Directed by Daniel Graham
Opus Zero is possibly the most thoughtful film of 2019. Willem Dafoe stars as Paul, an American composer who travels to a remote Mexican village in the wake of his father’s death. His time there kicks up mystery around a missing woman who may be able to provide answers to questions he doesn't yet have. Whilst simultaneously attempting to finish his life’s work of completing an unfinished 20th century symphony, he tackles philosophical questions about life, death and the unknown.
There is much to dissect in the film’s relatively short run-time, but it rewards repeat viewings and is deserving of the sleepless nights it may well provoke for those in-tune with the grand questions it throws up. One question leads to another, one attempt at understanding leads to a misunderstanding and one grand vista to one enclosed shadowy room.
Opus Zero plays out like a slow-moving painting, the subjects of which whispering to us in a way we can barely discern. Dafoe is stunning in the quiet and reflective way only Dafoe could be. His search for sounds in the silence, for meaning in the meaningless and knowing in the unknown is as intriguing as it is captivating.
Ben Murray sat down with director Daniel Graham to discuss his debut feature film in more detail...
Daniel thank you for joining FilmBusters today. For anyone who is just discovering Opus Zero I think they’re in for a real treat. I’ve watched it twice already now. But before we discuss the film, could you tell me a bit about your background in film up to this point?
It’s been quite a long and varied one. For a very long time I had wanted to work in filmmaking, specifically writing and directing. It took a rather long time to get there but I got there in the end! My first real job in the film industry was whilst in Australia. I started working in film distribution in 1999 for a couple years. I finally made the move to the UK in 2004 and worked in distribution and exhibition in this country. I also did a bit of film criticism and began interviewing film directors. I wrote a profile on Claire Denis in the International Film Guide and made two short films in France in late 2000. This all culminated in me writing a script that I thought might have had a chance of getting produced and that was Opus Zero.
Opus Zero is your debut feature. As both writer and director is it right to assume that this is quite a personal story for you?
I would say that I wrote and directed it in a personal way, meaning that I tried to create something in an artistic manner as per the filmmakers who influenced me. The subject matter is personal but there is no real direct aspect of the script that is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. It’s more the subject matter and the style of the film and my personal preferences as a filmgoer.
Was there anyone significant who influenced you?
A few, most are dead sadly! I’ve watched so many films over the years I won’t rattle off all the names but certainly Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Claire Denis. Influences come from all sorts of places I guess even if you’re not aware of it. Those names all harnessed something in their work that may not have directly influenced me but the spirit of cinema in their work did.
The film was shot entirely in Mexico. Is this a location you’re familiar with or was it a case of operating completely outside of your comfort zone?
I wasn’t familiar with it at all. The original draft of the script was set in South of France which I do have a personal connection to through the culture, the language, the people and the landscape. But despite having Willem attached from early on I wasn’t able to find a producer in France so someone suggested I tried shooting in Mexico which was a lot more conducive to filmmakers. I found a producer in Mexico and we then had to decide whether or not to have Mexico double for France or set the exteriors and interiors up to look like France. It was simpler in the end to set it in Mexico entirely in a rewrite. The problem that presented was that I’d never been to the country before and couldn't speak Spanish. So instead of trying to make it a Mexican film, we decided to write and shoot the film ‘as is’, it just happens to be set in Mexico.
Paul uses an interesting device in the film to translate his discussions in real-time with the locals. What was the inspiration behind that?
There is nothing worse than when a director makes a film not in their native language, because you can tell as soon as the actors open their mouths. You can always hear it. I remember thinking ‘there’s got to be a way around that, why not introduce a device which disrupts the possibility of that happening’. In a first draft of the script Paul just took an interpreter with him but then I thought it would be more interesting if he stumbled across this device. At the time, I wrote that into the script I had an inkling Google would sooner or later invent something similar. There were reports in a tech mag that someone was attempting to invent a similar device.
You mentioned Willem there. How did Willem Defoe come to be involved and what was the collaborative partnership between you and he like?
I worked with Associate Producer Carlos Reygadas on a film in 2011. It was an amazing experience and shortly after that I sat down to write Opus Zero. When I had completed the first draft I talked to Carlos about it and how I really wanted a lead actor to read it so we I could get a producer involved. Carlos happened to be friends with Willem and he emailed him about the script. Then Willem called me up one day at home and we discussed it the story, what the potential budget might be and where we were planning on shooting. That was the beginning of a relationship that went on for 3 years until the film was greenlit in October 2015.
