SXSW 2023 Interview: Tomas Gomez Bustillo on the Divine Comedy of “Chronicles of a Wandering Saint”

“My favorite kind of film experiences are when you watch the film once and you enjoy it in one way, then you could re-watch it and then discover all these new layers,” Tomas Gomez Bustillo tells me, a day before the premiere of his debut feature “Chronicles of a Wandering Saint” is about to give audiences that same sensation. “So we wanted to set up enough things throughout the film that maybe you could go watch it again and discover a little puzzle box that you keep uncovering and putting little new puzzle pieces together and the picture changes every time.”

Worth rewatching for reasons besides Easter eggs, Bustillo’s crafty, comic consideration of a higher power and the afterlife begins in the most down-to-earth way possible, honing in on Rita (Monica Villa), a steward of the Lord with no official title at the church where she mops floors and dusts off the pews in between Sunday services, but devoted to a cause bigger than herself, or at least so she thinks. With Beba, a silver-haired queen bee and her friends around always looking to show her up, Rita may give glory to God, but starts wanting at least a little more for herself, believing she may have uncovered something she’ll be celebrated for upon coming across a statue that even her parish’s priest can’t believe exists, though this divine intervention is less a sign from up above than some meticulous internet searches.

One would be wise not to look up much more themselves about what happens next in “Chronicles of a Wandering Saint,” but cinephiles are bound to experience their own little slice of heaven as Rita approaches hers, with Bustillos using the supernatural qualities afforded by the medium to continually reenvision the community around Rita and for her to see them in a new light as well as vice versa as she contemplates what meaning she has to them. Beautifully shot with a wily sense of humor, the film evokes transcendence regardless of what’s responsible and builds upon work Bustillos has done in shorts such as “Museum of Fleeting Wonders” where he invited people who experienced uncanny events to get in touch so he could recreate them. As his first feature debuted in Austin, the director generously spoke about how he didn’t want to lose that same participatory spirit as he moved to a larger canvas, incorporating those that live in the town where the film is set into the making of it and how it yielded such a heartfelt production that effortlessly touches the profound.

I’ve heard you were actually a Catholic missionary in your youth. How do you end up as a filmmaker?

I’m from Argentina and I was raised very Catholic. Over the years as I started grow up and I went to undergrad and grad school, I started to have my own thoughts and feelings about spirituality and the afterlife and everything else, so I became agnostic But the way that I found filmmaking really was more of a more by chance — through music. When I studied political science in my undergrad, I would just sit down at a piano and play my own music, and the music was terrible, but when I was about to share it with friends and family, I would upload a blank video to YouTube, and I [would think], this is really boring. I should do something, so I asked a friend of mine for his camera. I borrowed it and made my first short film and the whole thing was completely out of focus, but I was hooked.

Eventually I just dropped the music altogether and started making my own shorts, so I finished my undergrad in political science, but I was [that] kid in the back seat who was quietly writing scripts and reading books about filmmaking and at some point I had a wake up call from a friend who just said, “Hey, I think this is your passion. You should actually consider pursuing this and for the first time, I actually [did] because it always felt like a hobby. Where I come from and my social group, it didn’t feel like it was really a possibility and after that, I didn’t look back. I just fell in love with it.

When you say you’re agnostic now, it seems like you still have this interest in the supernatural or spiritual. How does it inform your work?

Honestly, I’m very respectful what other people believe because I think everybody has their own path to what they need to find in life and truth. All I can speak for is myself and my own journey has been that I am completely uncertain about anything regarding the afterlife and even life itself. All I know is that I don’t know anything, so that’s why what happens in the film could actually be the truth or we turn into an animatrix once we die or we could die and then nothing happens at all. I don’t know, but the most important thing for me was to explore the question rather than to be obsessed over the answer.

Is it true this all started with a single image?

It did start with a single image – that image of a ghost shining, full of light, in a country side and [what] helped unpack it was therapy because I feel very often as an artist you want to impress other people and you do so much extra work to just come off as a very serious person who knows everything and has it together and I felt like it would be so much more fun and free if I could just release myself from that and just explore a character who maybe has the same obsession, portraying themselves as serious and saintly [when there is so much unknown]. That’s where it started taking me in that direction, along with my upbringing and this world that I knew very well.

How I found out about your Catholic missionary work was because I understand that’s how you knew of this location. What was it like to return?

I became more agnostic maybe towards like 23, so during [my early twenties], I would visit this small town about an hour-and-a-half away from Buenos Aires as a missionary twice a year for about 10 days each time. The magical thing about this town is that I always refer to it as Argentina’s Macondo, like [the setting in] Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude” because it’s isolated from the rest of the surrounding areas by fields and the only way you can get there is a single dirt road that’s a half-an-hour long, so you really have to want to go there. You don’t just run into this town and what it creates is this feeling that this town is suspended in time. The buildings have been the same maybe for a hundred years and the people even feel like they have similar traditions and lifestyles to what they had, so when I started going there, I immediately became enamored and enchanted. I knew it had something special, so after I stopped being a missionary, I shot scenes for my first short film there and I just kept wanting to come back because it had this strange magic that it was this little bubble of humanity — everything was represented there, but in a small size.

How did you find your actors?

The casting process was very interesting. For the protagonist, Monica [Villa] is a very well-known actress in Argentina and she’s been in incredible films by all of the best Argentinean filmmakers, so she was always our dream scenario and fortunately our [cinematographer] Pablo is a friend of Monica’s son, so we had to contact him, I [ended up] giving her a call and pitched the story to her over the phone and after I sent the script, she read it and she said, “Okay, I’m interested. Let’s talk.” Which was the best thing that I could have imagined. She was the person that I was writing for, especially in the last drafts, so Monica was that special case because we were trying to find our star.

