Sebastián Lelio on the fantastic woman at the heart of his Oscar-winning film

The celebrated Chilean film director takes an intimate look at the stories and ideas behind his work.
Sebastián Lelio is a Chilean filmmaker whose work includes Gloria and the Oscar-nominated drama A Fantastic Woman. (CBC)
Listen to the full episode52:12

Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio is on a roll. Following his 2013 breakout hit Gloria, Lelio's A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) won the award for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards. When it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017, it won best film, best screenplay and a special jury prize. Centred on the story of Marina, an aspiring singer, A Fantastic Woman has been praised for its moving portrayal of a transgender woman in Chile, played by transgender actor Daniela Vega. 

Lelio's other new movie, Disobedience, is his first English-language film and stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. Based on Naomi Alderman's novel of the same name, the film explores faith, sexuality and forbidden love in an Orthodox Jewish community in England. It had its world premiere last fall, opening to widespread critical acclaim at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

It was during TIFF that Sebastián Lelio spoke with Eleanor Wachtel.

The poetry in cinema

"Poetry was my 'in' to the idea that I could express myself through art. I took it seriously. I wanted to be a poet. I wrote from ages 15 to 22, but I left it because I discovered, and fell in love with, cinema. It was a matter of turning the camera and looking at somebody that hadn't been seen yet. The idea behind Gloria was to take a secondary character — the aunt, the mother — and stay with her as she becomes our protagonist. 

"I love it when dialogue reaches a level of texture and it's no longer about information. One way to do that is by improvising. You know what actors will talk about and you create a structure that allows for freedom, because it doesn't matter what they say, as long as you conduct it. I owe a lot to those years of trying to write poetry and discovering that language could be expanded." 

Casting Daniela Vega

Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal in the 2017 film A Fantastic Woman. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

"With A Fantastic Woman, we were exploring what would happen if the person you loved died in your arms, but your arms are the worst place for that person to die because you are unwanted. You would have to call the family and let them know, but they would want you far away. We were exploring which character would experience this and the idea of a transgender woman appeared. I was not going to make the film without a transgender actor. I met with Daniela Vega. Many of the things she shared with us started to make their way onto the page — I understood that she was the one; she had to be Marina. I asked Daniela, 'How have you survived? What was your strategy?' She said, 'When I was younger, I would just walk away from any provocation.' In a certain way, I took that dignity in Daniela and gave it to the character. But of course, even Marina has a limit."

Healthy disobedience 

"I'm always trying to get my characters to the point of complete rebelliousness. I like that attitude that characters feel when they own their lives. There's something beautiful in the moments when characters disobey. Obedience is dangerous — militaries are obedient. For 17 years, it was impossible to make films in Chile during the insanely capitalist dictatorship unless you did it in an ultra-underground way. We should be creative people, and find our own solutions and conceptions and ideas. Cultural preconceptions are strong and you have to find ways of identifying them, otherwise they become a prison. Travelling is a good medicine for that — reading is another one that reveals other ways of looking at life. Whenever we are trapped in any kind of prison, we should disobey."

Sebastián Lelio's comments have been edited and condensed.

A Fantastic Woman opens in Canada on February 9. 

Disobedience opens on April 27

Music to close the broadcast program: "Negra Presuntuosa" composed by Andres Soto, performed by Inti-Illimani.