Human horror: Get to know ‘Feral’ writer/director Andrés Kaiser
Andrés Kaiser is here to bring Mexican history to the big screen. He studied filmmaking at the Escuela Superior de Artes y Espectáculos in Madrid, Spain, and upon returning to his native Mexico, he worked as an assistant editor on the Carlos Cuarón film Rudo y Cursi (2008). A year later, he wrote, produced and edited the documentary En algún lugar, which is about the migration of Central Americans to Mexico. It was presented at the Festival Internacional de Cine Documental in Mexico City in 2010.
Kaiser recently made his feature film debut with Feral, which was screened at the Festival Internacional de Cine in Morelia, MX. The film takes place in the Oaxacan mountains, and will be one of the titles screened at the Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles film festival. The festival will be held March 26-28 and be available to stream online at https://lacla.uscreen.io/. Tickets start at $5.00.
Film Daily had the good fortune of speaking with Andrés Kaiser about his career, his work on Feral, and his plans for his upcoming horror film Preciosísima sangre, which takes place in 18th-century Mexico. Here’s what Kaiser had to say:
Tell us about your history in filmmaking. How did you start your journey?
When I was a child, my father kept hundreds of VHS tapes where he recorded all the movies he could find; Robocop, The Saint vs The Monsters, The Lone Ranger or Ator, il guerriero di ferro (Iron Warrior), were the kind of movies you could find there. Lots of B movies.
However, it wasn’t until my teens when I saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway that I decided to get into film seriously. That movie had a brutal impact on me. I didn’t know that you could do that in a movie. Years later, I had the fortune to study Cinema in Madrid, where I received my degree as editor and screenwriter.
You were an assistant editor on the Carlos Cuarón movie Rudo y Cursi (2008). What did you learn from the experience that you’ve been able to apply to your own films?
The assistant editor gig on Rudo y Cursi was my first experience in the film industry. I think editing is a job that allows you to analyze the style and technique proposed by the director in a very clear way. There nothing is hidden. Undoubtedly, the position allowed me to understand in depth how films are built, how the actors are directed, how a sequence is framed.
During my career, I have been lucky enough to work for multiple directors such as Carlos Carrera, Gabriel Ripstein, Ernesto Contreras or Lourdes Grobet. Each of these directors, whether they were doing fiction or documentary, leave a very distinct stylistic mark in their work and it demands that my work was up to their level. Undoubtedly much of my work as a director is the product of that learning.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I had the great fortune of being a student of Vicente Leñero during his last six years of life. I participated in his literary workshop which he had formed twenty years earlier. We work on every literary genre: novel, short tale, theater and cinema, and Leñero had a huge influence on my work; always from openness, freedom and self-knowledge.
During those years I wrote Feral and the workshop helped me to shape that story. I also wrote a storybook entitled La Zariente Ardiente that was published in Editorial Atrasalante in 2018. For me, having Vicente as a mentor has been one of the best experiences of my life.
His generosity allowed me to gain confidence in my work and his vast experience forced me to be demanding with my literature. It is rare to find someone like him on the way, since that kind of people do not abound, but if you find them, they can change your life.
Your horror film Feral is screening at the upcoming Cine Nepantla film festival. What was the inspiration behind the story?
Feral is a film that gets its inspiration from multiple sources. On the literary side I see The Lord of the Flies by William Golding or the anthropological essay, Victor de l’Aveyron by Jean Iardard, which Francois Truffaut would take to the screen under the name of The Wild Child.
On the cinematic side, the film Canoa by Felipe Cazals was a great inspiration. Halfway between fiction and documentary, between social drama and pure horror, this film filtered many of the horrific ideas that are in Feral.
You previously wrote, produced and edited the documentary En algún lugar, which is about the migration of Central Americans to Mexico. Did your time working on a real documentary help with the found footage style of Feral?
Definitely! Working in a documentary allows you to study the “codes of reality” which is how the viewer takes something to be true simply because someone with a camera says that it is. For me working with Lourdes Grobet in her documentary Bering. Equilibrio y Resistencia (Bering. Ballance and Resistance) was a great experience. I participated as editor and assistant director.
We were 30 days on an island in the Bering Sea trying to understand what had happened on that distant frontier, where the nuclear threat of the Cold War had felt very close. In the end, the cinematographic language is strongly based on narrative codes that we have created in various places along the planet.
I think one of the most important challenges facing any filmmaker is to understand those codes in depth, and to be able to reproduce them or mix them, creating new narrative codes.
Found footage horror is known for its spontaneous camera movement. Did you plan out the shots for each scene or did the camera simply react to the actors?
Actually, most found footage shots in Feral do not correspond to the classic found footage code; handheld camera, blurred image, etc. Rather they were designed as an amateur composition. In that sense each one of the shots was carefully planned between me and cinematographer Marc Bellver.
It’s interesting because it wasn’t until recently, when I was editing a documentary about my grandfather’s films, that I realized he was actually one of my great formal influences. It was all there in the amateur films of the 50s that my grandfather filmed; where most of the time no one could help him with the camera work so he had to shoot it all by himself.
Do you prefer to stick to the script or do you encourage improvisation on the set?
I think the script is both needed and significant. In my case I spent almost four years writing the script, carefully thinking every word, each action, and each phrase. However, when you arrive at the set, you understand very quickly that all those words come alive and as with everything that lives, there is also change. In that sense, improvisation is a great ally, and many times it depends on the actor.
