Happiness On Earth: An Interview with Julián Hernández
Julián Hernández’s film I Am Happiness On Earth explores the ways in which our bodies can sometimes speak more truth than our words. He talks to Andrew Darley about how the film utilises its character’s bodies as a way of story-telling.
Julián Hernández has been creating films since the early ‘90s. Originally from Mexico, the filmmaker has produced several short films and full-length features. He received significant praise for his 2003 film A Thousand Clouds Of Peace. In his latest film, I Am Happiness On Earth, Hernández explores the ways in which our bodies can sometimes speak more truth than our words. It follows the young film director, Emiliano, as he works on a film about the art of dance. When he finds himself captivated by one his subjects, his world becomes a blur as objective reality becomes coloured by his artistic visions. Andrew Darley spoke to Hernández about how his latest film utilises its character’s bodies as a way of story-telling, the meaning behind the film’s title and what his characters learn about their emotions and sexuality.
I Am Happiness On Earth explores the lives of many people and how they relate to sex. Was there a message or statement that you were trying to portray about sexuality?
Ever since my early films at school between 1990 and 1995, sexuality was present. My characters found an explanation for their troubles through eroticism, sex and love. Maybe I was too young when I discovered Michelangelo Antonioni’s films and I was subdued by the idea that humanity was sick, and it shows in the way people embrace their sexuality. I still think the same. The characters in I Am Happiness On Earth communicate using their bodies; when they’re being intimate with one another, they’re incapable of lying, unlike their everyday lives, when they lie through words.
(Click images to enlarge)
What was the process in choosing the actors to play these roles? Were you looking for something in particular?
I tend to write already thinking about the actor that could play each character. I don’t usually hold castings. I’d rather let myself go with that rush of the first impression. A director and an actor form a relationship that is similar to actual, intense love in many ways, at least for 8 weeks. Just like with my last films, it was necessary that the actors were up to do the scenes carefully described in the screenplay, so as to avoid misunderstandings while shooting. Everything I want to see up on the screen is already described there. That’s my first filter; that’s what happened in I Am Happiness On Earth. For this movie, I needed an actor who also was also a classically trained dancer. Luckily, I found Alan Ramírez, a professional dancer with the National Dance Company who debuts in this film. Choosing the cast for I Am Happiness On Earth has been the easiest process so far.
As there are several sex scenes in the film, did you have to build trust with the actors to feel comfortable to do these scenes?
Trust is built during the first months of preparation for the movie. First and foremost, there’s the trust that should come up between actors and director once they know each other. It’s a long process of seduction that transforms into certainty. On the other hand, I don’t think that shooting the erotic sequences is the hardest part of making a film. Those scenes are so carefully planned, there are so many elements in play that there’s no chance to think about something else other than work. I never pay excessive attention to those scenes, and I don’t let others worry too much, it’s just a regular shooting day. We film those scenes and move on.
Were you conscious of ensuring the moments of sex were tasteful and existed as a narrative within the film, rather than just for shock value or to be explicit?
Sex goes with what this story needs. It doesn’t try to shock the audience. There’s a false sense of modesty when it comes to nudity, not just male nudity but also female. A false modesty and also a blatant exploitation of the human body. In my movies, characters communicate basically through their bodies. Nudity works as a way to communicate the characters’ emotions.
Were there any challenges in bringing this film together or obstacles you had to overcome?
Films are made in similar ways all over the world. The budget is difficult to find for any project, and more when it’s “personal”, “arty” or “gay”. I Am Happiness On Earth is not an exception. After the premiere of Raging Sun, Raging Sky at the Berlinale, where I won my second Teddy, I thought it would be easier for me to make another film, and it wasn’t. It was as similar, difficult, and long as making A Thousand Peace Clouds Encircle The Sky which I directed a decade ago. I Am Happiness On Earth was shot in 14 different days in three years. In this case, my suffering is multiplied.
There’s a long sequence halfway through the film that has an abstract quality; it’s almost like a collective stream of consciousness between the three characters. Was the idea to make the line between our internal worlds and reality ambiguous?
That sequence mixes the characters’ reality with their emotional perception. Emiliano’s fears and his angst become these characters that wander through the aftermath of a party. It’s a movie; Emiliano’s movie, within another movie.
Music features heavily in the film, from various genres including rock, dance and ballads. The characters themselves sing too. Did you use music as a way of storytelling?
Music plays a very important part in the dramatic progression of the film. It complements the film, sometimes it’s an ironic comment, but it especially works as a way to define the characters. Each character has his own music genre. I try to give the audience a chance to match a specific music genre with each character. In the case of the score composed by Arturo Villela for the movie, I work in the same way I do for the narrative structure. We’ve been working together since Broken Sky and with each new film we have a chance to explore new possibilities. In I Am Happiness On Earth, Arturo composed the music using improvisations he had asked the musicians to try. There was no scoring sheet.
Since its release, how do you feel it has been received? What has been the reaction to it from Mexican audiences?
The film hasn’t been screened in Mexico. It’s a very common thing: films get some recognition overseas but in Mexico they just screen them in festivals and special programmes; some lucky ones get to be released in a very short circuit. We do not know what’s going to happen with I Am Happiness On Earth in Mexico.
Would you agree that the film switches and between a traditional, linear narrative to one that is more unconventional and conceptual?
Of course, and it’s something I look forward in every new film I get the chance to make. I Am Happiness On Earth is a movie that finds itself in a more mainstream territory than Raging Sun, Raging Sky, the film I made before this one. There’s a constant need for experimentation in me. I try to explore new possibilities, new narrative resources. The film’s structure is similar to Max Beckmann’s triptics. Each segment is related to the others through elements that flow through the three of them, repeat themselves or remind you of the other two.
What does the film’s title refer to? Does it have a particular meaning for you?
When I chose the title for this film I thought that everyone would immediately know that it was a quote. I Am Happiness On Earth is the Spanish translation of “Ich bin das Glück dieser Erde”, title of the project in which director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was working on when he died. Both plotlines have no similarities whatsoever, but I thought it was ideal for my movie. I’ve known about it since 1992, when I read the first biography I found about Fassbinder in one sitting; it had been in my head ever since and it popped up right before shooting began.
Do you have any hope about what you would like viewers to feel or think about after this film?
I make movies thinking that, when it finally hits the screen, there will be at least one person who thinks that what I’m telling is true, that it talks to him, about what he feels or thinks. We make movies to feel a little bit less lonely, because we long to find similar souls to share our loneliness and our anxiety.
The film ends with the song that is featured earlier in the film. It has the lyric “We finally have the joy that real love receives”. Do you think that any of the characters find real love by the end? Or do you think they understand what real love is?
I don’t think so. They merely get certain clarity about the reasons behind their behaviour, I mean, for the reasons behind their emotional frustration. For Emiliano, happiness lies in the intensity of love’s comings and goings. At first, he doesn’t get it, and he slowly discovers it in all those moments when his reality becomes blurred with the fiction of his work. One thing’s for sure: he’s going to try again next morning. Emiliano learns how to love. Octavio already knows it.
I Am Happiness On Earth is released on DVD and On Demand via Peccadillo Pictures on August 11th.
Share this post: