Neus Ballús is a film director and scriptwriter. Her first film “The Plague” (2013) premiered in the Forum section of the Berlinale and was nominated for the European Film Awards, the LUX Prize and the Goya Awards, in addition to receiving over twenty international awards. Her second feature, “Staff Only” (2019), starring Sergi López, had its world premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale and was screened at more than thirty festivals and was released in over a hundred cinemas throughout Spain and France.
Tara Karajica talks to Neus Ballús about her latest film, “The Odd-Job Men,” that had its world premiere at this year’s Locarno Film Festival and is now screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Neus Ballús: I wasn’t actually planning to become a filmmaker. I’m not the typical girl who has always dreamt of making films. I just studied Audiovisual Communication in Barcelona because I was interested in writing and taking pictures; I was interested in, let’s say, different ways of communicating. I thought that maybe learning about filmmaking could also give me another way to talk about the issues I was interested in. So, I realized that I had been making short films because I needed to tell some stories, but it was not something that I had planned, actually.
How did The Odd-Job Men come about?
N.B.: My stepfather’s stories were the starting point of the film. He is a plumber and he has lived with me since I was twelve and when we would be at home, he would always come with plenty of stories about when he went to customers’ houses and situations that were actually very funny and revealing about how we all relate to each other. So, I thought it was a very simple situation that we have all experienced before, but it contained a potential for comedy and drama that could be interesting for a film.
In the film, you tackle diversity on many levels between these three men, but more importantly, the prejudices that arise when they interact, their capacity to overcome their first impressions and to be open to the other enough to accept them as a unique human being. Can you expand on that?
N.B.: One of the main subjects of the film came together with the idea of these weird situations when two people that don’t know each other are actually forced to relate. And so, these three plumbers are forced to relate to one another because one is going to retire and the other one is taking his place. So, Valero and Moha are forced to work together. And then, it’s the same when they go to customers’ places – they are forced to adapt to the situation and to the rules of each house. It was very clear to me that the first impressions we get when we see people is something we have to talk about. It was especially interesting for me to talk about how these prejudices and diversity are managed in the context of workers because I think that in the cultural, intellectual landscape, we have been doing this less than in the working class. And, I think they’re farther ahead than we are in the idea of relating to each other and having to work together and live together. I thought we had to listen to these workers because we as society could learn something about how to overcome these prejudices.
On the surface, the humor in the film revolves around apparently light-hearted situations, but underneath it is about being able to understand one another, especially in the present times. Can you delve into that?
N.B.: When I started the film, I had finished my first film and had written my second, which was a fiction, and both were quite dense and they delved deep into the drama of prejudices and economic issues so, as a filmmaker, I spent a lot of time on this subject and context. I spent six years making The Odd-Job Men, so I wanted to make sure that I had fun during the process. But I was also sure that I wanted to tackle certain important issues and that there be another level of understanding the film, too. So, the idea of having fun while making the film – while preparing it, writing it, working with the plumbers – was essential to me not only a filmmaker, but also as a person who has been working on the process for such a long time. It was like: “Okay, let’s have fun and let’s learn something from this!” And somehow, it will come out in the film – this atmosphere that we have been trying to create. I think that nowadays, it’s actually good that we can talk about these very deep, problematic issues we have in our society and, at the same time, be able to laugh at how stupid we can be as humans.
The film is like a documentary that is structured like fiction. Can you talk about this choice?
N.B.: I wouldn’t know how to define it because I have always been working between documentary and fiction. So, in the process of making it, I use both methodologies at the same time, which means I do research as if I were doing a documentary; I find my characters as if it were a documentary. Then, I do a huge preparation with the actors as if I wanted to make them become actors, even if they are playing a version of themselves. And then, during the shoot, I try to reproduce through fiction the conditions of the reality they know, which means we are shooting chronologically. When they come to the shoot, they don’t know what they’re going to find, what kind of problem they’re going to find in the installations, who they’re going to shoot with, what the issue with the customers is. So, they are not acting, they are actually improvising through the situations that I’m proposing them. And then, in the editing, it’s again going back to documentary because I try not to cut a lot in order to preserve this feeling of real things happening. It’s really mixing both methodologies depending on the moment of the process.
How did you cast the plumbers? How did you find them?
N.B.: Casting is one of the most important parts, not only because I need to find them and prepare them, but because the film is written for them. It’s based on their real stories and personalities that I write one particular story. So, it’s not only like a fiction film with non-actors, but the film is created so that they can actually shine as real people. So, what I do is, I do the classical street casting; I go to the places where I think I can find people. And, in this case, I attended a huge amount of electricity and plumbing classes at a school. I was there with my camera saying: “I want to make a film. I’m just documenting myself.” I just made observations on people and I saw what kind of people I like. I tried to talk to them afterwards. So, I met more than a thousand plumbers this way. During the second round, I met them at the same school, but they came specifically to meet me, and I had a camera and they had a short interview. But I also tried some stuff with smaller improvisations to see how naturally they were able to be in front of the camera and just play, have fun in the situation and enjoy it. I found the three of them this way. So, it was after finding them that we spent almost two years meeting every week in a place where we did some improvisations. And, we actually tested them in all the situations that I could imagine, testing all the kinds of emotions that they could actually show in front of the camera in a natural way. The ones that couldn’t be done, we trained them to be freer and not to be scared to play one way or the other. At the same time, I was writing the script, based on these situations and on the things I saw that they could actually show – that’s basically how I prepared them. And then, at some point, I started doing the same with the customers, but they never met one another until the moment of the shoot, of course, because it was important for me that they never saw each other before.
What is your take on the situation of women in film today? How is it in documentary? And, how is it in Spain and Catalonia?
N.B.: In Catalonia, especially, we are having a nice wave of women directors who are making a lot of very interesting films that are playing at festivals and winning prizes. But when we go back to the data of how many films are being directed, produced or written by women, we are always in the same 15-20% -30% at the most – so we still have a lot of problems to get the space to tell our stories. And, of course, when I was making short films, I didn’t have this feeling of not seeing this imbalance. But the more I go into films that need budget, the worse the situation is. Now, I think it’s not only about women being able to tell our stories, but it’s also about including diversity in this discussion.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and favorite film by a female filmmaker?
N.B.: I really don’t have many. There are some filmmakers that I admire a lot. I don’t know why, but today I have been thinking about Agnès Varda. Of course, you cannot think of women filmmakers without thinking of her! And, especially, because she had this free way of going from documentary to fiction. She was a visionary – how she saw reality in such a powerful way. I really adore everything she did. So, when I miss my motivation or I’m down because I don’t have the energy to get projects done, I tend to think about this woman who has done it before me.
What are your next projects? What are you working on next?
N.B.: I really don’t know! I’m trying to write some ideas. There are some issues and subjects I would like to explore with real characters or as a fiction; it’s very different process, so I’m trying to figure out my next step. So, who knows?
Photo credits: Renaud Montfourny.
This interview was conducted virtually at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.