The world of organised crime and the different players involved therein is a well known forum for exploration in film and when filmmaker Duván Duque Vargas decided to probe into the effect and repercussions of this world in Colombia, he chose to take a different tact for his short Todo Incluido (All-Inclusive). Told through the eyes of a young boy on holiday with his family just outside of Bogotá, Todo Incluido sees a family unravelling as the father teeters on the precipice of losing himself to the dangers of collusion with the wrong people. By focusing on how these external pressures lead to family breakdown, Vargas is able to address issues of the inexorable power wielded over so many hard working individuals who find themselves under immense amounts of pressure to keep up with appearances. While at first glance Todo Incluido submerges its audience in the warm tones and soporific ambience of a sun soaked holiday, beneath this appealing veneer lurks a pervasive and terrifying threat. With the film currently working its way through the festival circuit we spoke to Vargas about his decision to focus on these societal conflicts from the perspective of a struggling family, camouflaging the production within a busy arena to shoot some of the bigger scenes and working on the magnetic performance of his young non-professional lead.
Why do you feel a pull to explore such heady topics in your films?
I left Colombia after graduating from high school and spent my university years moving around Europe and the US. After six years I came back to Colombia and realized that some things that I had grown up considering normal about our society were suddenly puzzling to me. I’m referring to the ways we normalize constant contact with vast social inequality and the methods used by the upper class to retain its social status and privilege at all costs. I’m especially interested in the way these social structures penetrate our daily lives in our most intimate spheres, such as those of our family and friends. Film has been my way of exploring this. The exploration has become more personal with each film. It has helped me understand exactly why these topics move me in the way they do.
I hope the viewer can follow these characters, without judgements, on their fragile and flawed pursuit of happiness
How did you then decide to examine those issues of vast inequality through the gaze of your young protagonist?
Todo Incluido comes from recurrent childhood memories that kept coming as if something about them remained unsolved. Like Fer, I grew up seeing my father and stepmother repeatedly failing at trying to make our family work, trying to both recover from bankruptcy and from the scars my mother’s death had left all around us. This film has become my deepest attempt to stop blaming them for such failure and instead try to feel what they were going through back then. This film is also my most personal take on what has been the project of my previous works: portraying Bogotá’s upper class and its deeply rooted mandate to keep its social status through money at all costs, no matter how corrupt. Showing the dilemma of money laundering I deal with the corrupt nature of Colombian society through a common trope of the popular representation of our culture. However, by shifting the focus from the spectacular tales of drug lords to the final days of a struggling family, I hope the viewer can follow these characters, without judgements, on their fragile and flawed pursuit of happiness.
Once the idea was in place and the script written, how did you move into production?
The film was a co-production between Colombia and France. We spent a long four months casting, trying to find the right actors amongst both professional and non-professionals. We ended up with three non-professional actors to make up the family and none of the actors in the film had ever acted before. To achieve their performance, we spent a long time building the relationships between them, both rehearsing and just hanging out; going bowling or dining or driving around. We shot in Villavicencio, a city that’s two hours from Bogotá, where most of the crew lives. Bogotá is high in the mountains. When you drive down the mountain, going east, you get to this vast region that extends all the way to Venezuela. It’s called Los Llanos Orientales. Villavicencio is sort of the gate to this world, which is this kind of ‘cowboy region’ of our country. We wanted to capture the experience of a kid living in this world for the first time while he’s witnessing the crumbling of his family.
We decided to shoot on a date when there are a lot of activities around the ‘coleo’ championship (Mundial de Coleo). Coleo is the sport they’re all watching when they’re in that sort of arena. It consists of horse riders chasing bulls, grabbing them by the tail and bringing them down to the floor. We wanted to capture this but didn’t have the budget to recreate it. That’s why we picked that date and just tried to camouflage ourselves inside the crowd for that filming. The street scenes were shot following the same logic (as we had no budget for lots of extras).
That was a key part of the process to give the film the look and identity it has.
Most of the crew was Colombian, except for our DP, Konstantinos Koukoulios. We did the color grade in Greece, with a colorist he works with, Manthos Sardis. That was a key part of the process to give the film the look and identity it has.
Four months is a fairly long casting process for a short, what were you looking for from your actors and how did you know you had found them?
Casting is a weird process because there’s this strange balance between knowing what you’re looking for and letting yourself be surprised and inspired by what you find. I first like to talk a lot to people and see if they’ve gone through events in their lives that are similar or relatable to those of the characters so that we can build upon their emotional memories when rehearsing and on set. Then there are some traits that are hard to pinpoint clearly but we know we need for the story to work.
