Nacho Cerdŗ directs The Abandoned, about Marie (Anastasia Hille), an adopted woman who travels to her newly-inhereted house in Russia, her homeland, where she encounters supernatural and discovers dark secrets about her recently deceased biological mother whom she never met. Nacho Cerdŗ co-wrote the screenplay with Karim Hussain and Richard Stanley. He has previously directed short films such as Genesis and Aftermath. This is his feature film debut. I had the privilege to interview him.
Lionsgate and After Dark Films will release The Abandoned on February 23rd, 2007.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
NC: Pretty much ever since my uncle took me to see a film that shocked me to death when I was only 6 years old. That movie was Spielbergís Jaws which was obviously PG-13, but somehow they managed to sneak me in. What I experienced that day pounded fear into my veins and marked my whole life to come, seriously. I particularly remember that scene when [Richard] Dreyfuss is diving [in] a shipwreck and a severed head pops out of a hole. I literally jumped off my seat and grabbed the guy next to me, freaking him out as well. The power of film to create an emotional response became obvious to me back then, but not only that, it was the possibility of reliving that same experience over and over when home video came along. In a way, film represented to me some sort of immortality and a way to control time and space which is totally impossible to do in real life. My natural fear of death was somehow diminished by shaping up worlds that followed my own rules, controlling them and creating characters whoís life span were under my handsÖ playing god if you will.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What attracts you to the horror genre?
NC: Again, itís our natural tendency to step on the dark side safely enough to return once the film is over. Being scared in a natural impulse on every human being; thereís some sort of ambiguity towards pain and suffering. Who hasnít been horrified by a car accident on the road but attracted to it as well? I believe that the mystery surrounding our own death is a powerful driving force in our lives. Everything we do is subject to it one way or another, whether is having children, families, building empires, writing books, making movies, itís like living a sort of imprint behind us for which we could be remembered and therefore become immortal. This may sound a bit masochistic but I strongly believe that we love suffering, itís like riding a rollercoaster and feeling that particular adrenaline rush flowing through our veins. The entire Catholicism is based on this principal ever since Jesus went through his passion to finally die in the cross. It could seem contradictory, but by touching death we feel more alive than ever. Horror films obviously allow me to take people for a ride and shake them up emotionally. NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you believe in ghosts?
NC: I was raised Catholic and yes, we were always told about evil spirits and angels of all kinds floating around to a 5 year old, Bible stories were quite scary and shocking. These terrifying concepts of hell and eternal damnation stuck with me for years, and I guess cinema became a way to exorcise them. Now Iíd really like to believe in the afterlife but there are too many holes, too many unanswered questions that surround this weird world weíre living in. I have trouble seeing beyond our flesh boundaries, a feeling which was especially strong when I made Aftermath. Are we all here for some elevated reason? I honestly like to think so. Maybe religion is a way to make us feel better after all, so we can cope with our own fatal destiny. I am not being nihilistic. On the contrary, I believe that my films always try to catch that dim light at the end of the tunnel, because one thing I do believe in is fate. My own experience tells me that if we pay attention, thereís an inner voice that always guides through the right path which might be part of a bigger plan already established. By who or what? I have no idea, but I can honestly say that whatever Iíve done in the past proved to be for a good reason in the long run. Is this God? You tell me.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What are some of your favorite horror films? Which directors inspire your filmmaking?
NC: Because of that experience being a child, Jaws would be one of them of course, but as I grew older, the work of John Carpenter became a reference. The Thing in particular was a perfect blend of themes that I had later developed in my own work as well, the identity crisis and the fear of loneliness and isolation. I would call it the horror within, something for which David Cronenberg is also known for. His films are horrifying to me; take The Fly for example, a story about metamorphosis that depicts a degenerating process of your own system, a cancer if you will. The fear doesnít come from the outside but from the inside, and that is what interests me most, both physically and mentally. However, I admit that my visual style has also been influenced by Italian filmmakers like [Dario] Argento or [Lucio] Fulci, and even others like Walter Hill whoís got nothing to do with the genre but from whom I picked up a certain sense of pace. Oh yes, and that absolute masterpiece that is The Legend of Hell House , which was another film I saw as a child that scared the crap out of me.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did Karim Hussain, Richard Stanley and you collaborate on the script?
NC: The script was really based on a previous one that Karim had developed himself originally called The Bleeding Compass. When he showed it to me back in 99, I was totally blown away by two concepts; the doppelgangers and the Russian setting. Both dealt again with identity and isolation, and it also had a certain eastern European sensibility uncommon for a genre movie. This rare approach was very 70ís which I totally love. When Filmax offered me a deal to direct a picture, I immediately optioned his script and we started developing it together. The story of a middle age woman discovering a terrifying secret behind her Russian roots was a vehicle for us to build a truly scary ride, a nightmare for both the audience and the main character who are plunged into a cyclical inferno impossible to escape from, a bit like Harry Angel in the Alan Parkerís memorable film. I enjoy pushing the envelope on an emotional level, and the independent nature of this production allowed me to go beyond what the Studio system would let me. Richardís part came later in preproduction when the company called for some last minute rewrites from which neither Karim [nor] myself were available for. I was nearing principal photography and couldnít physically do it, so we both thought Richard would tune up well with our original concept and shape it up. The opening and closing voice over was, among many, one of his great contributions to the script.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you choose Russia, in particular, as Marie's native country?
