Damián Szifrón on Cannes, Disaster Comedies & Revenge

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Wild Tales
Wild Tales

Wild Tales director Damián Szifrón on Cannes, Disaster Comedies and the best movies ever made

Gatecrashing the upmarket Cannes Film Festival last year, like a rock star at a classical recital, came Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales. Amid the self-consciously highbrow, oh-so-serious Palme D’Or contenders, Wild Tales was a refreshing blast of foul air: a wickedly funny, audaciously brutal compendium of six revenge tales – from a sting-in-the-tale plane journey via an escalating road rage vendetta to the wedding reception from hell – packed into one defiantly disreputable feature.

Its very incongruity (you’re generally meant to respectfully admire Cannes competitors, not gleefully enjoy them) perhaps obscured Szifrón’s sophisticated filmmaking and resonant skewering of contemporary social injustice. But the film’s recent Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nomination proved Cannes was no fluke. And the boyishly affable, smartly-minded and attired 39-year-old Szifrón (imagine a Latin-American Christopher Nolan) is now high on Hollywood’s wish list, having just signed up to direct a US thriller. 

On Wild Tales’s blend of black comedy and violence...
"Our submission form for Cannes asked for “genre” and we were three hours discussing what to put. I think we settled on “disaster comedy”! It has a lot of humour, but when you see a comedy you feel a lot more comfortable – Buster Keaton or Ben Stiller, you know it’s going to end well, you’re safe. Not here. It’s also not performed as a comedy. I remember directing the actors in the road rage episode as if they were in a Michael Haneke film, but I was shooting it and talking to the rest of the crew as if I was making a Road Runner cartoon…"

On the film’s surprise Cannes inclusion...
"I’m not really a festival filmmaker and many of my favourite films, you won’t see in Cannes, you buy them on DVD. But when [festival director] Thierry Frémaux called and said he loved the film, I felt wow, a little change of direction in my life. I thought Cannes would be a very cold, snobbish place and that I wouldn’t be well received. But as soon as I read the reviews and tweets, I thought, OK, this is working."

On the anthology film concept...
"For Wild Tales’s DNA, I go back to an anthology book from my childhood called Crime Tales. I loved the cover and the index with so many titles. Also Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and Alfred Hitchcock Presents… I was developing other screenplays and these new ideas started to come, so I tried to compress them. The result was these powerful stories, simple but very layered and I discovered they were all connected by the same themes. So without even noticing I had a new screenplay in my hands."

On revenge…
"Revenge is here but more the pleasure of losing control or crossing the line – both for the characters, the audience – and the writer! And the ending, with the wedding story, goes to another place of compassion and rediscovering the other, getting conscious about the love that’s present in every hate story. I’m not a vengeful person, I feel too guilty, but as a writer I can exorcize lots of things that maybe regular people can’t. Otherwise I might be more like one of the characters in the film!" 

On subconscious writing...
"I wrote these stories in a much freer way than usual. For years I immersed myself in writing a science-fiction film and huge ideas about the universe and intelligence. I discovered while dreaming you can influence the dream and those aspects of imagination. So now when I’m awake I try to write in that way, close my eyes, see the scenarios and wait to see what happens next."

On working in Hollywood and the great ‘70s movies...
"Making a film outside Argentina would be interesting if it’s my movie. American movies from the ‘70s – Coppola’s The Godfather, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and The Shining, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View and All the President’s Men – those movies are the best ever made. The dramas, the thrillers are intelligent and powerful, very grounded in real life and directors had a lot of freedom and support from the industry. If you make a film that way, it’s always going to be modern."

Wild Tales is released in cinemas on March 27.