Monos (Monkeys) is the latest film by Alejandro Landes, it’s a gritty film set in Columbia featuring a group of young guerillas who are tasked with taking care of an American hostage. Landes grew up hearing stories about the World Wars from his grandparents, but he also grew up with violence close to home, inspiring the story of the film.
When I caught up with Landes we talked about how he created a narrative that examined the conflicts of war and the conflicted emotions of becoming a teenager. He spoke about casting the film and how he worked closely with Mica Levi to create the score.
Read the interview below and scroll down to watch the exclusive clip from Neon Rated.
You grew up in Columbia. How much of that inspired and influenced this incredible and mesmerizing movie?
I grew up in Medellín with a family which was tough because most of them left, including me. It was like growing up but in exile because it was so violent. We had losses in the family, and I think war was always on the table. My father’s father was a Californian and a World War II vet and I heard a lot of stories about that through him. I guess both of those things collided and the rivers met to make a war film that spoke to two things. On one hand, it’s the Columbian civil war and the possibility for peace and what’s going on. Also, I think that shadow warfare that happened in Columbia is what’s happening in the world today. You don’t have those big frontlines that you saw in World War I and World War II, you knew where the frontline was. You knew the flags and you knew who was fighting who. With the wars nowadays, we don’t know where we stand in Syria or Afghanistan. You ask people about it and the factions change so quickly and there’s no real front line. Most of the fighting is done by special forces and covert operations and that’s what inspired me to make a war film to the nature of war today. Particularly in a genre where there’s been such epic filmmaking so that conflict married with the conflict of adolescence which is for all of us, a time where you’re no longer a kid and you’re not an adult. Your voice is changing, hair is coming out in places. You want to belong. You want to be alone. So, all those conflicts of war and adolescence provided a very strong window into human nature in this very confined moment in time.
That’s what I loved, your approach of doing it through the adolescents rather than doing it through the eyes of the adults. I read about your casting process and how you looked at 800 children for this.
There was a very instinctive process. We did it in both an orthodox way and unorthodox ways. We were looking at people in the streets and when we were scouting locations. We had casting directors visiting schools and making videos. We combed through all of those and decided on 20-25 of them and took them to the mock basic training camp. By seeing that group of people doing that acting exercise and seeing them doing physical exercises to create this imaginary army, I saw who got along with who and who flirted with who. It’s kind of like what you see on the schoolyard. That’s what inspired us to reduce it to the eight and what we saw in that mini-society develop were the monos. It was a really cool experience.
During that time, we wrote the screenplay and made changes to bring something definite to the characters. I needed to bring something from their lives. I knew that Boom Boom was a breakdancer, and I knew Rambo loved her brother first and foremost in life.
That’s so amazing. I really love the cinematography too. That scene with Julianne swimming and what she does with Swede later, it’s such a searing and indelible image.
It was such a pivotal moment for me because when you explore violence, it’s important not to explore the moral and ambiguity panettones of grey. Here you see the effects of violence on the person that perpetrates the violence who is initially a victim. You begin with a very heinous act, and that’s killing a little girl with your bare hands, but then you see the effects of that. People see Julianne; they don’t judge her. She wants to recoup her liberty because she’s gone through a lot. When you see the weight on her soul and how she can barely take a breath because it depressed her soul. Then she has that big choice to make whether to take Smurf or not.
So many of the imagery is striking. You’re out there in nature and you’re in the water. Talk about working with your cinematographer Jasper and that relationship.
It was my first time working with him. I had a great experience working on my first feature with Thimios Bakatakis, and Jasper wrote me a note after reading the screenplay. I thought his take was really interesting. We had a Dutch co-producer on board who suggested we set up a meeting, so I did. He was a warrior. He was my brother-in-arms and we really worked on a defying shot list because we didn’t have the money to do a lot of time with the camera before shooting. We’d do intense visualization exercises to make sure that we both saw the same shot and knew how we wanted to approach that shot.
You worked with Mica Levi. What I loved was that you didn’t devote a large amount of time to the score. It’s there, but it’s used in such a minimal way.
It’s incredible the music has that impact. It’s only 22 minutes, and I like that it’s minimal but monumental. It’s a mash of different things. You have something as primal and elemental as blowing into a bottle to create that whistle. Then you have a shot of adrenalin that’s made out of a synthesizer that could be a Berlin nightclub or something. We also had a quartet like with strings and that juxtaposition stuff was really strong.
In the film, I loved how you use the news broadcast to place everything into context which was genius. We’re suddenly watching gummi bears.
The film looks otherworldly. You make all these crazy jumps and towards the end, you start coming closer to home. You see a family in a typical domestic setting, you see the TV and you see the city at the end. The idea is that the film slowly comes home. The idea of the gummi bears was of course, within the context of the film, after everything, seeing something like that on TV seems absurd. At the same time, you have someone whose job it is to separate the good gummi bears from the bad.
It was great. The film first screened at sundance, what was it like taking the film there?
My first film premiered in Cannes and it’s a place known for a bigger appreciation of foreign titles, so we were a little nervous about Sundance because foreign films would be seen as second class citizens, but in this case, that wasn’t what happened. It was amazing the way people vibed wit hit and how it connected. It broke any notion of language. People lived through it. They lived it.
It gave me Lord of the Flies vibes seeing that.
The thing when you’re making a film that flirts with genre, the idea was to very boldly speak to it. There’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Of The Flies. There’s also Come and See and Apocalypse Now. It’s taking pop culture. The image of the pig’s head on the stake is in textbook. The idea is almost taking something like Warhol’s Campbell Soup and to present it in an entirely new way and to this generation. That’s why I think the film is a war film that speaks to war as we know it now, but it’s born out of something real.
It’s very common in Guerillas, that if you have a pig in the camp, you’re of higher stature. You’re established. The top leaders in Columbia when they were caught, they had pigs in their camps. It’s almost like a caviar situation.
Monos is released on September 13, 2019 and Colombia’s selection in Foreign Language Film category. Watch this exclusive clip from Monos below: