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VENICE 2019 Competition

Ciro Guerra • Director of Waiting for the Barbarians

“Some people have called this novel unfilmable, but I could see it very clearly”


- VENICE 2019: Ciro Guerra talks about the creative joys and challenges of adapting the JM Coetzee novel in Waiting for the Barbarians, which premiered in the competition for the Golden Lion

Ciro Guerra  • Director of Waiting for the Barbarians

With a steadily growing reputation, Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, Birds of Passage [+see also:
film review
film profile
) now takes on his first English-language feature, an adaptation of Nobel Prize laureate JM Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians [+see also:
film review
interview: Ciro Guerra
film profile
, starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson. Set in a fictional area sometime in the last century, the story deals with colonialism and its darkest aspects. The movie screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: How did you come to direct the adaptation of Coetzee’s novel?
Ciro Guerra:
The producer, Michael Fitzgerald, had been working on the project for quite a few years. I understand that he and Coetzee had seen my films and felt that I was the right director. I was excited to do it, not least because Mark Rylance was already on board. After this, things just fell into place. Robert Pattinson and I had talked about doing something, and here we got our chance. Johnny Depp liked both the novel and my previous work, and was very positive. He’s a sweet man, Johnny, with a lovely disposition, and he was very happy to work with actors again – when you do special-effects films, it can be lonely with all the green screens. So he jumped at the opportunity from page one. For me, it was new to work with actors who are really at the top of their game, and it was very rewarding. They became good friends along the way.

Can you point out any specific aspect of the book that drew you in, or possibly also posed a challenge?
Needless to say, it’s very powerful as well as allegorical and mythical, and at the same time, it’s highly topical in that empires have to invent enemies in order to survive. I found several grand and epic components that attracted me, but also some intimate and personal ones. And then there’s the notion of bringing a respected text, regarded as a masterpiece, to the screen and how to do it justice. Coetzee, who wrote the screenplay, helped a lot: he often went in a different direction to his book and really stripped everything down to the bare bones. Together, we did our best to develop the story into a cinematic tale. Coetzee was very aware and helpful in all of this.

It was then your task to approach the images. How did you go about it?
With a confident mind, I tell you. Some people have called this novel unfilmable, but I could see it very clearly. I could see the way it needed a balance between the epic and the intimate. I found lots of inspiration by watching Japanese cinema – Woman in the Dunes, the 1960s films of Akira Kurosawa – as they often deal with the struggle of the individual, and I found a good tone in them. I also drew inspiration from David Lean’s epic style and the way he used Alec Guinness, who is really the only other actor besides Mark Rylance who could have played the magistrate. So yes, for me, the tone came in very clearly and very quickly. This is my main drive: if I see it inside my head and it feels worthwhile for other people to see, then I can film it.

The images must have been helped by your cinematographer Chris Menges, a star in his field on the same level as Johnny Depp.
He’s a legend and already was before I was born. He was a pleasure to work with, both for me and for my regular cinematographer, David Gallego, whom I brought in as a camera operator so that he could learn from a real master. For me, though, I always work very closely with my cinematographers, and I try to study their process, but in Chris Menges’ case, I just have no idea how he did it. It was astonishing. I could not hope to replicate it. He’s 78 years old but had more energy than any of the rest of us.

What’s next up for you?
You will read about what’s next up for me in just a few days’ time. It’s a personal dream come true and the biggest project I have ever taken on.

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