Science-fiction for Lovers
In the film, the fear of alien invasion serves as the looming backdrop to four characters stuck in a Madrid apartment, growing ever mistrustful towards one another's intentions. In true rom-com fashion, the two protagonists, Julia (Michelle Jenner) and Julio (2011 Fantastic Fest's Best Actor Julián Villagrán), must keep their possible one-night stand a secret from Julia's boyfriend, while they navigate the ramblings of her creepy next door neighbor.
"When you put a title like this on a movie like this, you play a risky game. As an audience member, I think there’s nothing more exciting than finding a movie that defies its own shape. "
As you might imagine, releasing a romantic comedy at the otherwise gore-heavy genre festival can definitely raise a few eyebrows. But according to the Spanish director, the element of surprise is an important part of the movie-going experience, and something he plans to include in all of his upcoming films.
While he won't make it to Texas for the wide release of Extraterrestrial in Austin at the Alamo South Lamar, Vigalondo will be here in September for Fantastic Fest 2012. He is one of the 26 directors contributing to the themed horror project, The ABCs of Death, which assigns directors a short film topic based on a different letter of the alphabet.
CultureMap chatted with the energetic director over the phone from Madrid to ask him a few questions about Extraterrestrial and his burning passion for Austin.
CultureMap: How was your experience coming to Austin for the Fantastic Fest premiere last year? Are you coming back for the next screening as well?
Nacho Vigalondo: My first time coming to Austin was five or six years ago during the U.S. premiere of Timecrimes. Ever since then, I have come to Fantastic Fest every year because I love that week. Even if they don’t want to screen my next film, I will likely still come to attend the festival anyway. It’s about the people, the sense of love you can feel in the place.
Honestly, it’s the best week of my year when I go there, like the rest of my life is a shadow. Something so deeply related to what I feel that I experience there.
I have to admit, I was surprised to find that Extraterrestrial is not as much a science-fiction movie as it is a stuck-with-you romantic comedy. This came as a big surprise to a lot of fans of Time Crimes as well. Was that an intentional way to throw off your fans, or was it a fun departure from what you’d already done before?
I try to say all the time that every movie, especially this one, has a few genres. It’s not what you commonly understand science fiction to be; but from my point of view, genres can and should be bent. And the way you tell the story changes how we understand the same plot. It’s the context, not the rules, of the movie that determine the genre.
So, in Extraterrestrial, the science fiction elements are the background that allow the movie to be understood differently. Sci-fi pushes the rom-com elements to a new limit. The big spaceship in the background is less important than believing your own eyes and the people around you.
With its examination of regular earthlings dealing with an alien invasion, the film resembles other alien/monster movies like M. Knight Shyamalan’s Signs or J. J. Abrams’s Cloverfield, which focus on the human reactions to the invasion. Who were your influences while you were writing and developing the film?
My biggest influence while I was writing this movie was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original one directed by Don Siegel. It’s one of my favorite films by one of my favorite filmmakers — not just of sci-fi, but of all movies. I wanted the characters to already know the rules of that film and be able to use that to feed their fear and distrust. Because that’s what humans do.
The UFO in the film serves as a metaphor more than anything else in the film: a backdrop to force the characters to stay inside. Did you ever think during the writing or development of the movie to show what or who was inside?
No. I am much more interested in the idea of wondering if your neighbors are actually aliens. That was the intention the entire time.
Since your aliens never appear in the film, what does the movie’s title imply? Who or what is “extraterrestrial,” if it's not them?
When you put a title like this on a movie like this, you play a risky game. As an audience member, I think there’s nothing more exciting than finding a movie that defies its own shape. One of my favorite experiences as an audience member was in the 90s with Fight Club. In the theater, no one knew what was going to happen in this film and nobody thought it would be more than a street fighting film. So I was prepared for an action film, and what I found was so different; it was like another picture entirely.
That is something that I want to give to an audience: an adventure for them to go on. I know there are some people who want to know exactly what they are in for. But I wanted to change up their expectations. And I know some people got mad at me, they talked about the misrepresentation was not right for me to do. So I suppose I’ll have to reconsider that, which is tough considering my contradictory nature.
"Part of why I wanted to make Extraterrestrial was to take a break from that and experiment more with a character-driven drama structure that uses sci-fi in the background. "
You have the ability now to reach a new audience with this wide American release. Who do you hope sees this movie this time around?
Well, that's hard. When you make an English subtitled film, you have a very specific market. It can be difficult to jump the barrier of language. And then when it’s a science fiction film, it can be even harder. So I’m not obsessed with reaching a specific audience; I just want to put together different audiences and see how they react to it.
For your next major project, will you be heading back into sci-fi, or will you be attempting a whole new genre again?
I've been working on a new film for the last four years that is going to start shooting in October. It’s working title is called Windows, and it’s going back to the plot-driven elements of Timecrimes. It’s definitely a thriller with a labyrinthian structure.
Part of why I wanted to make Extraterrestrial was to take a break from that and experiment more with a character-driven drama structure that uses sci-fi in the background. But now I’m really getting back in to the complicated twists of a really plot driven film.
Is this title a misdirection also?
You know, you name a movie something like Windows and you’re going to get a million jokes about Bill Gates. So it’s just a working title. But it’s actually about a literal window. Like that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which is another one of my favorite movies of all time.
But before all of this, we'll see you back at Fantastic Fest for The ABCs of Death, correct? Which letter did you get?
Yes, I will be in Austin again for The ABCs of Death, which is very exciting. I can’t tell you which letter it is, but I will say that it was a really big responsibility. You’ll see what I mean pretty soon.
Any plans to stay in Austin permanently?
You know, I do really love Austin. So much that I’d love to have a house there in the next four to five years. It’s amazing just walking down the street there, all the people who smile at you. And all of the beautiful women! And they all have awesome tattoos! I want more of that in my life. Just to walk down the street and see all the awesome smiling girls with tattoos. It's amazing.