“There is only one place where love stories live forever. Memory.” So reads the tagline for Carlos Lascano’s ambitious long-short The Puppeteer (El Marionetista), a dark tale in which a man finds himself trapped in a labyrinth of memories and fantasies as he indulges in reveries of a past love at the expense of his present happiness. Rectifying the shamefully long time since we last spoke to the award winning (and ever viral) filmmaker, I invited Carlos to settle in for an all encompassing discussion about his shift away from lighter, carefree narratives, the recurrence of marionettes in his work and embracing the improvised spontaneity of actor performance.
The Puppeteer is definitely a shift to a darker tone of storytelling than we’ve seen from you before. Where did the idea of this tragic figure stuck in the past come from? How much of your artistic obsessions are imbued in his wistful tale?
After finishing Lila, my previous short film, I challenged myself to create a much more dramatic, dark and elaborated story that would make a contrast against the light and hopefulness that Lila emanates. It’s a natural consequence of my need to tell stories ever more complex. I began developing in parallel several stories that are part of a literary project I’ve been working on for a few years. One of those stories became ever more prominent and interesting: the idea of having a character stuck in the past and tormented by the passage of time seemed to fit in the kind of story I was looking for. That is how The Puppeteer was born.
I wanted to capture on screen the artistic obsession that I have with time and memories.
The Puppeteer is a story imbued with wistfulness. I wanted to capture on screen the artistic obsession that I have with time and memories. If I were to define the story in one line, I’d say “it’s about the struggle of man against time”. I think the subject has to do with the personal experience of the maturity that comes with age in which the passing of time becomes more and more noticeable.
Javier is a puppeteer that is stuck in the past, trying to perpetuate a love story that is long gone. Each evening, in the darkness of his miniature theater, his puppets relive the “Belle Epoque” of his life. His reality today is much different, all that he longs for has remained in the past. One day, an unknown spectral character appears in his life, determined to take away what he loves the most.
The perception we have on our own lives is based on the possibility of selecting, either consciously or not, the memories we want to keep, and that is where oblivion plays a fundamental role: forgetting certain details allows us to fictionalize the gaps. This idealization of the past is what the character resorts to to support the present: he can not escape time but he can negotiate with oblivion.
Time, memory and oblivion all turn into antagonists and come to life as spectral characters, as if they were born in the underworld described by Greek mythology. I needed to tell the story in a darker way than the one I’m used to because of the nature of the character’s pain while facing his fears and the ghosts from his past.
The choice to frame the narrative within a mystery structure was born out of challenges you encountered rectifying cinematic rhythm and subject depth. Could you tell us more about how you identified and then found a resolution for those issues?
One of the biggest challenges I faced was to keep the depth of the subject without losing the cinematographic rhythm of the story, which is why I resorted to the format of mystery film allowing myself to use some classic elements of the genre. We shot some scenes in which the story was told in the third person, following the secondary characters to see what they were doing. After finishing the first rough cut I realized that was not really working, as the story is better told only from the main character’s point of view: that subjectivity is what makes us believe things that otherwise we would question.
For me, Lalo Alias’s performance has the tragic feel of an old school mime artist. How did you cast your forlorn puppeteer and then embed this deep melancholy in his performance?
Writing characters for the actors is the best thing that can happen to you as an author, it’s like giving them a tailored suit. Lalo Alias is a recognized theater actor, when I saw him on stage I knew immediately that he was my main character! I wrote a basic script structure that I used to guide the first rehearsals with the actors to see what would come of it. It was from the rehearsing hours that the most interesting material came up to build the characters’ personalities. It was a long process: discovering, adjusting and rewriting. I like to be very flexible in the early stages in which everything is still vague and possible.
All the scenes of the script, the ones we actually shot, have very little rehearsal but a great deal of background.
The main character is stuck, remembering a past that he has idealized. He is physically in one place but his mind is some place else. We needed to show that on the screen. What we did then was to create and rehearse those images of the past, the ones that are not seen in the film. We rehearsed the scenes of the love story that Javier remembers, its happy and tragic moments, until we created a very strong and vivid image in the actors. That helped during the actual shooting: all the scenes of the script, the ones we actually shot, have very little rehearsal but a great deal of background. The idea was to keep those emotions as fresh as possible and avoid stiffness.
