A film I first experienced at last year’s London Film Festival, Argentinian Director Lucio Castro’s debut feature End of the Century reunites two men for a one night stand whose seeds were sown two decades earlier. With End of the Century hitting UK cinemas today, we revisit our interview with Castro in which we discuss his use of performance rather than prosthetics to donate different time periods, the flexibility of shooting with a skeleton crew and the importance of walking your actors through the mechanics of sex scenes.
What set you on the path to making your debut feature with a bare bones crew?
I had written a feature film script that was in the works to get financed and as I was getting a little bit impatient with finding the money for that, so I wrote a screenplay that would actually be a little cheaper to produce. That one turned out to not be as inexpensive as I wanted it to be and also needed financing. I decided that I needed to make a movie right away so I used my restrictions – it had to be in a city and shot with a very small crew (just five people) and have no rented lights, just available/natural lights. That made it very easy to move around, to get permits to shoot in museums, at the beach, etc. We were a very agile crew and very flexible. I’m not saying that it was easy to shoot this film, of course, it’s still a crazy ordeal, but it was much easier than my previous experiences.
We were a very agile crew and very flexible.
This is a story that almost came to you rather than something you meticulously plotted out. How was that writing experience and were there any surprises or revelations for you as the story revealed itself?
Yeah for sure. I’ve tried in the past to write based on notes or laying out a structure I had in my head, but I found that way of writing felt like I was just filling blanks from my notes. It felt like I was losing a sort of freedom or allowing myself to be surprised by what I wrote. What I like to do is just start writing. Actually Harold Pinter, who I absolutely love, does something similar. He thinks of character A, he doesn’t know if it’s a man or a woman, he doesn’t know anything. Then character A says “Where are my sisters?” and character B replies, “They’re at the door dad” and so then he knows it’s a father and a son. I love that way because you can always colour in the characters in the story as you write them.
For End of the Century, the past and the big shifts in time happened because I was curious and thought, “Maybe they’ve met before”, so I started imagining that first encounter. I had started thinking of a story with a very basic and simple premise of a man arriving in a town that he doesn’t know and then things start happening. From basic very mundane things like checking in at an Airbnb to focussing his attention on another character. From there the themes go deeper into that relationship and then there are the time shifts.
End of the Century provides a very intimate portrait of Barcelona, what was it about the city that spoke to you as the right backdrop for this particular story?
I wanted a summer city, a city that had a beach but also a cultural life all year round. I wanted a city that I didn’t know very well. I also liked the fact that Barcelona is very big for tourism so it has a feeling of being transient. It’s a place where people move around and come and go, which worked for the characters. It also has great light and usually never rains so that would make things easier, even though over the 12 day shoot it rained a lot.
The film opens by following Ocho alone for 13 minutes or so as he’s finding his way around the Airbnb which is a pretty audacious way to start, especially for a debut feature. What narrative purpose did you want to convey with that extended, dialogue free beginning?
Whenever I’m alone in a new city I’m very aware of what’s going on around me and time is a little bit slower. But when I’m speaking to someone else the city jumps into the background so I wanted to show that in the film. I also like that there’s a gradual focus from him as a tourist in the city to progressively targeting his attention to the other character. I liked that introduction of the narrowing down of his focus of interest, it gives a nice opening for what becomes just the two of them.
The chemistry between your two leads is so palpable you can practically feel it coming in waves from the screen. How did you achieve that given the fact your actors met for the first time the day before shooting began?
They are both very smart actors so I think they were very good at pretending that they liked each other. They ended up liking each other and now they’re friends but they didn’t know each other at all. We just talked about how I wrote the story, how I thought about the characters in the present, in the past and the future and they brought all they had to the characters.
We did discuss the sex scenes, which we filmed quite early in the shoot (I think it was day 3 or day 4). They were a little bit anxious, not because of the nudity but because they wanted to make sure that I knew how they were going to be. Sex scenes are awkward for actors. They’re naked, they don’t really know each other. Even if it’s like the hottest people in the world it’s not a sexy moment.
So, I just wanted to make that feel comfortable and also wanted them to give all they had in the moment. The way we did it was we framed the shots and I said, “Okay, we’re going to do this from here to here, we’re going to see this part of your body, now give all out.” I think my sexy instructions were something like, “In sex there’s always something ugly or weird, don’t control it, that’s important, let it go.” Many times in moves I see the sex is almost too pretty or too perfect and sex in real life isn’t like that.
The rhythm of events in that first sex scene felt very true to life, to the point that it pauses when Ocho has to run out to buy condoms before ramping up again.
