Looking into the Crystal Ball of Horror

Interview With Nacho Cerdá

by Donato Totaro Volume 5, Issue 1 / January 2001 22 minutes (5385 words)

I first met Spanish film director Nacho Cerdá in 1997 when his short film Aftermath took top short film honor at Montreal’s Fant-Asia Film Festival. (Read this early interview here.) Cerdá returned the following year and (arguably) topped Aftermath with his stunning short, Genesis. As part of their recent (March 2001) special 200th issue, Fangoria film magazine looked into its bloodied crystal ball and selected thirteen people to represent the “Future of Fear.” As a magazine that has survived and prospered since its inception in 1979, Fangoria knows a thing or two about the horror genre. I was not surprised to learn that one of the thirteen promising horror talents they selected was Nacho Cerdá (you’ll have to read Fangoria to find out who the other 12 are!). This is the full transcript of the interview I conducted with Cerdá on behalf of Fangoria about his upcoming projects and his views on the future of horror genre.

As we talk about the future of horror, it is always interesting to look into the past, do see what other people have done in different situations. Do you see a connection between the wave of Spanish horror directors of the 1970’s (Amando de Ossorio, Paul Naschy, Jesus Franco, Leon Klimovsky, Narcisco Ibanez, Vicente Aranda) and younger, contemporary Spanish horror directors (yourself, Agustin Villaronga, Alex de la Iglesia, Alejandro Amenábar, Jaume Balagueró, Francisco Plaza, Juanma Bajo Ulloa)?

Well, there is a big difference, the formality or the technique of the films are generally much better and they are being produced on a higher level. In terms of themes and subjects, at least up until a few years ago, there seemed to be an obsession with young filmmakers to do horror films with a humorous tone, and that is something I never really liked, as the only way to go. That can co-exist with other types of horror films, more serious or harsher. But there has always been a fear of doing something serious, and I do not know why. Which is maybe why in Spain there is this big sense of self-parody. Young filmmakers that want to make horror added a whole lot of humor, a sense of self-parody in Spain that we can not get rid of. I remember reading in a magazine that some film critics were saying, yes the future of Spanish horror cinema is through humor. And of course it is an option, but not the only one. And the proof of that is films like The Nameless, which are very serious, and one soon to be released called The Others by Alejandro Amenábar, that really work as true classical horror stories. And the latter is where I see my line of work fitting in.

So I guess there are some younger directors aware of the tradition.

Yes. A big difference also is the way those films were shot. During the 1970’s, films by Jess Franco, Paul Naschy, they were really low budget. And right now it seems like they are making them on a bigger scale. The Others, for example, is a thirty million dollar co-production with Miramax and stars Nicole Kidman, and The Nameless is 1.5 million. The Others is being shot right now and is about 3 weeks away from completion.

Where is that being shot?

In Madrid and Santander, in the north of Spain. This will probably be Alejandro Amenábar big breakthrough film for the American market. And there is a high expectation for this film.

Is the money coming equally from both parties?

Well I’m not sure, but Tom Cruise is also producing it with his production company Cruise-Wagner and Spanish producers.

So it isn’t only Brian Yuzna in Spain!

No, not at all.

Can you tell us a bit about the documentary script you are presently completing?

It is about a guy who was killed called Sergio Del Monte, who he worked with Paul Naschy and others from the 1970’s. He was an old documentary filmmaker that was trying to break into narrative fiction. He was also known to be an experimental cinematographer, interested in playing with light and motion and wanted to make a film using these experimental techniques but was killed under strange circumstances and pressures from a group of people known to belong to a sect called Diem et Orbis. Because what he was about to reveal was a little bit dangerous. All that was left was 200 metres of film he shot on the first two days before he was killed. This footage has been discovered by a Spanish film festival called the San Sebastien Horror Week. So the people who found the elements wanted to do a documentary on the director, his work, and his relationship with people who knew him like Jess Franco, Paul Naschy, and Amando De Ossorio. So I was asked to make a documentary on the legend surrounding this man, and the man himself.

What was it like meeting all those important older generation Spanish horror directors?

Well, it was amazing actually. I think it will be the first documentary to feature all these directors. It was fun to hear them talk about what it was like making films in the late ’60’s and 1970’s in Spain. Because, as you know, there was the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, and everything was repressed, with state censorship. But the country was opening up a little and there was more nudity, and subjects that were previously kept underground. It was fun. These guys know a lot and have so much experience. I really enjoyed it. I have about 2 1/2 hours of interview with Paul Naschy, and 2 hours from others. I could have gone on and on. One of my interests in making this documentary was to give a little portrait of that era in filmmaking.

