Approaching Grimmfest: an interview with the director of Ropes
Like many other film festivals, Grimmfest is going to be an online event this year. Fortunately, this is not proving to be an obstacle in their programming. “Over 20 feature film premieres, two short film showcases, Q&As, seminars, and an exclusive audience with one of the genre’s foremost movers and shakers, the inimitable Mick Garris (Masters Of Horror, Stephen King’s The Stand) across five days in early October (7th – 11th Oct).”
One of the UK premieres lined up for Grimmfest is Ropes, and I had the pleasure of talking with its director José Luis Montesinos recently, who also co-wrote the film with Yako Blesa. It’s the story of Elena (Paula del Río), a young woman still adjusting to life in a wheelchair following an accident, who finds herself alone in the company of a rabid dog. It’s been given the name Prey in the USA; in Spain, where the film was made, it is called Cuerdas (which translates as “ropes”); and José finds it curious how some countries apply their own slant on the content with the name they use: apparently, in Russia, the title used means “rabid”, and in Japan, it means “mad dog”.
Elena and her father in the film are setting up a new life for themselves after losing Elena’s sister Vera in the accident which left Elena paralyzed. Ropes is somber in parts, though exciting too: I asked José how he prevented this shared grief from making the film depressing. “We have a scary rabid dog with the characters, so to me, there’s too much stress rather than depressing. I like characters of survival films because for me they are so interesting: usually, these kinds of characters are suffering not just from their physical situation, also from psychological grief, you know? Ropes starts as a strong drama and then suddenly turns into a survival film, which for me was very interesting.”
José had made several short films until now. “I always work with stories with strong dramas and with characters with traumas and who use all their energy to remove an obstacle. This was my first experience with a genre film, which to me was a challenge, in the visual way for example. But it was a natural step because it’s a continuation of talking about these survivor characters from my short films before. Here in Spain, we are a country of survivors. Old Spanish authors talk about surviving, and as a Spanish director, I am obsessed with it. And we have an intense proof of character with Paula’s role, Elena. She starts the film wishing for death and finishes the film fighting for the opposite. So for me her personality is one of the most interesting aspects.”
The young actor plays another role in Ropes for a couple of scenes, and I asked José what it was like filming her in two roles. “It was intense. For three months we played the two roles in the studio and making a lot of practice with the dialogues and the different tones. In some ways the two characters are opposites. It was a great challenge for Paula. I remember she was happy to change from Elena to the other, as Elena is a character with this disability and always introspective, and the other character is the opposite: for Paula, it was a liberation to make that change. She was practicing for three months before the shooting and then she did a spectacular job with the condition. In this development process, Paula and the team were talking with several people from the Guttmann Institute here in Barcelona, which specializes in spinal cord injuries, who work with patients who have been through physical traumas and adjusting to new lives. These conversations were for both physical and psychological issues. Every day, Paula was in the chair in the studio, in the street, hard work, but I think that she did a very good job for the film: she gave it realism. And so when we started shooting the film three months later, she was a natural in the chair, incredible. When we did the premiere for Sitges Festival, the tetraplegic section of the Guttmann Institute congratulated her for the interpretation.”
I had to ask whether that realism would have been easier to achieve with an actor who was already disabled themselves. “We were thinking about this, but of course we needed a good interpreter of the character. We made the casting here in Barcelona to thirty young girls, Paula was the youngest. Originally the character was thirty-two years; Paula was eighteen. It was a shock, because she had incredible energy, and she was Elena, so we decided to adapt the script for her and it was beautiful. Paula’s character carries all the movie on her shoulders. I had to speak with her a lot and give her the energy she needs, give her many days practicing with the chair and the psychology, building the dialogue together. Those three months were so important”
The publicity for Ropes declares it to be “a smart Spanish spin on the Stephen King classic, Cujo” and I asked José whether he actually had that story in mind when writing Ropes. “I am acquainted with Cujo, prefer the book to the film (I read the book when I was a boy) because I think the characters are so good in the book. There is a connection with our film in the rabid dog, but nothing else. I think it could be unfair to talk of this film as a Cujo remake because the characters and the situation are completely different. In fact, I see it as more like Jaws.”
I told José that the reference to Cujo in the publicity gave me the wrong expectations and that after viewing it I felt it actually had more in common with a different Stephen King story, Gerald’s Game. “That was an influence. But you know, if we say it’s about a dog attacking a girl, people say ah it’s Cujo. Watch it first, then compare it if you want. We did think about Cujo when we were making it, but just in technical issues: we wanted to be different because our film was going to be realistic in characters and action. Our dog was real, in Cujo, there are a lot of puppets. We didn’t want effects, which meant it was a real challenge. You have to be very careful working with animals also. But it was a beautiful challenge and I think we achieved the objective.
“We considered that the fear comes from an unknown beast, and in our film, it comes from an animal you cannot recognize. We wanted to shoot this movie with a lot of takes with the characters and the animals sharing the image. In a lot of monster films, for example, they cut from the beast to the human. We wanted both interacting together in the same image, which was a beautiful challenge, especially with training the animals. Of course, I did use Stephen King’s powerful influence: Misery as well as Gerald’s Game. He writes about characters facing traumas, after all. There are a lot of other influences, like Monkey Shines, Gravity (the script has the same structure).”
Apparently, the other animal in Ropes, a ferret, was originally scripted as a cat. The animal trainers, however, advised him that if he wanted a cat to do something it will do the opposite and so recommended a ferret. “And that was the same as a cat. The ferret does what he wants and the camera waits for it to do something good. A little bit impossible.”
Ropes is so named because the family home Elena goes to live in after hospital is adapted with cords attached to door handles, drawers, and so on so that the service dog can pull them open easily. The house was the one thing I hadn’t been convinced by when watching the film, as I didn’t feel two people with medical issues (Elena’s father had heart problems too) would be inclined to reside so far from emergency assistance. José believed the countryside setting was appropriate for Elena’s recovery from trauma, though; and besides, it gave the story the drama it needed too.
We talked about the current health climate too, of course: José strongly felt it was better to have a virtual festival than no festival at all. He is very happy Grimmfest makes it possible to hold a UK premiere in a festival before it is widely released in November. He praised Grimmfest in their regular contact with filmmakers and distributors, and in their establishment of this press week; they have been very reassuring to him and his team. José is going to miss the audience reaction – a thousand people watched it at Sitges – but felt it is more important to do a festival in whatever way is possible.
Ropes is José’s first feature film and I asked him what lessons he had learned from the experience. He hopes to work with humans only next time, and not animals: “You always have to be ready to shoot and this is hard when you have little time to do the movie. We had only four weeks to make Ropes, which was difficult. I want more time on the next film, which will give me more time to think and compose the takes. But in considering my wishes, you know sometimes what you wish turns out to be a nightmare when they come true: one of my wishes was to do my first movie. When the first movie arrives, the conditions are different to what I expected, then the virus and everything is closed. So my lesson is to live the moment and not be so obsessed with doing my dream.”
Next, José is making another film about a survivor, though not “a genre movie”. Again it is written with his usual collaborator Yako Blesa, and producers are already in place. In the meantime, the UK premiere of Ropes will be screened on 9 October 2020: “Enjoy the film,” says José “and beware of the dog.”