After making several short films and co-directing the documentary Rumba Tres. There & Back Again (2016), David Casademunt (Barcelona, 1984) made his first fiction feature film, The Wasteland, produced and released by Netflix. Starring Inma Cuesta, Roberto Álamo and the young Asier Flores, it tells the harrowing story of a mother and her son who are left alone in a cabin after the unexpected departure of their father. Armed, but scared to death, they defend themselves against a presumed external threat, while fighting to remain sane. We spoke with the filmmaker about his film, horror movies and Mel Gibson.
How long has it taken you to get The Wasteland off the ground and how did the project evolve? How did it get big?
Six and a half years transpired between the first word I wrote of The Wasteland and the first day of filming. In August 2014, at the age of 29, I came across Braveheart (1995) while channel surfing. It’s my favorite movie, I first saw it when I was 11 years old, and it upset me, it made me think, “Man, you have to fight to ensure your first film shares some ingredients with the type of cinema Gibson’s film represents.” At the beginning of Braveheart, William Wallace’s father and brother are killed, and he is left alone in this cabin. Luckily, his uncle arrives, saves him, and brings him up. At that point, I asked myself, “What if this guy hadn’t shown up? What if he had been left alone there, isolated in the middle of the mountains? The kid would have gone crazy in such a hostile environment.” This image sparked an idea in my mind, and I thought I’d love to talk about loneliness and depression, with an aesthetic code similar to that of Braveheart. I prepared an initial draft of The Wasteland, which wasn’t initially a horror, but instead a drama. Then when Martí Lucas and Fran Menchón joined the writer’s room, we very soon realized that given the issues we wanted to deal with, we’d need the help of terror, and we spent the next five years writing a horror movie that connects with drama, emotions, and suspense.
But the project kept evolving.
Yeah, it kept mutating because we started sending it to different development workshops and we were fortunate enough that it was selected at several of them and that’s where we get feedback from many script analysts. Then, finally, in July 2019, the lightbulb went on and Rodar y Rodar production company took an interest in us. They fell in love with the project and with Joaquín Padró and Mar Targarona on board, it was plain sailing to get Netflix involved. But then, the pandemic hit, and the start of filming was postponed until seven months later when filming eventually got underway.
What can you tell us about the change in title, from the initial The Beast to this definitive The Wasteland?
The reason is as simple as that Netflix already had another feature called The Beast, and you can’t have two films with the same title on the platform, that’s just bad marketing strategy.
Was it difficult to get Inma Cuesta and Roberto Álamo to agree to get involved?
Not at all. They said yes straight away. And Roberto is no fan of horror stories, but our script appealed to him because we use terror to talk about internal dramas, that’s what really wooed him.
Where did you shoot? I imagine it was somewhere extremely cold and windy. Did that mean there were days you couldn’t work?
We shot on location in Teruel, in the town of Blancas, on a bleak wasteland. We rebuilt a farrowing pen, which is where sheep take refuge, and turned that into the house we see in the film. And yeah, it was freezing, and very windy. We were terrified little Asier Flores might get blown away! On top of that, hurricane Filomena had passed through the area two weeks earlier. The weather conditions were wild, but we were able to shoot uninterrupted as it didn’t rain a single day.
By the way, how do you explain to a kid like Asier that it isn’t real, that those horror scenes he has to perform aren’t real, to keep him from having a panic attack?
Asier is a very adult child, very intelligent. He is even more of an adult than a child. At 11 years old, I was amazed at how mature he was when we explained to him what the scene was really about. Very often he’d get ahead of us, and he’d be explaining the scene to us, (laughs). In fact, Asier had to make an interpretive effort to appear more child-like as his character, Diego, is more innocent.
Why is the story set in the 19th century?
Before developing the script, I had in mind an initial image I really liked, that of a house in the middle of nowhere. An allegorical image of what could happen to the characters. As we began to develop the story, we realized that it cannot happen today. To talk about isolation, we had to abandon our modern-day world of technology and hyper-communication and travel a bit into the past. The 19th century suited us perfectly, because it isn’t too far away from 2022 and it helps us winking from past to present. At heart, we’re talking about legacy, what we’ve inherited from our recent ancestors. The Spanish 19th century was a time of progress, but also of darkness and wars and all this together forms part of the backstory of the two adult characters.
Are you the kind of person who reads reviews and opinions on social media? How does that work for you now with The Wasteland? Twitter… is this a wasteland that scares you?
Wow, that’s a really timely question right now! And yeah, I’m one of those people who reads all the reviews and opinions across social media. I had a beast growing inside my head for the first four days after the premiere, the result of mental exhaustion because I couldn’t control myself and I read everything published on social media, and there was, and still is, everything out there, some really positive and then some really terrible stuff. I’ve received many beautiful and some horrific private messages. It’s truly been overwhelming, and nobody teaches you how to handle all this: a premiere, suddenly, in 190 countries on Netflix…
And do the awards also steal your heart?
