Joaquin del Paso and Lucy Pawlak, director, co-writers, and art director of Panamerican Machinery took some time out to speak with James Baxter-Derrington about their film which had its UK premiere at this year’s Raindance Film Festival. Please note: we tried our hardest to find a picture of Lucy, but sadly to no avail, so apologies for that.
So Panamerican Machinery, it was something I didn’t quite know what I walking into. The tone of it seemed quite British in a sense with it’s black comedy to it – is that something you had in mind, or is it that Mexican cinema coincides with British cinema?
J: I don’t know. I lived for many years in Poland and at the time that we were writing I was back in Mexico but there was still a lot of influence from other cinema: European cinema, Eastern European cinema, it was just natural when I was working with Lucy. It’s a humour that we have, I guess it’s like British humour, but I wouldn’t say it’s Mexican. Although people find the film very Mexican. They really like the characters, they love the way we describe the micro-society, they always think that the humour is special.
There was a lovely tone to it with the black comedy. Even right to the end, in the final scene and the epilogue, there was a lot of symbolism that was discussed last night, but also it was quite funny, even with serious tone. Was the story based more around this micro-society and then the symbolism of the Mexican government and someone at the top not necessarily being ideal for the job? Was that what came along as the script developed or was that at the heart of it?
L: We definitely didn’t have any underlying intention to communicate a particular message about Mexican politics directly, it’s not like the whole thing is a metaphor for this, that this person represents this. I think that the politics of power and how a small company functions is kind of bound to reflect upon the wider picture of the whole country. It’s more like, through telling Joaquin’s story it was inevitably going to bring up certain things, but we never, in terms of thinking about how we were going to tell the story, it was more ‘Who would populate this space? Who would be the employees? What’s the structure of this space? What the relations between the people, what do they value and so on?’ And then that’s going to come up in terms of what the president of the country’s like! And one other thing that’s a cool little thing that happened fairly recently, the President, Peña Nieto, he was involved in some corrupt deal to do with a house that his wife bought. He was accused of a lot of things, and in the end he apologised and the scene now when the accountant apologises towards the end has a different, pathetic thing of someone saying ‘I’m sorry’. It was really odd, because it was a cop out. When you admit that you’ve done something wrong it’s a great way to escape from any responsibility somehow. Maybe you can describe better how people felt in Mexico when Peña Nieto apologised?
J: I mean, in 50 years, there’s going to be a completely different reading! Hopefully it’s going to be a historical film, set in a time… What I’m trying to say is that, I hope the future will be better.
Coming in as co-writer into a very Mexican film, in its way, how was that? In terms of the style of writing about these micro-societies and this different culture – was it fairly easy to jump into that new style?
L: One thing is that we wrote the script in English! So, a lot of the subtleties of language and Mexican slang and so on – Joaquin brought all of that. I couldn’t speak Spanish at that point so it gave him this cool element of control over the script which I couldn’t pester him about. But, in terms of Mexico, I’ve completely fallen in love with Mexico City and I love living there. I felt so at home there. From talking to Joaquin over the years about Mexico, I feel I had some understanding of the place. But, it was kind of amazing.
J: Well then, she arrived and we started writing straight away. I had only been… four months in Mexico? So for both of us, it was starting something new very quickly with the pressures from another point of view.
L: Watching the film now, there’s things that come from – for example – the little shop that the guy has in the drawer. If I was an outsider now, I wouldn’t understand what the deal was with that, but everywhere in Mexico City, everyone’s making these mini shops!
“How to create a coherent story? It’s a big challenge. Because obviously, if you’ve got just the hero – follow him!”
The initial part of the film is the small… banalities of life, of just going to work. How was writing that? Did that come with the cast, a lot were non-professional actors? Or was that something you pieced quite carefully together.
J: It was pretty precise, the introduction of the place. We knew it was going to be a musical sequence from the beginning because the loudspeaker system and the cassette was part of the script. It was a really precise sequence of how to introduce the details and jumping back and forth of the different characters – how do they start their day and such. There were more shots that had to be taken out – of different handshakes people would do – they just didn’t work out for many reasons. But the idea was to make it very precise. Actually the whole film was storyboarded and written, although there was a lot of improvisation in the set and the actors were given a lot of freedom to do it their way, there was an idea of how things would work.
L: The way we wrote together was to create a mosaic of little vignettes of things that were happening at the same time all around this particular space from different positions. But then, Joaquin and editor Raoul had a lot of flexibility for rearranging the mosaic. A lot of scenes that don’t exist now, like the handshake stuff – I think it’s a really interesting question of how to build a multiple character plot with no real central figure. How to create a coherent story? It’s a big challenge. Because obviously, if you’ve got just the hero – follow him!
It’s quite a personal film on your [Joaquin] perspective as there’s a lot of your family history in there. How much was based on stories in your past, or was it all the ideas and general tone came from your own history?
J: We can say that an important part of the film is Panamerican Machinery, the company where my grandfather and father used to work, which doesn’t exist anymore. And the other part was based on another story of another similar company, where the boss did actually live inside the warehouse, and the boss did have a son with a secretary. That story happened in that workplace where we shot the film. The boss lived there, and spent three years of his life there – the workers felt a strong connection with him, they became friends, they talked to him – he’s dead already. We found it really interesting that this place had this enigmatic, mysterious boss that was the father of the family and this… patriarch?
