Interview: Carla Simón on Terrain Ripe for Drama in “Alcarràs”

When it came to the kind of crops that the family at the center of Carla Simón’s second film “Alcarràs” would harvest on their farm in Catalonia, the director knew immediately what to grow.

“For me, it was very important that we use peaches because it’s something that you are in a rush to pick,” Simón said. “So if you don’t pick in the right time, it gets wasted. This is not the same with other kind of fruit. That’s why the farmers who farm peaches are really always intentional because they have to do it when it’s the right moment and it’s a small period of three days.”

Simón would seem to have this in common with her characters, having an extraordinary ability to let moments blossom in front of the camera, uncanny in their naturalism yet holding a magical spark that creates the kind of escapism exclusive to the cinema. This wasn’t an easy feat when the director could no longer be sure if the seasons would still line up with the production after it was scheduled for a summer 2020 start date that was delayed until proper protocols were developed to film during the pandemic. However, after meticulously taking the time to cultivate the feel of real family amongst her cast over the course of months in a house not unlike the one amidst the fields she’d ultimately use for her set, Simón showed similar patience and attention to detail when she scheduled days around which part of the peach grove would be ready to flourish.

“It happened to us once that we got to a place that it was not ready and we had to hang some peaches,” she admits. “But usually in a field, it’s not that you have only one kind of peaches, you have many and they are picked at different times, so from a same field, you could go here or there and always find something that was ready to be picked.”

It’s an approach that yields every scene in “Alcarràs” to be as sweet as the fruit that’s seen plucked from the trees, bearing a nostalgic warmth that no doubt stems from Simón taking inspiration from recollections of childhood visits to her aunt and uncle’s farm but a vibrancy that comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next when she recognizes the limits to her memory and tells of the present-day struggle for the agricultural industry in the region. At first, it seems as though the Solés, with three generations living under one roof, are buffered from the concerns of the outside world, as the youngest among them, the prepubescent Iris (Ainet Jounou) and her twin nephews Pau (Joel Rovira) and Pere (Isaac Rovira), play in an abandoned car that sits outside the orchard, perhaps an ominous sign for the adults yet a vehicle for the kids that lets their minds race as far as their imaginations will take them.

In fact, everyone in “Alcarràs” sees the land differently – to the family’s patriarch Rogelio (Josep Abad), it’s an inheritance from a handshake deal he once made with its previous owners who he helped hide during the Spanish Civil War; to his son Quimet, it’s a lifelong obligation to continue the family legacy with increasingly diminishing returns and to Quimet’s son Roger, it’s a waystation while he decides what’s to become of the rest of his life, conscious of the bleak future the farm faces when farmers are no longer able to depend on the timetable they’ve used for generations as climate change rears its ugly head and see their labor valued far less — and it doesn’t go unnoticed that no matter what their age, the women all have a similar restlessness on the property as Iris, albeit without her optimism or the greater array of options available to the men with Quimet’s underappreciated wife Dolors (Anna Otin) keeping the household running while their teen daughter Mariona (Xènia Roset) looks beyond it, only to see the construction of solar panels in the distance that suggest how behind the times her family is.

Being able to witness these shifts in the culture from simply the perspectives inside this one family proves to be just one magnificent achievement of many in “Alcarràs,” a remarkable balancing act in so many regards that feels completely effortless and knowing that couldn’t be the case, it was such a pleasure to get to sit down with Simón at the recently concluded AFI Fest in Los Angeles to talk about the film, which is Spain’s official selection for this year’s Oscars, and how her deliberate approach to filmmaking results in such a feeling of spontaneity, as well as finding first-time actors from the community she tells her stories about and the rejuvenating experience making it became following the pandemic.

Recently, something Mia Hansen-Love said has been kicking around in my mind – that films become the memories of her life when she’s making these autofictions. You operate at a little bit more of a remove, but does it seem like something similar happens for you?

Yeah, it’s true that this happens. Actually, it happens a lot with “Summer 1993” now, that there are some memories that maybe they are not real, but they are through the film, so I feel they are real because memories are like that. They keep changing all the time because you don’t remember what happened in reality, you remember the last memory you had about what happened in reality, so that’s why it keeps transforming. When you make a film about something that is very close to your life, it’s normal that because you end up using this material in a way that it has to work for a story, you change things. Then sometimes, you don’t even remember what was real or what you changed for the film so it works in a narrative way.

