Outfest 2023 Interview: Carolina Costa on Opening Up to the Transcendent in “Ecstasy”

As one of the great cinematographers in contemporary world cinema, Carolina Costa has become accustomed to scouting for interesting locations high and low, but for her directorial debut “Ecstasy,” she didn’t have to look very far, either for a place to film or inspiration for the story itself.

“I go hiking with my dogs on the weekends when I’m back home [in Mexico] and this place is in this woods 40 minutes away from Mexico City has such a strange and ghostly energy,” Costa said of the M.C. Escher-esque hillside monastery where she filmed “Ecstasy,” shortly after the short film premiered at Tribeca. “On one of my hikes, I saw this bunch of nuns taking selfies in front of the ruins, so I took a photo of them and that image gave me the beginning of all [this].”

Costa really does mean all this when in spite of its seven-minute length, “Ecstasy” spans galaxies as the sisters at a holy cathedral who look to the heavens for guidance instead gaze at the unusual sight of a black hole that leads to some soul searching. For Teresa (Mabel Cadena), this spectacle leads to an awakening of long-held desires she hasn’t dared to shared with anyone else as images flood through her mind of La Purisma (Natalia Solian), a spirit suddenly seeming to take on carnal form as she appears around corners and across the courtyard of the church, always just slightly out of reach and as elusive as La Purisima is, the emotions she stirs inside Teresa are equally difficult to pin down, though undeniably intense.

That happens to be a pretty good description of the feelings Costa often evokes as a cinematographer on such films as recent Sundance dramas “Heroic” and “Fancy Dance,” as well as her stellar work on “Wander Darkly” and “Hala,” where the dreamy and surreal gracefully emerges from the natural. Flirting with more heightened genres a little more explicitly than she typically has in her first time as a director, the result is transfixing, affording audiences the same out-of-body experience that Teresa has in taking ordinary images and turning them into portals to unknown realms. With “Ecstasy” making its way across the U.S. this week with its west coast premiere at Outfest LA, which is also making it available to stream anywhere during the festival, the filmmaker spoke about how she’s only getting started on a trilogy of shorts and its ties to the feature she’s been working towards for years, as well as landing a sensational pair of actors in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” standout Cadena and “Huesera: The Bone Woman” star Solian and how the environment could help shape their performances.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned potentially pursuing a sci-fi feature to direct and “Ecstasy” felt like it might be a step in that direction. How did you come to conceive it?

Yeah, I’ve had a feature film [idea] that is quite mystical in many ways, but has some sci-fi elements [as well] and it felt like I needed more opportunities to develop my skills as a director and since those opportunities wouldn’t just show up, it made sense I would just create them for myself. Everyone was like, “Well, do a proof of concept for the feature,” and it just didn’t feel right, but I thought that a trilogy has a beautiful element that eventually the three shorts [could play] the festivals and they could be nicely put together on a platform and I feel like each short is giving a different side of what’s going on in my head. They’re all standalone pieces, but they share some themes that I’m interested in and have one or two elements [stylistically] that I want to explore for the future.

I started thinking of “Ecstasy” last year when I was shooting a show called “High School” in Canada, and in my time off, I was just writing and writing and sharing [that] with friends and
“Ecstasy” is a weird little, horror sci-fi, and the second is like a pop gay musical called “A Violent Insurrection of Feelings,” that we’re now in post on and it was done in a very non-linear, very punk day and night of shooting with pretty much the four of us and I shot on the iPhone., which is a very different spirit than “Ecstasy,” which we shot on 16 and I had a long time to figure out shots beforehand. And then the third that we’re preparing now is the most fully sci-fi piece and the least experimental and most narrative driven and [with each of them] I’m putting myself through different challenges as I’m going through the shorts.

One of the ways in which you clearly make for a clever director is by setting up the major sci-fi element of “Ecstasy” – this black hole in the sky – upfront, so you don’t need to necessarily revisit it again, saving both your budget and time within the narrative for exposition, but in your particular case, it allows for the type of naturalism that I’d expect from your films as a director of photography when the slightly surreal tone is set at the start. Was that minimalism exciting to figure out?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the elements I brought from the feature to “Ecstasy.” The story is very different, but the feature revolves around the discovery of a black hole and how much is affecting the people on planet earth and how we are are starting to feel the timelines in a different way and how memory functions in a different way, and I feel like the black hole is a scientific reality that exists in the universe, but I like to bring it into the little worlds that I’m creating and use it as symbology. I like to put value to the black hole and play with that. Somehow the black hole in this place [in “Ecstasy”] is affecting how the nuns are perceiving sexuality, and I’m just assuming this is a place of repressed sexuality and pleasure in general, [which is] also why I have all the nuns laughing. It all goes into the pleasure idea.

