The Long and Short of It

Photo by Ed AndaluzHe is happy to discuss his filmmaking techniques and tell the typical behind-the-scenes anecdotes that fill issues of Entertainment Weekly. But it’s not his preference. “The articles I like to read are the ones about themes,” says Rodrigo García, on a quiet afternoon at West Hollywood’s Jerry’s Famous Deli. “I like to read an interview with Alexander Payne. There’s some relative interest in how they write — how he and his partner work. But let’s talk about the life in the movie. People are interested in how filmmakers live their lives and how they work, but so many questions in these Q&As are, ‘How did you get this project together?’ What matters is the life in the movie.”Gentle and warm, the 46-year-old García makes movies about women confronting their emotional crossroads. And although it’s the characters who stay with you — the life in the movie, you might say — reporters sometimes get hung up on his films’ structural novelties. His debut, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), played out as five short stories, each about a different woman coping with modern-day malaise in L.A.’s depressive sprawl. It was the first script García had ever written — he had previously been a well-respected cinematographer — and he filled it with the isolation he felt after moving from Mexico to learn camerawork at the American Film Institute. He followed it up with Ten Tiny Love Stories, a series of 10 female monologues performed directly to the camera.

To read Scott Foundas' review of Rodrigo García's film Nine Lives, click here.

Now, with Nine Lives, which recently won the Golden Leopard for best film at the Locarno Film Festival, García dramatizes a critical 10-to-14-minute snippet from a day in the lives of nine ordinary L.A. women. In doing so, García gave himself a Five Obstructions–style challenge: Take Things You Can Tell, add more vignettes, make each vignette shorter, and there can’t be any cuts — each of the nine stories unfolds in real time, in one continuous camera take.“I wanted to make a movie that would consist of really short moments, that would be a sort of mosaic,” he says. “When you’re watching it, it sort of floods you, and you’re not quite sure what you’ve seen, but then maybe when you go away, you say, ‘Oh, that was a world.’ That’s a big ambition, and I didn’t feel quite ready to do it. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do a preparation movie for that. I won’t do 70 or 80 moments — I’ll just do nine.’ ”The result is an excellent example of doing more with less. Telling each story in less time than he allowed himself in Things You Can Tell, García achieves a more elliptical and more resonant impact. We never notice the technical complexity of filming an unbroken shot through a funeral Mass or in a women’s prison. Instead, we delve into intriguing slivers of narrative — each woman’s pain goes on after her scene concludes, and we are left to wonder if she’ll ever find any sort of resolution. (In a break from tradition, Locarno awarded its best-actress prize to Nine Lives’ entire female ensemble.)“I’m more interested in problems that don’t have a solution,” says García. “Many of us live out our lives with one or two difficult relationships — with our sons, our fathers, our neighbors, our lovers. And we never resolve them. I’m interested in that. That’s why maybe sometimes I do the short form, because it’s very difficult to find a longer story where, at the end, most people are exactly where they were at the beginning.”Although we talk chiefly about his characters and their open-ended struggles, I can’t resist asking García about his father, acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Thankfully, he’s not hesitant about the subject, and if he’s supposed to be concerned about the expectations that come when an artist’s son starts to spread his wings, he isn’t.“Especially when I talk to journalists from Colombia or Latin America, these questions always come up,” he says. “And I say to them, ‘I wanted to be a cameraman, and you guys surmised that I did that so that I wouldn’t write, like my father. If I’d decided to be a writer, you’d say, ‘He wants to be a writer, because he wants to compete with ?his dad.’ ”But although their milieus are very different, his father’s subtle influence might help explain what inspired García’s self-described “stubborn mania” about working in vignettes.“My dad always greatly admired the short stories of Hemingway,” he recalls. “He used to say, quite frankly, that his own novels were better than Hemingway’s, but that Hemingway’s short stories were unbeatable. He loved and admired novels, but short stories were it. He always found them really difficult and admired those who wrote them well.”García pauses and looks at me. He knows what I’m thinking, and he says it with a self-effacing smile. “So now you’re psychoanalyzing me. Because there’s a field I picked to play on where I have a chance of competing with my dad, doctor.”

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