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“It’s just another way to get to Rome”

INTERVIEW. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio charmed Berlinale audiences with his genuine tale of a vibrant Santiago divorcée, lifted by its lively improvised dialogues. Gloria opens on Aug 8.

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Photo from Alamode Filmverleih.

Gloria, in which a spirited fifty-something divorcée dances through the Santiago singles scene and beyond, stormed the Berlinale and won star Paulina García the Best Actress bear. Director Sebastián Lelio, now honorary Berliner and co-owner of a Latin American restaurant named for his film, explains his naturalistic filming style.

Tell me about the Berlinale.

It was such joyful news to know that it was going to be shown there, in that strong spotlight. Now that the film has had that beautiful birth I’m so grateful to it because it was very unusual. I mean, the press release at 9am, with no-one from the team there, was just explosive.

Where did the character of Gloria herself come from?

It’s a mixture. It’s not a film about my mother or my mother’s friends, but of course she belongs to that generation and I know many things about what they are going through. Also, we did a lot of interviews with women that age in Santiago when we were writing the script, so we managed to incorporate a lot of anecdotes and feelings.

And then there is the actress, Paulina García. I don’t work with written dialogues. I always use improvisation, so the characters are halfway created, waiting for the actors and their own histories and intimacy and bodies to complete the process. So what Paulina brought to the character was very, very important. They are always asking me, how can a man your age understand a woman that age so well or with such… Delicateness? And Paulina has a lot to do with that. She brought a lot of complexity to the character because what she knows of the world as a woman, just, ah, triggered that.

How did Paulina come to the film?

I’ve always admired her and wanted to make a film with her. She is such a great actress, and was not being used for cinema – some small parts in a few films, but never a key role. When the first idea for Gloria appeared, we said this is our chance, and even before the script was there we asked if we could write the film for her. And she said yes [laughs], and so the film was made like a glove for her. The script changed four or five times completely, but never the fact that she was Gloria.

So the script is very “natural.”

I write dialogues in case of emergency, but I never give them to actors. I prefer not to fix dialogues, because for me that sounds more like literature and less like cinema, you know? For me, the script is the map and not the territory. The territory is always the shooting. In this case I would say 95% of the dialogues are improvised. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a script – not at all. It’s just another way to get to Rome.

Is there anything that you think is uniquely Chilean about the film?

Since the film is improvised, the way we think and our frame of vision incarnates in the dialogues. I would say they are deeply Chilean. They are universal – anyone can “get” everything about the scenes – but the way those things pop up is exclusively Chilean. It’s just our strange twisted way of seeing the world.

How could you sum up the Chilean attitude?

We are… Melancholic, drunken celebrationists.

Something else I noticed is the importance of the film’s music.  

Music was always very necessary for this film. All the songs that you hear are always coming from within the scenes. From radios, from the discos, or sung. It was a long process to find the right songs to work in all these dimensions. Narrative, emotional… And songs that we could afford.

I would say that what defines all of them is that it’s not a list of “guilty pleasures”. They are all songs that I love – I might not have them on my iPod, but I do love them, and I think they are all… Just great songs. From Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, to the more Hispanic romantic ballads that she sings in the car. Or the bossa nova, which was in a way at the heart because for me… The film itself is like a bossa nova: a bittersweet poem about daily life.

Dancing is so central to the film.

I believe that there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who dance and the ones who don’t dance. And not only on the dancefloor – I mean dancing along with life. And I guess maybe this is why Gloria as a character creates this emotional connection: she’s dancing with life, with everything that it comes with.

How is Umberto Tozzi’s “Gloria” connected?

We always knew that we needed a big dance scene. It was of course very important to choose the right song. And when we were looking for a name for the character, suddenly Gloria appeared. I was refusing because of John Cassavetes’ Gloria – which is of course a reference, but I didn’t want to be too direct. But then we played the song on our stereo, and the song is just so great that we went for it. It’s a cheesy pop masterpiece.

What do you expect for Gloria now?

Well now there is a film that is like… Running ahead of us, and we’re trying to chase it. So we have to dance along with Lady Gloria for a while. At the same time I’m developing the new project… A type of diptych. It’s not a second part, but somehow I feel that I have some more to say about this type of very in-the-centre-of-life character that celebrates and embraces it despite the darkness and complexities. 

GLORIA opens in Berlin cinemas on August 8. Check our OV search engine for show times.