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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Martin Jalfen

Blur Films director on working with Old Spice and Heineken, founding Amautalab, and the importance of ‘the pause’

5 Minutes with… Martin Jalfen

The brain is often described as ‘grey matter’, but we suspect that, were you to peer inside the mind of director Martin Jalfen, it would be anything but grey. Rather, judging by his eclectic body of work, it would be a rainbow of colour, ideas and humour. Having started off his career as a creative in his native Argentina, Martin rose to international acclaim as part of the anarchic Amautalab collective (if you haven’t seen their award-winning short film ‘The Blindness of the Woods’ – a knitted soft porno – you really should), and these days he flies solo. In the early days of his career, he immersed himself in puppetry and stop-motion animation, which has given him an extraordinarily broad technical toolkit – but these days he’s just as fascinated with the subtleties of working with actors.

Currently living in Spain, where he is repped by Blur Films, Martin works all over the world – and he’s constantly on the lookout for new artists and inspirations. But, as he tells LBB’s Laura Swinton, sometimes the secret of creativity lies in stillness and silence.

LBB> So you started off working in agencies before going off to found Amautalab and become a director – what led to you making that jump? Had you always wanted to be a director? Were you getting frustrated working on the agency side of things?

MJ> I have great memories from the agency days. I spent many hours coming up with campaigns and trying to solve briefs but I wouldn’t complain about it. I remember having a great time there. Jumping to the production world and starting to direct was a natural move. When we started Amautalab everything was about experimenting and learning with our independent pieces. We had great moments and I remember being very happy because I was able to materialise the ideas. 

LBB> How did founding Amautalab come about? Was it something you and Carlos Battilana [co-founder] had been talking about for a while? And why did you decide to do it together?

MJ> I knew Carlos from Los Angeles; we’d worked together on a few projects when I was working in an ad agency there. I was a bit stressed about advertising during those days. He told me that he was planning to put together a crazy project in Peru, where he’d work with students and invite artists from all over the world. He asked me to help build this media lab, and I thought, ‘why not?’ 

A couple of weeks later he called me back and he told me about a director friend of his who was going to direct a couple of shorts. He wanted to invite me to think about some scripts. So I told the agency that I was going to Cusco in Peru for a month… and suddenly it was just Carlos and I in the middle of Cusco! We started talking about this great idea, bringing together a creative lab and that was the beginning of everything.

LBB> A lot of the Amautalab work in the early days was really animation and puppetry heavy. These days you shoot in a far broader range of styles and do lots of live action work… but I was wondering if you think that background in animation and design-led work influences the way you approach a script and live action projects?

MJ> Yes, totally. I´m a huge fan of puppets and weird characters. That´s why every time I have the chance to create and design characters or come up with a unique visual world it´s a big motivation for me. I like to be very involved during the whole process, from the first sketches until the last post production details. 

I´m also very thankful that I had the chance of doing many animation projects in the past. I learned a lot from that and now I feel I have many tools to approach a script. I also feel more comfortable with the post production process, now I know if something could be well done or if it´s too ambitious to do in post. I can see a project from more angles and I’m more able to propose solutions and ideas.

LBB> I have to ask about Blindness of the Woods. I remember seeing it when it came out and loving it – and looking back it’s had a huge impact on your career as a director… For something that started, I’m guessing, as a bit of a joke, did you have an inkling that it would do as well as it did internationally and at festivals?

MJ> It´s true that it all started as a joke, but we really believed in this and we decided to invest a lot of effort in the project. We were very careful with every single detail: we shot it in Super 16, we built a huge Swedish forest with a wooden cabin, we created the crazy wool suits. I can tell you that in that moment it was a very unsafe investment for us!

Of course we were expecting good feedback from some people but we couldn’t imagine so much. We were selected and winning in festivals that we admire like Sundance or Clermont Ferrand. Canal+ bought the short film. Suddenly we were creating a huge sculpture for an art gallery and printing an art book. It was insane. If I’ve learned anything from this experience it is that you have to invest all your effort in the things that you believe in. 

LBB> How long have you been going as a solo director? And how do you think your work has evolved in that time? 

MJ> I’ve been a solo director for about four or five years, but including my collaborative projects I’ve been directing for about eight years.

During this period my work has gone through different stages. I came from the stop motion and puppets world, so at the beginning it was really a mix: a crafty live action approach with some puppets. Then I became more obsessed with acting, the rhythms, the silences.  On the other hand I was learning a lot about solving technical challenges. 

Now you can see that my work is very eclectic and has more production value behind it. But I always try to keep the simplicity of the message, no matter how complex the production.

LBB> What do you look for when you’re deciding if you want to pitch on a script? 

MJ> The idea. If the idea is good I would do anything to be part of the project. The script has to have something that moves me. It could be the message, the context where the story happens, the way of telling it, maybe there is something interesting about the characters. It could be many things but it has to have something special that wakes me up. 

LBB> I’m always curious to know how directors approach treatments – what’s your take on it?

MJ> Sometimes I incorporate a storyboard to explain the visual story better, or I might go out and take some photos, or I share some character sketches. It depends on the project. 

I like to see the treatment as more than just my point of view of the script. I think the treatment is the first step and a guide for the production. We talk a lot with the producer during the treatment process, so when we present it we really know that we are proposing something strong and real… and not just some cool references.   

LBB> Watching your work, it feels like there’s a streak of deadpan absurdist humour that goes through your spots. Is that something you’re drawn to? How does humour inform the way you look at the world?

