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Pablo Larraín and Mariana Di Girolamo on Ema

We are highlighting content for National Hispanic Heritage Month all week, including an interview with "El Norte" director Gregory Nava and an upcoming discussion with Edward James Olmos, as well as a piece on Roger Ebert's writing about Hispanic culture in film, and this interview below. 

Over the past few years, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has emerged as one of Latin America’s top directors. A few of his previous films like “Tony Manero,” “Post Mortem” and “No” are male-driven dramas that wrestle with the legacy of Chile’s violent history and tumultuous politics. But with his first English-language crossover “Jackie” and his latest film “Ema,” the director looks to explore stories further away from his experience. While “Jackie” was a historical biopic of President John F. Kennedy’s widow, “Ema” pushes Larraín into new uncharted territory, one that looks towards the future in the face of chaos and seeks to survive an unforgivable setback. 

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The title character of “Ema” is a free-spirited dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) whose relationship to her husband and company choreographer (Gael García Bernal, a Larraín regular from “No” and “Neruda”) is at a crossroads after a failed adoption and an accident involving her sister. As she comes to grips with her life, she finds solace in her sisterhood of fellow reggaeton dancers and coming up with a new way to restore order to her life. 

Larraín, with Di Girolamo by his side, spoke to RogerEbert.com about the development of “Ema,” the movie’s handling of motherhood and who choreographed the movie’s showstopping dance number. 

There are so many layers to the story of “Ema,” which you unveil little by little. It takes almost the whole movie to piece together what’s she’s doing and there is much we still don’t know about her. How did you organize the various narrative pieces in the writing process?

PABLO LARRAÍN: It was a combination of writing, shooting, and then cutting the movie. We had ideas and kinds of storylines, but we didn't exactly know how we were going to assemble the movie. It was a very particular process. We had an outline started when we shooting, and we had different ways we could tell the story—like actually different endings. Then we put it together and organize what you saw in the cutting room, which is a very important place for cinema.

Since you didn’t have a full script when shooting, how did you guide your lead actress through this complex role? 

PL: It wasn’t just her, no one had a script. 

MARIANA DI GIROLAMO: I met with Pablo, and he told me I had to cut and dye my hair. It was five bleaching processes in one month! I burnt my hair, but I’ve always wanted to work with Pablo. And now, I like my cut. 

Sometimes, you come in and work on the character’s biography, but we had none of that. It wasn’t relevant. I’m still discovering things about her now that I’ve seen the film for the fourth time. It’s a movie without a conclusion; it’s not neatly closed. Each person is going to be thinking it over after it ends. 

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Dance is integral to “Ema,” and it includes many discussions and performances of modern dance, folk dance and reggaeton. Did you have a style of choreography in mind when working on the movie? 

PL: Yes, it was a piece that already existed by José Luis Vidal called “Rite of Spring.” We took that and brought it into the movie. Gael’s character runs this company, which is played by José Luis Vidal’s company. Mariana studied with them to learn the piece. Then, we created this crisis inside the company where her character wants to dance something different. Dance becomes another layer to the story. 

Right, and there seems to be a bit of a class issue at play with Gael’s character looking down at reggaeton, even the music, as a lesser art than the modern dance he’s trying to teach or the folk dancing he’s trying to appropriate. 

PL: Yeah, of course, it's friction in-between this sort of educated, sophisticated type of culture against people who just want to express themselves through the music they love the way they want to. It's like a collision of generations, styles and cultural nuances.

Many of your earlier films starred these macho characters coming to terms with pain, violence, loss and emotion. With “Jackie” and “Ema,” your two women protagonists seem so much more reserved in how they face these same kinds of crises. Was that intentional? 

PL: I feel that that there are so many interesting aspects that I can only be a witness. Through cinema, you can bring a testimony of what that sensibility kind of triggers in you as a filmmaker. I think of [Ema] like she's a sister, she's a daughter, a lover, dancer, a wife, and a mother—so almost the whole spectrum. It's just beautiful to be able to absorb that and put it into a movie. They're subtle things that are inside of her. Because she has that mystery, and the movie doesn’t want to express everything so that the audience can determine what do they actually see. And that's kind of important, because it requires an audience that is active to determine what's exciting about this at all on their own.

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Motherhood plays such a big role in this movie, but it's very precarious. You have a social worker saying that she's unfit to be a mother, but she's so insistent to be a mother. What is it that the movie is trying to address here?

PL: Who’s going to tell anyone that this is not good and that they’re unfit to be a mother? How dare you—the system, people, you, me, whoever we are—think you can do that. I think that movies have never been about that, the things that say like that or how it feels for a woman to say that to another woman. I don't think anyone can tell a person if she can be a mother or he can be a father. That's a very internal private decision. 

MDG: She wants to be a mother just like any woman who wants to be a mother. She’s willing to re-order her life in order to become a mother. So adoption didn’t work out, she’s going to try another method to have her family—whatever it takes. 

PL: I keep thinking about this idea of a modern family, like families that have new shapes in life. Family is probably the very first human institution. That's how we all came to this planet—it’s as old as humanity. Over millions of years, there have been a lot of different families so I'm not sure we’re inventing the wheel here. I think in the past, there have been a number of combinations of families in all kinds of circumstances. We're just showing another way, that's probably particular. 

Was Ema’s character always going to be a dancer? 

PL: Not necessarily. We found her, and then I thought of an idea. I just feel that when you see someone dancing, she just lives another layer of that character that is so unique, that you can’t really express it with any other cinematic or narrative tool. If you see any of us here dancing, that would tell us something about you that you can’t really express in any other way. I thought it was just beautiful.

And because this is a movie about dance, there's a lot of music and careful camera placement. How did you approach these aspects of the movie?

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PL: We had very long conversations about camera framing and how the city of Valparaíso is a very rich and colorful place. It's very unique. I've never used color in this way before. We were doing the color correction, and it was beautiful.

It’s Nicolas Jaar who made an incredible score. It was a very particular process because usually, you make a movie, then you show it to the musician and then that person would come with ideas and music. This time, we just had fun with it before. 

It seems like there’s been a renewed interest in Latin American cinema in the past few years, and you’re one of the directors leading that charge. What are you looking forward to doing next? 

I think I'm just a part of a generation with a lot going on and their voices are very different from each other. I think we got to keep working. I think there's more to explore and to learn. There’s this generation and more people coming, but I'm not done.

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