Nacho Cerda carved a name for himself a few years ago with an absolutely terrifying film called Aftermath. It’s been quite some time since and the wait is well worth it. In his new film, The Abandoned, Nacho establishes the fact that he is not a one hit wonder. His film was part of the 8 Films to Die For and will be getting a national rollout in January. I recently had the opportunity of asking Nacho a few questions.
Jack Reher: Nacho, my hats off to you for creating The Abandoned. It truly is a horrifyingly visceral film. There has been quite a gap between Aftermath and The Abandoned. What was the initial inspiration for this film?
Nacho Cerda: Thanks a lot Jack. To make a long story short, The Abandoned came from an original script that Karim Hussain wrote back in 99 called The Bleeding Compass. We had met at Fantasia and became good friends, so he asked me for feedback on it. The doppelganger and the Russian elements were both very original and quite intriguing; it was a sort of Tarkosvsky approach to horror which really captured my interest. His story evoked such strong images that I couldn’t get them out my mind so I suggested him the possibility of taking it to Filmax since I had a first look deal there as director. Back then, Karim and I had been working for a long time on another project called Oblivion which fell through, so that was the perfect time to bring his script back. I felt that most of its themes involving destiny, identity and ultimately death were actually issues that I developed in my previous shorts as well, so it was very personal to me. Our excitement was enormous when they green lit the film almost immediately.
JR: The cinematography and texture of the film was mesmerizing. Can you tell The Horror Review a little about the production choices you made?
NC: Working with my friend Xavi Giménez was an extreme pleasure. His cinematography in Genesis totally blew me away so we always toyed with the idea of joining forces again on my first feature. When the time came, he’d already shot a bunch of outstanding films like The Machinist or The Nameless so I was twice as excited. At first, I wanted a very raw approach in 16 mm, a bit like the 70’s because that sort of organic camera work would add a sense of dread. It was also the issue of getting away from my previous visuals which used extremely detailed framing and camera moves. The last thing I wanted for this film was to feel static and mechanical, so hand held was always considered from day one. However, when we went on location scouting, we realized that the Bulgarian landscape (which makes for Russia) was so overwhelming that our compositions would work better in super 35mm. A sense of isolation played a central part in the story so the 2,35 aspect ratio was perfect to isolate the main character even more within the frame. I then realized that the film should start very nicely lit and visually familiar as we follow Marie unravel her past, but as the story becomes more dreamy, I would bring that rawness to the camera work to the point of deconstructing reality, altering time and space, just like Marie’s world. By the end we would go back to nice and smooth visuals to come full circle just like the story does itself. We also went for a bit of a dirty look, with lots of greens and yellows, similar to some Russian films. In fact, when we were digitally timing the picture, we pushed the contrast and color so much that it really became a visual nightmare, but the executives turned it down after considering it too risky.
JR: I noticed that you and Karim Hussain had previously written together on Ataudes de luz. Can you talk about the writing process for this film?
NC: “Coffin of Light” (its English title) was a documentary that began in 99 as part of the San Sebastian horror film festival. They wanted me to direct a short based on that year’s edition which featured such amazing guests as Paul Naschy, Ibañez Serrador and Jess Franco. Apparently, these guys were all involved with a very obscure cinematographer called Sergio Del Monte who died mysteriously during the making of his directorial debut. Legend has it that his unfinished film used lighting techniques that were extremely harmful to the human brain; so much that it caused death to the very few that saw it. Karim and I found this story fascinating and began our research, interviewing these directors who enlightened our path. I soon realized this project was heading to a feature length documentary which was also a recollection of that glorious period of Spanish cinema. I worked off and on until this day, and now that it’s almost finished we plan on releasing it later this year.
JR: I truly loved the tracking shot of Anastasia Hille when she ran from the hole in the floor, to the room, then back again. This reminded me of classic De Palma and Orson Welles. Do you want to talk about this scene?
NC: It was there since I began storyboarding the film and it really meant a big challenge for my crew. This shot visually summarized the whole story which is the realization for Marie that life was not what it seemed. She had constructed a fiction around her that now was falling apart as the truth unfolded. It was very important to make it seem as a continuous shot but it is actually a combination of two different ones. First, the hole needed to collapse mechanically using a little explosive as the stunt man stepped on it. As everyone knows, getting a shot sometimes requires a few takes, so the fake hole had a lid that would go back up for each take. However, once closed, you could still see the edges on the floor around it so the construction crew had to place dirt and hide it from sight. This took a few minutes so we couldn’t really use this device for when she returns to rescue Nikolai in just one shot. It needed two. So for the second half of the scene, the set had to be replaced with a new floorboard that was rock solid, other ways the trick would’ve been obvious to everyone. In other words, once we got the first half of the scene in the can, we stopped for about two hours while the crew dressed up the new floorboard. The challenge was actually creating a transition between the two shots that would be invisible to the eye. At first we spoke with our CGI people to figure out a digital morphing, but funny enough, it ended up being a much simpler trick. During postproduction, my editor found a single frame that matched exactly both shots. It was totally unbelievable. The frenzy motion of the camera also helped create the illusion, but it is a straight cut, as simple as that. Once the dvd comes out, you can track the shot frame by frame and you still won’t see it. Needless to say, production saved a lot of money…
JR: Who and what are some of your favorite directors and films within the horror genre?
