TIFF 2014: An Interview with Filmmaker Javier Fuentes Leon on THE VANISHED ELEPHANT

[dropcap size=small]J[/dropcap]avier Fuentes‐León is quite the anomaly. This isn’t a dramatic statement, it’s fact. He is one of very few filmmakers, hailing from Peru, who calls Lima and Los Angeles home. His first feature, Undertow, was Peru’s official submission for the 2011 Academy Awards. (A staggering achievement, when you realize that for the Foreign Film category, every country can only make one submission a year).

But Fuentes‐León is an anomaly for more subtle reasons as well. He left Peru and a budding career in medicine to study filmmaking at California Institute of the Arts in 1994. After several plays and successful short films, he went “all-in” with Undertow, a magic-realism tale of an artist who drowns offshore of a small fishing village in Peru, and his spirit that yearns for his body to be claimed in order that he may be at peace. The crux of the story is that the artist had been having an affair with a married fisherman in the village, and it’s that fisherman who must come to terms with his homosexuality and claim the body of his lover to the religious town.

Undertow was the film Fuentes‐León was born to make. Raised in Lima, he went against the conservative grain, rejecting his life as a doctor and came out to his family and friends quite late in life. The struggle with his own demons plays out in the critically acclaimed film, which won over 50 awards, including the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and the nomination for Best Latin American Film at the 2011 Goya Awards in Spain. ( Undertow is currently available on Netflix).

So how do you make a follow-up to the story of your life? While the sophomore film can be one of the most daunting journeys for a filmmaker, the prescient ones seem to take a left turn and find something (on the surface anyway) that is completely off-topic. Mike Nichols made The Graduate (arguably his best film), Roman Polanski created the largely forgotten The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers and for Francois Truffaut, it was Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut may be the best example when discussing Fuentes‐León, since just as Undertow mirrored his personal issues, so did Truffaut’s Freshman semi-biographical outing, The 400 Blows, deal with the director’s experiences as a young boy in Paris.

Fuentes-Leon’s second film, The Vanished Elephant, premieres this week at TIFF, and like Truffaut’s second film, dives deep into a well-traveled genre; noir, to tell a tale that can best be described as “nothing is as it seems.”

I caught up with the filmmaker just before he left LA for Toronto.


The Retro Set: What is The Vanished Elephant about?

Javier Fuentes‐León: It’s the story of a crime novelist whose fiancée, the love of his life, disappeared seven years ago with no explanation. He’s been obsessed and destroyed over this to the point that it’s affecting his writing. And he’s in the middle of writing what he thinks will be his last entry in a series; he writes novels about this one central character. And the movie starts when a mysterious woman he’s never met before, brings him an envelope that was sent to her by her first husband who happened to die seven years ago– the same day that his fiancée disappeared. And in the envelope there are photographs that don’t make sense, each on their own, but they clearly seem to belong to a bigger puzzle. And from there it goes into this really strange mystery-psychological catch me if you can kind of thriller.

TRS: Influences? On you or just on this film?

JFL: Mulholland Drive is the most clear influence in this movie. And Chinatown. They are the biggest, in terms of other movies. There’s a short story by an Argentine writer named Julio Cortazar that is a big influence on the movie, the David Hockney collage “Pearlblossom Highway” which was the name I was going to originally use for the English version (of The Vanished Elephant).

TRS: Why did you choose to realize The Vanished Elephant after Undertow?

JFL: I had this screenplay that I wrote even before Undertow from my play (called Mr. Clouds) but then (the idea for) The Vanished Elephant just became more interesting for me. But it wasn’t because it had to be my next project. It just became my next project, because it was originally going to be set in LA. But then when I moved the location to Peru, I got really excited about it, then I applied out of the blue for this funding and we got it and the Colombian producers who produced Undertow were interested in continuing to work with me, and I also felt it would be a nice switch. If you looked at my story for Mr. Clouds, and Undertow, there’s a lot of magic-realism, where with this one, we’re going to a whole different genre. And I also loved the duality of this one, and I also love crossword puzzles, but I also felt it was the most doable. And maybe a smart move to make as a second film, because I don’t want to be defined by just one movie.

TRS: The Vanished Elephant has a very different look than Undertow

JFL: But I used the same cinematographer. A lot of cinematographers know the technical parts very well, and can light something very nicely, so what I love about Mauro (Mauricio Vidal) is his sensibility. I never asked him, ‘do you know how to handle lenses?’ And we went from film, Super 16 for Undertow, to HD (for Elephant), and I just assumed he’d be able to know how to do it. What I love about him is he has an elegant eye. And I get very involved in the composition, very much, like we sit down and we draw with the iPad, you know now you can draw with the iPad – there’s this app where you can put what kind of camera you’re going to have, what kind of lens you’re going to have, and it shows you how it’s going to look. And I guess what I’m trying to say is we bonded, over the same sensibilities. Like, I rarely get involved with lighting; I trust that he knows about the mood from what we talked about,. But I do get very involved with the frame, where we are looking, what we are looking at, and what we are not looking at. To the point where I’m like [imitating himself] “can you please, just move, like move it just a little…” [laughs]. Sometimes. I mean, not always. I’m not a bitch.

