Carlos Atanes is a Spanish filmmaker who proudly describes his life’s work as “weird” (and was using the term before this site came into existence). He’s the creator of the bizarre feature films FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions (2004), Proxima (2007), and Maximum Shame (2010), all of which are reviewed here, as well as dozens of short subjects. His official website describes his ideal fan as one who likes “fantasy, weirdness and oddity” and is “part of that public who has a good time with risky and different things and with the cinema that recreates alternative and personal universes.” Since that description fits 366 Weird Movies readers perfectly, we figured we would play matchmaker between Carlos Atanes and our fans—and get a top 10 Weird Films list to add to our collection in the process.
This interview was conducted by Gregory J. Smalley with Mr. Atanes via email in October and November of 2011. His “Top 10 Weird Movie List” appears at the bottom of the interview.
366: You’ve announced a new project, Gallino, which you describe as a”pornophilosophical film.” What can you tell our readers about the movie?
Atanes: It is a step forward in my rise to weirdness. Gallino is related to my last movie Maximum Shame in many of its subjects. There are different actors and characters, other aesthetics and other conflicts, but in fact it is like a next part, a complement to Maximum Shame. Both are like a “double feature.” Gallino goes deep into parallel realities, meta-narrative and blurred borders between the pornographic and and the non-pornographic. Why do we consider one thing pornographic and not another, exactly? Why some things are visible/presentable and other things are not? So, Gallino is an strange trip along the cracks, halfway between dream and wakelfulness, porn and no porn, skin and flesh, story and essay. The plot is hard to explain, but in short I can say it is about a group of people who use pornography—in a very particular sense—for seeing beyond everyday life. For tearing away the Veil of Isis.
366: One of the weird things about your previous film Maximum Shame is that it uses the iconography of the fetish world, with the Queen dressed in leather bondage gear and the slave harnessed in some bizarre restraints, but there is no actual sex in it. The closest we come is a foot massage. Can we expect the same approach to the erotic in Gallino, or will it be more explicitly sexual?
Atanes: I have a complex perception of sex in film. I like porn, but when a film is not porn, the sex scenes almost always bore me. I think only a handful of mainstream directors—e.g. David Cronenberg—are capable of showing sex in an interesting way. Maximum Shame and also FAQ are about domination and sexual frustration more than sex itself. Gallino will be more explicit, but it is not a film about sex either. In Gallino pornography is much more important than sex—don’t forget sex and pornography are not synonymous—so it will be more pornographically explicit than sexually explicit.
366: You call yourself an “underground” filmmaker. In America, the term “underground film” is fairly vague, but I think it’s most strongly associated with low budget experimental movies from the 1960s to 1980s—anything from the homoerotic surrealism of Kenneth Anger to the grubby, transgressive films of Paul Morrisey and Andy Warhol to the bad taste provocations of John Waters. When the term is used today, it’s often in the context of films that are too experimental and low-budget to be called “independent,” ones that have minimal commercial appeal and almost no chance of being seen outside underground film festivals. What does it mean to be an “underground” filmmaker today in Spain?
Atanes: That’s a very good question. The context in Spain is radically different from the U.S. In the U.S. you have the mainstream industry—Hollywood majors—, the indie industry—outside the majors but industry anyway—, and underground film—that is not “industry” at all. In Spain and in Europe by extension we have subsidized films and… subsidized films. Sometimes somebody tries to make a movie in an “independent” way, but often they reproduce the same working methods, subjects and targets as mainstream/subsidized films. What to you and me would “feel like” an underground film does almost not exist in Spain—and, I repeat, in Europe.
But, although Underground is mainly an American label, there are also a few cases of it here. People who work away from main trends, both financially and thematically/aesthetically, and with that “swine” touch that I think is essential in underground films. Iván Zulueta would be the paradigmatic underground filmmaker in Spain, and his cult movie Arrebato (Rapture, 1978) is his masterpiece. And such people in the course of time as José María Nunes, Antoni Padrós, Adolfo Arrieta, Pedro Almodóvar’s early films… Nowadays I don’t know if I am the only underground filmmaker in Spain, but I don’t know anybody else.
