Timecrimes: Interview with Nacho Vigalondo
Timecrimes (Los Cronocrí;menes) combines elements of science fiction and psycho thrillers to create a film full of intriguing ideas and imagery. Alex Fitch spoke to director, writer and star of the film Nacho Vigalondo about his influences and love of genre movies. [WARNING: SPOILERS]
Alex Fitch: What was the genesis of this film? Had you been a fan of time travel movies or did the idea come to you as a short story?
Nacho Vigalondo: I’ve been a science fiction lover all my life. I spent my childhood reading sci-fi and I’ve always dreamt of becoming a science fiction filmmaker. But because Spain doesn’t have a sci-fi tradition, it’s very difficult to convince the business people and the industry people here to make that kind of film. It’s easier to make comedies or drama. But in 2005 I became this little celebrity in Spain because one of my films was nominated for an Oscar for best short. At that time, I decided that if I had an opportunity to make a feature film because of my Oscar situation, that out of all my projects, I’d make the crazy, complicated, science fiction one! So that’s why I insisted on making Timecrimes.
AF: The film has a complex plot, but it involves only five actors, and even though it’s science fiction it doesn’t require any special effects.
NV: I think that powerful science fiction comes from ideas, and it isn’t related to big concepts in terms of production but in terms of script-writing. For example, this movie seems very cheap but even a cheap film is expensive to make here. It wasn’t easy to sell this idea because you’re dealing with a time travel device that twists the reality of the character again and again. I tried to make a movie that is easy to watch on the screen, but you can figure out how complicated the script was. Here in Spain, if you want to raise money, you have to go to these commissions related to public funds and the TV industry, and it’s pretty complicated if you want to convince these guys to invest based only on the script. As a result, it took me many years to finish the film.
AF: Still, in some respects, it’s a relatively simple premise: a man observes what he thinks is a murder and then inadvertently becomes the murderer himself.
NV: Yes, of course. But the genesis of the idea for me was this: what if I make a time travel story that becomes a crime story, and in that crime story, what if the innocent guy and the villain and the guy who pulls the strings from the darkness are all the same? What if we push the ambiguity of crime stories like The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example, by putting in a time machine that makes the good guy the villain at the same time.
AF: I don’t know if you’re a fan of classic thrillers like Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage?
NV: Yes, of course! The Italian giallo is one of my favourite genres! I wanted to join my two passions in one film – one of my passions is sci-fi and the other is the kind of thriller that combines a specific point of view, bizarre killers and this kind of erotic stuff. Argento is one of my favourites, but other thrillers I have in mind are Body Double by De Palma, and of course Alfred Hitchcock.
AF: A recurring theme in a lot of these thrillers is the idea of the doppelgänger and you’ve taken that to its logical conclusion.
NV: Yes. There were several drafts of the story – it was maybe draft four or five when the girl entered the story, and her appearance became the heart of the film. It’s similar to the theme of the doppelgänger and the simulacra because we are dealing with the point of view of a certain character. Later we learn that the point of view belongs to someone hidden from the view of the audience. I love those kinds of games!
AF: The look of the film, the aesthetics, was that influenced by films like Se7en, which have a high contrast ratio? Did you use the bleach bypass/silver retention method to get that look?
NV: I love the look of Se7en, I’m really in love with David Fincher! Se7en became known as a very 1990s film, but the strategy for that film was to make it look like a 1970s picture, like The French Connection, for example. In Timecrimes, we tried to make a film that didn’t feel like any particular decade. Imagine someone watching this film in 50 years – we wanted that audience of the future to feel confused about the age of our film: is it the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s or the 21st century? Some of the elements of the film look contemporary, but at the same time other elements feel like Doctor Who from the 70s or the 80s. Some of the creepy material from Se7en doesn’t feel contemporary, but I feel that if you don’t stick to the aesthetics of your time, you’ll stop the movie from dating.
AF: In a way, watching any movie is a kind of time travel because as a viewer, you’re travelling back in time to the period it was made, so in Timecrimes, you’re playing with that in a way.
NV: Yes, the fact that you have time travel in a movie reflects the fact that a movie itself is something that travels back in time. That’s the nature of filmmaking.
AF: You play the role of the scientist in the film. Was it important for you to play that part? In a way, you have cast yourself as some kind of Deus ex machina, you’re ‘God’ within the story.
NV: I’ve been working as an actor since the 90s, in commercials, short films, in some feature films working with models, but I would never play an important role in one of my films. In this case, it felt funny to me to direct the film from inside it, experiencing all the contradictions related to filmmaking. When you’re a director, you’re like a god, you are pulling the strings, but at the same time you are the first victim of everything. The movie itself is pulling the strings and controlling you. It’s funny because that’s more or less what’s happening to the character in the movie. Some of the promotional stills from the movie are labelled as: ‘This is Nacho Vigalondo directing the main actor, Karra Elejalde’. But those stills actually show me acting in the movie – it was my character directing Karra’s character, and that is funny.
AF: What other time travel films are you a fan of? Inevitably that scene where you draw an arrow on the wall, to explain the path of time, brings up images of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future?
