Berkeley Fiction Review sat down with Mexican-Canadian filmmaker Nico Pereda to discuss his creative process, distilling life experiences through art, and the gift of creative roadblock.
Nico has directed nine features and three short films, whose work explores the everyday through fractured and elliptical narratives using fiction and documentary tools. His work has been the subject of more than 30 retrospectives worldwide in venues such as Anthology Film Archive, Pacific Film Archive, Jeonju International Film Festival and TIFF Cinematheque. He also is a professor in the Film and Media Department at UC Berkeley.
Berkeley Fiction Review: The first question I had was just a little bit about the beginning process of creating a story for you. Where do you get your inspiration from and what do the early stages of the creative process normally look like for you?
Nico Pereda: Inspiration, in my case, is a strange word, because I have to work pretty hard to start a process. It’s not like I’m just walking around and then things come to me. I have to concentrate, think about the fact that I am brainstorming ideas. So it’s kind of an artificial process, and many times that requires other media or other artists to get me going. Many times I go to a library, and I look for things that are exciting at the time. What I’m looking for is always kind of random. It has a lot to do with interactions with friends and things that I’ve heard recently: someone I heard at a party, someone mentioning a novel or whatever, then I look for it and look what’s around there. Then I start reading different things, and sometimes things do guide me in some direction, sometimes not. Sometimes, it’s rather different, because it could be around a social problem that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and then I try to turn that into some kind of film process. Brainstorming there becomes more about form—how to address a social issue with an interesting form that I haven’t seen before. Many times, watching some films helps me out, especially watching experimental films helps me.
Even though my films are sometimes thought about as experimental, and I sometimes myself think about them as experimental, they don’t exactly fit that category because I work with actors, I write screenplays (not always but most of the time), but I’m really interested in formal experimentation. I find that by watching experimental films, I get really excited. I also get excited by going to contemporary art galleries. Of course, it depends on whose art I’m looking at, but when I don’t exactly understand what I’m looking at, that it takes sort of an effort, I get seduced automatically. It’s a process that energizes me into wanting to make something. I guess I could say there’s two different things. On the one hand, for inspiration, I kind of need to be excited independently of what it is, and that level of excitement I get through art often I need in order to produce more art. Then, sometimes in conversations I get inspiration from people, but mostly through experiencing art or literature. And then there is something about what I am going to do with this excitement, and that varies, but I have to put a lot of work into that. I research into different things, and once I have a lead to something, then I have to stay with it for a long period of time. I dwell on it a lot.
So it’s actually quite a difficult process for me. I have friends that have lots of ideas, and I believe in them and what they do, but for me it takes just a lot of dedication to get something going. But then when I do have something, I tend to work relatively fast. So when I feel like some things are in the right direction, then I can get it done pretty fast.
BFR: That’s really interesting. So you’re saying that a lot of the time your inspiration comes from a reaction to another piece of art, which is really interesting. Do you feel like then you’re working with an intention always in mind? Like there’s an intention that you use as a guiding light throughout the creative process?
Nico Pereda: There’s an intention throughout my life, in a sense, that anything—that any interaction and any human interaction, but mostly any interaction with artwork—can lead to something. It’s not so conscious—I mean, it is conscious, but it’s not so cunning. I go to art museums, and it’s not like I’m thinking about what I’m gonna steal from there. It comes more organic, like automatically when I’m reading a novel, or short story, or when I’m in an art gallery, I’m already predisposed to start thinking about my own work in relation to what I’m seeing.
See, I think this is perhaps a little bit different than the process of writers, in that filmmakers—and this is a generalization—but in some ways I feel like filmmaking or directing has a lot to do with uniting others to do things that you want to do. If you look at a director on a set, most of the time, they’re not doing much. They’re just busy overseeing and telling people what to do. In a more traditional set, you’re not touching the camera, the microphones, you’re not acting, you’re not carrying anything, you’re not cooking—you’re just there. So in a way, for me the writing process sometimes resembles that, in that I’m not generating from a blank page, but I have a ton of materials around me. They can be texts, other films, sometimes nonfiction books—like in one of my latest films, the whole idea sprung from a political science book on the representation of the war on drugs in Mexico. I was interested in that subject matter, and it’s a dense book, but I was able to draw a lot of inspiration into creating something. It’s more about having a lot of stuff around me that then I can reconfigure—like a collage where everything already pre-exists, and I just need to put it in the right place.
BFR: That’s really cool. Speaking of the collage… do you think your ideas come more from visual images, or do you think you operate with a narrative structure in mind?
Nico Pereda: It’s hard to say. It’s not exactly visual. Sometimes it is, but many times it’s not. Sometimes, narrative is also not exactly how I think about the films. I think most of my films start with a scene in the present. I don’t care, most of the time, who the characters are when I start. The first source of something, many times, is a scene with a series of people and a friction or interaction between those people. I don’t think too much about what that interaction would lead to, or why that interaction happened, but just the interaction itself. Kind of like if you walk into a bar or a convenience store, and there’s some people having some tension. Maybe you’re scared, but you’re excited about observing that tension. You have no clue who these people are, where this conflict that they’re dealing with is going, why it was generated in the first place, who they were two hours before this conflict—but there’s something sort of automatically exciting about seeing conflict on display. Even if the conflict is super small, right? Like if you’re in a restaurant, and then you see that the couple next to you is having some tensions—I mean, maybe you shouldn’t peek—but let’s say you do look around and start to sort of engage with some other people’s problems [laughing]. It’s this idea of spying on others. I mean, you shouldn’t do it, obviously, just because of human decency, but the drive to know, “What’s going on? What is their tension? Why is he about to cry?” It’s something that is, to me, interesting in and of itself. I don’t need to know the context of their lives for me to be excited about that moment.
And so that initial thing happens in my mind, and then I have to just write it out. I don’t exactly feel that I’m coming up with it. It’s more like the world is going through me, like the idea that a lot of the work of artists is not so much generating stuff, because we humans work a little bit differently. It’s more like you’ve been all your life consuming—consuming images, consuming the world around you, conversations, and all kinds of things that you read, but also consuming experiences in many ways. What you create as artists is distilling that experience. So when I watch characters in my mind do stuff, I’m not generating it. I am just arranging things that I’ve seen. You know what I’m trying to say? In that sense, the collage model works for me quite well, not just in very practical terms that I do have books around that I’m reading and cutting and pasting and ideas from other films that I’m taking, but also more in a general idea of how one experiences the world, and then how one turns that experience into something concrete in art. I feel like the world just kind of goes through you. You have to let the characters live. You write what’s happening in your mind, but it’s not that you’re generating, you’re just letting it pass through you. Then you create something that you’re able to surprise yourself with, and, you know, it’s for you. You start laughing as you type and things like that, because it’s not that you’re doing it. It’s more like you’re just filtering it, you’re filtering the world. [Pauses]. I’m really interested in what happens in the present, and then when I continue writing, I don’t try to put much order into things, like narrative order. I try to just generate a bunch of these moments in the present, even if they don’t connect, and my idea of structure doesn’t come from narrative. It doesn’t come from like, “Because these people live through this, and the next logical thing is this.” It’s more like I create a lot of scenes that I think could happen to the same person within a certain amount of time, then I find structure through other means that are not about cause-and-effect relations between scenes. I find structure through rhythm, and through different spaces and sounds that I think go together well.
That’s why many of my films don’t have narrative arcs, in the sense that it’s not like you see the characters at different points in time and they have changed, or anything like that. To me, the characters in my films are closer to how I see friends and, you know, I’ve had the same friends—I’ve been working with the same actors for like fifteen years. And when I see them every time we go back to Mexico, which is two or three times a year, sometimes they’re in a good state and everything’s going really well in their lives. Sometimes I go, and everything’s a disaster, and then I go back three months later and things seem so much better, like that disaster was totally averted. There is not that complete concrete narrative. There’s a general sense of their being, but there is not a sense of a narrative device in my friends’ lives, or my own. I’m always surprised how I ended up doing what I’m doing, in the place that I am, with the people that I am with. I’m not complaining, but I’m just saying I have no clue how this happened. Something else could have easily happened. For me, because I have a hard time now devising my life or those that are around me, both in practical terms, like why you’re doing what you’re doing, but also more emotionally, like why am I feeling now what I’m feeling and before something different, I try not narrativize the characters in my films either. There are a lot of films that I love that tell stories—perhaps even my favorite films—but for my own films, I feel that I’m interested in something else. I’m interested in characters from the present. Sometimes there are some stories that are being told, but I don’t care about structuring a whole film around story. I tell little stories within the films, but it’s not that each film is this large story contained within the film.
