Today we have award winning filmmaker Patricia Chica in to talk about her work on her new film Serpent’s Lullaby, what she aims for with her art and how she goes about creating memorable and intellectually engaging films, plus much more! Read on for our full interview…
So what inspired you to visit the Medusa myth in Serpent’s Lullaby and tell this particular story?
Well to give you a little background about the genesis of the project I have to mention that the script was written for me by Charles Hall, who also wrote my previous short Ceramic Tango. So it wasn’t entirely my idea to delve into the Medusa myth, it was his. He approached me saying you should really be applying for the ABC’s of Death short film contest. They were looking for a director to do a short about the letter ‘M’ where you had to come up with a word to fit in the title ‘M is for…’. Two days later Charles came back with about four pages of script for ‘M is for Medusa’ and I loved the script and the premise. I then urged him to make it even more profound, I said ‘why don’t we have a new twist for Medusa, where the threat in her life comes from within’ because she’s a monster but I want to bring out the humanity in her. What would she have become if she had lived until today? So Charles went away and rewrote the ending into the one which we know today and it’s a very profound and psychological ending that is almost like a salvation and surrender.
Because of all of this process though it became a longer piece and we never made it on time for the contest’s deadline. But it was a blessing in disguise because the short is now thirteen minutes long, has been around the world and has been fantastic for everyone involved.
I found the decision to make her fully naked at the ending quite interesting as it made it less of a fun reveal of her hair but more of a naked openness. Also for me she evoked the classic stone statues… was this something you were intending to suggest?
Yes, since I was a teenager I’ve been very interested in ancient mythologies and I studied that area when I was in my teens and my early twenties. I’ve always loved the beauty of a statue of the naked body and to me in the short, her turning to stone almost purified her. She baptised herself but with death. She was surrendering to her own curse so that she can stop it for good and feel more human. Also she wanted to stay beautiful and not this sad and depressed woman she was in the human form.
Well it was a challenge for sure because I was working with an actress who was new to dramatic films. So for a month we went into this process of coaching her to become Medusa; we did exercises where we just played with her body language, making her move very slowly. I would put her on the floor and get her to move like a serpent. I would also do exercises where I would ask her to move in super slow motion. We did movements of a dance but millimetre by millimetre so it would take about three minutes just to move the hips.
Then there were also the breathing techniques in order to help her acquire the stillness needed to turn into the statue. We worked on the scream a lot; teaching her how to scream with all the power straight from the gut, the womb and motherhood. So it was a long process of different exercises and techniques to prevent it from being too grotesque or too funny.
I think for me I wanted to portray her as someone who is a monster but who doesn’t want to be one. In mythology she was once a woman of extreme beauty and she slept with one of the guards which made Athena jealous. She cursed Medusa to look ugly and turn any man she looked at to stone. So it wasn’t Medusa’s choice to become a monster and that’s why throughout her whole life she was craving love again and that’s what I was trying to portray with this short. The challenge was how to do it in twelve minutes! A lot of the backstory I added in the editing process. I did a rough cut and then shoot more in an extra day in order to add the scenes with her lover.
So with your filming in general does it typically change much during the process or do you go in with a pretty fixed idea of what you want to achieve?
Well I’m a very flexible director. When I get a screenplay I have to really fall in love with what’s on the page but it’s never perfect. I have never read a perfect screenplay in my whole career, and I have read a lot of them! Why? Because it’s a very intuitive type of art form where the director has to have ownership of the material in order to make it a good movie.
So I take a screenplay and work with the writer to infuse my DNA, my style and voice into it. The writer loves it because they get notes and there are things which perhaps they didn’t think of and we can make better. Also some writers write too much dialogue but it’s my job to be a visual director, so we talk about how we can do alternative visual transitions and take out dialogue. So everybody then gets excited during this collaborative process. It’s not taking away from the writing as that’s already good, but they are letters on the page, it’s not the cinematic language of actors, props and lighting. The magic really happens when the writer and the director are in sync with the same vision.
And then once everybody is happy I will start to rehearse with the actors and they will add things and make the project better than I ever thought it could be. Then the location inspires you in new ways and by the time you arrive in the editing room and put each piece of the puzzle together you start adding music and flashbacks in to refine the little details of the film. So it’s a real evolution and that’s what I bring to the table as a director.
Once I have a very defined idea of what the vision is I can then explore other avenues whilst always holding that vision in mind. Because what we want to achieve is the best and most emotionally engaging story, so I’m not going to say ’oh no it’s not in the script’ or ‘oh but this isn’t what I imagined it would be two months ago’ because when you are so well prepared then improvisation becomes magic.
