A gangster movie, a story of post-colonial alienation, a broad satire of academia, and a romantic comedy, Mexican director Fernando Frías’ latest film, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, is many films in one. Told via a labyrinthian plot structure that juggles a handful of different epistolary narrators, it’s the story of a Mexican grad student, Juan Pablo (Dario Yazbek Bernal), who gets extorted into helping a group of international gangsters right before he leaves to study in Barcelona. Based on Juan Pablo Villalobo’s novel of the same name, the film is literary in all the best senses of the word: filled to the brim with sharp, humorous detail; powered by dynamic, multi-faceted characters; and narratively dexterous and inventive. I caught the film at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn ahead of its Netflix premiere and spoke with Frías afterwards.
Joshua Bogatin: So, how much of the narrative structure of the film and the constant playing with literary form was in the novel itself and how much did you expand on that?
Fernando Frías: Well, the literary structure is completely different, but there was one key element I took, which is the meta-fiction aspect of it. Villalobos’ book is always in the first person and keeps losing narrators as it moves along, but in the film I couldn’t lose narrators because you need to have a vehicle for the narrative. I had somewhat of a passive protagonist who internalizes everything, but I wanted to keep him through almost the whole thing. So what I decided to keep was the absurdity and the storyline, but change the structure. I built a world in which these characters could resonate with each other at the same time, rather than having each episode occur distinctly like the way they’re spread across different chapters in the book.
JB: It’s interesting that you talk about mixing all of these different first-person narratives into one story, because I think that, while there are multiple subjective perspectives in the film, visually you create a lot of objectivity and distance. Characters are always being framed inside surrounding details of the world and the reality of the space is very important. How did you develop the visual language of the film?
FF: I am obsessed with the idea that sometimes we need to see less to feel more, and so I try to stay away from being too didactic. I don’t really like when logical information is served to you in the same narrative device or mechanism that serves you emotional information. I build the visual world of my films first by trying to obstruct visibility, but I don’t know quite why. Metaphorically it also works in this story because none of the characters have a full view of the situation, they all only have partial information. So the space is filled with frames within frames, which give you the pieces of the puzzle each character represents, framed by their own interest and situation.
JB: That’s interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about that shot in Guadalajara where he’s at the party and the maid is framed in one half of the frame while the party guests in the other room are framed on the other half. It creates a very funny, ironic effect. I imagine it must feel very different in the novel because, if it’s all first person, how do you get that same play with objectivity and context?
FF: Exactly. In that scene, for example, there’s nothing about class intrinsic to it. Working with my cinematographer Damián García, we both know that it’s important to tell where we are and the context of the place without spoon-feeding it or simply leaning on having bland extras just moving around. It’s a way of showing the world.
Every time I’ve made a film, the producers tell me, “Why do you pick the most difficult locations?” With the apartment in Barcelona, they told me, “You can build it on a stage,” and I said, “No, I want to do it the real way.” Those limits inspire me, I like having to frame in a way where I have to live with the architecture. It works for me precisely because the limitations make me more creative. For example, there’s a shot in the apartment in Barcelona that Valentina moves into where she leaves the entrance, and there’s a pan, then she just reappears again in a neighboring window.
JB: Yeah: she walks out of the shot, we pan, and right away she’s in her room. The apartment, which we’ve never seen before, suddenly feels incredibly tiny.
FF: Exactly. These limitations inspire me to interconnect spaces and have to be interesting in a way. It’s kind of like a childish mission I have: let’s find which space gives us the biggest challenge. It’s all about having fun and being playful, but also of course, first of all, serving the story.
JB: What is your shot-listing and location scouting process like?
FF: I don’t even know how to describe it because it’s different for each scene. Sometimes when I work with episodic television and they have a lot of VFX, I think it needs to be very storyboarded, but in this case there was no storyboard or shot-list. We rehearse a scene so we know what it looks like, and then I normally start with the frame that has the power to contain the whole scene; it can’t be too explicative and it’s got to be interesting, appealing, and have that range to become something different.
JB: Did the novel have the same framing device as the film where the homeless man finds the manuscript in the trash?
JB: Where did that come from then?
