Nothing in Barbet Schroeder’s recent Hollywood productions will prepare audiences for his startling new Colombian film, Our Lady of the Assassins (La Virgen de los Sicarios). Combine the laconic humor of Barfly, Schroeder’s collaboration with Charles Bukowski, with the unexpected social satire of Reversal of Fortune, his study of the von Bulow affair, and you may begin to get a sense of the wildly exciting voice of this new work. Set amid the gangs of teenage snipers roaming the streets of Medellín, Assassins evokes Hitchcock in the purest sense: droll, perverse, unnerving. The classically flawed hero is a writer named Fernando Vallejo, which not coincidentally is also the name of the writer who adapted his own novel in collaboration with Schroeder. Vallejo (Germán Jaramillo) returns to the city of his childhood, installs himself in an apartment as barren as his soul, and quickly acquires a 16-year-old, gun-toting, live-in boyfriend. Alexis is loyal to a fault, willing to pull his guns on anyone he feels is disrespectful of his keeper: a drum-playing neighbor, a radio-blaring cabbie, a rude waitress, and most brutally, men riding a crowded train. Vallejo, a voyeur as only a writer can be, gets off on his passive connection to these reckless, violent acts. Women appear only rarely in this world, as widows, or in the guise of the Virgin herself, to whom the young assassins pray after making a hit.
Shot on a compressed schedule using high-definition video, Assassins initially seems a richly constructed character study, punctuated by black humor and random, shocking bursts of violence. But like all great tragedies, a seemingly innocuous act pivots the narrative toward a devastating finale. This is one of those rare films in which every element serves the story to perfection, including Schroeder’s daring decision to cast local teen Anderson Ballesteros as Alexis. Like many other members of Schroeder’s cast, Ballesteros had no previous experience or training in acting; his only preparations for his debut role were stints in assault and robbery. On a break from post-production on his most recent film, Schroeder met with me to discuss, quite passionately, his return to his childhood country of Colombia to make the film, and the controversies that ensued.
Ken Foster First, I want to tell you I’ve seen the movie four times now.
Barbet Schroeder No!
KF I saw it twice in Cuba, at the film festival there.
BS Oh, you have to tell me! That was my dream, to see the movie with the Cuban public.
KF The Cuban audiences were so vocal in their responses, particularly during the scene when Alexis squirts the guaro from his mouth into Fernando’s.
BS They didn’t like it?
KF You could hear gasps, but at the same time there was this burst of applause from people scattered throughout the theater.
BS Oh, I wish I’d been there. I know it’s a very strong scene for some people. It’s a very insidious movie. There’s much less violence, technically, than in an American movie, but it’s more disturbing because somehow you feel it’s true. The sex is just a kiss, or squirting a drink from one mouth to another’s, but yes, it’s much more of a disturbing movie than it appears at first sight.
KF How did you come across the novel?
BS I’ve been following what’s happening in Colombia because it’s the country of my childhood. So when a Colombian friend of mine said, “There’s a writer, Fernando Vallejo, who you might enjoy,” I started reading him and discovered a major, major writer in the Spanish language, somebody who spoke to me like a half-brother. Same experience I had with Bukowski. Vallejo’s most important work is his six-volume autobiography, El Río del Tiempo (The river of time); it’s not really an autobiography, it’s very invented, very creative. It’s not translated into many languages at the moment, but it will be, it’s too major of a work not to be.
KF Our Lady of the Assassins is his first book to be translated into English. Most people here have had no idea who he is, until now.
BS No, because he never did anything to promote himself. He’s been living in an apartment in Mexico, but in his head, he was always in Medellín—always. Everything he writes is about Medellín. He is to Colombia what Thomas Bernhard is to Austria: a great writer who has a love-hate relationship with his country.
KF Of all his books, then, how did you choose this one?
BS I wanted to do an original screenplay with him, like I did with Bukowski for Barfly. I didn’t think this one would translate to the screen without major changes, especially because of the number of deaths. To have 18 people killed is just plain impossible in a movie—anyway, for me it seemed impossible. When you kill somebody in the movies, it matters, whereas in literature it can be allegorical.
KF So then how did you go about—
BS We fought for some time about the number of deaths; finally we reached an agreement and we went on with the project. You’re not doing an adaptation—you’re revisiting the story from another angle, with the writer. Some scenes in the movie are not in his book, they are things that came out of him at that moment. It’s great to work with someone who is so good with dialogue. It’s very exciting to be in the midst of a creative flow, rather than simply adapting a book to the screen. The movie became a dialogue rather than a monologue. It’s from the boy’s point of view, about his relationship with this crazy older writer—an adult who he can connect and laugh with easily. Because the writer is a rebel, he speaks against the world as an adolescent would. And Fernando, the writer, who is coming back to his birthplace after 30 years, connects with that young boy because he’s learning from him—about the new realities of Medellín and the vernacular now spoken in the town of his childhood.
