Alexis Dos Santos & Fernando Tielve on Unmade Beds


One of the artier film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival that will be making its New York premiere at New Directors/New Films this coming week is Alexis Dos Santos’ Unmade Beds, the tale of a diverse group of teens sharing a London squat and how two of those lives circle around each other without ever connecting.

Dos Santos’ earlier film Glue played at “New Directors” in 2007, so he was asked back to present his new film, and one of the more interesting things of note is the casting, since Dos Santos got actor Fernando Tielve, best known as the young Carlos from Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone to play Axl–a character one imagines to be based on the filmmaker–while Déborah François from the Cannes award-winning Belgian breakthrough L’Enfant plays Vera, Axl’s female counterpart.

A few months back, sat down with Dos Santos and Tielve on the very first day of the Sundance Film Festival to talk about their movie, all of us suffering slightly from the jetlag and exhaustion of traveling. How did this whole thing come about? Alexis, I know you lived in London for a bit and experienced this squatter culture, so is this something you wanted to write about back then?
Alexis Dos Santos: Yeah, I’ve been in London for about ten years now and went to film school there. As I finished film school I started writing a feature film script–that was the beginning of “Unmade Beds” or what turned into “Unmade Beds”–but the development process is very long. It took me, I don’t know, quite a few years, like five years at least to write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

CS: So you were basically rewriting it over the years?
Santos: Yeah, and that kind of took a long time and I decided halfway through it I kind of had enough of writing it and rewriting it and I wanted to shoot something so I went to work. I wrote this story that I wrote really quickly that was “Glue” and then I went and shot it in Argentina with very little money, almost no money. That kind of helped to get “Unmade Beds” financed and get the movie made.

CS: So this is actually something you wrote before “Glue”?
Santos: It was meant to be my first film and then it became the second, but then as well, it changed. The script changed after I made “Glue” because I changed.

CS: I think as you watch this movie you assume that Axl is basically you, and it’s fun to assume that. I was curious how you came up with Fernando to play this character, and Fernadno, can you talk a little bit about what your impressions were of the script and the character when you first received it?
Fernando Tielve: I understood the first time I read the movie and I was having this meeting with him, and I look at him, and I know what he thinks, that was a bit like him. So that was very responsible for me. So I think knowing him during the rehearsals and everything was very good to understand the character more than in the script. Knowing him was one more step towards knowing the character.
Santos: And yeah, I mean we met in the film festival when we were in San Sebastian when I was showing “Glue” there. And then I knew that he was the kid in “The Devil’s Backbone” and I really remember that film. And I was like – okay then – I was casting the film, originally the character was meant to be for someone else. He was meant to be Polish, or German, or something like that. But as soon as I started casting international actors in London, it became clear that it wasn’t, for me at least and from what the script was, it wasn’t so important where people came from, but it was their stories, and you know, you could really move that character from here to there. And then suddenly it made more sense that he wasn’t in the place. He wasn’t coming from the place that I wrote it, but he was coming from somewhere else. Then I tried many, many… I tried boys and girls for the part of Vera. I tried from many different countries, from like the whole of Europe, and kids were doing like tapes, and you know, really amazing actors.

CS: Were they all from the London area?
Santos: No, no, no. It was all people like the girls from Lukas Moodysson’s films in Sweden and then some German kids and some Spanish, and French. I tried people from many different places. Some of them were recording themselves and sending tapes and some of them were coming to London.

CS: What was this rehearsal process like? Did you all meet in London to do the rehearsal?
Tielve: Yeah, the rehearsals and the auditions too.
Santos: We didn’t do so many rehearsals. I mean, we were rehearsing for about like maybe a week or something.
Tielve: He loves improvisation, so the rehearsals were a bit more improvising and to add more things to the characters.
Santos: Which is to explore what the situation and characters…
Tielve: To take something.
Santos: But yeah, I don’t like rehearsing things too much. I think it’s good to rehearse for the actors to meet, for them to get some sort of dynamic and for me to meet them as well. So they were all there for, I think it was two, three weeks? How many? Two or three weeks before the shoot, they were all in London, trying on wardrobe, and rehearsals, and going out in London and going to bars, because I thought that was important like to show them where the places were that these kids go out and where do they live and stuff like that.
Tielve: That was something I said in the beginning that knowing him in that place was very good to understand more of Axl, because you said maybe it looks like him, so it was very important.

