It feels like every few months we get an article decrying the paltry numbers of speaking roles for women in contemporary cinema. With his recent string of in-depth portraits of a diverse range of heroines, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, therefore, feels like a rebel against the status quo. True to form, he brought not one, but two unconventional female-centric films to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. In “A Fantastic Woman“, a transgender woman copes with an intolerant society in the traumatic aftermath of her boyfriend’s untimely death. For “Disobedience” he made his English-language debut, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring as Jewish women harboring mutual feelings of forbidden love.
Speaking with Lelio during TIFF about his recent work, he was modest about his feminist reputation, however. “It’s not part of a strategy or personal agenda. It’s just the result of following what excites me and moves me.” For Lelio, women make ideal lead characters because they often have to overcome a world that seems to be against them.
“Cinema is a love story between the camera and the characters.”
When asked about his approach to writing his rich characters, he states that “cinema is a love story between the camera and the characters,” as well as “a love story between the camera and the actors.” He adds, “characters at the end of the day, are just a device to get to the person and interpreting them.” His secret, therefore, is in loving the characters as real human beings. “When you love someone, you know how to look at that person, you know every little detail. You love the way the hair falls when he/she turns. Or the way he/she takes the spoon when they’re having tea.”
The specificity he craves in his stories was especially important in casting the lead for “A Fantastic Woman”. He admits, however, that he needed help in finding a suitable transgender actress for the part. “I didn’t have any transgender friends and I was living in Germany. So I wasn’t in touch with what was going on in Santiago.” After meeting with a few actresses, he was introduced to Daniela Vega, who he was told is “fantastic.” And they were right. Lelio instantly hit it off with Vega after talking for hours, which he claimed was a “milestone” in the filmmaking process. “She made me want to do the film. And she made me understand that I wasn’t going to make the film without a transgender actress.”
Recognizing the value of her perspective, Lelio then gave Vega an advisory role in shaping the character. “Every time I had a question, she would be there and we’d talk. It wasn’t a script about her life at all. But many things from her experiences started to make their way onto the page.”
In writing the script for “Disobedience” however, Lelio relied on the novel by Naomi Aldereman as well as his own research. “I’m not British and I’m not Jewish. So it was super demanding in terms of the amount of research.” He further explains, “I had 7 cultural consultants from within that community. They were generous enough to be available and to read the script. They provided the cultural texture I needed in order for this world to seem real and alive.”
When the time came to cast “Disobedience”, the process was much easier. “Rachel Weisz discovered the novel and invited me to write and direct. So I wrote the role for her,” Lelio says. Rachel McAdams’ involvement, on the other hand, provided a chance for him to work with one of his favorite actresses. “I’ve always loved Rachel McAdams,” he confesses. And Lelio felt she would be the perfect match for Weisz. “I knew they were going to be great together and it would be a beautiful artistic duel.”
“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the film community in Chile.”
Among his filmmaking peers in Chile, there’s no such artistic competitiveness, however. “There’s a lot of camaraderie in the film community in Chile. We help each other out.” He credits the rise of Chilean filmmakers like himself and Pablo Larrain to this collaborative atmosphere. And he, therefore, expects full support for “A Fantastic Woman” in its Oscar bid for Best Foreign Language Film, an honor that he doesn’t take lightly. “We are grateful and happy. And we are prepared for the race.” Regardless of whether “A Fantastic Woman” gets nominated or not, the film makes Lelio feel like a proud father. “Wherever the film goes, I will follow her.”