It happened with me with “Summer” and also with “Alcarràs,” although it’s not as autobiographical. The set-up is real because my family grew peaches in Alcarràs, but the plot didn’t happen to them. The idea only came to me when my grandfather died and I was writing “Summer 1993” and I thought for the first time, what would happen if this place that we all share one day disappears? Because it’s a place that you take for granted because we’ve all been there all the time. Then I thought, “This would be a nice plot that they have to leave this land,” but then talking to my uncles I realized this is [actually] happening to many people now, which is very strange for me because cultivating the land in small family groups is something that we’ve been doing as human beings since historical times. Suddenly, the oldest job in the world is disappearing because the model of doing that are changing.

You’ve said that you originally envisioned a happier ending, but you had to be true to the reality of the situation. Throughout, was it interesting to navigate what you were witnessing in the present versus how much of a nostalgic portrait you wanted to make of this place?

Yeah, because my uncles still cultivate peaches, and I have a cousin who may want to do the same, I [thought] these people are really resistant. If they want to keep cultivating the land, they do. And I had this mindset when we were starting to develop the project, but we started talking to my uncles and to [my co-writer] Arnau [Vilaro]’s family because they are also farmers, and we talked to a lot of farmers in the casting process, and I realized that their view is really pessimistic on this way of doing agriculture. And [it] was very important that it was faithful to what’s happening there, so it felt naive if we had a happy ending because this is not how they see things now. There was this big demonstration that was actually the place where we found [Jordi Pujol Dolcet] the actor who would play Quimet, and they were very happy because they said [there] are a lot of us here now today, and they were not many and they were quite old. And I realized that if this is a happy day for them, this means that it’s really very hard that this way of doing agriculture is going to last.

Did you work with the entire community to bring them into the production? I honestly couldn’t tell whether those big crowd scenes like the protests or the local festival might be recreations or embedding in what was already happening?

The first idea we had, and I really wanted to do it this way, was to shoot like the neorealist filmmakers. They went to a festivity and shot there and everything felt very real, but then COVID came. We had to postpone the shooting for a year. I still had hoped that we would be able to do it like that, but then everyone was still wearing masks and there weren’t a lot of festivities yet because it was summer 2021, so we had to recreate [them] and the demonstration. We had done this huge casting process — we saw about 9,000 people, and it was interesting because we could [select] the good actors or people that we liked to come as extras, so it was a long process but it was worth it because it’s really hard to recreate these places with people that are from there.

Do you pretty fixed ideas when you’re looking for the main cast, superficially or otherwise?

Not super specific. There are some things that go more by intuition. For example, I knew Quimet had to be someone a little bit tender, not dark or rude. He’s very angry in the film, so I wanted this contrast. The grandfather was [who] I was most picky with in terms of physical features because I really wanted to find my own grandpa somehow. We ended up finding these men who actually knew my grandfather and he was the same kind of man. I’m really free when it comes to physical [qualities], but picky in terms of personality, so I ask a lot of questions, like in this case, what’s the relationship with the land? What’s their family structure? It’s very useful, for example, that Quimet has a teenager son the same age as Roger. Or Mariona, the teenage girl, has a really nice relationship with her grandfather. Then when we try with the kids, I put Iris, the little girl, playing with the other ones just to see how she [interacts] and I realize she’s quite bossy, so this was useful for the film. When I see they have some similarities to the character that is written, that is something that is a huge value because they can be more themselves when making the film.

When we last spoke for “Summer 1993,” you said how you were able to shape performances in the editing room with the kids in particular, allowing them to be more natural on set. Did knowing how that could work help on this?

It’s a mix. What’s very important is that we get to the shoot with a strong intimacy between the actors, so for that, I rented a house in the area, very close to Alcarràs, surrounded by beech trees instead of peach trees, but it was similar to the one in the film. [The cast] would come over for months, all the time they could – in the afternoons, after work or school, and also weekends and we would just spend a lot of time together building moments that could have happened before the story of “Alcarràs.” It was a similar process as “Summer 1993,” but in this case, the owner of the land, a friend of [Josep Abad] who played the grandfather, died, and then his son inherited the land and he made them to go to court — we even had a friend of mine coming in being a lawyer to help them. But we created all these shared memories. It was making a prequel of the film just for them to get to the shoot ready, having lived something together.

We worked a lot on the small things of the relationships. Like Roger and Quimet have this tricky relationship as father and son, and the kids spend a lot of time together. They even built a cabin so they would know what it means when someone takes it out from them. We worked on all this and then at some point, we had this big meal, I realized they were a family. After three months of work, we read the script just once. I don’t want them to learn it by heart. We rehearse the scenes in a way that they would know what they are going to be playing and because there are some things that are complicated, like Quimet had to cry, we had to practice this. But any day, it was always make a medium between following the script because I really want to follow it and say what is written, but it’s not important the way they say it. I try to let them say it their own way.

