Elena Martín (Barcelona, 1992) became known as an actress with “Agata’s Friends” (2015), co-starring newcomers Laia Alabart, Alba Cros, Laura Rius and Marta Verheyen. Afterwards, she made her directorial debut with “Júlia ist” (2017). She has her own theater company, VVAA, and will soon present her latest work in front of the cameras at the D’A Festival in Barcelona, Irene Moray’s short film “Suc de síndria” (Watermelon juice), already critically acclaimed at the Berlin and Malaga festivals. In addition, she is one of the directors of the Movistar+ series “Déjate llevar” (Go with it), which recently won an award at the Cannes Series festival. We talk to Martin about cinema, theater, television, creative independence, working collectively, connecting with the public and the importance of women in the industry. On small and risky projects and on making ends meet.
You’re just back from Rome. What were you up to there?
We went to a gallery run by The Orange Garden crew, to do a performance of “Pussy Picnic“, which is a VVAA group project. It was the wrap party for an exhibition on new gender identities and other related topics titled “Role Play“. Afterwards, we performed a DJ Set, and then back home.
Sorry, what is a DJ Set?
It’s a DJ session. It was run by Clara Aguilar and Laura Weissmahr, two members of the group who from time to time play together.
What do you think was the secret of the success of “Agata’s Friends“? Its freshness? Its capacity to remain as a timeless generational portrait?
It was a film made on a shoestring and unreservedly, an end-of-career project with no pretensions and, suddenly, it contained a fragment of truth. In addition, this coincided with the fact that we were four young actresses…and I think the whole pack was a bit of a novelty. It’s a very honest and very delicate film. It worked because of the story behind it.
From “Agata’s Friends” and your debut in the film, “Júlia ist“, in all the interviews, including this one, you’ve been asked about the role and visibility of women in film, in front of and behind the cameras. As if you were a spokesperson or something like that. Are you OK with having to answer these types of questions at least for some time to come?
I think it makes sense to be asked about the topic. Although, there are ways and ways to ask … There’s the question that doesn’t seek an honest answer from you, and there’s the question that does give you a voice. And I’m delighted to answer the latter. Unfortunately, there are many questions posed from a defensive perspective and they’re a little more complex to address.
From a defensive perspective? Self-defense? Do you mean from certain prejudicial viewpoint?
I’ve had to hear an expression time and time again that’s almost surreal: “Of course, now it’s fashionable for women to direct”. The sentence itself carries enough baggage to be a long-haul flight to Australia, it’s horrendous (laughs).
You’re one of the co-directors of Leticia Dolera’s series “Déjate llevar“, which has just triumphed at the Cannes series festival. How did you find this incursion into the mainstream? Or was it just more of what you’d been doing so far in independent film and theater?
In the end, on a deeper level, there isn’t much of a difference. Because it’s still a signature, or signatures series because Leticia Dolera is the screenwriter as well as a star in the show. Although it’s not autobiographical drama, “Déjate llevar” includes many of Leticia’s own viewpoints on issues. And I can empathize a lot with that, and not because “Júlia ist” was autobiographical, but because I understand the animus that motivated the making of the series, and I can identify with that. For me, it’s been different because I’d never managed a team of 50 or 60 people. And I’d never worked at the pace of television. But, throughout the process, I’ve been very close to Leticia and Ginesta Guindal, who is the other co-director. Leticia worked more as the showrunner of the project. So, no I never had the impression that I was entering a cold, mechanical or industrial mainstream world at all, because it’s a series made with great care.
But now you have had to go all out, right? You had to take around 15 or 20 decisions per minute? Do you have enough technical training and experience to face a challenge like that, where the concepts of “speed” and “effectiveness”, and not necessarily in this order, were ever-present?
When the producer of “Déjate llevar“, Oriol Maymó called me and asked me to direct two episodes, my response was, “But what are you smoking? I’ve only ever made a movie with some friends!” (laughs). Who in their right mind would consider giving me this responsibility? Oriol told me that Leticia trusted me implicitly and that I should join her. We understood each other very well and I liked the script: I had fun reading it and it moved me. And come on! I could hardly say no to an opportunity like that. It wasn’t about having advanced technical knowledge, but it was a matter of attitude and having confidence in myself. I understood that directing is making decisions so that the team can move. And the team was packed full of super professional managers and team leaders.