All my life, awards have been one of my hobbies and I follow several awards’ pages like the Goyas, Oscars and the Golden Globes. Me and my friends used to jokingly vote for our favorites, and my biggest dream as a kid was, when I grow up, to be able to vote as a member of a Film Academy, which I’ve finally achieved now as a member of the Catalan Film Academy.
Are you a serious starstruck movie star fan?
Totally, and it’s something I never want to lose. It runs in my family. My father loved the movies, and there were always posters of Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston hanging on the walls at home when I was a kid, the same at my uncle’s house. How could I not be a major starstruck movie star fan? It’s going to be in my blood forever no matter how hard I try and know the ins and outs of this industry. But careful, I’m even a starstruck film critic and journalist fan, and having such close access to you all thanks to The Wasteland is such a blast.
After watching The Wasteland, you don’t need journalists to point out how much you love the work of M. Night Shyamalan, you yourself confess to the fact.
What I love about Shyamalan is that he weaves drama with horror in a very lyrical and allegorical way and I find those ingredients thrilling. I can’t think of any other director who masters the construction of a disturbing, while at the same time, extremely beautiful ambience. For me the balance he strikes is an incredible chimera and something we see in The Village (2004) and Signs (2002). Shyamalan’s use of the language of cinema is truly gifted and it’s almost superfluous for his characters to have dialogue. He tells you everything in the staging, in how the camera moves, in the colors. He blows my mind. The thing I liked most about Old (2021) is you realize that Shyamalan puts everything on the line, gets down and dirty, fully aware that maybe not everyone will find his proposal appealing. Another exceptional craftsman I admire is Mel Gibson, who shares several aspects of Shyamalan’s work and then adds in some violence. And what he achieves is poetry. Gibson is present in many aesthetic, narrative, and musical decisions ofThe Wasteland. Nothing in life would be more mind-blowing than shooting a movie with Mel Gibson in the leading role. And I would love to shoot with actors like Àlex Monner and Anna Castillo. There’s such immense honesty in everything they do! Oh, and I must add Berto Romero to the starstruck list of mine. There, I’ve said it and it’s here in black and white now.
I love the expression ‘scary movie’, much more than ‘horror movie’. Would you agree?
Yeah, especially when it comes to The Wasteland, because the word ‘fear’ or ‘scary’ fits much better than ‘horror’. The film talks about fear, about how to live with it and how it can transform us. How it can end our life and how we can overcome it.
Could you name five scary movies that are references for you? Don’t get too carried away, five will do.
Hard! But I am a huge fan of lists. Number one, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), by Roman Polanski. Number two, Hereditary (2018), by Ari Aster, a film that blew my mind in an absolutely unexpected way. It had been years since I couldn’t sleep for weeks, and I’d see the girl from Hereditary every night in my room. Third, The Orphanage (2007), by J.A. Bayona, close contender with Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001). And then, which I’ve already mentioned, Signs, by Shyamalan, and The Brood (1979), by David Cronenberg. Sorry, but I was also freaked out by The Omen (1976), by Richard Donner, and Poltergeist (1982), by Tobe Hooper. More recently, Malignant (2021), from James Wan.
Was VHS still around when you were a kid, going to the video store to rent the latest releases and then watching them over and over again?
For me, the most exciting part of my week was the weekend when I’d be able to go to the Coco Video store, which was my local video store and my biggest disappointment was getting there only to see that the latest release you were holding your breath for, was already out, and you’d have to wait weeks until it was your turn. Unbelievably frustrating, also the stuff of horror movies!
Are you a freak, shamelessly, in fact, completely proud of it?
Yes, yeah, and proud of it. More than a filmmaker, I’m first and foremost a major film buff. The passion for making cinema comes from the passion for loving cinema as a moviegoer.
Would you be thrilled to hear that after watching The Wasteland a kid told their parents they wanted to do the same, that they wanted to devote their lives to cinema, and to directing in particular?
That’d be incredible, especially because cinema has given me so much… I’ve learned to view the world and life through cinema. I’d say that I’ve learned more from movies than from school. And on a personal and professional level, I’d love to hear that someone could receive anything similar from The Wasteland.
Would you leave the fantasy genre to shoot a comedy or a musical, for example?
Yes, of course. I’m fortunate that, as a moviegoer, I like all kinds of cinema and as such, I look forward to making all kinds of movies. In fact, we’re involved in the screenwriting on three parallel projects with Martí Lucas and Fran Menchón, and there all satirical, black comedies, along the lines of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021), and The Good Boss (2021), by Fernando León de Aranoa. Of course, my dream would be to make an epic film like Braveheart, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), or Ben-Hur (1959), by William Wyler. The battle scenes blow me away, but then I’d also love to do animation, I’m a major fan of 90’s Disney.