There are actors who have more skills to improvise unlike others who like to find the deep meaning in words. As a director, I think you have to be very attentive to what each actor can project to the camera, and give the actor the necessary tools to do so. I do not think it’s about yourself or what you like, but about what the actor – and therefore the film – needs.
Did the found footage format cause any difficulties during production?
Oh yes! At first we wanted to record everything with a Betacam SP camera, but then we realized how difficult it is to find one in good condition…or worse! The terrible possibility was that the camera could fail and we’d not have a replacement. So choosing the ideal camera and optics took a long time with many tests. In the end we mixed three different cameras to get the texture we wanted.
What part of directing do you geek out about the most?
I really like directing actors. For me it represents one of the most mystical aspects of cinematographic tasks. To be in front of another human being and go through different acting techniques, from the actualization of a pagan ritual, to going through the idea of having an invisible friend, or remembering a traumatic experience, just to mention a few scenarios, and see how that human being becomes someone else, it’s fascinating. I think only the writing and editing share some magic of that mysticism.
Feral deals with weighty themes like hypocrisy, religion, and blind faith. What makes the horror genre such a good platform to explore these themes?
For me, drama and horror are different faces of the same coin. Since its inception human experience, in all its facets, has been marked by these genres: the loss of a loved one, fear of the unknown, the hostility of nature, or the feeling of loneliness are sensations that our species has embedded within.
The creation of complex societies with their religions and gods did nothing but diversify and deepen these horrors, just as industrial societies have done and ultra-technological societies will soon do. I believe that the effectiveness of horror as a social criticism is that horror is part of ourselves, from whom we are and how we act with the world around us. Carl Sagan used to summarize this as “The Human Drama”. I think it would also be valid to express it as “The Human Horror”.
Feral takes place in the Oaxacan mountains in Mexico. What made you choose the Oaxacan mountains as the perfect setting for the story?
Mexico has always been a mystical country, full of mystery; both in the deserts of the north and in the jungles of the south. For me the Sierra Madre del Sur projects the perfect elements of what can be understood as inhospitable and wild nature: large mountains that rise above the clouds, full of monumental trees with a dense fog that does not let one see clearly.
On the other hand the cultural mystique of the State of Oaxaca is very old and very rich. This mixture of geography and culture resulted in the perfect scenario for the plot. A place where anything could happen.
What is the biggest difference between directing a short and a feature film?
I think the basic difference lies in their narrative complexity. That is, while a short film has more to do with a high-speed race in walking distance, a feature film is more like a marathon where, with every kilometer you complete, both the volume of production and the narrative possibilities multiply.
Who are your biggest directorial influences?
Without a doubt, Carlos Enrique Taboada is one of them; a prolific writer and great director of Mexican horror that unfortunately had a late recognition. I also like the depth of Werner Herzog and his ability to make a film regardless of whether it is fiction or documentary. Today there are many directors that I admire, almost all related by genre, like Karyn Kusama, Ana Lily Amirpour or Robert Eggers, to mention a few.
Can you tell us about your upcoming film, Preciosísima sangre?
It is a period horror film located in 18th century colonial Mexico, where a priest is sent to investigate a series of murders within a convent, and the only witness is a nun imprisoned by the Inquisition that proclaims having infernal visions and contact with a demon.
I felt the need to explore the myths of religious horror from one of its darker eras, where the Catholic Church not only acted with spiritual guidance, but also had attributions that today are exclusive to the State, such as imparting justice through control of the courts and police force. I cannot think of a worse time to be born.
Do you have an interest in directing non-horror films in the future?
Yes, In fact I’m right now finishing a family documentary. It is based on all the films that my grandparents filmed from the 40s to 80s. It is a cinematographic essay on the family and the generational cycles that are repeated despite wanting to break them.
It is an extremely personal film, but since we have all experienced difficulties with our family, it is a film that I hope can deeply connect with many people. I am also beginning to film a documentary about a case that caused scandal in the Mexican Church during the 1960s, and I would love to do a comedy in the near future.
What has been your biggest failure? What did you learn from it
I do not think it’s been just one, which is to say that I can’t remember a single great failure, but more an uninterrupted series of small failures. In the end, this is a very difficult profession where everything is against you almost all the time.
For each “yes” there are tens of “no’s” and that is why although scarce, the “yes’s” are very important to move forward. I think that in the future these failures will remain present, but these failures are actually the small successes that will allow us to continue making films.
How about your greatest success?
Personally, I consider that my greatest success is to be able to dedicate 100% of my time to directing the films that I want to make. In the end, no matter how big or expensive a project is, I think true success lies in actually doing what you want, to talk about what you consider really important.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
A very good friend used to say that patience “is a tree of bitter roots and sweet fruits.” I think perseverance is vital to pursue a career film. Work a lot, enjoy work, do not let yourself be influenced by other voices that do not harmonize with yours. Always look for the “yes” and don’t let the “no” bring you down. These ideas have been useful to me and maybe they’ll help someone else.
What is the one thing you want audiences to take away from Feral?
Feral is a film that invites the viewer to be an active part of the plot: to wonder why things happen in the way they do, to build characters and imagine a series of narrative possibilities. If you are open to this invitation then I believe you can, not only experience an emotional trip, but also a personal reflection.
Finally, what is your favorite horror film of all time?
This is a difficult if not impossible question to answer; however, if I could choose only one movie to view for one last time, I think I would choose The Innocents by Jack Clayton. Definitely one of my favorites.