We’re back to doing separate “Chosen Ones” again, and I apologize that it’s running a bit later than usual, but this one combines my thoughts on the movie with a couple of quotes from the filmmaker.
Pablo Larrain’s No has been doing the festival rounds for nine months going back to Cannes in May, which culminated in its Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language category. This is considered the third part of a thematic trilogy that began with his Tony Manero and continued into Post Morten (which I missed), but thanks to distributor Sony Pictures Classics and the presence of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, it may be the first chapter that many Americans will see.
No (Sony Pictures Classics)
Directed by Pablo Larrain; Written by Pedro Peirano
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Luis Gnecco, Marcial Tagle, Nastor Cantillana, Jaime Vadell, Pascal Montero
In 1987, General Pinochet had already been in power as the military leader of Chile for 14 years when he decided to allow other political parties to form and left it to the people of Chile to decide whether he should stay in power or give someone else a chance. (What a nice dictator, eh? The decision was a simple “Yes” or “No” vote and each side of the campaign had 15 minutes on television to get their point across to the people. René Saavedra (Garcia Gael Bernal) was commissioned to run the ad campaign for the “No” side for deposing Pinochet’s continuance as leader, although it immediately put him into conflict with his boss (Alfredo Castro), who is working with Pinochet’s camp and his estranged protester wife (Antonia Zegers).
No may not be the most immediate film due to the foreign political climate in Chile that could lead to such campaigning, but it’s actually based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta called “The Referendum,” which inspired Larrain and writer Pedro Peirano to explore the world of advertising during that period. “We did a huge, huge bit of research,” Larrain told us over the phone a few weeks back. “We interviewed a lot of people for many years and we watched thousands of hours of footage and then Pedro did an amazing job putting it all together from the information we got.”
Much of the film is constructed around the actual ad campaigns run by the opposing sides which gives you some idea of the ludicrous lengths to which each side will go to make the other campaign look bad. The film does a good job pointing out how absurd political campaigning can get with the “no” side represented by a colorful rainbow, a catch jingle and a desire for happiness and many parallels can easily be drawn to the recent election in our country.
The 36-year-old Larrain doesn’t remember how much of the advertising he saw when he was a kid although much of the “no” campaign had since been rerun on television throughout the 90s. “I do remember when they aired the campaign originally,” he mused. “It was unbelievable how they changed the mood. Because of the dictatorship, there was a heaviness on everybody’s shoulders. It was grey and dark and then these guys showed up with this light perspective and full of light and people dancing and smiling and it was very emotional and touching. That’s what I remember, more on the emotional level than anything else.”
It took them a long time to find the original ads and get clearance to use them, but having them also helped the filmmakers recreate the film’s late 80s period. “If you look at the ads, it was possible to know when and how they shot it, so we just went to those places and we called the same people who worked on them and we recreated what they did 25 years afterwards.”
Even though his previous films were also period pieces, making a movie that interspersed his footage with the original commercials proved to be the film’s biggest challenge. “There were a lot of different challenges but you could say that it was a little bit easier with the first two films because when you create a fictional period without archival footage, you have the freedom of creating something that is new, you create the whole world, but when you’re using archival footage, your audience will be able to compare whatever you’re doing so you need to achieve the same level of verisimilitude and the same quality and everything must really look the same and you have to be way more precise.”
It’s also interesting that Larrain used a grainy VHS-like quality to make it fit in with the footage from that era, which Larrain explained to us. “If you think about it, one third of the film is archival footage so because of that we thought it was important to somehow create an illusion. If we were to shoot using film or HD, the audience was always going to be in and out since the appearance is so different. We wanted to have the same look so we could create an illusion so the audience wouldn’t know what we shot and we did not shoot. We had to go and rebuild an obsolete technology that was used back then. In the early 80s, they shot using tube video cameras so we imitated that to create an atmosphere that looked exactly the same.”
Even though it’s a story centered around politics, it’s also a very personal story as we see Bernal’s character trying to deal with being a single father as his estranged wife keeps getting caught by the military police while protesting the corruption of Pinochet’s rule. The relationship with his boss also gets strained because they’re essentially on opposite sides and these things are what adds drama and tension to the story. It’s another fantastic performance from the Mexican actor who has really grown since we first saw him in the early movies of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuaron.
Larrain talked about getting Bernal on board, something that has helped No get more attention than his previous films. “We approached him but from the very beginning we wrote the character for him and the rest of the cast. I think he’s a wonderful performer so it was a privilege to work with him. He was very supportive of the script we had written from our research because he’s a political guy, but we also share the same sense of humor, so it was a very interesting collaboration because we immediately understood what kind of movie we were doing.”
In fact, there’s a surprising amount of humor in the movie from the ridiculousness of the commercials and how each campaign reacts to one another’s work. If you can imagine how much time and effort is put into the Super Bowl commercials each year, just imagine having to create 15 minutes of political
There’s no question that Larrain has really stepped up his game as a filmmaker with the movie, particularly in creating some of the bigger scale setpieces, which involved recreating protests from the time as well as the celebrations following the election. “Some of them are things we would recreate and some of them are a combination with archival footage using green screen,” he told us. “It was tricky putting them together because there’s a lot of differences between the cameras they were using and the ones we had. It was different so it required a lot of previous preparation. I had to prepare and know which shots I had to do and which ones we were going to use from the archival footage. Even though I was prepared and we worked things out before, I wanted to keep the documentary feeling so we’d do storyboards and then try to create something fresh out of those predesigned shots.”
However Larrain managed to pull it off, No is a fascinating window into a pivotal turning point in Chile’s incredibly tense political climate which never feels as clinical or dry as other political movies due to the solid writing and the performances that helps make you feel as if you’re watching a movie made during that period.
No opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 15.