Director of Oscar-Nominated Short ‘Timecode’ Explains Inspiration For Film

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A woman flirtatiously explores her creative side while simultaneously breaking free from her mundane duties as a CCTV operator in Juanjo Giménez’s Palme d’Or-winning short film “Timecode.”

The film, which nabbed an Academy Award nomination last month for best live action short, opens with Luna (Lali Ayguadé), a young Spanish woman, walking into a parking garage where she works the day shift in the surveillance camera room.

The insipidity of her duties is emphasized; we see Luna in tight, close-up shots as she buttons up her uniform, marches into her cramped station and answers calls. The only client we see her interact with is shot with his face out of view, perhaps suggesting it doesn’t matter what he looks like. There’s no need for identity when your banal work obfuscates independent thought.

Things quickly change for Luna, however, when she catches Diego (Nicolas Ricchini), her night shift co-worker, in a capering act. Luna gets inspired and begins a covert communication system with Diego, leaving each other post-it notes with timecodes of their recorded messages to one another.

Luna’s world suddenly widens. She shows up to work with an effulgent disposition, excited to see what Diego has left her as he brushes past her to switch shifts. The cavernous garage is put into excellent use as we watch Luna and Diego open up to one another. The characters take advantage of the wide space, shedding inhibitions and rules, while engaging in an interpretive dance they seemingly make up as they go along.

In these scenes, we see the protagonists captured in wide shots by the CCTV cameras – an ironic turn of fate. Security footage normally denotes felonious acts, but Giménez is illustrating the paradox of the situation: in their restrictive milieu Diego and Luna found a way to wield their own creative authorization.

The director is able to cram a whopping amount of passion and compassion within a 15-minute running time, even inserting a few moments of levity. The story, written by Giménez and Pere Altimira, accumulates to a touching, escapist climax that manages to attract a few laughs as well, making the film’s recent Oscar nomination well deserved.

I was able to interview the director and ask him about the film. Here’s what he had to say via e-mail:

CL: First of all, congratulations on your recent Oscar nomination. I wanted to point out that no Spanish director has ever won in the Live Action Short Category, and was wondering what a win would mean for you and your country?

JG: I don’t like measuring the importance of awards or recognition in terms of nationality. I know, this year I’m the only Spanish director nominated, and the media in my country are covering our movie campaign more than usual for a short film. If this finally helps short films find better treatment in my country, such as finding their way to broader theater exhibition or new slots on TV channels, great. But I’m afraid that after this high point, all things will return to normality, and the impact of short films will be constrained to the festival circuit as usual.

CL: “Timecode” also received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year for best short. Congratulations on that, as well. Had you ever attended Cannes before and what was this experience like compared to other film festivals you’ve attended?

JG: I usually go to Cannes for attending the Marché du Film, in order to show movies to distributors or find sales agents, but I had never had a film nominated before, and that made the difference. I have attended many festivals as a director or producer during my career, but Cannes has this special aura that makes it different. The moment that I will remember forever was the big ovation we got after the end credits in the official screening, even more than receiving the Palme d’Or in the awards ceremony.

CL: You wrote this film with Pere Altimira. What inspired you two to write the film?

The original idea comes from a personal experience. Some years ago, while working for a big company, a colleague discovered a secret that I kept, like Luna discovers Diego’s secret in the movie. On the other hand, I have always had an interest in contemporary dance as a spectator. The mixture of these two ideas is the source of the short.

CL: This film is a little misleading in a very wonderful way. I was not expecting the dancing. I noticed in the credits that the dancing was based on choreography created by your lead Lali Ayguadé from her show “Incognito” that she performs with her co-star Nicolas Ricchini. Did you create “Timecode’s” narrative around “Incognito” or did you actively pursue actors who were already trained dancers?

JG: I wanted professional dancers as the main characters, but we didn’t go through a normal audition process. I chose them while watching a Catalonian TV program about emerging choreographers and dancers. Of course, some of the choreography used in “Timecode” comes from “Incognito,” the show that Lali and Nico were performing at that moment. The fact is that we didn’t have much time for rehearsals, so we preferred a couple that were accustomed to dancing together. I was focused more on giving them normal acting guidance for dramatic scenes, rather than during dance sequences where they are the real masters. I stepped in only when dancing implied a narrative intention, and especially in the integration with the space. We chose the concrete shooting places inside the parking lot even before Lali and Nico were recruited. When they were on board, some choreography was prepared exclusively for that location. However, any decision in this field was always discussed between the two dancers and myself.

CL: This is also your two stars’ acting debut with no film or television credits prior to working with you. Did that scare you at all, working with actors who’ve never acted before?

JG: Neither of them had previous experience in film or theatre, and that was a risk. But one good thing when making a short film is that you can take these kinds of risks. In a feature that’s almost impossible, because there is more money at stake, and investors wouldn’t allow you to shoot without rehearsals or without a normal audition process as we did with “Timecode.” In the end, shorts allow more creative freedom than features.

CL: I know the CCTV shots are not real and you ended up using a GoPro to get those shots. Was this intentional or did you plan to use actual security cameras at some point but found it difficult?

