Australian Michael Rowe’s Leap Year is a claustrophobic, disturbing little gem, set almost entirely within a small apartment, with a tiny cast of characters. A freelance journalist working from home in Mexico City, Laura (Monica del Carmen) is lonely and isolated. She watches any couples with hungry eyes, deals with her distant mother by phone, indulges in a series of unsatisfying one-night stands, and crosses off the days on the calendar. But then the sadomasochistic Arturo (Gustavo Sáchez Parra) turns up. Alternately brutal and caring, he awakens something in her, and a weird relationship starts. He returns again and again, subjecting the willing Laura to ever more degrading sex acts, as spanking leads to choking leads to whipping, and the film takes a dark, strange turn… The film has a clever, ambiguous script, and del Carmen’s fantastic performance makes Laura a wholly believable, complicated and troubled woman that you can truly care, and fear for.
Mark Stafford interviewed Michael Rowe during the London Film Festival, where they discussed directing his first film and his minimal aesthetic.
MS: It’s an amazing, brave and intimate performance by Monica del Carmen. How the hell did you get her to trust you considering that it’s your debut film?
MR: Good question, it wasn’t easy, actually. In the casting, she did the same two scenes as the other 37 actresses, but when she did them I had to leave the room. She made me cry, it was just really upsetting. So it was quite clear that I wanted her, but she only knew those two scenes, one where she blew bubbles, one where she got fired. The question was, when she read the whole script, how would she react? So she read it and I met up with her the next week. I asked her what she thought and she said, ‘Um… It’s a very strong script…’ (laughter) And I said, ‘What would you say if I told you that you had the part?’ She said, ‘I honestly don’t know…’. So she went home, she talked to her boyfriend, to her mum and to a couple of female feminist theorists and then she came back to me and said, ‘I’m in, let’s do it’. I think it was a complete leap of faith for her to trust me because she’d never seen anything I’d done, nobody had ever seen me direct. I think the sensibility in the script perhaps led her to trust me. Her mum told her, ‘Do whatever you think is right, but whatever you do, don’t do it with fear’. She was the most amazingly committed actress I’ve ever seen in my life.
Was the whole film on the page, or did she come up with bits and pieces?
We worked together on the script for two months beforehand. And we didn’t rehearse at all. We went through the script with a fine tooth comb before we got to the set. She would say, ‘Why is she looking up here, not down?’ ‘Why is she cooking this and not that?’ ‘Why is there a comma here and not a full stop?’
There are little things she does, waggling the pencil in front of her eyes…
That I actually came up with on set. That’s one of the few things that wasn’t scripted. She was doing something else, just looking out the window or something and I suggested it.
It’s odd what works. After the press screening I attended, chatting with other journalists, that gesture got mentioned a few times. It’s just such a human thing. Did the actors improvise anything?
Bits. When her little brother puts his feet up on the bed, I wasn’t expecting that, they cooked that up between the two of them. I think they didn’t tell me because I’m a screenwriter originally, so I’m a bit strict about following the script because I sweated over it, the format, and every full stop that’s in it, for weeks. So they didn’t ask, they just did it and thought, ‘We’ll see what he says’. And it worked. There were a few things that Monica was very clear about, where she knew the script almost better than I did. For example when she shaves her pubic hair, I’d scripted the first part of the process, not the end, I just had her starting out. She said, ‘It would be way more effective if we had the bare skin’. I was unsure, but I thought let’s do it, and when I saw it I thought, ‘of course!‘ You need to see the finished project.
Was it always going to be set entirely within her apartment? Not, I hope, a decision made for entirely budgetary reasons…
Yes it was, but in the sense that I conceived this script because I was 37 years old, I was a screenwriter who hadn’t had a feature credit, I’d been trying to get somebody to produce and direct my first feature film for 10 years without success and I thought, ‘OK! It can’t be that complicated!’ and read two books on how to direct movies, quit my day job and bought a small HDV camera, biggest and best I could afford, five grand’s worth or something, and tried to round up the equipment I needed to make a decent film. I sat down and wrote a script designed for my budget, which was nothing. Two people in a room. I spent about six months chewing it over. What I was looking for was a story that would actually gain in power from the fact that it had a reduced number of characters, rather than one that would be weakened by that, so it was conceived out of necessity.
