There’s an electricity that runs through Pablo Trapero’s masterful thriller “The Clan” that’s so overwhelming it’s hard to distinguish its primary source. It could be the visual panache the filmmaker brings to the story of Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella), a silver-haired mastermind of a kidnap-and-ransom operation who begins to enlist his sons in his illicit line of work, or the palpable anger that he was protected by a shadow arm of the Argentinian government holding onto the last vestiges of a corrupt dictatorship during the 1980s that allowed the abductions to occur without incident in his modest suburban home. Whatever the reason, “The Clan” feels like the work of a writer/director who has finally realized the full command of all his powers after steadily rising through the ranks of world cinema with provocative and pensive dramas such as the detective story “Carancho” and the hospital-set “White Elephant” that find great tension in moral quandaries and thrilling action in doing what’s right for the greater good.
There is no such central dilemma for the main characters in “The Clan” since Trapero places audiences in the company of a criminal who has no scruples about what he does and gives his family only as much information as they need to know. Yet the film is such nasty fun, using a rocking era-appropriate soundtrack with The Kinks and David Lee Roth and extraordinary minutes-long tracking shots that provide the exhilaration of pulling off a crime, that one can see the allure of and how it becomes impossible for Arquímedes’ son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) to put an end to his involvement, despite growing pangs of remorse. Following a triumphant international debut at the Toronto Film Festival concurrent to its record-breaking run on its home turf, Trapero spoke of the nearly eight-year journey to bring “The Clan” to the screen, orchestrating the incredibly difficult technical maneuvers to make it such an immersive experience, and the time it took to mount one of the greatest final shots you’ll ever see.
I heard about this case for the first time in ’85 when I was 13 or 14 years old. It got my attention then and I kept thinking about it for years. I started to do my own research in 2007 because I realized then that there wasn’t too much material about the case or the family, so I did my own investigation with my team. We announced the [we were making a film] in 2012, and then we started shooting two years after.
During the Q & A after the premiere in Toronto, you said it was in your research you learned of the connection between the family and the shadowy side of the government. How did that shape the story?
Actually, it wasn’t about the family, it was about Arquímedes. The family had nothing to do with that part and they had no idea. They were just being his family. But it meant a lot to [the script] because when I started to write, I thought one of the key elements of the story was this context. We didn’t have too many films about this transition. We have a lot of movies about dictatorship and a lot of movies about democracy, but nothing in between. That was an interesting perspective to have a look at this story even when the core of the story is this father and son relationship or this family portrait. The context in itself says a lot about what’s happening in the intimacy of this family.
Did you always know you’d tell this story from the point of view of the perpetrators?
From the very beginning. In the earlier stage in 2007, I was wondering if it would be an investigation like a classic thriller where you have these two point of views. Suddenly, I realized that there was not really anybody like [this family]. Each of those cases were investigated, but had different judges and for years, the cases weren’t linked, so it took years for the investigators to relate them, but I decided to do it like this – a portrait about a normal family.
There are a lot of unbroken tracking shots that become part of the fabric of the film. How did that become a way to tell this story?
Some were in the screenplay like the kidnapping [scenes] and the last take, which are more or less what you have seen [in the film]. It gives a sense of being with [the perpetrators] like being part of the game. It is not a recreation but an invitation for the audience to be part of [it] and you don’t realize if you are in a car or in the street or when it happened, but the camera suddenly sees it and you are with the characters. This mise-en-scene also helped the pace and the rhythm of the movie. We have this edited with moments that are very short and fast, then we have these long takes, so it’s a combination of things.
You’ve had complicated long takes before in your films, but you seem to outdo yourself here.
They were kind of complicated. [laughs] For example, for the last take [in the film], it took months to do it, not only in production, but in post-production. Another example [early in the film when you go inside the family’s house for the first time and] we see Arquímedes taking the chicken up [to the second floor where he’s hiding someone he’s kidnapped], it means that we have to create the set. But at the same time, I wanted to do it in a real house, not a set in a studio, so in order to shoot this, we had to find a place to do all these tracking shots, and where there’s this sense you can play with the timeline because otherwise you can do all this work and then it would be spoiled.
It takes a lot of planning and you have to control everything. It’s hard sometimes because you know how moviemaking is – you have the actors’ mood [in addition to] the technical issues – but you realize that the camera can go through somewhere [it might not in reality to get where it’s] supposed to be. You have to build a lot of things in order to get the camera in and out. It’s fun to see because you have a camera just walking and following a character, and then you have 15 people around you running, trying not to make noise because you have the sound, and taking things out and putting them back in for the camera – taking out a wall, putting it back again, [as an example]. When you see it the other way [as an audience], if you see the characters, it’s exactly the opposite feeling.
You mentioned that music was actually used to prevent the neighbors or even the rest of the family from knowing what was going on inside the house – was that the inspiration for the soundtrack?
I like to use music. I like to work with preexisting songs in general. I did it for my first movie and I like to play with the soul that the songs have within [themselves] and to use that to juxtapose what the scene says itself. In this particular case, it also helped us to recreate the ’80s and to bring this lightness – the sense of this pop music all around in the middle of this horror – it also says something. [Like the long takes], it was also a way to put the audience in the same place as the victims were. The music [being] that loud is also a part of this idea of having this contrast in general.
Guillermo Francella is best known as a comedian, so how did you work with him on creating this character that was a monster?
It was a long process. We started many months before the production started and I shared with him all my research. We worked with the pictures and read the letters together, but then it was like a reconstruction process because we [only] have a slice of Arquímedes’ life. We don’t know exactly who he was, so it was more about us rebuilding this character and trying to be close to the real character, but at the same time to create an autonomous one that has a chance to relate with the audience by itself by talking about who is Arquímedes.
It was all about the details – the way he talks, the way he sits down, the way he points at something or the way he looks at the scenes. I asked him not to blink, which was hard [during the long takes]. It was weeks of working on that and the way he breathes, because depending on your breathing, your body moves in a particular way, so absolutely every little detail was important.
From your many interviews or research in general, was there a detail that stood out, not just to confirm a fact, but a feeling?
A lot because I realized that everything was a complex feeling [that was better to communicate with] fiction, for the movie in itself was unbelievable, but it was that cruel for the victims, for the families. All the information we got in the process helped us to create this entertaining way to portray the fear of this family, but at the same time, a way to invite the audience to think about the victims because the victims are like shadows. Somewhere there you just listen to the victim’s family’s on the phone or you’re seeing them from afar, and they’re the real protagonists. It’s the only way for the audience to identify because you can’t just follow Arquímedes or Alejandro. It’s a demanding process for the audience to follow the guy on the [other end of the] phone, and not on the screen, and a challenge to do it, but [the film is] all about the consequences of that process.
This film is breaking box office records in Argentina. What has that response meant to you?
Amazing. It was the biggest opening for a movie in Argentina and we just started our sixth week [theatrically] and we had to add screens. Normally, after the first or second week, we have a drop. It’s really a big moment there for the movie. People are going to the butcher’s house to take selfies of themselves in front – there are lines on the streets and because there are a bunch of people there, the police are helping them to take a picture. It’s just crazy.
There have been a lot of different things [going on] – for example, some magazine I read reprinted old news from 30 years ago with pictures. But this is very important because to the family victims, it means something. It’s a way to honor them and it’s happening.
“The Clan” will open in Los Angeles and New York on March 18.