366: Speaking of the Spanish film industry, your short film “Morfing” (1996) is an absurdly funny film about trying to get a film made: the actresses call you a pervert, your producer can’t afford toilet paper, and you try to hang yourself twice before the movie is finished. A number of your fellow Spanish directors appear in it, including Nacho Cerdá, who tries to talk you out of killing yourself by saying, “Do you want to end up on the autopsy table, sliced up like a pig? Well, maybe it’s a good idea.” I think only a very few people will understand why that’s funny, but it’s very rewarding if you do get the joke. I was wondering how this movie came about, and why these particular directors to appear in it?
Atanes: “Morfing” was a television pilot for a local TV in Barcelona. It would been the first chapter of a weekly show. I don’t remember what my intention was with that weekly show apart from I was some kind of anchorman who was flowing all my craziest ideas into it, in a shameless exercise of narcissism. And that is exactly what I did in the first chapter: a feverish pseudo-biopic. But the TV board watched “Morfing” and slammed the door in my face. So I adopted it as an autonomous short film—or medium-length film, because the duration is 30 minutes.
In those days (early/middle nineties) there was a rich and frenzied independent film activity in Barcelona and—contrary to present time—I was connected with many directors. We did a call for the shooting and some of them came: Nacho Cedrá, Jaume Balagueró, José María Nunes, and so. At the set I told them the sequence and asked them to improvise their speeches. They did it very well, were concise and idiosyncratic: Nunes made a statement about suicide, Cerdá talked about autopsy… It was funny. And useful, because I wished to mix fiction with reality throughout the film and that sequence is a fabulation but also a little piece of history.
366: “Morfing” was included on your short film compilation Codex Atanicus, and, though readers may find this hard to believe, it was the least weird of the three short films. “Metaminds and Metabodies” was set in a bar where a demon ran the floor show and a succubus was invading through the mirrors, and “Welcome to Spain” featured a long battle/feast/orgy on a metal stairway. Both films feel like nightmares. To me, they both look like pure Surrealist films. Watching them I was reminded that Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí—the authors of the first important Surrealist films—were both Spaniards. So, my question is how important are Buñuel and Dali to you personally, and to Spanish film in general?
Atanes: I would not say that Buñuel and Dalí have exerted too much influence on Spanish film. They were two “rara avis” (rare birds). Spanish film and literature has been always mainly focused in realism. From time to time some directors say that they are influenced by Buñuel, but it is not obvious. In fact Buñuel is not just unique and unrepeatable in Spain, but in the world. For me he is unquestionably one of the most important filmmakers. I admire and try to learn from his virtuous sobriety, his cruel humor, and his refined roughness.
Dalí has also marked me but more as thinker than as painter. I love Dalí paintings, but not everyone knows that Dalí was a great essayist. His father said that he was better writer than painter, and I think he was right. Dalí is one of the greatest Spanish writers of the 20th Century, and his writings are an explosion of intelligence, imagination and astonishment. Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method—a way for relating things apparently unconnected—showed me an entire world of possibilities. I don’t know what I owe exactly to Buñuel and Dalí, but I am sure it’s a lot. As Bernard of Chartes said, we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.
366: Well, continuing that thought, I find a lot of your work, to me, seems to fit in the Surrealist tradition. But I have never noticed you using the words surreal, Surrealism, or Surrealist to describe yourself or your films. Would you consider yourself a Surrealist?
Atanes: Strictly no, I don’t. People often use the word “surrealist” for describing anything weird or incomprehensible. And from that point of view I would be a surrealist. But Surrealism is a well-defined movement in History, with clear intentions. Breton said in his Manifesto that Surrealism was “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express (…) the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Since I am neither interested in psychoanalysis nor in making films in an automatist way, and I do have aesthetic and moral concerns… I can not be a Surrealist strictly speaking. My films and writings have meeting points with Surrealism—oneiric situations—but they are also under other art ceilings as Arte Povera, the Panic movement, conceptual art, Romanesque painting and many others. In short I am not interested in the absurd but in human stupidity, not in automatism but in arbitrariness, not in the unconscious but in the primary instinct. So many differences move me away from Surrealism.
