#LFF2017 Interview with Carla Simón (Summer 1993)

The London Film Festival goes on and in between a tight film watching schedule, we had the chance to have a chat with Catalonian director Carla Simón. Her debut ‘Summer 1993’ is one of our recommended films from the festival, conquering audiences wherever is shown. This story of a little girl who is send to live in the countryside with the family of her aunt and uncle after her parents die of AIDS has been selected by the Spanish Film Academy for the Foreign Language Oscar. It has been one of this year’s LFF hot tickets, as well as a favourite for the First Feature Competition. We talked to her about the autobiographical aspects of her story; the challenges of working with children; the film’s remarkable cast and the experiences of her student days in London.

RA. This is your first feature and I have read is autobiographical. I would like to know how did you balanced the biographical and the fictionalized aspects in the film.

Summer 1993 is my story and we can say the characters are real. I began to write the script putting all my memories together. Things that they had told me; things I remembered; I also scanned all the pictures that we had from my childhood which were very inspiring, and then I realized it did not have much of a story. I had to find out the rest. I decided to set it up during the summer –the first summer I spent with my new family – but my summer of 93 has nothing to do with the one in the film. It was very different.

I would say there are three or four scenes that did actually happened. The last one, for example; the one when the girl escapes and comes back saying “I will go tomorrow.” I did do that but Frida goes much farther than I did. I barely reached the corner of the street. Frida is braver (joking). When the grandparents leave and she has a rant because she doesn’t want them to leave….The rest is rather different. My mum died in March. It happened one during Saint John’s night. Also, my grandfather died the day of the Wise Men –both important celebrations in Catalonia- so I remembered quite a lot that fact of someone dying on a day when everybody else is celebrating.
It all formed a mix of memories reaching a point in which I can’t tell what I have invented and what is real. But the scene about the virgin is fictional. I never hide my sister in the forest, I would have surely liked to do that but it never happened. There are many fictionalized things to make the story work. I also had to read a lot about children psychology.

RA. I also wanted to ask you about that.

Yes. I read a lot about adoption processes; about what a six year old child understands about death and the subject of a process of adoption and what it entails was really inspiring to put and order to all those memories and shape the film’s structure. The child arrives to a new place and she’s very observant, checking if she can trust his new family. When she begins to trust them starts to test the limits of what he can get away with and after hiding the sister in the forest is when she realized she’s gone too far and it is at that moment when she returns to a state of a normal family dynamics.

We read you did not give the adult actors any script and also gave the child ones a lot of freedom…

Yes, the children never read the screenplay, in part because the smaller one is four years old. We work at the rehearsals creating some sort of common memories about previous situations that may have happen previous to that summer of 93. That was the way to progressively build their intimacy, making the girls somehow believe that they had an ongoing relationship between them and with the adults. I did give the adults the screenplay but asked them not to learn it by heart. For me it was important to tell the story exactly as it was written and it was all scripted, but I didn’t mind if they say the dialogues a bit different. I talked a lot during the takes, I was guiding them, sometimes I told them (the children) the sentences so they could repeat them but there was always an element of improvisation, particularly in the scenes of their games, when Frida is playing the role of a mother. I had research this with Laia (Artigas, who plays the main character, Frida), asking her to imitate me and say the sentences, and from the playing that resulted from all that I would shoot the scene.

One of the most remarkable things of this film is your naturalist approach, how spontaneous and honest it feels. I guess that creating that impression takes a lot of preparation. Were there any particular techniques that you used for it?

Sure, all that previous work with the actors was very important. You need to create a whole world around it for the children to believe the situation. We also researched on location for two weeks. There we researched the film’s scenes so they knew what we were going to do and become used to the surroundings.
We realised things like the fact Laia does not like water and that was a problem as we had scenes in the river, the swimming pool, etc. So we knew we had to work on that. The smaller one didn’t like the ‘Cabezudos’ (Big-headed figures typical of the Catalonia village’s festivities parades), she was terrified by them and that was also a problem. We were discovering things that could be an obstacle and worked with them so they would feel comfortable about them.
It also helped a lot shooting long takes. We got into a lot of problems, because that way a simple look at camera and the take is ruined, but at the same time that is what gives you the sensation of being actually with them at that moment. It wasn’t a radical approach. It we cut, it wasn’t a big deal and at certain times we got scared and began thinking on a more edited film but that way it felt more elaborated and we decided to return to the original idea.

Laia’s performance is very powerful. Was it difficult to find her?

We took two months for the casting and I was looking for girls that resembled the characters I had written. You can ask an adult to create a character, but for a child is very difficult. So they already had aspects of the characters’ personalities. They resembled them a lot which gave us a very solid base to work with. Sometimes they had conversation between them off camera that could have been part of the film.

RA. The screenplay is a collaboration with Valentina Viso (Maria and the rest, etc.) and I wanted to ask you how that happened?

Valentina helped me finish the screenplay. We met at one of the SGAE (the Spanish equivalent to royalty/copyright organisations such as PPL) laboratories. She had a project with Mar Coll. We read each other’s writing as well as the rest of the participants’. When I had to close the screenplay it was quite hard to just say that’s OK, so I asked her to read it and give me advice on how to finish it.

RA. There are two things I am particularly impressed about your screenplay. The first is its family dynamics, how you convey the typical behaviour of a large Mediterranean family on the wake of a tragedy, how they all support the affected member and, each one moved by his ideas and convictions, tries their best to help. How did you work on those dynamics? The second thing that impressed me is the way the dramatic elements of this story are hinted, like brush strokes, but not allowed to take over the story. Is that the balance you wanted in order to tell the story?

About the second part of the question, yes for me it was important. When I moved there I don’t recall it being really hard. I never stopped behaving like a child, playing and laughing. For me it was important that the film had drama, but also that it had the moments of an ordinary child, enjoying an ordinary summer in the countryside, and finding that balance was important. I like to portrait everyday life so there were those everyday moments next to the most dramatic ones. I wanted to achieve that balance first in the screenplay and then in the editing.

About the family dynamics, for me it was important to create a portrait of different generations: My grandparents that are very conservative, catholic people had seven children, which always seem to me like a miracle, all of them left-wing and atheists. I believe that was a product of the time, of the Spanish transition in which they were born when suddenly there was a freedom unheard of before. And then there is our generation, who is probably the fruit of our parents’ more liberal values, but that still have some remaining influences from our grandparents’. I put a particular emphasis on reflecting all that.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t know anything about this film?

It could look like a drama due to the subject, but in the end is a luminous picture which talks about family, death, childhood. I believed it was a too crazy a story and no one would be interested on it, but in the end you realize that it connect with the public because it has all those elements we can all relate to.

RA. Summer 1993 is the chosen film to represent Spain for the Oscars. Has this had an impact on the audience? And in the other side of that coin, considering what is happening in Catalonia at the moment, have you encounter any hostility or negative reactions?

No, I haven’t. It was very strong. We had to dub the film to Castellano because of the participation of Spanish Television (TVE). We took advantage of this and when the film was chosen, we released a number of dubbed copies for the theatres that would not like to show it with subtitles. Suddenly, we had a weekend nearly as successful as the first one. It made many more people to watch the film.

And about the Catalan, I believe it should be a normal thing. It was beautiful to ascertain that culture is about these political issues. A story is a story regardless of the language is being told with and it has that power of crossing borders.

How did the film and its idea started?

I did a short before this in which some children find their granny dead. Then I realized that childhood and death it was a theme I was very interested in for my personal experience. I studied film here at the London Film School and at they always told me to “begin by talking about what you know because it’s easier” and that was the origin of this film.

RA. How did you find the Catalonian and Spanish industry on your return? Was it very difficult to get things started?

In fact it wasn’t. I returned on 2015, where the effects of the financial crisis were still deeply felt and many people told me not to go back. But it was all pretty easy and fluid. We asked for Media support for the development first, then we were given ICAA and other financial support, then Television Española…and when the film was ready Movistar also jumped in. They were all saying yes, the only obstacle was that we began the shooting without having all the money and that was the reason why we could only take six weeks to do it. But in the end we had the financial support to complete the film.

RA. Apart from the children, I wanted to ask you how you chose the adult cast, David Verdaguer, etc.

I wasn’t really familiar with the Catalonian acting world, as I have lived in London for four years. We did a normal casting for those roles and I was also looking for people who resembled the characters. With Bruna Cusi (Maga, the mother) it was love at first sight and I liked David because he is a magnet for children, goes on very well with them. Then there’s my own sister, Ana, who plays the younger auntie. It was very important to me having her as in the shooting. She gave cohesion to the relationship of the grandparents and the auntie, etc. It was a long and complicated casting due to the diversity of roles.

After the great success of ‘Estiu 1993’, what’s next?

I don’t know yet, I have got a couple of ideas and have to decide which one I write first.

RA. Have you been back to London regularly?

No. This is the first time since I left London in September 2015. I am leaving today, though. I was really pleased by being here again, no matter how short my staying. I’ve seen the works in Tottenham Court Road are still ongoing… (Laughs)

RA. Congratulations for a great debut and good luck with the Academy Awards!

Summer 1993 has two screenings left at the BFI London Film Festival. Today at NFT3 (13:15) and on Sunday at Cine Lumiere (13.00, both already sold out! Beg, borrow or steal for returns.

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