Interview #21 – Daniel Graham

Opus Zero is a new independent film that stars Willem Dafoe as a composer who goes on a literal and metaphorical journey in a small Mexican village following the death of his father. It opened in the UK on 9th August and we caught up with writer/director Daniel Graham about the film which is his feature debut…

Can you tell us how the film came about?

After working for Mexican director Carlos Reygadas on Post Tenebras Lux in November 2011, I was inspired to again turn my hand to scriptwriting and the result was a very rough first draft of Opus Zero. The script was originally set in the South of France which I was quite well acquainted with but after failing to secure a producer in France, despite having Willem already semi-attached, Carlos suggested I try finding a producer in Mexico which turned out to be the frightfully clever and astute Julio Chavezmontes. After discussing with him how we might make the film look as though it were set in France whilst being shot in Mexico, I decided to simply relocate the story entirely to Mexico. Despite having never been to that country it turned out in the end to be much better for the film in that the strangeness and abstraction of the script suited Mexico and its culture perfectly. I only wish I had gone there in the first place! 

How long have you been trying to get the film made?

I wrote the first draft in February 2012 and the film was green lit in October 2015 with shooting commencing on 7 November 2017. Only now is it being released in the UK so it’s been a long journey although many first films, especially in the independent world, take much longer so I guess it wasn’t too bad a turn around. The benefit of such a long development period was that I had a lot of time to really think about the script and what kind of movie I was trying to make. What I hope I achieved in the final film is something that is dense and complex but not impenetrable for the audience. Ideally you would watch the movie twice and pick up more the second time. I like to think an audience is smart enough and curious enough to want to really delve into a movie like this much like a great novel or piece of music. At the same time, I wanted it to be funny and light at times and even a bit silly. Striking that balance was probably the most challenging thing to get right.

How did Willem Dafoe come to be a part of the project?

It was Carlos Reygadas who sent the script to Willem since the two of them are friends. I guess Carlos liked me and the short films I’d made enough to recommend an actor as esteemed as Willem take a chance on a first-time director which Willem doesn’t do a lot of. I asked Willem much later after shooting why he took the part and he said he thought I was a bit of a wild card and worth taking a risk on. I hope he feels the risk was worth it because from an artistic point of view the movie is elevated by his presence. He did such a magnificent job of making that character of Paul, who is often burdened with some pretty heavy dialogue, look like an almost weightless presence in the film. Weightless yet profound if that makes sense. He’s a really magical performer. For example, when we recorded the voice over you hear at the beginning of the film, Willem nailed it in one take and that was off a cold reading of Lucretius, the Roman philosopher. Crazy!

Willem DeFoe

Did having him involve help with securing funding?

Yes. It also helped secure the best people in the Mexican film industry to work on it such as the DP (who is actually Argentinean) Matias Penachino, the editor Yibran Asuad and the Producer Julio Chavezmontes. We also had an amazing Production Designer called Claudio Ramirez Castelli and Sound Mixer called Raul Locatelli. All of these people brought their own creativity and sensibility to the film. I should also mention Andrés Almeida and Cassandra Ciangherotti who play Daniel and Fernanda in the film. Not only were they incredible actors to work with but they also helped me shape and evolve those two characters in a way that improved the story and its dynamics.

What were the main challenges you faced during filming?

Dealing with the high expectations that came with being a first time director working with someone like Willem Dafoe on a pretty out there script and in a foreign country. There was certainly high tension on set to the point of tantrums and outbursts (myself included) but frankly speaking this is entirely normal when you’re working on something as intense as a film set and I like to think that some of that tension resulted in an added creativity to the film. 

How big was the crew?

Around 60-70 which was quite a lot but logistically it was necessary given we had some pretty remote locations to deal with. The Mexican crew I worked with were fabulous. Very friendly, very professional and with a great spirit about them. It was a unique and thrilling experience. And I got to sample mezcal and real Mexican food which was an added bonus.

How long was the shoot?

5 weeks on location in Real de Catorce which is a tiny and magical village in the middle of Mexico you can only access by a one way tunnel several miles long. You see it in Opus Zero as the documentary crew first arrive there. We did 5.5 day weeks but had a relatively relaxed schedule and not that may set ups – hence the many sequence shots you see in the film which worked well for the script I think. That whole idea of stretching time, of capturing it in one long slab as though it’s literally a moment in time you’ve managed to bottle.

What sort of distribution does the film have?

Opus Zero opened in Mexico in January 2019 and played the art house circuit over there to pretty good numbers. It opens here in the UK on 9 August on a similar theatrical pattern and for the rest of world it will be available on a streaming platform (details tbc).

What are you working on next?

A new script I’ve written called The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica with Tim Spall and Peter Stormare. It’s about an architect who is commissioned by an eccentric billionaire in Malta to build him a mausoleum. It tackles many of the same themes and ideas you see in Opus Zero but on a broader historical context.

Our thanks to Daniel for his time and to Lizzie at Porter Frith Ltd. For setting up the interview.

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