NC: The very first film that injected horror in my veins was Spielberg’s Jaws. I was 6 at the time and the experience kicked my ass. It was thanks to my uncle who actually sneaked me into the neighborhood theater. My family used to rent some cheap horror flicks on Super 8 like Jess Franco’s Frankestein and Naschy’s Horror Rises from the Tomb which by the way I couldn’t get past the third reel, no kidding!! Those films were rated R so theater presentation was not an option for me. When home video spread out, I started discovering a whole new universe of filmmakers like Cronenberg, Carpenter, Hooper, Craven…not to mention all those extremely gore Italian movies from Argento, Fulci, Bava… It was a total feast for me and my friends who would come up and watch movies for the whole evening. When The Evil Dead was released, I rented it on VHS and screened it every Friday night for different people. I enjoyed sensing their fear and excitement… which I guess ended up being the reason why I make films: pushing audiences into some sort of emotional rollercoaster.
JR: American cinema (I cannot help but snicker when I say that and think of Eli Roth’s upcoming Hostel: Part 2 and the German voiceover) what is your overall opinion of the horror films coming from the United States?
NC: I grew up on most of these movies so I owe a lot to them. They really taught me how to put two shots together! Times have changed, of course, and sometimes I miss that old transgression from the 70’s. I think some preconceived formulas today are running on empty and people might be plugging away soon. I personally need a wave of fresh air, as a horror fan I often find myself in video stores buying old classics instead of catching the weekend releases… and this doesn’t feel quite right.
JR: What are your thoughts of the group of filmmakers recently dubbed the Splat Pack?
NC: It’s another proof of the industry’s obsession in packaging everything, giving it a name so it’s labeled and marketed properly. Rob Zombie has no remote resemblance to what Alex Aja does, or Neil Marshal for that matter. I don’t believe that these filmmakers share anything except their enthusiasm for what they do. This whole thing just sounds like a formula to keep selling us product. Does anyone really think these movies are just about blood and gore? Are these directors’ talents questioned beyond this type of cinema? Is this maybe trying to put limits to filmmakers? I would be extremely careful in doing it, look at Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi and you’ll see what I mean.
JR: Now that we’re on the subject of American cinema (even though most horror films are now shot in Bulgaria, Romania, Australia…) who are the standout directors that you truly admire and why?
NC: I admire the integrity of David Cronenberg who’s never really fallen out of his way in making a strong statement. His vision is totally unique and it has even created a whole new philosophy behind his work. His approach to complex themes with utmost simplicity is brilliant, only compared to Kubrick and Lynch who’s films have become a conceptualization of reality. I strongly believe that cinema needs to find a new narrative. By having more FX, more plot twists, more action, visuals, etc. we are doomed to fail. In a world so logic and well connected as it is today, I feel that simplicity could be far scarier than anything else. I remember the brilliant ending of Escape from L.A. where the entire world just plugs away and then “Snake Plisken” lights up a cigarette; it’s the perfect metaphor. Maybe we should just go back to our roots and start from scratch.
JR: As a child growing up in Spain, what was the first horror film you saw?
NC: Apart from Jaws, there was another one called The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel. This one scared me so much that it gave me a hang over for ghost stories, not to mention The Exorcist which was re-released in Spain in the early 80’s. Being a Catholic there’s nothing more terrifying than the supernatural.
JR: Guillermo del Toro has been embraced as a visionary and I’d liken The Abandoned and your directing ability to his level of talent. For the first time since laying eyes on Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, I am once again extremely excited to see this film roll out here this Friday, November 17th then again as a nationwide release in January. How do you think the United States will respond to your work?
NC: It´s always unpredictable. My short films are very popular in the States and quite honestly, it’s been thanks to American audiences that my work is now respected in Europe. My approach to horror doesn’t really step on familiar ground; I mean it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre which is why most people never considered Aftermath a gore feast. In these movies, there’s a subtext often more subversive that the images themselves. I believe that your own input and personality is vital in bringing freshness to a film, other ways it becomes a rather dull experience. So I hope The Abandoned will be perceived on the same level as a personal study on fear and human nature, a movie that doesn’t necessarily follow a conventional storytelling. As a filmmaker, I like pushing the envelope, and this one will definitely keep indifference out of the equation.
JR: What is your perception of Uwe Boll and who would win a boxing match between the two of you?
NC: I would just call in sick and not show up. Although it might seem necessary from an industry standpoint, being competitive in this job makes your films lose spontaneity and get worse.
JR: When you were young, what terrified you?
NC: Death. It’s so irrational. That’s why I shitted in my pants the first time I saw a zombie flick on TV called The Manchester Morgue. I remember going to bed that night and being totally sleepless. That damned Jorge Grau! Walking corpses are frightening… it’s that sort of horror that I fear the most, the one from within the human being.
JR: Projects of the future, what are you going to give audiences worldwide?
NC: There’s a script called Oblivion which I wrote with Karim a while back. It’s an apocalyptic tale about immortality, set in a near future. Also, I’ve got two book adaptations in mind but I can’t say much yet. Whatever comes next, it will definitely come from the heart.
JR: Thank you so much for your time. Once again, excellent work on this film and I hope that we can chat again in the future.
NC: Thanks to you Jack and all audiences out there that make it possible for us to be here!
– Jack Reher