Dominga Sotomayor on ‘Too Late to Die Young,’ Growing up in a Chilean Commune, and Cinema as Recollection

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Six years after her debut feature and 2012 Rotterdam Tiger Award winner Thursday Till Sunday (De Jueves a Domingo), 33-year-old Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor attended the 71st Locarno Festival for the world premiere of her new feature, Too Late To Die Young (Tarde Para Morir Joven). A subtle, tender coming of age set in a commune nestled atop Santiago’s cordillera in 1990s Chile, Too Late To Die Young entered the Swiss fest’s official competition, and just landed a spot at this year’s New York Film Festival.

A multi-character portmanteau of a self-sufficient, environmentally friendly community of hippie-like adults and kids, Sotomayor’s work zeroes in on three young commune members, Sofía (Demian Hernández), a 16-year-old itching to leave the place to move in with her estranged mother, Lucas (Antar Machado), a teenager helplessly besotted with Sofía, and Carla (Magdalena Tótoro), a 10-year-old way too smart and mature for her own age. Having watched it in a packed public screening at Locarno’s Palavideo – and stunned by its gentle and deeply nostalgic vibe – I caught up with Sotomayor to talk about growing up fast in a commune, cinema as a means to rescue one’s memories, and Chile’s own adolescence.

You grew up in a commune yourself, the Ecological Community of Peñalolén in Santiago’s cordillera, so the first question that comes to mind is: just how autobiographic is Too Late to Die Young?

That’s something I’m often asked about my work in general. The truth is, I just can’t imagine making anything that isn’t autobiographic. A lot of what I show in Too Late to Die Young comes from direct experience, it’s stuff I’ve seen myself. I lived in that place, so I patched together images that haunted me. That’s just how I work. But I also find it interesting to be able to shift the whole thing to another level. This is not a documentary about my childhood, nor did I want to turn it into something like that. And I think the film slowly hits a more strange terrain, a more fictional place. There’s always a certain frustration in what I do, which I think is something intrinsic in any sort of artistic expression, and it comes from the gap between what you lived through and how you try to reproduce it. I began working on this film thinking about places I knew, but shot it at a time when those places no longer existed.

Where exactly did you shoot?

Well, I would have loved to shoot in the commune I lived in, but the place had changed dramatically. We lived away from Santiago, in this arid place where there were only ten houses and massive pastures all around us. No electricity, no phones, and you had to drive for an hour to reach the city. Now there’s about 400 houses, and the city swallowed the whole community. It’s crazy. You can only imagine how tougher the class divisions have gotten. It’s like a ghetto! Some of the people who decided to abandon their urban lives and settle in the middle of nowhere thirty years ago are now wealthy hippies living in 3000 square meters estates, while around them low-income people live in much tinier plots. We could have filmed in a completely different place, far away from there, but I decided not to, and told our location scout and art director that we had to film in the commune, and find a way to make it work. We looked around the cordillera for areas where the landscape would still look quite rough, and we built the houses we shot in.

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That sounds like a very lengthy process.

Well, we were lucky a few buildings we used were available for us to rent, and looked somewhat unfinished, derelict. Sofía’s house, for instance, is a place I knew from my childhood – and we managed to use it. But Clara’s house did not exist, so we had to create one. We played with what we had. And I really wanted the audience to get lost in that environment. I didn’t want people to get a clear sense of where the houses were, and how far away from each other.

How did you go about writing your script?

God, it’s been so long I honestly can’t quite remember how I began [laughs]. I got to the community when I was four, and lived there until I turned twenty. There were times I’d live with my father, others with my mother only, in two different houses. I traveled in between, left for Europe for a while. And I returned when I was already 26. I got myself a tiny house in the commune, around the same place I had lived in with my mum. And it was there, when I returned to my childhood’s place as an adult, that I began feeling the need to write about my childhood. It’s like I needed the distance. I never really just decide to make a movie, it’s more like images come to me, impulses, and it becomes clear that I need to make that movie happen. The commune shaped the way I am today, I know the place so well still, and I felt it very close to my heart. And when I was living there as an adult I sensed a great deal of nostalgia – you know, I had come back to the place I had lived in as a kid, but everything had changed. And that’s when I began writing.

