By Josh Gardner
Colombian film Monos, by Alejandro Landes, was one of the breakout hits of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, walking away with a US distribution deal from NEON (known for the Oscar-winning film I, Tonya) and a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition. The attention was well-deserved. Monos is a brutal yet breathtakingly constructed thriller set in the deadly Colombian countryside where a band of misfit teens serve an unknown “organization.”
Carrying out their orders to care for a dairy cow and a kidnapped American engineer, bravely portrayed by Julianne Nicholson, the crew descend into the depths of madness after a series of unfortunate accidents. Landes returned to Sundance after premiering his first documentary, Cocalero, at the 2007 festival. TropicalFRONT sat down with Landes to talk about his ambitious vision for the film and his inspirations, ranging from Buñuel to Lord of the Flies and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
To start, what inspired you to make this film?
Alejandro Landes: This film was inspired by the possibility of peace, which now exists in Colombia. But, it's a very fragile peace. This is a war with so many fronts, because we have the guerrillas, our military, the narcos, you have foreign intervention and so there's this fog of war. I wanted to make a film that is part of that conversation, that asks who are we and where do we want to go. Because this war has been going on for so long, it feels like there are still ghosts.
I wanted to shape the film like a fever dream, that Buñuelian idea of dreaming while you're awake. The film becomes hypnotic, where you don't need to know whether the guerillas stand for the left or the right. At the end of the day, when they're fighting in the trenches, they're not discussing Marxist philosophy or Capitalism. I felt that by creating this fairy tale allegory, the discussion would explode in your face. It’s hard, but it's part of this conversation that we need to have We're living in a world where there are a lot of conflicts--not just that in Colombia--and conflicts that don't have those clear lines of World War I or World War II, where we know who's good and who’s bad.
How did you decide to approach this complex topic through the lens of the teenagers who are fighting in this war?
Alejandro: Adolescence is such a conflicted time in your life, right? Because your body's changing--it's becoming beautiful, grotesque, it's metamorphosing. At the same time, you're asking yourself who you are and that's something that just crashes against you. You know what you want to become and it's a moment when you want to be alone, but you also want to belong more than anything. That conflict at that time in your life and the conflict of war, I thought meshed.
Each of the team members are so distinct and have such clear personalities. How did you find them all?
Alejandro:What was key is that each of the characters had to exist in their own right, be kind of their own world, but then the true protagonist of the story is the group. During casting, it wasn't just about how each one of them individually performed, but the dynamics between them. I looked at over 800 kids throughout Colombia and we ended up choosing 25 or 30. We created this mock boot camp, this Full Metal Jacket basic training program. They had some improv and acting exercises in the morning and then military drills in the afternoon. But not typical military drills--these were clandestine military drills, so there's not any boot stomping or yelling because these armies have to move in the shadows. They practiced barefoot formations, how to move guerrilla style. During these really harsh training days I started to see the group dynamics: who's friends with who, who likes who, who's flirting with who. You start seeing this kind of mini society develop..
So, did that affect the script at all once you cast the group?
Alejandro: Of course. I believe in the idea of a filmmaker more than a director because throughout, the filming process, we're continually shaping the film. Not only did the kids affect the screenplay, but the locations did, too. We discovered that the mountain location has this huge reservoir of water, where all the water in the country comes from--you're 14,000 feet up in the air and water from there trickles down into the rivers. The idea was, let's shape this film like a river, it winds and it flows, and so the film never stops moving like the river.
Could you talk about the process of working with avant-garde composer Mica Levi (Jackie, Under the Skin)?
Alejandro: She's incredible. She came on board when she saw the unfinished cut. She connected with the spirit of the movie--the faces, the places, the colors. We also wanted to make each character distinct, so, we went about it in a Peter and the Wolf-like way, so that the characters had their own sound. For example, when “the Organization” and “the Messenger” kind of looms over the troupe, there's this really shrill whistle that Levi got from blowing into a bottle in her apartment. And, though the environments change, the music never changes. I'm very sensitive to film being used in a way that manipulates emotion. It's such a strong score, it's like a knife, it's like wielding a sword music. Yet,there's actually only 21 or 22 minutes of music in the whole film.
Could you talk a little bit about balancing some more of the genre elements with the message of the film?
Alejandro: This is a personal film in the sense that, you know, I was driving the train from beginning to end. At the same time, I wanted to speak very purposely within the cannon of the war film, which, particularly in Colombia, I hadn't seen a war film that really spoke to the situation in a way that meant something to me. I wanted the film to be very specific and intimate, but to transcend time and borders like Lord of the Flies, like Heart of Darkness. Those films stay with you like a tattoo, like a sensation, and I think that's what really helped me build the film and speak to genre cinema.
For example, you've seen war films where people fight in the front lines, but what about the soldiers in the back lines, how do they experience war? This is war from the back lines. Sometimes hostages are taken during war and the cheapest way of taking care of them is giving them to the lowest rung on the ladder--in some of those cases they're kids. So this film is born out of that reality. The characters experience the war from the back lines. That's why, even when you see the war in the front and there are explosions and everything, it looks almost like a firework spectacle.This isn’t the romantic version of the front lines where you’re wielding a weapon. You're watching from the backside, shitting your pants, which is how most people experience war.
You’ve been at Sundance before, with your film Cocalero, but what does it mean to be here this time with Monos?
Alejandro: It has just been very, very exciting. The reaction has been kind of overwhelming. The reviews, the reaction of the audience, the film has been really touching people. The fact that NEON purchased it and it's going to be in movie theaters here in the US--you couldn't have a better label. NEON does such great work. I don't know what to say other than I'm very, very thankful.