MJ> I’ve loved humour since I was a child. I was raised in Argentina, a country that had many economic and political crises. With all these crises people learned how to laugh about everything, also about themselves. I grew up in that context; when you get together with your friends and family you start joking about everything. So, there is a very good level of humour and irony in Argentina. Maybe that´s the reason I see the world in a funny way sometimes. 

LBB> I enjoyed the Arnet ‘Internet Comments’ ad you shot – as a director are you ever tempted to read online comments about your work? 

MJ> I like to read online comments sometimes. Not only the ones from my work. You can find great jokes, a lot of hate or admiration in the same place. You know, there are some very creative people writing these comments!

LBB> Both your Heineken and Old Spice work involves a smooth-talking guy delivering a snappy monologue to camera – yet they’re also warm and wry… How do you work with actors in these situations to get the most out of them?

MJ> It´s hard for the actors because they have to remember a lot of text and do many other things at the same time. So I try to take things out of their heads before the performance; I explain the kind of character we are trying to build, we walk together many times around the set saying the lines, and we do several technical tests.

For instance, if they have to talk to the camera and pass through a wall at the same time, they have to be thinking about only one thing… and that´s the little adjustments that I’m asking them to do. Not the lines, not the character personality, nor the way they broke the wall. All of that should be solved before the shooting. I also like to go to the casting sessions and work with them from day one. 

I remember once someone persuaded me to act in a campaign! I said, ‘…ok, I guess it could be funny…’ and it was a nightmare! Being there, in front of the camera, the lights and in front of everyone standing around waiting to see your lines… I really learned a lot from that process. Whenever I have to work with an actor, I remember that day and I try to understand what they’re suffering. That was strongest experience in my directing career – more so than directing something!

LBB> Which recent project has resonated the most with you and why?

MJ> We have been working recently on two very challenging projects for Heineken and Gatorade. Both with a real time component, famous football players and real people involved. It was kind of tough because you can do rehearsals, you can plan everything, but there is always an unexpected result in these cases. When you try to get acting from a non-actor or a specific reaction from a normal guy on the street, you can get a little bit anxious. In a normal production, you can control every single detail, but in these two projects I couldn’t do that. I had to learn how to improvise and work from those reactions. But the final result was great and we got very funny moments, but both were very intensive projects.

LBB> You now live in Spain – though you shoot all over the world – what attracted you to Spain? And what do you make of the creative culture there?

MJ> I love the weather, the time difference and the distance from other countries that I work with. Argentina is a little bit far away from everything. I love going back to Buenos Aires to shoot or to visit family and friends, but the truth is that living in Spain right now makes everything easier. 

I also have the chance to work with very talented people here. Being in Spain is being in Europe. You’re able to call talented professionals in London, in France. You can be on a plane for two hours and suddenly you’re in a very different culture with different agencies.

LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why? And outside of your work, what inspires you?

MJ> I like and I admire very different things and people. I’m not one of those people that is a crazy fan about something. Maybe it’s related to my work – my tastes are very eclectic too. 

I love the characters and the humour of the Mighty Boosh show. The cute puppets of a Japanese show called Kure Kure Takora. The paintings and drawings of Martin Kippemberger, Marcel Dzama, Jorge de la Vega, De Kooning, Raymon Pettibon. The sound suits of Nick Cave. The one-minute sculptures from Erwin Wurm. The album covers designed by Mike Mills, for his movie Beginners. ‘A Trip to the Moon’ by George Méliès, Monty Python and Brazil by Terry Gilliam, the movies Punch Drunk Love and The Lobster. The acting of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The commercials and movies of Roy Anderson.  

I could spend days naming creative heroes. And the truth is that I incorporate new names all the time, I love discovering new artists.

I also get very inspired in books stores, museums, walking in the city, travelling, talking with friends. 

But talking about inspiration…when I’m travelling and I spend a lot of hours on a plane, I have to stop looking for references and that’s like a pause button. It’s not just about looking for eclectic references, it’s also about stopping. Thinking about nothing. Going out to walk in nature. Waiting for the ideas to come out.

Those moments are key. If we don’t stop, if we don’t connect with ourselves, we’re not going to be able to come back with something unique or personal.

LBB> What advice would you give to an aspiring director?

MJ> I think it’s a little bit tough to give advice but I can tell you about the tools that helped or still help me. 

For example, when I watch something that I really like I try to build the whole process backwards and try to understand the challenges they had during the process and what the director’s input really was. So I would recommend to break down a music video or commercial that you really like and analyse what works for you and why. Sometimes it is just a very simple thing… like an actor´s gesture or a silence. We are building our criteria all the time and we have to work hard at building that criteria, but you have to be conscious of that because otherwise you’re copying someone else’s processes or references.

Another piece of advice would be: once in a while, try to watch some movie scenes that you like but turn the sound off. You’ll be able to see the editing and the camera positions better without being distracted by the sound or the music.  

I discovered this on a trip from Madrid to Barcelona. I was on the train and I was watching a very bad movie, but I didn’t have headphones with me. So I watched it without the sound and suddenly I was able to understand it. I noticed a close up shot that worked very well.  I could pay attention to the under water shots, or the body language of actors. I started to analyse a very bad movie and it really worked!

LBB> Are there any kinds of projects (personal or professional) that you’d like to do that you haven’t had a chance to yet?

MJ> I’ve just moved to a new house and I’m planning to have an atelier, so the idea is to start painting again. That was something I did in Argentina but I haven’t been doing in Spain. It’s this silent place – the pause – a place where you can connect with yourself.

I’m also thinking about creating a book for kids. Every night, I make up stories for my children and my wife says, ‘you have to write this down or do a drawing’. And I´m working on a script that could end as a short film or a music video.