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Oscars 2015: Foreign film nominee 'Wild Tales' is six movies in one

"Wild Tales" director Damián Szifron with actress Érica Rivas.
Sony Pictures Classics

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"Wild Tales," from Argentinian filmmaker Damián Szifrón, might be one of the most unusual movies to be nominated for an Oscar. Consisting of six short movies, "Wild Tales" creates a world in which the superego doesn't exist — if characters get mad about something, they'll sure as hell do something about it. And, as you might guess, things get pretty explosive pretty fast.

"Wild Tales" has made the festival rounds and been released abroad. It's the most successful movie ever in Argentina, save for "Titanic." On February 20th it will finally be released in U.S. theaters.

When Szifrón joined us on The Frame, we talked about the writing process behind "Wild Tales," the place of humor in his family's history, and what it was like to work with Pedro Almodóvar.

Interview Highlights:

The movie is called "Wild Tales" because this is an anthology of six different stories, most of which have something to do with getting even. Would you say that these stories have a similar narrative idea?

I think there's a theme that runs through all the stories, and for me it's the pleasure of reaction, the pleasure of losing control. It's about revenge, of course, but what these characters really do is that they react to injustice or abuse of power in a way that we all wish we could, but never do; we always repress ourselves. But these characters truly cross the lines.

And the Hollywood version of those stories would be that these characters cross the line and they have some comeuppance, or they face the consequences of some judgment. But you're not very interested in those judgments, are you?

[laughs] No, no, no. I let them free. They're looking for freedom, and some of them find it. Some of these stories end in a very catastrophic way, but the humor is always there.

The first film involves people who are on a plane, and you talk about catastrophe — I'm not going to [divulge] anything that happens, but it sets the tone for the overall experience of the film. When you're figuring out how you're going to put these six stories together, were you inclined to lead with that as your first film because it set the tone? Or were you always tinkering with the sequence?

Actually, the short stories are in the film in the exact order in which I wrote them. The first one is the shortest; it's very powerful, it works as an overture and sets the tone for the rest of the film. And the last one is the longest and presents truly major changes in the main characters. They truly go full-circle.

This is one involving a wedding gone horribly wrong.

It's about a bride who discovers, during her own wedding party, that her husband is cheating on her with another guest at the party. But I won't tell what she does after that.

[laughs] Let's just say that it doesn't end in a small argument. You say that these are the order in which you wrote them. What was your writing process like?

I wrote more, and honestly this film was an accident. I didn't want to make this film. I was trying to make other films. I was writing a science-fiction trilogy, and a Western in English, and a romantic comedy. It was a very creative period of time, and to stop the new ideas from becoming more feature films, I tried to compress them.

As a result, I ended up with these powerful short stories and I didn't know what to do with them. But when I wrote the third or fourth of these, I knew they were all connected and they all came from the same DNA. At that point I said, Okay, perhaps there's a film here.

Was part of that DNA the frustration you were feeling about not getting these other movies made? There's a certain amount of anger and hostility that goes through these films.

[laughs] I might agree with that, yes. And in a way, at a certain point you feel like a slave to your own projects, because you have to dream the same dream for months, even for years. I was working with all these characters and universes, and I couldn't finish them and they kept on growing and growing.

But suddenly these short films made me feel like a musician or a painter. They just wake up one morning, they're inspired by something, they create something, and that's it. Then they go on to the next song, the next picture.

This film's very definitively a black comedy, and it's a genre that's not very popular in the United States. Is it popular in Argentina?

No, no, no, it's not that popular. It's not that I chose the genre. I think that the humor and the comedy are consequences of the reactions of these characters. At the beginning, all the stories are dramas, but the ability to turn drama into comedy is something that I can do. I don't know why, but it's something that comes naturally.

Sometimes I think it's because of my genes — my grandparents were in the concentration camps, so I think humor might be a way to survive. I don't know, but they were funny and a lot of people in my family are very funny.

They wanted to go to Israel but there was no place in the boat, so they came to South America. At first they tried to go to Brazil but they weren't let in, and Argentina let them in. I have to say that Argentina also received a lot of Nazis. So, lots of Jews, lots of Nazis. Yes.

That's black comedy right there.

We have that contradiction, absolutely.

This is a co-production between Argentina and Spain. It's Argentina's official submission to the Oscars, and yet there's a Spanish filmmaker who's a producer on your film. Can you tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. He's one of the producers on the film. As you said, it's a co-production between Argentina and Spain — 70% Argentina, 30% Spain — and Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, his brother and longtime producer, saw one of my previous movies in Spain in 2006.

When they left the theater they called to tell me that they loved the film, and they wanted to know what I was going to do next. Agustín came to Argentina and we went to dinner, talked about the films we love and films we want to make, and as soon as I decided on this project I sent the script to them. Two days after they read it, they were immediately on board.

Had you watched a lot of Pedro's movies growing up?

Yes, of course, yes.

A little bit influenced by "Woman on the Verge?"

[laughs] At a certain point I said that this film could be called, "People on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

The idea of an anthology — or a movie that's made up of six different stories that don't have the same actors or characters — is kind of foreign to the United States, and I'd suspect it's a little bit foreign to Argentina. Were there any producers or studio people who said, "Try to make this one movie with one story"?

Actually, the producers encouraged me to make this film. I wanted to do the other ones, but as soon as they read this they said, "This is ready to go, it's very fresh, and you're telling a lot of deep stuff in a really entertaining way. 

"Wild Tales" opens in theaters on February 20.

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