It was a very long process – I think it took me about four years to finish the script. Of course, I did other things in between – including my debut feature – but I’d always come back to that story, one way or another. It was not an easy script to write, as it zigzags between different memories of my childhood. But that’s how it works for me: I write scenes and let them take me, I see how they develop, and they lead the way. I work a lot on characters, at first, and their relationships. To an extent, Too Late to Die Young began the way Thursday Till Sunday did. I found an old photo of my cousin and I, as kids, tied to the roof of a car during a family road trip. And I suddenly remembered how crazy that journey had been, and how standing on that car’s roof meant the world to my 8-year-old self, and I thought of how crazy it was that my parents had tied us up that way. That powerful sense of ridiculousness, sheer madness, weirdness, danger… I really like how very familiar and cozy [in English] atmospheres can suddenly turn into strange and troubling experiences. As for the community, I loved the idea of being free, so in synch with everything and everyone. We lived with no walls, and I mean this in the truest sense of the word: we had no physical or mental boundaries. We witnessed and were exposed to everything, whether it was our parents fighting, or debating serious stuff. Which meant we grew up fast.

And that’s something you notice in the way the commune’s kids behave. I’m thinking of Clara and that brilliant line, when she tells Sofía that she’s only little “on the outside”.

And the adults are not that mature either. It’s something that has definitely become clearer to me now that I’m older. You’re an adult, but you keep having the same worries you had as a kid. I hate the idea that a certain age should dictate a certain behavior and certain character on people, so I’ve worked to debunk that generalization.

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Thinking of kids and adults, there are three demographic cohorts you follow closely: the 8 to 10-year-old kids, the teens, and the grownups. You seemed to have lived in the commune as a member of all three groups.

Yes, and the community certainly did shape me in many different stages of my life. From running around barefoot and swimming in the river as a 4-year-old, to falling in love and itching to drive around in your teens, all the way down to realizing, as an adult, that the utopia you wanted to create may never truly happen, because you’re still going to have some petty quarrels with your neighbor. And that’s another thing I loved about that place: nothing was taken for granted. It was never a case of: “we have water,” but more like: “there will be water… at some point.” I genuinely think that whole sense of precariousness made the place even more alive.

Watching your film, I kept wondering whether Sofía was your own alter-ego. If anything because of the endearing way she seems to treat her memories – as something precious, to be rescued. It kind of struck me as an attitude very similar to your own way to approach the past in your writing and directing.

Well, memory is pivotal to the whole movie. For me, Too Late To Die Young is a big act of recollection, a memory told in the present tense. And I fear I have bad memory [chuckles], so the idea of recollecting and patching memories together helped me a lot. In Sofía, her need to listen to her mum’s voice in those old tapes is a way to go back in time, and speaks to a certain existential angst. Mind you, her relationship with her mother has nothing to do with mine. It’s strange. Whenever I think about it, I feel like I am neither Clara, nor Sofía, nor Lucas, yet they are all part of me, to an extent. I wanted to capture a collective mental state. I belong to Sofía even though I don’t share much with her. And when I started writing, I began with Clara and Sofía, who were meant to serve as my aliases in different stages of my life – Lucas only came later to the script. And I remember the fear of death I had as a kid. You know when, as a child, you’re afraid of going to bed, of not waking up? I thought of that, and of the type of obsessive, all-encompassing infatuations you experience when you fall in love for the first time in your teens. And the two feelings eventually mixed up. The fear of death, on the one hand, and the first-love obsession, on the other, eventually became a sort of organic whole.

You found some extraordinary young actors in Damien Hernández [Sofía], Magdalena Tótoro [Carla] and Antar Machado [Lucas] – among several other pitch-perfect casting choices. I was wondering how you select your actors, and how that played out in the case of Too Late to Die Young.  

I was actually helped by my mother, who’s an actress and had already helped me find actors for my debut feature. I trust her taste, plus I don’t really like traditional casting, so to speak. I don’t do open calls. I ask around, to friends and family. And it was clear to me that there would have to be one key prerequisite: the kids we would cast had to come from the commune. I think that life there shapes you so much, and I wanted to dig up that collective memory. Antar Machado was born in the commune, and you can tell that by the way he jumps around from one tree to another, how idealistic and mature he is. Damien was one of the few who we found outside the commune. We organized two workshops, one for the kids, and one for the teenagers. I chose Clara as the lead kid, and the children got secondary roles. Same deal for the teens. It was an inclusive casting – everyone I called in was going to be cast, but I wanted to see which ones would take on more prominent roles.

