In Unmade Beds, director Alexis Dos Santos has reworked London as a bohemian rhapsody. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about making the film.

Unmade Beds has been one of the audience favourites at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival if the word on the street is to be believed. This sweet, Nouvelle Vague infused caper through transnational bohemian communities offers a totally different view of London that is usually committed to celluloid. Young Argentine/English director Alexis Dos Santos clearly has a lot of love for the people, the music and the city that he films, and the carefree narrative captures a fun depiction of twenty-somethings’ confusion.

Dos Santos originally started off studying architecture and acting, but it took a while for him to consider working on films. “It took years, in an organic way. It’s not like I wanted to be a filmmaker at sixteen.” He was however a self-confessed film buff, and after acting in short films, “slowly I realised that what the director was doing was what I was interested in.”

However, he found the multi-disciplinary route to filmmaking quite useful. “It’s weirdly related to architecture, and to storytelling – I was writing, and theatre, and acting. The concept of a project and making it come to life, that’s something that architects have to do: visualise things.” He also had confidence working with actors, particularly on his early short films. “I think the confidence I had from my first short films, I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t done other things. I had a lot of experience with actors as an actor, and I knew how to work with actors. That was something I enjoyed a lot. That’s something a lot of directors are scared of at the start when they don’t have a lot of experience with actors.”

Dos Santos ended up in London while studying at Film School. It was there that the idea of Unmade Beds came about. “I shot most of my short films in London, and in English. It felt natural for me to write a feature script there. Then the writing process took a long time, and in the middle I got bored and tired, and went and shot another film [Dos Santos’s debut feature, Glue]. And then I went back to Unmade Beds.”

Glue won Dos Santos some critical acclaim and hit the festival circuit. A largely improvised film, Dos Santos gained newfound confidence from the film’s success, and the impetus carried through into making Unmade Beds. “The way I did Glue, it was absolutely improvised. It had fifteen pages of a storyline, and I gave the actors absolute freedom. Well, freedom with boundaries. I said ‘this is what the scene’s about, and we’ll work it out together’. And that kind of thing, to see your work on a big screen, and the film won a lot of awards and got really good reviews, and that gave me a lot of confidence to bring that loose feeling to Unmade Beds.”

Unmade Beds however had a stronger conception. “It was very developed, I had been working on it for a very long time. I knew it inside out, but still I needed to bring chaos into the process.” He re-wrote Unmade Beds while editing Glue, and Dos Santos says that he was going back and forth between projects. He adds, “Glue helped me make Unmade Beds a bit more personal, a bit closer.”

Unmade Beds offers a different view of London, one far removed from either the standard stiff-upper lip or kitchen-sink depictions of the city. Instead London is shown as a chaotic, lively, cosmopolitan city. “For me, that was the London that I had seen since I was there. It was maybe slightly heightened. The type of characters, the people coming from all over the world and gathering and finding their own little groups, becoming these ‘families’, stuff like that – that was something I experienced. When I started writing the script, I thought I hadn’t seen that London portrayed before in films.”

Dos Santos suggests the bohemian world of London is a crucial part of the city. “It’s such a big thing when you go to London. If you go to East London, I think someone told me Hackney was the place in the world that had the largest amount of artists per square metre or something in the whole world. It’s the biggest concentration of artists of all sorts. Why not make a film about those people? I wasn’t so interested in the high end of the art world, it’s insane and I don’t even relate to it. I’m more with the art students and the film students and the bands that are starting.”

Unmade Beds consequently features a pretty hip soundtrack – from Daniel Johnston and Kimya Dawson to Kiwi artist Connan Mockasin. Dos Santos assembled the soundtrack because “basically it’s a lot of music that I like, and that I thought it could help the story, belong to the world of film. Music that the characters would listen, or the kind of bands who would be playing in a place like that. Some bands we went to see live (like Connan) while we were filming and then we approach them. Then there’s Mary and the Boy, they’re friends of my friends – I went to see them live three times before my shoot, and they’re amazing. I ended up using two songs from them in the soundtrack.”

A couple of Kimya Dawson tracks had appeared on Glue, but in between Glue and Unmade Beds Dawson’s soundtrack to Juno had exploded. “She became a big star. [I thought] ‘is this going to change, or am I still going to be able to use her songs’? She loves Glue, so she wrote me an email saying ‘you can use as many as you want for as little money as you can pay’. I thought ‘cool’.”

He also ended up using two Connan Mockasin songs in the soundtrack (‘Sneaky Sneaky Dog Friend’ and ‘Hello View’) and included the band in a scene. “We were filming this scene and I was directing, and at the same time I was inside of the scene and I was pretending to be directing a music video. I had to say things like ‘action’ and ‘cut’ inside the scene. Connan at the beginning thought everytime I said ‘action’ and I said ‘cut’ it was like saying things like ‘oh no, this is not working’ and getting all ‘ahhhh’. He was really paranoid. And then at some point he realised we’re still filming.”

The acting in the film is impressive, and features Déborah François (The Child) and Fernando Tielve (The Devil’s Backbone). The actors were given a lot of space, despite there being a more settled script. “If you give them space you will find things that are way more fresh than you would if you are really restricted and have this exact vision in your head. I think the most interesting things while filmmaking is everything that comes as a surprise – from actors, to locations, to changes in the script, changes in weather.”

His actors ended up being accidents themselves, and were different nationalities to how he had originally conceived the leads. “They were all different nationalities in the script. But it was only because I had defined the nationality, and I didn’t want to, in the script, I was trying to say let’s leave it open for the casting. We could find a French boy, or an American boy, or a Chinese girl. Let’s leave it really open. But first I was trying to find the nationalities I had in the script, but then we started seeing boys and girls from everywhere.”

The film certainly feels as free-wheeling as early Nouvelle Vague films, in particular Jean Luc-Godard’s early films. “It’s funny, because a lot of people told me that after the film premiered. I wasn’t really thinking of that, apart from the thing like the title cards and the credits being in big letters – that idea I was thinking Godard or whatever. But I wasn’t really thinking Nouvelle Vague so much. Then again, I was obsessed with Godard’s early films for a long time. They were my main reference throughout my whole film school, all my short films. Something about the way that he approached the film language, and the playfulness and his way of using all the elements he could play with – framing, sound, the elements, editing – something about that, that was always... but then again, when I was making the film, I wasn’t thinking about any of those, they would have been in the back of my head, I was trying to find my own thing.” Unmade Beds, like the pioneering Nouvelle Vague films, feels remarkably vibrant and alive, and in the process showed its subject city, London, as the most romantic place in the world.

See also:
» Young and Restless: Unmade Beds