Chilean newcomer Francisca Alegría has made quite an impact with her evocatively titled short And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye. Shot in the Chilean countryside, the film was selected for a number of prestigious festivals last year and went on to win the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction at Sundance. Incorporating magical realism and supernatural elements, it tells the story of Emetria, an elderly woman who assumes that the ghost in her house is coming to guide her into the next life but soon realizes its presence signals something far more menacing. Gorgeously photographed and centered on a captivating performance by veteran actor Shenda Román, And the Whole Sky poses more questions than it answers, leaving viewers haunted by its web of mysteries. In anticipation of Alegría’s film premiering on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck, I asked her a few questions about her work.
What brought you to filmmaking?
I started making films at thirteen with my grandfather, my sister, and my cousins. We would go horseback riding in this wonderful hidden spot in the Andes Mountains and would camp there for several days. My grandfather taught us the basics of how to survive out in nature, and he left us free to explore by ourselves. We spent a good portion of our days jumping from rock to rock in the river and discovering caves in the nearby hills. We also loved playing in a swampy stretch of land where we got sucked and trapped in the mud all the time, as if in quicksand.
This place was our shooting set. We would come up with ideas for stories. My sister and cousins acted, and I held the camera and told them what to do, which they didn’t always like. I took things very seriously. So this is the spirit that brought me to filmmaking, this sense of constant adventure, of creating a parallel world where we could be different people.
Where did the inspiration for And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye come from?
A tarot card, my grandmother’s unstoppable tears, and a real-life headline I read in a Chilean newspaper: “55 Cows Killed by Lightning.”
You’re clearly a strong visual stylist. Do you start with visuals or story?
I do start with visuals. Usually images come to me and they get stuck in my head. I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they start expanding when I add the space-time factor. Suddenly an image becomes a moment. For the short I didn’t have a specific, concrete visual reference that I started from. The references came later, when I started making choices about the mood, art direction, color, and the shots I wanted. But I also feed off references every day, so I’m unconsciously using them all the time.
I usually go to paintings for references of color, light, and atmosphere. For this film, I collected images of Vermeer paintings, mainly for light and color, and many other images ranging from the Italian Renaissance to abstract expressionism. One particular painting I always had in my mind was Starry Night, by Jean-François Millet.
In terms of shots and film grammar, I rewatched many of the films and filmmakers I admire and shared them with the DP. Some of the filmmakers I revisited were Maya Deren, Buñuel, Tarkovsky, Bergman, and Fellini.
You work with long takes, with the camera tracking through space and not always staying with the actors. Can you talk about what you wanted to achieve with that? There’s an amazing shot about three minutes in where we are watching Emetria, then we lose her while we track through her garden before finding her again.
I wanted to explore what I call a “conscious camera”: a camera that has the freedom to follow its own instinct. Of course this is just an artifice, because I am making those decisions, but who knows if in the future films will be directed by self-aware cameras . . . That shot was in the script, but we didn’t fully conceptualize it until we were on location. It was the joint effort of Matías Illanes, the DP, and me.
What attracted you to telling a ghost story?
Actually, I never thought I was making a ghost story. In fact, the dead man who comes back was alive in many of the previous drafts. I don’t see much difference between a character who is dead and one who is alive—what’s important is that they need something. As for the supernatural, what was important to me was to understand how superstition is fundamental to who we are. We need to believe that there are hidden forces, and that this world is not just an ordinary, dull, forgotten piece of land. At least I know I need that. I can’t conceive of life without the idea that things exist beyond my limited comprehension.
Can you talk a bit about casting Shenda Román as Emetria? She’s a lauded actor in Chile, known for her work with legendary directors like Raúl Ruiz. What was your process working with her like?
I ask for a lot of creative involvement from my actors. I need to feel that they connect with the material and can channel their own vision, the same way I do when I write and direct.
As for my collaboration with Shenda, I didn’t have her in mind from the beginning, but halfway through the writing process I met her and we instantly clicked. I called her, told her about the project, and we met in person weeks later in a little cafe in Santiago. There we talked more, and she had read the script and agreed to play the part. From then on, I asked her to be part of the creative process and help me shape the character. Her input was key to creating a rich, layered, and loving Emetria. She suggested things ranging from changing lines to changing the wardrobe this woman would wear. During the shoot, she was unstoppable. We had long days, a lot of movement and heat, but she has the same power and strength as the character. She is the heart of this film.
The film has been very well received, winning awards including a jury prize at Sundance. What doors has that opened for you?
Many doors are being opened in the U.S. and Europe. I haven’t crossed to the other side yet, but I am working hard to do so this year. I am in the development stage on two features. One is a conceptual extension of the short, meaning that it has a similar world and themes but with a different story and characters. Ghosts also come back in the flesh, and agonizing animals sing to the human characters about their and our futures. It will be the first film of a trilogy that will start in Chile and end up on a different planet. The second film I am developing is set in New Mexico. It will be a U.S. production, and the story happens in a parallel reality inside a shopping mall.