We’ve spoken before about your embracing a more improvisational approach to filmmaking when working with actors as opposed to the regimented process required by animation. Is that something which continued when shooting this film?
The most interesting thing about this project is that it grew as it was being done. Everybody in the team came across the discovery of things that were implicit in the idea but maybe not entirely developed when the script was closed and finished. That’s how I realized that one of the moments I enjoy the most during the process of making a film is the moment of the editing, I think that’s where the story is really built: the possibility of selecting among many shots and playing with expressions that happened spontaneously during the shooting is something magical and very interesting creativity-wise.
In this film in particular, the time between the shooting and the final editing was long and I had the chance to play with the shots and experiment with the narrative time. There are many ways to edit a film once it has been shot! It was hard, meticulous work that not only included the re-editing of scenes but also the re-shooting of some others to adjust the story to a new concept that was born as a consequence of the artistic maturation of the project that happened after the shooting.
Speaking of the shoot, you took on the role of DoP along with Bernardo Casali, what informed the aesthetics of the shared camera work and visual design?
I love creating visually poetic and attractive images and this particular story required a great deal of visual styling. Due to budget and space constraints, we had to maximize our inventiveness so that our aesthetic expectations were met. Bernardo Casali and I have worked together for many years, which means that sometimes we do not even have to talk to understand each other creatively. He has a great technical knowledge and a high sensitivity with the use of lights, and I consider those skills essential, as I always put much care in the photography of my works. As for me, when I am shooting I feel the camera as an extension of my own body. I love to hold the camera to work sensibly on the framing and the movements.
We posed a visual game that respects a very clear narrative in which a different color palette would be used for the different scenes, intending to achieve a very concrete effect that contributes to the story. Even the position of the characters within the frames has a narrative progression that affects the perception of the story. Javier, the main character, remains in one side of the screen for the whole duration of the movie, as if he was trapped in the past, while Florencia fits the other half. The whole film is filled with small visual metaphors that are the result of a coordinated camera work and the valuable input of the art department.
The atmosphere we achieved refers us to the 70s, although the film never specifies that the story takes place at that time. I always try to remain ambiguous about the dates and the location of the stories I write. I like to abstract the characters, delinking them from a context that may create preconceptions in the public. I worked on the art with Candela Chirino, and we would adjust things as we rolled to be more flexible and adapt to what we were encountering along the way. Most scenes were filmed in an old building in Mar del Plata’s harbour. The place itself had a rather depressing and vintage aesthetic that inspired us to look for elements in that style.
The shooting took place entirely in Mar del Plata, (my hometown in Argentina). Kiper Films, a local production company joined us during the whole shooting. In total there were around 12 days of filming, divided into several weeks of work. It was great to work with this team of passionate young people, eager to work.
We shot with two cameras, the main one was a BMCC 2.5k and the secondary camera (which was used only for some inserts) was a Nikon D600. Zacuto’s Z-Drive follow focus, together with the Tornado grip have been particularly useful. The film has a lot of focus changes and by using this device I managed to hold the camera and do all the focusing by myself without extra help. The different results achieved with the cameras were very noticeable because of the Nikon’s much smaller dynamic range. It took a great deal of postproduction work to minimize it. Davide Lo Vetro from Proxima Milano a studio in Italy was in charge of finishing all the color correction and making all the footage look beautiful.
The main camera was always mounted on the tripod while I used the Nikon by hand. I intended the shooting dynamics to not interfere the actors’ work: once you are in the middle of a scene and the actor is going through an emotion, it is not convenient to have to cut to reposition the camera, so having a small camera in hand to shoot extra details is very useful. The exteriors were a great challenge as we rolled everything in Mar del Plata, a very touristy and rather modern city… in the middle of summer, while the story takes place in the winter of any city of vintage air so intensive use of green screens and matte paintings were used to achieve a magical and timeless environment.
What caused you to reunite the crew two years after the initial shoot had wrapped?
The idea of making an unplanned turn in the story came up at the last moment. During the almost 2 years I was working in the editing and post I found that some details in the script could be reinforced and even if most of the changes were feasible just by editing, when I was working on the final scene I felt that the character was asking me to do something that I didn’t have in mind when I wrote the original story and was completely opposed to what I had shot!
