The formidable filmmaking couple Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have earned a critical reputation, of which I’m sure they’re pleased, for making narrative features that defy categorization and have odd-choice lead characters we can’t fully comprehend. Initials SG, their fourth feature, is no different. (While they clearly show their debt to film noir, their two protagonists have, by design, no business in that genre.) The hope is that it will get them more recognition and appreciation than its predecessors.
Significantly, it had its world premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and Attieh was presented with the prestigious Nora Ephron Award, a $25,000 prize given to the female writer or director “who most embodies Ephron’s vision and spirit.” The jury commented: “The film we chose is thrilling, distinct, and fully immersive. It was also something we’d never seen before.”
An excerpt from the official synopsis: “Sergio Garces (Diego Peretti) thinks himself a suave, attractive, talented Argentine man. He is in his 50s, but he thinks he’s still 35. He lives in Buenos Aires, drinks a lot, smokes a ton of weed….When he was younger he recorded an album of Spanish language covers of Serge Gainsbourg songs, an ultimately believes himself to possess a certain French quality. He scrapes by in life by getting odd acting jobs…as an extra in films that shoot around town. At the same time…he also does an occasional porn job…but his real passion is to be an actor, a real artist….A small film festival starts up in Buenos Aires, and naturally Sergio attends.
There, he meets an American woman named Jane (Julianne Nicholson), 47, who is in town on business. Soon enough, Sergio and Jane are involved in somewhat of a ‘festival fling,’ although Sergio is a bit reluctant, mainly because he thinks he can get younger women. Meanwhile, the 2014 World Cup is nearing its end, where Germany and Argentina are meant to battle in the finals….But on the day of the big game, fresh off the sting of losing yet another acting job on account of [busting up his] face in a bike accident, Sergio encounters a dark and serious turn of events…”
I had this conversation with Attiah and Garcia during the Tribeca Film Festival, a few days before Attiah captured the Nora Ephron Award.
Danny Peary: Did you meet in New York?
Rania Attieh: No, we met in a drawing class in Texas when we were both undergrads.
Daniel Garcia: At the University of Texas-San Antonio.
DP: At that time, were you thinking of making movies?
RA: No, I was doing public relations and Daniel was doing philosophy. But we found we had a similar interest in film and eventually we both wanted to go to film school.
DG: That’s when we came to New York. I went to NYU and Rania went to City College.
DP: By then, were you were thinking of making films together?
RA: Yeah, but we had already made films together. We made shorts and then we went to film school and made more shorts, and then we started making features.
DP: Was it a positive that you two had such different backgrounds, one coming from Tripoli, Lebanon, and the other from southwest Texas? I ask because the locations are very important in your films.
DG: That sounds about right. The first film that we had some success with, Ok, Enough, Goodbye, was made in Tripoli, where Rania was born and raised. It was a longer version of our short, Tripoli, Quiet. We then made the feature Recommended by Enrique in Del Rio, a Texas border town. And H. takes place in Troy, New York. All our features have a strong sense of how we saw the location. Ok, Enough, Goodbye, for instance, reflected my infatuation with this strange new place I was trying to get used to; and at the same time Rania, who has mixed feelings about Tripoli, was looking her at her hometown with…
RA: …a more critical eye. The narrative had a love-hate relationship with the city; it was a tender but harsh critique.
DG: In general, all our films have that conflicting mix. Because we’re two people, a man and a women, when we tackle a subject, and there are male and female couples, we approach it from each side.
DP: But do you have the same sensibility?
RA: Aesthetically, definitely. However, there is still something that each of us brings that is a little different. Daniel and I don’t have the same relationship with the material. We have never made films separately, but I always joke that if Daniel would make these films by himself they would be colder and more masculine and mine would be too tender and too feminine. In our films now, the masculine and feminine go together and we see a balance.
DP: Does it happen that you enjoy writing for your male characters more than your female characters?
RA: Sometimes. But I’m more specific about what we write for the females because I know things about females Daniel might not know. Our previous feature, H. is about motherhood. Daniel logically understood a woman’s longing for motherhood—or the lack of—but not the way I did. And not what it means to me in my 20s, in my 30s, in my 40s. Only I would understand because I am a woman and know what it is to feel certain things.
In H. there is the theme of motherhood at different ages and because we hadn’t had a kid I was in the mood to wonder, “Should we have a kid? If we do, how will that change my life? If I wait until later and miss my chance, what will that do to me? Will I have real regrets?” What I was feeling all went into our film about an older woman taking care of a doll as if it were a baby and a younger woman being pregnant. I always make sure what I feel at the time is present in our female characters.
DP: Does that all come out in the script writing or before you direct a scene?
