mean you have to keep the unity of time, that you can't have flash forwards, flashbacks. You can have all of that. I think people confuse structure with time. You can play with time in as many ways as you like and that doesn't mean anything about structure. For example, Usual Suspects is a film that plays a lot with time but that has a Hollywood structure which is based on Aristotle.

A good story can be about anything. The most important thing is how you tell the story and what you're trying to say. You have to be clear about what you have to say. And it's best not to try to say too many things at the same time. I think the movies that try to talk about humankind in many ways are doomed to fail. Just tell me one thing and keep the other things in the background as a backdrop...

I read Eric Bentley's book, Life of Drama. When he talks about Shakespeare, he says something beautiful. He says that the success of Shakespeare's stories wasn't only in the situations and in the speed of the action, but he also knew how to put on the brakes. When I read that, it was like a revelation to me. And I think that today, with the MTV generation, where everything is like one second then cut, another second then cut, everything has to be fast action, action, action, I guess now people are running loose without brakes...

Nowadays - I guess I'm talking like a forty-year old instead of a twenty-year old - people sometimes do shots or scenes that look cool, the nice-looking thing, but they don't do the dramatic thing. You have to go for the dramatic things. You're telling a story. It doesn't have to look cool...

One mistake I made in Goodbye Mom was making the shot of all the woman's groceries last too long. About 20% or 30% of the people seeing that shot guess what she is up to because they see everything. I should have made it a little bit shorter. We edited the film on Avid, and on the small screen, I didn't think that shot would give away the ending. But when I see it in a movie theater, I can see that it lasts too long. I learned an important lesson with that shot.

One thing I like about the short is that the tone changes throughout the film. It starts in a comical way, with people laughing at the crazy woman. But suddenly it becomes very sad. And then it becomes happy again. The tone doesn't stay the same; it changes. At film school they told me not to do that. But sometimes you have to break the rules. In real life situations, the tone changes, the mood changes too.

28 January 1998

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