We talk to Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes and the genius composer Mica Levi about their stunning new film
“It’s paradise but at the same time it’s hell.” That’s how the Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes describes the anonymous setting of his immersive war film Monos. There’s no indication of where we are, what year it is, or why everyone’s parading a gun. All we know is that there’s political turmoil – and the view is spectacular.
In the opening scene, blindfolded teenagers play football on a scenic mountaintop, 13,000 feet in the air, seemingly parallel with the clouds and within touching distance of the sky. They roam the picturesque environment as if it’s a school trip that never ended. Away from parental supervision, they flirt, fuck, and freely experiment with whatever their bodies urge them to do. They’re also soldiers who are part of The Organisation, a strict regime that’s pitting them against an off-screen enemy.
Disorientating and scored by Mica Levi, Monos unfolds like a relentless fever dream. The lack of context means you’re always catching up with the characters. “The film has a unique passage of days, and it plays with the notion of time,” Landes tells me. “There’s a story, but I made sure the thing at play wasn’t with your rational mind.” The sun-kissed cinematography practically dunks your head in the pristine rivers, and you can feel the mud and literal shit that the soldiers wade through. “There’s also something happening just through your skin, and in the pit of your stomach. It’s coming in all the senses. That’s why it’s a film made for the big screen.”
Landes is speaking to me six floors up in a Mayfair Hotel suite during the London Film Festival where Monos will later win Best Film as part of the Official Competition. It’s an odd place to discuss what sounds like a nightmarish shoot. In Monos, the geography is kept a mystery; in truth, the cast and crew travelled to the far reaches of a Colombian jungle. On the first day, an ambulance was required. Mid-shoot, Landes was carried away on a stretcher with suspected appendicitis. He returned the next day. “I wouldn’t say it was the worst experience of my life. It was the hardest, but also the most beautiful. On the last day, we all left on rafts.
Like Timothée Chalamet’s swordplay in The King, the recurring sight of Monos’s teenagers wielding weapons is played for shock value. But whereas Chalamet is, haircut aside, absolutely gorgeous on the battlefield, the eight young guerrilla soldiers are grimy, unwashed, and not the kind to deliver Shakespearean monologues. Ostensibly, their mission is to keep an older American woman, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), held hostage. Really, they’re preoccupied with kissing, bickering, and nibbling the suspicious-looking mushrooms beneath the cow dung. War, to them, is like school – it’s just something you’re obligated to do in between hanging out with your mates.
“The film plays with your adolescent dreams,” Landes remarks. “I’m sure you at some point were like: I just want to go to the middle of nowhere with my friends and do exactly what I want.” That said, the threat of violence hangs over every scene. “The music, the sound design and the mise-en-scène are very stylised and speak of artifice. But the places and faces feel very natural. The fights feel so real. When they mix, there’s an interesting tension.”
The teenage soldiers, who have names like Smurf, Boom Boom and Bigfoot, were selected after an exhaustive casting process. Aside from Moisés Arias (who was Rico on Hannah Montana, if that means anything to you), the rest were non-actors. “We looked on the street, in schools, and online,” Landes recalls. “One of these videos was a bunch of kids playing basketball.” That’s when he saw Sofia Buenaventura, who plays Rambo, a non-binary character. The gender is never revealed, nor is it a plot point. “Sofia also goes by the name Matt. In the video, it was like, ‘Matt, pass me the ball.’ Once I met Sofia, I thought the person – not the character – had a real moral compass. It was interesting, because Rambo emerges as the conscience of the group who in the end decides to desert.
In terms of influences, the sequence of blindfolded football shenanigans recalls Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (whose cinematographer did Landes’s 2011 drama Porfirio) and the balletic homoeroticism of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. “I wanted the film to be its own thing, but you can’t create in a vacuum, particularly when it’s a genre situation.” Landes lists films such as Platoon, Predator, Come and See and Full Metal Jacket; books such as Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies; and the photography of Nan Goldin and Robert Capa. “Also Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Remember when they go out hunting cats?”
One image that will similarly inspire future filmmakers is when Doctora is permitted to swim in an open river; in a bikini, surrounded by untouched jungle habitat, she blissfully does backstroke like Baloo in The Jungle Book, but with a chain around her neck that prevents her from escaping. Later on, characters are swept down water rapids in a manner that looks dangerously real. “We had the help of Colombia’s national kayak team,” Landes explains. “They had the gear and safety thing sorted out. I shot it with some special effects, a special lens, and a high degree of irresponsibility.”
Then there are Mica Levi’s compositions. “There’s a very shrill whistle that sounds whenever The Organisation or The Messenger appears, like Peter and the Wolf,” Landes notes. “The sound design comes from the landscape, but the music comes from the characters.” It’s Levi’s fourth movie score, after Under the Skin, Jackie and Marjorie Prime. “I spoke to Mica about the spirit of the movie. The uniforms are inspired by alienated youth and countercultures. She connected with the spirit and the disorientating notion of time.”
