Few feature debuts at Malaga are more awaited than “Unicorns,” which world premieres on March 15, sold by Filmax. It is directed by multi award winning Àlex Lora best known for his work in documentary having won Gaudis, Emmys, and a nomination for a Goya with 2017’s “The Fourth Kingdom,”.
His feature debut gives us Isa played by Greta Fernandez. She is a hedonist, full of touch and feeling, lust and cool. She brings up Simone De Beavoir’s Second Sex in argument, but seems afflicted more by Sartre’s assertion of us being ‘condemned to be free.’ Skimming the surface of freedom from experience to experience fosters an inability to decide for herself what to focus on. Meanwhile, her mother is focussed on her novel writing, her boyfriend his wine shop, and her boss his marketing agency’s success.
Playing the mother is Nora Navas, whose latest accolade came with her Goya winning turn in Clara Roquet’s “Libertad,” having previously won both a Gaudi and Goya for Villaronga’s “Black Bread,” in 2011. Elena Martin plays photographer and rival Abril. It will be hoped Martin will bring luck to Malaga as she has won with both the short “Watermelon Juice,” and her own feature directorial debut “Júlia Ist,”.
Lora’s documentary talents shine here with the film’s effortless use of handheld shots. These are mixed with the occasional use of mobile camera shots taken in portrait by Isa as if to accentuate the ubiquity of the phone in her life.
Pairing these talents with a story that touches on the angst felt by so many through the prism of sex, drugs, and your next Instagram post seems sure to be a tempting mix for audiences.
Variety caught up with Àlex Lora ahead of the world premiere…
Did anything surprise you with the transition from directing documentary to a narrative feature?
Not really. I’ve been directing narrative short films for a while and have been on sets every now and then in other projects. Also, when I direct a documentary, I try to use some of the narrative tools, my ways of doing tends to the cinematic verité. I would say though that the process is just different. For docs I have to approach the subject very open minded. The outside world I’m filming has to go inside me somehow. Doing fiction is the opposite: you have to make the outside world look and behave like you imagined it, so the process goes from within to the exterior.
Isa is fascinated with the surface of things, the superficial, be it in her photography subject matter, or in some ways her difficulty focusing on any one thing for long. What made you want to follow a character with these qualities?
I have a disability, so I think I tend to look for characters that maybe don’t live up to the standards of normality. In the case of Isa I was looking for some challenges because she is not disabled, or maybe not at first glance. I wanted to explore a complex character that living in a normality with no apparent issues, was dysfunctional. We could simplify it by saying that her character has some emotional instabilities due to the pressure that society puts on women, the social networks and her family history based in patriarchy.
The other characters in the film seem more in control of using the superficial to their advantage rather than being controlled by it, or thinking they are unique. Do you think this is a challenge the current world presents us with, how to be in control in the face of so much freedom and distraction?
Right, there’s that contradiction about freedom. You can get lost facing the endless possibilities the world offers in different ways. It can paralyze you… You don’t know what you should choose anymore and when you choose you are insecure about having failed on your decision. You think more about all the other possibilities you discarded than in the one you actually chose. In front of all those endless possibilities you might want them all, like Isa, and you can lose control. That option also leads her to a position in which she can’t commit to anything, she doesn’t focus on anything, every connection is ephemeral or idealized, and therefore epidemic, not real, or just real in her head.
Greta Fernández is so integral to the film, featuring as she does in almost every scene, how important was casting her, and how did the two of you come together for this project?
Yes, I think there might be just a few shots in which she is not there. Doing this is very difficult and she is just amazing. I thought that the process of finding the lead was going to be very challenging for me. As a director I knew that for this part I wanted someone really committed, motivated, visceral… meaning that I wanted to feel, from the very beginning, that the actress was stealing the character from me. I wanted someone that I could feel that this was in fact her movie more than mine, and I felt that way when I met Greta. She was all in.
The film melds a number of visual styles by utilising handheld, cell phone shots by the characters themselves, and more formal framing. How did you develop the visual style for a project like this?
It was not just a formal decision, I thought that it made sense to mix these different styles content wise, so we went for it. I think my background as a documentary filmmaker was also telling me that we had to let the actors record with their phones the things that were happening in the scene. Some of the shots were already planned beforehand and we guided them. But some others were just discovered during the editing process. The conversations with the director of photography were also key to achieve the style I wanted for the movie.
What’s next for you?
We are working on a new project with the actress Nora Navas and looking for financing here in Spain. I have another script in the works with the Catalan Academy about the terrorist attacks of 17A in Barcelona. And given that I live between New York and Spain I’m developing another narrative in the U.S. with Dylan Baker as one of the leads. We already shot the teaser with him and now we are looking for funds to make it happen.