Michel Franco’s fifth feature April's Daughter starring acclaimed actress Emma Suarez won Palme d'Or in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Ksenija Pavlovic sits down with him to talk about cinema and hard questions in life.
“You never get simple answers in life,” award-winning filmmaker Michel Franco tells me at the beginning of our interview at the Ambassador's Suite, at the Palais des Festivals at the Cannes’ La Croisette. Dressed in a dark blue suit and an impeccable lavender shirt, Michel is focused, direct and yet at the same time, off the cuff. His latest film, April’s Daughter (Las Hijas De Abril), starring Emma Suarez, tells a complex, emotionally raw story about a mother-daughter relationship that comes to the forefront revolving around the subject of teen pregnancy. Although very young for a director, only being in his late thirties, Michel Franco is not a stranger to the awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2015, his movie Chronic starring Tim Roth won the award for Best Screenplay. In 2012, his film After Lucia which covers controversial subject matters like adolescent isolation and bullying won the main prize in Un Certain Regard category. This year in Cannes, it came as no surprise that the April’s Daughter has been well received and has been awarded a prestigious the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. While it is always some personal conflict that translates to his movies, Michel Franco is known for not talking about his personal life in his interviews. Despite this, he makes an exception for The Pavlovic Today and reveals his own beliefs on fatherhood and the hardest question in life that he hasn't figured out quite yet.
What exactly attracted you to make April's Daughter?
Michel Franco: It was the mix between two main ideas. One one hand, I was very interested in how more and more men and women —and I know many people who are like that— are reluctant to accept aging. And how because of that desire not to age, they make the wrong decisions in life and they stop being who they are and forgot who they once were. On the other hand, one day I saw a pregnant teenage girl in Mexico City, which nowadays is a very common thing. She was fifteen, and what caught my attention was: “How did she come to that situation?" She was very beautiful and full of life, but at the same time placed in a very complicated position in life. So when I put those two ideas together, that was the beginning of the plot for April's Daughter.
Is it common in Mexico for mothers to be very much involved in the lives of their daughters?
Michel Franco: In general, in Mexico, what is going on is that the families are very close and that very fact, is very often the beginning of hell. In many European places and in the United States, kids go away from home at eighteen and make their own lives. In Mexico, this is not the case. It is a common thing in Mexico that parents live with their kids until they are twenty-five, or twenty-seven. Parents try to be good parents and they are pushing the kids and try to be there for them.
What was your experience in writing the characters from a female perspective? Was it challenging?
Michel Franco: Yes, it was a big challenge, but I love it. I enjoy movies with female characters rather than those with male characters, and that is what I am trying to explore when I write. I find the female perspective more interesting. Firstly, because I am not a woman, so it is interesting to explore a different side. Second, I think society is more demanding on women. It’s as if women have to be perfect. They have to be good mothers, they have to be clever, they have to be beautiful, and then, if they make a small mistake they get criticized to a large extent.
As men, we have more freedom. We are allowed to go and come back because we are male. As men, we are supposed to financially provide and as long as we are doing that, we are fine. To be a woman is challenging because socially a lot more of is asked from a woman as opposed to men.
So that is why women often make bigger mistakes, and they get judged in worse ways by society and their male counterparts. So, to me, it is more interesting to explore a feminine world and in this case, from three unusual perspectives of different females with unique ages and character qualities.
In America, there is a big debate about pro-life and the government is very much involved in this question. In terms of your film, is abortion justified or not? What is the bigger mistake: to get pregnant at such a young age or to abort the baby?
Michel Franco: Since I wrote the script, people have been asking me if this is a pro or anti-abortion film. I did not even think about that when I was writing the story. For me, it is just a strong conflict and difficult circumstances for this teenage girl. But, whether abortion is justified or not, I would say every case is a different story. Of course, in general, I am very liberal. But that does not even matter. My opinion does not matter for any film, including this one. If you want for a movie to be really important, if you are ambitious in its own way, you have to let go of your personal beliefs. It is strange because at the same time making a movie is very personal and emotional.
Every movie that is interesting has to contain a lot of layers, and that’s where it gets tricky. It is like life. You never get simple answers. I like when movies have that same mindset and material.
In the opening scene, after having sex, the young girl, Valeria (Ana Valeria Becerril) eats an apple and then you cut to the next scene where we see she is pregnant. Did you have the story of the original sin when you wrote this scene?
Michel Franco: No, and yes. No, because at the beginning, it was purely about writing, triggering the conflict from the very first scene. But then, when we were shooting and I decided to shoot in that house in front of the sea. This nature looks like the origins of life and reminded me of the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve. Then, I decided, and I think I have surprised myself with including eggs followed by the apple and the water.
In that scene where she is eating an apple, Valeria is naked, pure and beautiful. I guess that there was something about the original sin, but it came instinctively. I wasn’t trying to say something.
In what ways your film is challenging the traditional family structure?
Michel Franco: What caught my attention is that even in Mexico - which is very conservative - nobody believes that the typical family structure is perfect anymore. People get divorced and married for the second and third time. Things that they years ago were not allowed in Mexico are happening now. My film also has to do with what it happens when we get more open to accepting that the family structure is not necessarily working and people are not living by it anymore.
When you picked up the topic of teen pregnancy, did you talk to girls who went through the same experience?
