When Carla Simón began considering potential vocations to pursue while she was in high school, she was leaning towards journalism when one of her teachers started bringing in films to class to show and analyze.
“I realized you could tell very complex stories through films,” recalled Simón. “I have a very big family, and there’s a lot of stories in my family, so I was like, “Okay, maybe I should just tell family stories.”
As it turns out, Simón doesn’t only have plenty of stories to tell, but a way with telling them as she shows in her delicate debut. Rechristening herself onscreen as Frida (Laia Artigas) to recount the months following her mother’s death when she taken into the care of her aunt (Bruna Cusi) and uncle (David Verdaguer) at the age of six, “Summer 1993” follows the young girl from an apartment in Barcelona to a country home in Catalonia where she’s surrounded by family, yet can feel all alone in trying to understand both her new surroundings and the circumstances of her mother’s passing, due to complications from AIDS, an epidemic that particular ravaged Spain in the ‘90s. Simón is unsparing in looking back at the rambunctious and mischievous child that she was, wreaking havoc in her aunt and uncle’s vegetable crops and bossing around her four-year-old cousin (Paula Robles), but with perspective, she displays great sensitivity in depicting how Frida’s acts of aggression are a way of making sense of a world she struggles to find her place in as the ground seems to constantly shift beneath her feet.
While Frida is continually looking for an escape, “Summer 1993” actually feels like one when basking in the idyllic, sun-dappled hills of La Garrotxa, with Simón’s light touch as a filmmaker opening up the landscape to feel the same sense of discovery as Frida is experiencing. As Frida reconfigures her own ideas about family, you’re welcomed into the one that has its arms wide open, full of endearing idiosyncracies and plenty of love. With the film finally arriving on American shores after a celebrated festival run that included a prize for Best First Feature at Berlinale and multiple Goya Awards in her native Spain, Simón spoke about reflecting on a time she was too young to remember fully herself for the film, working with young actors and the time she almost instigated a feud between rival communities during the shoot.
How did this come about?
Basically, it came [about] in a natural way. I was studying [film] in London and I made a short film about two kids who found their grandmother and I realized that this was a theme I wanted to keep exploring because I was in London, away from home, and suddenly, you give more value to what defines you. So there was this day where I said maybe I should just start talking about my childhood.
When it’s this particular age, are these vivid memories that you have or were you talking to people who were there?
The truth is that I don’t remember that much. When you are a kid and something like that happens to you, your memories are kind of erased for you to be able to keep going. I remember more emotions. They are very abstract, but the emotions I remember quite strongly and then I talked a lot to my family. My adoptive mom told me a lot of things and then I also scanned all the photos of my childhood, [which] were very inspiring because there is a story behind each photo and a memory related to it. I know there aren’t many real scenes or things that happened [in the film exactly like they happened in real life] – there may be three or four, and the other ones may be fiction – but they all were born in kind of a memory that I have.
Did you film in the house you grew up in?
No. It’s in the same area. I knew this house because some friends of my parents were living there, so I used to go to play there when I was a kid, but they don’t live there anymore. I remember it was a very special house. And it’s like five minutes by car from where my parents live. [laughs]
How did you get these amazing kids that you got to star in this?
That was a very, very long casting process. We saw about 1000 kids and it took about six months to find the [right ones]. It was very curious because Laia [Artigas] was one of the last girls that we saw [to play Frida]. We went to primary schools [because] I was looking for normal kids. It wasn’t important for me that they had acted before. I was looking for girls that were similar to the characters I had written, so you could ask them to create the character, but that’s something that’s hard to ask to a little girl. [So I looked for girls that] were a bit like the characters in terms of personality or in terms of background. I knew I couldn’t find a girl who had lost her parents, but Laia’s family is not very conventional in terms of structure, so that was interesting. [Casting that way] you have a lot of work done [for you] because you know that they will react a bit like the characters you have written.
Also, the relationship between [Frida and Anna] was important, so we got different girls together and for example, we tried Laia with another little girl and they became friends, I’m like, “This shouldn’t happen.” [laughs] When we put Paula [Robles, who plays Anna] and Laia together, we saw that it was really a power relationship, kind of like the sisters’ relationship I was looking for.
You have a lot of scenes between Frida and Anna where it looks like you just let them loose – I’m thinking of the scene in the garden where they’re fooling around with makeup, in particular. How would you negotiate those scenes to get what you wanted?
We really did a lot of preparation for everything. For that scene, during the rehearsal process, I played the mom and I was smoking and I was saying to Laia, [playing] Frida, “I can’t play with you now because my body is hurting” and all that so when we got [to the set], I said, “Do you remember when we did that [scene] and I was playing your mom? Now, you have to imitate me.” So she was like, “Okay, I can remember how it was.” And I said, “Okay, and [now] there are some sentences I really want you to say” because it was important for me to have the same vocabulary as my mom used, so I told [her], “You have to say this,” and if she forgot, we’d just say it during the take and she’d repeat it. My voice was all over the takes and we took it out [during post-production].
