Following the footsteps of his compatriot Sebastian Silva, writer/director Pedro Peirano will present their latest film, Old Cats (Gatos Viejos), at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston for Latin Wave, the museum’s annual showcase of the latest offerings from emerging Latin American filmmakers. After co-writing their last two films together, including the Sundance hit and Latin Wave alum The Maid (La Nana), Peirano also shares directing duties with Silva this time. Old Cats is a domestic drama about an elderly woman (Bélgica Castro) who struggles with her own dementia as her coked-up daughter (Claudia Celedón) pressures her to sign away her apartment. We talked with Peirano, who is also a children’s TV producer and cartoonist in Chile, about Old Cats before his visit to Houston.
Film Monitor: Family has been the focus of all three films you and Sebastian Silva made. What draw you guys into making movies about families?
Pedro Peirano: Sebastian had this script about death. It was not about family at the beginning. Family is such an important issue for me because my family is Italian. I thought that naturally this script was about the family. I saw the family in the script. It was not about family but I helped making it about family. Death is a family issue for me. The original idea was Sebastian’s but I added the element of family in it. The script has this family dynamic but Sebastian didn’t notice. I read the script and I recognized it. Our last film, La Nana (The Maid), was different because Sebastian was thinking of his family a lot after our first film La Vida Me Mata and all of a sudden his sister started telling us stories about their maids.
FM: The family in Old Cats is very different from the one in The Maid.
PP: Yes, very different family, really. I think maybe The Maid is more like Sebastian’s family but Old Cats is, in a way, more about my family. My family has few people. It’s a very old family. We have only one nephew. We are getting old without children. It is more similar to the family in Old Cats.
FM: The arguments and fights look very real in the film.
PP: That’s why we put women in the film. I think women are more authentic. For them, life is more drama. For boys and men, life is more for play. They play politics. They play in making wars. They play games. Women are more involved in the drama of real life. I saw this American movie years ago, A Raisin in the Sun, which was very important to me. I was very affected by the movie. I saw the mother in the film as the center of the drama. For me, it was so telling and from there I discovered a woman is the heart of the drama. Coincidentally, the men in our movies are always playing something like children. In our first movie, the old man is always playing crossword puzzles. In The Maid, the father of the movie is making a model ship. In Old Cats, the man is always reading and writing about art. It’s a kind of playing. It is not real life.
FM: Men are relatively more detached from real life.
PP: They don’t give birth to children, maybe that’s why. There are always good fathers but it is not the same to be a mother, biologically.
FM: You and Silva have used a lot of the same actors, including The Maid’s star Catalina Saavedra, from your last two films.
PP: If you think about it, it is very logical because we are a very little country. We have few actors and we love them. We are a little lazy to do casting. In the case of The Maid and Old Cats, we wrote the movies for the actresses.
FM: So you had Catalina and Claudia in mind when you wrote these characters?
PP: Yes. But in the case of Catalina, we at first only wanted Claudia’s character to have a boyfriend. The only reason that she is a lesbian is to put Catalina in the movie (laugh).
FM: That is a great way to put her in the movie.
PP: For us, it was fun to work with Catalina again soon and this was the only possibility because we wanted Claudia to play the role of the daughter. A lot people told me she (Catalina) seemed to overplay the comedic parts at the beginning of the movie. But I think it was on purpose because we were working from the mother’s point of view. It was difficult to do because nobody has seen a lot of movies from the point of view of such an old woman. Hugo, in the first part of the movie, is more of a caricature. She becomes more normal as the film progresses. It was on purpose.
FM: Since Catalina’s character is named Hugo, does it mean she’s a transgender person or is she a lesbian?
PP: Sebastian had the idea to put Catalina in the movie as the girlfriend but I didn’t like it. So I started to think about it. I don’t know why the name “Hugo” appeared and it was comfortable for me. I called Sebastian and told him Catalina could be the girlfriend but her name has to be Hugo. He laughed for about ten minutes over the phone. Then I called Catalina and said her new character was named Hugo. She laughed too. It was a strange joke.