366: I agree; your reflections about “surrealism” and how the term is misunderstood today are quite correct. That’s one of the reasons I chose to call this project “366 Weird Movies” rather than “366 Surreal[ist]Movies.” “Weird” is a much broader term that allows us to include things like Dario Argento‘s irrational fantastique films, or some of the more demented or unintentionally strange B-movies, alongside the works of the great Surrealist filmmakers. I suppose you had similar reasons for choosing the word “weird” to describe your own work. When and why did you decide to label yourself a “weird” filmmaker?
Atanes: In fact other people labeled me first. In the course of time I reached the conclusion that it was a good label. I agree with you, I prefer “weird” because it’s a broader term than “surrealist” or “underground” or “experimental.” And it defines the indefinable collection of films which I love and the kind of film I want to make. It’s a highly heterogeneous collection of movies: from Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise to Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit, John Boorman’s Zardoz and Deliverance, Marco Ferreri’s El cochecito, Dillinger is Dead and La Grande Bouffe, Kubrick’s 2001, Herzog’s Aguirre and Heart of Glass, Fosse’s All that Jazz, Carlos Saura’s Raise Ravens, Water’s Pink Flamingos, Claudio Guerín’s Bell from Hell, Pasolini’s Saló… The list is much longer. Have you noticed that most of those films are from the Seventies? What a great decade in film! It seemed a race to be the boldest! Nowadays film is comparatively boring. I was born in 1971, so weirdness is in my veins.
366: Besides strictly “weird” films, you’ve also shown a strong interest in science fiction. Your first feature film, FAQ, was a dystopian movie about a future world ruled by women that could almost pass as “conventional” science fiction—except for little absurdist touches, like when the leader of the male resistance puts on a clown nose just before he’s about to be executed. How did your interest in science fiction come about?
Atanes: I have loved sci-fi for as long as I can remember. And I am sure the fact that I was born in the seventees has influenced my bent, because as child I watched amazing films like the original Planet of the Apes saga, Silent Running and Soylent Green, among many others. These films also pushed me to read Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Orwell and Lovecraft. All that stuff constitutes my essential cultural background. Curiously, I haven’t been a “fantasy” enthusiast. Tolkien bores me. I need the rational sci-fi’s hook, its plausibility. I feel that pure fantasy—like pure surrealism—is often trifling (of course there are exceptions, as in Terry Gilliam’s works). Sci-fi, which is always an allegory but also an escape, has an unequalable transgressive quality: starting strongly from our reality it puts our reality in a mess. And this is exactly what I try to do when I make a film. So I am always close to sci-fi, even when I am not making films as obviously in sci-fi genre as FAQ and Proxima.
366: Certainly, influence of Philip K. Dick is strong in your second film Proxima, which includes a character named “Felix Cadecq” who has some similarities to the real-life author, including the fact that he sees visions. I think there may be a lot of references scattered in that movie that only dedicated science fiction fans will pick up on. And of course the main character is a sci-fi fan. Was Proxima intended as a sort of a love letter to science fiction and to its fans?
Atanes: Yes, it is a love letter. But a bit of a bitter one too, because with Proxima I wanted to remember the sense of wonder typical of sci-fi in the past. It’s difficult for me to know if the loss of that sense is due to the fact I am older or to the fact that sci-fi has really lost it. I’m sure it is a combination of both factors but I have a well-founded suspician that the second one is the main cause. I am not accusing sci-fi directly. What I am saying is that sci-fi arose in a period when people felt, for many reasons, a sense of wonder much greater than they do now about space, the future and science. Sci-fi arrived at just the right moment, not by chance but by necessity, and historians will talk about sci-fi in the future as the great genre of the 20th century, the genre which best showed 20th century people’s fears and aspirations. Maybe we’ve kept the feelings of hope and threat—often expressed so naively as in the past—but we have lost the astonishment. And it was precisely that astonishment that made sci-fi so peculiar and charming. So Proxima is a love letter to sci-fi but also the ascertainment of a disenchanment.
