Interviews

Maybe everything is imagination — Pianist and composer Julián De La Chica presents his debut indie film, ‘Agatha’

At the 2020 edition of Festivál de Cine de Bogotá (Bogocine 37), Brooklyn-based Colombian pianist and composer Julián De La Chica made his debut in cinematography with Agatha, an experimental film depicting a voyeuristic encounter between a young photographer and a musician observing him in secrecy, fascinated with his life.

Based on the composer’s piano cycle Voyeuristic Images Op. 10, itself inspired by a real-life experience that took place shortly after the artist’s arrival to New York City, Agatha aims to explore “what lies beneath the surface of the human psyche when confronted with profound loneliness, isolation, and anxiety.”

Starring Augusto Guzmán as Próspero, the film was selected for screening at nearly two dozen international festivals, receiving recognition for its cinematography as well as its score.

I caught up with Julián a week ago to talk about Agatha, his music, the challenges of adapting to a new creative medium and the ambiguous nature of objective reality.

Let’s start by looking at the project as a whole and how the two creative mediums influenced one another. First of all, how did you decide to embark on this project? Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to make a film or did that idea come after you composed and released Voyeuristic Images Op. 10?

Well, I am a composer, so this film was made from a composer’s perspective. It originated from the music. But I have worked with filmmakers before, writing scores, so the language and everything behind it — the relationship between music and image — is not new to me. Music and image really come together in my creative process as a composer. Yes, I come from a classical background, but the visual part is important to me.

The idea of making this film came after I composed a cycle for piano, inspired by some events I had witnessed when I moved to New York. I decided that I needed to show the audience the reality of this experience that happened a long time ago. When I premiered the piano cycle, I decided to tell the story to the audience. One of the reasons was that this is minimalistic music — it has a lot of space, a lot of silence. When you’re just listening to the cycle and to the piano, it could be boring, if you are not aware of the backstory.

So I wrote down all the ideas about the voyeuristic parts and invited the audience to connect with the music based on these little scripts. The reaction was very good. People were really into the idea of Agatha and what was happening around that. They connected with Próspero and with the character of the music.

Some people suggested I do something in the visual realm, so I decided to make a film. I’m a very big fan of cinematography and I love experimenting with the camera. I never thought I would do it professionally, but I always loved working with the camera.

I said to myself, “If I am going to do this, there have to be some rules for the camera work. It should be aesthetic cameras, it has to be black and white, it has to be just one character, I have to shoot in real-time, no post-production and stuff. That is my idea of art. Especially in these times, when we are saturated with everything, I try to go in the opposite direction. So that was my idea for the film. You either like it or you don’t. Maybe you find it boring. I have many friends who are filmmakers who said, “Maybe this shot is too long” or “Maybe the people will get bored” and so on. I said to them, “I’m not just doing this to entertain people.”   

What were some of the challenges of transposing your creative vision to the medium of film?

One of the things I discovered with this project was that, probably because being a filmmaker is not my main profession, I was not as afraid of taking risks. That was a big question for me. As a musician, when you come from the conservatory and you are composing, you have to follow a lot of rules. You have all these perspectives from people all around the world, especially all these European ideas of music in the classical world. I think with films it’s the same. If I had gone to the Academy of Film, I would probably do things differently.

So, the pressure wasn’t there.

Exactly! I was just experimenting with different things. I was trying to do the same thing I’d done with music. For me, it was very important to give it time and space. In music and in film it’s important to have a conversation with the audience. So you need space and you need moments where people are allowed to think about the story and “speak” with the director or “speak” with the characters.

I was very clear about having these spaces. Junting Zhao, the cinematographer, suggested to me that this goes against the conventions of filmmaking. I told him, “I don’t care about that. This is what I want.”

But he was very open. It was great to work with him. He knew that I had these ideas that were very clear and I also had the music. That was the thing. Because I had the music in my mind, it was very easy to put everything together.

There is a story here. I was looking at another person through a window. How can you explain this and put this in a film? For me, the idea was that you never clearly see what is happening there. It’s Próspero and his camera — because that was real. This person usually had a camera in front of him. Or was that in my mind? Or his mind? What was the reality? I saw the whole story, but I never spoke with this person. Part of it was my imagination. It was seven in the morning, I was arriving home from parties, looking at this person. I wanted people to feel the same things I’d felt.

