(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 12 , 2015)
This movie is the biggest commercial hit of your career so far. Did you consciously try to broaden your audience?
No I wasn’t thinking of that. I’d love to have a broader audience, but when I was trying to make this film - and I’d been trying for seven years since starting to write and work on it in 2007 - people were telling me: “Pablo, not one of these films again. You should do a comedy” etc. The truth is you never know when or how a movie is going to do well with the public. I’m happy and thankful that this film got made because it’s not easy, it’s not a franchise film.
Can you talk about the relevance of this film for Argentina today?
Well, in any film I made, I tried to only talk about something specific. You can’t talk about the world or your country because it’s too big a theme. To me it seems like you can only talk about a couple of people, and that’s always been my goal. With White Elephant, it’s not about the Church but the main character’s dilemma. In my first film Crane World it’s about a guy trying to find a job. For me, it’s actually easier to make something universal this way. I mean, there’s no other case like the Puccio family in Argentina. That’s one of the things that struck me when I started doing research. In the end, it’s a story about a father and a son. The crime aspect, how they pulled off the kidnaps etc, aren’t really the core of the film. Of course when you see the film you see it’s based on a true case, and things really happened more or less like that as far as we know. We reenacted everything as closely as our research allowed. But at the end of the day, it’s more about how this family works from within. It was a normal family after all: the mother was a teacher, Arquímedes was an accountant, their son Alex is a star rugby player. Everyone was integrated in the society. When you first hear about this story, you’d imagine a freak family but in reality that’s not the case at all.
Did the Puccio’s neighbors really never notice anything?
That is strange but it’s true. Maybe some of them knew but they refused to believe it. When the whole thing finally blew up, the neighbors were actually most skeptical, they thought it was a mistake, that these people are victims of a bigger complot or something. It took years for them to accept that it was for real. It says a lot about humanity. You have it right in front of your face and you pretend it’s not happening. So you can put the film in today’s context – it’s about how people face reality, the hypocrisy of it.
Did you talk to many people involved in those crimes?
Yes, well as much as we could. The Puccio family didn’t want to talk to us but we talked to the victims’ families, we talked with lawyers, judges, journalists who have covered the case and the neighbors.
Why did you specify at the start of the film the change of political regimes in Argentina at the time the story took place?
Well, the family had actually been doing the kidnapping for years. But in 1985, the system changed. Many people like Arquímedes, they were befriended with the shadow forces during or even before the dictatorship. It was the new democratic government after 1983 that finally passed judgment on the corrupt military. Otherwise, Puccio might still be there today.
The film suggested that Arquímedes was disillusioned by the politics from that time. Do you think that also played a part in why he did what he did?
It’s a clue but it’s not conclusive. It’s like a symptom. Every crime, in general, says something about that society. I didn’t intend to explain everything so clearly for the audience to understand everything. This is not a documentary or the Discovery Channel, it’s a movie. So if someone wants to get to the bottom of things, they should go and do their own research.
Can you talk about the casting of the movie, especially in the case of Arquímedes?
One of the most interesting parts of making this movie was the recreation of the characters with the actors. When you’re telling the story of a real person, you have all these references and pictures to go on, so we spent a lot of time on that. If you’ve met Guillermo Francella you’d know, he has nothing to do with Arquímedes. He’s the biggest comedy guy in Argentina. He’s huge, the biggest guy you can have for a comedy. And I asked him to do this part! I wasn’t sure if he’d want to do it, because actors sometimes prefer to be safe, not alienated from the audience. But he said he loved it, let’s go for it. So we went through a very long process. We did a lot of physical tests with make-up etc. And it was a lot of work for him to change himself completely in order to play this part. But I mean, a great comedian has to be a great actor. I’m a big fan of Chaplin, for example. I think he’s the reason why I became a filmmaker.
Your choice of music in this film is very surprising, often not what you’d expect to hear in such a gritty crime drama. Can you tell us the reasoning behind that?
It’s not easy to answer. A lot of movie-making decisions, at least in my case, are based on intuition. It’s hard to explain why. Mostly just things you think might work, but you never know if they will turn out to be big mistakes. I can tell you that I love the song Sunny Afternoon, and that’s the reason why I decided to use it. Also I think, even though this is a period movie, we shouldn’t only use songs from ’82, ’83. So we had some songs from outside the time period. Apart from that, it’s unbearable to see what these people do on screen. They’re just so brutal. So the music became a way to invite the audience to join the ride. And I mean the Puccios’ way of life was in a way crazy like that. The car in which Alex made love to the girl, they also used it for the kidnappings, and that is not fiction!
Can you talk about the shocking last scene?
Well, it wasn’t in the first draft. All the other long takes, the scenes of the kidnapping etc. were all in the early drafts, because then you have the time to build the sets or find the places to do them. But the final shot, which we’re not going to say what happens, took months of preparation and then months of VFX work afterwards. In the end it’s very close to what actually happened. It’s literally like a ride.
Are you inspired by filmmakers who make artistically ambitious films that are entertaining at the same time?
We’re in Fellini’s land, what can I say? (laughter) I mean, again, Chaplin, Scorsese, these are the filmmakers that made me want to do what I do. They showed me that you can have all these things in the mix. Your films can be entertaining and also offer a chance for the audience to reflect, to think, to be touched. I personally like movies that change you in some way when you leave the theater. For me, the real relationship with a movie starts when it finishes.