When she was in high school, Carla Simón wanted to study journalism, but when she did a little course where she was shown films, she changed her mind. She studied at the School for Audiovisual Communications in Spain and went to California as an exchange student. There, she took scriptwriting classes and made short films. She credits the “American positive energy” as the driving force that made her choose to pursue a career in filmmaking. Soon after, she got a scholarship to study Film at the London Film School. At this year’s Berlinale, Tara Karajica talks with Carla about “Summer 1993”, her debut feature that screened in the Generation Competition at the festival, women in Film, shorts, and the Spanish film industry.
If I understood correctly, you participated in the European Short Pitch (ESP) with a short film?
Carla Simón: Yes, exactly. That was my graduation film!
Do you think short films are just a way to get your feature film financed and/or started? Or, it’s a genre in itself?
C.S.: I think it helps, that’s for sure. And, the good thing about them is that you learn a lot. Then, you get to make a feature film and it has nothing to do with making short films. But, still, for me, “Those Little Things,” because it was very long and very difficult to distribute and show at festivals, made me think a lot about telling a longer story. It was good practice. So, basically, you learn. And also, it is about my family. My three short films are all kind of leading to “Summer 1993”. Then, I made a documentary about young people born with HIV and another short film about two kids facing the death of their grandma by themselves. This was also when I thought I should talk about my story.
Is “Summer 1993” also completely autobiographical? Why did you choose to tell your story?
C.S.: Yes, it is my story. So, somehow, it was when I made these short films that I realized that I was very interested in talking about kids facing death. And, because of my story I could maybe explain how I felt and make people think about the fact that kids can understand death better than adults. Also, because I was in London and we were surrounded by people from all over the world, it somehow made me think about what makes one particular. And, you miss your place and your family and it was a place where I gave a lot of value to my story.
How much fiction is there?
C.S.: My story is the same as Frida’s. My mom died when I was six and my dad had died a long time before that. I moved from Barcelona to a small village with my aunt, my uncle and my cousin. For the first draft of the script, I just put some memories together. It didn’t have any structure. And then, I started inventing some things and I also listened a lot to my family who explained things and the things I had written took shape and gave the film a form. Right now, because I’ve been with the script so long, I kind of mix them and I don’t know what I’ve invented, what is true and what I remember anymore. When you’re a kid and something like that happens to you, memories are very strange; you don’t remember, you know…I had to do an exercise in remembering feelings and things that happened.
Was it painful for you to write the script?
C.S.: No. It was, actually, very interesting – the fact that I looked at the story for the very first time from the other characters’ point of view. So, I had never thought about what my new parents were thinking or feeling at this moment. I realized that they already had a child, and then suddenly they had a new child and they had to love it as their own. And, it’s also a difficult feeling for the little girl, my cousin – the normal thing is that when you have sister, she is younger, not older. Basically, the most painful thing for me was when I realized I had no memories of my mom. I was trying to find a way to put her presence through her absence in the film, but I didn’t remember her. Then, I took some of her letters that I had and I made a short film about these letters and went to the places where she had written them. Because I wanted to fix this feeling, I did this other project on the side.
Was it also kind of therapeutic?
C.S.: Yes! I think the short was for sure! Actually, we didn’t do anything with the short because it was just for me, you know. But, for the film, when you write it, you have to think about the audience as well and what you want to tell them. So, it’s not only therapy. It’s a very expensive therapy!
How much of you is there in Frida?
C.S.: It’s not completely me. I think she’s meaner than I was! For example, I never hid my sister in the woods. Maybe I wanted to but I didn’t. In terms of this feeling she kind of has – she is very happy, then she’s very sad, then she gets angry – I had this as well, you know. So, for me, it was also important to say that a kid is a kid even if something like that happens to him/her. Kids play, and they can be happy even if it’s in the middle of a dramatic situation.