RA: In the writing. Once we get to the directing, things are very clear and precise to us. We don’t wing it. All conversations about how we want to approach our subject aesthetically take place while we are writing the script, not on the set.
DP: I might be totally wrong, but when watching Initials SG, I felt—and this is a positive–you wrote everything down in your script rapidly before you could change your mind, because you felt that the seemingly spontaneous back-and-forth dialogue was writing itself.
DG: We were in the midst of preparing other projects that we were trying to get off the ground, and but then ran into obstacles and there was delay. Before we had a finished script of Initials SG to shop around, we weren’t thinking that it was our next project. But then we started looking at what we’d already written. I wouldn’t say its script just wrote itself, but it did come about when we had some free time. It wasn’t a seven-year pet project.
RA: It was an idea that was just in the back of our heads, but we didn’t know where it was going.
DG: People started reading what we had and it got some traction. We saw that it was working for a certain group of people so we said, “Let’s refine it, let’s put more into it.”
DP: Getting back to how inspirational your locations are to you, you write in your Director’s Statement: “We wanted to make a film in Buenos Aires since the first time we set foot there years ago….We spent some time there and had formed a specific relationship with the city that included both work and leisure. In many ways, this film is simply a manifestation of our infatuation with Buenos Aires, a love letter to unpredictability of the city and its people.”
RA: As writers we infuse what we are into and how we are feeling at that moment. We were into Argentina and its culture—including its obsession with sports, which Daniel understands. Even though we were in Argentina when it lost to Germany in the World Cup and thought we’d like to write a script using that as a backdrop, soccer wouldn’t have played as big a part in the movie if I were making it alone.
Mine would have been about Buenos Aires, but I would not have gotten into the nitty-gritty of the actual championship game and the relationship of that game and the people there like Sergio. But Daniel loves sports and soccer and it meant something to him to have a character who really supports and has a deep connection to the Argentinian national team, in the same way Daniel has strong feelings for the San Antonio Spurs. The things we see and are in the mood for at the time find a way into our films.
DP: To me, Initials SG seems like a movie made by people who love movies. When you two met, had you seen all the same movies?
RA: No, I came from a culture where we barely even watched TV, because of war. I watched The Cosby Show, which is all we got from America. The first movie I ever saw was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I had never been to the cinema. My whole cinema education came after I arrived in America, in a crunch. Daniel would tell me about films that I’d never heard of. I finally caught up to world cinema going to film school and taking classes. I still try to catch up with a lot of movies, especially the 1980s American films that Daniel grew up watching.
DP: There are references to Breathless in Initials SG, and it also was surely influenced by detective films as seen through Jean-Luc Godard’s eyes.
RA: Yes, but I also really like classic Hollywood detective films, though I caught onto it later,. I’ll watch anything from cheap low-brow to high-brow film noir. Any film with a murder in it.
DP: The narration in Initials SG, which recalls another seminal New Wave film, François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, describes Sergio as a “man who lives in the background.” Not a Zelig-like figure who no one notices, but someone who is probably forgotten the moment he leaves a room. Yet the narrator later says that Sergio considers himself an artist and a romantic. Does he overrate himself?
DG: That’s something that came up a few times on-set with Diego Peretti and when discussing the music. Sergio has a way higher value of himself than he should. He is a lonely, depressed man. A background character, not a star. Our British composer Bill Laurance was scoring Sergio’s character, and we told him that Sergio’s theme had to have a mix of sex appeal and romance but be hidden and wrapped in a dark, depressing aura. In a sense, the music is Sergio’s representation of himself, in his mindset.
[Garcia oversees a recording session with the film’s second composer, Maciej Zielinski:]
DP: If Sergio admitted to himself who he really is, would he be able to go through life at all?
RA: No. You see what he does when the illusion shatters.
DP: Does that happen because he sees who he is or he has nowhere to go after he commits a crime?
RA: For us, it is the story of someone who at some point must face reality. Sergio has to admit to himself, “I am a fifty-year-old movie extra. I’m not getting where I want, and life is not letting me. Life is against me.” We wanted that for Sergio. And we wanted something similar for Jane. She has some sort of delusion about a romantic escapade with a man in a foreign land. She also gets something completely different from what one would think a romance abroad with a Latin lover would be like. We wanted that. We wanted two lonely people who have a delusion that breaks apart during the film.
DP: It’s sadly about two second-rate, lonely people needing each other.
DG: I’m reminded of a scene that really hits on that. The narrator says something like, “Now, he was just another middle-aged wannabe actor in Buenos Aires.” He’s not only a wannabe actor, but he’s a 50+ wannabe actor. He’s in a specific category: you have missed your youth and your chance. He’s looking back to when he missed his opportunity, at a time he no longer has a shot. And Jane, who wants a divorce, is looking back and thinking, “Wow, this is where I ended up at this age?”