How did you find your leads?

Mabel Cadena was one of the first people I called and said “Hey,” I’m going to do this,” [since] I’ve worked with her since ”Dance of the 41.” And she was extremely generous. Then I was figuring out who was going to be the character of La Purisima, which for me is the person that is breaking the rules, and I had seen “Huesera,” and obviously [Natalia] is wonderful in that. I was having lunch with a friend who had just directed her on a TV show here in Mexico, and I was like, “Well, can everyone make phone calls and tell her that I’m a nice person?” Michi Garza, the director of “Huesera” recommended me and Natalia and I have a friend in common that recommended me, so I sent her the script. We had a little bit of time to work separately, but we also had time to work together before we got to set and we just developed the backstories of what were they like before they they got to this mausoleum. It was really important because so much of the short is so experimental — there’s a voiceover, but no dialogue really, so we really were developing the body language and how it fits in that space. We developed that whole playfulness at the beginning [where] Teresa is searching for La Purisima, that whole game that’s kind of cheeky in many ways.

Did you actually pare back dialogue after the shoot realizing you could do more with less? Or was that the plan from the start?

We definitely recorded more voiceover than we used, but everything that you see there was in the script and Monica Salazar, my editor who did a tremendous job looking at this experimental little thing and made sense out of it, took away some of the voiceover from the first cut and when I watched it, I [thought], “This makes more sense sense because some of the images are quite powerful.” The sound design that Carlos [Gualda] did for it also really builds it up when so much is being told through the eerie sound.

I noticed he did the end song as well that sends it out on such an energizing note. How did that come to be?

Carlos is a friend of mine since we were 15 or 16 years old, and before I started shooting feature films, I did a lot of video art installations back in England and Carlos was also living there and he did all the sound design for my installations so we already had a shorthand. [For “Ecstasy”] we first thought that there would be no music at all, it would just be sound design. But then one day I called him and [said], “I have this pop song in my mind and I think it would be really interesting to kind of subvert some expectations and bring a pop song at the end.” He’s a famous DJ in Brazil but he barely makes music [now], and I just sent him some techno pop references and he created that and I was like, “This is perfect.”

It really throws you off balance in a good way, which is true of some of the juxtaposition of colors as well from one scene to the next. What was it like figuring out the palette?

I wanted to limit the colors and really create an almost monochromatic color palette that was part of the space. With Claudia [Borges], who made the costumes and is also a friend of mine [from] my whole life from Brazil, we were going back and forth for months [asking questions like] “What kind of green will this be?” We wanted [the colors] to belong in that space, so the beige and the green in the costume comes from like exploring that space [of the gardens outside the monastery] and the golden curtains that we created for the outfit are based on some Afro-Brazilian mythology — some Orisha definitely, and also on the sculpture that Bernini did, “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” that’s where the title comes from actually. She is basically an angel, [and this feeling is] going through her heart with an arrow, so we reinterpreted that [into a] kind of golden curtain that we added to the costumes.

Was it interesting engaging with the actors when for most of the scenes, you must become the scene partner for them when they don’t have anything else to act against?

The space really detailed how we worked in many ways and the people that came and helped me were very aware of how I wanted to run the set. Silence for me was a big thing in this space and just walking through the spaces. I would walk through with them that physical part of it, and it was interesting to figure it out what direction are they looking at. Then with all the nuns, we also had had a blast, creating those sounds together and just the laughter. It was very different navigating [the scenes with] the group of the nuns and and going from Natalia and Mabel being in different spaces alone.

At the risk of a slight spoiler, I felt my own feet lifting off the ground when this movie was ending as well.

That’s really the feeling we’re after, and when I first decided to do the shorts, I felt they were more like exercises, so that I could figure out what I needed to work on myself as a director. We almost didn’t send it to festivals, but then Arsalan [Asli], one of our producers, was like, “Well, let’s just send it.” And immediately, we had a good reaction from Tribeca and then we showed at MoMA in New York, and I had no expectation of something like this happening. I just didn’t have [any] creative expectations in my head about it, but the most wonderful part is how much people are connecting with it because it’s so sensorial and experimental. I feel like making films is like screaming in a dark tunnel and hoping someone will scream back at you and it’s not your echo of your voice. And this short, somehow it happened [that we connected] with people that are interested in feeling certain things without being told precisely what they are, and that’s just a wonderful connection to make with people.

“Ecstasy” will screen at Outfest LA as part of the Platinum Showcase program screening in person on July 16th at 9:15 pm at Redcat and will be available to stream from July 17th through July 23rd on the Outfest online platform.

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