Ariel Escalante is a Costa Rican screenwriter, film editor and director. He edited Janaína Marqués's 2009 short Los minutos, las horas (The Minutes, the Hours) which premiered at Cannes and Clermont-Ferrand, where it won the Special Jury Award, as well as Carlo Guillermo Proto's documentary El Huaso, which premiered at Guadalajara, Lima, Hot Docs, Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival and Quebec, where it won the Audience Award. The Sound of Things, Escalante's feature directorial debut, premiered at Mar del Plata, Biarritz, Panama, and Moscow, where it won the Kommersant Weekend Prize. The Sound of Things was selected as the sixth ever Costa Rican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film, but it was not nominated.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Escalante discusses aesthetics of minimalism and grief, film financing in Costa Rica, shooting during the World Cup and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: The Sound of Thingstraces the story of Claudia, a young nurse adrift in the wake of her cousin and best friend's suicide. Despite this traumatic event Claudia hides her pain from the world. What was your inspiration for this story?
ARIEL ESCALANTE: I find mourning to be a really strange moment in life, as no matter how hard you try you are just never ready for it; nothing can prevent sudden change and you never know yourself enough to know exactly how to deal with it.
Also, I feel the human condition is quite lonely by definition. Interacting with people requires a sense of intimacy, of opening up, which immediately implies a certain commitment or sacrifice that not everyone is ready to make. I've always loved characters that separate their public and their private lives so abruptly, people that give you no real clue of what is going in their mind and heart.
Costa Rica is a place where people find intimacy uncomfortable; we're not used to talking about how we feel and we try to not be a burden to anyone around us. I think I found the inspiration for The Sound of Things in my own backyard, in the way I recognize myself in this way of being, which I accept and despise in equal parts.
FLMTQ: We watch Claudia go about her day to day routine helping others, but she does not seem open to help from the outside world until a figure from her past reappears in her life. Liliana Biamonte delivers a compelling performance, full of nuance and naturalism. Can you briefly discuss your casting process for this film? How did you find Biamonte, and how did you work together to bring across such a complex set of emotions?
AE: Liliana and I have known each other for over ten years, but we never had the chance to work together. For The Sound of Things I put together a two-week acting workshop, where we worked with the most interesting young actors around. There Liliana stood out from the beginning because of her strength and emotional depth as a performer, so the decision was quite an easy one.
While building the character we tried to be as practical as we could. Instead of discussing it much, we wanted to experience Claudia in all dimensions. We knew that the more we talked about the character the farther we got from bringing her to life. So, we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, until we were comfortable with the way she walked, talked and felt. That way we skipped words on set and concentrated on other kinds of stimuli, mostly music— Liliana and I ended up communicating through a 16-hour playlist that we built together to capture Claudia's emotions and her place in the world.
FLMTQ: The film is shot in such a way to be attentive to the rhythms of a grief that is largely internalized. The film's capturing of diffuse natural light mirrors a protagonist whose eyes squint in the bright glare of the world. Can you discuss your collaboration with Nicolás Wong to lend the film its visual texture?
AE: I tend to not separate form from content. I don't believe that the cinematic image should respond exclusively to the story or merely help the narrative. They have a more complicated and dialectical relationship: cinematic language has the power to transform the narrative, as we are not only making films through conflict and information, but we are actually shaping the audience's hearts and minds through things that cannot be described with words.
The visual language for The Sound of Things is the product of a research process I'd been conducting for a few years, in which I try to bring out raw emotion from flat forms, odd framing and restricted color palettes. I had the luck to have Nicolás Wong as a part of that process. We had worked together before and my research process became his process as well. For this film in particular we just updated a few references, but we knew each other perfectly. We had already named every kind of shot we wanted to try, the lighting we thought we needed for each scene, the framing, etc. On set, I could totally trust Nicolas's eye, as I felt them as my own.
The same happened with Mariana Murillo, the producer, and Lorenzo Mora, the editor. Our personal relationship and the fact that we had worked together on previous projects paved the way for The Sound of Things to feel so intimate, as we knew we were all making the same film. Our film.
FLMTQ: What role does minimalism play in your work, and how do you believe narrative restraint yields better stories?
AE: I believe cinema is the art that handles emotion in the most direct way, and I want the audience to be immersed in the narrative and atmosphere I'm building as a director. But at the same time, I want a part of them to remain distant and critical. That's the only way cinema can truly reach its potential of enacting a real transformation of social structures and individual mindsets.
When films over-stimulate audiences with plot points, fast-cutting and music, they stop being art and become mere entertainment. When you get overwhelmed with emotion, it becomes superficial; it does not travel to the depths of your soul, but remains on your skin. And I don't want audiences to shake it off as soon as they leave the theater.
I think cinema needs silence and gentle pacing in order for the audience to inhabit the experience you are offering them; in order for the film to become a relevant event in their lives.
FLMTQ: The Sound of Thingsis an accomplished first feature. Can you discuss the process of getting the film made; what obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome them?
AE: Over on this side of the world, the main problem is funding— always. When we shot The Sound of Things back in 2014, there wasn't any state fund specifically for cinematic arts. So adjusting a film production budget has always felt like living in your own private Idaho. Also, private investors up to this day tend to get really nervous when you pitch them an idea that does not rely on easy laughs or stereotypes. Even though the panorama has changed for Costa Rica in the last few years—especially with recently-created state funds for filmmaking— I think the main obstacle will be financial. At least for a while.
An anecdote from set: we made this film during the FIFA World Cup back in 2014 and Costa Rica's second most popular religion is football, so you can imagine the madness. On top of that, our national team did pretty well that year. As everybody was constantly screaming their lungs out around us, it got really difficult to shoot and especially to record sound on set. It actually came to a point where I think the whole crew was secretly hoping Costa Rica lost so we could shoot in peace.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
AE: Right now I'm working on my sophomore film, Domingo and the Mist. In this film I'm dealing again with mourning— it’s a subject I can't seem to get enough of. But this new project also deals with issues regarding land ownership and religious freedom in my country. I'm expecting shooting to begin in March next year.