Who else is in it? Amando De Ossorio?

Yes he was there as well. At first he was believed to be dead, but he is still alive. He is very sick, though. But he was still able to speak and function. It’s funny, some of these directors were competitors and never made a film together. So in a sense this documentary is the first film they are making together!

Where will this film be screened?

It is a short film, 30 minutes, but depending on the material we have, it may become a feature length documentary film. It is supposed to open in October 2001 at the San Sebastian Film Festival and then also do a little tour of European festivals, especially the fantastic festivals.

So it will be subtitled?

Yes. In fact the trailer, which will be shown this week at the San Sebastain festival will be subtitled. And one of the jury members will be Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria magazine.

Did any of these older directors know who you are or your films?

No. I find there is still a big gap between older filmmakers and new filmmakers. I mean the new directors know the old directors, but the old ones do not know the new ones! They’ve been living in a different world really. Some are still making films, like Paul Naschy and Jess Franco. But it is completely parallel, another industry. Much lower budgets. They haven’t really adapted to the new industry, the new technologies, and still think in old terms.

Why the recent increase in horror films in Spain?

Well, one of the main reasons is because of all these American horror films that have been successful lately. Like the Scream series, and The Blair Witch Project. They are trying to do something on that level because they have come to realize that audiences really enjoy horror films. So they want to invest more money and the movies become bigger and more accomplished formally.

Well what is interesting is that a lot of the recent films that have been successful, like The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense are almost old school horror, with the less the seen the better as the working ethos. Is that also reflected in the Spanish horror films?

No, not exactly. You mention the The Sixth Sense but that is counter to what the Spanish films are like, which are closer to Seven. Seven really made an impact on Spanish audiences. And the way that film was shot has effected the film industry a lot, right from the title design to the low key lighting and the subliminal images. And also advertising, with the fast cutting and contrast lighting. That is what is really hip at the moment. But that is something I don’t really like. It is a formula that will become exhausted.

Do you think that the popularity of Seven in Spain is mainly because of the look of the film or also the religious and Christian imagery?

Well I think it is both. In a Catholic country like ours the religious imagery does make an impression because it is part of our belief and faith. But also the way it was presented. Seven was so innovative and refreshing, even though it was talking about old subject matters, the psycho killer, it was presented differently. Which is why it made such an impact here. Also, even with The Sixth Sense, it is again moving toward a more classical style. And I think that is where the future is for me. People are not going to go see Stigmata anymore. Because that reached its limit and can not go any farther.

So no more tricks and fancy quick cutting.

No tricks. Just focus on the story and the character development. Because it is funny, but just recently there was the release of the new cut of The Exorcist and it was the biggest box-office hit in Spain for that weekend. This is a film that is 27 years old but is still effective. And I was wondering during the screening of The Exorcist, wow this is working for everyone. And it is very slow. There are long shots, long takes. It plays carefully with sound, the characters are interesting and the script is amazing. So to me, a true, genuine film will last forever. People may look at things like, say Stigmata, and say well, it is OK, but it will have a short lifespan.

I know you have referred to your three shorts as the death trilogy (Awakenings, 1990, Aftermath, 1994, Genesis, 1998). Can you talk about the evolution of this trilogy? Did you always have a trilogy in mind?

No I never saw these films as a trilogy. In fact when I was writing the script for Awakenings I never thought it would be about death, up until when I finished it. And then I realized, this could be part of a recurring element, a theme. And that is why I made Aftermath a little later. It was again the same process. I started writing it and I thought, this is about death after the body becomes separated from the soul. So it was really spontaneous. Even Genesis followed the same pattern. For me the death element is very appealing, this fear of death, which really is in just about every horror film, one way or another. I think that even in the future I might not talk about the subject directly, but of course it will be implied. Always. The film we are preparing right now is like that. Awakenings started out as a project when I was 21 years old as a student project, and it was a little naïve. I grew a little older, and gained some experience in my personal life. I was going through a more aggressive time in my life, and I made Aftermath because I wanted to provoke people, I wanted to make a statement. Like a teenager trying to make a statement. And I put all my energies into making Aftermath and it was completely off the wall. And four years after and I make Genesis, which was a vision of death from a more optomistic standpoint. And that was the evolution as I see it: from niavete, to aggression, to acceptance. And right now I think the trilogy works as one long film. I’ve seen the trilogy projected together on three separate occasions and it really works. Because they can see that evolution. Of course there is a technical evolution as well. The third film has more, how can I say, plasticity.

Yes, I can clearly see that evolution. And you also have with Genesis something that I found especially touching, is its treatment of art’s transformative powers, where art itself becomes positive and lifeaffirming.

Right there is light at the end of the tunnel, which there was not in Aftermath. I was probably just reflecting on my own life, but I will never be aware of that. You may only realize it when it is done and over with and you look back. I think that is where true filmmaking comes from. Not thinking but letting yourself go and following your intuition and instincts. That is how those films came out.

So they reflect different states of mind and life stages?

Yes, now that I look at them and see that, but I didn’t know that back then. Which made them truthful and genuine.

In terms of horror themes and subjects, I find it interesting that all your films have dealt with what I call ‘reality horror.’ There are no monsters or supernatural elements in your films thus far. Is this because you feel that real-life fears affect audiences in a different, more powerful way? Or is it just your own personal preference for what is most frightening to you?

No, in fact I really like supernatural horror, not only as a film viewer but from the perspective of my future filmmaking. I would like to make a supernatural horror film. But it seems like everthing that comes from my mouth and pen right now is more attached to reality. And I am really obsessed with life itself and how it works, the complexity of life and death but in the real world. That’s why I see myself aligned more with David Cronenberg, who has that type of approach to horror. And I am not saying the other approach is wrong, because it is something I would like to do, but maybe not right now. I still have the other approach to explore.

The materiality of life, the body.

Yes. Well if you take a look at it, everyday life is very horrifying. Sometimes it can be good and bad at the same level. Heaven for some people, hell for others. It depends on how lucky you, how you use your time.

Yes, and that is what is interesting about The Exorcist, although this version makes it more supernatural, with more of the demonic flash frames, while the first one maintains more of an ambiguity, or the possibility for a more ambiguous reading.

What I really like about The Exorcist is that it is based on real facts. There is major research and documentation behind it. It is not coming out of the blue. But is based on real elements that exist, like theology and catholicism and exorcisms. These are things that exist. So it comes across as being very faithful.

Well, it has a strong documentary quality at the beginning especially.

Exactly, and that is what I like about it. Not necessarily in the way you shoot it but in the way you write it.

Horror is all about breaking taboos and challenging sensibilities, which you’ve certainly done in your films. But do you think there are any areas or subjects that are too taboo for even horror?

That depends on timing. It changes from one time to another. It also depends greatly on the treatment, how it is written and how it is filmed. For example, you can film the death of someone from different perspectives. And I guarantee you that each perspective will have a different effect on the audience. For example, if you shoot something as a documetary and the audience will be shocked. You shoot the same murder from a distance, but it will probably be far more shocking than if you introduce a close-up. Sometimes it is just that coldness, that distance, that feeling that comes across from films where they show horrible things but it seems like the filmmakers don’t really have human feelings. It is because it becomes something very cold. That, to me, is far more shocking.
The clinical. Like Cronenberg, or The Bad Lieutenant. I think that film is very shocking, and not only for what it shows, but how it shows it. And that for me is a big secret of filmmaking. Where are you going? I don’t care. But how you are going there. That is something I really like.

That kind of leads to a question I had in mind. How important is it for you to direct your own scripts as opposed to someone else’s script.

I am very open to directing someone else’s script. That is a question I often get in interviews and, yes of course I am. In fact I work very well with other people, in the writing process. And I can find scripts that are appealing to me. I am not obsessed with doing only my scripts. Because I think that my stuff, well I am not the only human being who is going to have those fears in my mind. You can share part of your own world with other people, so you can make it richer. I hope one of these days that a script comes along, I read it, I like it, and I do it, maybe re-write it, I don’t know. Because the point for me is often how I shoot things. The content is very important, but it will ultimately depend on how the film is shot.

So if you read a script you would try to bring your own style to it?

Yes, exactly. That comes naturally. It is not like I really have to make it mine. This becomes too stressful. You have to go with the flow. If you feel the subject or story you are telling is interesting and appealing to you, the rest will come naturally. Like, where are you going to place the camera? And I assure you that you will be the only person to place the camera at that certain place at that certain time. Because it comes from within. I mean, is the DP not going to be as much an author of the film as you are? And the editor? Come on! It becomes very much a team work. That idea of one single person’s film is just not real. If a director insists that is how they male movies, they are wrong. They may not realize it but there is input from a lot of people.

Well I often use the analogy of architecture. Making a film is like making a building. With the architect the director, but still dependent on other artisans.

