Pablo Larraín may have just set a world record. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the 40-year-old Chilean filmmaker is the first director to have three narrative features open in the United States in a calendar year.
First came last February’s Golden Globe-nominated drama “The Club,” about a group of disgraced Catholic priests exiled to a remote group house for sexual abuse. That was followed up during awards season by a pair of unorthodox biopics that disrupted the conventional thinking about two iconic subjects: the triple-Oscar-nominated “Jackie,” about Jackie Kennedy, and “Neruda,” about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. (“Neruda” is only now finding its way into D.C. theaters.)
Set in 1948, after the Chilean writer and Communist politician had gone into hiding to avoid arrest by the rightist government, the film plays out as a sometimes surreal cat-and-mouse game between a fictional police pursuer (Gael García Bernal) and a playful Neruda (Luis Gnecco).
The hard-working Larraín, who burst onto the scene in 2012 with the Oscar-nominated “No,” caught his breath during a call from New York the day before President Trump’s inauguration.
Q: 2016 was a busy year for you: “The Club,” “Jackie” and then “Neruda.” That sounds exhausting.
A: Don’t tell me, man, I know it is. I’m recovered now. They are very different, each one of them. That, I guess, is the joy.
Q: How did this happen?
A: After “No,” the next movie was going to be “Neruda.” Then my brother [Juan de Dios Larraín], who is my longtime producer and collaborator, told me we cannot make “Neruda” now. We had to push it back six months, and that’s when we decided to make “The Club” in the meantime, which was this low-budget movie that we shot in two weeks, and we wrote really quickly. It went to the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, and that’s where I met [filmmaker and producer] Darren Aronofsky, who was the head of the jury. He invited me later to make “Jackie.” Basically, it was “The Club,” and then right after that, we shot “Neruda.” When we finished shooting “Neruda,” we went into production of “Jackie.” The movies were made back-to-back.
Q: “Jackie” shares its theme of mythmaking and slippery identity with “Neruda,” in which the central character is shown wearing masks and disguises during his time on the run. What is it about the question of a public vs. private persona that interests you?
A: I’ve been fascinated, over the years, by seeing how people — not everyone, but some people, and particularly some of the legends of the 20th century — have been able to craft their own mythology. Jackie and Neruda are examples of that. What Neruda is doing in the movie is creating his own legend for political purposes. He is writing the book [“Canto General”] that probably won him the Nobel Prize. He was struggling to understand how he could create a work that would have not just poetic, but political value. His words would become the words of other people, who would use them to protect and defend an ideology. That combination of politics and poetry is essential to the movie.
Q: There’s a great line in the film, when Neruda is fleeing over the mountains to Argentina, and he’s abetted in his escape by a wealthy landowner. The cop chasing him says, “The millionaire is always smarter than the law of the nation.” When I heard that, I couldn’t help thinking —
A: (Laughing) You were thinking about tomorrow [Inauguration Day]?
Q: You read my mind. What does the line mean?
A: I think it’s applicable to what happened back then and to what is happening nowadays, in many, many countries. The issue is that money can be stronger than ideas. It’s the kind of thing that you say in a movie that is sharp enough to act as a joke for some people and to act as a political statement for others. For some people, it’s both. But, yeah, it’s a tricky line that’s about a real danger. The most powerful humor is always truth.
Q: Neruda has another great line: “To write, one must learn how to erase.” Where does that come from?
A: You know where I got that? It’s not in the script, actually. It’s something I read in school in a Spanish book, in an interview with Gabriel García Márquez. I learned that, not just as a writer, but as a filmmaker. When you work, you have to be able to trim, to edit, to take things that don’t work out. Luis [Gnecco] and I talked about it, and I asked him to say that line. It’s so true. It’s so hard to be able to learn how to erase, to get rid of things, to keep only what is essential.
Q: You’ve described both “Jackie” and “Neruda” as anti-biopics, for their unconventional approach to biography. How are they different?
A: I’m not much of a fan of the biopic. I don’t think you can actually capture someone’s life and put it into a movie. . . . If there’s a link between them, they are both about someone who is trying to craft a legend. The difference is that Neruda is doing it in order to make his voice stronger, because that voice was going to protect the people he wanted to protect. In “Jackie,” which takes place right after her husband’s assassination, she’s trying to protect his legend. They both share the idea that in between the intention to craft a legacy and the result, there is always a gap. In that gap, you can use the tools of fiction to enter their heads.
Q: Jackie is an icon here in the States. What is Neruda’s stature in Chile?
A: His stature is enormous — in the Spanish language. That includes all of Latin America and Spain. After making the movie, I realized something specifically about Chile: Like any other country, Chile has been described by historians and journalists, but I believe we can best understand who we are through our poets, specifically Neruda.
Q: Americans aren’t really into poetry. How much of an audience is there in Chile for poetry?
A: It has evolved in a different direction. We in Chile have a way of thinking and talking that is very particular. The way we speak our Spanish is through metaphor. Ask anybody from Latin America about the way we talk, and it’s not only the way we pronounce our words — which is very odd and particular — but also the way we think. I’m sure people are reading less poetry than before, but I’m also sure that the way we think has been shaped by poetry. It’s in our bloodstream.
Q: You’ve described the film as “Nerudian.” What does that mean?
A: Neruda is a guy that, if you put your hands together and you try to hold him and drink him, like water, you can do it, but it will drain out. You will lose the water, but your hands will stay wet. That’s what I mean by saying the movie is Nerudian. We sort of absorbed and swallowed his entire work and life, and we sweated out this film. Neruda was not just a politician and writer, but a great cook, an expert on wine, a diplomat, a world traveler, a great collector. He had multiple relationships with women over his life. He lived in many, many countries, and spoke five languages. Can you reduce him to just one simple movie? No. This movie is like going into his house and playing with his toys, you know? We are more respectful than responsible.
Q: I’ve heard you say that before. You also once said, “We don’t build monuments.” Explain.
A: When you say that you’re “responsible,” I personally understand that to mean that what you’re trying to do is to protect the message that you want to send. Then the movie becomes very preachy. So I think what you do is that all your responsibility must be hidden in the film. If you play too seriously, then I’m not interested. There’s got to be some fire. When it comes to Jackie and Neruda, we’re not making a monument to either of them. You can’t. A monument is made out of bronze or steel. A filmmaker is a kid with a bomb.
Neruda (R, 107 minutes) opens
Friday at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.