There are moments where [the main character] is behind the lights, behind bars, when he goes back to his house and it’s not his house anymore…we’re shooting him from outside, through these windows, and slats are cutting him. So we’re constantly discussing, you know, how do we frame him without going overboard, making it obvious, but make him look like he’s trapped?

But we were going for a different look [than Undertow]. This movie is mostly [shot] at night, and Undertow was [shot during the day]. And that’s one of the reasons Undertow was such a pleasant experience. The hardship of Undertow was moving everyone to a little town, and you know, not having water or power all the time. But in terms of our days? Horrible. Because a lot of the movie was not during the day; [there were] a lot of nights. But I have a lot of adrenaline during the night, so I don’t get tired.

TRS: How about art direction? It’s a whole different set of aesthetics you’re going for here. Same crew?

JFL: For [The Vanished Elephant] , the art director was from Peru and I think it helped. This was more convoluted. She dealt with vendors who knew the area, the sensibility of Lima. With Undertow, although I loved the art direction and I could work with her anytime, our task there was to imitate what a town would look like, and adapt to the area. Whereas with this film, there was a lot of “creating” stuff, like making up a whole museum exhibit, designing and making the puzzle. To get this retro, film noirish “look,” it was more demanding. Undertow had its own demands– we had to build a house for a painter out of a restaurant. And the church was a casino– the real church in the town would not allow us to shoot there, because of the nature of the film.

TRS: And the actors? How many did you use in both?

JFL: Only the wife from Undertow was the wife here (Tatiana Astengo). It’s funny, cause the lead (Salvador Del Solar) in The Vanished Elephant, I had many conversations with him about playing the fisherman in Undertow, and that was the toughest decision I made, because he was a friend of mine that I admire and I love, and I got into conversations with him. He’s very well-educated, he’s very, um, “city,” he didn’t seem like a rural, rough country guy. And although he’s a good actor and would’ve done the characterization, he was too elegant, too well-read. And if I don’t believe him as a fisherman, nobody else will. But then, thank God I found the actor (Cristian Mercado). Great job. But for Elephant, Salvador, was perfect. I would believe he was a writer.


Tatiana Astengo, Salvador Del Solar
Tatiana Astengo, Salvador Del Solar


TRS: How did raising money for The Vanished Elephant, which is your second film, differ from Undertow?

JFL: I started writing Undertow in 2001 and I didn’t start shooting until 2008. Not every single moment within those years; I wasn’t dedicated to writing or finding financing. But we applied to this Peruvian Film Fund four times for Undertow, got it the fourth time around, with (Elephant), I applied the first time around and I got it. Undertow had support from Europe, and this film doesn’t at all. You had to have some of the (European) elements, or spend some of the money there. So for Undertow we got money from France, and we got money from Germany. I realized really recently looking at Undertow, it fits very well into the European idea of what Latin America should be, and because they finance a lot of Latin American films, through their cultural funding, through sales agents, allows them to support film industries that are small, from third world countries. So indirectly, they get to decide what movies get made. Case in point was Undertow. Even before we got funding from Latin America or Peru, we got funding from Europe. They have a very specific view of what Latin American films should be. Usually the films are realistic, or they talk about violence, political, or social issues. Undertow has all of that. Magic-realism, which is very Latin America, and gay issues [which]  is a social issue.

The Vanished Elephant has none of that. It’s a psychological thriller that could very well take place in LA, or Brussels. It needs to happen in a place there are earthquakes. It could happen in Japan. So it doesn’t seem or breathe Latin America. Therefore there’s no financing from Europe.

TRS: This is your first time at TIFF, and the first official screening for the public. What are you expecting with the audience reaction?

JFL: It’s going to be interesting with this movie because Undertow was a lovefest with the audience. And it was actually a pretty nice lovefest with critics, mostly in the US, in England, and less so in France and Spain. There was a little “Ew, sentimentality.” [laughs] In Peru some people liked it, some people were…Peruvian critics are of the school of European, they love masters of cinema. They felt the movie was aware and trying to please the audience. They felt Undertow wasn’t shocking enough, it wasn’t raw, in your face. But if you’re a regular audience member and you’re not deterred by the gay themes, Undertow is going to be pleasing. You’re going to come out knowing how to feel because the movie tells you how to feel. This one doesn’t tell you how to feel. It’s confusing, you may not know what the fuck happened. Some people are stimulated intellectually, and others get confused. The Vanished Elephant starts as a straight forward mystery, that little by little starts to tell you, “be careful, it’s not necessarily straight forward.” It would be great with this movie if it finds an audience. I don’t want or need it to be huge. It would be great if it would have a bit of a following.


If you’re lucky enough to be in Toronto, The Vanished Elephant screens throughout the festival. Check listings for seating availability. Fuentes‐León first film, Undertow, can be streamed right now on Netflix.

About Wade Sheeler 162 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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