JG: Using real CCTV cameras was out of question since the beginning. As we only had the weekend for shooting, we used green screens for the monitors and left all the CCTV footage treatment for post-production. That turned out to be hard work in the VFX area that spanned almost eight months! Now everybody is praising the film’s simplicity, which I take as a compliment and a reward for the great and invisible job done by the CGI team.

CL: I loved the use of space in the film. We first see Luna in these tight, close-up shots and then see the space around her grow as she steps out of her element and begins communicating with Diego. How did the spacial and dancing elements inform your decision to shoot inside a parking garage and how much of an input did your dancers have in these discussions about deciding where to film?

JG: Shooting in a parking lot was one of the first decisions we made while writing the script. They’re usually used in films as sordid places for crime or car chases, but our movie works as a contrast, and not only in the use of the space. I think that the strangeness of using a place like that as a stage for dance is enhancing the final impact.

CL: I couldn’t help but notice a few parallels between your film and Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film “Red Road.” In both films, a female protagonist works as a CCTV operator. Both of their lives are mundane until they spot a man on their security footage that sparks them to step out of their ordinary bubble and explore parts of themselves they didn’t know was there. Did “Red Road” inspire you in any way while working on “Timecode”?

JG: Yes. I love that movie and I showed it to (co-writer) Pere Altimira in order to build Luna’s character and the whole script and atmosphere. During the Cannes press conference after the ceremony, I was sitting next to [Arnold] sharing the same table in front of the journalists! I told her that her film was an inspiration. She asked me who I was!

CL: Speaking of inspiration, what films and/or filmmakers inspire you? Were there any films from the past year that really stood out to you?

JG: I love a lot of films and filmmakers. For example I admire Jim Jarmusch’s career and philosophy. I think that his last film, “Paterson,” has a lot of things in common with “Timecode”: art and beauty in the dullest of jobs and in the harshest places. But I feel inspired by other disciplines like literature or comic books as well; artists like Adrian Tomine or Daniel Clowes are a reference, even more than filmmakers that I follow regularly.

CL: Normally a security camera has negative connotations –it implies suspicion, betrayal, cheating, stealing, but here the use of the cameras allows for a sense of liberation and creative expression. Could you expand on this idea of exploring creative expression in an environment that feels so rigid and diametrically opposed to artistry?

JG: We use to blame technology for preventing real communication. We communicate with other people through screens constantly these days, but we consider this way of communication a substitute of the real thing. What makes this story different is that CCTV systems are not intended to be used as communication tools. Yes, we usually associate surveillance systems with crimes or bad behaviour, and that’s a film cliché. It’s this contrast that makes the story of “Timecode” powerful. I had already worked on previous films with situations out of their expected place, for example in “Indirect Free Kick” – a discussion between a goalkeeper and his girlfriend takes place in the middle of a soccer match instead of a bar or an apartment, as would be expected.

CL: With the use of the CCTVs, Luna and Diego attempt to communicate with each other using a system that manipulates time. For the majority of the film they rarely share screen space or talk to each other, save for a few greetings. Their main interactions are in the past, what has been expressed during their shift, waiting to be viewed in the future. Is it completely crazy to say I saw this film as a sci-fi romance? That might be stretching it, but I was wondering what you think about that?

JG: This short film is also a school project. I discussed every decision with my students and every step in the production process. There is some use of ellipsis and concepts we were discussing in our class during that time. I told them that what’s not shown is more important and has more impact with the audience than what is shown. In the time between the timecodes, the love story is in the head of the spectators, and that’s more powerful than showing specifically how the story is developing. And there’s always a sense of being the “voyeur,” watching something you’re not allowed to. There is always a character between the spectator and the CCTV screens that acts as reinforcement. That’s one of the essences of cinema: entering other people’s lives and knowing their secrets without being noticed. And yes, this could be a sci-fi romance, but I think that the love for dance that both characters have is above everything else.

CL: Examining the sound design in the film, there’s a lot of silence – a bit of dialogue, a few diegetic sounds, music playing on the radio, but the majority of the story lives in a quiet place. It feels like a reflection of the dullness and emptiness of Luna’s job – the sense that something’s missing in her life. Then at the end, the CCTV footage of them together has a beautiful score. What made you decide to use music during this scene and what discussions did you and your composer Ivan Cester have about what it should sound like?

JG: We discussed this with the sound designer and during the final mix. There is a sense of void that reinforces solitude. I tend to use music less and less in every movie I make, and this time I wanted music that would invade the soundtrack in an unexpected way. I mentioned “In the mood for love” and “Slow West” as references for Ivan in order to find inspiration for the final score. It wasn’t easy, but finally he touched the right key. After the final music version was approved, I changed all the dance editing in order to fit the music score better.

CL: Lastly, are there any projects you’re working on that you want readers to know about?

JG: We are writing a feature film. There is another short film project in the making too, using family Super-8 footage. But “Timecode’s” career still requires a lot of energy and time, so I’m combining efforts!

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will air on Feb. 26 at 4 p.m. PST. For a list of all the nominees, click here.

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