We spoke with director Juanma Bajo Ulloa (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 1967) about the premiere of his latest film, “Baby”, but, above all, we discussed freedom. Creative freedom and freedom to build the dark world without dialogues in this beautiful film about a mother (Rosie Day) who after selling her baby son, tries to recover him by visiting the mansion where her son is guarded by three women that could well have come from the pages of a horror story.
Is “Baby” a critique of the conservative movie industry that’s only willing to gamble on the conventional, on what “works”?
“Baby” was born as a free film, handmade by a team of artisans whose intention is to create a beautiful and sincere work, which tries to find an equally sovereign and unprejudiced audience. The main interest of the industry and the established power is to manufacture docile and dependent consumers.
Did any producers or networks, tell you “we’ll only back this and buy it if you shoot it with dialogue”?
The script of the film was distilled until dialogue is reduced to a minimum. Finally, during editing, I found that this was the most honest and fitting way: to trust the language of cinema itself. But, as you say, there were indeed meetings in which this narrative idea took its toll on us, and we verified the paradox of a civilization that is defined as “progressive and open” in appearance, but which is, in reality, deeply conservative.
What does the fact that there is no dialogue contribute, at the level of language, of connection with the public?
The viewer goes from being considered the usual passive and bulimic consumer to participating, with all their senses, in a sensory and emotional experience. Each sound, every musical nuance, every gesture or pose from the protagonists becomes valuable information. The public is treated as a thinking being, capable of interpreting and connecting with their emotions, based on their own personal experience.
It is also true that, after a few minutes, you ‘forget’ that there is no text? Do you think we’ve overrated words? Is script often confused with dialogue?
Words have become the background noise in our society. For commercial purposes, the entire planet has been invited to give their opinion and inflate their ego, not to listen and cultivate judgment. As Umberto Eco said, “the village idiot has been given a voice”. This excess of dialectic and lack of rigor has depreciated its value. As such, some folk have become fed up with words. Regarding the concept of the screenplay, indeed, as with almost everything, there is huge confusion coming from the prevailing simplification.
I know you don’t consider “Baby” a ‘return’ to your beginnings, to the time of “Butterfly Wings” (1991) and “La madre muerta” (1993), because you say that you’ve always been close to these characters and themes.
I cannot speak of a return to the origin because, whether I have the opportunity to show it or not, that place has always been inside, and it will continue there. My films emerge from the visceral and emotional, and they just come at different times in my life. I am fascinated by the beauty and darkness of the human soul, its capacity to harm and love. Its disconnection from its own being and from the organism that we call Nature.
Is this a cruel tale? A dramatized denunciation with the trappings of a tale?
Tales are painful journeys (the wolf eats the grandmother, the duckling is despised for its appearance, the envious sisters enslave the young woman) because they delve into the essential fears and desires of human beings. Hence its ability to transcend time. But, at the same time, they are beautiful in form and substance. More than reporting, “Baby” is born from a reflection on the sale of children and delves into our ability to grant ourselves a second chance.
Did you shoot with total freedom without worrying about the so-called market?
Years ago I thought that the market was the consequence of audiences “taste” and perhaps even then it was to a great extent. Currently, I have lost that innocence and I see another reality, with a society more ideologically and politically manipulated than any other before, to the point that the public themselves perform the work of censorship. Therefore, it cannot be shot in total freedom. But perhaps it’s possible, as in any dictatorship, to circumvent censorship.
Where was the movie shot? As is often the case with many creators, did you have to sift through a ton of footage, cut and edit to get to the essence?
The movie was shot on location in Álava, one of those exceptional places in the world, but unknown to the majority. Due to the pandemic, we’ve had more time with this movie to take care of the music and sound, and to fine-tune the editing that always welcomes polishing. There are indeed deleted scenes, which can perhaps be seen in the video version.
How did you choose the cast for “Baby”?
My search had no geographic or national limitations and we simply went in search of the best actresses for each role. That opened the casting up to prestigious international actresses such as Harriet Sansom Harris and Natalia Tena, and rising talents like Rosie Day. We were also motivated once again have the most impressive presence in Spanish cinema, Charo López, and talented local actresses such as Natalia Ruiz or the Basque actresses Susana Soleto and Carmen San Esteban. We’d need to dedicate an entire other interview to talk about Mafalda Carbonell.
I really like Mafalda Carbonell’s character. You never know how she’ll react. Whether she’s an ally or an enemy of Rosie Day, the protagonist …
Her character is free and wild, lacking in prejudice or fear, but also perhaps empathy and scruples. Her routine includes cruelty and fun at any cost. Confined to that insane mansion, her imagination is her universe. She is neither friend nor enemy to anyone. And her desire is to play, but also to become a woman like her grandmother.
Is this a story of / with / about women? By the way, is the baby a boy or a girl?
The film talks about death and life, and creation as creation belongs to the female universe, the potential of motherhood. Nature itself, omnipresent in “Baby”, is Mother Earth. Whether the baby is a boy, or a girl is the million dollar question. But only those who are attentive will discover the answers found within the film.
It’s impossible to forget the images of “Baby”, first those delightful landscapes, then interiors of terror. Was it a matter of combining them, and not seeking aesthetics just for the sake of seeking aesthetics?
The images of “Baby” disturb because they arise from the subconscious and that’s what they target. The crew working on “Baby” were instructed to make every finite detail beautiful. It was the same with the characters: their actions are not subject to a value judgment. Terrible or not, they respond to their weaknesses and strengths, to their fears and boldness.
And the music, is that another narrator?
All elements of the narrative are a priority, and the music began to take shape from the beginning of the project. Thus, the musicians already had pieces composed even during filming. The indications for Koldo Uriarte and Bingen Mendizabal were to obtain an atmosphere according to the feeling of emotion, melancholy, beauty and confidence in life that the story should convey. The process of creation, distillation and adjustment has taken more than a year. The music of the late Nick Drake was on my mind from minute 1. Somehow, that song inspired the movie itself.
I’ve read an interview in which you say: “France loves culture, while Spain uses its culture and manipulates it. That’s the big difference, and that’s why French creation is a benchmark for many creators”. Is the issue of Spain and culture an endemic evil? Or does it depend on the era?
Culture represents the true essence of a people. For this reason, the most cultured peoples have left an indelible mark on humanity, have transcended and enjoy universal prestige. Our country has one of the most admirable cultural potentials and creative talents but, at the same time, we portray ourselves as a complex and Cainite community, therefore, incapable of flowing in harmony. It’s always been basically like that, and it takes great courage and humility to change it.
What’s your memory of the success of “Airbag” (1997)? Why do you think it connected with audiences so much and has become a cult film?
I remember it like it was yesterday. It connected, simply, because it was created from creative independence for an equally free society. It represents a time of conquest in terms of freedom of expression that we believed would last forever, but that has disappeared in the most regrettable way. I suppose it will be forbidden soon by some Ministry of Complete Loons & Nutjobs.
And did you get showered with offers similar to “Airbag” immediately come to you?
None. Nobody hires a dissident.
“El Mal”, a thriller about the human need to be recognized and appreciated, and about our inability to accept our dark side. And “Muerte Mortal”, a comedy as absurd as the title.