Clare Clarke and James Baxter-Derrington spoke with Rafael Palacio Illingworth about his film, Between Us, which is nominated for In Competition at Raindance this year.
Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
Why is this a story I wanted to tell? I don’t know, I always am attracted to things which have to do with my own self and finding a way of communicating with other people. I feel like the most honest you can go inside, the more people actually connect to it. So I am always searching for when I have a known experience – I’m always looking for a way into an idea which can connect or maybe a lot of men and women feel connected to – or related – to that experience. In this particular movie, it’s sort of an evolution of my first movie which was called Macho, which was extremely personal and I actually acted in it. So when I first started to think of what I wanted to write shortly after shooting Macho my relationship and my life had evolved already. So this [Between Us] was more of a mature couple, in Macho it was a younger couple and I feel like now I was attracted to talk about couples that were in my own age and experiencing what I was experiencing at that moment when I started to write this project. That make sense?
Yeah, definitely! I mean I found all of the characters to be very vivid – where did you draw inspiration for them? From your friends, or from your own relationships?
Yeah, all relationships and own self. I think, for me, it’s really an exercise of self-exploration, everything that I do. And I haven’t reached a point yet where I can abstract my own art – my own writing – to a point where it is totally unrelated in the surface, you know? I haven’t been able to, for example, write something on it, yet it’s a sci-fi story. I’m still at this point where the self-exploration comes out of a story that is very close to me. In this case, in every character I think I find myself and – even in the female characters – it might be me that at some point said that, or experienced that and then I translate it. So I think it’s very – you know, when I manage to connect as writing, in the higher process of writing, when I manage to actually get in the flow. It’s very satisfying to feel that. Under the layer of gender, anything, there’s a common feeling that can be translated into what women feel, what men feel. And knowing that inside me there’s the girl, the boy, the bitch, the wannabe business man – all these things, you know?
Yeah! So do you prefer writing or directing? Do you lean one way?
I prefer directing and it is my dream at some point to find a partner or a voice that we can develop stuff together. But I have to say, the satisfaction I get with writing is very similar to directing. I just don’t enjoy the process, it’s so much harder. It makes me question myself, that’s the nature of writing I think. It makes me question my own artistry, manhood, choices in life and all that. Directing is kind of more straightforward. You go into a safer place let’s say.
Yeah. With the two leads – who I thought were perfectly cast – how did you find them?
Oh, that was a long process. The first one to actually commit to the project was Ben Feldman – the guy, Henry – and it was more than a year’s process, he was very complicated because it’s also the first movie that I did since they changed the system, the American system where you go through the agent, and send the script and wait for them to read it, and then maybe they’re busy, and then you have a meeting or a skype and all this. That took over a year. I sent it to – you know I had my list – you go to all the agencies and they say ‘oh we have, all these actors’ that in the beginning you think – oh my god really can I have Brad Pitt for this movie? And it takes time to realise that well, no, the realities of this project requires someone at a certain level of fame and of commitment, and everything has to match. Also in their own – where they are in their life. I would say it’s a hard process but it also made me realise that casting – you know every director says it’s the most important – and I agree, it’s also a flowing process in which it has to do with schedules, and personalities and life. So in the beginning Ben came out of – I loved what he had done in Mad Men, and I didn’t know much about it and all of a sudden – it was actually kind of an accident, somebody sent it to him and I said – yeah send it to him, whatever – and then he really liked it and we had a meeting and we really, really connected as a person. And after that, that’s what convinced me. Because seeing pictures from agents – because they want to lure you into working with them, they always show you like the biggest stars that they can get you. But in the end it’s just a personal connection. And the guy that was open and flexible and able and available for me – not only in terms of style but to sit down and talk and share, the moments I had with him I said, this is the guy. Amazing, we’re going to have a good time. And that’s what’s important for me. After he came in, he motivated other actors and that was the case with Olivia – the other lead – once he came in it validated the project. And then I had also a strange situation as she was not in Los Angeles at that moment, but we had a Skype meeting and I was really – I just feel like the moment you say hi and then you realise – okay this person could be my friend outside of any bullshit of cinema or anything. These people I can go and walk around and just have a nice day. So, that was the plain and simple. That’s why I was lucky to find these people.
“I’m very esoteric about not looking at other things because you’re so like a sponge, and so open and porous that you might not realise and then you end up copying something else “
I found your film to be very unique, you’ve already said that you’ve drawn on experiences with friends and past relationships, but did any other films inspire you?
Not particularly. It’s not – I didn’t try to make this or that. I’m very like almost esoteric in the beginning when I’m writing, and also when I’m starting to – in the first steps of developing into directing I’m very esoteric about not looking at other things because you’re so like a sponge, and so open and porous that you might not realise and then you end up copying something else – you know? Because it’s easy, because it’s like a crutch at that moment when you’re weak and trying to find your own insight. Later when I started having meetings with the DP and all that, we did find connections for example to the films of Cassavetes. That was something that was important to us – or Mexican directors like Carlos Reygadas but more in terms of trying to reach an honesty with the camera, with the language, with the look so that we weren’t in the middle of telling the story. We didn’t get in the way of telling the story.