DP: When Marlon Brando says “I coulda been a contender,” in On the Waterfront, it’s poignant because what he’s saying might be true. But your point is that Sergio and Jane couldn’t have been anything, they never had that quality. It’s not like they blew opportunities. They weren’t qualified to be significant.
RA: They weren’t qualified but they never took a moment to realize that. How long should they give themselves to do anything in life? Ten years? Twenty years? There should be a cutoff time when they’ll say, “Maybe I’m not good at this and should try something else I might actually be good at.” When is the deadline for things, or relationships, so I can make a change? Sometimes people like Sergio and Jane need things to crash before they take a moment to look at their lives.
DP: I like when Sergio wants to buy Jim Beam but the store is out of it so he has to purchase the inferior Breeder’s Choice Whisky. That pretty much sums up his life. He can’t get real parts in mainstream movies, so he takes leads in porno. He is not Serge Gainsbourg, but has recorded his songs in Spanish. They share initials but Serge is rich and famous, and Sergio is not. He wants to be with the sexy woman he’s attracted to, but since she doesn’t want to be with him, he settles for plane Jane. And his favorite team, Argentina, is second best in the World Cup. He’s an extra in his own real life, too.
RA: Exactly. Failure emits failure. Everyone has an idea of glory but they’re falling short. We like that thematically.
DP: You said how Sergio thinks life is against him. He thinks the world is against him. And oddly enough, it is.
DG (laughing): In our scenario, it is!
RA (laughing): We put a week of misfortune into the narrative.
DP: He’s riding his bike and someone suddenly opens a car door and he crashes into it; he finds a leech in his nose; he gets stuck in an elevator with someone who is claustrophobic and becomes violent. He commits a crime he had no intention of committing. That is bad fortune. So is the world against him or is he creating his own bad vibe?
RA: We have to think that Sergio shouldn’t react as angrily as he does to the man with claustrophobia just because he has had two days of bad luck. Something has been bottled up inside him for more than thirty years. All these things that happen to him just make him face reality, which to him is way more than disappointing. He can’t handle it. All the aggression is coming in one week’s span. Plus the fact that his team fails. He is mirroring that moment in history.
DP: Tell me about your getting the idea to have Sergio receive an award for being a featured extra in a number of festival films.
RA: We heard about that in Argentina. There’s a guy who everyone calls to be an extra in Argentina. We don’t know who he is and he’s not an extra in our movie, but we thought it was a wonderful thing. We were thinking that what that guy does is a job and it’s a job that every Argentinian film needs but he’s never recognized. We also started thinking about the psychology of an extra: If you are a 50-year-old extra that definitely wasn’t your dream. It isn’t something you’d strive for. You’d want to be an actor, but that’s all you got. There is a value in the job, so you should accept it and say, “I am the man who is in every film in Argentina.” You could have a better life if you adjust and no longer care about being an actor and see the value of being an extra.
DP: When we hear the singer on the soundtrack—Sergio doing Serge?—sing the lyric, “the requiem of a moron,” Sergio surely thinks this about himself. As he does when we hear the lovely Gainsbourg lyric: “We loved each other for the length of a song.”
RA: We were listening to Serge Gainsbourg while writing the film and we decided that if we really wanted to use his songs we had to make them part of the narrative. That’s why we have Sergio’s album of Serge Gainsbourg’s songs be his biggest claim to fame. We picked the songs carefully. The song over the credits is about a man with a menial job, a ticket puncher, who wants to punch himself in the head because he is so tired of not doing something bigger, which kind of represents the film to us. We almost wanted to feel that Sergio recorded the soundtrack of his life, our score, unbeknownst to him.
DP: Once it is established that he is a second-rate artist and romantic, we actually see there is a bit of a romantic poet in him after all. He tells Jane, “You’re the morning, I am the night.” That’s a great line.
RA: It’s in the script because Daniel is the night and I am the morning.
DG: That’s pretty much what our schedule is.
RA: And it summarizes Jane and Sergio. She’s “light”—Sergio’s “dark”–and is trying to be hopeful. She sees something in their relationship, her last chance, and says to him, “Ask me to stay.” Maybe his response is the only decent thing the does in the film. Staying together is hard because they have completely different agendas. From the start, she wants an explosive romance in a foreign country.
DP: The narrator says that she is drawn to the criminal nature of a relationship with him.
RA: Yes, because it’s part of her romantic idea of being part of an epic story. For Sergio, it’s more personal.
DP: In Breathless, Jean Seberg informs the police about her criminal boyfriend, Jean-Paul Belmondo. But Jane remains loyal to Sergio.
