The first act of violence is the absence of the State, which has left her alone to seek out justice.
Adapted for the screen by Laura Santullo from her own novel, Un monstruo de mil cabezas, Rodrigo Plá’s A Monster with a Thousand Heads takes the health insurance industry to task.
A return to ratcheted suspense first seen in the filmmaker’s much-garlanded 2007 debut, The Zone, Plá’s latest woman-against-the-system thriller shadows Sonia (Jana Raluy), an otherwise ordinary woman who resorts to desperate measures when her terminally ill husband is denied urgent medical care. After she’s given the runaround by stonewalling administrators, Sonia tips over the edge with steamrolling insanity. First attacking a willfully dishonest clinic receptionist, she proceeds to chase down the coordinating doctor overseeing her husband’s case with a semi-automatic stashed in her handbag. When the indifferent doctor informs Sonia that his hands are tied, a chain of hostage-taking confrontations unfold, involving high-ranking insurance executives and shareholders.
Sonia’s rage is a believable knee jerk reaction as anyone who’s had to navigate that sort of bureaucracy can attest, not to mention that her husband is leaning into death. A Monster with a Thousand Heads is persuasive in its assertion that the so-called Alta Salud clinic is large and faceless, of which exasperated Sonia is but one of thousands of clients. The theme addressed here—being driven to the edge of madness by an intransigent and unresponsive welfare machine—strikes a universal chord. Sonia’s increasing rabidity is both terrifying and morbidly hilarious, more so because there’s weird logic bubbling beneath her outwardly irrational decision-making. And, of course, that’s Plá’s point: cornered and desperate, we all have a propensity for violence.
A Monster with a Thousand Heads opens in New York City on May 11.
[Editor's Note: The following email exchange includes Plá and Santullo's joint answers.]
I’m curious about your longstanding creative partnership with Laura Santullo. I believe A Monster with a Thousand Heads is your fourth feature together. How did you guys first meet, and how has your collaborative process evolved over the years?
A not so small detail is that we’re a couple and we’ve been together for 18 years. So the point of our first meeting is a personal one—let’s say sentimental—and then it’s work-related. As for our collaborative process, well, it’s evidently very close and we have a life project together making films. These collaborations have been subject to change and take on distinct characteristics with each film that we’ve created. Sometimes we both write the screenplay and sometimes Laura assists in directing, so there’s no recipe. We create and recreate the work partnership with an idea that we both share, and we both try not to remain stagnant by experimenting with themes and narratives.
It was interesting to learn that Laura wrote the novel first, already knowing there would be a movie, to sort of explore and work out the story and the characters. How involved were you when she was writing the novel? Did you create the foundation together?
In reality, A Monster With a Thousand Heads is a story that pertains to Laura, at least in an anecdotal sense. The construction of the novel was a process Laura created. Sure, we were living under the same roof so I learned her process step by step—the decision-making, the doubts—and gave her my opinions when she would ask me. When it came time to write the screenplay, we made space for reflection to decide on things together, regarding our thoughts on the dialogue and the qualities of the narration on screen. It’s from that space where the interpretation of the story begins and where it could expand, and gave us room to express what we both felt should be conveyed or highlighted in dramatic terms. It’s in that space where the story came from the both of us.
Is the final film very similar or very different from what you had originally envisioned?
I think a film is the result of a collaborative effort, a byproduct of the subjectivity of a collection of creators. In this sense, even if I imagine a certain film as a director, I move forward determined to allow creative space for the cinematographer, the art director, and so on. The interactions with them, the exchange of ideas, modify the imagined film. It’s natural and I would say even desirable because, within this exchange, the film grows and strengthens its own identity as a film.
Sonia’s actions are questionable because she’s trigger-happy, but relatable to the every person at the same time, considering her dire circumstances. Did you ever imagine her going much further than what’s depicted in the movie in terms of the violence?
Sonia is a complex character and that’s how we wanted it to be. We made an effort to present her with nuances and contradictions. We were determined to not create a space where the audience can easily empathize, going into this comfortable zone where we can see and approve of her actions. That’s why we sought to include other perspectives in the narrative outside of Sonia’s own subjectivity. The peripheral characters crossing paths with the frantic rush of this woman in search of treatment for her sick husband are a mixture of both victims and oppressors. Yet, we never thought about having over-the-top violence because, among other things, we wanted the experience to come through an ordinary citizen. Sonia’s not an aggressor. She’s not a heroine. She’s just a normal woman who doesn’t know how to use a gun properly. She doesn’t have a plan. She inevitably plunges downhill and doesn’t necessarily understand how she got that far.
Despite her circumstances, I wonder if Sonia is a little bit crazy to begin with. Did you intend her to be a victim of circumstance in every aspect or is she maybe a bit unhinged as well?
We created the character based around the idea that she’s overwhelmed and erroneous—desperation is not a great advisor. Sonia is a woman who’s overwhelmed by her circumstances and she doesn’t know what else to do. She’s tried to take various legal steps to no avail. She has asked and she has demanded. At this point, it’s interesting to wonder what might happen if the law and the system left its citizens to deal with their good or bad fortune on their own accord. When the people who are tasked to make sure that health institutions provide good quality service don’t come through, clients are left completely abandoned. So Sonia is indeed a bit frazzled and alienated, but the system is also in that state. The first act of violence is the absence of the State, which has left her alone to seek out justice. Anyhow, her methods end up becoming questionable. That’s clear.