Yes. You have the power to direct from all those things, and take what you need and throw away what you don’t want. And that is it. And of course you have your own input. Filmmaking for me is a major teamwork, so you have to choose your players very well!

Speaking of teamwork, how is it going with the current script collaboration with Canadian filmmaker Karim Hussain?


It is amazing. My work with Karim is going along very nice. With Karim I have found someone with whom I can write scripts and with whom I get along very well. Our collaboration means a lot because we seem to think on the same level of thinking. I will come up with an idea, and he will add to it and make it better. Then I add to that and make it better, and so forth.

How exactly is the process. Do you each write separate scenes and then read them.

No, what we did is start with story discussions. Then we sat down and starting to build up the structure of the script between 10 and 20 pages long. Then we each come up with ideas, maybe spending about 2-3 weeks doing that. And then one of us goes ahead and writes and develops the script, with supervision from the other one. That is how we work. Right now we are about to finish the first draft and then I will take over and rewrite again. We flip turns reading and rewriting. The only thing we worked on together is the structure of the script.

What is the script about, and do you ave a working title?

Yes, the title is called Threshhold of Dreams. It is a very dark fantasy tale set in an indefinite time, more along the lines of Genesis. It is going to be a different take on the fantastic film as it is understood in Spain. It is going a little bit to the classic style but with a very modern approach. It is also universal. It is a love story, bit also again talks about death.

You just can’t get away from it!

Well not death really, but something beyond that. I think it is a natural progression from Genesis. It is death of course but a different thing.

Is it going to be visually like Genesis, that is in scope with fluid camera style.

Yes. This film is very romantic and touching, with dark elements that will balance the situation. I’m looking forward to shooting this film very much. It comes from my heart. Whenever I make a film I have to be very convinced and have a lot of faith in it, and this one has struck me as much as Genesis did when I made that.

You have the funding for this right?


Yes, this is part of a three picture deal that I signed with some local Spanish producers in Madrid after Genesis was released because they liked the movie a lot and wanted to invest in me and offered me this deal, which I immediately took because they were professionals and I felt in good hands.

They have a good production track record?

Yes. They have produced films here in Spain and Argentina and other Latin American countries. They are associated with a French producer who produced Antonio Perez. The one who actually signed me is a woman called Sarah Halioua of MDA Films.

Is this being shot in Spanish?

Yes the movie will be shot in Spanish. We are writing the script in English because that is our working language, but it is definitely a Spanish film.

So you will have to translate it to Spanish.

Well it will be more a case of adapting it to Spanish because some of the dialogue will work differently in Spanish. And I will do that myself. I think that even though it is a Spanish film it is, like Genesis or Aftermath, universal. It can happen anywhere. In fact I am not trying to make a spin on the geography of the place. This is probably the least of the things that I care about.

You mention that it is a three picture deal over how many years?

Six years. One very two years. And we already know what the second on will be, but it is dependent on the film rights because it is based on a book. and the book rights are still being negotiated. We’ll see. Once it is green lighted we can announce it, but it is a very big film. And will be shot in English.

Will Karim be collaborating with you on all three?

Yes, I hope so! We’ve already talked about the project, I suggested the novel to him and he has read it. And he thought it was great as well and we decided that it would be a good project to work on together.

Is it a contemporary novel?

Yes, very much so. It is all set in Spain but with British and German characters with mixed cultures.

When I spoke to Karim briefly he mentioned that there is some humor in the script as well, which comes from the characters and situations. Can you discuss this a little in the context of what you said earlier about comedy and horror?

Well, yes because it is about real life it is full with comedy and drama, and everything. Only in this sense do I like to add a little bit of humor, but it is very ironic. It is not really direct, straightforward comedy, but comes from the way the characters deliver the lines. Sometimes you can say the same thing in different situations and it will have different meanings. That is again, a question of not what you say but how, stylistically. So I try to translate that to the dialogue and the characters.

All of your films deal with this claustrophobia, they deal with this one character in very confined spaces. Is that also in your latest script?

This again does happen in the script but it is also in some ways more open. But the whole film takes place in a small town. So yes, nobody really leaves this town. So yes it is a confined space, but unlike my other shorts, we have about 5-6 main characters, with some others, extras, and dialogue, it will be a real film this time! But again in a very closed environment.

What is the budget?

About 2-2.5 million, which for us is pretty big. It is a good start. And it is a small film in terms of production. There are no explosions! It will give me a good opportunity to work on characters with the actors, which is the stage I’m at right now.