I think the film reflects that very well. What captures the viewer is not just the sequence of events, but this tension that is created. Watching the film, you almost feel like it’s a livestream, which places the viewer in the position of a voyeur. It’s like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to. This tension, I think, is created by the strange relationship between what you know and what you don’t know. Because, on the one hand, you are witnessing something very intimate, very revealing but, on the other hand, you are lacking the context needed to put all of these things together in an unequivocal way. You feel like you’re getting a lot of unfiltered information and yet you don’t really know what’s happening. That creates an interesting paradox. Was that something you consciously planned while making the film or was it just a natural result of the story?

Everything in the film is something real that I saw in that moment. For me, the important thing is that you can see whatever is not obvious. That was the principal idea about this situation with Próspero. It was just a normal day. A regular day in the life of someone. What happens in those moments when no one is looking at you and you are by yourself? That was the most important aspect.

But, of course, there is a story. It’s not like randomly placing a camera in a certain scene. That was my perspective: what I thought about Próspero and his story. I knew some things about him and I put it all together.

For example, there was a lady present sometimes. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know it’s the same person. But I never speak about this in general because I want people to discover it themselves. The reality is that it was the same person. It took me some time to realize that. I thought maybe it was a friend or something. There were a lot of mysteries around him.

You could feel that he was Latin. He was working as a photographer; all of his space was filled with cameras and equipment. He had lots of sex with lots of people. People came and went, and you can see all these things. For me, it was obvious that there was some problem, some emptiness perhaps.

I thought these were very interesting things when you put them together as a story. It was so much information, but at the same time, nothing was said. That was one of the main challenges when putting together the film: there was no dialogue. That’s when I had the idea of the mother.

It’s very interesting how a small part in the film, just a small voice message, changes everything. Of course, that was my imagination, because I was never inside the apartment to hear the mother asking him to send money. That is a more generalized image of what happens in Latin communities when you are here in New York, living the dream, and you are asked to send money to your family — all these kinds of Latin American problems. That was my imagination and the creative part. It was interesting to see how that changed everything. I wanted to avoid having him speak. I wanted a silent film. But, of course, I needed some sort of direction. So, one day, I thought, “His mother is calling. It’s a voice message.” Something very simple. It happens every day. But it changes everything. You can “see” everything with the addition of that voice. You can imagine all of his background.

That’s the basic concept of telling a good story: showing instead of telling. What you have is this simple suggestion of a relationship that opens up certain spaces that the reader or viewer can fill with their own imagination. Relating to this, there’s something you said before that I found very interesting. You said that it took you a while to realize that the woman you were seeing in the apartment was actually the same person dressed in drag. In the film, when you reveal Agatha, you chose to focus on the character of Próspero as he is slowly transforming into his alter ego. It feels like the perspective switches from the observer to the observed during the process thus eliminating the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity. Why did you choose to present it in this way?

When he reveals Agatha, it’s at the end of the movie, so I think it still keeps a little mystery at the beginning. Because I am focusing on Próspero, when he arrives from the party, at the end of the weekend. I’m focusing on his loneliness, his emptiness — this post-party drug situation. When he arrives he’s still very happy, very high, he’s looking for sex. A couple of hours later, he’s starting to come down. You see that he is desperately calling someone, or maybe watching porn or sending a text message. Afterwards it’s sex again and afterwards he’s taking a shower, and then looking out the window — this kind of situation. You can imagine, after partying for three days in New York, on Monday, everyone’s working, everyone’s doing something and this guy is just lost in space. That is when he decides to invite Agatha.

That was also another challenging part of the film: how will I show Agatha? Because it’s New York and some people will dress so beautifully, like professional cross-dressers ready for a show. But the thing is, how he dresses is very simple. It’s not a professional doing all these things. You are not sure what is in his mind. Does he really want to be a woman? Is it just a fetish? Or is he just crazy? All that is, to me, a mystery. But I think, in the end, Agatha was only his company.

That was how I interpreted the scene as well. To me it seemed like somebody dealing with extremes of loneliness and isolation and trying to fill that void with something — a presence. Perhaps because I’m a writer and I spend so much time in solitude, in my office, surrounded only by my characters and my fictional worlds, it was something very relatable. Is this theme of loneliness important in your work in general?

That is a topic that is very important to me. Working as a composer is a very lonely job. That’s the truth. Like you, I work here in my studio all day, by myself. As you’ve said before, I also live with my characters. I was living with Agatha for many months. I’m still living with her, with Próspero. And now I am in another project and all these characters are part of my day.