Was there any point during the lengthy process of “Júlia ist” that you almost threw in the towel, or wanted to give up?
We had a few crunch moments, of being blocked, of stagnation, of asking ourselves: “How are we going to resolve this problem or this connection?”. They were production and scripting issues. Suddenly, an actor had dropped out of the cast… But, for that very reason, if the film turned out well it’s precisely because we never threw in the towel. And we repeated the sequences or the shots until we got it right. Once we had committed to the movie, we didn’t even contemplate dropping out as an option. It just wasn’t viable. It was even an emotional issue: it would’ve been heartbreaking to throw away so many hours work.
Some who’ve never seen a VVAA show say that, from the outside, they appear to be very “abstract” set ups. Would you agree? What does your work speak about?
It’s funny, because what we’ve seen in every VVAA set up is that the codes in which we move are abstract or experimental, but in the end, we’re all from the same generation, and we like the pace and we’re fascinated by pop culture. As such, the shows end up really tight on a thematic and reference level. They are all immersive, with the audience involved with the actors. The fragmented structure is also repeated. In other words, we never explain a story from beginning to end with each character’s storyline, but instead they mix drama and discourse. There’s always live music and audiovisual pieces. It’s true that the structure could be defined as “abstract”, but it’s not a…
…cold and distant thing?
Exactly, it’s not cold and not distant either. Not super intellectualized. These are very close-up and intimate theatrical ensembles.
In other words, both the text and the form are important.
Yes. From the beginning, the whole team is involved in space, the music, and so on. The text is built at the same time as the form takes shape. We create scenes that can hardly be scripted, because they come from the light or from an actor’s improvisation with a microphone. We’ve done five shows so far and yes, there are ideas that we collect here and there, from our previous work together. But, in general, what is really thrilling for us is what comes from creation working live, the unexpected novelty.
Is there any fear of not repeating yourselves, of certain codes and well-known topics settling in? I mean, a fear of getting too comfortable?
We’re all really expansive so, at the end of a process, we have a skeleton step outline for the play with … 90 scenes! Until we get to the final piece, we have to renounce so many things that might have appeared really powerful. We always need to have a challenge, something that puts us to the test, combined with reformulated themes from previous occasions. We might pick up an idea that we had dropped half-baked in the past and really get to the bottom of it on this occasion. For example, in “This Is Real Love”, which is our most recent play, we continue with the story of having the audience among us, but, this time, they’re standing. We’ve also introduced a kind of auction, picking up an idea from “Pussy Picnic“, where we’d already discussed economic issues.
Did you expect “Suc de síndria” to get such a warm reception and generate so much expectation? After Berlin and Malaga, it’s soon to screen at the Barcelona D’A Festival. And, in general, shorts go unnoticed, unless they make it to the Oscars, of course.
The director, Irene Moray, didn’t expect it. And I have to say that I did a little bit, yes. Because, when I saw Irene work, I thought that she was by no means the standard issue. She’s really magical, and the way she directed the crew and the actors … I rejoice in the fact that this happens, because, you often come across work that has been so lovingly done but never actually makes it to the festivals or is seen by audiences.
“Suc de síndria“, in which you co-star with Max Grosse, explains how, suddenly, a relationship between a couple breaks up because of something the female character explains. How do audiences who’ve already seen Irene Moray’s short react?
Festival screenings are intense. Very often, shorts are projected in the same program together with other shorts, and when it’s time for “Suc de síndria“, the room goes silent, (laughs). It’s a sign that the atmosphere is charged. Afterwards, people come up to us, men and women to say: “Thanks’ for making this short film. I’ve really identified with it”. In the discussions we deal with some pretty intense topics that have to be handled delicately.