Do you envision the shooting schedule, or have you thought that far ahead?

Well hopefully we will start in late October. But this is still to be announced because right now the producers are awaiting the first draft, and hopefully after Christmas it will be greenlighted.

There won’t be much script revision?

Well of course there will be more drafts but we hope to get those done before the summer and start preproduction in June because this is a fall film, a film which has to be shot with that type of light, fall light.

For the documentary, is that something that can play at a festival like Fantasia, or other horror festivals?

Of course. That is the natural target for it. I would like to show it at Fantasia, if not 2001 then 2002. But it will definitely be of interest to horror fans.

Is it shot on digital?

Yes. But it will be transferred to 35mm. In fact the trailer is being shown on 35mm.

All your films have this very tangible film texture which is so important to the quality of the film, how do you see yourself in relation to the burdgeoning digital camera age? Do you see yourself working in digital?

Well, I think film will always be film, and it is something difficult to improve on. So I do not really know. If that opportunity comes along I will certainyl study it, but that is not my plan. I will stick to 35mm and see what happens. Even though I’m young, I am experiencing a bit of regression in my life. I’m going back to older times, maybe I’m getting old!

You’re regressing to your caveman days!

Yes, I think so.

So we’ll see more aggressive films!

Well, I really like the films from the ’70’s. I have a lot of nostalgia for those films, and they really don’t get made anymore. It’s a different thing, a different approach, but I guess I’m in need for something new, something refreshing, and sometimes that may mean going back to the old times. And not from a negative viewpoint, but to get inspiration from those times because a lot of the new movies, and I’m not saying all of them, there is some good stuff getting made now, but it seems like a lot are just so self-referential. There’s nothing new about them, just a bunch of things that we’ve already seen in the last five years. And there is nothing exciting about that.

Yes, something like The Blair Witch Project was successful to an extent, but like you say, it had already been done in Cannibal Holocaust with a slightly new twist on it.

Yes, and that is fine. But sometimes the best inspiration comes from life itself. Which is why filmmakers should experience life to its full extent. Just do anything, travel, meet new people and places, talk to different people, read a lot. And I think that is very important.

Yes that is true. You do get the sense that many young filmmakers don’t do that with today’s rapid fire, disposable culture.

Yes they only like movies, and I like a movies a lot, and often spend days watching movies. But it is very important to experience other things or else what are you going to talk about?

Yes. If your film is just referring to other films then the meaning is limited.

Though they are doing if technically perfect. But what’s the use of that.

Two very general questions, but relevant to the ‘future of horror.’ Why do you think people continue to want to watch horror films? And, I know it is hard, if not impossible, to predict in what way the horror genre will evolve. To guess what themes, concerns, and areas will produce the next important or popular sub-genre or wave. But, and I think you have already sort of answered this with your appreciation of the classical approach to horror, but how would you like the horror genre to evolve?

Well people are very interested in horror, as they always have, not just now, because it has everything to do with human nature. The fear of death, life itself and the mystery of life. And I think horror films talk about those subjects directly or indirectly from a very visceral point of view, and is something that will never go away. Experiencing fear, laughing, these are emotions that are very much attached to human beings. And as long as human beings exist they will never go away.

Yes, I interviewed the Korean director Park Ki-Hyung who directed Whispering Corridors and he defined horror as films that begin in the dark and slowly bring you to a light, like some kind of opening or sense of meaning about life.

In that sense, I think people just like to be in the dark, for a little while. Of course the light exists outside, but it is outside the cinema. And they think their lives are the light, but again it is going into darkness that appeals to them. People like to watch themselves projected into some imaginary future but not really being there. For instance if you see an accident on the road people will look at it but I think it is because they are in a sense seeing themselves there. Without the pain.

The way I often explain it is that fear is one of the more powerful emotions but not one that we, luckily, engage in too often in our daily lifes. Whereas in our primitive days as cave dwellers there was the specter of fear all the time, fear of being attacked, mauled. So it is a way to connect with our primitive ancestral side, in a sense.

We like extreme experiences. And life sometimes is not as exciting as it could get. So we are constantly in search for something grander, something more exiting!

So horror films keep us from being or getting dull.

I think so. It is like, come on wake up.

Feel your body!

Exactly. Get in touch with your nature.

You might not like what you see, but it is there.

Yes, exactly.

Looking into the Crystal Ball of Horror

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of ACQQ (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 5, Issue 1 / January 2001 Interviews body horror, documentary, eurohorror, horror, karim hussain, nacho cerda, paracinema, spanish cinema, spanish horror