My favorite moments in the film deal with the banalities of everyday life in the hostage-taking situations. Sonia buys snacks at the gas station while holding the gun—she’s hungry. Sonia offers to pay for those snacks later because she left her money in the car—she’s still considerate. Where did these details come from? Is it simply smart writing?
Even though the film has a good amount of action, guns, scams and violence, we made sure not to lose sight of the fact that this is occurring to a number of people. We’re interested in what’s happening, but we’re even more interested in how these people, in flesh and blood, face situations that are placed before them. They are people. They get hungry, they have fear, and they have doubts. They feel discouraged and they get thirsty. The intention was to give them humanity.
The peripheral characters are paramount because we see things unfold through their eyes. Do you think the message of the film would’ve been all that different had you focused on Sonia’s very subjective point of view? Wouldn’t we still want her to win in this situation?
The multiplicity of perspectives through which we observe the central conflict was a way to ward off the danger of curtaining the audience off to a place of absolute empathy for this woman’s cause—a place we didn’t desire. It appeared to us that diversity gave us a certain distance from Sonia’s feelings, thereby allowing us for more variables in interpreting her actions. We think that makes room for ethical conflict to exist within the film and allows for open-minded questions.
Jana Raluy is a revelation. It’s my understanding that you first saw her on the stage by chance. Could you walk me through the casting process? What was it about her specifically that sealed the deal for you? What were you looking for that she provided?
Exactly—Jana Raluy’s a theater actress. We saw her by chance a few years ago and kept her unique onstage energy in our memories. When we started looking for the mother and son for the film, we called her up. Her audition was powerful. She has the ability to move through a wide range of emotions and that was fundamental in interpreting Sonia. Regarding casting, the search is always a long process. As a director, I’m interested and enjoy participating in that process. I need to get to know the people who will interpret our story. I need to work with them, even if it’s for a brief moment, to learn what they are thinking. I need to see if they have imagination, if they respond to my stimuli, and so on. On the other hand, the casting process is a laboratory, a very valuable space, where we can practice scenes for the first time, try out the dialogue, and improvise.
We don’t see much of Sonia’s husband, although we feel his presence throughout in her single-minded mission to save his life. I know this was intentional. Was it to foreground the bigger issue, which is to say that he’s but one neglected citizen in a sea of many?
Your interpretation is an interesting one. We made the decision to present the husband almost like a ghost or a shadow because, at a certain point, we felt like he was already disappearing and saying goodbye without Sonia noticing. A Monster with a Thousand Heads is also about the difficulty of mourning and letting go of someone you love. Anyhow, it’s curious and, at the same time, comforting to think that the film is sufficiently broad enough to allow for different interpretations, which, at the end of the day, is part of the game with the audience.
We don’t know much about Sonia, either. We don’t know much about her life leading up to this crisis. We don’t know what she does for a living. We don’t know what she’s capable of when she’s holding that gun. Did you create a backstory that we’re not privy to?
Sometimes if you focus on the action and the core situation at the plot’s center without knowing too much about a character’s past, it allows us to imagine ourselves in their shoes better. Anyone could find themselves in Sonia’s situation and, moreover, not everyone would take such extreme measures. Curiously, that ambiguity allows us to also imagine her as many people in our own lives. That said, the important things we should know about Sonia and her family is in the film: the love, the dedication, and the sacrifice. There is also the question of ethics. This woman knows she’s doing bad things and it’s not a case of complete alienation. Maybe she makes errors in judgement, but she knows what’s she’s doing. We imagined other things about Sonia’s life, but we didn’t find it absolutely necessary to show them due to the narrative style in which we chose to tell her story.
How did you manage to juggle the seriousness of the story with the subtle comedy? Everything funny in the film is true to life. I also think this is why the nudity is justified.
Like you’re saying, we wanted to be true to life. Even in those difficult moments, there are nuances and absurdity. There are situations that, despite being quite dramatic, carry a bit of ridiculousness. In the film, we tried to emulate things that happen in real life through fiction. It was a conscious choice to find the humor. We believe that laughter allows us to give balance to the characters, which is very similar to real life. We haven’t really focused much on humor with ours previous films, so, similar to all new things, we were experimenting and it wasn’t easy by any means.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing A Monster with a Thousand Heads?
In essence, we make films to make a connection with viewers through sensory experiences provoked by the screen. It would be great if that experience remained with viewers a little more than the time it takes to eat popcorn so they can take it home and ask more in-depth questions. What’s certain is this: after watching a film, any film, if something happens to the collective audience, if it makes them reflect or feel something deeply, that’s more the audience doing it than the film doing it. We hope we’re lucky to do that. We hope our film will move a lot of viewers.
What are you working on next? Do you have another collaboration planned together?
We have two screenplays written: El otro Tom (The Other Tom) and Guarda y custodia (Guard and Custody). We’re looking for funding right now and hoping to produce both films soon.