Despite being life’s only certainty, most of us are thrown off balance when faced with the reality of death. Even the passing of a complete stranger is enough to trigger an existential panic about what may/may not lie beyond or the true measure of a life well lived. Taking this collective morbid discomfort as inspiration, London-based, Chilean Writer and Director Shalini Adnani joins Directors Notes today with the online premiere of her blackly comic short Something More Banal (Algo Más Banal) and discusses the merits of film school, the challenges of single set shooting and the inherent comedy in the bizarre ways we react to death.
This film was created as an exercise during your time at the London Film School. What was that attracted you to the school and how do you feel it helped you develop as a filmmaker?
I went to Bard College for my undergrad and always appreciate an alternative approach to education. So, with the London Film School, I found a practical film school that still focused on arthouse cinema and approached filmmaking in a more fluid way. My time there helped me gain technical skills, have on set experience, and get the chance to experiment without feeling too much pressure.
Funnily enough, I think going to film school gave me the tools to realise that one does not really need to go to film school. It’s best to learn by trying and going out into the world and talking to different kinds of people. Like many educational institutions, you go through a process of unlearning everything you learned to be able to find your voice, but fundamentally the skills you learned are crucial.
I think going to film school gave me the tools to realise that one does not really need to go to film school.
What was the incident which inspired the macabre premise of Something More Banal? How closely do the reactions we see in the film mirror those of the real event?
The incident is dark, that’s for sure. While I was at Bard College, someone had committed suicide on campus (in the film department actually) and I remember how we all reacted to it – we searched through Facebook, tried to find out more information, and in some way, gossiped about it. I found it an interesting reflection on how people relate to and react to death. I thought of other world events like beheadings on YouTube and how human nature is compelled to see the macabre. It’s like we seek shocks to remind us of our existence, to find gratitude in life, or give us meaning. Death reminds us we have something to live for. And that reaction felt selfish and particularly defining of our generation.
Do you feel your Latin America origins have given you a particular outlook on death?
Definitely. It’s a region that has become slightly desensitized to death and this is ingrained in its culture, literature, art, etc.
Did you consider other locations before deciding on the setting of a Mexican factory? Why did you ultimately choose to stage the film there?
I had originally thought of setting it in a college dorm but ultimately decided on a factory for narrative and technical reasons. Making what we consider ‘normal’ spaces feel right in a studio is much harder and often does not look right. I was attracted to the kind of visuals and sounds a factory could add to the film and started getting inspired by Diego Rivera’s industrial murals depicting workers. Finally, it’s a country so affected by death, it felt right to set it there.
There’s a repeated motif of nearly but not quite cutting down the body which recurrently heightens the tension, was that narrative element present from the beginning?
It was. There is an element of the film that is about waiting and a certain plotless nature to the existential conversations between the characters. In a way, the cutting down of the body is almost the only straightforward ‘action’ that occurs, so, the point of tensions was necessary from the beginning.
Joan Vicente Durà takes a very deliberate, measured approach to the film’s cinematography with camera moves largely limited to slow-creeps, how did that visual style develop?
I was attracted to using slow tracks from the beginning and always knew they were integral to the way I wanted to shoot the film. I also wanted a kind of daylight that did not blow out an entire room. All of these limitations meant that the production design needed to lend itself to the visual style.
We ended up having a lot of sessions with the Production Designer Tayub Hussain about the structure of the studio space, especially the position of the windows. Together, we all found a space that would serve the cinematography and allow for slow tracks. For example, the pillars we built were moving pillars, so they could be moved around to allow for tracks to be laid. And the windows were placed above, as if the space was a basement so that it would feel grittier. It really came together in the construction of the studio.
We realised that the comedy was inherent in the text.
In what ways did your desire to shoot for the edit inform the choices you made on set as a director?
I guess I didn’t think about alternatives. Or options. Most would say this is a horrible idea, but I made sure I liked what I saw in its entirety and really focused on performances. The performances had to be captivating to me to maintain the visual and editing style of the short.
Absurdity and humour sit comfortably alongside death here, how difficult was the process of finding the right tonal balance for the film?
This was a hard one. Working with actors is always very important for me. In this case, the cast was a mix of non-actors and professional actors. Through our rehearsals, we realised that the comedy was inherent in the text, so there was no need to overplay it in the performance. It was an uncertain process, as in, we didn’t know what it would look like, till the actors came in. Once the actors brought the characters to life things felt way more natural.
What will we see from you next?
I am in post production for my first feature called A Grown Woman. It’s certainly been a big risk to go out and shoot a feature on a whim and on a very low-budget, but I am interested in constantly making films. I just want to create. So, I’ve got a couple other feature scripts in the drawer I might decide to shoot on a whim as well.