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Pablo Larraín

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The Chilean director reveals the cinematic secrets behind his superb new film, No.

No is the third and final part of Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s ‘Pinochet Trilogy’, which began in 2008 with Tony Manero and continued in 2010 with Post Mortem. LWLies met the director recently, who explained exactly how he put together this expansive political thriller which plays like All The President’s Men but set in the world of late-'80s TV advertising.

LWLies: Is No the third part of a trilogy?

Larraín: Yes.

Did you always have this trilogy mapped out?

No. Each film springs organically from the previous one. When I did Tony Manero, it wasn't originally going to be a political movie. I wanted, for some reason, to have somebody to be a dancer and a serial killer at the same time. I thought, who could this guy be imitating? And then we thought of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Then we saw that it was in 1978, and then it became a political film. It became more interesting than the original idea. When we were editing it, I was doing some Googling and I found Salvador Allende's autopsy report, which is a very strange document. It's a technical medical thing. And I thought it was fascinating as it captured the recent history of my country through the eyes of doctors. The description of the body, what he had in his pockets, was a metaphor for society. I decided to make Post Mortem.

In between those film, someone came up with the idea of doing a film about the referendum. And this is important for Chileans. I guess it's the second most important day in the history of my country after the actual day of independence. Huge for us. The play we started working with had some dark comedy elements. When we started talking about it, I said that you couldn't make a dark comedy out of this as we would be exiled. This is not for amusement. Then we started working on it and it took a long, long time. The research was massive. We spoke to hundreds of people and looked at a lot of archive footage. When we had to fill in a form to send the film to a festival, there was a little line which said 'genre'. What's it going to be? And so we just decided to make it funny and dark and tense. So we just thought we were going to feel good and free with it, and if there's no way to fill that space on the form, then so be it. Or we'll just put down five different genres. And then we created this pastiche via all these different sources such as '80s advertising, politics and music videos.

So this was the first film where the central political idea came first?

Yes. It's true.

What are your personal memories of the referendum?

Not much really. I was 12. But what I do remember is that when the campaign was aired, the first day and the 27 days they aired it, it was like the national team was playing in the world cup. There was nobody in the street. Everyone was watching it. No matter how political you were, you would be there. Not only because it was a new idea, not only the fact that people didn't actually know how to vote because we hadn't had elections in so long. The, it's part of the idea of the movie. The people that were against Pinochet had no way of expressing themselves. The media was controlled by Pinochet, there was no freedom. The first day, the No started. It was a random thing. They actually decided that by the toss of a coin. I shot that scene but I pulled it out. It's a very funny scene. The entire country were just looking at these guys and thinking, what are they going to say? They've got to put 15 years into 15 minutes! And so expectations were massive.

There was a friend of the family who was on the right and he said, 'I bet these guys are going to start attacking Pinochet.' And then it opens with this super optimistic, funny advertising look and it was completely shocking. Then the Yes came with the images everyone had seen already, so it wasn't at all shocking. They had this propaganda permanently on TV so it wasn't new. I felt there was a new atmosphere. It's not an intellectual thing. Nobody in my country, including me, would forget that song. And those images of the guy dancing on the bridge. The mime. The taxi driver.

Even if you didn't have a detailed memory of the political fight that was being fought, there is the sense that you really soaked up the details of the era, like the fashion and the culture in 1988.

I was actually at the big parade for the Yes campaign when it was nearing its end. My mother took me.

Your parents were 'Yes'.

Yes. I would have a little Yes flag in my hand. I was 11. Then I became an adult and I realised I was a No guy.

It's fascinating when you realise how much support there was for Pinochet. Even though the Nos won. It wasn't really a landslide.

This was the trick. Not a lot of people knew what was going on. That's part of the issue and that's why they were so smart. They think about it. The keep these ideas bottled up as that's what you do when you have no way of saying any of this. Nobody really knows who this guy it. So when you get the chance, you go into the streets and you scream it! You say, 'look at this bastard! He killed lots of people!' Most people thought that everyone who had 'disappeared' were on some island or in jail. Not that they dropped them in the ocean, which is what they actually did. That was the smart move. If the no campaign had been heard earlier on, it would've created an atmosphere of fear and it would've been worse for the long run. The only chance was to create a positive message.

The film can also be enjoyed as a political thriller even if you don't have any real knowledge of the era.

Yes.

You're also quite cynical about the No campaign and the culture that it then created. This is the story of the birth of media manipulation. Advertisers and marketing are very central to politics. It's not just a film about Chile, it's a film about every election.

That's the reason why I made this movie. That's where everything is. When you have the crossover between the political communication and advertising logic, what happens is that words end up meaning nothing. It's pretty interesting and dangerous at the same time. Pinochet imposed this model. We were in this social process, then Pinochet came in, killed a lot of people, then he brought in these Chicago boys who changed everything. And with that comes marketing, the idea of selling stuff. You then need advertising to complete the equation. So essentially Pinochet engineered his own downfall. He brewed his own poison. In the last 24 years, we've been making the state smaller and smaller and smaller and companies are getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And today my country is owned by seven or eight guys. And one of them happens to be the president, which is another issue. So, we abused the system. We kept that sort of logic.

Nobody knew who these people were or how they arrived with this idea. Most of the country, 99.99 per cent were just looking at the TV. People were out on the street with these t-shirts with the No logo and singing this song about how the joy is coming. I don't think anyone said it, but if you stop and look you had a logo, you had a corporate image, you had a slogan, you have a jingle. But the problem is that you don't have a product, because you don't have a candidate. That's the biggest issue, as they had a ghost. And they had the No, the negative word. Pinochet had Yes, they had money, the had the media.

No is a film you could watch after Patricio Guzmán's The Battle Of Chile. It carries on that story.

I met him and we had dinner at the house of another documentary director. He's fascinating. I just think he's so good. His movies are an amazing inspiration for me. All of them. I think Nostalgia For the Light is just so beautiful. He became a mature artist. I think our work is connected, but his stuff is way more deep and interesting than mine. It has enormous artistic value. Compared to him I'm just a beginner. Even sitting with him, I felt like his student. It's been great to see that in many countries I've been to, lots of people are making connections between our films. And I'm deeply proud of that.

No is released in cinemas 8 February.

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