CS: Were you able to relate to this kind of thing? In Spain do they have a similar squatters’ community there?
Tielve: No, it’s very different there because there the squats are not like artists’ squats, it’s more like for skinheads or punkies.
Santos: There’s a lot of that in London as well, but the squat that we went for was more like the type of art. It could also be a big warehouse that people rent that they use it as a workspace, but they don’t pay rent, but yeah, I don’t think you have that in Madrid so much.
Tielve: I’d never been before in a squat.
Santos: In a place like that.
Tielve: In a place like that. It was the first time for the movie, which was okay, because I’m a foreigner in the movie.

CS: When you’re doing these rehearsals and you have a movie that has a lot of improvisation, is there any worry about losing things by not being able to recreate things that worked so well in rehearsals?
Santos: Well, that’s why we’re not rehearsing too much, because sometimes you’ll reach a point when things are perfect and you’ll say, “No, things have become really quite solid” and then it’s always difficult to repeat those things. That’s why also when we shoot, we do sort of blocking, but before shooting, I don’t do a lot of rehearsal with everyone because the acting on the first take is always very fresh, and it’s very important to get it on camera. You don’t want to spoil it by rehearsing it or something.

CS: Did you try to keep the actors playing Vera and Axl apart like they are in the movie?
Santos: No, they were together. We were all living together when we were filming and they became very close friends, because they were the two people that were in the shoot during the whole time because we shot. There’s two stories.

CS: I wasn’t sure because obviously they don’t meet until the very end and I wasn’t sure if you wanted to keep the two actors separate to capture that moment when they first meet on film.
Santos: No, they became quite close friends.
Tielve: Yeah, we became quite close friends, but what was very funny in the two months that we shot the film. In the shooting, we cross our shadows…
Santos: Yeah, so they were never on set together.
Tielve: And we crossed like in the film, so it was very funny.
Santos: Yeah, until the day that we had to shoot the scene where they actually meet.
Tielve: But Déborah, she hadn’t been there in London the whole time.
Santos: She traveled a little bit, yeah.
Tielve: I stayed during the whole shoot but Déborah was traveling.

CS: Were all the actors staying in the same place?
Santos: We didn’t manage to get a place like that. We tried to get a place, but we ended up like having a few flats in the same building. That’s what it was.

CS: I wanted to talk about the music too because there’s a lot of really cool bands. I think a lot of people are going to end up discovering these bands from seeing this movie, which is pretty amazing. How did you find them? Were these just bands you knew from being in England?
Santos: A couple of them I went to see their gigs, I found them at gigs, and then some of them in MySpace. I like MySpace – I’m like a huge fan of finding (bands), and then most of them I went to see them live. There’s Kimya Dawson that I had already had two songs of hers in “Glue.” I think she loves “Glue” but when we were making “Unmade Beds,” it was when “Juno” came out and the soundtrack from “Juno” became the number one soundtrack, and I was like, “Oh, is she going to be expensive now?” So we got in touch with her and because it was a small budget film, she was like, “You can get as many songs as you want for as little money as you can pay.” It was very nice.

CS: Did you have a lot of this music in mind before you started shooting?
Santos: No, I mean some things I had to have because they were part of a film, so the bands are playing live in the film and then there’s music being danced to, you know, the whole “Hot Monkey, Hot Ass!” song, because he’s singing it and dancing it. Yeah, all the live bands and the music video like Connan Mockasin and yeah, the live bands I had to have before, but then some stuff came later like Tindersticks, the editor brought it and suddenly it was like, “Wow, yeah. That works.”

CS: There’s just something about the Tindersticks that just makes them a good movie band.
Santos: Yeah, they’re very cinematic.

CS: What did you think about singing and dancing to these musical numbers?
Tielve: Well, I really enjoy it a lot. I think it was really, really good fun scenes – the “Hot Monkey, Hot Ass!” – I love that title. The titles are all incredible, they’re all these weird names. Yeah, it was very funny because these parts was a bit like a music video because the bands were playing.
Santos: Yeah, it was more like being in a gig, because they were playing live, and we were filming at the same time, and we were doing the scenes with the actors, so everything was happening at the same time.
Tielve: Yeah, and I was surprised when I was looking, because I had never seen that band before.
Santos: Yeah, it was the first time he saw them live.
Tielve: The music is great! I really thought that.