BFR: Yeah, that’s making me think a lot about your film “Summer Of Goliath.” I was wondering if you could maybe go more into explaining this rhythm and sound—and finding connections between that and narrative elements, rather than a narrative structure per se. I notice that the way that you reveal certain elements of the “story” is really striking, and it almost builds tension and suspense without you even realizing it. Like in the beginning of “Summer Of Goliath,” you open with the discussion about a murder, and it just immediately brings the viewer into this story.
Nico Pereda: I can tell you more or less how I thought about the ideas and structuring that film, and it was kind of peculiar.I was interested in the audience’s expectations of stories of violence, and particularly in Mexico around that time, and it has continued to this day, but that film premiered in 2010. It had been the beginning of what is called the Mexican War on Drugs just a few years before, and the country started to become militarized and there was a lot of media, whether it was books or movies or contemporary arts, music, that was all about this violence (I mean, it was also in all of the media that came before, but this was just talking particularly about Mexican violence at the time, which continues to the present). But I was interested in, not so much about telling a story about violence, which I’d seen too much of, but more about challenging the audience’s expectations of that reality. Rather than creating these subjects and then shedding light on their lives, I wanted to present the film as if that was what the film was about. So like, introducing these kids that are just living through this kind of hell because one of the kids is being blamed for having murdered a girl, but then quickly, moving away from that story, so that audience’s expectations are just not fulfilled.
Then you start wondering about your own expectations for that kind of narrative, because then the film goes somewhere else into the story of this woman who was really upset about the husband leaving her, but then she writes this letter for the son to deliver, but then the letter takes forever to be written because the son doesn’t write properly. Then he needs to memorize the letter. It takes him forever to memorize it, and then he’s not willing to deliver it, so he finds someone else to memorize the letter that he was supposed to have memorized. So, by the time you spend so much time with that letter and that repetition—it’s almost irrelevant what was happening. The story element that you wanted, like you want to know what’s going to happen when this kid gives a letter to the father who had abandoned them, suddenly, it’s no longer relevant, because now it’s all about repetition and variation of the memorization of a letter. Then it becomes kind of absurd, because he tries to get this old lady to memorize it, and she has a really hard time doing it, and you can see it’s just never gonna work.
So it’s more about this process. I hope that in the process of all of these little games I’m doing that the audience starts questioning their own expectations for a narrative. For this particular narrative of violence in Mexico, there’s the sense that you’re craving to know what’s going on with all of this violence, and the film just doesn’t give it to you. That is a big impulse for the film, constantly to push you away from the narrative. There’s a scene in which you see them rehearse, and so you’re wondering, “What is this?” And then you see the actual scene happening later, and it’s really kind of soap opera-ish. It’s changing the style drastically from something more naturalistic into a soap opera-ish moment in a dance, which is kind of ridiculous, but it’s the most narrative moment in the film. Then there’s a lot of people being interviewed that you cannot trust —and I like that. There’s a guy that is driving a truck and is being asked all these questions about his life, and the way he answers and the kinds of things he says, I really think that you cannot trust as an audience. I also like the idea of interview in film as being something that you can question, that you cannot take automatically for granted, and in a sense challenges the way we understand documentaries and particularly the interview as this “expert opinion,” let’s say, or someone that you need to trust just because they’re being interviewed about something. Anyway, it’s a very fragmented film that goes kind of in circles, and where I always give the idea that a narrative is going to be told, but then I never allow the narrative to actually happen.
BFR: Yeah, I definitely experienced that, and it definitely played with my expectations as an audience member. That brings me to the next question. Is that something that comes naturally to you, to sway from these more traditional, more conventional, narrative Hollywood techniques, or is it something that you’re more actively resisting?
Nico Pereda: No, I don’t actively resist it. I mean, I’ve become convinced of certain things that work for my own practice that are justified, I think. For example, the idea of knowing your characters, which is very much a mainstream idea of screenwriting, that you should know who your characters are, is something that I question a lot, because I find that most people don’t know themselves. I think some people might, and I think some people that I know I could say, after having conversations with them, that perhaps they do know who they are, but I think the majority of people, including myself and people around me, do not know who they are. Their unconscious operates for them, and that’s why people are insecure, and you know, when you doubt yourself when you are unsure what you should do—the reasons why we are like that is because we don’t know exactly who we are. We’re finding out, and we have a really hard time, and then we change constantly. We’re very fluid. So the idea of knowing your characters, I find that it might not be very constructive for screenwriting, because you might end up with characters that are very two-dimensional, because people are a mystery—not everybody, but the majority of people. I would rather keep the characters that I write a mystery. Instead of acting like a god, where I know the characters, I try to act like a friend or something like that. You have an idea of who your friends are, but any moment they might do something wild, that you thought, “I’ve never expected that person to end up like that.” It’s like when you have a friend, and then you don’t see him for five years, and then you find out that they joined some kind of cult, and you’re like, “Well, I would never have expected them to join a cult, that’s crazy.” But people do, most people that are in cults, their friends are really surprised. In that same way, I want my characters to be able to join a cult in the middle of the screenplay and for me to be surprised that’s what they decided to do.
So in a sense, I try to not think too much about a lot of the screenwriting rules, because I’m more excited that way. I have other kinds of rules, perhaps, but not those ones. At the same time, I know that they work and there’s lots of films that I love that follow those rules. But for me, it’s kind of nice to have my own set of ideas. At some point perhaps I was working against a certain way of making work, but for the longest time I didn’t even think about it. When I start with an idea and so on, I’m not thinking about, “How do I make it against a system?” I just do it within my system. In fact, the way I’ve understood it—when I’m able to talk about this idea of character construction, or how I resist narrative—it’s only because I’ve thought about it afterwards that I’m able to communicate the ideas of how I’m resisting that. But actually, the process is not a process of resisting anything. It’s just a process of going through the materials that I’m writing in the most intuitive way possible, in a way that works for me.
BFR: That really resonates with me, because I find that when I am developing characters, I also feel like I don’t know them completely. But I’m wondering, has that ever caused some sort of creative blockage along the way? Like, when you’re figuring out who these people are and developing their characters, do you ever feel like you don’t know where to take them next?
Nico Pereda: Yeah, I mean, all the time. I’ve hit roadblocks or had problems, sometimes, where I’m halfway through something and I don’t know where to take it. But that is perhaps the greatest gift of making art. Whether you do it successfully or not, the process of solving those things becomes what your life is, in many ways. You know how we are (I mean, unless you are more enlightened) all the time having this flow of thoughts in our minds that are really hard to stop, and people meditate in order to be able to be more conscious of that flow of thoughts and so on? What art allows you to do is to switch that flow of thoughts that can be very negative for many people—like if you’re always stressed out about something, or thinking about things that affect your life that you cannot control—but you can turn that into the thing you’re writing. If you are disciplined enough, because it’s hard to deal with these things and put effort into this—it’s like exercising or whatever—then it’s a good way to spend your life. In a sense, figuring out what your characters are gonna do, I think, is a way more fun, healthy way to live.
So those roadblocks—they’re heavy, and they’re difficult, and you wish you just had the answer for things, but they’re actually quite exciting, because then when I go for a walk with my dog, I know that for two hours I’m just gonna think of that, and I’m not gonna start questioning my life and my existence and my problems with people or whether I had a bad interaction with someone, or the emails I haven’t responded to, or “I hate my job, I hate this,” or whatever. No, instead of all of that, I can switch into, “How to fix this problem.” Then, when you find small solutions, even if you realize days later they’re not so great, the process of finding them is so exhilarating. At least to me, you find that there is such a big reward that comes from that. And it’s never-ending. It’s like an exercise for the mind that, on top of the fact that you end up with a work of art and then you can produce and so on, it’s also a really good way to reward yourself in life to get really into a problem and then figure it out. Nobody else in the world can care less about the problem you’re figuring out—you’ve invented the problem for yourself, which is: what are these characters that you came up with going to do? And then, when you figure it out, it’s incredibly fulfilling. It’s just mind games, but it’s wonderful at the same time.