True artists making films outside of the studio system are a rare breed these days. Miguel Llansó looks at movie making the same way Werner Herzog or Luis Buñuel have, as an all consuming adventure that could wind up driving you mad. Talking with Llansó about his new film, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, it’s clear that the director exists on a philosophical plane that many of us just haven’t reached. His love of the experimental-punk-weird movement in film and music is exemplified in his own work.
His answers to my interview questions were also unpredictable and enlightening, covering everything from his character Batfro to social unrest to the royal family snorting cocaine and making love to prostitutes. Oh, and 5G and crocodiles. Keep Miguel Llansó on your radar. Whatever wavelength he’s on definitely needs to be amplified.
Note: The below interview was done over email.
Dread Central: What are some of your inspirations and favorite films in the horror genre?
Miguel Llansó: Although I prefer sci-fi films more than horror, some films make me feel the vertigo of peeking at the universe, at the irrationality and monstrosity of our origins, at the limits of the human being. I’d say that 2001: Space Odyssey made me feel astonishment and fear. It took me to an unsafe environment where humans are powerless. Alien also took me to that strange space. I prefer when the monster is inside us – within our nature – than the slashers where there is an exterior enemy that must be annihilated. Although I enjoyed them as a teenager, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween or Friday 13th aren’t so interesting for me nowadays because they portray monsters that can’t change. They’re kind of born that way and they’re quite simple. But in M (Lang), The Shining (Kubrick), Possession (Zulawski), Lost Highway (Lynch), Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski) the monster is a version of us and there’s an emotional exploration of our inner demons in the film.
DC: You first saw actor Daniel Tadesse in a play that would’ve been a drama in Spain – but in Ethiopia it was a comedy. Is that the balance you like to strike in your films, where depending on the perspective, serious issues can be a part of a strange, comical universe?
ML: Yes, I’ve always said that Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway is a social drama. People laugh when I say this but the fact is that we live in a quite grotesque and unbelievable world. Less than two years ago, a journalist was dragged into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and cut into pieces. Imagine this palace style place, with all the wonderful carpets and beautiful paintings on the wall and a fridge full of fine cuisine for the distinguished and elegant guests. Snacks were served the night before and the smiling diplomats were talking about Picasso and Kant. The killing was ordered by a prince who hangs out with most of the world leaders. In the fairy tales that I’ve read, princes don’t go killing people but in real life the Royal Families snort cocaine and make love with prostitutes. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the grotesque was depicted in a very unreal way. Notwithstanding, people were scared and horrified when this brutality happened. We laugh at this now because we find the paintings naive. Our perception of horror has become more realistic than symbolic. The counterpoint between comic and tragic makes us very uncomfortable.
DC: How did the character of Batfro become a part of this story? Can you explain his chest symbol and why it is always pixelated?
ML: Batfro is Batman Afro. Is he a superhero or is he a president that wants to portrait himself as a superhero? We don’t know. In both cases he’s a cheap copy, a degraded and more realistic version of the symbol. He’s the carbon copy of our childish dreams that Hollywood brings into our living rooms via home video and the plastic figurines that can be found within the cereal boxes. And that’s why the logo is pixelated because I don’t want to hide that he’s the forbidden copy. I don’t want to destroy your dreams, my friend. I don’t want to kill your inner child. A pixelated logo keeps the distance and the difference with the original. Pixelating the logo makes you remember that god is beautiful but doesn’t exist, I guess.
DC: Why did you decide to create the virtual world with stop motion?
ML: Some years ago, I bought a photo camera and I started taking series of pictures of my brother on the volcanoes of Lanzarote. I’d take a picture and then my brother would be 30 feet closer to the volcano in the next picture, giving the impression that he has super powers and can move at the speed of light. Thus, we reflected on the structure of time. Do our eyes perceive a series of static images that form an illusion of movement all together? How many frames per second are our eyes perceiving? If we had different eyes, we would have a different perception of movement and time, like the trees – for instance – that probably perceive thousands of times slower? So the stop motion technique is a way of rendering parallel or virtual worlds in a different – but equally real – time-space structure.
DC: Is it more difficult to fund your own films in Ethiopia instead of the more state funded system in Spain? Would you be able to make a movie like this in Spain?
ML: As you can imagine, until now we haven’t been the favorites of the film funds. The Spanish institutions have never supported our films but the Estonians did! In Ethiopia there aren’t film funds but our bigger supporters are Birabiro films (Addis Ababa) that gives everything we need, from housing to transportation, money, inspiration, energy and best injera ever. In any case, the most powerful funding of our films – believe me or not – is love. We have been able to mobilize tons of love that have moved the wheel: from very successful crowd funding to the multiple collaborations for the VFX, post-production, photography, sound design, acting, etc. It’s really encouraging that in the apotheosis of capitalism, people still want to collaborate in a film because they feel inspired and we reach happiness.
DC: You’ve heard the saying “Only in New York” but it seems like “Only in Ethiopia” could be popularized, too. Would you be making the same kind of films if you weren’t influenced by the people and culture of Ethiopia?
ML: Definitely not, because Ethiopia is the place where the most amazing things happen. As a friend of mine likes to say, Ethiopia is a lasagna country. The future and the past live together. Feudalism together with Dadaism, Beyond C together with local troubadours, champagne together with tej, Australopithecus together with Transhumanism, goats and Ferraris, 5G and crocodiles.
DC: Does whatever idea you have inspire what visual effects you use, or does the idea to use stop motion, for example, help to develop an idea even further?
ML: I’m very flexible in the way VFX or other elements of the film come to life. For instance, we were told that you can only make it big if you have great Hollywood actors in your film. OK, we said, let’s include the best: Robert Redford and Richard Pryor. That was the way we use the masks in the film, which is a cheaper and more realistic version of the deep fakes because we don’t trick anybody. Then, looking at possible masks, I found online one of Adriano Celentano or the Princess Anne and people like this. There were good looking faces indeed. I saw a YouTube tutorial on how to make the masks speak in a very easy way. So suddenly we had a very cool speaking Robert Redford. My friend Paddy Eason – who makes VFX for Harry Potter and Mission Impossible – saw the results and he was very proud of me. He said: “look, man, I can do some VFX for you” I wonder how much of this was out of compassion after watching my speaking masks. I said: “I can give you a million euros for this or you can choose to do it just for fun”. And he said: “give me the million”. So very few people knows that behind Jesus Shows You… you find the hand of a top CGI Hollywood magician. The pixelation for the logo of Batfro was done by Robeh, a guy from Madrid with very good taste and the content of the screens by my friend Carlos under my painful supervision, while eating noodles. Basically, we never plan anything but we give shape to the chaos that starts devouring us.
DC: Is it easy to get actors and crew on board with some of the crazy scenarios you dream up or are they usually excited to dive in?
ML: In my interviews, I’ve been using the word “I” many times but actually I’ve been making most of my films together with Israel Seoane – director of photography and co-joker. Israel is more than a photographer, he’s the guy I talk to materialize my dreams and abstract shit in tangible images and jokes. The fact is that I’ve been making films with my friends and family. For instance, Jesus Christ is my brother Guille, which makes me laugh because he could be the real Jesus under the circumstances. My brother is quite nice. So we don’t really know when a new project starts or when is an old project finishing. I live in a continuum of conversations, jokes, experiments and readings. I don’t remember when I told Israel to start making the Jesus. I remember that one day we were animating Guille and Agu like puppets and it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit at my cousin’s.
DC: Would you make a completely animated film?
ML: Yes, why not. Jesus Shows You… was intended to be an animated film using humans as puppets but after 10 days of shooting we discovered that we had 2 minutes of footage. We realized that we won’t survive the 260 years shooting period, that it was going to be like building a Gothic cathedral that somebody completes centuries later and we said: OK, fuck the animation. Let’s do some real motion. But imagine that you can have 30 or 40 people on the crew drawing or moving puppets like the Pharaohs had. That would be luxury! Well, they were mostly slaves but… I’ll be sitting there and watching how they work. The good thing about these big productions is that you don’t have to do anything. You just sit and see how the crew works. Pure joy. And then they put your name on the screen and it’s so huge, in an inverse proportion of your work.
DC: How did the film find a home with the Arrow Video Channel? I’m glad genre fans still have a way to see your movie.
ML: So what happened is that we screened the film at Fantasia Film Festival and among the audience was Jason Klorfein – an agent from Gersh. And you know, these people have contacts everywhere, not like the poor filmmakers that are lost in the worlds of numbers, poverty, failed visions and ego. Jason believed that the film must be watched and contacted Arrow Video. And they were so happy about the film and we were even happier because they were happy and everybody was happy and it’s a happy ending with some caution and a mysterious sign that says “to be continued”.