Among the 93 films on the International Feature Film Oscar Submission list, one of the dark horses that did not make the short list, but should have, is Leticia Tonos’ A State of Madness (Mis 500 Locos).
The Dominican Republic has submitted 13 times and has never crossed into the coveted short list territory. Had more voters seen this gem, it might have been the first.
Set almost entirely in a mental institution, A State of Madness chronicles the true story of Dr. Antonio Zaglul (Luis José Germán) who took over administrative duties at the Nigüa Psychiatric Hospital during the reign of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s. Zaglul must navigate totalitarian politics while trying his best to introduce more modern and humane treatments on his patients.
The film, based on the book by Zaglul, was written by Lenin Compres and Waddys Jaquez and represents Tonos’s fourth feature, one that should elevate her to a level where attention must be paid.
Born in Santo Domingo, Tonos graduated from the London Film School and made her first feature, Love Child, in 2011. Cristo Rey and Juanita followed in 2013 and 2018 respectively. Tonos has won a slew of awards and has had her features accepted into prominent Festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival).
A State of Madness is bracingly audacious and often hilarious. Tonos seamlessly blends Hollywood Noir with a dose of gritty realism and an element of the wicked. There are also homages to Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film is stylized in the best sense of that word and Tonos elicits wonderful performances from her large and eclectic cast. She also manages, like Cuckoo’s Nest, to give us a microcosm society that reflects our current milieu (as well as the world back then).
Awards Daily recently Zoomed with Tonos about A State of Madness and her work.
Awards Daily: I am sorry it did not make the short list. It should have.
Leticia Tonos: Me, too. Thank you. Of course we were aware of the competition and how tough it is, but you always hope.
AD: And it’s not even just the competition. I was speaking with Kaouther Ben Hania about the difficulty of getting a smaller film noticed when you don’t have tons of money to hire major publicists and take out ads.
LT: Yes, I’m very familiar with that. We had very little PR money and we tried to make the most of it, but it was not enough, I guess.
AD: You’ve directed four features and three have been official Oscar submissions! That’s not a bad record.
LT: Not at all. I’m very happy about that. [Laughs]
AD: Can you tell me a bit about the film industry in the Dominican Republic?
LT: Sure. Almost ten years ago, we had our film law approved. Since then our industry (has been on) the rise. Not only (with) the amount of films, but the quality. Before the film law, we shot maybe one film every two years. It was so difficult to get financing. But now, we’re shooting almost 30 films a year and a lot of them go to important festivals. The scope, the types of films, is broader. Before it was mostly comedies. Now we do dramas, action, mysteries. I think it’s very healthy for the industry to (cover) everything. So these past 10 years have been crazy. It’s a different industry. We are very competitive now.
AD: There were 33 female directors representing the International submissions, so perhaps we are doing better in terms of parity?
LT: I think so. Even here. In the DR we still have a long way to go regarding equality but we have pretty good (female) representation in the industry.
AD: A State of Madness is based on the book by Dr. Zaglul. How did the script come to you and what made you want to tell this particular story?
LT: I think it was 3 or 4 years ago, I received a visit of one of the producers at a company called Nuovomundo Films. They had the rights to the book. They had been developing the film for 10 years, trying to have a script they felt comfortable with, trying to raise the financing. So after they went to different directors and production houses trying for a couple of years and nothing happened, they came to me and said, we believe you are the person to do this but it’s been happening for 10 years and if it doesn’t happen with you we will throw in the towel!…I loved the script that Waddys Jaquez and Lenin Compres had been (working on) and I fell in love with the project because it’s a filmmaker’s dream. The challenge of the script and of the book is to choose, because there is so much material. You could do 10 films based on that book…it’s very rich…And two years later we were shooting it so I’m pretty proud of that and really happy I didn’t let it go. It’s a very special project, not only in the sense that the story is beautiful but it’s a piece of our history, too.
AD: There’s a Noir/Old Hollywood blend to the style and tone of the film. How did you land on the look?
LT: When I sat down with the DP and the Production Designer, we were aware of the challenge of shooting a period piece with a limited budget. And we were trying to find ways of helping the viewer feel like they were there without having this huge amount of money to invest in sets. So one of those decisions, and I believe it was a pretty good one, was not only to do the set dressing as a period piece but also the aesthetics of the film and even the mise en scene with the actors, we were inspired by the cinema of the ‘50s. Fritz Lang. So when the actors move within the frame, it was a choreography like they used to do before. Sometimes you got the feeling that you were watching a play…it was actually a lot of fun shooting it.
AD: Here were these fascinating characters tossed away by society and it was Antonio who saw their humanity. And empathy was created for these patients.