NV: When we were making the movie, Primer came out, as well as Tony Scott’s Dé;jà Vu and the time travel episode in Lost. But at the time when I was writing the film, it wasn’t common to find time travel plots on the screen. Obviously, some of my big influences are Back to the Future and Twelve Monkeys, but the kind of time travel I wanted to bring to the screen were the short stories of Philip K. Dick, writers like Robert Heinlein or Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, which is one of my favourites. These writers deal with this kind of twisted time travel in which you’re not travelling far from home, but you are making a trip where you’re multiplying your past. There’s a short story by Heinlein called ‘All You Zombies’, and in this tale the guy becomes his own mother and father! I love those kinds of quirks!
AF: Do you think free will is possible in a time travel story? It seems from the moment that Hector observes the girl, he’s trapped in his own fate. It seems like a mix of the consequences of voyeurism and also quantum mechanics – when you observe something, it’s fixed in its state and cannot change.
NV: The quantum mechanics aspect is the girl. We put an image of Schrö;inger’s cat on the girl’s shirt – there’s a point in the movie where she’s dead and alive at the same time; it depends on what Hector sees, he defines whether she’s dead or alive. The theory of this film is that you only have free will within the limits of your perception. If you haven’t seen what happens inside a room, you can change what happens there, but if you have seen inside the room, you cannot change anything. When I was writing the script it was something that came to me. It’s a quantum physics conclusion. For me, that seemed fairer than giving the character the freedom to change everything.
AF: I suppose that, maybe more so than in other films, the actors must have had a lot of questions about what they were doing in each scene, particularly when there were three different Hectors acting simultaneously! How difficult was that to direct?
NV: It was pretty difficult. There were moments while we were shooting when we had to stop everything, because suddenly there’d be a question. We’re shooting in the middle of the night, in a forest, and suddenly a member of the crew says: ‘Wait, if Hector 2 is here, which tone of the lights are we using?’ And we’d have to stop filming and try and solve the problem! Until that moment, you think you have the film under control. The worst thing is when you go back to the hotel at the end of shooting each day and you can’t avoid thinking that nothing fits in with anything and everything’s a disaster. When it comes to editing the results, you come back to life again and realise that somehow everything fits. For me, it’s a nightmare until you see the finished material.
AF: The film has been marketed as a horror film to a certain extent. How do you feel about that? Is it because the plot is quite difficult, so if you introduce it to people as a sort of psycho thriller, you can ease them into the idea that it’s about time travel later on?
NV: There are many sci-fi festivals around the world, but very few festivals where the richness of the genre is not restricted. There are not many mixed genre festivals. There are two kinds of horror festivals: the ones where there are only ‘pure’ horror films and the more open horror festivals that have become fantastic genre festivals. So your film will be seen next to a gore fest or a psycho-killer thriller there. I’m not worried about people seeing my film as a horror film, because while I have this time travel device, I put in a lot of giallo iconography. As I said before, my inspirations for the script were mainly sci-fi, but my inspirations for the filmmaking were closer to Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, Dario Argento.
AF: It’s interesting to think of Hitchcock, because Timecrimes is like a reversal of Rear Window, where the middle-class voyeur becomes the killer. Do you think there is this tension with the middle classes that they have their new houses and their Ikea kitchens but all it takes is some encounter with the uncanny and they’ll become unhinged?
NV: Yeah. At the beginning of the story, we have this Hitchcock element: we have a woman, who is working and building a table, and all the time she is thinking about putting the table inside the house. And then there is a man looking through binoculars at the forest. This is a real Hitchcock opening: you have a great house in a great forest, you have this great life, but you are looking through binoculars far from home. Why? What is he trying to find? Once he finds this fantasy of a naked girl in the middle of nowhere, he becomes a Hitchcockian character because he’s dealing with his own fantasies.
AF: Just like Norman Bates in Psycho, he’s a victim as well as a criminal?
NV: Karra, me and Jon, the other actor,we watched Psycho together and we tried to Norman Batesify the characters! This is one of the things we brought to the film: we copied some of Norman Bates’s gestures for Hector. While I love the shower scene, my favourite sequence in Psycho is the one after the shower, when Norman is taking the corpse of the girl to the car, and sinks the car in a swamp. All of those scenes where he’s cleaning the bathroom, putting the plastic around the corpse, I love that part of the movie, that’s one of my biggest influences. You’re not dealing with suspense, it’s almost something else; it’s like a musical and dancing. There’s this kind of sinister beauty in the sequence and we watched it again and again!
AF: Like Psycho, your film has a twist in the ending that makes you want to see it again.
NV: We’re in the DVD age, and you have to face the fact that people are not going to watch your film just once, so you have to be prepared to put enough ‘hidden’ elements in, which you might miss the first time, but see the second time. In the Spanish DVD, we added an extra cut of the film from a chronological point of view. Instead of following one Hector, we watch the actions of the three Hectors at the same time. Watching the film again – it lasts 30 minutes – it turns into this kind of gracious filming with a lot of Hectors at the same time! It doesn’t work as a real film because it’s too confusing, but if you’ve just seen the normal version, it shows you how things really work in the story. I feel very proud because you can check that everything matches.
Interview by Alex Fitch