It blew my mind to learn that you only used one camera and yet you have all of these big ensemble scenes where you’re catching reactions with such skill. How did you pull this off?

For me, it’s actually hard to shoot with more than one camera. I’ve done it for television a couple [times], but I’m not used to it and obviously in this film, we thought about having more than one camera in some scenes, but we didn’t have the budget. That was the tough part for them, repeating [a scene to get both sides of it]. While we rehearsed all this, they didn’t have to repeat because it was improvisations. Sometimes I repeat [a scene] for them to get used to it, but not more than one or three times. Then when we go to the shoot, the first week of shooting was quite hard [on them] for this and there were scenes where we had to plan very well. Like the one in the swimming pool, because they were jumping, it was almost [limited to] one shot because it was too much time to dry [off after jumping] and one of the toughest [scenes] was the meal, when they are eating the snails [because] this was a lot of repetition. What I tried to do is a little bit of improvisation, they run the scene, and we do a little bit of more improvisation, so each take would be a little bit different [for them].

It’s quite subtle, but the costume design really adds to the liveliness of the film. What’s it like to dress your ensemble?

We work a lot. And with “Summer,” it was different, because [Anna Aguilà, the costume designer] came in later, but this time we could do it properly. And the first step is to look at what they wear usually [at work] and take all the ideas from that. We had a couple of days where they brought everything that could be used in summer. We picked some things that were useful, and then [Anna] expanded the wardrobe according to the style. In general, we respect a lot the way they dress, but the difficult part with this film was the matching, because I care a lot about color and they were a lot of characters, sometimes in the same frame, so we had to make sure there weren’t two people wearing the same color and we kind of made a composition that felt real and lively, but at the same time, it was inside the color palette that we designed.

Given how skilled you are at engineering those scenes, was it more difficult figuring out how to work with all the farm equipment involved?

It was, for me, and for the art department, I think. The good thing about this is that because nobody [filmed] in this place before, everyone was really willing to help us. We would say, “We are looking for this big machine,” and we would have three options because [the community] talks a lot, and the information spreads very fast. We also ended up hiring someone who would drive these machines from one place to the other, and it’s important that, for example, Quimet is a farmer so he knows how to drive a tractor and Roger, even if he’s very young, knows how to drive a tractor. The big crane, for example, we got the [operator] who usually has it, but it was quite a lot of production work and a collective effort with all the people from the area helping us to get what we needed.

Could you approach this with more confidence generally after having a feature under your belt?

I think so. Honestly, I felt a lot of pressure after “Summer” because you feel these expectations from people and you don’t want to hear these voices, but it’s there. The most important thing about the “Alcarràs” experience is that I could work on the way I wanted to work. On “Summer,” I had a lot of intuitions that we couldn’t always do the way I wanted because of budget, because of timing, because of trust. Suddenly, this time, I had the time, the money, the trust of everyone. I could say I need this to rehearse for four months with these people, otherwise it won’t work, and my producer would say “Okay.” Or we need to do a one year casting for this because otherwise this is going to be difficult. And she would be okay. We spent a lot of money and time with the preparation, which is not the usual way of making a film, but this film needed that and I think you gain this trust once you have the one film that people see that your way of working can work.

You mentioned taking a break due to COVID. What was it like to get people together again once it was more safe to do so?

It was very joyful. Once people started being vaccinated, we got together and even [the cast] hadn’t spent that much time with their own families and suddenly we found ourselves creating a new family. Because we were all tested all the time, we could spend this time together. We had to postpone for a year, and I was very worried when we had to postpone, because you never know how you will change over a year, but it was even bigger, because it was a strange year when we could meet. It was very beautiful to go back to this.

What’s it getting this out into the world?

It’s been really crazy. Because it’s a very intimate environment while you are doing it and it’s very local, so we never thought that it could get that far. In Berlin, we were really happy and surprised that to see the reaction of the people reacting the way we wanted and it was a very warm first screening for me, even though the room in Berlin was half empty because of the [COVID] protocol. So it has been a beautiful ride, and for [the locals], they go crazy. The happiest story with the film is that because it got the Golden Bear, it got very famous in Catalonia, and there were many small villages that hadn’t opened their cinema for ages and they reopened it to show the film because it was the way that all the people from the village could be able to see it. Some of them even kept doing some programming after showing “Alcarràs,” so that was so cool.

“Alcarras” will open on January 6th in New York at the Quad Cinema and Film at Lincoln Center and in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and the Laemmle Glendale before expanding across the country in the weeks to come.

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