I was in the lonely editing room and I realized I needed to shoot a new scene…
I was in the lonely editing room and I realized I needed to shoot a new scene… but I was in Europe, far away from where we shot in Argentina and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to reunite all the team again. But it took me just one single email to put them back together! They were so excited to see the finished project that they left everything aside and got to work 100% on the preproduction of the new scenes. In January of this year I traveled and we shot. It was really exciting to see the characters I’ve lived with for so long again, like a trip to the inside of a story that was no longer just a film but a part of my reality.
Sandy Lavallart joins you again as composer, how was working together on this project different from your Lila collaboration?
Working with Sandy Lavallart is always a great experience and a great excuse for me to visit Paris! We wanted to go beyond what we did in Lila, the idea was always to connect with the audience through emotions, and Sandy is expert at doing that. This time the music needed more drama and darkness, he created a contrast between the happy moments and the pain of loosing them. There is a complex narrative structure that Sandy followed when writing the score. In the same way as with the script the information is revealed in small doses until the final twist when you understand the whole story.
We recorded with real instruments and also choir voices. All the sound production was made in Paris at Kouz Studios, they are one of the most talented sound studios in Paris, I was very lucky to have them on board. The choirs were recorded in Prague, a city where I lived for some time while I was editing and finishing the writing of the film, a lot of the nostalgia and the sadness that the movie emanates comes from those rainy and creative days I lived there.
How much experimentation took place when shaping the film during the edit? Were there any particular challenges you needed to battle with?
Editing is almost everything when it comes to narrative. I had tons of ideas and options when I was working at that stage. After many tries I decided to narrate the story completely from the point of view of the main character and that resulted in the removal of a lot of scenes… most of them good ones with great acting and a lot of work behind the camera. It was painful! But to be cold-blood at the moment of making these kinds of decisions is something very important.
I especially remember a beautiful scene with Florencia alone in her room trying the red dress in front of the mirror and imagining herself as the young “Margot” she was. It was nice and emotional… but also against the idea of a single point of view so I had to remove it. The other big challenge was to find a way to introduce the poetic voice overs written by Pamela de Massias in a beautiful way. We tried with a narrator but we found it unjustified and distracting so in the end we decided to have the main character talking about himself.
This isn’t the first time you’ve used marionettes in your films, what compels you to return to them as a storytelling device?
There is something special and very familiar that ties me to the world of puppets. In fact, my first film – which I did in a very precarious way, on VHS in 1997 – talked about these little will-less characters moved by someone hidden in the shadows. Today, exactly 20 years later, I release a film that talks about the mysterious character that operates them. On this occasion, the puppets’ role shifts to the background, representing a link with a distant past that needs to be rescued from the clutches of time and oblivion.
Art is somehow the only tool we artists have to rebel against death.
A wonderful gift childhood left me is the belief that there is always a magic side of life. I owe this to my parents who always encouraged my imagination and to my grandmother, who had a small puppet theater with which she used to tell stories to me and my brother when we were children. That very same theater is the one that I rescued from oblivion and used for the film, and it was my father who was responsible for transforming it into something more than just a theater: he turned it into a “magic time machine”. You can say that this theater is Javier’s weapon to fight against time: when he turns the crank, a system of gears is activated… and it’s inside that wooden box that he manages to keep alive his most precious memories.
Your films have consistently found enviable viewing figures online sitting somewhere in the multiple millions. Do you know when The Puppeteer will join them?
Finding how many views my shorts have altogether is a bit tricky! I found some Russian, Indian and Chinese sites that had reposted them on different platforms. I took the time to calculate the views one day not long ago and the resulting number was something around 15 million. Lila is still, by far, the more successful one. The Puppeteer has yet to finish its festival run before joining the other shorts in a public web-release.
You’ve already made an unintentional trilogy of shorts with A Short Love Story in Stop Motion, A Shadow of Blue and Lila, is The Puppeteer a standalone film or do you already have its spiritual successors waiting in the wings?
The Puppeteer is, in some way, related to Lila. I could say that it poetically continues the idea of using the fantasy to change the reality in some way, but in this case the character becomes trapped and stuck by doing this. I think that this film is independent but artistic work comes always as a result of some inspirational moment and there is always a hidden connection between one project and another. We authors always talk about the same things but in different ways. They say that every author’s film has something self-referential about it. I know that there is much of me in that puppeteer who tries to defy time and oblivion: art is somehow the only tool we artists have to rebel against death.