I had all of these images in my head from when I was a child—memories that I wanted to portray as I’d lived them.
Kering’s Women in Motion initiative and its accompanying awards soirée—launched in 2015 by the luxury goods firm to showcase the contributions of women in the film industry—are becoming quite the fixture on the already-packed Cannes Film Festival social calendar. With its fourth edition this year, Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault presented WIM’s main prize—one of only two prizes each year—to director Patty Jenkins at its black-tie event in Cannes on May 13. Going beyond paying tribute to iconic women in the industry such as Jenkins—and the likes of Isabelle Huppert and Jane Fonda before her—WIM also casts a spotlight on emerging female voices. This month, the initiative’s Young Talent Award went to Catalan director Carla Simón, whose Summer 1993 was met with critical acclaim and named Best First Film at Berlinale in 2017, before going on to represent Spain as its Best Foreign Film entry for this year’s Academy Awards.
Summer 1993 marks Simón’s deeply autobiographical feature debut: a vivid portrait of an orphaned girl trying to cope with overwhelming loss and alienation. When six-year-old Frida’s (Laia Artigas) mother succumbs to AIDs, she’s transplanted from Barcelona to the Catalan countryside to go live with her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusi), and their four-year-old daughter Anna (Paula Robles). Struggling to adjust to this new environment over the course of a summer, the storm brewing inside Frida remains largely dormant—and so are her tears. But when she starts acting out towards those around her, it’s unpredictable yet in rather slight ways, and fortunately, Esteve and and Marga are understanding. “Why aren’t you crying?” a little boy asks Frida as she leaves Barcelona in the film’s opening moments. This, in some sense, shapes the core of the entire story and we return to this question only at the very end with sincere illumination.
Summer 1993 opens in select theaters on May 25.
Congratulations on the recent Women in Motion Young Talent Award. Summer 1993 is a towering achievement. You’ve accumulated so much acclaim since last year’s Berlinale.
I always think that the success of the film is because of the girls. They have a magnetic thing that makes people want to keep watching them. I didn’t know that the film would relate to everyone, no matter where they’re from. At the same time, everyone has a family. Everyone understands the desire for familial love. Most of us have lived through the death of a loved one and the grieving process. There are elements that make the film universal, even though I’m telling my story.
Even though the film is deeply autobiographical, it never feels self-indulgent, too precious, or excessively sentimental. You seem very devoted to good storytelling, first and foremost.
This is something I honestly never thought about until we released the film. Some people told me that it’s unsentimental. I think it goes with the genetics. You either go with sentimental storytelling or, in my case, I don’t like it much so I chose not to tell the story in that way. It felt more natural to tell it in a more contained way. You don’t need much dialogue to understand what’s happening. You can just watch the images unfold and figure out for yourself what it could mean, without being told how to feel. These are the kinds of films I like to watch so that’s what I was trying to do.
It feels incredibly authentic. Frida is obviously a stand-in for you from when you were that age and Anna a stand-in for your sister. What did your sister think of the film?
My sister is actually in the film as well. She plays the young aunt with the curly hair. [Laughs] That’s her. It was great to have her on the shoot. Even though her role is very small, it was very important to me to have her there. She was very emotional when we were shooting, whereas I was more focused on directing. For her, it was a strange experience. We also have a brother who did the music. He made all of the music that the father listens to in his workshop so that was cool as well.
It’s truly a family affair.
Also, because all of the locations were really close to where I grew up, my friends came to visit the shoot often. My mom read the script many times and she would give me screenwriting advice: “I wouldn’t say that. Maybe you should change this.” [Laughs] My dad helped us in the art department because he’s good at that. They were all there.
A totally unique experience. So you grew up in a lot of these places. What was it like to revisit these spaces and relive memories from so long ago?
Well, it was a bit strange. These places have emotional value, but you see them from an artistic point of view: where do you place the camera? Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to have distance: not portray my memories exactly as they are and look at what’s happening in front of the camera with the actors in these locations. These things may have happened, but not in those specific places. It was a chance to reconnect with my childhood, but then you’re also trying to tell a story.
Laia Artigas is mesmerizing. There’s so much going on in her eyes. When she speaks, the gravity of her voice extends way beyond her years. Was it very difficult to find her?
It was a very long process. We looked at a lot of girls. I wanted a girl who hadn’t acted before. I wanted a “normal” girl, but someone who was special somehow. From the beginning, we were looking for girls based on personality and essence. For me, it wasn’t important that Frida looked like me physically. It was important that she looked like Frida as she’s written in the script. I would ask these girls a lot of questions. We would do some improvisation to see if they could act. In the end, we had a short list of maybe five girls. I went for the one who seemed most similar to Frida as she’s written, and with an interesting look. It was a very, very long process of looking for about five to six months. Laia was second to the last girl I saw so she really came at the end of casting.
