Have you ever felt yourself present yet separate from your surroundings, at a distance and slightly removed for all around you? Madrid-based filmmaker Jiajie Yu channels those isolating feelings of alienation in his dreamlike short Aliens in which a young women, newly arrived in a city, fakes fitting into a world which she feels very much estranged from. We discover how Jiajie and his micro-crew placed themselves in a situation of complete unfamiliarity – without a script, schedule or local knowledge – in order to open a window into the disquieting sensation of disconnection.
You define Aliens as your “first professional short film” even though you’ve made other shorts prior to this. What in your opinion elevated this production to the status of ‘professional’ comparative to those earlier works?
I am proud of my earlier works and I learnt a lot making them but with Aliens I think I found my style, my personal vision and the kind of movies I want to make. In this production, all of the elements of filmmaking combine and work perfectly; cinematography, sound designing, acting, and directing. In this project I learnt about being available for what may occur and that sometimes what you shoot is better than what you imagined. During the shooting process you have to be able to improvise and sometimes you have to solve problems that may arise. Working without any script or shooting schedule was great because I learnt to be flexible and adaptable.
Where did the idea to create this story of isolation and detachment come from?
Aliens is an independent short film that was created as a challenge. Initially, my Producer/Production Designer Mimi Margalef proposed that I take some pictures in Benidorm, Spain but I decided to make a short film, so that’s why I called my friend Miguel Gayoso to join us in this trip. He’s actually a street photographer and not a cinematographer but I knew he would perfectly fit in this small crew. Lina Gorbaneva was the main character – she is so beautiful, charismatic and crazy enough to be part of this project.
The feeling of alienation, strangeness, confusion and disturbance built the narrative sense of the short film.
We started to develop Aliens with some reference images, such as Gregory Crewdson, Lise Sarfati and above all Martin Parr. Mimi also sent me a poem called The Aliens by Charles Bukowski that inspired us to find the tone. With a small crew of 4 people (actress, production designer, cinematographer and I as a director) we rented a car from Barcelona and went to Benidorm for just two days. As we had proposed, we arrived in Benidorm without a script, no budget, no shooting schedule and none of us having been in that city before. Aliens is the result of this crazy and improvised trip.
How did that evolution to motion from the original stills concept shift your objectives for the project?
The idea of taking pictures in Benidorm came for the inspiration of Martin Parr’s photography but I wanted to go beyond that so that’s why I decided to make a short film. My intention with this short film was to create the most immersive and hypnotic experience possible and the only way to achieve that was with a filmed project and not with still photography.
This is a highly improvised film lacking, as you said, a script or shooting schedule and taking place in a city which was unfamiliar to you or your crew. How did those unknown factors influence how you shot the film?
I don’t know how to explain but everything went great. Being an improvised film was actually an advantage because we didn’t have any pressure and any prejudices. My crew and I were flexible and open minded to what we could find and the fact of being a small crew with light equipment meant we gained a lot of freedom to shoot any location and in an unnoticed way. Nothing could go wrong because there was no planning.
I shot Aliens from the point of view of the main character in a very subjective way so the viewer feels the same as the protagonist and gets to blend with the environment and the characters. I used the camera in an static, contemplative and documentary style, observing the girl, the people and the city without interfering in it. The camera captured as if it were a vouyeur, attentive, observing and stealing spontaneous moments. We shot with the Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-70 mm lens and a small LED light. We took advantage of the locations, especially placing the protagonist within the glow of neon lights.
Given the lack of a preproduction template what parameters did you use to shape Lina Gorbaneva’s performance?
Lina is a great actress, when she accepted my crazy purpose she knew that this project was going to be a challenge for her. We had a great actor-director relationship, she blindly trusted me even when I had some doubts. We mainly talked about the tone of the project, the feeling of strangeness, solitude and alienation I wanted to show in this short film. She understood perfectly that I was not interested in narrativity, I wanted to work it poetically with the image, the sound design, the music, the voice over and her acting.
Despite remaining mindful of the film’s structure during the shoot postproduction was still a 5 month process. What challenges did you face during the edit and to what extent does the finished piece deviate from your initial concept?
It’s curious but the final film doesn’t differ much from how I imagined the short film during the shoot. I was very clear about the first and the last image, and I knew that the dance scene was the climactic scene of the short film because it implied a change of attitude in the main character. The rest of the scenes were relatively easy to edit because it was chronological.
Nothing could go wrong because there was no planning.
The great challenge in the editing was in deciding what footage wouldn’t be part of the final film, I had some great shots that I had to leave outside the final edit. The greatest weight of the postproduction was the sound design because the short film was mute and we had to start from scratch. We used the sound design to represent the perspective of the main character and capture the whole inner world that lies in the city, the music to add a more dreamy and dark tone and the voice over to create the deep thoughts and reflections of the protagonist. Searching for the best voice for our character was difficult too, but finally we found the perfect one in Karina Matas Piper.
Is there a particular feeling you want audiences to take away with them after watching Aliens?
Aliens was created to take care of visual aesthetics in order to introduce the viewer to this particular world – a fiction with a touch of dystopia and apparent science fiction reinforced by the neon lights and the strange characters (real people) who bump into our protagonist. The intention was to create an absorbing experience, where sound and music have a great weight, emphasizing the feeling of alienation. I was interested in creating a realistic world but in a dreamlike way, where the atmosphere catches and envelops you.
Are you planning to return to this free-form method of production for future films?
I would to love to return to this free-form method because I really enjoyed the whole process, especially the shooting because I could work without any pressure and with the sole aim of having fun. I am aware that not all projects can fit into this method of production and if you have a production company and subsidies behind the project it’s almost impossible. Right now I’m preparing a fiction script for a more ‘conventional’ short film that I would like to shoot next year.