Going wild at the Argentinean box office

A smash-hit in his homeland, Damián Szifrón’s new dark comedy is an Oscar hopeful

The cast and crew of ‘Wild Tales,’ from left to right: Julieta Zylberberg, Darío Grandinetti, Oscar Martínez, director Damián Szifrón, Ricardo Darín, Leonardo Sbaraglia and Rita Cortese.
The cast and crew of ‘Wild Tales,’ from left to right: Julieta Zylberberg, Darío Grandinetti, Oscar Martínez, director Damián Szifrón, Ricardo Darín, Leonardo Sbaraglia and Rita Cortese.

A couple goes out to dinner at a restaurant. Totally normal. The waiter and the chef serve them. Also normal. Soon, however, they are asked to leave because the restaurant has to close. Less normal. The man, usually an innocuous sort, gets embroiled in a fight with the waiters that leads to the arrival of the police and him being sentenced to take anger management classes. Not at all normal.

And yet it occurred to Argentinean filmmaker Damián Szifrón that it might serve as one of the segments in his feature Wild Tales, which has been chosen to represent his country at next year’s Oscars. The six independent stories that make up the film – a co-production between Argentina and Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo company – start out under normal circumstances and then veer into violence.

“Anyone can lose control. We are often dealing with the urge to do so even though it rarely happens,” Szifrón says. And thus in the film a fight between two drivers results in a cruel duel and an inoffensive engineer (Ricardo Darín) takes revenge against the crane hauling away his car. “When I read a tragic incident in the newspaper I never feel like the guy who did it is a stranger to me,” Szifrón continues.

‘Wild Tales’ is the most seen homegrown film in Argentinean box-office history

At Cannes, where the movie premiered and where this interview took place, Wild Tales provoked howls of laughter. At San Sebastián, it received the Audience Award for Best European Film (it was co-produced by Spain). But the most important source of support, besides distributor Warner Bros., has been ticket sales in Argentina where the movie has enjoyed the best opening ever by a domestic production. Now, according to National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts statistics that date back to 1997, it is officially the most seen homegrown film in Argentinean box-office history. The film has sold 2.6 million tickets, surpassing the total of 2,410,592 set by 2009 Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes. Wild Tales could even become the most-watched of any film in Argentinean cinemas although it is running far behind Ice Age: Continental Drift, which reaped 4,495,442 ticket sales in 2012.

Maybe it is because of his film’s success, or his natural friendliness, but Szifrón is sparkling with enthusiasm and his normally fast speech is even faster. He says he started out with 14 stories for the film but only kept the “wildest ones.” The movie is his darkest work so far, he says – and he has worked quite a lot. Besides three other features, he also wrote and directed TV series Los Simuladores, which was a hit in Argentina.

I like movies that aren’t trying to be erudite”

Filmmaker Damián Szifrón

Despite all the commotion on screen, Wild Tales required a slow approach. “It was an evolution. Usually I would shoot an episode while I wrote another and I was thinking of a third one. This time I wanted to dedicate more time to the staging and separate the script from the shoot.”

What did not change was Szifrón’s dark sense of humor. “Solemnity covers up deception. Wherever you see something solemn, there is something weird. Humor is always there, even in tragedy. I have no idea why it is not considered something serious.” He remains faithful to what some might call commercial cinema, but to him it’s like this: “I like movies made from the heart, movies that don’t try to be erudite and are made for the mass public.” And so, he says, auteur cinema does not interest him at all.

His influences are mostly American directors from the 1970s and above all, Francis Ford Coppola. “The Godfather was better than anything that has been made since then,” he says. And there is another important element for Szifrón: freedom. “Just working outside of the industry or with less money does not mean your work will be freer. Wild Tales is free, and even very free.” He finishes his theory by saying how he saw the project moving forward from the beginning. “If you plant many seeds, and you water them,” he says, “they grow. You don’t know what they are or when they will come out but, if you become a respectful spectator of what is happening in your mind, the fruits are sweeter.” They are, in his case, also numerous.

The top five Argentinean films at the domestic box office

Wild Tales: 2,566,000 tickets sales to date.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009): 2,410,000.

Manuelita (1999): 2,210,000.

Metegol [Futbolin, in Spain] (2013): 2.113.000.

Patoruzito (2004): 1,892,000.

Szifrón is now working on an English-language romantic thriller, as well as El extranjero, a science-fiction trilogy about the big questions facing humanity. “The first draft had 500 pages and it looked like the work of a madman. I spent whole nights in the mountains with a notebook looking at the stars,” Szifrón says laughing. But in those mountains or sitting in his bath tub with “jazz at full volume,” he usually finds the respite that helps him create: “Wild Tales came out of processing mundane stories in pleasant circumstances.”

His passion for cinema came from a discovery he made at an early age. “I wanted to be Indiana Jones, cowboy and superhero. But when you become a teenager, you realize that you won’t be that. Cinema gives you the opportunity to reexamine those desires in an adult way.” And sometimes, it takes you from everyday life all the way to Hollywood.

Wild Tales will be released in Spain on October 17.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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