The Spanish director discusses his new feature, Extraterrestrial, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo’s latest feature, Extraterrestrial, tells the story of Julio and Julia, two strangers who wake up in bed together with no recollection of the previous evening. They end up stuck together in Julia’s apartment as a spaceship hovers over Madrid. Unable to leave, they must negotiate their situation, as well as Julia’s boyfriend and a nosy neighbour. The Spanish writer/director sat down with LWLies at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the making of his new film.
LWLies: Which came first, the sci-fi or the romantic comedy?
Vigalondo: I never hand in mind a pure genre film. The genesis of the story is the mix itself. What if something happens but we are looking in the other direction? That was the story of the film for me.
It starts off with the unknown – two people are together but they don’t remember how they met or even why they’re together. And the first they do is turn to technology to find the answer, rather than talk to each other. It’s as if they can’t think for themselves.
I had the first sequence written, how they met when they were drunk, but we decided not to shoot that. We wanted to start with the mystery. It doesn’t start with an obvious genre, I wanted to start from zero, and have it develop from there. Sometimes the audience might want to go in a different direction. But I want to start from zero, and then the audience can follow the path.
A major theme of the film is the incomplete picture. They can only see one part of the spaceship; they can’t remember what happened the night before….
The movie is about, what do we do with the rest of the picture? It’s an explicit metaphor, when Julio draws the picture of the rest of the UFO, what can’t be seen, and tries to calculate its size, but he doesn’t know. The movie isn’t what we do from what we know, it’s about what we do from what we don’t know. And I think these days, we have more information than ever, thanks to media and social networks, but our actions are defined by what we don’t know. We are as confused as ever. I love to work with the idea of a lack of information. There is a tradition of that in science fiction literature. My favourite author is Stanislaw Lem, and his novels are about a lack of information, and how human nature has to deal with that. It is part of our nature, not knowing everything.
We have more information, but we know and understand less. Julio and Julia rarely take the time to discuss their situation, there is a willful ignorance about their situation.
There are rumors, and lies. The situation is very uncomfortable. They are projecting things onto other characters, rather than asking. I don’t like romantic comedies, where the male makes a lot of mistakes and is really funny, and the woman is just a trophy, and the whole movie is trying to reach the girl. So I wanted to have a girl who makes mistakes, and she’s a bit of a mess. She is not the prize, she is part of the mess.
And the attack from the sky...
Well, they are attacked, but not from the sky at first. It has nothing to do with the spaceship. It’s from the neighbour. Again, the distraction from the bigger picture. They act a lot like children. They are pretending to do something, but they are walking in circles. But this is about the people who are not involved with the important event. It’s not following the usual leader, we’re following the secondary characters. And the revelations are all wrong.
It feels like it takes the presence of other people to keep you honest.
Yes, and the only way to save the situation is through another lie. It was fun to make Madrid an empty city, to let the characters act in a sincere way, and then to discover that they are doing the opposite. It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’, in your thirties.
Julia’s flat has an interesting layout. Is it a set?
No, I found the apartment, and adapted the script to it.. Some of the visuals, some of the shots, were made because of what the flat gave to me. There is no physical separation between the bedroom and the living room, it was already there, and that became part of the story. That’s something I tell young filmmakers, don’t try to build something out of imagination, find the space and then adapt your imagination to that space
And most of the film is in a tight space, there are no open spaces until the end.
The only way to have a complete picture, is to move away from it, to understand your position.