Fernando, for example, is the character that’s trying to take the family on a questionable moral route. We knew we needed someone that had a certain level of despair and electric madness in his eyes, but we also needed him to be noble and charming enough so that we could be moved by him and follow him down that path without judging him too hard. For Natalia we were looking for someone with a great level of sensibility and a deep sense of motherly love but also a strong level of harshness and moral stance that would give her agency and keep her from becoming a victim within the story. Fer needed to be played by a kid that was incredibly smart and sensible, someone that could understand and relate to the complex family configuration and situation the character was going through.
And then, of course, they have to be great actors and have chemistry between them as a family. I feel incredibly lucky with finding the three of them, as well as the rest of the cast. Actually, more than luck, though that of course did play a part, I’m very grateful to Pablo Salah, our amazing casting director (and also the film’s ad). None of the actors in the film had ever acted before, which is something we weren’t enforcing in the casting process, but somehow just happened, I believe because of the level of truth and dirtiness we were looking for in the performances.
Maximiliano Rojas is particularly impressive with his youthful freedom which juxtaposes everything he is experiencing. How did you approach his character and the gaze we see through him to find that balance?
That balance was very important in the construction of the film. We experience the dissolution of a family, and the vertigo of getting into shady business, but we do it through the eyes of a boy on a holiday trip. Through the gaze of a kid that is experiencing a new place for the first time and doesn’t really understand everything he’s experiencing. Even though he doesn’t fully understand he’s deeply moved and troubled by what he feels can break his family apart. Max was the first actor we were able to agree upon in the casting process. As soon as we met him we felt it had to be him. His intelligence and level of maturity for his age were striking. I remember his first callback, we were left speechless when seeing his capacity to go into a scene and connect in a deeply emotional way with what was being played. That’s something I’ve seen very few times. He had that magnetic balance you’re referring to, he’s full of energy, even hard to calm down sometimes, but then he can also turn into this quiet witness that just follows things with his eyes while you can see he’s taking so much in and trying so hard to read people.
We were left speechless when seeing his capacity to go into a scene and connect in a deeply emotional way with what was being played. That’s something I’ve seen very few times.
The saturated colours immerse us in their holiday and seem to mask the pervasive threats contained in this trip. Can you go into more detail about your references and ideas for the film’s visual aesthetic?
That balance we were referring to when talking about Max’s performance is something that we were also chasing in our construction of the image. A family vacation that changes a family forever can be a rollercoaster of emotions that seem to be in constant change or that can even overlap. There’s a lot of beauty when experiencing this new place through the eyes of a kid, but it’s a beauty that doesn’t stay for long, that almost fades away the second you experience it. Konstantinos’ camera work was very important to achieve this, it was a tool to add to the level of truth we were mentioning. We wanted to stay away from images that felt too constructed and instead try to make a film where you always felt you were lucky to catch a glimpse of reality. Manthos Sardis’ work in the grade added the last bit to that balance between the beauty and electricity of a boy’s gaze through saturated colors and the dense and obscure feeling of threats that aren’t fully understood through a grainy, rough, contrasted image.
How were you able to capture the scenes at the arena and on the street without permission? Did you face any particular hurdles or difficulties with this approach?
We did have permission from the organizers of the event and from local authorities. What we didn’t have was the budget to recreate the event or fill the street with extras, so we had to be as invisible as we could to the general public. I really loved this way of shooting. It can be quite stressful if you’re trying to control everything but once you realize you can’t and instead just let yourself be surprised and inspired by what’s going on beyond your control, it can be very fun.
We wanted to stay away from images that felt too constructed and instead try to make a film where you always felt you were lucky to catch a glimpse of reality.
20 minutes could be considered fairly long for a short film, can you talk us through your lengthy edit and how you landed on the final run time?
As I shoot with non-professionals, I don’t really give them lines to memorize. They only read the script once and didn’t have any copy of it. So while we shoot each scene we experiment a lot, improvise a lot. That makes the editing process quite long (it lasted four months) as there are so many ways in which a scene can be cut, so many options. I believe our script was around 25 pages long, so we knew from the start we were going into a somewhat long short. We weren’t going after a specific duration when editing though. The long process was just centered around finding those glimpses of truth within the long takes of improvisation that we had for each scene and then seeing which scenes could be built around them.
What are you looking to delve into next in your work?
I’m currently writing a feature length film that deals with these same characters at a different point in their lives. Fer is older, he’s 16-18. While turning into a man he’s faced with the dilemma of supporting his father or going against him. The writing process is taking longer than expected, but I’m very excited about the shape it’s slowly taking. I also started producing other directors a couple of years ago. We started Continente Pictures, a production company based in both Bogotá and Los Angeles. We’re currently at the financing stage of Malmirada, our company’s first feature-length film.