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And how did you go about choosing your protagonists?

When I wrote Sofía’s character I really did not have someone like Damien in mind. But the criteria – well, I guess it is something we were mentioning earlier: I wanted kids who gave me the impression of having complex, multi-faceted personalities, who had lived through more than kids their age normally do. I don’t think you can ever make up that inner complexity. I’m 33 now, and I find myself endlessly fascinated by carefree, free-spirited people. I think there’s a bit of envy in that penchant, too [laughs]. I just learn a lot from them. And with Damien, that’s how it worked. She’s currently transitioning, and identifies as a man, and that too added a certain degree of ambiguity to the character, and I was drawn to that. I found in Damien a lot of what I was looking for – this idea of indefinite, unlimited characters. And their looks were also crucial: I loved the fact that you couldn’t quite tell whether they were 18, 15 or 12.

Was being able to sing and play an instrument another prerequisite? I’m asking because your film is so musical, from the Sinéad O’Connor’s soundtrack down to the songs Lucas and his mates sing to the community.

Oh yes! We wanted people who’d be able to sing, and the kids and teens began to come up with songs during the workshops. And we pushed them a lot, too. Take Antar, for instance. We’re very close now, but at first he was a little skeptical of the whole project. He said he was a musician, that he wasn’t very interested in films… but I told him that he’d be able to perform and play his own music, and I think that did the trick.

So the songs Lucas and his band play at that New Year’s Eve party – did they compose them?

Yes. They came up with them as we shot. And Damien too studied music, and knew how to play the accordion. They were all very multi-talented people.

You mentioned that you wanted to capture a collective mental state. To me, Too Late to Die Young seems to work as an allegory: it’s 1990, Chile is waking up to the beginning of its post-Pinochet era, and the whole country is undergoing a series of changes not unlike the ones experienced inside the commune.

I knew from the very start that I was going to make a film about adolescents, but also about a country’s adolescence. It’s not just these kids who are transitioning into adulthood, the country too was entering a stage of major changes – the idea of democracy, the illusion that there’d be a massive paradigm shift after Pinochet. And well, those few months in 1990, that window of time when Pinochet was ousted and Patricio Aylwin assumed office as the first democratically elected president in the post-dictatorship era – the country was replete with dreams! It was a whole new world, a new year, a new Chile. But it was also clear to me that I had to be careful not to make those political commentaries very explicit. Like I didn’t want Pinochet to be mentioned, I didn’t want the whole critique to feel heavy-handed. So the whole commune, a place that had become a home for people living through a self-imposed exile, turned into a mirror for the country at large.

I was amazed at the way you managed to parcel out a sense of class struggle inside the community. It’s a utopic place, but there are clear clashes between different people from different backgrounds, which you still treat with great subtlety.

I guess I always lived a life full of contrasts – for one thing, I lived in a commune, but went to Catholic school. Chile itself always struck me as quite contradictory, and I wanted to reproduce that. I mean, some of the families in the commune didn’t even have walls in their homes, but still had nannies. I personally never start a project with the idea of making an explicit political point. In Too Late to Die Young, I did not make it a goal to talk about class divisions, for instance. Social frictions are part of the reality I live in, and my job is just to capture what happens around me. That’s it. Take Raul, the man who works in the commune and is still struggling to finish his own house. When he’s asked to help rescuing the dog of a far wealthier family, who claims a lower income household stole the pet from them, he has to put himself against his own people. It’s a dramatic scene. But they’re all subtle details, and they’re never too explicit. As for what happened to the commune throughout the years, the place recently began accepting poorer families, which led to a split among the oldest residents. There are those who agree with the new policy, and those who fear a massive intake of new members could undermine the environment and the community’s equilibrium. It’s a really difficult subject.

Do you still live there?

No, I live in Santiago now, down in the city. It was hard to leave the commune, and I miss it. But it changed a lot. I think ultimately that’s what the movie is all about: the longing for a place that changed dramatically, and the illusion that it could revert to what it once was.

Too Late to Die Young premiered at the 2018 Locarno Film Festival.

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