For those who still haven’t seen “Suc de síndria” yet, let’s keep the THEME of the film a secret, theme in capital letters. Another recent work as an actress was “Con el viento“, debut feature by Meritxell Colell.
Meritxell is a really powerful director, but at the premiere in theatres level, “Con el viento” hasn’t been able to enjoy a very regular programming. It has been very well-received at festivals. Actually, it’s a super emotional story that connects perfectly with the public on the street.
It’s not a difficult movie.
It’s not difficult; it’s a tender story about family relationships. It was a real treat to film because we had time to do things. It was a really cool craft piece.
A lot of people were surprised to see you dressed in period costume for the recent TV-movie “La dona del segle / The woman of the century”, a TV3 and TVE co-production directed by Sílvia Quer. Were you surprised to see yourself in costume?
Yeah, I know. Although I’ve always thought, since I was a little girl, when I saw period movies, that I have an old woman’s face.
So far, your resume and your career haven’t taken that path because you’ve always told and staged stories very much grounded in this century, and not the early 20th century, as is the case of this TV-movie about the emergence of feminism.
It was the producer, Miriam Porté who gave the nod to try out for the casting. I know Miriam because we’re both involved in Dones Visuals, which is the Catalan association of women in the audiovisual industry. Both Silvia and I wanted a strong and powerful female character. I want to work in formats that I’m not used to. As I’m coming from the underground, where you have to do everything yourself, and it can be really tough and takes its toll on you, coming across a project like this was kick-ass. I told Sílvia: “You’re there, they take you from here to another place”. Yeah, it was fun to dress up in period. If I hadn’t been involved in filming before as an actress “La dona del segle” wouldn’t have been capable of subsequently directing the Leticia Dolera series. It would’ve given me a heart attack!
But surely, during the breaks in filming “La dona del Segle“, you were on your phone controlling other issues, putting out other fires.
Yeah sure. I’ve always been involved in several simultaneous projects in my professional life. But, during the filming, I eased up a little on trips to festivals for “Júlia ist“. I’d been traveling every week for a year and a half! And it was time to touch base again in Barcelona. Of course, after filming, I was back travelling again.
So far, we’ve touched on spiritual and poetic issues. Let’s move on now to prose. Are you worried about not making ends meet?
Not at the minute. I don’t spend much, and my needs are pretty basic. I spend almost everything on food. I really like to eat. With the TV-movie and with the Leticia Dolera series I’ve been saving. I don’t have money to burn, but I don’t worry about not making ends meet. During “Júlia ist” I was in a pretty bad financial state, because the film was a constant investment. Fortunately, I was able to risk it because I had my parents there supporting me. From one day to the next, I wasn’t working in the industry, which at the end of the day is what brings the bacon home. And, besides, I’m writing. But, when I catch myself worrying about the dough, I try to stop myself. I teach here and there. I really like teaching, and, if they offer me a course, I’ll take it. I was also at the SGAE on a three-day workshop. In other words, I’m keeping my eye on the ball, so things don’t get out of hand financially.
Just out of interest: in a company as underground, punk or hippie as VVAA, who is responsible for the accounts, for balancing the books?
That’s a good question! In VVAA, there are too many artists together, and there isn’t a single person exclusively dedicated to the accounts, but we do have someone who’s a bit more au fait with numbers, someone who’s better at these matters. That aside, it’s a real mess. Luckily, we do have well-established people around us who not only sponsor and accompany us, but also advise and help us in these matters and in others. There is a generational plug, obviously, although there are also people from other generations willing to collaborate with us. I’m talking about companies like La Brutal, Dietrich Grosse and Montse Majench. On more than one occasion, some of them have told us: “Guys, organize!”. It’s complicated, because we work in a very non-hierarchical way, and, in addition to experimenting in new formats, we do it with new forms of production. The system is not built to allow you to have your own form of company: there are some models, and you have to adapt to them. We are in the process of seeing how we can organize without losing our essence, but we haven’t found the answer yet.
Everything in its time, little by little.
If patronage still existed, it’d be a perfect route for us.