Your budget is your aesthetic, as they say. We just saw Blue Valentine, which apparently has been given an NC-17 rating in the States. What are the chances of your film being released over there considering the subject matter?
It’s been picked up by Strand Releasing, and it’ll be released in April.
I can’t see it being advertised in local papers or stocked in Wal-Mart, because it’s pretty strong meat.
It’s not that bad!
No, no it isn’t, but considering a film like Blue Valentine gets an NC-17, and we were all going ‘What?!!’
The Americans are a bit nutty. We’ll see, I haven’t had contact with that whole conservative element yet.
What’s the reaction to the film been like so far, any feminist reactions?
There’s been one reaction like that, unfortunately from a critic who saw it in Toronto, writing for the New York Times. She dedicated about four lines to it and said ‘it’s been said that this film has a lot to say about solitude and the human condition, but frankly I find it difficult to take any interest in a film which portrays the brutalisation of a woman’, and that was it, full stop, that was the end of it. I just thought that wasn’t very professional. She’s not doing her job. Her job’s to talk about the film, not about her prejudices. And another review talked very badly about the film, ignoring that everything they mentioned was justified within it. Saying that movies that are shot a certain way with fixed cameras are wrong, it was all just their taste and prejudices.
It’s your first film, and in many sequences it’s oddly framed. Did you develop your own visual aesthetic as you went along? Have you always, when you were writing, pictured things a certain way?
I write the shots into the screenplay, I mean I don’t write a technical script, a shooting script, but the shots are implicit in the way the sentences progress. Every time I set up a new shot I change a paragraph for example. This is just my personal discipline as a screenwriter, I know not everyone does it. I always have a clear view of what’s going on. Funnily enough, in the pre-production process I changed the aesthetic. I originally had about six or seven camera movements, but about a week before shooting I took them out. I actually left one in and shot it, a dolly back, but it looked silly because it jumped out so much.
Because the camera is locked in static compositions all the way through?
I strongly believe that what you need is a good story and good actors and that’s it, just with some kind of machine that tapes the images. So I wanted to reduce the other elements as much as possible. Let the audience concentrate on the actors and give the actors the greatest possible chance to perform their art without the hindrance of manipulation in terms of music, or camera movements…
The reaction to the film seems to be good. Are you going to be a director now?
I am now, yes. I love directing. It’s funny, I resisted for so many years. I thought directing was something else. I thought directors had to yell a lot, that they needed to know a lot about cameras and light meters and lenses, that it was all technical. Anything with a lot of buttons scares me away. What I found was that, after 20 minutes of directing the first scene I was imbued with a deep, deep sense of peace. I felt (relaxed sigh), ‘My God! For the first time in my life I’ve got a job where I know all the answers. This is what I do’.
It wasn’t what you feared.
No! All you have to do is sit there and they come up and say, ‘Sir, um… Red or blue?’ and I say, ‘Blue’. I’ve seen it here (taps temple). And they say, ‘Sir, this view on the camera, or lower?’ and I look and say, ‘Up and to the left’. Because I’ve already seen it, all I have to do is tell everyone what’s in my head. It’s the best job in the world. Once you’ve written a screenplay you know how to direct a film. I think 80% of directing is casting. If you get the right actors and let them work, don’t interfere with them and give them all the tools they need, trust them. And get a cameraman who knows what he’s doing… what else is there? I really think that 90 or 95% of camera movements and indeed cuts within a standard movie are the result of accepted convention or attempts at emotional manipulation of the audience, rather than a result of genuine attempts to tell the story in a better way. I think it’s an enormous boon for me not to have gone to film school, in that sense. If I’d been to film school I would have had a whole heap of shit in my head that wouldn’t have helped.
Interview by Mark Stafford