Willem stayed engaged and interested for an awfully long time before we finally began shooting. It was down to his loyalty of the project that it finally got made. As for collaboration, there was very little if anything at all that I could tell him! It was really the other way around and that started on a script level. At read-throughs, he was editing it to deliver the dialogue in his own natural way. He was taking ownership of the script which he did beautifully. At first, I was a bit shocked as he was running a pencil through my lines. But I came to realise what he was actually doing was making it fit him and it worked really well. If he’d done the role exactly as written, it wouldn’t have worked. In terms of actual shooting, we didn’t have time on set to speculate on things all day, we had to get on with it because the clock is always ticking. So, from a practical point of view he had answers to various problems that came up as we shot. When you look at how many films he has made of course he has come across almost every known scenario. Maybe he directed this film more than I did! I was observing him and you have to be humble and say if that’s the way it works, let it roll out.
Daniel talks about feeling anchorless and unsure of where he will land in the course of his creativity. It’s clear that he doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Was that true of yourself in the making of this film?
I guess so yes. That’s a tough question to answer. An analyst might be better off answering that than me. I feel I sit somewhere between Daniel and Paul. They are like the left hand and right hand to me.
It was interesting to me that you chose to name the documentary filmmaker after yourself. I would have said you struck me more like Paul - taking inspiration from everything you encountered.
In the very beginning I was going to shoot the film on a very small budget and I was going to play the filmmaker, so I just decided to name him after myself. Daniel was never intended to be me, but the name stuck.
There are some very philosophical conversations and debates in the film. My favourite takes place in an actual amphitheatre. How hard is it to write two conflicting views (Paul and Daniel) whilst staying true to the integrity of both arguments?
That scene actually changed many times. In an early draft of the script it was first going to be in a zoo and there would be wolves in the background behind Paul. It then moved to a restaurant and then finally we found the amphitheatre. Originally, they were talking about movies and movie making in the scene. But it was all a bit of an in-joke that winked at the audience. It fulfilled nothing. So, I decided to rewrite the scene from scratch and that’s what you see in the finished film. The dialogue was a culmination of all these things I had rattling around in my head for a long time. Actually, in rehearsals for that scene I was being a bit over-analytical and Willem got annoyed by that. He didn’t want me to map out what the scene meant, he said ‘Don’t unpick the whole thing, don’t sit on it, just do it and it will come out right’. Of course, if you give a scene like that to good enough actors it will work well. It was also great to discover the amphitheatre for the first time. Originally, I wanted to shoot the scene during daylight but my D.P. said it should be a night shoot. I really couldn’t see it being set at night at all at first, but now I have no regrets.
I wanted to ask you about the line, “Technology has made religion redundant”. What did you mean by that and is it significant that we see and hear technology failing in the village multiple times.
It’s intentional, absolutely. Watches stop working due to the proximity of the magnet factory. There’s no huge explanation for it all. But there is a whole other sub issue with the rise of things like WhatsApp and social media. These things give people a voice and the nature of conversation has changed because of it. The method we communicated with one another has absolutely been revolutionised but that doesn't necessarily mean we are communicating any better. We can look at leading politicians today to see examples of this!
As with all great works of art the magic is in the mystery. There’s no denying that the film will leave its audience with questions but is the pursuit of answers folly or should we always look for deeper meaning in our art?
I would love for people to look deeper. The film is growing as you watch it like a tree growing. Lots of things in the film that are buried beneath the surface emerge as the film goes on and other things are exactly as they are. That’s why the amphitheatre scene is so important as it’s a good opportunity for the audience to get some concrete information. I would love for more exploration to result in a second viewing. I know what I have put in there and what it means to me but when you finish a film and hand it over to an audience it becomes up to them to interpret it.
Finally, what did you learn in the making of Opus Zero that might perhaps alter your approach to your next project ‘The Obscure Life Of The Grand Duke Of Corsica’
Well firstly on a script writing level I had a much better idea of how long a scene should play out on screen before you get out and onto the next thing. Secondly, I learnt a lot about working with people and actors. Actors are complex individuals, both psychologically and emotionally. They can feel very vulnerable or that they are not being listened to. So, this time I am spending a lot more time with them. That said, I was really happy with all of the performances in Opus Zero.