KF The character’s name, Fernando, is the same as the author’s. And yet the film’s not necessarily autobiographical.
BS Not completely. You find that in all the works of Fernando Vallejo. Part of his obsession is writing literature in the first person, talking only about a character that he knows and what this character feels. The reader cannot go into the thoughts of another character. So it’s very real and at the same time, it has a hallucinatory quality. And that’s what I tried to reproduce in the movie—to have real aspects of the town, but also to give a sense of a reality that became mad. Those are Vallejo’s words, “a reality that became mad,” and that’s the hallucination. That’s why I didn’t make a one hundred percent realist documentary movie, even though I used actual street kids in parts.
KF One scene in particular did that for me, when Deadboy appears out of nowhere, and you wonder if he ever existed at all.
BS Right, exactly.
KF What grabbed me was the writer’s voyeuristic nature. He didn’t participate in the world around him, and I thought, That’s a writer.
BS Yeah, I created that, it shows a writer from the inside. You never see him writing because that would be obscene, and for the same reason, you don’t see him making love. It’s a cliché to see writers write. I did the same thing with Bukowski in Barfly. The film was about his life. With Our Lady of the Assassins, you have a novelist. Bukowski’s is the life of a poet, one that was closer to lived life.
KF Fernando intellectualizes everything. And he always seems to be contradicting himself.
BS Mmm hmm. With great delight. (laughter)
KF Our introduction to these young assassins for hire was made by the very person who introduced the real Vallejo to the real Alexis.
BS The first person I went to in Medellín when I was about to cast was the person who introduced the real boy to the real writer a few years before I was there. I went to meet him, and said, “Well, do you have another one?” (laughter) And he said, “Yeah, I know someone who is selling incense in the streets in the center of town. And then, the minute he started looking for him, he couldn’t find him. I had abandoned hope of working with any actual street kids, I found myself going to military academies—wherever there were young boys I was there, wherever I could see 50 or 100 at the same time, because I was like a casting person from the fifties. Not only was I looking for boys who could act naturally in front of the camera, but also, I was looking for good-looking boys. In my head, my dream was to find a 16-year-old Alain Delon. Then Anderson showed up. He had gotten into some trouble with the police and he was living in a neighborhood controlled by the guerillas, so it was very complicated. But I adjusted. I thought, I am not looking for a 16-year-old Alain Delon, I’ve got a 16-year-old Belmondo.
KF What did they think of you? That must be a strange experience for a young man in Colombia, to find yourself cast in a movie.
BS Yeah, they didn’t believe any of it, of course. They were very suspicious, so I had to gain their confidence. I had to be with them a lot, until they started to understand that the whole thing was real, that there was not some element that I was hiding. We rehearsed the whole movie, every single scene, with all the actors in the location, which was a luxury, and we shot the rehearsals with a little video camera. So they thought that that was more or less the movie. Suddenly, the first day of shooting, there was the crew and they realized that if they did something wrong they had to start over. For the first time in their lives, they found themselves with an important responsibility on their shoulders that could change their lives. Maybe, when these boys in the hill towns of Medellín are contacted by drug traffickers who hire them as professional killers, maybe this is suddenly a responsibility—they have a job to do and it makes them feel good. So I was there at least to offer another type of responsibility.
KF Do you know what’s become of them since the movie?
BS They had quite a lot of money from the movie, and one of them (Juan David) bought a bar, but it went bankrupt because he was inviting a lot of his friends. Anderson kept his money for a long time, he wanted to go into business. Finally he took all the money out of the bank and bought himself a superbike and got into trouble with the police again, so . . .
KF So where is he now, in jail?
BS No. But one more incident, and he is in jail for a very long time.
KF Maybe someone needs to give him another acting job.
BS They both need to get out of there as soon as possible, but I can’t be their father. I can’t be responsible. It’s driving me crazy, because I don’t know what to do.
KF How did they feel about acting in the sexual scenes?
BS They were afraid that they would be classified as gay after that. So I showed Anderson Pedro Almodóvar’s movies, like Law of Desire, and I said, “Look, this is Antonio Banderas, you don’t have to be afraid.” Germán, the actor who plays the writer, comes from the theater, he did body exercises with the boys so that they were not afraid to touch each other. They were at ease with each other’s bodies.
KF Even though the writer has sexual relationships with these two young assassins, the movie isn’t about sexuality.
