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LOCARNO 2021 Competition

Neus Ballús • Director of The Odd-Job Men

“I think the experiences we all have behind us are fascinating”

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- The Catalonian filmmaker talks to us about her third feature, another fiction-documentary hybrid that is toplined by non-professional actors

Neus Ballús • Director of The Odd-Job Men

Neus Ballús surprised everyone with her feature debut, The Plague [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, a non-fiction title starring non-professional actors, when it screened at the 2013 Berlinale; she then returned to that same festival six years later with Staff Only [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Neus Ballús
film profile
]
, which saw Sergi López at the top of the billing. Now, in competition for the first time, at the 74th Locarno Film Festival, she once again picks up several elements from her previous oeuvres in The Odd-Job Men [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Neus Ballús
film profile
]
, a chronicle of a small bunch of plumbers and their working week.

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Cineuropa: The sense of humour exuded by your new film is quite surprising.
Neus Ballús: I wanted to do something akin to comedy, but I didn’t dare say so during its development, because who knows what would have come of it… But my intention was to embrace this hybrid genre that has been used ever since the dawn of cinema, because it generates a very close approximation to reality – and that encompasses not only drama, but also surrealism, tenderness and many other things as well. I wanted to throw it all in there, the things we see every day and don’t really pay much attention to.

Furthermore, comedy is also a good tool when it comes to tackling important subjects without getting too intense.
This is what really helped me to meet Valero, the main character, who for me is the “Spanish Jean Reno” – he was key to the whole process. These films are so prone to being influenced by what crops up in the process of making them, that your intentions sometimes have to be adjusted to fit reality, rather than vice versa. This is a great lesson in humility, as reality does not always give you what you want. But he brought important things to the table: the ability to be very unsubtle when portraying a character that we recognise, who is prejudiced and racist, but who is simultaneously smart and has brilliant retorts – someone we can identify with.

Speaking of which, how did you find your actors/characters?
I always follow the same method: I wangle my way into the places where you find them. And so I managed to get into the school of technicians in Barcelona, where they give the fitters lessons. Once there, I watched them, I took a few photos and I talked to some of them. I met a thousand people, and the ones I liked took part in improv exercises, so we could see whether I could construct a film with them as my starting point.

Were there any rehearsals, and did you have coaches to help?
Both things, yes: we spent two years meeting up sporadically, and on those occasions, we would play with improv based on situations that they had experienced, taking them right up to the limits of their emotions. That’s how I gradually settled on the characters and the stories, too, writing the screenplay in parallel. A coach helped me at the end of this process and during the shoot. But we never rehearsed the scenes in the film, because everything that happens is a surprise for the protagonists: they don’t know whom they’re going to meet in a given scene or what fault they’re going to have to fix, and nor do they know what should actually happen. But they have to be ready to take the plunge and feel the emotions that crop up.

Are the situations we see inspired by past incidents, or were they made up?
Everything is based on stories they told me and on characters I already knew, like the photographer, the psychoanalyst and the waitress in the bar: also, my father is a plumber, which meant I had a lot of stories stored up in my memory, like when they are looked down on as lower-class in some places. I put the anecdotes into a certain order so that the movie would be varied and so we could tag along with them for a whole week, and that way, the viewer would have the feeling of living alongside them and bearing witness to a wide array of households and lifestyles.

The film is also a portrait of the time and the society we are living in. But why do you insist so much on working with non-professionals?
I talked about this a great deal with Sergi López, the only professional actor I have worked with. I come from the documentary sphere, and I think the experiences we all have behind us are fascinating, and that’s why it seems absurd to me not to take full advantage of them as another source of material. I believe that, in this way, people also gain an awareness of many different lives and professions.

You took part in the Berlinale with your previous features, and now you’re competing at Locarno: three films, three festivals.
I feel very lucky because I know that my works are unique and follow a methodology that is a bit at odds with the industry: it’s risky to self-produce because it’s not easy. And so I consider myself fortunate that the festivals have clocked the fact that, in my case, I have the drive to do something new, to try things, to do research, to push the genre further and to incorporate experiences into it.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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