FF: Well, I wanted a certain circularity to the film with the beginning and end. Also, at the same time it’s an absurd film that literally throws itself to the garbage. I don’t know why I thought of the trash, but it made sense for me because the way I tell the story is purposefully confusing in a way. You are watching the first draft of a wannabe writer who’s living a ridiculous and dangerous situation, and also he’s not the best writer because it’s the first time he’s writing something. If I wanted the film to feel like that, but to also be perfectly clear, it would feel artificial in a way. So I wanted the film to honor the structure of what the character is able to communicate, but also to dance with the switching narratives. So when at the beginning the homeless man finds his manuscript and starts reading it, he gets bored and throws it up into the air. It’s not put together, so the pages fly away in a random order and they come flying in front of the lens, covering it up. That’s announcing: this is how I’m going to let you know the story, trust me that it will land somewhere. I’m balancing genres and tension, but also purposefully deflating the tension to indulge in humor when it feels flat. So I’ve already told you from the beginning that it’s going to be like that because the book ends up in the trash.
JB: Yeah, for me it made the whole film feel like a giant joke because it gives the story this air of absurd futility. That also connected with me to his thesis on “the limits of humor in Latin American literature” and that question of what can we laugh at. From the beginning, the movie telegraphs its punchline, so the question lingers throughout: “Should we be laughing at this?” How did his thesis and the idea of the limits of Latin American humor connect with your understanding of the film?
FF: Well, that’s the essence of the film: what are you able to laugh about and what aren’t you able to? And someone in the film says, “It depends.” Depends on what? It depends on who is telling the joke. If it’s the victim, he might be allowed. In Mexico, we tend to laugh about ourselves; it’s inherent to our culture and in general to many Latin American cultures.
In the film, I am touching upon violence in Mexico, people getting disappeared, and the clichés that come along with those. You know the bad guy is like coming out from… in Spanish I’d say malo de malolandia [translation: bad guy from bad guy land]. It’s the classical, cliché thing, but look at the world we live in today. If someone told us 20 years ago Trump was going to be President, I’d have a hard time buying it, yet it happens. Or look at the huge appetite for true crime documentaries now and the way it’s standardized the way we tell stories. We seem to be, as audiences, obsessed with finding the secrets and dark forces that lie behind everything. So I’m trying to comment on that and, at the same time, to say that there is this other moment in which we are living in which everything has to be relevant. It’s like with political correctness and the idea of who gets to represent whose story or the idea of quotas. I feel like it doesn’t come from values and truthful conviction; it’s more about wanting to be on the right side of the story and that it’s something marketable. You want to be able to say, “Oh, this film was made by this sort of person.” Festivals work like that. If you come from Mexico, you’re expected to do misery porn or explicit violence without even much context. So I’m trying to comment on this and joke about it. This film is all about how we see the other, and that’s kind of infinite.
JB: How important was it to you to have this satire of academia?
FF: Yes, we wanted to make fun of academia, of how useless it is and this ridiculous idea about “how deep you can go.” There are subjects of study that are very interesting, but it just lives in its own world, hardly expanding outside that, contributing to anything, or changing anything. There are many institutions right now pushing for certain changes in the world, but with their hands tied just because of the way politics work. So there’s an absurdity there and a space for humor out of that ultra-specialization.
JB: I also felt that he sort of Europeanizes himself a little bit as he moves through the academy, becoming a gender studies major and trading on his own identity more throughout the film.
FF: Well, yes, because he’s forced to find angles to connect with the mission. And I don’t even understand that mission very well, but that’s the point.
JB: Was it a struggle to get the pacing of the film right? I also admired how little time you spent introducing characters. Even very important characters seem to simply show up, caught in medias res, and you just discover who they are later.
FF: I like arriving late and leaving early. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. The other thing is that I wanted the emotional information to go one step ahead of the logical information. The logical information is always there, but it’s catching up with you. I wanted the absurdity of making the audience keep asking who this person is, what am I looking at, and then only later connecting it together. That’s how real life is: I see you with someone else and I don’t know who it is, but maybe the next day I run into you again and you introduce me to that person and I connect it with you. I don’t like films when they’re just pure drama or tragedy. At the end of the day, you’ve experienced a lot of joy and maybe frustration, a whole spectrum of emotion, and I want films to feel like that. In order for them to land in a real way that’s connected more to our senses than our consciousness, I want that aspect of real life.