Señoritas director Lina Rodriguez at Film Society for Latinbeat. Photo: Julie Cunnah
Latinbeat is finally here, and Film Society of Lincoln Center had the pleasure of chatting with director Lina Rodriguez about her film Señoritas, which screens Sunday at 4:45pm followed by a Q&A and again on July 19. Here are her thoughts on her first feature film, casting her own mother, and Lena Dunham’s Girls:
First, how did Señoritas come about and how long has it been in the making?
It started about four years ago. In the beginning, we were developing a story that was a bit different. Then I went to Colombia and did some interviews and slowly I realized that the story that interested me was Alejandra’s, which is very inspired by my experience of growing up as a woman in Bogotá, where I was born and raised until I went to England when I was 18. I had this idea to explore codes and expectations that young women were/are going through in Bogotá, based on my experiences. We had trouble getting funding because my only work so far was experimental film consisting of rhythm and shadow. Finally our producer Brad Deane said if we don’t get money we should just make this film and fund it ourselves. He was doing a retrospective of John Cassavetes at the time—he’s a programmer—and I think that’s in the spirit of Cassavetes where you make your own film and find your own rhythm so we did.
How autobiographical is Señoritas? Is it a mix of research and actual experiences?
For sure. The mother in the film is actually my mother, and there are a lot of lines that blur. There’s no straight way to tell if it’s autobiographical or not, like Alejandra’s relationship with her mother is inspired partly by how I felt in my upbringing, but casting was a big part of the film. I was interested in working with a cast—inspiring them to be present in the moment, be themselves, and be open to relating to people as opposed to just performing the role—so I went through a lot of interviews. Then I did some exercises with them because I wanted to build relationships within the cast, on their own before we shot so I could put that within the framework of the scenes. I would make certain people meet with certain people so some would get closer to others, and the cast would interact and have their own experiences with each other that they would bring to the filming process, and I liked that element of surprise.
How detailed of a dialogued script did you actually have? How much did you have the actors improvise?
After the script I actually went into treatment, so I had gotten rid of the specific dialogue. Since I was working with some non-professional actors I didn’t want people to memorize the lines and feed them back to me. But I think it’s interesting when you look at my treatment and when you look at the finished film. The way the cast inhabited the dialogue was something that they came up with, but I would give them direction too. The relationships came into play here too, because each member of the cast would have a different relationship with another member, and so did I since I met with them separately. Alejandra and Veronica went to buy bikinis together for the scene in the pool, so that was a bonding experience. Getting to know the cast was useful because there were things about Alejandra that I got to know and I would use, but all for the purpose of the scene. I didn’t want them to memorize my words, I wanted them to feel free and in the moment.
There are scenes with little to no action; there is even a scene where the camera follows Alejandra walking in one continuous shot for almost eight minutes. Could you talk a little about your minimalist approach in this film?
It’s interesting because my cinematographer (Alex Coronado) is a friend who went to school with me in Canada and had actually never seen any of my films, but I offered to fly him out to Colombia and stay with my family during the production. While Alex and I were thinking about how to shoot the film, we had a combination of interests in letting people interact and seeing what happens. In the walking scene, I don’t think I knew that I wanted it to be one shot, but once we got there, someone suggested that we just do shorter shots of Alejandra walking so we could do jump cuts, but I said no; we can shoot one take and edit the jump cut. But then I thought, with a scene like that, you need to build a rhythm and anticipation. It’s not a narrative scene in the sense that this is a woman walking from point A to B. It’s about what it feels like to be in the street at night as a woman, and I think it required duration and atmosphere, and it needed to stay with you and kind of hypnotize you. After a while, you start thinking, “is someone behind her?” I wanted to define identity based on how you are with yourself in contrast with how you are with other people and how you move in space—body language. There are many ways to shoot body language but I just wanted to see how Alejandra moves, and how she moves is going to tell me a lot about how she is feeling. I was interested in keeping her a mystery, too, so we don’t really know what she’s feeling, but you get a sense of it.
A scene from Señoritas.
Was casting your mom the first choice for Alejandra’s mom?
No. When I was doing casting at my grandmother’s house, my parents were there greeting the actors because I had no one else to greet them. Women came to audition for the role of the mother. Right now, there’s a lot of excitement for film in Colombia so even a famous telenovela actress came to audition, which was incredible. It didn’t really occur to me to cast my mother, even though she has a bit of mischief to her. But Brad said, “I think your mom could do it,” and he was right. At first she was nervous, but after we learned to work with her and create a more natural environment, she forgot about the cameras and she was great. It was really important for me to find a ground that feeds in an honest way what you’re interested in. Of course great actors can pretend they are best friends but it was more important that the cast had genuine relationships in this film. My dad didn’t know that sound was recorded separately from the images, and my parents saw how boring filmmaking is with all the waiting. To share that with them was the perfect way to make a feature film to find my path as a director. As hard as it was, it was an amazing experience.
Did she make you drink juice before you went out too, just like in the movie?
No, she would make me eat. The scene was written with food. My mom would be shoving food in my mouth before I would go out so I wouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. Because of production limits, we decided on juice and it worked.
Is it also why it’s important that it is set in Colombia? The story could take place anywhere.
Yes. For me it was also a way to return to Colombia since I’m from there but live in Canada. Thinking about my upbringing, which was in Colombia.
I don’t want to compare it to the television show Girls because it is so different in many ways, but with the title and the exploration of living as a young single woman, there are some similarities. Have you seen Girls?
A few months ago, I was asked whether I saw it and I hadn't. I had no idea who Lena Dunham was. In Colombia, there are a lot of connotations with the term “señoritas” with beauty pageants and this notion that you have to behave like a señorita, so it wasn’t until after the movie premiered that we noticed the correlation with the titles Señoritas and Girls. And we also didn’t notice the similarities because we started development and shooting before the show even premiered. So I watched it and even though it’s interesting that her title is ours, I think it’s exciting to find that there’s a connection between people who can be going through similar experiences at the same time in different places. We have totally different styles and formats, with her working on TV and fitting into a more accepted form. I have found that some people have strong reactions about the form of the Señoritas, while with Girls, people have strong reactions for other reasons.
The film starts and ends with Alejandra in solitude. Does that say more about her independence or her loneliness?
Both, in some ways. I think it has to do with solitude, and when you’re with others you feel less lonely but then you play off each other. So I think the contrast of her alone time and social time shows it’s about who she is and the struggle of being in the world; trying to figure out who she is. It’s not a film where she goes through big drama; it’s a film about her every day life. It’s about being a woman, how you want to be, what people expect of you, and what you expect of yourself, abridged by these characters who built relationships with each other and were able to mold that into something that I thought was interesting.