I particularly enjoyed the text sequences –
– which I thought captured the spirit of texting very well, and I haven’t seen anything like that before, because obviously there are very many ways of doing text sequences, but this was completely unique to me anyway. What gave you the idea of doing it that way?
Let me think back, how did I get that idea? I think I’m always trying to do the simplest, and finished and when you look at it there it looks like a cool idea. But I think in reality it’s just the more straightforward way of doing it you know. Without having to do these little bubbles that track the phone, and all these things that get complicated. I think the easiest is just to cut to black. And it also, that was written like that. And in the beginning, in the flow of writing I felt that’s the way it actually feels to text because the world stops you know?
And especially when you’re texting about something so – cheating, or sexting, you go inside the phone and the phone is the world. So, I guess that’s where it came from and I always like simple text screens. The simplest font and just cut to black. My first film Macho was very like divided – all chapters. All very similar to the… Not that it’s a style or anything! Without trying to be cool. Then after a while, you see the film after five years and you say what the fuck that’s not even fashionable anymore and now it looks dated. So black on white is never going to be dated.
True! What was the most difficult part of making the film for you?
Let me think. Casting… But every step felt really hard but now looking back actually I haven’t thought of that. Let me take a look back. I think… shooting – the actual shooting – was pretty hard. It was a few days, it was very ambitious because we had little money, little days, and a lot of locations and a lot of stars – we had like… It was just too fast everything, I couldn’t ease into it. So the first day I was already directing Peter Bogdanovich. Things I’d never expected and you just say them and you say, yes I’m going to do it. When they ask you in pre-production, are you sure we should start with this or that scene and you say fuck it yes I just want to shoot – let’s do it. But then you realise oh my god, and people come with their egos, and that was pretty hard for me. Or unexpected things, like people – the makeup that you imagine is going to work for a guy doesn’t work and then you’re two days out. So it was definitely the shooting the hardest.
“when you’re texting about something so – cheating, or sexting, you go inside the phone and the phone is the world”
Yeah. You premiered the film earlier this year, what’s the response been so far?
It went very well, very, very well. It was in Tribeca, and it’s funny although it’s a very LA film it has more resonated with New York. And I think there people, I don’t know, people understood it, people came out of the cinema and then texted me or texted friends of mine who then told me they were just – they had decided just to walk and think about their relationship, it was just very special. Like people breaking up, or really crazy things. And all the screenings were full – probably the last one, I wasn’t there, but maybe it wasn’t as much but they were mostly full so it was very satisfying to be like there and see people actually seeing it with popcorn and soda – it was amazing. And I feel very happy, and I obviously brought the film so it was a very good result and reception I feel.
It sounds it. So what are the future plans for the film? Are you seeking a general release?
Yeah! It’s going to be released in the cinemas in December in the US and also in digital platforms and all that. Now some more festivals – a couple of weeks it’s playing in Poland. Then in Stockholm, then in Torino, so just getting it out there. I think the next step is to get a European distributer so we can show it here. But for now in December it comes out in the US and then we see.
Fantastic news! Jumping a little back in the conversation we were talking about how it was quite a project of self exploration and quite introspective – is that what you’re looking to do with future projects as well or are you looking to take a different route as you go on?
No, that’s what I’m trying – I hope I can do that for the rest of my life. But as I said also I hope I can mature into a way where in the surface it doesn’t have to necessarily be a guy that looks like me, you know? Or is like me, or walks like me. I don’t look like Ben at all but I mean it’s kind of like an abstract representation of me. But maybe I can – but I do want to have that level of connection to whatever I do next. My next project is actually probably the first one that I’m trying that in the furthest way possible which is going to be a film about gauchos – you know, Argentinian cowboys – so that’s the challenge right now. To get something that is extremely personal, but is telling the story of some people that are not related to me directly.
With those future projects, you said you’d prefer to go down the directing route as you find it more enjoyable that the writing process. Is that something that you still feel you’d be able to get the deep connection to the story, and have it personal, even if you’re not necessarily writing?
I don’t know. That’s the big question I have. I think for one to find a writer that you feel so connected with it has to be almost like finding a wife, a life partner. It has to be someone that understands you in and out, your life, grew up kind of like you or understands it. And that’s extremely hard, and I’m ready to never find it. So I write out of necessity, and I enjoy the end – I don’t enjoy the process yet. Also everything that I read it’s always not – it doesn’t mean anything to me. The project that I have been actually proposed, they selected to me because they don’t come from me. And they haven’t been great. Also I think as a starting filmmaker, you don’t get the best projects, you don’t get the projects that you dream of doing – you get the projects that – you would be extremely lucky if you happened to get your hands on a script that nobody has done and yet it speaks about you and is very cool – it’s hard.