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Interview with a Screenwriter No. 1


Gonzalo Maza

If a character is a man, I turn him into a woman and they become infinitely more interesting
I think that’s the problem with British cinema today - it’s too conscious of itself.
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Article by Shalini Adnani

Photography by Cameron Ward

Gonzalo Maza likes women — especially complex ones. Both Gloria and his latest film, Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman), for which he was awarded Best Screenplay at Berlinale, celebrate female endurance and resilience. So it was no surprise that Gonzalo, when I met him at the dimly-lit cafe at the London Film School, proposed, apologetically, that I lead the way, as long as I fed him. The cash machine had just swallowed his card, he was one week late on a deadline, and, with no cash or accessible money in his pocket, he was back to being a penniless screenwriter from his younger years. It was the least I could do for him in his frazzled state, which I soon came to realise was a constant for this prolific screenwriter who is always fighting against the next deadline. To talk of Gonzalo Maza’s life and work is to speak of a man who is on a quest to understand the human condition and is willing to risk reason in doing so. In his eternal mission, one still sees a teenager in the forty-two year old who exclaims he loves “the contradictions of melancholy and cheery beats of Britpop” — a juxtaposition that runs through his work.

Born in Valparaiso, Chile, a port city not far from Santiago, he spent most of his childhood in a beach town nearby, Viña del Mar. A cinephile since he can remember, Gonzalo’s first job was working as a VHS store clerk for his mother’s store, but it wasn’t until an exchange program at the University of Texas that his hope of pursuing screenwriting was solidified. Since his powerful collaboration with the Chilean director and good friend, Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo has decided to pursue a Masters in Screenwriting at the London Film School, and a PhD exploring the use of current events in screenwriting.

I first encountered Gonzalo’s work in my early twenties when I was back in my hometown, Santiago, and experiencing what some refer to as post-graduation existentialism. I walked into the national cinema buried underneath La Moneda, the national palace, to watch El Año del Tigre (The Year of the Tiger), the only feature film Gonzalo has been the sole writer for. I left the cinema that day deciding I wanted to tell stories that were simple and poignant, and since then have observed Gonzalo’s work and knack for tragicomedy with great admiration. I sat down with Gonzalo in a quiet courtyard in Central London to have a chat.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote a short story once and showed it to a teacher. He didn’t like it. He wanted to change the end. Then I showed it to my father, he didn’t like it either, or he didn’t totally understand it. So I ended up dedicating myself to math, but I always liked journalism — I wrote for a school paper, I had a column, I took workshops and so on and I was also part of a theatre group. When I joined the theatre group, I wanted to be an actor but I quickly realised I had no talent for that - which was very liberating. But one day I wrote a play. This was all when I was about 12. I wrote the play in one evening, showed it to my professor, he liked it — it was very funny. So we got together as a class to make it play happen. We went on to win some awards and went to a national theatre competition.

That was my only ‘dramatic’ event. Then I just dedicated myself to journalism, studied it and continued on that career path. Until 1999 when I did a year abroad at the University of Texas where I took lots of film classes. In this class, I realised that I really liked this medium, and it was what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to go about it. I had a friend who worked for TV in Chile, so I started writing for TV where I learned lots about docudrama and melodrama. I worked on one TV series that would take real-life events and sort of have a talk show. They would take articles written in magazines and create fictionalised cases on them. That was a really good learning process for me, because they had pretty low expectations and it gave me more liberty. No one ever told me I was any good, but that was my melodrama school—in its purest form, very Latin American. Then I quit journalism completely and joined a production company that did television for children. 

I was a producer on this show and wrote various episodes. This is when I met Sebastián Lelio, who was finishing up his first feature film, and I wanted to know if he wanted a screenwriter. He didn’t want a screenwriter, but at the same time he needed one because he didn’t really know how to take on some elements of writing. I told him I wasn’t a screenwriter with much experience but thought we could get together to work on certain things and bounce ideas around and talk. So, we would get together and just talk about films.

What kind of stories or characters are you attracted to?

There are two things I am very attracted to. One being people who try to seem strong, externally, but are weak or emotional at heart. I think people hide emotion a lot. That get’s me excited - people who hide their feelings. And what excites me even more is when a person who hides their feelings, knows how to hide them really well. Those kind of characters are very touching to me. And I always find myselfgravitating towards that. Even though we don’t know where that pain comes from, I like the mix those characters create. 

I like Britpop a lot,  the basis for which is sad lyrics set against upbeat melodies. I think my spirit towards life is absolutely happiness, but in my interior I’m a very sad person. And that — which happens to me, happens to everyone. 

So, I tend to do two things if I am stuck. One is if the character is a man, I turn him into a woman and he becomes infinitely better and more interesting. If they are kind of flat, I just turn them into women and they automatically have problems or just come into being and have more shape. Or I go back to this premise of people who hide their feelings. In fact, at the moment I am editing a film I wrote and directed, my first feature I’ve directed, where that is the main conflict I’m tackling. How do you show that construct of happiness and sadness at the same time? It’s generally easier to do something like this through comedy rather than drama. I’m more attracted to comedy. I don’t know if my comedy is that funny, but I still laugh at it. I think I also belong to the school of anti-male. 

What do you mean by anti-male?

I guess it has to do with my upbringing. I went to an all boys school and hated it, I thought it was very prosaic and primitive. I just found it very primitive. I just don’t find men very interesting. What I find interesting is their blindness and not being capable of seeing themselves as they actually are. But I just find women more interesting. I’ve always listened to women, everywhere I go I want to talk to them, it’s the world I want to know and understand. I think they are funnier and entertaining and I admire them. In college, I would be in love with a girl and in my eternal insecurities and fear, I never told them anything. So I always liked being the friend that was close and could hear everything they had to say, rather than confess my love which wouldn’t amount to anything, they would reject me and I would just be miserable. And on top of that, I wouldn’t be able to hear the stories anymore. So, I preferred staying with the experiences these women would give me.

The character of Gloria is very much like the actress who played her, did you have her in mind before you started writing?

We started writing Gloria when we found this character of our ‘mothers’, just this world of our mothers that no one pays attention to, or falls into the background in life. A woman of a certain age, she’s an old lady; she has no more meaning in her life, and therefore is neurotic, and therefore, is everything we complain about. Someone that complains, is bitter. So we saw that and realized how unjust it was to view certain women this way, as a society. So based on that idea, we decided to make a film about our mothers, and then started investigating it until we found Paulina Garcia. I remember being in love with Paulina when I was younger, when she was acting at 18, but we eventually thought of her and started looking through her Facebook photographs. We realised we kept talking about her and had to ask her because the film, wouldn’t exist without her.  So she came over,  and we pitched the idea to her. She liked it. So it was a kind of mix between an idea that we wanted to explore and Paulina who was the character and actress we imagined. A kind of character we thought only existed in Chile and had no idea it would be so universal. 

Did you specifically think about post-dictatorial Chile in your writing of Gloria?

I think that film and politics are inevitably intertwined, a film is political because it belongs to a time and place. And when you have a characrer in a specific space, it is a document of that time and place. We all live in political moments and we are a consequence of that. So that was something we took into account. Seeing the generational difference between our mothers and the students who were out in the streets protesting, it was a very strong contrast between Gloria’s generation who didn’t protest at all. They protested against the government but because of that it meant they were constantly thinking of others, especially if a family member was missing or killed, and they always put their needs in second place. These women were always putting themselves in the second place, never really having a moment for themselves, to liberate themselves, have their moment of glory. In that sense, the film is political.