The Chilean director talks No and how his parents voted to keep dictator Augusto Pinochet in power.
20 Nov 2012 - 2:16 PM  UPDATED 12 May 2017 - 1:58 PM

One of the Cannes highlights of 2012 was to meet Chilean director Pablo Larraín. In previous years, publicists had sung his praises when trying to procure coverage for the first films of his so-called Pinochet trilogy, Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010). Yet it had been clear that without a major name the films would struggle to gain a release in Australian cinemas.

"I was one of those millions of people supporting the Yes on the streets. Then I grew up and realised everything."

However, when Mexico's Gael Garcia Bernal was cast in No and the film took out the top prize in the Director's Fortnight in Cannes this year, Rialto snapped it up for Australia-NZ. In September, it was selected as Chile's foreign language Oscar entry and will now screen as part of the Brisbane and Perth film festivals before its cinematic release next year.

Bernal came early to the project and his presence greatly helped with the financing, Larraín explains of the Chile-US-Mexico production, which he says will be his final movie about the infamous Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. What makes his trilogy special is that all three films deal with political events in an entertaining manner. In Tony Manero, set in Santiago in 1978, he narrated the time of the strongest repression via the story of a 52-year-old man who is obsessed with John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever and runs his household like a dictatorship. In Post Mortem, set during the 1973 military coup that overthrew former President Salvador Allende and inaugurated Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship, he showed the beginnings of the horror via a morgue worker cataloguing dead bodies from a demonstration.

Now in No, he demonstrates how the dictatorship was brought down by a clever campaign, orchestrated by Rene Saavendra, an advertising executive with experience promoting Coca Cola. Yes, voting No in the 1988 plebiscite, which would prevent Pinochet being installed for another eight years as the nation's leader, meant you would have a fun happy time. Saavendra's agency boss orchestrated the Yes campaign so it became a competition of sorts.

Larraín was 12 at that time of the plebiscite. “It's not something I remember clearly. I just remember the atmosphere; it was awful. I remember watching the campaigns on TV—it was like a thrill like the World Cup. Pinochet and the regime never thought it was going to be important. They thought it was just a TV thing, but it did change everything. That's why we became interested in the story because it shows how they changed the destiny of a country through very simple ideas on TV. And the guy who did that was not a genius who made a revolution; he was not Che Guevara. He was an advertising executive, a guy who believed more in Coca Cola than in freedom or politics. We were fascinated that Pinochet was ultimately defeated by the capitalist economic and social system he imposed. In a sense, he dug his own grave.”

Larraín's penchant for Mad Men-style attention to period detail led him to shoot with U-matic videotape in order to match the format of the original footage. Most importantly, he was determined to show how Pinochet really was.

“Pinochet was very stupid,” he says. “He wasn't a smart person like Margaret Thatcher, and I don't like her either, but I wouldn't say she was stupid. Pinochet was just lucky to get where he got and he was violent enough to control everything. One of the guys under him was very smart, but Pinochet himself could barely talk. I just had to show the real guy because it's all just there. Someday somebody will make a movie about him, and it will be a comedy like [Sacha Baron Cohen's] The Dictator.”

Still, working in such an antiquated format presented its challenges, especially when it came to the equipment. “We found 20 cameras in Utah and sent them to Hollywood where they assembled four. During the flight, one died and just one survived the shooting. We needed an entire system to record it digitally.”

A fan of movies since childhood, Larraín had grown up amongst a life of privilege as the son of one of Chile's most famous right wing politicians and currently a senator, Hernán Larraín. His mother Magdalena Matte is a former Minister of Housing & Urban Development.

“In fact, my parents voted Yes and I remember holding the Yes flag in the final day which is in the movie. I was one of those millions of people supporting the Yes on the streets. Then I grew up and realised everything.”

What do parents think about the movie?

“My father hated Pinochet and Pinochet hated my father. My father has always been very well known. He became a politician when we came into democracy. He was head of the main university of Chile before that. But he's a father before a politician. He's very proud of me; he keeps reading good news about my work whatever I do. I now have two children and he's very concerned about anything that happens to his grandkids.

“I admire him, because if you're able to raise one of your sons who thinks so differently from you, it says something good about you as a person. If you really believe in freedom and you raise your children to have that, it's interesting. I'm sure it's still weird for him. I get this question every time and my standard answer is to ask him.”

So how did his son become the person he is?

“I was reading a lot and getting connected with some people in the art world and visiting cultural spots. I realised where I wanted to be and how I had my own point of view. I never wanted to do anything else but be a filmmaker though I never thought I'd dedicate three movies to the subject of Pinochet! It took me five years and I'm now ready to do something else.”

Larraín is developing a new movie, which he will not discuss. He has also directed a popular, critically acclaimed action-drama series about cocaine cartels for HBO Latino titled Prófugos, which is going into a second season.

No screens this weekend at the Brisbane International Film Festival and will also appear at next year's Perth Film Festival (Feb 18 – Mar 3). The film is scheduled for general release in Feb/Mar 2013 (TBC). Visit the Rialto website for more information.