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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2020 New Directors

Imanol Rayo • Director of Death Knell

"My film eschews the commonplace"


- We chatted to Imanol Rayo at San Sebastián after he presented his second film, Death Knell, which glides effortlessly between thriller and tragedy

Imanol Rayo  • Director of Death Knell
(© Alex Abril/Festival de San Sebastián)

Imanol Rayo (Pamplona, 1984) previously took part in the San Sebastián International Film Festival with Bi Anai, a film based on the Bernardo Atxaga novel of the same name, for which he received the Zinemira Award. Nine years later, he’s back at the Basque gathering, in its New Directors section, to world-premiere Death Knell [+see also:
film review
interview: Imanol Rayo
film profile
, an intriguing rural tragedy – based on the book 33 ezkil by Miren Gorrotxategi – starring Itziar Ituño, Yon González and Eneko Sagardoy, who won a Goya Award for Giant [+see also:
film review
interview: Aitor Arregi and Jon Garaño
film profile
. As a dramatic gale battered the beaches of the coastal city, we chatted to the helmer while holed up in the Kursaal, the festival’s HQ.

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Cineuropa: What attracted you to Miren Gorrotxategi’s novel and convinced you to adapt it for the big screen?
Imanol Rayo: My first and second features had very different starting points because I had totally absorbed Atxaga’s world, and I was interested in that change in form, making the animals silent. In the case of Death Knell, it was different because the project came along through the film’s executive producer, Joxe Portela, who suggested I read the novel. I liked it because it was suggestive of this very fragmented structure, with restricted spaces and narrative threads that remain unresolved. And so the key was to adapt that structure and transform the narrative content, whereas usually you do the opposite – in other words, the original form of the novel is not that important, and that’s the first thing that is sacrificed. Instead, the characters are more important. I found it fascinating to take that approach of broad brushstrokes without having your usual dramatic narrative arc, with a crescendo, but rather with standalone fragments. In addition, the novel contained imagery that revolved around the concept of death and a certain kind of macabre iconography, like those floral crowns... That sense of mystery looms large over the film. All of that was what spurred us on to make the adaptation.

The storyline in the film involves a family engrossed in conflict and a vengeful Spain
There are historic Spanish events that are tackled here slightly indirectly, such as ETA’s “Years of Lead” or the drug trafficking – and corruption – of the Civil Guard: they are only hinted at because the narrative proper transcends all of that. You have to go so much further than that because I was more interested in achieving that classic essence of tragedy, and for it to have this age-old vibe. Another important thing is the worldly, earthly factor, which plays an active part in proceedings. And the music helps to channel the silences, which are fully intentional in the film, and which come along after a given period of really intense sound.

There’s a huge contrast between the rural tragedy you recount and the photogenic qualities of the Basque and Navarrese landscape where you shot, given that you didn’t even use a drone to do the wide aerial shots
You have to steer clear of clichés more than ever nowadays. The thriller genre sometimes overuses foggy woods, for example; here, you have to resort to specific images, which may be more or less powerful. There are no gratuitous shots: we filmed the movie basing it on limitations, without even having an idea of the overarching set design, and in that way the map where everything unfolds has to be constructed in the viewer’s mind. And I can’t get my head around a shoot if the tripod isn’t on the ground. Film goes hand in hand with human vision, so the shot has to be logical. That’s why the camera hardly moves at all in Death Knell. But my film eschews the commonplace that surrounds us today. It’s vital to be in communion with what you wish to do, even though we may not be everyone’s cup of tea...

Your proposition is fairly unusual, on both the narrative and the thematic level it’s a thriller mixed with family tragedy...
Indeed. But I think there is a glut of thrillers that are all cut from the same cloth, angled more towards action and giving the viewer exactly what they want. In that sense, this film is much more conducive to a more active participation on the part of the audience, who have to fill in the gaps.

The colours in the film are fairly saturated and intense... Why?
That was deliberate, harking back to that timeless feel again. It’s a movie with hardly any sun, and we don’t see the sky, so it’s built on the concept of shadow. In this regard, the cinematography is also like a state of mind, also highlighting the traces of passing time because the light affects the surroundings in a different way depending on whether they are in the present or in the past.

Did you have a lot of freedom when it came to producing and shooting it?
Economic power is always key: we are in another category, the festival category, although it’s always dangerous to label things... In that sense, I don’t think it’s a very cryptic film and that it can work for any given viewer, even though it’s a unique movie. But film has to constantly reinvent itself.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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