In the end, she cries, she sort of lets go and I think she understands everything and that’s very painful for us, for the audience…
C.S.: For me, it was based on when my new mom told me about this moment. We were talking and she said: “There was this day when you were jumping on the bed and suddenly you started crying and I never saw you cry that way” and I was like: “Oh my God! This has to be the end of the film!” And then, during the shooting, we shot the scene and she never cried. So, I was looking at the footage and I thought: “It may be interesting…” But, my producers said: “No, we really need to shoot it again” and we shot it again and we tried both during the editing. When we put the one where she doesn’t cry, it was not a happy ending, it made you feel a lot of tension. It’s strange because she cries, but at the same time it’s a happy ending…
Did your parents see the film?
What was their reaction?
C.S.: The thing is, they’ve been so involved in all, because we shot where I grew up…
It was your house?
C.S.: It’s not my house; it’s my parents’ friends’ house. So, I used to play there when I was a kid. And, they came to the shooting. My mom read the script. My dad is also a carpenter, so we used his furniture in the film. My sister is acting in the film – she’s the one who is the young aunt – and my brother made the music for the film. So, we’re all in there somehow. I never sat down with them and asked them: “What do you think about the film?” But, I think that they are happy, because it was important for me not to judge the characters, see that they are human beings and that they are trying to do it the best they can.
One thing that I think is crude, is that we give points to a film if it’s by a woman.
Can you talk about the shooting process? How was it to work with the children?
C.S.: I was looking for girls who would be like the characters. So, it was a very intuitive casting. It wasn’t about finding someone physically similar to the real people but, for example, it was important for Frida to be from a city, and maybe not to have a conventional family. And then, for the little one, someone who can be the essence of innocence. And, the same with adults. It was important for me to connect somehow to my parents, in the way of talking or in their personality. We did a very, very long casting and then we rehearsed a lot – not the scenes of the film, but we tried to kind of create shared memories. And, we would spend a lot of time together and just do normal things like activities or improvisation work, where I would just give them some premises and then we would spend two weeks on location rehearsing certain scenes. It was more for me to see how I could take the things I needed from them. But, the girls didn’t need to rehearse much. They didn’t know all the time what they were doing. And also, they never read the script, so I would explain it to them and if there was something important that they had to say, I would just tell them before or during the take. And, the adults, the same; they read the script and read the scene a couple of times before starting the shooting, but they didn’t memorize everything. I wanted to give them some freedom, you know. And, because we had created the characters, it was easier for them to react as the characters.
It’s very authentic and very raw. It’s like they don’t act at all, as if it came from within… That makes it even worse for us who are watching the film… Did the actors talk to your parents?
C.S.: Yes. Bruna [Cusí] and David [Verdaguer] met my parents and we didn’t talk that much about the characters, so I just let them talk to them. And, Bruna, for example, talked a lot to my mom. We also did some work just between them like the backstory. I also think it helps a lot that they have the girls. It’s very difficult for an adult to step aside and instead of being in control of themselves just take care of the kid and act according to him/her, so they had to be very generous.
What do you think of the Spanish film industry right now? Would you agree with the statement that it’s having a resurgence, especially Catalan Cinema?
C.S.: Yes… I think we’re doing very interesting things and there are a lot of young people doing so many cool things with no money. The problem is still that the funding system works in a weird way and it’s not always the best for little films like this one. And, they award big films that already have a distributor. So, I don’t know how it will go because we don’t have a government that is pro-cinema. The other day, the President said he hadn’t gone to the cinema for a whole year… So, it’s very bad…
And, what do you think of the conversation about women in the film industry? How is it in Spain and how do you see yourself within it?
C.S.: It’s always a difficult question because I didn’t notice any difference based on the fact that I am a woman. But, one thing that I think is crude, is that we give points to a film if it’s by a woman. I don’t think we will need this forever, only for a period of time, so that there are more women making films. It also affects having more actresses working and there is this age where actresses stop working. We really need women explaining their stories and portraying their characters, because it’s not equal. There has to be a way that gives them more opportunities. I think it is also very important that the people who choose which projects are being made are women.
What are your next projects?
C.S.: I don’t know yet because we have just finished this one! But, I have a very big family, so I am sure I will have a lot of stories to tell!
This interview was conducted at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.