A Perfect Day Director Talks Tonal Shifts and Working in Bosnia

Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest feature A Perfect Day is one strange movie in the best possible way. The ironically titled feature follows a collection of foreign aid workers in Bosnia in the mid-90s. Benicio Del Toro’s wayward leader and Tim Robbins’ burned out rocker lead a team struggling to pull a dead body out of a well to avoid contamination, only to be met with a wall of bureaucratic nonsense and difficult intercultural communications at a time of crisis. It’s a story on the ground of a warzone from a perspective that’s rarely seen on the big screen. More than that, the film is laced with dark humor and wild tonal shifts that are completely unlike the boring brand of soft prestige picture that typically swallows up this sort of subject matter.

A Perfect Day doesn’t feel quite like any other movie on screens at the moment. The closest point of comparison is Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H*, another tale of people trapped in a war zone depending on their senses of humor to survive the that madness. Yet, even that doesn’t quite capture Fernando León de Aranoa’s oddball little movie. Finally hitting Canadian screens after premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Dork Shelf recently got a chance to chat with Fernando León de Aranoa about his wonderfully weird new feature. We picked the director’s brain about his personal experiences working with international aid workers in Bosnia in the mid 90s, his close collaboration with Benicio Del Toro, and his love mixing tones to capture all the beautiful grays of life. Read on for more. 

PHOTO / LAURENT EMMANUEL
PHOTO / LAURENT EMMANUEL

Dork Shelf: I thoroughly enjoyed all the tonal shifts in the movie and your refusal to assign it to a single genre, is that important to you?

Fernando León de Aranoa: I think so. This is not the first time that I’ve done something like that. I really like that feeling in movies and trying to go to different places instead of stepping through the usual genre paces. For me, it’s a way to make the movie different. I always look for contrasts in situations. 

DS: Is that similar to the way use humor in dark situations?

FLA: Yes. For me, this is like every day life, especially in these type of situations. It makes the movie more real. In this sort of world, you need a lot of humor to survive. Especially when you go through so much drama on a daily basis. That’s the case for aid workers. I’ve been with them quite a bit shooting documentaries and I find that they use humor as a tool to survive. I’ve seen that quite a bit in real life, so I tried to portray it in real life because that’s how it is. And then with it being a war movie, I didn’t want it to be about combat. That’s part of war, certainly. But in a way it’s easier to understand because it’s about fighting and survival. I was more interested in exploring situations that were less clear. But war is still in every situation. It’s in the houses, it’s in the neighborhoods, it’s in the minds, it’s even in the cows (Laughs). I think this approach is more useful because it allows you to explore deeper aspects of human nature in the movie.

DS: I liked the way you used that to generate tension. I was constantly expecting some sort of outburst of violence or tragedy and the film very deliberately avoids too much of that to toy with expectations.  

FLA: It’s the way I like to tell history. Those situations aren’t that clear and obvious in real life. So it’s more complex and real to deny audiences their expectations. 

DS: What drew you to this novel? 

FLA: As I mentioned before, I did several documentaries in this world. When I was doing this for Doctors Without Borders in Africa, I heard about Paula Farias’ novel for the first time. It was a security officer in charge of our group who suggested it to me. He told me the story and I thought it was wonderful. I liked the starting point. The idea of these guys trying to pull a corpse out of a well, which is something that actually happens in war quite often. I liked the situation and thought that it could be a very interesting starting point to look for more surreal situations that bring not only humor but also drama. That’s what I liked in the novel, the absurdity of the situation. I used the starting point and some of the situations in the book, but I had to invent quite a bit of my own material because so much of the book was internal and about the narrator describing memories. So we turned that part into action, especially the sequences about looking for the rope. It makes the movie a personal story, but also a story about the absurdity of war and the absurdity of humanity.

A Perfect Day

DS: I read that you were actually in this area in 1995 making a documentary. Did that experience bring up complicated emotions or memories while working on A Perfect Day?

FLA: Yeah, that’s interesting. Because the novel actually took place somewhere else. But since I was actually in Bosnia in 1995, I made the decision to set my film in that specific moment. Since I had actually been there, I thought it would be easier to bring a sense of authenticity to the story both for myself and for the actors and the crew. I found all the tapes that I made in Bosnia and I shared that material with the crew to use as a resource. For me specifically, it was very interesting because I could use my own experiences and perceptions of that place to share with the actors. Even if it happened 20 years ago, it was incredible how much it stayed in my mind. That’s not to say that I’ve been thinking about it everyday. But when I was back in those situation and those years, it all came back very easily. So I tried to manifest that into the script, especially the perception of the situation. The absurdity of that time and place felt very similar to this story. 

DS: When I was watching the film, I was constantly reminded of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* Was that an influence on you?

FLA: Actually no. I absolutely remember the TV series from when I was young, but not the movie. The first time that someone mentioned this to me was when we were in Cannes premiering our movie. So I actually bought the movie in Cannes and watched it then. Obviously it makes sense. It’s a great movie and I don’t want to compare myself to Robert Altman. But, I can certainly see how the use of humor in those horrific situations is shared between the films. 

DS: Did you write the lead roles specifically for Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins?

FLA: No, I didn’t. I started as a screenwriter before I ever directed. So I’m not used to thinking about casting when I’m writing. I always focus on the characters and never think of the actors until later. I treat the two jobs of writing and directing as if they are for two different people. But once I finished the script I immediately thought of Benicio Del Toro and thought he could be great for a number of reasons. Tim Robbins came after Benicio had read the script and liked it and said, “yes.” So I was very excited. Then afterwards I started to think about the other characters and actually it was Benicio who suggested Tim. He told me that he ran into Tim Robbins in an airport, actually. He said, “What do you think about Tim Robbins playing that part.” I said, “What do I think?!” (Laughs) “Of course!” So I got in touch with Tim shortly after that and he agreed. 

DS: How did you find working with both of them? Were they collaborative?

FLA: For sure. Especially Benicio. He was the first one to join the movie and we met several times. I considered him to be a creative partner. He brought a number of ideas, not only for his character but also for several situations that he wasn’t involved in. We spent a lot of time speaking about the film before we ever shot and he made some major contributions. Then with Tim, our relationship began once we started shooting. We didn’t have a lot of time for rehearsals or to work in the build up to the shoot. Most of our work had to be done during the shoot and that can make things a little more difficult because there are so many different pressures involved with production. But still, he was great. It was wonderful to have them both. Tim brought a lot of humor and tenderness and a certain brand of crazy, punk rock spirit that I thought was very important to have in the movie. 

DS: What was your motivation behind using so many rock and pop songs on the soundtrack instead of a more conventional score?

FLA: It was about the energy that I felt when I was working with aid workers. I mentioned before the wild and black humor that comes from the pain and tension of their work. I liked the energy they always had. There was never much time to think about the problems you were facing. You didn’t have time to think, you just had to solve them and move onto the next problems. So, I wanted the movie to have that strength and energy of aid workers. When I was writing, I listened to this type of music to capture that energy. It felt like that music was already in the script, somehow. So I wanted to fill the movie with rock and punk music to capture that energy. I especially liked the Lou Reed song at the end of the movie where he sings something along the lines of, “This is no time for political speeches, this is time for action.” That’s what life is like for aid workers. I hoped using the music would help emphasize that.

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