It’s the day after the Oscars luncheon and Sebastian Lelio and Daniela Vega are in Beverly Hills talking to press about their Oscar-nominated film, A Fantastic Woman. Vega’s performance is a force of nature as Marina, the waitress and singer whose life is turned upside down after the death of her partner, Orlando. His family dismiss her and Marina becomes the target for hatred from Orlando’s family.
The film is the story of a fantastic woman in both senses: Vega’s performance and Marina, a woman transitioning. It’s a commanding performance from Vega, and Leilo’s direction is visually powerful. The film is nominated in the Best Foreign Film category and I caught up with its star and director to learn more about these fantastic people.
You wrote the role for Daniela. How did this begin?
Sebastian: At the very beginning when the idea of this happening to a transgender woman came up, we wanted to meet and see who was out there in Santiago. At that time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make the film. I wasn’t looking for an actress and they recommended Daniela.
My co-writer Gonzalo Maza and I met Dani. We connected immediately and after that meeting, I knew I wanted to make the film and I knew I only wanted to make it with a transgender actress.
We spent a year talking over Skype with Dani who was very generous with sharing her experiences and what it meant to be a transgender woman. She’d share her daily experiences and even though the script is not biographical, I think her words were absorbed.
Towards the end of the writing process, I realized she was the one and the perfect woman to interpret Marina.
Daniela, what was it like for you when you first heard from Sebastian and what did he tell you about Marina?
He said Marina was going to have fierce, natural qualities and that allowed me to create the persona.
The opening of the film sets us up showing the stability in her world. Talk about that world you wanted to create before that stability is rocked.
Sebastian: The concept of creating a film with a transgender character was so important. I knew the film could be in a state of flux just like the main character and that’s why it’s a polymorphic film. It has different tonalities and flirts with different genres such as old-fashioned melodramas. It’s a film with surreal sequences too and in that sense, it was important to create a film with a classic calligraphy so the viewer could be smoothly hypnotized.
That opening scene has 1940s sensibilities and I liked that. Again, I wanted the audience to feel lost so they weren’t sure what they were watching, it was almost like a Trojan horse. It looks classic and gentle, but it has something hidden which is not classical at all.
Daniela, how did you find Marina and crafting the character?
I feel that Marina’s experience turns into something far more poetic not just in terms of how it relates to my own experience but also our initial conversation between Sebastian and me.
There were two routes into Marina. One was emulating some iconic actresses like Audrey Hepburn and the other was just tapping into the more natural and regular feminine experience and being more comfortable in the female body.
Take us through building the wind scene and what that represents?
Sebastian: It’s part of the transgenre identity of the film. I wouldn’t say the film is realistic at all, even though it visits realism, I think it operates in a slightly different cinematic territory.
She faces this wind storm and it’s reminiscent of a Buster Keaton movie. The pleasure of paying tribute to Keaton and stepping into a very straightforward metaphor which is also something we don’t do today. People today are trying to get away from metaphors, but I wanted to make them cool and use metaphors.
What’s do you want us to take from the film?
Daniela: The goal of the film is to ask a lot of questions. Cinema acts as an armor where a lot of questions can be asked in its reflection of who we are.
Sebastian: It’s a contemporary device to pose complex questions in a way that’s not simplistic in the way propaganda can be.
What was the whole experience like in shooting A Fantastic Woman? What did you learn?
Sebastian: We became friends and that truly is a gift for life. The film will pass but we will be friends and that’s a beautiful thing that the film can give us.
Knowing Dani and to be in her presence, her intelligence, this affected my perception of what a woman, what love, what identity can be, but most importantly what a film can be and it’s something I’m grateful for. It opened new cinematic territories for me and I’m willing to explore them. I don’t think I would have got there without Dani.
Dani: I became really patient. I learned how to see the world and understand the mechanics of how this machine works. Having contact with people from around the world and having people respond to the movie has been a beautiful thing.
Daniela, I saw that love and that response when I posted a photo of you and Meryl Streep at the Oscars lunch. How was that for you ?
It was so beautiful. That was a spontaneous moment and so wonderful to experience.
— Antonio Martín (@MartinGuirado) February 5, 2018
Was there a scene that was particularly hard to film?
The scene when she’s being photographed by the police and the kidnap scene, that was a particularly hard day. We were filming and as soon as we said cut, we’d hug each other and felt the need to protect each other after some of the scenes.
Some of the violent scenes were necessary to shoot for us to tell the story, but we just had that need to share our love with each other once the camera stopped rolling.