FM: Actresses in the U.S. complain there are a very few interesting roles for them besides playing someone’s mother after a certain age.
PP: That is totally true. Nobody wants to identify with an old character when they go to the movies. I love old people. So it was very interesting in working with Bélgica. She is a very good actress and a legend in Chile. We started from this point— how to invent a movie with Bélgica as the star?
FM: Tell us a little more about Bélgica.
PP: She doesn’t work in TV at all. And she only does very small roles in movies because she’s old. She mostly works with this famous Chilean director, Raoul Ruiz. But she’s just like a young lady—she has her opinion and she is very critical. We were very afraid to show her the movie because she is very exigente [demanding].
FM: The way you guys show Bélgica’s character losing her mind is very matter of fact. How did you decide your methods in tackling the subject of mental deterioration?
PP: It was mainly from my instinct. I read an interesting article by a doctor about familiarity as a way to protect yourself. About old age in general, we didn’t do any research. We had Belgica and Alejandro to tell us when we had doubts about it. For example, the amount of pills they take is real.
FM: Your approach is very realistic. You guys didn’t use any special effects.
PP: We thought it was not necessary. It was not the language of the movie at all.
FM: The way you guys portrayed her illness reminds me of John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence?
PP: Oh, beautiful movie! I love John Cassavetes. He’s not a director at all. He’s like god. Our movie is not consciously influenced by him, but maybe by accident. There are a lot of movies in our movie accidentally. A lot of things—the stairs, the paper, the home videos—reminds me of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and I think Old Cats is a little bit similar to this movie. There are also real Hitchcock fears in our movie. Hitchcock is not really about international schemes. I think he was worried about old age. It’s like [Old Cats is] more Hitchcock than Hitchcock, in a way (laugh).
FM: Another thing I found interesting about the film is how it almost runs in real time.
PP: We wanted to make it real. I have been in this kind of little tea party that starts peacefully, then it turned terrible and it ends like nothing happened. It is very common for me. That’s why we only wanted to set the story in a couple of hours. Another important thing is this is not a real discussion about the problems in the family. This is not the main or most terrible fight they have. It is only the remains of all issues between them.
FM: What about the cats in the movie?
PP: We had to do the cats, first of all, because we were using Belgica’s apartment. So we were using her husband and her cats because it was more comfortable for us. We did the movie in her house because she is 90 years old. The cats are the lords of the house. We had to include them. We realized it could be good to feature the cats a lot in the first part of the movie. When the daughter enters, she made them put the cats away. So you don’t see the cats for the rest of the movie. In a way, the cats were competing with the daughter.
FM: I remember Bélgica said in the film, “The cats are kings of this house but when she comes, they have to be in the kitchen.”
PP: Yes (laugh). It was like that. We wrote the movie very instinctively but we used a lot of things in real life. For example, Claudia is has a real allergy to cats. So it was difficult for her to act near them. She was sneezing the whole time. She was mad about it. Also, Belgica hates water because her father forced her to swim in a river when she was very young. For her, it was very difficult to do the scene in the fountain.
FM: How did you decide to co-direct this after serving as the co-writer in the last two movies?
PP: We planned this movie since the times of The Maid and we planned to direct together. I have done a lot of directing for TV and the movie version of the puppet show. For me, it is very comfortable to do this when you have a good partner. We didn’t really have separate responsibilities. Our roles were not rigid.
FM: Do you guys plan to collaborate again?
PP: We want to and we are planning a new movie but it’s still too early to mention any details. We also work separately a lot. For example, I’m in Mexico because I am writing a miniseries, a mystery one. I am also working on three different screenplays and one of them is a comedy about a very feminine boy. I am also working on a graphic novel. I like the old Uncle Scrooge comics. I want to do my own version, but it is very different of course. It has maps, treasure, humor and my nephew is the main character.
Old Cats will be playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on 4/30 (5:00pm) and 5/1 (3:00pm).