I often spend my days longing to be plunged into a different world, either through the endless podcast streams playing through my headphones or the eagerly anticipated release of the latest TV series I am obsessed with, however nothing brings me quite as much unbridled joy as escaping into worlds as singularly portrayed in film. From the very moment Clara Sola opened up in the remote, verdant Costa Rican jungle my senses were tingling in expectation and for the 106 minute runtime I was completely immersed in the sensory and fervent narrative landscape of the film, deftly written and directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén. Clara Sola is Mesén first feature project and has deservedly been selected by Costa Rica as the country’s submission for the 2022 International Feature Oscars race. The film has also recently been scooped up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and is set to release early next year. Clara Sola follows the feral yet beguiling 40 year old Clara and her intimate world. Having been repressed by her onerous mother, themes of matriarchal power and overbearing religion meld into a mystical and sexual awakening embodied by Wendy Chinchilla Araya’s transfixing performance. Directors Notes was able to pin the busy writer/director down for an interview where we discussed rewriting the script to fit to the casting of Araya and capturing an authentic world with a subtle documentary-like feel which pays homage to the story’s poetic writing and Álvarez’ home of Costa Rica.
How did you come to write the story of Clara and her fantastical world?
It was actually an entrance test to screenwriting school in 2013, they gave us multiple paintings and pictures and asked us to write one page inspired by these pictures and that’s how Clara was born and her life in a rural area in Costa Rica. Themes on the whole story were evolving throughout the years after bringing my co-writer Maria Camila Ariason board. The film was much more based on our experiences growing up in Latin America with a lot of women in our families and developing the passing on of these norms, these patriarchal norms even though they were women.
We were focused on telling the story from Clara’s perspective and never giving the audience the opportunity to look down on her, even unconsciously.
When did you decide to work with Maria as co-writer?
She was recommended by a producer friend. I read one of her scripts Candelaria and immediately wanted to work together. Our relationship started out very pandemic-style as we did everything on Skype. We had only physically met over three days as I was living in Sweden and then in the US and she’s been living in Canada. It actually worked out beautifully as at some points I was working on the script during one time zone and she was working during the other so then we’d pass the script back and forth so it was being worked on almost 24 hours a day.
This is your first feature, how was the jump from shorts?
The stakes are higher so the stress level is higher because there are more people that I have to answer to in order for them to do their job and be able to serve the story that I want to tell and that they want to tell with me. It’s a bigger team which is such a luxury to have people that are specializing in different areas because in making my shorts, I would be doing a lot of those things even though I’m not specialized in any of them. I had a list of props I wanted to use and someone came to me and presented the different options for that prop and I became emotional as I never even thought that I would get different options! The care that the team was putting into building the world with me was so beautiful, especially because the house was just a white empty house and they totally transformed it.
How did you come to find that house and its surroundings which is such a central point of Clara’s life?
It took a year of location scouting in total. We found that house pretty early on but there was no bridge and a family already living there. After more and more searching, right when I was at the end of my tether we went back and found they had built a bridge and the family had moved out and we were able to take over. We built up a little bit around it to create more rooms and different spaces and it worked! The most important thing was that it had the nature that we wanted, the green wall behind the house. We decided to shoot most of the film, around 90% of it around the house and in that area. It was important for us to build it with the people from the area so we used the locals as extras and included them in the filming.
Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is sublime, how did you two connect?
I have a background in miming and physical acting as my bachelor’s degree is actually in mime. Growing up I was always interested in this world and I watched a lot of dance shows so I have known about Wendy since I was a teenager. I went to see one of her performances and I was blown away by her range of movement and the feeling that she puts into things so we brought her for casting. She was older than Clara had been written, so it took one year from the moment we saw her and were blown away by her for me to rewrite while doing more casting trying to find someone the right age. However, in the end, changing Clara’s age to fit with Wendy was the best decision.
Since I’m a mime and she’s a dancer we could find a lot of common language in the way we worked.
I was very determined to work with her, it was love at first sight and we started building the character from the very first casting we had together. We started to work with inner images of wolf, earth and fire and the different elements, since I’m a mime and she’s a dancer we could find a lot of common language in the way we worked. This was Wendy’s first acting project. It was a hard shoot, very physically demanding. It lasted for 35 days and one b-roll day. She had to wear a prosthetic for her back, fortunately she is so aware of her own body and what her body needs which would have been a requirement for that role.