Loneliness is something that I like to talk about, in this film or in my music. And also about what happens when you are alone — things that people never see, things you might think are obvious, but maybe they are not.

I wanted to keep that kind of atmosphere in the set and also in the movie. I wanted to create this kind of cult around him. I wanted just one person to be on the set. At times we thought that, in the sex part, we might bring in other people, you know? Another man, or maybe you see a face, or somebody is coming to his apartment. Maybe the drug dealer would be there, speaking with him. At the end, I decided it should just be him. I wanted to capture the imagination of the audience. Because, at the end of the movie, you realize that you never see whether he was having sex with someone. You never actually see anyone there. Maybe everything is imagination.

This works very well also metaphorically because it reflects the idea that, even if there was somebody there, it did nothing to alleviate Próspero’s loneliness. So, even if there were people physically present, it meant nothing on an emotional level. I think Augusto Guzmán’s performance captured that really well. How did you decide to work with him? Were you familiar with his work?

No, no, no. (laughs) It’s funny. I knew it would be difficult for me to find an actor to do this. If you don’t have a big budget or a big company behind you, it’s difficult to work with professional actors. Yes, in New York you can find lots of artists and a lot of talent but you can also find a lot of mediocrity. Many people live here, we are all following our dreams, but, in the end, it’s about your talent. I was scared of ending up with an amateur. You know, it’s a small budget, a very slow thing. If there isn’t a good talent, everything will be terrible. I needed Próspero to be perfect. But I believe art speaks to you. I always say, “When the art is ready, everything will fall into place.”

So I just decided to run an experiment. I placed an ad on Craigslist, saying that I was looking for an actor. I know, it’s very funny. Craigslist is very old. I remember it from the time I moved here, around 2008, when I was looking for apartments and jobs.

I remember it from a decade ago when I was looking for writing gigs.

Yes.

And meeting mostly psychopaths.

(laughs) Yes. Exactly! But I decided to just jump on Craigslist. I wrote, “I’m looking for an actor for an experiment.” Listen, more than one hundred actors replied. They sent me e-mails with wonderful portfolios and resumes and videos and everything. I was shocked. I was like, “Wow, Craigslist still works.” (laughs) A lot of wonderful talent. People from LA, people saying, “I’m interested. This is the kind of character I’m looking for.”

But, because I know New York very well, I thought, “I need someone where I can see that they have this life in New York.” Someone who you just know is a New Yorker, in some style. Not an actor pretending that they know. I was hoping to find someone like that.

Augusto sent me an e-mail and I liked how he approached it. The other actors were more professional, but he was more poetic, in a way. He wrote, “All the things you wrote about, I know them very well. I know what you are talking about.” I decided to meet him. I said, “Let’s have a drink.” We met around Grand Central at, like, 6 or 7 PM. He arrived very slowly, with a little bag and I said, “He is Prospero!”

He told me he was from Guatemala but he grew up in the Dominican Republic, because his father is from there. He moved to New York and knows the city very well, the nightclubs and Bushwick, everything. You could tell that he really knew the city. He’s very honest. He’s like an open book. It was perfect.

I explained what I was looking for, I explained the idea, that there would be nudity, and he was very happy with everything. He said, “I love the idea, I love the project, I love the music!” At that moment, I knew Agatha was ready, because everything was perfect.

It was similar with Junting. I was thinking of shooting the film with my camera, which is a professional camera. But I am not a professional cinematographer, which is a reality. I thought, “Okay, I am paying for a lot of things: the studio, transportation, people’s time. I can’t have problems with the camera. I need this to be professional.”

I decided to take some lessons — not the basic things, but more detailed stuff, with the lens and everything. After doing some research about locations, cameras and so on, I found Junting. We exchanged e-mails and phone calls he asked me where I live. I said, “In Brooklyn.” He goes, “I am in Brooklyn too. I actually live in Queens but I’m having construction done on the apartment, so now I am with my best friend in Brooklyn.” It was three blocks from here. I said, “Can we start now?” It was eleven in the morning. I suggested we have lunch and then start with a class.

He started to teach me and, after a while, he said he was curious about the project. I explained what it was about and he said, “I have two weeks. I am not doing anything before I get back to my house. I would like to be a part of the project.” Afterwards, I discovered that this guy is a professional filmmaker.

I have to say, the beauty of the image and the light is all thanks to him. Agatha is what it is thanks to his eye and his camera. It’s a beautiful thing when everything comes together. It was like Próspero. I thought, “I have to do this right now because the art is speaking.

