Carlota Pereda on Running Amok in “Piggy”

There hasn’t been a whole lot that has gone Sara’s way in “Piggy,” stuck in a small Spanish town where her family has never had problems making ends meet, running the town’s essential butcher shop, but the grisly business of making sausage and filleting steaks hardly makes her popular among anyone at school. Coupled with her naturally large figure, she’s been an easy target for disdain, particularly on social media where Instagram is always hyperactive in a place where there is little else to do but gossip and even as word spreads of a potential serial killer in the area, it seems like a minimal threat compared with the vicious barbs thrown her way by a trio of mean girls who follow her every move, ready to pounce.

Sara’s fears are properly placed in Carlota Pereda’s brilliant debut feature, which is to say that things start looking up for the young woman only when everyone but her starts feeling terrorized for a change. Adapted from the writer/director’s unforgettable short in which she previously teamed with the actress Laura Galán to imagine a harrowing chase in which the bikini-clad Sara ran from her tormentors and feeling exposed in every way, “Piggy” reveals something else entirely as Sara naturally becomes a suspect in the murders that begin to pile up around the village when everyone knows she’s entitled to some righteous revenge, but she finally has some control over the situation when she has some knowledge of the real killer (Richard Holmes) and must decide what she should do with that information.

Filmed tightly in a square-frame academy aspect ratio, what starts out as claustrophobia in “Piggy” evolves into the trappings of power when Sara, not yet out of her teens, cannot entirely comprehend the implications of finally having the upper hand, but Pereda, who infused her own experience of being bullied as a kid into the film, is consistently outsmarting anyone who thinks they have a handle on where the film will go, earning as many hearty laughs out of a sense of chagrin as the wicked dark humor she laces throughout. Following the film’s premiere at Sundance earlier this year, “Piggy” is headed to theaters this week and the Spanish sensation spoke about what made the initial idea of the film worth expanding, pulling the film’s score from its organic sounds and committing to specific shots ahead of getting to set.

From what I understand, the idea for the feature came during the filming of the short. What made you want to go all in?

It was the last day of the shoot and we were actually shooting when the van drives away, which is the last shot we did and I thought the concept is too good to let go. I thought I could make a thriller about a moral issue — about somebody who doesn’t do something — and that was too exciting to let go of. Also by that time, Laura Galán and I had fallen in love with the character of Sara, this little girl with so much going on and we wanted to know more about her, and Laura is this amazing actress. She was willing to do whatever I wrote for her and she was going to do it brilliantly — It gave me so much freedom that I knew everything I did was not going to be difficult. I could have one scene and have her go through different emotions in the scene and she was going to do it. It was like having the best violin in the world played by the best musician and she’s going to do it, so I just had to write [the feature]. At first, I just left it there because I didn’t know if the short was going to be successful, but when the short exploded, I found it easier to approach producers.

You’ve said there was a pretty extensive rehearsal period – is there anything that changes your ideas about this when you start seeing this in motion?

Of course, there’s something always when you look at them and you see what they have to offer, but we didn’t rehearse the scenes as much as the relationships. The scenes [were] like a rehearsal for me because I proposed blocking to see what worked, but what we did rehearse the relationships, especially between Sara and the killer because they don’t have that much time on screen together, but there had to be this kind of tension underlining the whole thing that had to be there from the first moment we see them together.

It’s interesting you mention the blocking because you really feel Sara’s inner emotions come out in how the world works around her. Was it fun to figure out?

Basically, I write by myself, so I imagine how it’s going to be and the fact that I also wrote the screenplay in the same village where I knew I was going to shoot, I even knew the place where the last scene happens – I was there writing it, so I wrote exactly what’s on screen. [laughs] It’s the town where I spend my summers, and I knew it’s almost trapped in time because there’s no trains. There’s only a bus that comes once a month there and it’s a very poor area in the country where people have cars that are 30, 40 years old and they just keep on doing fixes to them to make them work, but at the same time [the town is] modern because there’s internet everywhere, so I love that place. And I must say the people there are friendlier than the ones you see on screen. [laughs] They’re actually quite lovely.

But I imagined it and you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. You just take the chance and you see the actors and it either works or it doesn’t, and you make adjustments. But it’s just a question of having faith. I tried to be as irrational as possible because sometimes the things you don’t think much of, that come from this instinct are more interesting. There can be a failure, but they’re something that are more interesting than something that is perfect or standard.

It’s a really inventive use of sound, from being able to really pick up on the type of environment she’s in sonically to how those sounds make their way into the score. What was it like to work on?

I’m obsessed with sound and my sound designer Nacho Arenas is great. One of the references for this movie was [Alain Girauldie’s] “Stranger by the Lake” and I also love the work of [“Flux Gourmet” director] Peter Strickland, and in this case, sound was almost like the [musical] soundtrack — it was Sara’s mind and sometimes it reflects what she’s thinking or we understand things that she’s thinking because the sound helps us do it. It all had to be very, very organic and with Oliver Arson, the composer, I wanted something that felt really organic, so he came up with the idea of using sounds from the movie to make the music. All the music is made from the crickets, the chainsaws, the girl screaming, the chains, it’s all composed with no instruments. When you hear a violin, it’s a saw against a piece of metal.

Was working on a feature a different experience than your shorts?

In a short, you actually have to be more precise. You can make more mistakes on a [feature] film. I’m very obsessive about sound design — about everything actually and the shorts I’m really, really obsessed like why this shot and not another shot. I storyboard and never shoot coverage, so what you see is what you get. And I don’t like repeating shots. I mean if I do the shot until this thing happens and then I’ll do something else.

What’s the experience been like taking this out into the world?

It’s amazing. it’s like when you have this baby and you love the baby with all your heart, but you don’t know how people are going to think of it, and they love it as well. So it’s fantastic. It’s basically such a relief that they’re going to treat her kindly. [laughs]

Is it true you’re headed to Basque country next?

Yes, I’m going to start shooting a film on the 24th of October, my next feature and it’s a horror movie.

“Piggy” opens on October 7th at select Alamo Drafthouses across the country and expands on October 14th and will become available on video-on-demand.

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