Kids don’t have the ability to be false at that age. That’s a valuable tool for filmmakers.
For them, it’s basically a game and it’s interesting to think of acting as a game. We spent a lot of time together in the rehearsal process just creating the family unit and doing the things this family would naturally do together, like going shopping or going on walks. We improvised moments that precede Summer 1993. We worked on the relationship between Frida and her aunt, Lola. In the scene where Frida is playing make-believe with Anna and pretending to be her mom, I just told her, “Imitate me.” It was a way to create shared memories between the girls and the other actors. So whenever we got onto the set, it was like they already lived through something together as their characters. The girls actually never read the script. The little one was four so she couldn’t read anyway. [Laughs] Basically, it was during the rehearsals that I could see what they’re capable of and I also found the tools that will help me direct them. During the actual filming, I talked to them a lot during takes and guided them with my voice. Then we took my voice out in the editing. It was a way to guide them through each take and, at the same time, give them more freedom.
I’m not at all familiar with the union rules in Spain concerning child actors, but did that make you feel rushed, like you were racing against the clock to get everything you wanted?
Yes, all the time. [Laughs] We filmed for six weeks, but we could only shoot six hours a day with the girls. Then with the final three weeks, we could shoot up to eight hours a day with just Laia and still just six with Paula. We had additional time on set to prepare and all of that, but it was very tight. Also, for the night shoots, we could only go up until midnight. All of the scenes that we shot at night were done in two hours or less. The whole thing had to be fast. It was okay in the end, but everything required a lot of preparation.
There are so many little magical moments scattered throughout the film that felt unplanned, especially involving the girls. For instance, the runaway cabbage seemed opportune and made for a really funny moment. How much of what you found were happy accidents?
Well, the cabbage was an accident. [Laughs] It depends. In general, we followed the script. But sometimes they would just say things that weren’t so planned and other things would happen in front of the camera. We did shoot in quite a conventional way. We weren’t just rolling the camera to see what would happen. Everything was planned because we didn’t have time to improvise on the spot basically. They’re also very little. Paula was very creative. At four, she’s so much into playing games so she would inadvertantly suggest things all the time somehow.
This being your first feature-length film, what was the biggest challenge for you?
Honestly, it was directing the girls. [Laughs] At the same time, it’s sometimes easier to find this natural tone with kids than with adults because they aren’t really acting. They’re playing. It also proved challenging to manage this frustration as a director like, “Okay, this is not what I had in mind. This is something else…” I had all of these images in my head from when I was a child—memories that I wanted to portray as I’d lived them. But then I had to forget them in a way because I’m trying to tell a story. This is always difficult and it’s happened to me before. But in this film’s case, it was super difficult to forget what was on my mind and focus on what was in front of me.
I read in Variety that you have two projects in development right now. Are they just as autobiographical or are you maybe moving into a more fictional territory?
I will say that it’s very emotionally trying to make something so personal so I would prefer to do something that’s not as autobiographical now. I tend to talk about things that I know works and things that are familiar to me. What I’m writing now is not autobiographical at all, but it’s set in a place where part of my family lives. It’s a place that I know well. I know the traditions there. I know how things work there. It’s a story that’s close to my family, but the fiction is now a bigger presence than in Summer 1993. In some ways, Summer 1993 is a lot of fiction, even though it’s my story and those characters do exist in real life. There are three or four scenes that really happened in the way that they’re portrayed in the film, but the rest is fiction, you know? With this project in development, it’s different because it’s not so close to me. But it’s a place that I know.
When are you planning to shoot that one?
I’m just now developing it because it was a big job promoting Summer 1993. I had a great year of traveling around the world. So I’m not too sure. It will be before the end of next year, I would say.
I wonder if you’ve received offers to remake Summer 1993, only because that often comes with the territory when a movie like this gets the kind of acclaim you’ve been receiving.
It hasn’t happened. But you know, I’ve thought that and it would be very interesting! I would be up for it. It could be very cool. But no, it hasn’t happened.
The material is so close to you and who you are. I would imagine it might be difficult to relinquish control over such a personal story for someone else to direct. Does it feel that way?
If I were to direct it, it would be interesting to do it in another kind of set up. Since it was set in Spain, the context would need to be different. But the heart of the story could work in many other places. I would also be interested in seeing how someone else does it.