Then from here, [the girls] improvised a bit – the [scenes with the family playing] games in the film are more improvised – but we only shot six weeks and for a few hours [with the kids], like six to eight hours maximum, so we really had to follow the script. So there was not much room for improvisation, but [the kids] never read the script, so it was important to find the [compromise] between me really telling the story and giving them freedom and this rhythm to say it in their own words and to put something from themselves as well on the screen.
Was there something you weren’t expecting, but it made the final film and you’re happy about?
There are things we discovered, like when [Anna] draws something and then she starts describing each little being she draws, saying lots of names very fast and then she makes them up – this for me is very funny, and she did it during the rehearsal process, so we put it [in]. But there are not many new scenes. The script was full of little details that were hard to bring onto the screen, and we lost some of them, but we gained some others with the girls.
Is it true you had the actors playing the family spend a week together to bond?
Not a lot of time, actually. During two months, we met very often during the afternoons and weekends, so everyone had their life, but when we spent time together, we’d do normal things, like shopping or just these kind of things to kind of create the intimacy between the actors. We also improvised moments that happened before 1993 [because] it was important for me that they lived some part of their background and it was a way of building these shared memories that were very useful when we got to the shooting because they knew things about their characters [from] actually playing things that happened to them.
We spent a couple of weeks in the location, just rehearsing the scenes because we didn’t have much time during the shooting, so there were no surprises. I also knew [by then] how to get everything I needed from them, so we went to the locations to rehearse the scenes and then when we got to the shooting, I would talk a lot during the takes and guide the [children]. But there was no specific way of doing it. Every day was an adventure and the truth was because we shot long [takes], we suffered quite a lot [because] it looks like they don’t look at the camera, but they do… Until the last day of shooting. [laughs] One look at the camera means that you don’t have a take if you’re shooting long takes, and I wanted long takes because you feel really like you are there with the actors, so it was not easy.
Early on, the film subtly conveys the perspective of the young girls as the camera lingers on certain things, but gradually it broadens to a more worldly perspective. How did you figure out that expansion of focus?
We talked a lot about the point of view and what was important to me was that it was the girls’ point of view, but that can be very claustrophobic, and I realized was that I was very, very interested in what the other characters felt. That’s why we decided to start very strong on that idea, but then ease into that, just to show what the other characters felt because if we were just on [Frida], we would’ve lost all that. It was a constant conversation during the script, during shooting and even during the editing. We were remembering all the time okay, that’s [Frida’s] story, but let’s see how we can kind of show how the other characters feel as well.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Yeah, the day that we shot the scene in the river was hell. [laughs[ Because the water is freezing there. It’s so, so cold.
But it looks so nice.
I know! It looks like a great place, but then when you get into the water, you’re like, “Ohhh…” And the girls don’t love water and it was hard for them obviously because they were suffering a bit, but in the end, it turned out the way I wanted. If you look at it, it’s shot in a very different way [than the rest of the movie]. There are a lot more cuts than in the other scenes, but it was the only way to do it.
There’s a very cool parade in the film – did you actually build the shoot around it or did you put it on for the film?
We put it on for the film. It’s a very normal thing there because every village has these big heads and the giants, so because we shot in my village and the village next to them, the real people who dance in each festivity collaborated with us and they were very happy to be in the film. The only problem was every village has their own giants and big heads, so these were the ones from my village, but my village square is very new and the film is happening in 1993, so I said, “Okay, maybe we can go to the village next to mine and shoot it there.” But there’s a lot of rivalry between villages because they have their own big heads, so [it becomes an argument over] who has the more beautiful ones and all that. When I told [the people from my village], “Okay, you have to go and dance in the village [square] next to mine, they didn’t want to go. [laughs] It took a while to convince them to go to the village next to ours, but it was fine in the end and for me, a very nice thing to show.
When you make a film as personal as this, is there something subconsciously you may have known but you only realized it when you watched the final product?
I cannot see the film in a normal way because I made it, but there was that time when me and my editor were at my place and we projected the film on the wall. We were close to the final cut, but I wasn’t too sure and I remember very much this moment because when we finished, I was like, “Okay, now, it’s the first time I feel I’m really telling how I felt as a kid.” And I never felt it again watching the film. [laughs] Because you are so involved in it that it’s just so hard [to have perspective], but I told my editor, “I think we have to fix a few things, but it’s there” and I was very surprised to see that we managed to portray the way I was feeling.
What’s it been like showing it to audiences?
It’s been very curious because it’s my story and I never expected that it would get to so many people. But I was in India recently [where] we had this screening in Mumbai and people were coming up to me, saying, “It really reminds me of my childhood.” And I was like, “How?!?” Like “We’re in India, we’re really a lot of kilometers away.” Then you realize that everyone has a childhood and that it’s talking about family, love and death, but I’m still surprised about the way people are taking it.