BS Right, no questions asked, no problems; this is how it is and that’s it. I like that aspect of not raising any questions about the sex. Their sexuality is, by nature and by essence, innocent.
KF The pivotal scene in the movie where everything changes is the scene with the dog.
BS We all knew that this was the heart of the movie, what the movie was about. One of the film’s financiers told me that everything was great, except that scene. Very few people had seen the movie at the time, so I got very depressed. I make a movie, everything turns around that scene, and the person who finances it says that scene’s not necessary. (laughter)
KF Which in some ways is not so surprising. But it’s the one moment where the writer actually does something, and the one thing he’s able to do is this mercy killing—to shoot this injured and horribly crippled dog.
BS And then try to kill himself.
KF But why can’t Alexis kill the dog? Is it because he only kills people who have earned their death in some way?
BS Exactly. He kills as a business. He doesn’t kill out of charity. For him to be able to kill it has to be business, or to help somebody he loves.
KF Or to even a score.
BS Right, if someone says something bad to the love of his life, he’s going to defend him by killing that person, because it’s them against the world. But a dog that has not done anything—he does not understand the dog’s suffering. He doesn’t think the same way that the writer does, and for him killing the dog is something awful. Naturally the audience agrees.
KF The audience watches so many people get killed, but the minute that dog appears they all—
BS You know, if a filmmaker has a dog killed in a film, it will be felt ten times more by the audience than if you kill a human being. So Alexis is not very different from film audiences all over the world. He cares much more about the death of a dog than the death of a human being. This is not only a young professional killer in Medellín, it’s all the people who watch movies in America. I had to kill a dog in Single White Female and I had so many problems.
KF In some ways, Alexis reminds me of a dog, in his loyalty. The minute he bonds with Fernando, anybody who comes near them, or is threatening in any way . . .
BS That’s exactly it.
KF Initially, the killings are so absurd that they’re comic.
BS Right, you see very little. They’re not shown in a disturbing way, where you would comprehend exactly what happened. They’re carefully calculated; the audience feels like Fernando feels and sees what Fernando has seen but the thing itself is not exposed for what it is, exactly.
KF Well, I feel like Fernando; the deaths seem absurd, until toward the end, suddenly everything becomes real. And it’s not so funny anymore. Then you feel guilt by association, just through watching it.
BS It’s done in a very insidious way, you get caught in the situation without having the normal time to protest. It’s been devised in this way, to catch the audience in a very devilish situation.
KF And you shot it on high-definition video.
BS Val Kilmer showed me footage that he had shot in HD video, and I was so impressed that I fell in love at first sight. Its image has a depth of field that is actually superior to film. It gives the impression of high resolution. In all my movies, I use a lens that gives you more depth of field. Some filmmakers are exactly the opposite, they dissociate a close-up from the background; it’s a question of style. I wanted the city to be one of the characters, and with this high-definition video, I was able to get much more of the city’s presence. I also wanted to manipulate the image in the direction of Vallejo’s writing; I wanted to give that impression of reality becoming mad. That was part of the movie’s style. And there were practical reasons—I had only 40 days to shoot 80 locations. Of course, I had two cameras at all times, which allowed me to get an extra hour every time we shot. Many scenes were done in such a hurry that I’m embarrassed to leave them as such in the movie. But there was no way—this was a matter of life and death. People were becoming aware of what we were doing. Initially, my worst-case scenario was that we wouldn’t get past two weeks of shooting. So in the first two weeks I shot the most important scenes, the ones I really couldn’t do without.
KF You knew going in that there might be trouble. (laughter)
BS Obviously. And the insurance companies that wouldn’t insure the movie at any cost knew it also. I had to do it with my own production company in France.
KF Toward the end, you were actually receiving death threats, so you shot quickly. Any single takes?
BS No, in order to get the right take, you normally shoot between five and ten. We had a whole strategy with our 25 extras, but many of the people are just passing by, and for them to not be looking at the camera, for this whole thing to be completely natural, some shots are in the domain of miracle. It was not easy, and the noise level was unbelievable because of the traffic and the trucks. I had a truly extraordinary soundman, everybody in the crew was top level. And they were all from Colombia. I was the foreigner.
KF How would it have been different if you hadn’t shot the film in video?
BS I don’t think I would have finished. This was extremely complicated shooting, and it would have taken at least two more weeks. And those two weeks would have gotten us killed. The other advantage was to be able to manipulate the image and to fix a lot of things. For example, that crucial scene—the only time you actually see these two guys kissing—it was to be romantic, something that was sexual, but spiritual at the same time. He says, “You are the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me in my life.” The camera was moving around them like in Hitchcock, but the sunset was not coming. There was a horrible mixture of smog and white fog. It was just awful, it was depressing and it was messy. We made the most beautiful sunset, digitally. Another example: they must go to the church that contains the Virgin’s statue, but I couldn’t shoot in the real place. So I shot in another church, and she was put in digitally.
