“A brave and elegant woman prostitutes herself to meet her pimp, but an unexpected event forces her to make a very dangerous decision. A chain of events leads to a point of no return.” Director Gabriela Calvache on LA MALA NOCHE which screens at the 2019 edition of SxSW Film.
Congratulations on your film playing in at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
Yes, I’m very excited to be with the audience on March 9 and 11.
So how did you get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
It was 1999 in Ecuador, very few people wanted to produce movies. At university, I made a short documentary called Orange Alert. For this film, I managed to get inside a small town with a volcano about to erupt. I sent it to student festivals and went to my first festival in Portugal. There, in front of the silver screen, I fell in love. I don’t know how to convey in words what it meant to me, to see a room full of people watching the survival story of this small town, in the province where I was born. From that day onwards, I have loved cinema.
At the age of 22, I produced my first fiction film ONE TIME-HAPPINESS which showed at Montreal World Festival in 2001. Then I decided to study screenwriting. I went to Barcelona to learn the trade at ESCAC, then to Madrid to study film direction of actors in a theater school. Upon my return to Ecuador I produced the film JAQUE, directed the fiction short HAY COSAS QUE NO SE DICEN, the documentaries THE COMMITTEE, WHEN CLOUDS CLEAR; I wrote the script for the movie IMPULSO, directed the fiction short-film EN ESPERA and directed the documentary LABRANZA OCULTA. I produced the documentaries CON MI CORAZÓN EN YAMBO, ASIER ETA BIOK , and TIERRA DE MUJERES.
I love to combine my passion for film directing with my production knowledge. I’m currently producing the short films Capital, Fire, and the documentary LIGHT MEMORIES.
How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!
Producing this film was one of the most painful experiences I have ever had. During the research I fell into a depression caused by the sadness of the women who decided to trust me with their human trafficking stories. My challenge as a scriptwriter was to bring those stories to life through the character of Dana, who, in LA MALA NOCHE, is an intelligent, brave woman with an endless survival instinct.
After writing 15 versions of the script, we summoned the technical team. One of the first people to be hired was Gris Jordana, the director of photography, who lives in Barcelona. For more than six months we planned this film, along with production designer Roberto Frisone and sound engineer Juan José Luzuriaga, with whom we also worked on developing each area.
From the production team, we decided to hire a high percentage of women for filming, close to 80%.
Casting a female lead actress proved to be a difficult task. We wanted her to be Colombian, because the nationality was an evident issue that pops up in the investigation. So one desperate day, I began looking for all the Colombian actresses that Wikipedia suggested. There were many. In alphabetical order, I perused until I landed on Nöelle Schönwald. I was captivated by Nöelle’s face, so I searched her social networks to see if we had friends in common and I found a person who gave me her phone. After a digital casting, I was sure I had found my Dana. The client, whom Dana falls in love with, is played by the Bolivian actor Cristian Mercado, and the pimp is played by the Ecuadorian playwright Jaime Tamariz. With all the actors outside of my own city, I had the rigorous task of crafting the characters well in advance. We worked for three months creating the characters and a month rehearsing them.
On the first day of shooting, I thought: the film is done; all we must do now is shoot it. The preproduction was very extensive and rigorous, so by the time we were shooting, we had the film nailed down to the very last detail. It was only a matter of letting creativity flow.
We edited while filming, so a month after shooting we had a first cut. This gave us the chance to analyze it and see if there was anything missing, but it was all complete – at least we hope so!
We edited up to a third cut in Ecuador, with Amaia Merino. Then, we took the film to Chile, where Andrea Chignoli made the final cut. Once we had the version, both, the producer, Geminiano Pineda, and me decided to start the sound post-production. Gabriel Reyna designed the sound and then Jaime Baksht and Michell Coutulenc mixed it, Quincas Moreira took charge of the original music and Lisa Tillinger took care of color post-production.
After shopping around for some movie markets, we decided that Wide Management agency in Paris would represent the film and well, after putting a lot of faith in the film, SXSW selected us. It has been eight years since I started researching the film up to this premiere at SXSW.
What keeps you going while making a movie?
I don’t have a clear idea about what keeps me going while producing a film, but all I know is that it’s something very powerful.
All I know is that I have to film, because movies are like breathing to me, it’s something that comes out of my pores and brings me to life. Perhaps the pursuit isn’t really about films per se, but more about the opportunity to uncover the world and human essence through film. Very few things in life can compare to the incredible experience of writing a script, directing and shooting a scene; to live under the skin of a character.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
My biggest challenge has been to keep the faith alive and remain invested in a story, when things are looking tough, be it in the financial, artistic or emotional department. To accept all the rejections and shortcomings with peace and humbleness, to deal with delays, funds being denied and to keep on working with the same enthusiasm and faith in the project, requires a powerful internal drive, to keep on working in such a competitive space such as cinema.
The most enriching moment happened one afternoon after the movie was in the post production process. I received a Facebook message from one of the women I had interviewed during the research phase. Years ago, she had intended to escape from the witness protection program that welcomed her after she had been rescued from a brothel. She spoke to me about her escape intentions and her plans to go back into the world of prostitution. I asked her not to do it, that if she ran away, that she’d better look for another activist to abolish slavery in Colombia. After giving her that activist’s info, I never knew about this woman again until I read her Facebook message, telling me that she did what I suggested, that she went to find the activist and that she now works rescuing women from trafficking rings. That day I cried with joy. All the suffering I endured during the filming process had paid off, just knowing that this had made a lasting impact on someone brought me lasting hope.
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
From the script, I had several ideas of how I wanted LA MALA NOCHE to look. When Gris Jordana joined LA MALA NOCHE, she shared with me the visual aesthetic that the script conjured up in her head. At that moment, we discovered that we were watching the same movie with different nuances. Neither of us wanted to work with a storyboard, so we decided to enrich our ideas by looking at other films that had the tone, color, or atmosphere we were looking for. For over five months we sent films, photographs and scenes that were related to LA MALA NOCHE. Gris made a detailed breakdown of each scene in which she included photographs or images, then she sent me the breakdown and I added other images and photographs. It really was a very enriching moment and we all agreed. We flowed like water.
For the shoot, we decided to use the Alexa Mini and Alexa Plus cameras, the Cook S3 lenses and, for some scenes, we used the LensBaby photography lenses.
My relationship with the director of photography was that of a teammate, we never had arguments regarding concepts since we had worked for over five months to break down LA MALA NOCHE, so when shooting came around we executed the plan. I made a directing book where I included a breakdown of blueprints for actors and art direction. Gris had her own photography direction book. Both of us opened the book and re-worked each of the scenes, thinking how we had planned it versus the reality of the location we were shooting. 90% of the cases we had guessed correctly. Gris directed photography and handled the camera. The actors were very tall and Gris was much shorter, just like me. It was almost like shooting and photographing giants. At the beginning of the story, the camera was put in a support but as the story progresses, we used it at shoulder level.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
I like the globalized feeling that SXSW brings forth in their festivals. I dream so much of discovering the world through the films, talks, games, and music showcased in this festival. I’m sure something inside me will be transformed at this event. I believe it’s an incredible privilege and honor to be part of a festival that interprets cinema as part of a cultural system and not as an isolated art.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
LA MALA NOCHE is selected in the Official Competition of the International Film Festival of Guadalajara, and then the film will be present at the Latino Film Festival of Chicago. Wide Management, the sales agent of the film, has sold it in Japan and certain US platforms, so it will also premiere in these countries. LA MALA NOCHE will premiere in Ecuador in August 2019 and will also premiere in Mexico.
If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I would like to release this film in Colombia because during the research I met many Colombian women [themselves] in sexual trafficking situations. I know human trade is a subject that society does not like to speak about, but there are issues that we cannot avoid, there are issues that we have to face and talk about so that society can change it.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?
I am delivering you this movie after eight months of gestation and production. That is one long pregnancy. It doesn’t belong to me anymore. It is yours now. Please watch it until the very end; you may discover something that I promise to deliver by the rolling of credits. If you are going to speak, please whisper and if you need to use your phone lower the volume and dim the screen. But please, don’t go until the credits roll. Please.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
If you fall in love with making films, you will be able to continue in spite of failures. If you fall in
love with success, you will stop making films.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
It is impossible for me to think of a single good film, there are too many good films and many of them don’t even make it to a film festival. I’ll tell you at least four: FISH TANK by Andrea Arnold, THE PIANO by Jane Champion, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lynne Ramsay, and THE MILK OF SORROW by Claudia Llosa.
This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to http://www.sxsw.com/film!