The world Clara inhabits is so stunningly brought to life by Sophie Winqvist’s cinematography, how did you come to be working with her?
I was looking for a photographer in Sweden – the film is a Swedish, Costa Rican, Belgian and German production. I had known about Sophie and upon meeting discovered that she also has an intimate connection with nature, she lives in the countryside, she has a background in dance and so she also had this physicality. I love her work and even though what she had done before was different from what I was thinking, our brains and hearts merged in a good way. We were focused on telling the story from Clara’s perspective and never giving the audience the opportunity to look down on her, even unconsciously. Clara is in almost every scene but when she’s not in the frame then we focus on things that have to do with her internal feelings, her internal images or the poetry of the film that has to do with her. Everything goes back to her, her world and her communication with nature. Since the house was just a white cube and they had to redo the whole thing we had the time to prep the camerawork so we could take pictures and test films and plan a lot for the proper space which was a huge advantage and a luxury.
The little details in nature are hidden enough so we wanted to contrast that with very earthbound camera work.
This is a film replete with intimate shots of nature, how was that achieved and what did you shoot on?
We filmed on an AlexaMini with Cooke Anamorphic lenses which we had to bring from Belgium. We didn’t need cranes or any extra machinery as we didn’t want to complicate things in a way that wouldn’t serve the story or be as free. Most of the camerawork was handheld using a 65mm macro as we wanted more of a documentary feel and aesthetic in order to make the magical scenes more earthbound and more real. The little details in nature are hidden enough so we wanted to contrast that with very earthbound camera work.
I am a huge fan of Latin American literature and magic realism so was thrilled to see some of those components in the film. Where have you drawn those inspirations from?
I think it’s a mix of literature I was reading as a teenager which would go from magical realism and very earthbound books to Harry Potter. I’m a sci-fi lover and I love creating worlds with their own rules that the audience has to discover which I tried to create for Clara, even though those rules are a bit more subtle.
There are so many elements in the writing process and during feedback Mara and I found ourselves being criticised for having too much in there but we were both steady and thought of it like a puzzle. We just needed to find the right place for everything to fit in. Having the sexual and the mystical awakening run parallel with each other and mirror each other, leading to her liberation and healing. I think it’s important to keep some things if they’re close to your heart, even if they’re not working and then you just move the other things to make it fit.
I have read a few comparisons to Carrie, was that intended at all?
I had never actually seen Carrie until recently and it was in no way part of the writing. I think our executive producer said that the film was Cinderella meeting Carrie in Latin America and there are similarities with the strict religious mother and an explosion in the end. My DP Sophie described the film as a female orgasm – it’s very slow in the beginning and then you don’t know if it has started and then when you think about it you realise a lot has been happening and then it ends!
Where did Clara’s direct connection to nature come from??
The character was always going to live in a rural area and have this curiosity about things that was very different from other people around her and not have the same filter as other people. She somehow hadn’t lost that connection with nature and also nature didn’t demand anything of her. It was the only reciprocal relationship. Humans were always asking things of her and demanding things of her and imposing roles on her.
My DP Sophie described the film as a female orgasm.
How did the editing process work on such an international project?
We managed to get the film shipped out just before the country closed, I got stuck for a month and a half but the material escaped. My Editor Marie-Hélène Dozo made the first pass just from the script and then once I was able to make it to Belgium we continued together. We did a lot of work even outside of the editing suite. She just talked very much about opening the film, seeing what possibilities there were for creating more feelings. Some scenes were so interlaced with each other that by cutting some elements we were able to open space for different interpretations.
Due to corona we weren’t able to do test screenings with an audience so we really weren’t able to garner how the audience were feeling or what they experienced. But thanks to Marie-Hélène’s experience she knew not to focus on one thing and to allow space for different audiences. Some things were supposed to be open, such as the ending, depending on who you are, your personality and what you are looking for.
How do you feel about the film’s reception so far?
Obviously, we’re super happy to have premiered at Cannes and they were just wonderful to work with. We were always expecting Latin-American women to connect, and women who came from certain backgrounds with very conservative or religious families but then we saw just how wide the spectrum was. A white man from the UK is coming to you with tears in his eyes and is able to relate and it is just the most beautiful thing. The movie isn’t for everyone but when you find the people who understand it, it is truly moving.
What’s next for you?
I’m now working on my second feature hopefully with the same producers – depending on the financing. I am also set to direct some TV next year in the US and hopefully elsewhere. I’m working with wonderful managers that are really caring and understand exactly what I want to do.