Cristián Jiménez Interview

Director of the award winning Bonsai, Cristián Jiménez talks to Soundbite Culture about adapting this novel for the biog screen, his inspiration for making films and what’s next on his creative agenda.

Soundbite Culture: Your film is based on Alejandro Zambra’s novel of the same name. Can you tell us about your process of adaptation and how his fiction as a writer transformed into your fiction as a filmmaker?

Cristián Jiménez: Alejandro published this novel in 2006 and it was a critical success in Chile. I think the book is great and I read it straight after it was published. The novel is not a very cinematic novel but it has a very strong narrator and it really is about language. So the adaptation had to really work on the material.

Basically my process was after a first reading I decided to choose the point of view of the main character and restructured the whole thing to play a contrast between the two cities; the one where he [Julio] is at university and then the one where he is writing Gazmuri’s novel. And that really is the structure of the film, not the structure of the novel.

When I did that, to me it was a more powerful way to consider what was Bonsai’s main issue, which is the difference between life and fiction. And on the other hand I liked that the younger version of the character is in my home town in Chile so I connected in a personal way.

I also wanted to be a writer when I was twenty, so there really is a blend between what comes from the novel and what was being added. The grandmother in the film is my very own grandmother; she’s not an actress, she’s just being herself.

SC: The content of the film is so close to your own medium as a writer, specifically the ideas of fiction and the illustration of characters. I think because of this, Bonsai opens a fascinating dialog about the often frustrating process of creativity. Is there any way in which you related to Julio’s attempts of artistic creation?

CJ: I do work with a lot of material that comes from life, bits and pieces that come from my own life. In my experience what I try to do is instead of make sense of a whole experience, I choose certain fragments, certain scenes, certain dialogue. When I have all these pieces together, I try to find a way to connect them all and that’s the real fiction moment.

I think Julio is on a journey where he is really trying to make sense of his own life. So far, I haven’t been through that journey myself, but I feel sympathetic with the questions Julio is asking himself about love, about fiction and about life.

SC: I think that’s why Bonsai is so poignant, because everyone viewing the film can connect to this notion on some level.

CJ: Yes, I think so. It’s going to be released in countries where things are so different like here and Taiwan, where there are many barriers for a film coming from South America. But at the same time, we play Bonsai in my home town and maybe they see more layers; people maybe laugh harder at the jokes but somehow there are certain issues and emotions playing in the film that go beyond these barriers.

Connections are made especially to that of literature, the experience of being at university, of being in love and I hope these universal ideas come out.

SC: The audience learns the fate of Julio and Emilia in the opening line of the film. Why reveal this so early?

CJ: I think that the opening is very strong and a very direct way of telling the audience that this film is about storytelling. At the same time, that opening comes from the novel but is adapted and has experienced some changes.

If you happen to know the novel, and that’s why you’re watching the film, you realise that we’re acknowledging someone else’s novel, but at the same time we’re not respecting every single bit. So you prepare yourself for a free adaptation, which is pretty much what you’re going to get afterwards. It’s our interpretation of what Zambra has done, and particularly my interpretation of my reading.

SC: I really enjoyed the duality of Julio’s narrative, with his fragmented university past spliced together with his present and depicting his story in a non-linear fashion. For me these two strands were driven by his relationship with Emilia, and his relationship with Blanca. Was it difficult to find a balance between these two, often contrasting narratives?

CJ: The biggest challenge was for us to manage to create one character that is going through two different moments in his life. Even though it’s a small amount of time, we have to feel that he’s changed but we also need to feel that he’s still the same person.

I guess it’s never explicitly said in Bonsai, but when he’s writing, when he’s putting down the story, that’s Julio asking himself. He’s trying to tell his own story starting from the moment he was in college up to the moment he is writing this. And I think that’s a question we can often ask ourselves.

When you think about how life changes you and, at some point, you almost become a shadow of who you were; but somehow you are still yourself. And that is definitely an issue in the film and something we really had to deal with as a big challenge.

SC: I think the film exquisitely depicts how music and literature can shape certain periods of our lives, as well as defining the intimacy we share with others. There is a great respect for art in all its forms in this film. Were there any other films, books, musicians and artists that you drew inspiration from in making Bonsai?

CJ: Every book that is featured in the film is a book that has been loved by either Alejandro or myself. We experience different books at different moments in our lives; some are from the novel itself and some have been added.

There’s obviously Proust, a little more for Alejandro than for me, but that is one we share. But sometimes we have writers we grow out of as well. In other filmmakers we really didn’t have a reference but I am influenced by Woody Allen.

One thing that was really a drive for me was style. Nowadays if you think of contemporary cinema, what we would call art house cinema, there is this idea that everything is natural and realistic. But I really wanted Bonsai to have a sense of fiction. Also this sense of artificiality is not planned in an exact way.

I thought all of the literary aspects of the plot in a way are talking about fiction and what is the current discussion of cinema. Trends now are much more into trying to hide fiction and I’ve always felt very strongly in favour of fiction, so I really wanted to pay tribute to that.

SC: What’s next for you Cristián?

CJ: I’m currently developing two projects. One is a family drama set in the south of Chile and is the story of three sisters in their thirties and their parents divorce. I’m also writing a story set in London that is the encounter of a rich girl coming from a poor country and a poor boy coming from a rich country.

SC: Thanks so much Cristián.

CJ: Thank you very much.

Interview by Lindsay Parnell

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Dates ‘n stuff

April 2012