Interview with Natalia Almada, director of ‘Everything Else’

After her exemplary third documentary, El Velador [The Night Watchman, 2011], Mexican filmmaker Natalia Almada throws herself into the narrative genre with a simple story: the lonely life of an older woman who issues government credentials in Mexico City.

The result, Todo lo demás [Everything Else, 2016], is an exquisitely manufactured film whose recurrent visual and sound elements endow it with a slow, almost hypnotic cadence. A static camera of contemplative mood presents the story through long shots, right angles, with little depth of field and in wide format.

Crisp and sober, Everything Else is a smooth, elegant transition from documentary to fiction in the career of this talented filmmaker born of a Mexican father and an American mother, raised in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, and currently a resident of San Francisco, California, part of of the year.

We chatted with Natalia at a Mission cafe — her newborn baby beside us — a few days before her film was given the Golden Gate Award for best narrative film at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival.

After making 3 excellent documentaries, you decide to work with fiction. How was Everything Else born?
My idea was to make a trilogy of shorts about violence in Mexico and I ended up doing a long film, The Night Watchman, which deals with violence and is filmed in a cemetery where many traffickers have been buried. But I was left with the desire to continue addressing the issue of violence, both the violence of democracy and violence against women.

How does a woman like Doña Flor, protagonist of Everything Else, in her role as bureaucrat in life, is an invisible figure before others? When you are going to get your driver’s license to the DMV here in the USA, you do not pay attention to the person helping you on the other side of the desk. The person who’s helping you is a X figure in the bureaucracy of the system, and therefore a little invisible. I was interested in examining what a woman’s life in such a role is like, how she is with herself after 30 years of living every day in this environment, where nobody really recognizes her.

Everything Else is also about loneliness in the immense Mexico City, where so many people live but where you can feel so alone, so anonymous…
It’s related. In part, she is a very lonely woman because of her situation. I’m not saying that all women bureaucrats feel as alone as Doña Flor. Instead for me partly is about her loneliness in society. In other words, it’s not just about an individualistic society, it is also the situation of an older woman in society. The subtext of the film is violence against women. What happens every day in Mexico, where women suffer gender violence. And the overall violence that exists in Mexico City, a very aggressive city where everyone needs to make a living in one way or another.

Doña Flor’s suffocating solitude is oxygenated in the pool scenes. Why make your character go to a swimming pool? As a liberation?
Yes, part liberation. She seeks to relate, to get closer to others, closer to herself. And the place where that happens is in the pool. It was a very personal decision, my sister drowned when I was very little. I have a short film about that, All Water Has a Perfect Memory (2001). It’s something that has been present in my films but I did not want it to be the main narrative either.

Accustomed to making documentary films, how did you manage to write a screenplay?
I had to write a script, say less by own choice and more by necessity in order to get funds. It is very difficult to get funding without having a script in hand. I started writing in prose as if I was filming a documentary. Every morning when I woke up, the first thing I did was write two or three hours, as a stream of consciousness. I would find my character in a certain situation like ‘today my character is in the subway, today in the bathroom…,’ without thinking about the narrative, as if it were one day in an X moment in the life of Doña Flor. This is how I had filmed my previous documentary films. Then I edited these 2 or 3 page texts to find a structure. As if I was editing a documentary: you film your subject to see what happens today, then you have all the footage and you start looking for a structure. So that’s how I got to develop a script.

Much of the material in the original texts cannot be filmed, things about smells, the heat, thoughts, dreams… but they are part of the character and the atmosphere.

That surely helped you in the process as well as in directing the actors… Tell me about the novelty of directing actors.
There is an interesting mix in the film. How you direct Adriana Barraza, who is a great actress and the only professional one in the film, is very different from how you direct someone who has never acted in her life, since the rest of the actors were not professional.

What I was most afraid in making a narrative film were the actors. I took acting classes here in San Francisco, at Shelton Studios, which helped me a lot to understand what it is to act. And I also read a lot.

Documentary literature and the literature of the acting, both speak to truth. When a subject in a documentary begins to act and you do not believe him, you feel it right away, it is very obvious. ‘I do not believe what this person is saying.’ It is when I understood that I was looking for the same thing in narrative film, to trust what you see through the lens, what it feels like. I said to myself ‘I’ve been filming people for 10 or 12 years and looking for true elements.’

What guidelines did you follow when selecting the peculiar characters to whom Doña Flor attends?
They are characters that I had encountered in real life at some point, that I incorporated into my writing and then matched with the people being casted for the film. I worked with two documentary guys who do casting for narrative films. It is something that we do a lot in Mexico. For instance Carlos Reygadas, the best known auteur in Mexican cinema nowadays, he uses non-actors. I do not know how he finds them himself, but it is very common to use non-actors in auteur Mexican cinema nowadays. There are many actors in Mexico, but they come from theater, from television, soap operas… a different acting style. Much of what seduces us to make movies in Mexico is the people in the country, they are so incredible that you tell yourself ‘no fictional character could match this.’

Everything Else feels very controlled. You wrote, directed, and the images so clear … how was the work with cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman?
Yes, there is a lot of control. The collaboration with Lorenzo was a mix. As I have filmed my films I have experience as a photographer. And I love doing it. But in this film, I felt I could not do the camera and direct the actors at the same time. Not having the ability to do both things well was what worried me the most. It was super important for me, especially in this first approach to narrative film, to focus on directing the actors.

I worked with someone to do storyboards because I’m bad at drawing. It was a nice first experience directing someone who is drawing and asking me things like ‘Does she wear glasses? How far does her skirt fall?’ Not just questions about camera angles, distance from the characters and things like that. That helped me a lot in my approach to direct someone else. We did an exercise of putting the drawings on a timeline in FinalCut next to the movie, and it’s almost almost identical! Now, what Lorenzo did, which I really could not have done, is the lighting. Almost everything is natural lighting, but the little artificial lighting he used, I never would have achieved it, I do not have that experience.

There is a take that is 80% black, what a radical decision!
Well, in The Night Watchman you feel it too! I like darkness in film. I do not shy away from a dark screen. Especially with today’s technology, we often think there always has to be information and detail, even in blacks. I do not agree. I feel that those blacks can go black and that it gives you a very interesting depth. And that it is often that space where we do not see when are able to listen to what is happening.

Speaking of listening, there are recurrent sound elements in your film, such as the voice of street vendors and the splash of the water, that you use to give the film a beautiful slow rhythm…
I edit my films and I’ve done camera, but sound design is not my strength. I understand its importance, and in writing there are many sound elements, even in the first texts, that were lost in the script and we decided to return to in order to keep the sound proposal.

Some very interesting difference between fiction and documentary is that when you see your documentary footage for the first time it already has sound from the environment, while in fiction it does not because the environment is controlled in order to capture clean dialogues. So I thought that all my footage was totally dead, lifeless. I panicked! And Dave Cerf, my partner and collaborator, began to build that first sound design for the film. And then I worked with Alejandro de Icaza, who did The General (2009) and The Night Watchman with me, doing the mix, putting more elements, making the foleys… And in the end we were lucky enough to work with Lora Hirschberg at Skywalker Ranch in Marin, where we did a final sound mix that lasted three days, an incredible experience.

If someone saw Everything Else fifty years from now, what do you think they’d think?
On the one hand perhaps it would be seen as a historical document: the metro, women… how life is in Mexico nowadays. But I imagine that the emotional aspect of the film, the solitude of Doña Flor, is something that will continue in life. We are social beings, I believe that we always struggle with those issues concerning the individual, society, loneliness, community, family. It will always be part of our biology, to have to deal with the issue of who we are amongst others.

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