That was there because I feel that’s one of those details that happen. If I said “Oh I had great sex last night”, I’m sure it was great but I’m also sure there were many things that weren’t great about it. Perhaps a timing thing or the window blew open, or a neighbour said something. There are all these details that to me are rich. I love the scene where Ocho picks up the used condom and wraps it in toilet paper. It’s important to me to show those things that happen to us in real life that are often disregarded by film.
Sex scenes are awkward for actors. They’re naked, they don’t really know each other. Even if it’s like the hottest people in the world it’s not a sexy moment.
As you’ve mentioned, the film jumps from the present to the past (and ultimately the future) but it’s more of a subjective rather than objective version of the past and not something you signify with makeup, deaging or even by visually distinguishing the different periods through grading or shooting style.
That’s probably my favourite thing about the film and it’s something that I decided with my main actor. We were talking about the fact that when we remember things, if I told you I’d actually met you 10 years ago I would picture you the way you are now and the way I am now but 10 years ago. I wouldn’t picture you with like maybe longer hair or clean shaven. So I started to think about the idea of subjective memory and the fact that our memories are always full of mistakes, they’re never like a perfectly art directed memory of “1975” or “1984”. I liked the idea of that.
Also, of course, it makes shooting way easier because they don’t have to change. And also when we watch actors in films, for me I always focus too much on the makeup – is it good, is it weird, are the wigs okay? I never think “Oh they’re actually younger actors”, so why don’t we just accept they’re actors and they look the same, they’re just acting when they were younger.
We really focussed on how they would act younger in a subtle way of course. To me it was that when these guys were younger they had more ideals – one of them wanted to be a writer in the future and he’s a writer even though he works at it to make money. The other one wanted to be a filmmaker and he is in film but he works on TV shows in Germany. I felt that there is the ‘idea’ and then what really happens and I wanted that to inform the way they act, the way they approach the world and the way they talk to each other as well. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, of course, that’s just the way that sometimes we grow up. Things change and what we wanted is a bit different from what actually happens.
Stylistically you use a fixed camera throughout except for two occasions, the dancing scene and on the beach. Why did those scenes call for a different approach?
The fixed camera was because I wanted to look at the actors. I wanted to look at them talking to each other. If a film’s cut as over the shoulder to over the shoulder I feel like the director is telling me who to see. But if it’s fixed and I can see both of the actors I have the choice to focus on either. Perhaps one of them says something but I see the reaction of the other one, maybe a shoulder move or a hand and I love that. Especially when there are two characters who are flirting or connecting or something is happening between the dialogue. I wanted to give the audience that choice to focus on whichever character they wanted to focus on.
Also, there’s this thing of real time. The movie has a few long takes, one happens at twilight, the other at night so I liked the idea of having the sky changing as they talk. It gives it an effect of reality even though of course it’s fiction but it has some sort of real-time feel that I liked.
I wanted to give the audience that choice to focus on whichever character they wanted to focus on.
With regards to the two moments where I used handheld, we actually tried a fixed camera approach for the dance scene but it was too static. Then we tried the camera moving with them, almost being like a third dancer and that became much more effective, much more fun. I also feel like that scene in the movie is a little bit different from the rest and the handheld also gives you that difference in feeling and stylistically. The underwater scene in the present expresses that feeling of confusion of being in the water so it takes us a little more inside the character’s mind.
What did you shoot on?
We used a RED Raven. I had done a short with the ALEXA Mini which is a very small and great camera but for this, I wanted something smaller because there were a lot of locations and we were such a small team that we couldn’t be dragging along huge boxes. We did a test with the Blackmagic camera and the RED Raven, and I liked the RED Raven more in terms of quality, softness, the grain, the light. I just thought it was nicer that’s why we picked it.
I read that the sound design for End of the Century was a hefty six month process.
That was the hardest thing because basically everything was added except for the dialogue. At the beginning, it’s just 13 minutes of sounds from the city. I wanted all of that to be emphasized so that definitely made for a lot of post work – adding a bicycle or a truck driving by or the ocean moving in and out. Hopefully, you don’t notice it and it’s just part of the elements.
Next up you’re shooting an English language film in New York, can you tell us anything about that?
Yes, it’s got a little of a bit darker feel and is the story of a woman who thinks that she’s the reincarnation of a cult punk rocker. At the same time, she’s going through a very difficult separation while that’s happening to her.
This interview was taken from a longer podcast DN recorded with Lucio Castro at the London Film Festival.