Nathalie Álvarez Mesén on Breaking Through with “Clara Sola”

The world is just out of reach for Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) as Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s beguiling drama “Clara Sola” opens in the far reaches of Costa Rica where tourism has sustained the community but the inhabitants can feel stranded, surrounded by fog and a forest that stifles any thought beyond it. As the camera starts to pull back from Clara’s outstretched hand while beckoning her family’s horse Yuca, who is unmoved by her request, the full view of her physically gives shape for what’s to come, having the 40-year-old who lurches around the family’s parcel of land with a hunch inhibited by her physical appearance yet one suspects bruised far more deeply years earlier in her soul, living in a deeply religious community where no one is a stronger believer than her mother Dona Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chavez). Going so far as to place her daughter’s hands in chili peppers whenever she suspects she may be having sexual urges, the complete control Dona Fresia exerts over Clara begins to appear to be part of the haze that resides on the perimeter of their property, unquestioned as a part of nature yet having no roots that need to be removed to break through other than a concern about what’s on the other side.

After Álvarez Mesén’s worked up to “Clara Sola” in a series of accomplished shorts typically exploring formative experiences for the young, the film comes across as a breakthrough in more ways than one, observing Clara as she stops living in her mother’s fantasies, where she’s believed to be a direct line to the Virgin Mary, and starts to indulge in her own, radicalized to some degree by her younger niece (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), who watches TV and carries on with Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), one of the farmhands. With allusions to “Sleeping Beauty,” Álvarez Mesén with co-writer Maria Camila Arias craft their own barbed fairy tale as Clara begins to gently push against what she’s been told most of her life, bending the environment back in her direction as the humidity that once felt oppressive flourishes into an expression of inner passions coming alive. The film is sensual through and through, first grabbing attention when it premiered at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight last summer and now arriving on American shores where the director’s refreshing vision is a perfect way to beat the heat now. Recently, Álvarez Mesén graciously took the time to talk about how she worked with Araya on crafting such an indelible lead character, finding the perfect setting for the film and how she cultivates inspiration amongst her collaborators to bring what they can to the project.

In your shorts leading up to “Clara Sola,” you often focused on a formative moment for a young protagonist, so it was interesting that this was also a coming-of-age film yet your protagonist was 40. Was that always how old Clara would be?

No, she was much younger before in the script because I started writing it many years ago. Clara was 30 and I was younger than 30 back then, so I thought “Oh, she’s going to be a mature woman in her thirties,” but then I turned 30 and I realized I’m still not a mature woman. [laughs] Then I was still looking at 30 or around there, but I opened the casting and Wendy, who played the role, was the second person we met and it was like, “Wow, this is Clara.” She was older, and we planned to look for a year so we kept casting to see if we could find someone in the right age group, but I started rewriting the family dynamics for someone that was older so we could ultimately offer the role to Wendy because I couldn’t envision the film without her.

I understand physicality was a starting point for you both to discuss the character of Clara. What was it like to build together?

It was really nice to communicate that way. We had so many tools in common [because] my background is in physical acting and mime. [Wendy’s] a dancer, so we would always go back to the body in every aspect and we thought of Clara [in terms of] nature a lot, like there’s a lot of nature outside of Clara, but there’s also a lot of nature inside of Clara. For example, her back is a bit crooked and we used to talk about it like how she has small roots on the inside. You can even see when she’s acting with her fingers, she has roots inside her fingers, so we were talking a lot about the body and body improvisation and even in regards to the voice because [Wendy’s] voice is so different in real life, it would move up from the chest or down to the stomach. We also say that Clara is 20 percent wolf and that’s so much of her personality. She doesn’t like speaking a lot unless she has to, she doesn’t say yes if she has to, and says no very easily if she doesn’t like something. She’s not ashamed of herself. That part comes from the wolf.

From that striking opening image, you’ve got the hands in there and throughout there’s a tactile sense of touch or what’s out of reach. What was it like developing that idea visually?

I worked a lot with the cinematographer in terms of how to portray we could seamlessly go from her to nature as if they were one because she sees herself as part of nature and sometimes incorporating her point of view or the horse’s point of view. We actually open the film with the horse’s point of view, with her stretching towards her and the horse is nature, so it was just this constant relationship between the camera and nature.

It took you a year to find this specific location, but were you familiar with this environment?

Yeah, I had an idea visually because I grew up in the main city, but my family is from another and we had to go through this mountain of thick greenery and it was humid and fog and very cold. I wanted that kind of nature I was so familiar with, but that specific mountain didn’t have the houses we needed, so we looked through the country for similar nature. We ended up finding this place actually quite early, but at the time, there was a big family living there and there was a big river, but there wasn’t any bridge, so we would have to cross the river with food and it was impossible to get equipment. Then at the end of the year, we’re like, “Let’s look back on the pictures we have” and we looked at this house again and [we thought] “If we rebuild it a little bit…,” so we called and the bridge had been remade and the family moved out. They were going to remodel [the house], so we could do what we want with it, so it was kind of luck and magic that it just worked out. And this family has conserved the forest around the house for many, many years for tourism, so it’s actually close to this house and that community.

Because the climate plays into the general feeling of the film so much, was the weather cooperating?

Nature was very, very smart and sometimes I didn’t realize it until I was in the editing room. Sometimes it would rain when we didn’t plan to, but I would go with it anyway and it would add another layer of something special. Sometimes when Clara got angry, the wind would get crazy behind her, but I was so concentrated on Wendy and the acting and the cinematography, plus I had a small screen, so some of it I didn’t notice and when we had to edit, it was like “Wow, the weather really is cooperating. She’s getting angry and all her feelings are sometimes so bottled up in her body, like her body’s too small somehow to express all these feelings, but then the nature behind her is expressing a lot, so that was magical.

From what I understand, there was a lot of latitude given to the cast once they were in the scene since you made the objectives of the scene clear, but weren’t too picky about the dialogue. Was there anything unexpected that you could embrace?

I don’t think they get that much freedom, actually. [laughs] Because I’ve heard them talking in Q & As and they were like, “No, no, it’s super-structured.” So we do rehearse a lot and I worked with an acting coach for part of the rehearsal process that had a very different technique than me and we were merging together, so it worked really nicely, but during the shoot, we would decide pretty much almost everything that was happening and they had freedom within certain patterns that we had set. The rule was if you get a feeling for something, go for it because you never know. It might work out great. But it was otherwise not that much improvisation during the shooting, except when [Clara’s] having a scene with the horse and the horse is the guiding character because we don’t know what’s going to happen. Even if everything’s decided, these are people and animals and new things arise all the time.

You’ve not only got the horse, but the bugs – when I talk to filmmakers, they’ll sometimes regret writing such unpredictable creatures into the shoot. What was it like for you?

It was difficult, but I don’t regret it. They’re so much part of the soul of the movie and I think even the bugs felt cooperative within what they could do, even if we couldn’t direct them. We just needed a lot of patience and of course you have to budget the time and the security for it because this horse was gigantic. The actors started to train with her and build a relationship with her a month before the shooting started so they could create a bond. It was special because [Wendy] decided she was never going to ride Yuca because she wanted the relationship to feel equal from the beginning, so it was great. It was hard sometimes. [laughs] The horse ran away one time, but she came back.

That’s actually in line with the character of Yuca, and from what I’ve heard, Flor María Vargas Chavez, who plays the devout mother is also religious in real life. Were you actually looking to cast based on similarities to the characters they were playing?

Not really. Except for the character of Clara that was particularly for somebody with knowledge of the body, all the other characters were open for actors and nonactors or as we call them “natural actors” in Spanish. And they’re all very, very different from their characters, even Flor, who plays Clara’s mom. She is really religious in real life, but she’s a very, very different person and none of the actors read the script before [filming], but I would tell them the whole script like scene for scene and put special focus on the things that would be sensitive for them. For some of the actors, there were sex scenes in there and for [Flor], it was the fact that it’s sending a specific message and religion was involved, so I hoped she was okay with that. She was so open-minded that she didn’t see any problems with it.

In general, do you want to keep things from your collaborators to see what they can achieve on their own? It was interesting to hear you never made suggestions to your composer about the music that were sonic, but they all came from imagery.

Yeah, because I like to write to music, so I had very specific scores I had written to, but I didn’t want to influence the composer because I love what he does. I wanted to see what he could bring without me imposing any sounds, though we did talk a lot about feelings and about nature — the four elements and he composed for fire, for water [etc]. He also asked me to give him 20 screenshots from the film before it was edited and then started composing for those. Of course, he’s read the script and then I had to come back and guess what songs were for what screenshots. Sometimes I was right. Sometimes he had thought a different way, but the fact that I was seeing this music for another scene gave a lot [of inspiration] and then we started merging [ideas].

We worked a lot with sketchbooks where he very quickly composed several things that would work for several scenes and we’d dig deeper into some of the score and see what is needed. He’s so, so wise and sometimes he had composed wonderful pieces for a scene, but ultimately when we listened to the sound design, we were like, “Do we really need the music here?” And because we wanted to focus on what she’s listening to and not imposing an extra score on top of it, we would remove it even if the music was beautiful, so it was a really nice collaboration between him and us and the sound designers.

It just came together so beautifully. What’s it like getting it out into the world?

It’s really nice that I’ve lived with the film for so many years and it’s not mine anymore. People can have their own interpretations and it keeps being rewritten in people’s minds in a way – it’s a process that’s eternal but without me. Now I can go and focus on another project.

“Clara Sola” is now open in Los Angeles at the Landmark Westwood and Vancouver at the Vancity Theatre. It will expand nationally in the weeks to come and a full schedule of cities and dates is here.