KF What about the falling star?
BS Digital, of course, no problem. In the scene where the cartel gets a shipment of drugs into the United States, they celebrate with fireworks—it’s like a coronation. They are very rich people and can spend $50,000 on fireworks. We can’t, so we did it digitally. You see, the list is long, and all that for a modest cost. In 35 mm this would require a big budget.
KF Seeing the film, I never had any clue that it had been shot on video.
BS Right. And people don’t understand that this is a true revolution. I’m very proud to be the first one to do it. I had a special excitement during the shooting, because I was exploring such a new medium.
KF Do you think mainstream films will be done this way?
BS Oh yes, one is being done right now. George Lucas is doing the next Star Wars in video.
KF It seems against everything Los Angeles stands for, to do something simpler for less money.
BS Well, almost every shot of Our Lady of the Assassins is lit. The color, what people are wearing . . . it’s totally controlled. And to do that costs money. You can save maybe 20 to 25 percent by going high-definition, but no more than that. I had $300,000 worth of equipment; we needed bodyguards with submachine guns because we could have been robbed very easily.
KF What, from the experience of working in that medium, were you able to transfer to the movie that you’re working on now, Murder by Numbers, with Sandra Bullock?
BS I learned the excitement of working with multiple cameras. It’s extremely complicated to do, and needs a very qualified director of photography, but the results for the actors’ performance, when they are both on camera, is extremely exciting. I don’t think I would have had the strength to push an actor in that direction if I hadn’t done it before on this film.
KF So much of the film is specific to Latin American culture, particularly Colombia’s. Is there anything that doesn’t translate?
BS The movie is loaded with humor. For me an ideal audience for Our Lady has a minimum of three or four percent Colombians because they know when to laugh. Without Colombians, some of the funny scenes meet a totally cold reaction.
KF Because people don’t know whether they’re supposed to think it’s funny or not.
BS Exactly. This is one of the strange phenomena around this movie. I had the reverse problem in Barfly. Show Barfly to an American audience, and people laugh a lot. They’re sensitive to the humor; sometimes in video stores, it’s in the comedy section. But see it in Europe, where it’s a drama about alcoholism, and nobody’s laughing; they’re not sure that they can laugh. But of course it’s a strange kind of humor in both cases, both films are funny and tragic at the same time.
KF Our Lady is funny just because it’s so disarming, and yet the movie’s ending is devastating. The movie is so visceral, that’s how you’re drawn in and caught up in it, and then that final sequence, in the morgue—the Polaroids of all the young men, and the camera zooming over the wall into the clerical area, then into the examination room itself.
BS Suddenly you reach the point where you identify with the characters’ pain, and the pain of the main character becomes the pain of the whole country.
KF How did Colombia respond when the film was released? There was a bit of a scandal.
BS We knew it was going to be a scandal, Vallejo himself is a living scandal. A truly scandalous personality. When he makes a speech in Colombia, he insults everybody—the guerillas, the army, the president—in a way nobody would want to be insulted. He’s so talented that he kills you with words. And those people—they don’t like to be destroyed like that. Usually, when he makes a speech in Colombia, he takes the next plane out. We had the luck of having an established movie critic write a review in Diner’s Club Magazine, a respectable, bourgeois publication. This critic called for censorship of Our Lady; he said that it should be banned, and if it was not banned, it should be sabotaged. Now, calling for sabotage in Colombia is really calling for murder and bombs, it’s totally irresponsible and absolutely terrifying. The movie deals with sexuality, it attacks the Pope, it attacks Bolívar, which is even worse than attacking the Pope, but his piece was so excessive that it caused a counter-outrage and all the intelligentsia came to the movie’s defense. And then the television got in on it, and the radio stations—they all started talking solely about this movie. People coming off the plane from Paris, where the movie was playing, found three or four cameras waiting for them and reporters asking them to speak about the movie. This is how hot it became. And then the movie got released, and it touched the country to its core. For me, it was a very extraordinary experience, because I have never done a movie that touched a country. It’s a unique experience because it’s the country of my heart, the country of my childhood, I identify with Colombia much more than any other country. Childhood is, in many respects, a secret private place. Whatever you’ve tasted in your childhood, you want to keep tasting for the rest of your life.
—Ken Foster is the author of a collection of stories, The Kind I’m Likely to Get, which was a New York Times Notable Book. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, and other publications. The recipient of a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, he is currently completing a novel and editing an anthology on dog culture.