RA: I really like Wanda [1970, directed and written by and starring Barbara Loden as a divorced woman with no self-worth who runs off with an unappreciative small-time thief]. If I ever remake a movie, that will be the one. I like women who do desperate things with a guy and you ask, “Why are you still with him?” They’re hanging onto the idea of escape. They’re not weak because they stay with these men but are actually getting something out of it that they need. For me, it’s like that with Jane. She gets something being with Sergio, at very least a story she can take home.
DP: What’s interesting is that Sergio is so flawed, yet Jane is the one who is cheating. You don’t let on until late in the movie that she is married and wants a divorce.
RA: We like surprises. We like to hold back information.
DP: As I stated earlier, you set your movies in different locations. Some characters are foreigners but it seems that even people who live where they are from, like Sergio, don’t fit. Do you have a fish-out-of-water theme?
DG: They are lonely people.
RA: Lonely people who we put in weird situations that they don’t know how to get out of in an intelligent way. Like having a conversation.
DG: I think it’s fair to say that we like losers and we like to see them struggling to get out of their loserdom and either succeed or fail.
RA: Frustrated people. We really like adult issues. We just turned middle-aged, and we don’t write young. We never have. We had a six-year-old in our first film, but our protagonists are middle-aged and up. Depending on our own ages when we make our films, it differs how we look at our characters. We have a preoccupation with aging and wonder what will happen to us in similar situations.
DP: When you wrote the original script was there a narrator?
DG: There was less narration, but it was still a big part of the script. We later added it to other spots that needed it.
DP: I’d be curious to watch it without narration.
RA: It probably would be the same. We liked the baritone voice telling us a tale, and the notion that Sergio doesn’t get to tell his own story because he’s so insignificant. He’s the guy someone will say to someone else about, “Did you hear about the guy who once shot himself on a movie set?” That person might not care about the backstory of an extra—who cares?—but we were interested in making our movie that tale and telling how it came about. At one point, Jane says “everybody deserves something said about him.” He doesn’t agree with her. But we are saying something about Sergio even though he’s a secondary character.
DP (laughing): So you’re nice to this guy?
RA (laughing): It isn’t a matter of being nice. For us, it’s a tale.
DP: It’s kind of a shaggy dog tale that leads nowhere and is a bit pointless.
RA: Exactly. We live in a world where we’re surrounded by such stories, and someone says, “Can you believe so-and-so did this?” We enjoy those stories that make us say, “Really? I don’t believe that story.” The Argentina culture includes people telling minor stories and making them sound bigger-than-life.
DP: Did you have Diego Peretti and Julianne Nicholson audition together?
DG: They met once for a coffee but the first time they were actually together was the first time we filmed them. He didn’t really speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish. But we were confident it would work. We knew we could get Julianne through the script, having her learn just the few short lines that were in Spanish.
RA: She’s playing a foreigner so you don’t need her to be fluent in Spanish. For us, romance is beyond language. Even the moment right before Sergio and Jane have sex, it’s silent, with them just looking at each other. They understand each other so there doesn’t need to be a long conversation between them.
DP: You don’t necessarily care if there is a chemistry between Sergio and Jane because they are a bad fit other than they both are background characters.
DG: We weren’t worried in a large part because the actors are so good. We talked to them both independently before working with them. We knew they each understood their characters. Diego has a lot of Sergio in him. He smokes a lot of weed, he rides a bicycle, he is an actor, though more successful.
DP: He was a psychiatrist.
RA: He’s extremely intelligent.
DG: He knew Sergio. And Julianne knew Jane and her role in the film as a visitor to Argentina. It wasn’t that they needed to jump into those characters and break down their scenes together. In the film, it works that they are just two people thrown together and pushed into this weird scenario. It was better than having a conversation. They didn’t need that. That says a lot about them.
RA: They had a great chemistry on set and became friends without actually talking to each other. They’re both really great actors and it was easy to work with them. They were on point every scene, and needed very little direction, even though we had many long takes. They both were game. Julianne came to Argentina, didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know us—she’d seen H. but had spoken to us just once on the phone—yet showed up two days before we started shooting. I met her and she tried on the clothes and we worked on her hair. The first scene we shot on the film was of Jane making her first appearance and meeting Sergio—which was the first time Julianne acted with Diego. It was quite a pleasurable experience working with both of them.
DP: Where does this film fit into your career? Did it have to be made now or could you have made it years ago?
RA: I don’t think any of our films could have been made at any time other than when they came out. What we made in our 20s, we’d never make in our thirties. We aren’t the same people as we were and have different interests.
DG: That’s true for our previous films. This one was written four or five years ago, right after H. Had one of those projects gotten off the ground, I still think we would have come back to this movie in time. But we wouldn’t make it ten years from now. And we wouldn’t have made it 10 years ago.
RA: That’s right. If we made Initials SG at any other time it wouldn’t be the same.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).