Alejandro Landes hasn’t directed a movie since 2011’s Porfirio—though you’d be forgiven for not knowing he’d directed at all. While it received some acclaim following a screening at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Porfirio—a matter-of-fact drama that blurred the lines between narrative and documentary filmmaking—received extremely limited distribution in the U.S. But Landes’s profile is about to get a major boost with his haunting new film, Monos, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance and is getting a North American release courtesy of Neon on September 13.
Set on a remote mountaintop somewhere in Latin America (and filmed in Landes’s native Colombia), Monos centers on a group of teenage soldiers fighting in an unnamed conflict who have been tasked with guarding an American POW known as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) and tending to Shakira, a dairy cow they’ve received from a local farmer. Though they quickly fall in line each time a diminutive drill sergeant known as The Messenger (real-life ex-Colombian guerrilla Wilson Salazar) arrives to instruct them in a series of physically rigorous training exercises, their default setting is debauchery—drinking, drugs, casual sex, and reckless semiautomatic gunplay.
Suffice it to say, the rebellious adolescents—bearing such unusual names as Rambo, Boom Boom, Lady, and Smurf—ultimately descend to even greater depths, leaving their desperate captive to plot her escape once the ragtag group decamps for the neighboring jungle.
Monos is by far the broadest canvas Landes—who also directed the little-seen 2007 documentary Cocalero—has enjoyed to date, and he makes the most of it with the aid of Jasper Wolf’s evocative cinematography and Mica Levi’s disquieting, unconventional score. In advance of the film’s release, Boxoffice Pro spoke with the director about his rigorous casting process, how he pulled off one particularly dangerous stunt late in the movie, what Monos says about Colombia’s protracted civil war, and why he took so long to make another film.
You last movie, Porfirio, came out in 2011, so about eight years have passed since then. How much of that time was spent actually trying to get Monos made?
Monos was hard to get made and to get financed, and coming from Latin America, to be able to aspire to have that kind of epic feel, it took a bit. But actually I was on an architecture project. I love architecture, and so I ended up designing a house, and that’s also what took me away from cinema. I didn’t think it was gonna be so long, I thought it was just gonna [be] designing something in maybe a couple of years, and in the end I ended up designing and building the thing. And it won a big architecture prize, and it ate up four years of my life. So that’s why there was kind of a big gap between the two.
It was obviously worth the wait—you won an award at Sundance for this. What was that like?
I arrived at [Sundance] without anything other than a sales agent, so it was very exciting that Neon picked it up. Immediately after the screening, a bidding situation started. And ever since then, it’s been making its way around the world and finding its audience. And that’s just very exciting.
Most of the young actors are unknown, with the exception of Moises Arias. What was the casting process like for this?
It was kind of an unorthodox casting process. We looked for faces throughout Colombia while I was scouting locations. We had casting directors going to schools, going to acting workshops. I mean we really cast a very wide net. In the end, we had 800 kids and then chose about 25 for this mountaintop workshop. In the morning we would do like acting improv exercises, in the afternoon military and physical drills. And by being there and learning about them, I was able to see that mini-society interact almost like in a schoolyard. By watching those dynamics I was able to choose the eight that would [be in the film]. Because the idea wasn’t just how they each played their role individually, but how they worked as an ensemble.
Near the end of the film some of the characters are sort of navigating these really dangerous-looking river rapids. I’m curious how you pulled that off—did you use stunt people for that scene?
No, no stunt people. We had Colombia’s national kayak team; they do tours down that river so they knew those rapids particularly well. And so they had all the gear and all the know-how, and we had some special buoyancy equipment that you don’t see. We had some good digital-effects people and a safety team and a good camera setup, and particularly a very good telephoto lens.
I read that Wilson Salazar who plays The Messenger was an ex-guerrilla?
How did you find him?
[In Colombia] the government has these reinsertion programs where former guerrilla or paramilitary fighters have laid down their arms to come back to civil society. I went to go visit one of these, and there was this guy there, Wilson, who was taking care of horses on this sort of farm theme park place [Panaca in Quimbaya, Colombia] that let some of these guys come and work there. And he was very compelling. Initially, I hired him as my consultant to help train the kids physically. To make them move like fighters, like warriors. And then he was so good that in the end I was like, ‘No, you need to be in front of the camera.’ And he was very special. You juxtapose his physicality with his authority and he creates this kind of mythical character.
One of the most striking things in the film is Julianne Nicholson’s performance. There’s a lot of time that she has to spend alone on screen, and she has these moments of dancing wildly in her cell or silently screaming into a mirror.
Thank you for mentioning that dancing moment. I love that moment, and I have to say you’re the first journalist who [asked about it].
Were those moments improvisational or were they scripted?
There were moments like that in the script, of course. But once we were shooting that, with the camera in such a confined space, in this real kind of cell-like situation, then we tried to just improv with Julianne, work on it together, speak to her, keep the camera rolling, try to bring her to different states. With Julianne, sometimes I would ask her to sit in that cell, which she hated, and just draw on the walls. So all the drawings you see on the walls are actually by Julianne.
One other element of the film that I really loved was the score by Mica Levi. How did you come to work with her?
Mica saw an unfinished cut of the film, and she really connected with [it]. There are some sounds that are very elemental, like just blowing into a bottle, like the wind or the stream. And then you have sounds that are completely digital. Those synthetic sounds that are born out of a synthesizer. So the juxtaposition between those elemental sounds and something that could be coming out of a Berlin nightclub, it goes with the feel of the film in general. And then also the characters, there were so many of them that we worked with Mica to make sure that the characters had musical notes. So for example, The Messenger, when he appears on-screen there’s always a very shrill whistle. That whistle kinda gives you that emotional cue of authority, of a force kind of lording over our protagonists, our heroes.
At the end of the film, Rambo is in a helicopter and she essentially breaks the fourth wall and is pleading with us in a way. It reminded me of the final shot of The 400 Blows. Why did you decide to end it that way?
I think [Monos] has a very good question at the end. And it asks the question, and you hear it, with the soldiers speaking in the helicopter, which is ‘What do we do? Where do we go from here?’ And I think that’s a big question for us as a species—it’s just a conflicted time—but particularly also for Colombia. That’s a very important question for a civil war that’s gone on for 60 years.