Real Living: Antonio Méndez Esparza examines 'Life and Nothing More'
Never has a title been more apt. The remarkable fiction film Life and Nothing More, so close to documentary, depicts the life of Andrew, a troubled black teen whose father is incarcerated and whose mother desperately tries to keep her son from following in his path. Director Talk recently spoke with writer/director Antonio Méndez Esparza in advance of the film’s theatrical debut.
Director Talk: One thing that sets your film apart from others is the invisibility of your point of view as director.
Antonio Méndez Esparza (AME): I’m Spanish. I’m not an American citizen. I’ve been living in the community where I filmed for nearly five years. I teach at the university here, and I was trying to observe the community and the characters living in this world. That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect is that in a way I tried to make the camera invisible, even for the actors, as much as possible. We tried to forget that it’s a movie and just tried to interpret real life. The actors were always performing, even though the movie has the appearance of being a documentary. Sometimes things happened that were fortuitous, or they just happened to happen, but nearly 90 percent of them were things we were building toward. Those are the two elements that forced me into a specific aesthetic.
DT: Another thing that struck me was the fact that there were really only two subjective moments in the film—when Andrew is playing with the knife in the courtyard, and when he appears in the final scene.
AME: Subjectivity was something we tried to avoid as much as possible. I think we’re always getting to know the characters even though we have so few subjective shots. My hope is that even though the shots are very objective, we’re still feeling with the characters, what they’re feeling. We are observing and feeling part of their lives. But you’re right. In my mind, Andrew is the protagonist of the story, so with him I could have a little bit more leniency, when to be tight on him, when to try to understand him. He’s also a more secretive character, but he has a huge arc that goes with this unveiling of himself.
DT: Silence as an expression of rage plays an important part in a number of your films.
AME: The way you word it is quite wonderful. Silence becomes a sort of weapon. In the silence one can feel that the knife may be coming. There’s an explosion to come in this staredown, in those moments when we fear what may come next, so yes, for me it’s very important to work with that element. It’s always difficult for an actor to find this rage. For a nonprofessional actor to find this rage that comes from the outside, sometimes it can take a very long time for them to feel that it’s justified. That was a big part of the casting. Violence in films, at least for me, is very hard to justify. It’s very hard to feel real. When you have a scene that’s violent, even if it’s a slap or something, it makes the director nervous. The actors should be too, because how are they going to find it? I think silence is where they may be able to find this sudden outburst. I think that’s the work of the actor.
DT: Let’s talk about the soundscape. The birds were particularly noticeable when you went into the wealthy neighborhoods. They’re there again at the end of the film in Andrew’s house, when it’s all clean and beautiful and she has new curtains and everything is straightened up and painted. Suddenly you hear birds at their house.
AME: We were always playing with sound. One of the challenges we had at the end was how to get inside the house. There are no characters in the frame. You see the door and Andrew comes in, the camera is very tight. You hear the car, the closing of the car, somebody walking, then you hear some keys, and then you hear some birds. It’s all built.
I was a city person. Here it’s very wild even if it’s a little suburban. There are squirrels, there are owls, raccoons, little foxes, frogs. It’s a very wild, rustic place, and I wanted to convey that feeling. All the sounds we used are all local. After we finished shooting we spent a week or ten days just recording sounds to put in the mix. Then something funny happened. We discovered that some birds are seasonal, so not every bird you can see throughout the year. If you want to be honest with the film and the season has changed, will you hear these birds or not? We didn’t go as far as that, but it becomes a very intriguing discussion in terms of do you want to be so realistic or do you allow yourself [liberties]? I am making a fiction film. In a way I am happy to cheat if I think it will help the film.
DT: You spent two years doing research before you started shooting. Can you talk about that?
AME: I made my first film, Aqui y Alla, six years ago. It premiered at Cannes and was well received. After that movie I found a job here at university, but it was nearly impossible to make another film, which was a little disappointing. Little by little I started trying to see if I could make a film here. The story was going to be a single woman working in Walmart—her life was the circumstance of the film. I started interviewing people, meeting people, very slowly, because I have a full-time job. I was doing it with the help of some students, very slowly reaching out to the community, trying to understand a little bit better the place where we lived. That was the process of discovery. We went to schools, saw fathers in permanent incarceration; all these things came to be part of the film, by my understanding issues in the community. Even delinquency became a part of it after extensive research in the court system and juvenile court. I would say that little by little I built this world that was a life.
DT: Some people believe that artists should only tell their own stories—that a man can’t write a woman’s story, that a white guy from Spain really can’t tell the story of a young black American. Do you agree?
AME: It’s a big question. I think artists always have a responsibility, and that responsibility can vary. It can be only with yourself, and that may allow you to do whatever you want. There have been some artists who don’t think they owe anything to anyone, only to themselves. Other people may think they have a responsibility with the actor or with one particular person. I think this is the big question. With my first film, I had a sense of responsibility with the Mexican community I was depicting, and in this film with the community I am depicting. For me it becomes the thing that may paralyze me, but in both cases it was no more than a moment of serious doubt. It’s not a question that only came after I finished the film; it was always present in my mind, but in the end I think it’s a question for the audience, and I think it’s a question for each artist to answer personally.
DT: By the way, I think it’s a terrific film, and I don’t agree with that position.
AME: I don’t agree with it either. Many of my students at university are facing this question. They come to me with doubts about stories that aren’t their own. Of course it’s wonderful if you tell your own story, but it’s also wonderful if you’re trying to reach out and understand something else. I believe that even if you’re telling your own story, you’re trying to discover something about yourself that you didn’t know, so there is always this discovery. That’s the most important thing that can happen while you make a film. If you’re just making a film about things you know and there is no discovery, the work is going to suffer. It’s not going to be much. There has to be discovery in the journey, there has to be the unknown. I think this question is becoming more and more tricky, because now young people are paralyzed by it, and I’m not sure that’s so great.
Q&A published courtesy of Director Talk.