NC: I wanted this film to always play on opposite sides; a constant element that we encounter in our lives too. Marie is a filmmaker, someone whoís been living a borrowed life and builds fantasies around her to avoid facing her own self. Sheís got a strong conflict between what she would like her life to be and what it really is. Her identity is totally lost in her own universe, and Russia served as a perfect vehicle to express, metaphorically if you will, this feeling of loneliness and displacement. That geography is so vast that allowed me isolate the character even more, as if it was her own identity, vast and unreachable. On the other hand, it worked well as fear factor because Russia is still today regarded as a hostile country, an obscure place where its culture remains mostly unknown. Tales like Dracula already took place in Eastern Europe, so thereís some mythical flavor already surrounding these classical ghost stories.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you decide to make Marie middle aged?
NC: Basically because I feel more attracted to these middle aged characters and their emotional depth, which is a thousand times more interesting than a 20 year old. Marie had to be someone with a heavy history behind and going through some sort of identity crisis that is very common when you reach that age. This movie is about loneliness and how you cope with your destiny. For some reason, today we are constantly flooded with teenage slashers which I personally donít relate to. I mean, seriously, what kind of real conflict can arouse out of a college student? Maybe Iím getting old myself, but it is also true that most of the horror films that inspired us are from the seventies, classics like The Exorcist featured a quite grown up mother who carried most of the entire movie alone. Also, the fact that Marie looks like the next door type helps the story gain a great deal of credibility.
NYC MOVIE GURU: When you met Anastasia Hille, how did you know she would be ideal for the role of Marie?
NC: Casting is really a gut instinct. We conducted [a] series of casting sessions out of London on a Saturday morning and there she was, among a group of 15 other options and looking exactly as I have envisioned. Some people may think that the physical appearance of an actress should not have an influence on her performance, but I strongly believe that itís wrong. For some weird reason, when someone looks the part is usually a good choice. But donít get me wrong, thatís only a first impression, of course. Then it came the reading of some scenes from the script which she totally nailed down. So, the decision was obvious to me. Anastasia has a very strong personality which was perfect for the role, and just by watching at her expression you can get a great range of emotions. Since the movieís dialogue was kept to a minimum (like my [short films]), her amazing eyes became the window from which I could tell my story.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why didn't you include any scenes with Emily, Marie's daughter?
NC: [Marieís] idea of a daughter had always been a utopia, a ghost if you will. Marie is someone living a permanent fantasy, having constructed a fictional world around her. In one scene, she says that having Emily was her way of overcoming a fear of loneliness and death, which is totally true with most people. Marie is back facing her old childhood conflict, and now with her daughter leaving the household, it becomes an unbearable fact. Emilyís voice is that one of the audience, someone we canít put a face on because it is really every one of us.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What were some challenges you experienced during production and how did you overcome them?
NC: Being a very much of a perfectionist myself, I had to face changes every day that affected my shot list. Sometimes those came from time restrains and other were simply an act of God, I mean, that summer we had the most terrifying storms in Eastern Europe that washed away some of our sets. Since our budged was tight, I had to deal with that in the most creative manner possible. It wasnít Apocalypse Now, but I tried to keep a certain balance by sometimes incorporating these events into the script. When you canít fight the odds, the best thing is to play along, then it gets really creative. I feel this film is the most organic I have ever done, my camera became almost invisible and focused just on the action. Thatís a totally different approach from my shorts, where you could feel a sense of staging that wouldíve been totally wrong in this case.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Did film school prepare you enough for the real experience?
NC: Film school is one thing, reality is another. Apart from attending USC back in the 90ís, I taught in Barcelona for three years. From my experience, schools are good to learn how to observe and analyze other peopleís films, get a sense of how the industry works and most importantly, establish relationships with other classmates who may work with you in the long run. I picked up my editor for The Abandoned from one of my classes. He was a very bright student and I took a chance on him because of his strong motivation and creativity. You never know where and how things are going to happen. Spike Lee said in a Q&A at USC that film schools were cheap rental houses, well, itís partly true, but it really depends on what you expect from them. If you think you will become the next Spielberg once out, you are on your way to fail. In the other hand, if you just let yourself go and enjoy the experience, then you will succeed on a personal level which is the most important thing after all. To become a successful filmmaker, you need to follow your own instincts and never compare yourself to others, and that, unfortunately, itís very difficult in such a competitive medium.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you learn from the experience of directing your first feature film?
NC: I learned to let go. Because of the events I described before, I had to forget my preconceived ideas and move on, which is ironically what the movie itself is all about. If you hold onto your past a little too much it could be self destroying and thatís what happens to Marie on an emotional level. Thereís always a way out, no matter how hard things may look, if you keep yourself focused and positive throughout the process, chances are you will end up with a great and unique movie. I felt that with this one I made equal to five movies worth of effort and pain, but it all paid off in the end. Of all the things that I learned back in film school, I remember one single thing that a teacher told us once when he saw us totally stressed and devastatedÖin the end, itís only a movie.