You transmit tranquility. And you smile a lot. Are these two masks you use to hide a bundle of nerves?
There’s plenty of that, yes. They’re not voluntary masks. I am very nervous, and I need to force myself to pace things and to go step by step. If not, if I align myself with my nerves, if my inner being meets my external being, my brain explodes. On the other hand, I am optimistic and in general, I trust things, and I think: “You’ll get through this, relax”. On the outside, my dad is somebody who transmits great peace of mind. I must’ve inherited it from him. I get my temper from my mom. But she really dishes it out carefully. She really handles it well.
Do you look forward to the arrival of companies like Netflix in Spain? Do you expect that, apart from producing series for all audiences, they will also approach more risky, minority and alternative audiovisual proposals? The experience of “Déjate llevar“, on Movistar +, is proof that there may be a place for risk-taking, for the midpoint between rarity and commerciality?
I like the middle ground. Movistar + has produced a lot of series that deviate from the norm.
Like “Vergüenza“, from Juan Cavestany and Álvaro Fernández Armero.
Exactly. I’m underground, okay, but if you look at the most radical thing we’ve done, which is “Pussy Picnic,” even that’s easy for an audience to get their heads around. And the same thing happened with “Júlia ist“, which was a small movie that was made with a fighting but accessible spirit. I don’t want to work for the elites. I like experimenting and taking risks, but I’d like the work to reach as many people as possible. I don’t want to do something for very few people.
And, incidentally, it’d be nice if films like “Júlia ist” weren’t aired on TV at midnight, but on a prime-time schedule. Or something closer to prime-time.
What movies did you see as a child? And what do you watch now? Are they very different?
It’s a question that I always have a tough time answering, because I see so many things! And I don’t get star-struck at all! I don’t tend to a specific person’s career, but I see very different films, and each of them influences me in its own unique way.
Ok, so let’s not talk about creative references. Let’s stick to discussing cinematographic tastes that, perhaps maybe subsequently do influence your artistic vision.
As a teenager or pre-teen, the first films that really struck me were “Pulp Fiction“, “Fight Club” or Woody Allen’s work. Films that were precisely somewhere between auteur film and commercial cinema. While I was studying my degree in Audiovisual Communication, I discovered the more movie-buffish and intellectual side to this art. I did a lot of work on Manoel de Oliveira. One of his works, “The Strange Case of Angelica“, really moved me. Relatively recently, I discovered Miranda July, who makes movies, gives performances and writes poetry. And she’s an actress. She doesn’t define herself within one single profession. I can see myself reflected in her when I’m working on several things at the same time. When filming “Júlia ist“, Mia Hansen-Love was a great reference. I like my contemporaries, they motivate me, because they’re alive and kicking, flesh and bone that are more or less close by. When it comes to theater, I look to the cinematographic worlds of Yorgos Lanthimos or Roy Andersson, with their interpretive codes that go beyond naturalism.
And popcorn-munching cinema made in Hollywood too?
I’d have to say yes, of course, but I’m not really a big consumer of this type of cinema. I have friends who are very Marvel, and if they suggest we go see a movie together , I’ll always say yes. I also have to say that, as far as I’m concerned, Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls” is one hell of a movie.
Do you know “Clueless“, by Amy Heckerling, within the same genre? referring to foundational films.
Ah, no. I´ll make a note of it. I’m more into the Hollywood serial format than movie format. I love “The Handmaid’s Tale” And, when it appeared on TV, I devoured “Lost“. I’ve just finished watching the second season of “The OA“. I love Brit Marling. I was fascinated by “Transparent” and “I Love Dick“.
Should we wrap up with the inevitable question about what projects are in the pipeline?
I’m starting to write a movie, but I’m slow. I’m getting into a complex subject and I want to do it well. It’s a very different movie from “Júlia ist“. And the narrative complexity is also different. I’m still drafting the map.
Is it a project with some big producer behind it, who simply calls you up from time to time to ask how things are coming along?
Yes, Lastor Media. I’m also working with my friend Marta Cruañas, with whom I co-wrote “Júlia ist“.