A lot of the options for the rest of the team were presented by our very talented casting directors Mariana Sanguinetti and Iair Said, who were both amazing and because it was in the middle of COVID, we couldn’t do regular work [where] I could feel the energy in the room. We had to do a lot of things with self-tapes, so they helped [make] that process more organic and we came across all these different options. For Angel, for example, the angel in the train station who gives her a little bit of a lowdown of what’s gonna happen next, it was very hard to find this character because you need to feel grounded in both this world and maybe the next and [the actor] had to have a very special charisma. [Nahiel Correa Dornell] came from the musical world and he’s actually a bandonion player, which is like accordion, so he doesn’t have [a traditional] acting background, but our casting directors thought outside the box. We also went to [more] established actors like the other angel, Dahyana Turkie or Horacio Marassi, an incredible actor who plays Norberto, and then the last one that I could mention is the guy who plays the devil, one of my best friends and he and I have worked on so many things together, I always try to find a role for him, so when I wrote this character, I had him in mind and of course, he loved it.

It’s funny to hear your cinematographer Pablo helped you connect with Monica because he ends up lighting her so well. How did you go about figuring out the look?

Everything started from tone, and we knew that this was not a fantasy film, it was a magical realism film, so then everything that we built around the cinematography, we needed to make sure that we grounded the way that we lit everything. The fantastic elements that do play into the story later on always feel like they belong to our world and not a separate one and that meant that we would take a more observational point of view with the camera placement and how it worked with the light. You’ll notice maybe at night, we don’t have your traditional blue lighting that filters in through the window or when she’s walking outside, there’s not this intense blue light that you tend to see in films, but you can see everything. You can’t see everything in real life and we wanted to embrace that because light and darkness are motifs also in the film, so that when light does pop in, it comes in with an intention.

When I suspect magic actually happens in this place that you can’t explain while you’re shooting, was there anything unexpected that you could embrace?

When you film, you realize you either fight with reality or you make friends with it because it is constantly difficult. For example, the cemetery scene in the script was written [where] it was pouring rain because the night before there had been a thunderstorm and I wanted the rain to cleanse the character, marking a transition into the next phase of the film. So I was adamant, “I have to have the rain,” and we had the local fire [department] stand by, ready to hose everything down to make it wet and then shoot water up into the sky and make it look like it was raining. But we were setting up that day, and the sun was just filtering through the leaves [and I thought] it just looks fake. And I had a really great teacher at film school who said, “The movie talks to you. Your job as a director is to not talk over it.” And I could hear him speaking, over my shoulder, saying “This is the moment where I either run from what was actually in front of me or I embrace it, so I realized, “What other natural element is happening here? There’s the wind, right?” And that day was very windy. So we pulled back on the rain and heightened the wind from sound design point of view and we even added some dust particles and used the wind as a way to mark the transition that the storm had passed and that the movie was shifting into a new direction. That’s one of those moments where you face a challenge and hopefully something comes out of it, and it always does.

I wouldn’t want to ask what’s real and what’s VFX since it’s so seamlessly done, but I sense you’d want to do as much practically as you could.

My tendency when trying to decipher whether I go for practical or for digital is always to favor what’s going to look the most organic to the audience member, so I don’t initially have a preconception about which [approach] would be the best. It needs to feel like all this magic is happening in this world, not in a separate one, so with with the resources that we had, it was a combination. We tried to do as many things as practically as possible, but for example, getting a moth to fly around in the light of the night on cue is pretty hard in real life — and we did try to get a moth wrangler, but the moth fell through. He didn’t want to show up to set. [laughs] So that was digital, but the light itself, flickering, that was us, timing a light bulb to the script being read on location and that was a very fun scene. I’m sure a lot of the crew was looking around like, “This is the strangest thing we’ve ever done.” But I felt like that was good because the light would spill over the surrounding buildings and it would give it an authenticity that you can’t really [fake].

If you’ve got the fire department around and that kind of control over such a small place, is everybody all in on the production?

It’s beautiful. The way people welcome us in this town is absolutely part of the spirit of the film and they not only tolerated a production there, they were part of it. They were there helping us with their locations, opening up the doors for their homes, being okay with us repainting many other homes and taking furniture from one house to another for the shoot. This is all brand new for a small rural town in Argentina, so for them to be this open speaks to how amazing the people in this town are. They’re so friendly and as soon as we told them that we wanted to make a movie, they were [asking], “How can we help?” They were extras in the movie. For example, the photo of Rita’s mother that’s on her bedside table was Elva, our location manager who lived in the town, and she helped us so much that she became a character in the film. And we had a lot of the extras in the chapel – people who were showing up just [because] they wanted to help and be a part of it and part of the art crew was local kids who wanted to come help out and be on a film set. We shot there for four weeks, but at the end, we felt like we were a part of this town.

That seems to radiate off the screen. What’s it like getting this to the finish line and starting to get out in the world?

Honestly, I’m confused and awestruck — all these contradictory emotions at the same time. Right now I’m nervous because I’ve shown it to mostly friends and family to this point, and everybody is usually supportive because they’re friends and family, but I’m excited to see how the South By audience and the overall public reacts to the film. I just want them to enjoy it. I really did make a film that I wanted it to be playful [that people] to just come out [of] with that happy feeling you get maybe after watching a Miyazaki film. If we could achieve just a little bit of that, I would feel like that’s the best possible start to my career I could ever ask for.

“Chronicles of a Wandering Saint” will screen at SXSW on March 14th at 5:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar B and March 16th at 11 am at the Alamo Lamar C.

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