CS: So you were discovering the bands on the set while you were there?
Tielve: Yeah, they go “Action!” and they start and I was there.
Santos: It was like having the bands there doing a little music festival. For two days, we were in this place that had these bands that played and we’re there and then another band would come in.

CS: That’s pretty cool. I was thinking more of the numbers where you were miming to the records. It’s almost like the scenes where people drink a lot, and they put on a record, and they start miming it. How about doing those scenes?
Tielve: Ah, it was great. For me, I never did a thing like this before, so it was very funny and I feel really like I can do whatever…
Santos: But Fernando, if he’s sitting in a party and he’s like that.
Tielve: I really like that Alexis let me do things like I can do and I had a lot of freedom, so that’s it. (Laughs) No, the good thing was that everything was using a handheld camera, so I can move everywhere and do my own choreography.
Santos: It was an absolute freedom to do anything.
Tielve: And this is a good thing for you because when you look at the film, you’ll feel like you’re at something that wasn’t (choreographed).

CS: It wasn’t taught to you, you basically came up with it yourself.
Tielve: Yeah, I did it. I improvised it. I did it in my home in front of the mirror the day after, and I could do everything because it was handheld. It was funny because the whole crew had the camera like this and I’d… (he demonstrates how he moved around and the camera crew would have to follow him).

CS: As an actor, besides having a great role and having a fun experience for two months, do you get anything out of the movie? Does a movie like this last for you? Do you always remember things?
Tielve: I think now, this is the movie I feel is the most special movie that I’m gonna do in maybe a lot of time because I really had a lot of fun. I always tell a very funny thing that Axl, the character, at the end of the movie I was like more of him than me so I had a bit of a identity crisis because I really enjoyed being with him. I watch the movie and I feel really confident with this movie, and I was really like a spectator, so it’s very good.
Santos: He watches himself like an audience member.
Tielve: (Laughs) And it’s very good.

CS: Most actors can’t watch themselves on screen
Santos: Fernando loves watching himself. (Laughs) Every time that we did something he thought was hilarious, he would come and watch it in the monitor, and he was like laughing at his own jokes. (Laughter)

CS: Well, if you can’t entertain yourself first… So what are you going to do next now that you’ve finished this project that you’ve been working on for years and years?
Santos: I’m working on something new with a friend Laurence Coriat, who works with Michael Winterbottom now.

CS: You’re still based in London?
Santos: Yeah, well, now I’m in Buenos Aires for a few months, but I’ve been in London for ten years, always going for a few months to Buenos Aires and going for a few months to Barcelona. I used to be like Barcelona, Barcelona, Barcelona. Now I’m in Buenos Aires a bit and I’m at festivals, so I’ll be traveling a lot for sure. We started working on it a few months ago.

CS: I wanted to ask about the skydiving scene. Everything else in the film seemed like it would be fairly easy to do, but when you decide to shoot a skydiving scene, that must have posed a new set of challenges.
Santos: Yeah. It was actually really easy. For a long time we wanted to do it for real. Fernando wanted to do it – I don’t think he wanted it so much. He didn’t express a lot of enthusiasm about jumping from a plane but he would do it. The thing is that it was literally impossible to do it. Because of the time of the year when we were filming, if we had to do it for real, we had to shoot it first, because it was almost winter and you can’t jump anymore in November or December. So we had to do it at the very beginning, and there was no way that my producer would let me put the actors on a plane and jump before we got started.

CS: So what did you do then? You just had stuntmen do it? Oh, is that what it is?
Santos: Yeah, we did a little… like… it looks very real. It looks like it’s happening.

CS: Maybe I should just keep this out of the interview so that everyone thinks it’s real.
Santos: (Laughs) Yeah, don’t break the magic.

CS: Yeah, I was really impressed because it seemed like, “Oh my God, he’s actually going to do it!” – especially since it’s such a small indie film.
Santos: Yeah, it was really simple. People went and jumped. (Laughs)

Unmade Beds is playing as part of Lincoln Center and MOMA’s New Directors/New Films ’09 on Saturday, March 28, and Monday, March 30. Tickets may still be available at