Agatha was very well received, screening at many festivals and gaining a number of awards, both for the cinematography and the music. Given your candid, perhaps controversial approach in the way you presented this story, were you surprised at all by the film’s reception?

Yes, I was very surprised. You know, I was controversial in my country a few years ago, with my music. When you come from Latin America, from a small town in Colombia and you try to make minimalistic music, the reaction is usually, “That’s just for Americans. You are Latin. Compose a cumbia!” Drums, moves, Shakira, things like that. (laughs) It was the same with film. Many people said, “He’s a composer. Now he wants to be a filmmaker?”

But, because I’m independent, I don’t care about anything. I make my art. If you like it, it’s fine, if you don’t, that’s fine too. I’m not working with a big company where I have to do something because there’s a sponsor. I’m doing whatever I want and I have that flexibility, which is very good. I’m grateful for that. But yeah, people will always say things.

I’ve had good experiences and not so good experiences. One big surprise was the reception in the United States. The film was very well received in Europe, of course, where people are totally open. How they appreciate art is totally different. The film was very appreciated at these small festivals in Portugal, Spain, Italy. Here in the US it was totally different. After some festivals in Europe, Junting told me, “Listen, I think this film is perfect for LGBT festivals.” There are big festivals here in New York, in San Francisco, in Atlanta. I don’t know why, but I was feeling very confident about these festivals. The surprise was that I got feedback stating, “This film does not reflect well on the community. You are showing something that we are not interested in showing.”

I found it terrible that people in the US would say something like that. They said, “People think about the community in the wrong way because of films like this.” You know, the gay man dressing up as a woman, taking drugs. It was a surprise because, for me, it’s not about the character’s sexuality. It’s about a human being. He could be a man, a woman, he could be gay or straight. It’s the loneliness. I feel like these festivals have an agenda. That was one of the things I was very disappointed about. All of the feedback regarding the image and the music was very good but the topic itself was complicated.

In Bogotá, it had a great reception. They chose the film for this festival, which is now almost forty years old. It’s a very old, very important festival in Latin America. I never thought they would pick the film, because it’s Bogotá. I mean, I know Colombia. This is not what Colombians want. (laughs) First of all, these kinds of experimental films — black and white, just one guy, naked, drugs, things like that. When they invited me, I was very surprised. It’s funny because you’re there and your aunt is like, “Oh my God, Julián, your film… I really want to go.” Your very catholic, old aunt. (laughs)

I was reading a lot about the Bogocine festival and they are really open to new directors and new films. They take risks. I was very happy. They gave me an award for the film. That was a good experience, totally opposite to what happened in the US.

I think this speaks to the relatability of the film. Because, as a viewer, if you go beyond what might be shocking to you, or too candid, or too intense, in the end it’s a film about a basic human experience. Everyone has experienced loneliness and desperation, to varying degrees. It’s also a comment on the nature of objective reality. Who are we when we are alone, when we think no one can see us? And, if someone could see us in those moments of privacy, how much would they know about us? How much would they understand? What kind of story would they tell themselves about what they are witnessing?

You mentioned something very important. One of the topics I like in this film is, “How is your interpretation of something?” Because, in my last albums, I try to speak a lot about the virtual psychosis that I believe we are having — with the media, with the internet, with social media in general, how people are constantly fighting on Facebook or Instagram. It’s very interesting to me how we can see different perspectives and how the news are a big part of it.

I remember, a couple of years ago, I spent the summer in Europe. I went to Berlin and then I went to Poland. That was the first time I visited Auschwitz. It was a very difficult experience, especially when they tell you how the soldiers believed this was part of something normal, that they were doing something good. It’s how the psychosis of our mind works. I thought, “Is this also happening right now?” In Agatha, it’s the same. Like you said, “What if someone is looking at me right now? What is the story?” So, what are the stories we are telling ourselves every day? What does your mind tell you? What do other minds tell you? I think it’s an interesting topic.

What would you wish for people to take away from this film?

Honestly, I will say, “Nothing.” I don’t want to teach or to do anything more than open a space where you can maybe feel in connection with the reality you might also hide. I try to open up that privacy in some way, to say, “Look, we are all humans. We all have this emptiness. We are on this planet together and we are a community.”

Click here to find out more about Agatha and Julián’s work. If you would like to support the project and watch the film, you can rent it for 10$ at this link.

Voyeuristic Images Op. 10, the film’s soundtrack, is available for streaming and download on all major platforms.

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