366: Those first two features, FAQ and Proxima, were both predominantly science fiction pieces with strong hints of weirdness. I think your third movie, Maximum Shame, was the opposite: a very weird movie with hints of science fiction. Sure, there is talk about a black hole—but mostly it moments like the Queen of Catalan Love appearing in a magic mirror eating spaghetti. Did you consciously choose to move away from harder science fiction and its “rational hook” and back to something more irrational?
Atanes: Ha, ha! You caught me! I am a man full of contradictions. Yes, I did it consciously. In fact I moved in a weirder direction before, when I decided to go beyond the strict edges of sci-fi and I made the short film “Scream Queen”, which is like a relative of Maximum Shame. And I follow this path making Gallino, a movie even more unclassifiable than Maximum Shame—with some sci-fi drops in it, too. I would like to justify the “rationality” of my present works, and there are reasons for it. For example I impose strict and “rational” rules in style and into the very plot, onto the characters. But the rules are not obvious, and I prefer that every member of the audience draw their own conclusions.
366: Your mention of your current project, Gallino, brings us back to where we started the interview. Readers won’t realize this, but this interview was conducted by back and forth emails, and we had to pause it while Mr. Atanes went on a shoot for the picture. So, how far along is the project now? Did everything go according to plan? And given the weird nature of your work, how much of a plan is there? Do you change things up on set, allow improvisation, or incorporate accidents into the final project?
Atanes: Just now we have completed about 20%-25% of the film. It would be going according to plan if there was a plan. The only plan that we have is to shoot when we can and as we obtaining funding. The crowdfunding campaign allowed us to start the machine but we need more cash now (we are still accepting new contributions and guest producers through the official site). My first aim was to finish the movie by December but it is impossible obviously due (solely) to financial shortages. In any case we don’t stop, the next filming session will be in two weeks and I hope the film will be completed in January / February 2012.
Apart from these financial and organizational matters, of course I change things up on set. But this is because I never take the screenplay to the set and I often forget things. My principle is that the screenplay is just a guide, and if I forget a detail is because it was not so important. For example, one of the Gallino sequences that we filmed in a forest last month hardly has anything to do with the plot, I created it as I went along.
On the other hand, is essential for me that actors have their dialogue well-memorized, so there is not very much improvisation in dialogue. But I love accidents and I don’t just incorporate accidents but I also encourage actors to have accidents!
366: Given their anarchic, stream-of-consciousness nature, I am not surprised to hear that you incorporate accidents into your films–that’s something else you have in common with the Surrealists, at least.
At any rate, we’ve covered your entire feature filmography now, and we’ve explored a lot of your influences. Would you care to give us your top 10 list of weird movies now (and honorable mentions are perfectly OK if you can’t limit yourself to 10!)
Atanes: I’ll try to do so. It’s a difficult selection. This is my weird films list (not in order of preference, but alphabetical):
2- Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)
3- Despair (R. W. Fassbinder, 1978)
5- Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog, 1976)
6- Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
7- The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)
8- Phantom of the Paradise (Brian de Palma, 1974)
9- Toby Dammit (Federico Fellini, 1967)
More films that I would like to include into the list because I like them as much as the previous ones (and sure I am forgetting many of them): 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995); Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972); Bell from Hell (Claudio Guerín, 1973); The Belly of an Architect (Peter Greenaway, 1987); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972); El cochecito (Ferreri, 1960); Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004); Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980); La Grande Bouffe (Ferreri, 1973); The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976); Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983); Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979); Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1976); Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972); Rapture [Arrebato] (Iván Zulueta, 1979); Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975); The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986); Testament of Orpheus (Jean Cocteau, 1960); There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007); Tideland (Gilliam, 2005).
366: Thanks a lot for your time and your insightful comments. Find out more about Carlos Atanes and his work at: