Making a movie about Pablo Neruda is no easy feat. The Chilean poet was a giant. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was called "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by people like Gabriel García Márquez and he lived a life so big we could hardly imagine it for ourselves.
“Neruda” is not a conventional biopic. Hardly surprising given that it’s directed by Pablo Larraín, who is anything but a conventional filmmaker. Instead of a straight forward “here’s what happened” approach, “Neruda” is full of a cinematic playfulness that most notably includes a central plotline about the famed poet being hunted, Inspector Javert-style, by a relentless cop (Gael García Bernal). A cop that never existed. It’s not the only unconventional touch in “Neruda,” a film delightfully more concerned with capturing the emotional truth of the poet, not the exact details of his life.
We sat down with Pablo Larraín at TIFF—where he had another biopic in the form of “Jackie,” about Jackie Kennedy in the days after her husband’s assassination—to talk about his approach to making a movie about Neruda, and how his dislike of most biopics led him to do something different.
When were you first introduced to the work of Pablo Neruda?
I'm Chilean, man. It's like trees. It's in the air. It's Neruda. You go to school, and then at some point the teacher will come up and say, "Okay, now we're going to talk about Neruda." It's not just a subject. Neruda was able to describe our country, our cultural language, in a way that nobody has ever done it before –and he did it through poetry. It's very special.
Was it daunting at all to tackle making a movie about someone that iconic and important to an entire country?
It was frightening. I have to tell you, this was the first movie I made that's not my idea. My brothers, who produce my work, said, "Why don't we make a movie about Neruda?" And I said, "You're out of your mind. How do we do that? That's not possible."
How did it eventually become possible?
We said, "Let's make this script and see if later we could actually make this movie." Then we found Guillermo Calderón who is an amazing writer. We had a first draft that was more of a classic biopic. Then I started rereading his work and biographies and at some point it was like, "Alright. It's impossible. We'll never grab him. We can't put him in a box.” Instead of that being frightening, it was just so liberating. We decided, "Let's make a movie that will be an anti-biopic. We started using that word inside of the office, and we just felt free. Then the script started to move in a different direction, and it went all the way to what you saw. I would say that this is not a movie about Neruda. I would say it's more about what we call in Spanish: “The Nerudian Cosmos.” Its more than telling everybody, "Hey, this is how it was." This is the problem with biopics. I like very few of them.
Why don’t you usually like them?
Most biopics aren't very interesting to me because they are so focused on the way that a person should look and talk. I tell you, in [“Jackie” and “Neruda”] the experience is "Alright, so how did this person look?" and people show up with a thousand pictures. "Okay. How are we going to dress this person?" and then they show up with another thousand options. "How do they talk?" and then there's recordings and a coach. What I feel happens with most biopics is they worry so much about the interpretation—the way whoever you’re portraying looks, moves and talks. They go to the set, and say "Okay, you look just like the person, you talk like the person” and then they set up the camera, they set up the shoot, they get a take, and it's a photo. Where's the movie?
So how does a biopic avoid someone like yourself asking, “Where’s the movie?”
What you need to do is portray a person that is at risk. When they're at risk, they create fascinating things. That's how you create friction, and how you're able to do something that the audience will be able to deal with it. Otherwise, you’re bring them an over-digested movie.
What do you mean by “over-digested”?
Meaning sometimes I'm in a cinema, or watching a movie in my house, and I look at the movie and think, "Why are all the answers being given? Why do these people think I just can't think by myself?" I want to be an active audience. As a filmmaker, I need an active audience. I trust people’s emotions and intelligence to connect things, and to create their own movies somehow. It’s better to script and create something that, at some point, is determined by the audience. I think that exercise is very beautiful. You don't want to put things in a box and say, "Look, this is what it was."
Even when your films—like “Neruda” and “Jackie”—are unconventional, many of them are anchored to historical people and moments. What draws you to wanting to show audiences moments tied to history?
We’re not writing history. We're just reflecting on it. Subcomandante Marcos said something that I always keep in the center of my work. It's a quote that I'm going to translate: "We come here to bring a problem and to invite you to carry on with it." That's what we try to do—to put out a problem and see how the people absorb it.