An interview with EXTRATERRESTRIAL’s writer/director Nacho Vigalondo
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s Hitchcock-influenced sci-fi screwball romantic comedy EXTRATERRESTRIAL defies definition. And that’s what makes it so much fun.
EXTRATERRESTRIAL, the latest smart sci-fi work from renowned Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, is now available from Focus World. The director was recently in New York City, where we were got a chance to talk to the charming filmmaker about his unique take on science fiction.
Extraterrestrial is available for download on iTunes.
Tell us what EXTRATERRESTRIAL is about?
EXTRATERRESTRIAL tells the story of this guy Julio, who wakes up next to a girl named Julia. They both have a massive hangover, because they were really drunk the night before. They don’t even know if they had sex the night before. She wants him to leave, but he wants to stay. And if this wasn’t uncomfortable enough, there is a big UFO hanging over the city. So they have to confront the uncomfortable situation between them, as well as the fact the whole city has been evacuated.
This is both a sci-fi movie and a romantic comedy?
People keep asking me if EXTRATERRESTRIAL started as a romantic comedy that became a science fiction comedy or if it started as a science fiction film that became a comedy. And every time I answer the same. I am interested in the collision between those two seemingly incompatible genres. I will never make a pure rom-com or a pure invasion film. I am really interested to movies that defy description. I’ve always been attracted to shooting a movie that takes place in the background of a blockbuster. Instead of focusing on the people who are saving the world and fighting the aliens, I want to focus on the people in the background that are not useful at all. It’s a movie that pays attention to us, the normal people.
Do you like sci-fi invasion films?
Yes, I like those big blockbusters. I like Independence Day, Battle Los Angeles, and, of course, War of the Worlds. But the first and biggest reference for this film is the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel. In fact, it feels like my characters saw that film, because the way they behave in this film, the way they lie to each other, is coming from people who somehow understand the rules of the “Body Snatchers.”
But this is a comedy, right?
The structure of this film is the classic screwball comedy. The only change that I made to that old structure is that instead of letting the characters be so wise and so clever and so fast, as they are in those Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder films, my characters are contemporary in that they are not that wise, not that agile, not that fast. I like to think that I am taking the texture of modern comedy, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or the Ricky Gervais comedy The Office (both the UK and US versions), taking modern comedic characters inability to communicate, to the old structure of a screwball comedy.
What happens when you mix sci-fi and screwball comedy?
What I love about collapsing these two genres is playing with the audience, playing with their expectations. It’s fun to see how the UFO means something completely different for audiences at the start of the movie than it does at the end. I think that the reason that I make these kinds of films is that I want the nature of the film to change all the time. I want the audience to feel disoriented but also stimulated, because they are not following a recognizable path. For example, in romantic comedy, Julio and Julia should get back together at the end, but they reconnect in the middle – so what is the rest of the movie about? While the film follows the rules of comedy, I insist that it is science fiction. The last shot, when we see the complete UFO, is the key to the film.
While the UFO is real, is it also a MacGuffin, what Hitchcock described as a device that propels the plot?
I like to think of the UFO as the biggest MacGuffin ever. This may be the first film in which the alien element is something that benefits the characters, because they all take advantage of it. The Hitchcock film that most influenced this is Rear Window, a movie which is all about what we can see through the window and what we are not able to see. In Rear Window, the perception of the characters was limited by the physical elements of the house. It is the same here. When they are inside the flat, they are not able to see the whole UFO, because there is a physical barrier. Here the audience’s point of view is the same as the characters – and just as limited. That is why I play all the time with screens inside the movie, windows inside the window.
Many people in the US may not be familiar with your actors. Tell us about them.
Julio is played by Julián Villagrán, a very popular actor in Spain known for both drama and comedy. Michele Jenner, who plays Julia, is one of the most famous actresses in Spain, really well known for her television roles. As an actress, she is obviously gorgeous, but also very versatile in what she can do. The husband Carlos is played by Raúl Cimas and the neighbor Angel is Carlos Areces, and those two actors are really well known for doing comedy. In fact, I’ve worked with both before in a TV show Muchachada nui. They are well known for doing this surreal sketch comedy in the vein of Monty Python. Carlos Areces is going to appear in the next Pedro Almodóvar film. And the last actor, Miguel Noguera who plays the guy who appears on TV, is a cult comedian in Spain. He writes books and does a lot of stage comedy. But the way he makes comedy is impossible to describe – even in Spanish. He represents the really avant garde in comedy in Spain..
I’m curious how the film was received in Spain. Like many invasion films, it could easily be read as political allegory.
I wrote it three years ago, and shot it two years ago. But somehow I feel that this movie has come to represent a country that has changed in that time. It seems like when I talk about desolated cities, about social rules vanishing because of some sort of global collapse; it feels like I’m talking about this financial situation in Spain. The truth is the movie was written before that, and I was not aware of these issues when I was writing it. Yet I really feel that movies are much more intelligent than their directors. When you see those science fiction movies from the 50s, now we know they were metaphors for global fears of communism or nuclear disaster. Those movies work as metaphors, but those directors were not aware of the metaphorical power of their movies. I think this is the same with me. My movie represents this age much better than me.
What’s next for you?
My next feature is going to be called Windows and it is going to be in English. It is going to feel like a labyrinth, just like my first film. We will shoot the interiors in Spain and the exteriors in Austin, Texas.