LT: Yes, and I believe that I have Dr. Zaglul to thank for that because while we were developing the film and doing research, we went to the mental hospital here where he used to work and everywhere we found somebody that knew him…his energy was everywhere. So I believe I was filled with that energy and that empathy towards the patients. It was unavoidable to feel that way…and I think that’s what you see in the film. They are really charming. That’s the way he saw them.
AD: The world of the psychiatric hospital felt like a microcosm for the insanity of the real world then. And now. Did you deliberately set out to achieve this?
LT: Since the beginning we had a sense that this is like a representation of…contemporary situations. You have this Spanish lady who is running away from the civil war in Spain…You have this Venezuelan who also has a political background. You have the German who’s a racist…it deals with real situations and prejudices that we still have. So, yeah, I’m glad you picked up on that because it was (my) intention since the beginning that in the mental institution you get the sense of the world outside, of the craziness of the world outside.
AD: The gold standard for films set in a mental institution is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Were you inspired by it? Did you watch it?
LT: I did. And even before I decided to do this, I was a fan of the film. I did watch it. What really inspired me about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is that it also kind of did that. Within the mental hospital there was a criticism of the hypocrisy and how restrictive society is. I hope we managed to do something like that with our film as well.
AD: There’s a major political cloud hanging over things in A State of Madness with Trujillo’s dictatorship.
LT: …For us, it’s very difficult to talk about the dictatorship because it’s still kind of recent. And most of the films that have been done about that period were done by foreigners, not by Dominicans. And we’re never happy…so when the time came for me to do a portrait of him (Trujillo)…I (wasn’t) ready. Let’s just have this omnipresence. A portrait of Jesus Christ and then a portrait of Trujillo. And we deal with him like that.
AD: As an outsider it was chilling because I kept feeling Donald Trump.
LT: Oh my God. I just got goosebumps. You know we did a screening at the Malibu Film Society and I did an interview there and he (the interviewer) also mentioned something similar, that we kind of have our own Trujillo here. He said it in those words. That was strange to hear because you never think of the United States with this kind of situation.
AD: How did you find your cast?
LT: It was a mixture. I get involved personally with casting the main characters, because I think it has a lot to do with chemistry. Just talking to them and seeing if we understand each other…Of the main characters. the one that was most difficult was Dr. Zaglul. I saw quite a few actors. Luis José Germán, the actor that plays Dr. Zaglul, his background is comedy…So we didn’t call him. His manager called me and said, please you need to see Luis José for this role. And I was like, no, I don’t think so…This is not a comedy. She said, please you won’t regret it. And I didn’t. And after that he hasn’t stopped making dramas…this has been his boom. Everybody has now acknowledged how versatile he is.
AD: I loved Rick Montero as El Venezolano.
LT: Yeah, he’s wonderful. For him it was quite a difficult internal journey because in Venezuela they have a situation similar with Maduro, the President of Venezuela. So for him, every time he was doing these scenes he was thinking about his family in Venezuela so emotionally for him it was really hard.
AD: Does he work in the Dominican Republic now?
LT: He’s living here. He’s like a political exile…And this is his first film. That’s one of the good things about the cast. They’re really diverse and eclectic…that helps give more color to the performance and the energy.
AD: What has the reception been like in the DR?
LT: Taking into account that we were the first film to open in theatres here after the pandemic–the films here opened at 30% of screens and in those screening rooms you’re only allowed to have like 40% capacity. But despite that people loved it…we got really good press…We were like ambassadors of the industry. Let’s go back to the cinema! Let’s keep working! And then, of course, we got selected to represent the DR (with AMPAS) so it was worth it. Most of the films decided to wait until next year.
AD: What about distribution in the U.S. or streaming?
LT: Our distribution company, Global Genesis Group, had some offers but were waiting for the shortlist because if that happened they could do better deals…we don’t have anything secured yet.
AD: Who are your filmmaking influences.
LT: They are so different. I love Guillermo del Toro. He has such a great balance of artistic sensibility, but at the same time his storytelling is wonderful. I love Ana Lily Amirpour. She had something called The Bad Batch, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s so fresh. What I love the most are the characters. Because every story has been told so what gives freshness to the stories are the characters…At the beginning of my career I loved (Yasujirō) Ozu.
AD: What’s up next?
LT: I love science fiction and I believe it’s so difficult to do it right because sometimes films get lost in the fireworks and effects. The next project I’m developing is a science fiction film. It’s called Paraíso. It’s an ironic look at Paradise. Our island is considered paradise on earth…you will see a different Caribbean than the one you’re used to watching on the touristic leaflets. It’s about a romance between the last woman and last man on earth. It’s like Adam and Eve but they’ve fucked it up. They don’t have a paradise anymore. What will happen now?