Amalia Ulman on Having the World on a String with “El Planeta”

After a career so far of often finding art hiding in plain sight, it is all too perfect that one of the most unforgettable sight gags Amalia Ulman creates in her feature debut “El Planeta” involves a T-shirt expertly wrinkled and sitting on the left side of the frame with its message gradually revealing itself to a viewer curious enough to look past the center where the action unfolds, a scene ingeniously engineered to induce a smile to creep across one’s face at the same rate as the realization of what it says sinks in.

“That’s an artwork actually by Pippa Garner, this really great artist based in California,” says Ulman, who has spent the past decade in other disciplines herself. “That T-shirt is amazing and I left all these little tokens around the film of these collaborators and friends.”

“El Planeta” is made up of countless bits and pieces of personal importance to Ulman, all holding a little truth that can be obscured as fiction when placed next to each other but together form an overwhelmingly endearing and authentically original whole. After hearing the true-life tale of a pair of scammers who went about pilfering what they could in the Spanish city of Gijón, where she grew up, the New York-based writer/director imagined herself and her mother Ale Ulman in the roles of Leo and Maria, an aspiring fashion designer and her well-to-do mom, respectively, adamant to carry on a life of modest luxury, even after the collapse of the European economy had left millions scraping by. Ulman, who would likely admit to being a little bit of a thief herself as she looked to pre-code comedies as well as some of her own innovative video art for inspiration, shows just as much craftiness as the characters on screen as Maria locates tasting menus around town to exploit without having to pay a check at the end and Leo pursues odd jobs that seem far more criminal in intent than the mildly unlawful schemes her mother cooks up.

With the artist inspired to shoot in black-and-white due to the eternally grey skies in the sleepy Gijón where natural light can be hard to come by, “El Planeta” announces itself as an instant classic in ways beyond its aesthetic when Ulman has such natural gifts for comedic timing as both an actress and a director and her eye for observation couldn’t be sharper. The film is a total delight from start to finish, but also in its slender 79 minutes, a trenchant look at the desperation that’s taken hold in a society where class inequality grows greater by the day and people cling to what they know as a means of survival. That Ulman can inspire one to laugh and cry, more than occasionally all at once, has been a ray of light during these gloomy times and after debuting earlier this year at Sundance, “El Planeta” is taking its first steps towards world domination with a theatrical run at the IFC Center in New York this week before expanding nationally. On the eve of its release, Ulman spoke about how she created such a gem, learning to become un-self-conscious in front of the camera and bringing together a number of seemingly disparate elements and make them fit so beautifully.

What brought you back to Gijon for this?

I never truly left because I go back every year at least once. It’s a place where I’ve made most of my artworks, so it’s not like I left and never went back, but it was the first time the city was in front of the camera and it was a love letter to my city. I think it’s better and easier as a first film to do it in a place where you know really well, especially with the little budget that we had and surrounded by friends and family and a good atmosphere.

I’ve heard this might’ve originated as a documentary about these real-life scammers – how did it take shape as a narrative?

That was the first impulse, like this is such a fascinating little story that represents my city so well, but I wasn’t sure. The power of fiction and being able to manipulate the narrative is you improve it, so I’m very enthusiastic about taking things that had happened in real life but then you combine it all together with funny anecdotes and you make a really good, engaging film instead of limiting yourself to what actually happened. Very, very fast after that first thought, I was like, “Actually, it’ll be better to not only portray that story, but all these other stories that are interconnected in the same fiction.”

It’s hard to choose, but my favorite element of the film may be that she’s a clothing designer. Did you know from the start what the role of clothes would be in the film?

Yes, because for me, costume design is as important as the soundtrack or whatever [else], so I was very excited about that. I went to study fine arts at [Central] Saint Martins, which is a fashion and arts school [in London], so that’s a kind of person I know very well. I wanted to be true to the character and also play something that felt close to home and not a caricature, so because I’m surrounded by those kinds of people, I thought it was an easier experience to replicate that instead of going for something I didn’t have the time to research properly. I just wanted to feel confident that I had a hundred percent control over what I was doing.

The outfits are amazing – what was the collaboration like with Fiona Duncan, the film’s stylist?

We’re very close friends and I had some ideas, but she definitely has all this knowledge of designers in New York because of the events she puts together so she’s connected to a lot of people in a way that I’m not because I’m more insulated and working on my own. She has this reach and knows all these people, so we were able to pull clothing from all these young New York designers like Lou Dallas and Martina Cox and it was super fun. We both love clothing and she knows me well, so she knows my body type and it was an easy, exciting thing to do.

You give such a great performance in the film – was it easier as a director to be your own leading actress?

It was actually hard. I was only able to do it because I had the most amazing assistant director Carmen Roca Iqual, who’s a great person to work with, and the days I was not in front of the camera, it was so different and much more relaxing. If you compare both jobs, I was producing and directing and those days I was only doing that, I felt, “Oh, easy.” But the days I also had in front of the camera, it was like, “Damn, this is hard.” [laughs] And I really noticed the difference. I wouldn’t consider myself a natural actor, so I really have to turn that on. I’m not on all the time, and when I’m only directing and producing, I can turn it off and I do feel that it’s like a whole new level.

I’ve heard acting classes helped you become a better director.

Every performance I’ve done in the past, it was mediated through technology and I was alone and I’m autistic, so I grew up on my own, doing things in my room and I would open up on my own, even if I put it online later. Of course, working on a film is different because you’ve got a crew watching you, so I had to break that barrier. The acting lessons, which were mostly for stage acting, really, really pushed me and broke me down and it really made a difference. I became more comfortable [acting] in front of people, and it definitely helped to put myself out there without being scared of ridicule.

Were there ways this could take on a life of its own in a way you could get excited about?

Yeah, I would say 90% of the film was scripted, but I’m also very keen on letting the actors get an idea of the scene and improvise a little bit on it. So the way we’d adapt to what was happening is I’d watch the dailies every day and see okay, what are we achieving? What’s the tone we have so far? Would we have to compensate with something else now that we have time to do that or not? The one scene I felt was critical to the film and not in the script is the moment where the mother talks on the phone and opens up and is about to cry. I thought it was extremely necessary because my mother as an actor was very comedic, being very silly and performative in most of the scenes, and I needed somewhere where the character was coming to terms with reality of the situation. That’s the only scene that was not part of the original script, but I thought it was extremely necessary for the film itself.

It’s a beautiful scene. And it was interesting to see that the editors for the film came from different disciplines — was that an interesting collaboration?

Yeah, Anthony and I come from fine arts and Anthony used to edit a lot of stuff for Dis Magazine and other artists and he does also a lot of commercial work, so he’s extremely talented and then Katie McQuerrey really brought in the film knowledge that we were both super open to learning — we were just like sponges, watching her work and seeing her tricks. But the good thing about Katie, even though she worked with the Coen Brothers a lot and [other] Hollywood films, is she made work for other artists, so she’s someone who knows a lot about movies, but also is open to the mind of an artist, so she’s not going to freak out when I tell her, “Oh, I want to do this weird closeup thing” or “I want to do these weird transitions.” She was very open and elevated the film to become a feature film, but totally down with the more creative aspect of adding little things that we wanted to add.

Those transitions in the film are amazing, and you’ve said in other interviews that the decision to film in black-and-white was dictated by how naturally grey Gijon is generally, but it does take it out of time, as the transitions do when they look like they could be from the ‘80s and there are allusions to the economic collapse of 2008 in Spain. Were you conscious of taking it out of any set period?

Yes, that’s very important in my work in general. I always try to work with topics that are not particular to a specific place, that could easily be translated to any other small town, but also in time. So there are references directly to the crisis in Europe, but it could be a crisis now post-COVID [since] a lot of places are going through this only right now. Stores are closed down, [people are] feeling trapped or locked down in your own city, so that was definitely intentional to be very, very easily be transported to any other area as long as it was a mother-daughter relationship. I feel that’s timeless too. [laughs]

You’ve got this amazing score from Chicken and I’ve read of all people, Federico Garcia Lorca was an influence. How did you work on this together?

Amalia Ulman: Well, Federico Garcia Lorca was a musician as well and he made his collaboration with [the singer] La Argentinita and they had an album together of lullabies [“Colección de Canciones Populares antiguas”] inspired by Southern Spain songs, so when I was working with Chicken, I was like, “Let’s work on this, using this as a reference, which is so different from his music that I knew that it would be like a complete new thing because he’s a very different composer.” If you pay attention you can hear some of that in the opening track and then there’s castanets in some songs, so I was playing with that idea of Spanish cliches.

Was this as satisfying for you as anything else you’ve worked on as an artist?

Yes, the most satisfying thing is that a lot of people did believe in me for the project because they knew my practice and they were excited to see how would I make a film with that background, but we did have a closed doors and a lot of nos. So it felt so good that people responded well to it and they’re excited about the next film, which I’m already working on. That’s the most beautiful side of it — to be allowed to make more films. My favorite thing to do is to be on a film set.

“El Planeta” opens on September 24th in New York at the IFC Center and will expand on October 1st.