“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.”
So begins Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín’s latest opus El Club, which tells the tale of a group of exiled Catholic priests doing penance in a remote Church-run house after committing sexual abuse. None seem convinced of their own guilt – however they are forced to confront their inner demons when a stranger from the past arrives in their midst.
With the extraordinary El Club making its long-anticipated arrival in UK cinemas on 25th March, we sat down at a roundtable with this visionary and fiercely political filmmaker to discuss his writing process, the denial of Catholic former priests, and the importance of letting an audience make up their own minds.
How did you go about writing El Club?
It was a combination of ideas, and very much a collaboration between three writers: Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos, and myself. We all did a lot of research. I think I’m the only one of the three who actually went to a Catholic school, but if you live in a country like Chile, whether you are Catholic or not you are always connected to the Catholic Church as it is so powerful – it’s everywhere. Every one of us had a different approach to it, and a different vision, so the film is a blending of these visions. Part of the overall vision comes from that – that it is from all of these people from the same country and society, but with very different perspectives on this problem.
What did your research for the film involve?
I had the chance to speak to a couple of former priests – guys who left the Church for different reasons – and they were willing to tell us a lot – especially things that are hard for outsiders to know. For example in this house, they have very specific regimens – they have a schedule, they have rules, they have a rhythm of praying, of singing, the times to eat, even what they pray about and how to do it. All of the house’s routines came from this research. People sometimes ask me “Do [these houses] really exist?” Yes they do. “Are they really like this?” I don’t know, maybe. Research can’t tell you everything and I’ve never actually been to a place like this, because they would never let me in. But that’s what we do [as filmmakers] – we had to create something fictional. Who knows exactly what happens inside those houses?
The performances in the film are astonishingly naturalistic – what was your method of working with the actors?
I never gave them a full script before filming – I would just give them some lines before we shot each scene. The first thing you have to know is that they are all people I’ve been working with for many years, so we know each other well and there is a lot of trust – you would hope so [Larraín’s wife, actress Antonia Zegers, performs a key role]. We couldn’t have done it without them. So you invite them to be part of the process – it’s the first time I’ve done it this way, all my other movies it was a more regular process where you give everyone the script, you sit, talk it through and so on. This time it was interesting, because if you don’t give your actors the script, they can’t know or prepare their character, and they don’t know anything about the other characters. It worked because they’re all good actors.
They would get there, head into makeup, then we’d get to set and, [still not knowing their lines], they’d go “OK… “, I’d say “It’s all OK, take it easy, let’s set up the camera for the shot,” then I’d give them their lines, and they’d read it, and freak out [about what their character has allegedly done]. So I’d get them to relax and take it easy, then we’d try take after take, and we discovered that the only way to get these characters right is to make them present and to give them presence. This [minimal script preparation] was the best way to get the first thing we needed, which was for the characters to be there – totally present in the moment.
It must be exhilarating for an actor to work in such a way – without all the rehearsals and preparation – so it’s a testament to their talents, as all of the characters are so authentic.
If you know before watching the film that this was how we worked, then you will know that the actor is a guy who doesn’t know who or where he is – but what I think is very interesting is that if you don’t know this before watching you still feel that the character is a man who is lost, and is not in control of everything. The house is a kind of limbo, full of the unknown and with undetermined circumstances, and this creates a lot of intrigue in the audience and gives the setting an air of mystery.
When the actors improvise and start their conversations in the film, they do it from a place – and this is the first thing any actor will do – where they will try to protect their character. This is the same thing I do – I do this because no matter what the priests’ history is, what you want to do is to look at them with compassion and to try and love them, and understand their humanity. Judgment is not my role. I’m not a journalist, I’m not there to inform or make a change.
Who do you think can judge them?
It’s up to the audience to judge them – I just open the door. It would be so uninteresting for the audience if these characters were already judged by the film. When I watch a film I want to do something, to be part of the process. If I’m watching a film and this judgment has already been processed, I ask myself why I’m watching it – the director must leave something open.
Think about the abuse victim in the film [Sandokan], standing outside the house yelling out these graphic descriptions of his abuse – the first thing that you will think as a filmmaker is to shoot these descriptions visually. You know, it’s not a radio show, you want to show it. In some of our research, I spoke to some victims and they spoke just as openly – you know, they had been abused too many times over so many years they have no problem explaining these things in a very graphic way. Almost like describing how to make a cake or build a house – they will just tell you straight up.
So I thought we had to use this – at one point we considered shooting and recreating the things Sandokan was describing, but then I discovered that if you only say it, then it’s on the audience – every single spectator will really imagine what he’s describing – and there’s nothing more dangerous than the human mind. The subconscious can create an image that we would never be able to shoot in reality. My imagination will give me one image, and that won’t be the same as yours – everybody will have a different one. We wanted to work with that perversity that we all have, that we all are hiding. No matter how nice you are, inside your head can be some very dark places.
Do you think that there is an attempt from the characters in the film to reconcile with the past?
I don’t know about you, but have you ever read about a priest who actually admitted what he did? I haven’t, and we really looked for it. We hired someone to find a case like this – they spent a month researching and reading articles and interviews from all around the world in multiple languages – and they couldn’t find one single priest who ever admitted what he did. They don’t exist. The Church’s members do not believe in regular justice – they believe that we can only be judged in the eyes of God. We regular and civil people believe that if we commit a crime we’ll go and face a judge and the consequences, and know that everyone else will do the same, as we’re all supposed to be equals in front of the law. But these priests simply don’t believe in civil justice and that’s why they avoid it – they think they’re different.
El Club has a strong religious aspect, but would you say there is a God in the film?
I don’t think so. Though it’s a very spiritual, Catholic film, these people are prisoners in this place where there is no God. It’s a place that is very closed to the public – but at the same time is also the most open and remote space you could find on Earth, which creates a very interesting paradox to me. [The house] is the kind of place where you can only be if you want to be there – nobody’s forcing any of them to be there. But they realise that it’s the only place that can bring them peace, and that’s what the film is all about. The priests want to protect this place that they have, and when these forces come from the outside and threaten to shut them down they will do anything to do so.
On the subject of the location – compared to No [Larraín’s previous film] it was very restrictive – was it a deliberate decision on your part to rein things into a smaller scale?
That was just the nature of the film – it’s about these guys hiding from society. They’re lost somewhere in this remote place on the south coast of Chile, so that was how it needed to be. If the movie had been set in the Vatican, for example, it would be a different reality. The movie just had [this intimate] nature and we had to protect that – the story belongs to the setting. It also gave us a certain creative freedom, which is helpful when you make a movie as social and political as we made this.