Michel Franco: Not really, no. And I hope it is not disappointing. People often want to hear that I have researched a lot and I am always afraid that if I do a heavy amount of proper research it will ruin the film, you know. I mean, if you talked to a hundred pregnant women, they would all have a different point of view. They might not be even telling you the truth about how they feel. It is tricky.
I think cinema should be closer to art and further from a clinic explanation of life. It should come from the gut. If instinctively you get it right, great. If you don’t, then the film will be poor, and that’s it.
Valeria, the actress, she did a lot of research and spoke to me about what she read and the mother she talked to. I changed a lot in the script based on what she told me, and I do adapt a lot while I am working with the actors. I always listen to suggestions and try to keep it fresh.
What is Valeria’s motivation in April’s Daughter? Do you know?
Michel Franco: I think what is interesting is that her motivation is life. She is happy to be in love with a boy and be pregnant. But, she has no clue. I mean, she does not know what she is facing. And that is interesting. She is not necessarily ready for the challenges coming ahead.
All protagonists in your movie at some level seek forgiveness, but can that offset for their character flaws?
Michel Franco: When I write, not all characters are good, but none of them are evil. They all try their best and are all looking for love, to give love and receive love. In that exchange, it all gets very twisted.
There are evil people in life, but I try to avoid them because it’s not as interesting. It is more interesting to explore how life is when you love someone, or you are trying to love someone whilst damaging them in the process.
You mean, they love each other so much that they end up hurting each other?
Michel Franco: Yes. That’s valid, absolutely. But then, of course, it’s the part where people get the most confused. In that way a little girl, Valeria in the film is interesting. Going back to your earlier question, she actually does know what she wants, only she is very naïve. What she wants is so simple, but she can not achieve it in the way she is trying to.
In terms of making mistakes, isn’t it may be better to make a big mistake early in life and then have time to fix it?
Michel Franco: Depending on what mistakes and depending on your personality. What is interesting about mistakes is that some people are able to learn from them, while others do not, and just keep on going making them again and again. I think that’s April (Emma Suarez). I think she has made tons of mistakes ( from her relationship with an ex-husband you can get a sense of that), but you can tell also that she is not changing. She keeps on making them.
What are your views on motherhood?
Michel Franco: Again, as men, we will never experience it, but I guess growing a baby inside of you must be a beginning of something interesting. I do not know if you are a mother or not, but you cannot compare it to the experience of being a father. But, that can also be very bad. Many women go crazy in pregnancy or after, again, it is demanding to be a woman. We, as men, do not have to do that. We do not have to carry a baby for nine months and then feed it.
For sure, motherhood is not an easy thing, it is very demanding. If something goes wrong, socially, it is always blamed on the mother.
She probably feels like that. As if you have a child, and the child makes a mistake then you have the obligation that you did something wrong?
Michel Franco: Which for April is not the case. Funny enough, in my case—and I never like to go personally in my interviews —but in my case, I am lot more about the strong father figure.
Is that a Mexican thing? To be a strong father figure?
Michel Franco: No, Mexico is all about mothers. They are sacred and respected. In Mexico, it is more about matriarchy.
How did working with acclaimed actress Emma Suarez come about?
Michel Franco: I was close to shooting the film in the United States but then I said, “Okay, no. I do not want to go in that direction.”
Michel Franco: Why not? I already had experience in the United States, and it was a great experience. But for this movie, for small details and certain things, including maybe even this thing about all men and women like April I knew it had to be in Mexico. I said: 'no, let’s bring the film back to Mexico.' Something in my mind always knew that the situation called for April being far away from home.
In my movies, I never try to explain everything, like where the characters are coming from, but I want to have a feeling that they are coming from somewhere else. So, I thought, she is Spanish, she has her past and an after working with Tim Roth I wanted a strong lead. Who can that be? And of course: Emma Suarez.
Emma is a huge star and she was in Almodovar's Julieta, and at the right age for the role of April and I sent her the script. She saw all my movies and said: ' I love the material, and I love your work but I am not doing it. Because the stuff is confronting me too much.' And I said: 'thank you very much, I’ll send you another script sometime.’ And she was like, 'No, wait, don’t hang up.' I am guessing she was either trying to be convinced or she was either really confronted. I told Emma, 'one should never try to convince the actor or anyone to make a movie with you because it is such an intimate and long process that you want, and especially the actors to be there for the right reasons. You do not want them when you are pushing their limits to say, ‘why am I here?' So Emma Suarez really wanted to be there. She told me on the phone, 'give me three days' and of course, she said yes.
We met in New York, while Emma was promoting Almodovar's Julieta, and we spoke for five days about the script about what I wanted to do. We went to bars, we drank, and we spent a lot of time together.
Your film is asking a very hard question about life. What is the hardest question about life that you have not answered yet?
Michel Franco: Every movie I make is to try to understand more about who I am. How do we live with each other, socially? Again, that is why I have not stopped making movies in Mexico, although I will do more and more in the United States for sure.
The big question, I guess, is why do we make such obvious mistakes?
Even if we are supposed to be so educated, clever, sophisticated, good-hearted, we keep making huge mistakes, and we keep hurting each other. That is an interesting question to try to figure out. That is what cinema is for, to ask hard questions. It is important to leave them unanswered.
Not to answer them, really? That’s for the audience to resolve them. A very good movie has to have many layers. Hopefully, that is what I am aiming for.
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