There were other reasons why Bernardo Britto wanted to try his hand at a feature, but after years of making celebrated shorts such as “Yearbook” and “Glove,” the writer/director had a practical one.
“One of the funny things about this is we had done a bunch of shorts that played at a bunch of festivals, but we could never go because it’s a short film and they won’t pay for us,” laughs Britto, about keeping morale high for his crew. “And I always said, ‘When we make a feature, they’ll pay for us to go.’”
If a complimentary hotel room was all it took to facilitate “Jacqueline (Argentine),” then we should all be thankful, though Britto’s feature debut shows the director is no stranger to travel, following the misadventures of a Miami-based documentary filmmaker (Wyatt Cenac) who is led to Argentina on a tip from a mercurial young woman from France (Camille Rutherford) claiming to be in possession of highly confidential government information. Whether or not Jacqueline is to be believed, there is great intrigue at the Holistic retreat in La Falda where she has snuck off under the cover of political asylum and the filmmaker sets up shop, not because she may or may not be at the center of an international conspiracy, but because of the shared anxieties and delusions shared by the filmmaker and his elusive subject as the cameras continue to roll with no easily discernible point.
In Britto’s hands, the statement “it’s funny because it’s true” would seem to take on new meaning, as he observes how his characters attempt to serve themselves by projecting significance onto minor details such as the dead dogs that pile up outside the retreat and constructing narratives loosely aligned with reality, reflecting their naked ambition to be considered meaningful, only to be exposed in the great lengths they go to present the image of themselves that they consider accurate to the world. “Jacqueline (Argentine)” breezily expresses these layers of perspective in a manner as lively and formally playful as any of the animated works that Britto is best known for, armed with killer turns from Rutherford and the largely unseen Cenac, who provides a voiceover, as they alternate positions as cat and mouse.
After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the fiendishly clever comedy arrived recently on VOD and to mark the occasion, Britto spoke about how he was inspired to make the film, being well into production and not knowing how the film would end himself and the burden of putting art into a world already saturated with it.
How did this come about?
A lot of different things came together at the same time. I had been to this holistic center in Argentina in 2012 and my roommate at the time and I, through a series of fortunate events, ended up doing a commercial for [them] in 2012 and while we were there, we [thought], this place is so weird, we should make a movie here. I also met Camille [Rutherford], who plays Jacqueline, at a film festival and I just thought she was the coolest, weirdest, funniest person and I wanted to write something for her. So I had those two things and the third that tied everything together was when I found out that Edward Snowden was just 29 years old when he leaked all that stuff, it made him into a very normal, real person [for me since] I started to think about why he felt it was important to do that and I started to see weird parallels with what an artist goes through – he has all this stuff he wants to tell the world and he thinks it’s really important and then when he tells the world and people are just like, [shrugs] “okay.” The world isn’t doing much with the information. I thought that was a funny parallel with what an artist goes through.
Like your short “Yearbook,” there is this concern running throughout that culture in general, but specifically the film you’re making is ultimately disposable. Was that in fact there from the start or did it creep in?
It’s always there in my own head, and this movie wasn’t intended to address those things as much, but that word “disposable” I really like because I feel, especially people of my generation where were growing up in this culture where there’s so much content and all the people that I know are just so intent on making more content, I can’t even keep up with the stuff that’s already out there. So it’s that same thing with “Yearbook,” where it’s like how can I create new things knowing that they probably won’t really stand the test of time and at a certain point, you know they will be disposed of and it started creeping its way in more to the script [of “Jacqueline”] – that inherent selfishness of wanting to make something and thinking it’s important enough to impose it onto the world. I thought that was an interesting ego thing that I wanted to call out because I saw it in myself and my motivations for wanting to be a filmmaker. If no one needs it, why is it so important for me to do it? Which is a cynical way to start off, but.. [laughs] It’s something that people making things now should ask themselves. What is the reason I’m doing this? Especially this movie where it was never like we’re going to make a bunch of money off of this, so why are we doing it?
I’m glad you did. Since this is told in the first person, it’s interesting all the competing agendas you have to convey through your lens – it’s ostensibly a film about Jacqueline, but it’s filtered through the filmmaker character and then what you need to see to tell your story about them both. Is it difficult to balance all those layers of perspective?
Yeah, that was really interesting because I edited [the film] myself as well and making decisions in post-production as the director character, so [there were things that] maybe I wouldn’t have done [as a filmmaker], but they’re in character for the director. Sometimes, it might be confusing because it’s hard to separate me from the director character, but all of his directorial choices are part of his character and if I was telling the story of Jacqueline, I would’ve done something different. There’s a reason I created this character who’s telling this story a certain way, and it was always intended that we’re not really getting exposed to what Jacqueline is actually like. We’re only experiencing her through his eyes and robbing her of some agency in her own story. Similarly, I always felt she was always doing that to the politician, hijacking his story while the director is hijacking her story and I’m sort of hijacking all of their stories to express myself, so it was interesting thing of what is the director trying to do here? And what am I trying to do as the actual director? And what makes sense for the character? It was complicated trying to figure it out. [laughs]
Is it true you had a full script but once you got to Argentina, all bets were off, so it’d be more like a documentary?
I had a full script, but when we got there, we wanted to keep ourselves open to anything that was happening. If it started hailing, which it did, we were like, “Okay, let’s film this and put it into the story.” We were just always constantly shooting things. We had something like six or so cameras. We had three main cameras and then we had a bunch of iPhone stuff and a bunch of GoPro stuff and we were always just telling everyone on set to shoot as much as possible because the plan was always for it to come together in the edit, much like a real documentary. It would have this long post-production process where we’d figure it out where the story was. Then we’d and go and shoot these bookend chapters in Miami and New York. That structure didn’t change too much. A lot of stuff that people think are real, like the cameras getting stolen – that was always written into the script, and there were things like that where it was hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.
We tried to keep it as messy and real as possible. The whole ending of the movie – the last 10 to 15 minutes was not in the original script. It was all written in Argentina or in the edit of the movie [once I had an idea of] how I felt the story would end.
Was there anything that surprised you that you were happy about making it into the final film?
I didn’t know how much I would enjoy listening to Marcos [the electronics store employee with a massive DVD collection] talk about things and how much he would add to the movie and balance out some of the cynicism that the director has because he has such a joy for movies. The other thing was the dogs, which were in the script because I knew there were all these stray dogs from when I had been to Argentina before, but I didn’t realize until we were actually filming them how much of an impact it can have to be filming these dead dogs. It was a very intense experience. Then having to go through the footage, they ended up becoming a much bigger part of the movie. It felt like it needed more emphasis because it became a good stand-in for death in a way.
There’s a bunch of stuff that happened on the day of [shooting] that we’d have to work with. Like there’s this whole segment where [the filmmaker] goes into Cordoba and asks people about the computer store to find Jacqueline and that doesn’t exist – things like that weren’t in the original script, and they don’t have too much influence, but they just make it more fun.
Is this a tricky film to edit? For instance, it seems pretty daring to convey the filmmaker’s frustration as things obviously aren’t as interesting as he had hoped, but still keep an audience’s attention in the second act – was it difficult to find how far you could push that while still being satisfying?
Yeah, that was always one of the things I wondered was if it’d be possible to make a movie that is as frustrating as life is sometimes but feels like [it has] a satisfying ending where you don’t get all these answers. With the second half, what was interesting about [the filmmaker’s] voiceover – and someone mentioned it to me – is there’s foreshadowing in his performance that he’s done with this story already by the way his voiceover is monotone and he’s not engaged. He’s telling it all in the past tense and you can already tell when the movie starts that he’s given up.
That was always the most fascinating thing to me – there’s no real movie there when you break it apart. The story starts before the director gets involved with it because it starts with Jacqueline and we never see that, it ends in a way that doesn’t really end because Jacqueline just leaves, and when the director is in Argentina, nothing happens. So a lot of the movie is a director trying to make a movie out of something that seems like it should be a movie, but isn’t a movie because there’s not a story there. That was always the tricky thing, both for myself and the director character is how do you make a movie out of this? It was always intended that the second half would lead you on this little chase for these flash drives, but I never really thought about it as much of a daring thing [to have a frustrating result], but I just showed it in Italy where a guy came up to me and said, “I thought that was the most brilliant thing! There was nothing there!”
I’m with him. At what point did Wyatt come on? Had you already completed most of shooting when he does the voiceover?
It was somewhat complete. We shot all the Argentina stuff and then I edited for about five months by myself, and that meant rewriting and incorporating a bunch of new footage, figuring out what the director character would be. He was a bit of a blank identity until the first edit of the movie. Then we went out to cast it and [by then] it was mostly figured out. It was funny shooting with Wyatt, because I think a lot of times he felt like he was a hand model [because I would tell him], “Go off over there and look wistfully off into the distance.” And he would do that. But we also did a bunch of new improv with Wyatt and with the [filmmaker’s] interns [in the film] that really changed the first 10 minutes of the movie in Miami stuff, and then it was a process of getting all that voiceover in, which was hard to do. A lot of it is written to the music, so Wyatt is having to perform it in a way where it’s timed to what’s already there in the edit and then I had to go back in and retime things based on his voice. So it was ever-changing. We were shooting new stuff in Brooklyn a week before we locked the movie because the nature of the movie is [loose], so it allowed us to do that.
What’s it been like traveling with this one?
It’s been really fun. Sundance was a crazy experience because I also had a short film there called “Glove” and I was running back and forth between all those screenings, meeting with managers and agents and producers, so I didn’t feel like I was at a film festival. But our international premiere was at Rotterdam, where it was a little more relaxed and I was actually able to talk to audience members. At the first screening, they were very polite – they didn’t really laugh a lot throughout any of it, and I was like “Oh, this is interesting. I guess this is what a Dutch audience is like.” Then I went to do an intro for another screening at 8 a.m. on a Thursday and I thought, nobody’s going to show up for this. But was sold out. It was like young film students from Amsterdam that had come in and that was like the rowdiest screening I’ve ever seen. Every audience has been very different.
It’s very interesting how people receive it. when we were making it, we would always say, “You know who’s going to like this movie? 17-year-old dudes who like Lil B and watch a lot of YouTube videos. They’re going to have a lot of fun with this movie.” Something I didn’t expect was that most of the people who come up and talk to me are older women in their seventies and eighties, saying this is such a beautiful movie about life. It means a lot. I’m laughing about it, but it is genuinely very satisfying how people can connect with something that is so personal. This is really a movie where I got to do everything I wanted, which I’m sure I won’t be able to going forward into other things, and to know that you’re not alone in your thoughts and feelings – that other people see something there they see in themselves – that’s very satisfying.