You’re often described as a director who is trying to get people talking about subject matters which they perhaps normally wouldn’t… is that your primary aim? What about entertainment for entertainment’s sake?
I consider myself a storyteller who entertains through intelligent subject matter because my goal is to make films which will elevate and transform the audience. Films which will make them think and become better. Coming out of the theatre I want my audience to be thinking about what they saw, going over it again to think about what they perhaps missed the first time around. My films are very emotionally engaging and psychological so although elements are not always obvious upon first watch, they are always there.
And what questions do you want people to take away from your new film A Tricky Treat?
Well it’s a metaphor for how we waste things. For example people chop Christmas trees out of a forest and then a month later dump on the street. The same goes for pumpkins and the abuse of animals such as turkeys on thanksgiving. I reversed the world of nature and man just to make people think ‘oh my god’, to give some kind of perspective to the viewers about those ceremonial traditions which don’t necessarily take into account the harm it does to nature. And it’s also a funny story you know?!
One of the wonderful things about short films in my opinion is how you can present ideas to an audience in a neat little package rather than in a feature…
Yeah! I like doing short films as it allows me to always be in the circuit whilst waiting for funding for my feature projects. I don’t then let three years go by without having made a movie, I’m always producing something. Tricky Treat is my first American short so I’m always working with new people and keeping active whilst waiting those long periods of time for feature films!
And what about documentaries? Are they similar processes for you because they cover very different subject matter with a focus on music rather than that which you might find in your shorts!
It’s very different absolutely. I love documentaries but they can take from one to four years so it’s a long involvement. For ten years I was doing documentaries and I found myself craving the control to direct actors. I was directing real people, guiding them through interviews, following them around but there isn’t the same level of control. In documentaries you can make it look beautiful but it’s not as easy an environment to control.
I love drama now but it doesn’t mean I don’t love documentaries. In fact I want to get some set up once I’ve done my feature. I love both because they are two different processes, two different ways of thinking. In fiction you are creating life from your mind. In documentaries life is happening and you have to work out how best to capture and adapt to that. But both processes are beautiful and I embrace both of them.
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller since I was four years old and drawing little stories on bits of paper and creating poems. I was doing theatre in my teens and then I discovered that my gift was in reaching out to a lot of people at one time. So theatre wouldn’t do it as it was only in place at a time, painting wouldn’t do it because it was only one frame at a time, and the same with photography. When I discovered cinema during my teenage years it was a big revelation. I felt like I was born again, and then that’s when I decided I wanted to be a director. I haven’t ever looked back… I think I will die on set!
Are there any particular subject matters which you want to tackle in the future?
Yes, as you know I was born in El Salvador and during my early years I witnessed the civil war and that traumatic event has haunted my entire life so I want to do a feature about that period. I want to make something which will allow me to overcome my fear of the war through movie making. It’s a healing process.
It’s interesting to hear you mention that you can tackle the fears you are carrying around through film, I saw that you have the quote from Hitchcock about fighting fears through film on your website…
Yes that quote means a lot to me because I’m a very curious person and when I experience something I want to experience it so I can overcome the apprehension I hold against it…
To what degree do you think art draws from life and the subconscious?
My subconscious mind is a very powerful tool which I have used since the beginning of my career. At first I wasn’t aware of it but now that I am I can guide it better through meditation. Meditating allows me to find brilliant solutions and ideas, new ways to tell the story better. I think those who don’t practice meditation won’t understand what I’m talking about but it is such a powerful tool.
You use it with your actors as well don’t you?
Yeah that and a lot of energy work. There’s a documentary called Let It Out on my website that you can watch about me using energy work with the two actors in my film Ceramic Tango. I worked with one of the lead actors (Holy Scar) who just had a huge emotional blockage that was preventing him from rendering a full performance because he just wasn’t able to scream. There’s a very powerful scene where he just manages to let it out and that release not only improved his performance but it completely transformed him as a person and as an artist.
Fantastic, and is there anything you have to say to the readers?
Well right now I’m personally looking for funding for my feature film, so I welcome anybody who loves my work and wants to be involved with an award winning filmmaker who travels around the world and goes to Cannes. If they want to become involved with me I’m very open to discussion via my website or social media. People don’t know that they can just reach out but I’m super accessible, and that interaction is something which I really nurture.
Recently I had collaborators from Australia and the US and they got involved simply because they liked my work and they wanted to be a part of it. They didn’t have any film experience but they became executive producers and traveled with me all over the world and to the red carpet.