L: They kept his apartment how it was. Even his whiskey bottles and his shows just covered with dust…
J: It was a mix of these two stories that made the core of the film, plus a lot of imagination and also observation of real life, and how people are adapting to their workspace or how the workspace adapts to them.
You used 35mm film in it – was that one purely a financial choice because you managed to find it, or was it one you’d always planned to do for that slight warmth of colour as opposed to digital?
J: I mean, it was thanks to the things that happened that I talked about yesterday [he bought all the film from the failing Fujifilm for £200] that I could do it. But I always wanted to make my first film in 35 – I studied in Poland at a film school that has a really strong film tradition. In most of my studies I worked in 35mm film, so I’m not afraid of it. I thought it was natural. I think for a young filmmaker, it is a challenge, but if you manage to do it and you manage to do it right, your film will always have something special and will not lost its quality after time. Many first time filmmakers, because of budget and so and so, maybe because they’re afraid to invest in shooting on film because they’ve not shot on film, they go and use some camera that probably, in ten years, will look really, really outdated. Film will always keep its superior quality – at least right now. It’s a nice way to make your film not lacklustre compared to another film.
L: There’s a discipline innate in taking the decision to shoot on film. There’s an economy and a discipline that naturally leads to careful considerations of framing. You only have a certain amount! [laughter]
J: Yeah, you cannot shoot forever!
It tightens it up.
J: Yeah, it’s one of the negative points about it. Sometimes you wish you could let the camera run and run and run and see what happens. On one side, you have a film that is so precisely written and structured, but if you’re looking for something spontaneous, trying to capture the real magic – I think either you’re really rich, or you’re using digital.
“Mexican cinema at the moment is a lot of either contemplative scenarios, or some narco kidnap deal, so it really is something different”
The cast was a large ensemble performance, and you mention it’s a large amount of non-actors – many who’d been working in the factory. Was that a decision that you’d always wanted? To build the Mexican community and especially Mexico City, where you were working, into the film?
J: It was a natural decision. Most of my short student films were made with non-actors. Especially the last short film I did, I chose some very, very real non-actors. They were these two street boys that were completely problematic – it was a little bit of a nightmare to make them act for the film. But somehow, the great satisfaction is when they’re standing in front of the camera, and there is something that nobody can give you but them. I wanted to do a film with non-actors completely. But slowly, I started to get convinced by some people [laughter] that I should be more open, and I think it was the right choice because it gave the film a lot of different layers, of different personalities. The problem with the actors was trying to make them not act, and the problem with the non-actors was trying to make them. So we had to find a level, like a tone – it was a difficult part of it. I really appreciate the films that don’t use familiar faces, I’m not interested right now in using anyone that you know. I think it breaks a little bit of the magic of it.
You said that you wrote the script in English initially, are you looking to do an English language film, or perhaps to keep with the Spanish language as future projects go on?
J: Well right now the biggest possibility to make a film is in Mexico. So, we’re starting to write a new script together, in English as well – we’re kind of repeating the same English, then Spanish process. Hopefully, two or three years, there will be a new film. One with many characters, talking about a very different subject. But kind of in the line of what we were trying to do with machinaria. Maybe one day there will be a film in English, but right now, production-wise, the only way is to do one in Mexico. It’s more natural.
What response have you got from various countries? Have you found it’s had a positive one?
J: Mainly, in Mexico, it’s had a really good reception, exceptional. The film has been in maybe 90% of the film festivals that exist in Mexico, and it has won many prizes. People really enjoy it because it’s something new, and it kind of brings back the memory of great Mexican filmmaking of the 70s and the 50s, like Luis Bunuel, Luis Alcoriza, and the great masters of this bittersweet comedy – a braveness that doesn’t exist anymore.
L: Mexican cinema at the moment is a lot of either contemplative scenarios, or some narco kidnap deal, so it really is something different.
J: It’s a different piece in the arthouse. Some places just see it as a weird, exotic film. It’s funny to see how different countries have different ways of concentrating during the film. Some people cannot follow it, and it’s not only one, but many people cannot follow the film. They are not used to different ways of narration than the traditional linear thing. I’ve had this comment in some countries, but in other countries they really get into it. In general it has been a positive reception, with some detractors.
L: Where we premiered it, in Berlin, they were super interested in the politics of the film, and ‘what are we trying to say with this company?’ ‘Is it the end of a particular era, the dawn of new liberalism, or a global corporate takeover etc.?’ So a lot of the response were really demanding to know what our message was.
J: A very German thing [laughter]. Some countries don’t really care about this sort of thing, they are more excited about the characters, the faces. It’s been really great. The film’s still travelling in over 20-25 countries now. It’s having a really good festival life, which makes us really happy, but it would definitely be useful to know there’s an audience being built slowly. The filmmaker needs an audience!
Has it been to Poland yet?
J: Yeah! It was in Poland in July at New Horizons, and last week at Gdynia, a Polish film festival only for Polish films… and this one! It was kind of like a UFO, a strange thing [laughter]. The festival director was really kind to invite us, and it was brave to show the film. No one really understood, there were lots of very jealous colleagues who though I’d paid to get the film there.
L: Has [our teacher] seen it yet?
J: Yeah! In Poland, there was a great reaction. I think they lack a lot of fresh debuts, and a film like this, the way it was done, the interpretation we had, it was not an easy way. It’s very inspiring for many people.
Image: Joaquin del Paso