Interview: Luis Ortega on The Devil in EL ANGEL
Produced by Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo (The Skin I Live In) and Kramer & Sigman Films (Wild Tales, The Clan), the ’70s-era film follows the violent exploits of 17-year-old Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro) in sunny Buenos Aires. These true crimes escalate from home break-ins to murder, but what makes the character’s misdeeds truly disturbing is the nonchalance and dispassion Carlitos exhibits while committing these acts.
After debuting at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and breaking box-office records in its native Argentina, El Angel opened last Friday at NYC’s Angelika Film Center and LA’s NuArt from indie distributor The Orchard. Ortega granted Dread Central this exclusive interview.
Tony Timpone: The movie is loosely based on the crimes of Carlos Robledo Puch. How and when did you first learn of this notorious Argentinean killer?
Luis Ortega: Well, he’s like Argentina’s Charles Manson (but a baby face killer), so he is very famous. By the time he committed the crimes in 1971, he was a boy who looked a lot like Marylin Monroe. The press made a big deal about him because no one so pretty was supposed to kill you. My good friend Rodolfo Palacios wrote a book about him in the style of In Cold Blood. I grew up with films like The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Bonnie and Clyde, Drugstore Cowboy, and Badlands, and I wanted to do a movie in that tradition.
TT: How much of El Angel reflects the true-life story?
LO: Hard to say at this point because it happened a long time ago. he denied most of it, a lot of what the press said is very doubtful and, of course, you can’t believe the police. But I’m not interested at all in biopics or anything like that.
I like characters who you never know what they are going to do next, that are crazy to live and willing to risk their life because that’s all you can really risk. So, you inspire your writing in someone you know, or read about, but mostly on the things you went through or the way you see certain events. I wanted to make the best film I could make and shed some light on “the criminal child,” but from a child’s point of view. Most of the inspiration came from reading Jean Genet.
TT: What made you want to tell this story?
LO: These stories that can go anywhere, basically because the characters don’t play by the rules, are very generous when you sit down to write. You close your eyes and watch the actor move in your head, so you type that down. Maybe you don’t agree with his or her acts, but it’s very amusing to realize you are not in control. It becomes something dangerous, and somewhere along the process you start steering toward something that has to do with your own sense of morality, or amorality, a “style.” In El Angel, the kid sees civilization as something so artificial (I grew up in Miami) he believes life is a play and everything is staged, even death. He thinks God is watching to see how he reacts to this fraud. So, there is this religious feeling he has, as if he were in a movie or a farce.
TT: Did you meet the real killer in prison during your research phase?
LO: I wanted to but he is too schizophrenic by now. Actually, I’m glad it didn’t happen, because if I had seen something really evil, it would have probably messed with the script, with this idea I already had in mind of my own character.
TT: You say Carlito’s sees himself as “God’s spy” and acts as if he is living a “movie star” life. Explain.
LO: When I was a kid, I loved being alone and breaking into houses or any private property; going through people’s drawers or personal belongings and not necessarily robbing anything. Just spying like a ghost. I always felt a strange presence when I did this. As if truth were hidden, on purpose, somewhere beyond all these limits. So, there was this religious feeling toward little criminal acts. Then I started watching so many films that these two realities got all mixed up. Carlitos thinks God is filming him, and he is always wired by this feeling of being alive, on stage, performing.
TT: You see any similarity between Versace killer Andrew Cunanan and Carlitos?
LO: I don’t know much about the Versace case, but I remember walking by Miami Beach days later and seeing that his blood was still fresh on the sidewalk.
TT: What made Carlitos a killer? He comes from a home with loving parents and a good home.
LO: Most events don’t have an answer, and if they did, it wouldn’t be worth making a film about them. Maybe there are things unsolved that one is born with and in the course of figuring it out, you can really mess up. You can kill yourself or hurt someone, for example. Freedom for some people is like a monkey with a knife.
TT: How difficult was it to cast Carlitos?
LO: Lorenzo Ferro was the first out of a thousand kids I saw, and I knew it was him the moment I saw him. I also knew that I had to see the other 999 just to prove it. The hard part was that I wanted someone who had never acted or even been to an acting class. So, we had to start from ground zero. It was a lot of work.
TT: What made you chose a first-time actor?
LO: There was something in his eyes that disturbed me a little. I could picture him shooting someone in their sleep and thinking it’s all a game. Also, Lorenzo would practically ignore me when we would meet and I found that unique, like no actor was going to do that. It could have been because he was an embarrassed teenager, but the way he expressed it was attractive.
TT: What kind of direction did you give him?
LO: We talked a lot about all these things I’m telling you. I tried to transfer as much as possible my own experience. He learned to act with my voice over his actions. Maybe he would receive certain direction or lines on the spot while we were rolling the scene, so he would do it for the first time on the take. But mostly we rehearsed a lot. We became like Siamese twins. He knew my intentions to a point where it was freaky. I’m sure he was the only person in the world who could play that part. You can tell when you see the film.
TT: How much input did producer Pedro Almodóvar have on the production?
LO: A lot, but in a supporting way. His long-time producer Esther García worked with us from day one.
TT: What is your next project?
LO: I can’t say.