Sebastian Lelio is making a return to Foreign Language Oscar consideration as the representative from Chile, this year with A Fantastic Woman. The film stars Daniela Vega as Marina, a young transgender waitress and singer who has just moved in with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older man who suddenly falls ill and dies. Marina is forced to confront Orlando’s family and society’s suspicion and contempt, and to fight to show them who she truly is: complex, strong, forthright, fantastic.
A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) debuted at the Berlin Film Festival this year and won the Silver Bear Best Screenplay prize which Lelio shared with frequent collaborator Gonzalo Maza. It now has an Indie Spirit nom as Best International Film. Produced by Fabula’s Juan de Dios Larraín and Pablo Larraín with German banner Komplizen Film, it’s a part of a thrust of Chilean cinema that has come to the fore in recent years (Lelio pal Pablo Larrain has repped Chile four times at Oscar with his own directing efforts and scored a nomination for 2012’s No). Sony Pictures Classics acquired A Fantastic Woman‘s North American, Australian and New Zealand rights ahead of its Berlin premiere.
Lelio, whose lauded debut was 2005’s The Sacred Family (La Sagrada Familia), previously made a splash in Berlin with 2013’s Gloria, which won the Best Actress prize for Paulina Garcia that year. Put forth by Chile, the movie, surprisingly, didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, but Lelio is currently in the process of remaking it in English with Julianne Moore starring in the story of a woman starting over and looking for love in her 50s. Lelio also debuted his first English-language movie, Disobedience, in Toronto this year with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring in a love affair within London’s Orthodox Jewish community. Bleecker Street releases in the U.S. in April.
When I recently caught up with the fantastically-busy Lelio, it was on a day off from shooting the Gloria re-imagining in Los Angeles. Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: Before we talk about A Fantastic Woman, tell me how it’s been to adapt yourself with Gloria.
SEBASTIAN LELIO: It is unusual to say the least, but it’s like I take it as a re-visitation of my own material and I take that as a gift, as an opportunity. It’s a luxury to revisit whatever is universal from the original and to find a new vehicle for that universality in this new context which is a very sadly special context because the world has changed so much, and Trump is in power and the temperature is very specific and very different and the story becomes very urgent.
DEADLINE: You made the original Gloria, a celebration of a woman in her 50s, followed by Disobedience, A Fantastic Woman and now Gloria again. With such strong female protagonists, are they part of a whole?
LELIO: You can only connect the dots when you look backwards. I have been really following my intuition and I have found a great source of excitement and inspiration in stories about these female characters. Now looking backwards, it’s hard to deny there is a connection between them. The spirit of the three films is somehow connected, even though they are very different. I never intended to make a trilogy, but I’ve been hearing this idea: “Your trilogy of women.” And I’m like, “Oh, really, I did.” But I’ve been too busy making them (to realize).
DEADLINE: How did you come to find Daniela Vega for A Fantastic Woman?
LELIO: It happened in a very organic way. When the idea came to do a story of a transgender woman, I felt the need to meet who was out there. I was a bit detached from what was going on in Santiago and I was looking for an advisor to interview, and to evaluate if I really wanted to make the film. My producers said I should meet Daniela. She was very smart and had some acting experience so could help with this advice.
I called her, but wasn’t looking for an actress. I didn’t know if I wanted to make the film back then. When I met her, that was it. I loved her. We talked for two hours and I was mind-blown by her intelligence, her complexity, her beauty and wittiness, how political she was and graceful at the same time.
I asked her to be a consultant and she accepted. We became friends, talking for a year and suddenly without noticing it, the script started to absorb elements coming from Daniela. In the middle of the writing process, I understood, yes, I wanted to make the film. I wasn’t going to make it without a trans actress and at some point I just realized she was Marina, she was the one.
DEADLINE: Was it difficult to convince her?
LELIO: She wasn’t expecting it at all. I sent her the first draft with the invitation. She was like, “Did you go crazy? You’re completely nuts.” It took her three days to say yes. It has been wonderful to see her coming out to the world with such grace. I am very proud of her.
DEADLINE: How has the reaction been in screenings since you were selected to represent Chile?
LELIO: I’ve been really surprised to see how well received and understood the film is. It’s impressive. The first thing is that it’s not only about the Q&As, but even in (mainstream newspapers) the level of understanding of the deeper layers of the film has been surprising to me because when you make a film you are operating on a philosophical level of what you’re doing. You’re operating in the realm of ideas and concepts, and in that sense I never thought that the film was going to be well read because it’s such a complex animal.
It operates in different directions — it’s trans-genre about a transgender woman whose own identity oscillates all the time. It’s a romantic film that becomes a ghost film, a character study, a thriller, a musical. It was so easy for anyone to get lost, and my feeling is that so many people are getting it and connecting at an emotional level.
DEADLINE: You’ve also managed to hit upon something of a zeitgeist moment for the transgender community.
LELIO: The subject exploded when I was filming. There were the Time and National Geographic covers; transgender people in pop culture. It happened more or less when I was shooting to my surprise. But I felt that in a certain way this idea of the problem of people that are more or less ‘legitimate’ than others — who defines what is love and who can draw the line to say this is not legitimate and this is legitimate? — that problem is very contemporary because we are going through the crisis of empathy. The limits of our empathy are being challenged. You can see this in immigration, in the global warming crisis. We’re disconnected from our planet. What are the limits of our loyalties to ourselves our families, nation, race, gender?
There are so many things that we are going through as a species. Either we learn to live together and embrace the complexity of life, or we will end up with fascism again and destroy ourselves.
DEADLINE: So many of the films that we’re seeing today seem to have been prescient in tapping into the current state of the world, even though they were conceived or shot more than a year ago. What do you think?
LELIO: It’s not futurology, it’s just having the capacity of sensing what’s already in the air, but doesn’t yet have words to express it, and maybe a film can indicate the direction. Sometimes we can find the teller in the experience. There is a feeling of communion that a film provokes. You come out of a film and feel something that touches you and everyone in the room. It’s a spiritual experience, there’s no way to calculate it.
And brotherhood and sisterhood are in danger and we see that there is a pattern to it and a reaction. So many people are feeling we have to do something and there is no clear solution. There is an urgency to go back to basics and talk to each other… It’s not communism against capitalism anymore. We are beyond that. It’s a real crisis and a real opportunity. In the arts, everywhere, we should be saying in one way or another, “Wake up.”
DEADLINE: You reteamed on A Fantastic Woman and this Gloria to produce with Pablo and Juan de Dios Larrain; are you guys taking over Chilean cinema?
LELIO: (Laughs) That’s been organic as well. We started 10 years ago at the same time. My first film released two weeks after Pablo’s first film. Since then the friendship has been growing and we’ve been learning. (There is) a pure hunger of making films from a place where making films had been very difficult.