“The uniforms are inspired by alienated youth and countercultures. She connected with the spirit and the disorientating notion of time” – Alejandro Landes
Levi joined the project after watching an early cut. “I really liked that all the characters are equal,” the musician says. “It covered a lot of issues and themes that I could relate to, without those things necessarily being the subject of the film. There’s a character that’s non-binary. It’s not clear what their gender is. To me, that’s really good to see, with it not being the story of the film. I mean, by mentioning it, I’m undoing it a bit. But it just felt like a relief.”
Levi, a London-based artist, told Dazed in 2016: “The more I work on something, the shittier it gets.” Was that the case with Monos? “Kind of, yeah,” she laughs. “If you overdo it, you can kill it. I try to do the work on another day, and come up with it quite quickly. Some of it was really quick. That stuff felt the strongest.”
My conversation with Levi is in the same suite where I interviewed Landes, meaning that we’re still in a soulless hotel that could also be, like Monos, described as “paradise but at the same time hell”. “I don’t work in a room like this,” she says, looking around with bemusement at the fancy furnishing. Still, even a more modest building in London can’t match the gruelling shoot in Colombia. How does she capture that pain in the writing process? “I’m always one for looking out the window. You have to use your imagination.”
She continues, “People are in the same shit every day. It’s cold and damp. I was definitely thinking about that. But I wasn’t pretending to know what it’s like to walk around the jungle with a gun. I was just trying to feel what it was like with my group of friends when I was that age, and what that sounds like – the teenage angst.”
The sparse score, largely consisting of whistles, timpani, strings and a keyboard riser, is integrated with the jungle noises. Sometimes you wonder what instrument Levi could possibly be playing – and then you realise it’s actually someone firing a gun, a flowing river in the distance, or soldiers mimicking animals noises with their mouths. One refrain consists of Levi blowing into a bottle. “It’s actually a bottle and a little bird. The bird was flying past my window as I recorded the bottle. So that was lucky.” Well, she did say she was one for looking out the window.
To my surprise, there are only 22 minutes of music in Monos. It wasn’t the initial plan, Levi says, and that she put “lots of sounds and music together” to create options. So, how does it feel to learn your beautiful recordings have ended up in someone’s recycle bin? “No, no, no! It wasn’t like that! I saw it without music first, and I was like, ‘It doesn’t need music. I really like it.’ I’m always like, ‘Take the music out!’”
What didn’t make the cut? “I tried to put this guitar song over the top of it, and Alejandro was like. ‘What are you doing?’” Levi describes it as a bit like Stephen Malkmus, referring to my Pavement t-shirt. But otherwise, she enjoyed that “having drones can be a bit subconscious”.
I mention that Monos will probably be used as a temp score for years to come. “I’m a bit of snob about temp scores. I don’t think it’s exciting to use pre-existing music as a temp score.” Did she know that Westworld used Under the Skin as their temp score? “Really? Wow.” I suppose you don’t have to ask permission, as long as you rip it off well enough? “Yeah,” she sighs. “It’s great…”
Outside of movies, Levi also releases music with her band Good Sad Happy Bad (formerly Micachu and the Shapes). It was why Jonathan Glazer approached her for Under the Skin: he wanted a musician with no experience scoring a film. Four movies in, how does she maintain that freshness?
“I don’t know.” She pauses. “I hope to work with Jon again. I feel I haven’t done much, and I’m still learning. I don’t accept anything as ‘the way’. There are new filmmakers and new perspectives. I try not to stay too stuck, and to not think too hard.” Because the more you work on something, the shittier it gets? “Yeah. It sounds very lazy, but…” Pause. “Well, it is lazy. But that’s alright.”
An extraordinary moment at the press screening was that journalists stayed in their seats for the credits. Usually, everyone bolts for the exit as soon as “Directed by…” pops up. But everyone sat in respectful silence for Levi’s closing track – it’s cathartic, eerie, and almost sci-fi. “Alejandro was saying it’s an unresolved situation,” Levi explains. “He’s trying to put something out there that’s open and hopeful – I remember him saying those words. But there’s no way you can be told to write a piece of music like that. Maybe a person feels it from an existing piece of music, but to try to write that piece? There’s no way I was going to do that.
“So I drew a line, and put all the different things that happened in the film.” She mimes it on the table for me, drawing a jagged shape with her finger. “The line was made up of this series of whistles. Each one is a character in the film.” She whistles the melody for me. “And the music is as it happens in the film, like a medley.”
As for the film’s real-life inspiration, Levi says she “didn’t take politics into mind because it’s so far from my experience.” She’s since learned more from Landes about the situation in Colombia and its civil war. So even though Monos doesn’t provide you with any context, in Landes’s mind it was firmly rooted in reality. When I ask Landes why he persisted with the film’s ambiguity, he stops me mid-sentence – well, at the word “ambiguity”.
”There’s a character that’s non-binary. It’s not clear what their gender is. To me, that’s really good to see, with it not being the story of the film. I mean, by mentioning it, I’m undoing it a bit. But it just felt like a relief” – Mica Levi
“It’s not ambiguity,” Landes insists. “It creates a very strong political statement, because it creates an ideological vacuum. We’re used to going at war through ideology. In a World War Two film, they’re fighting for the Allies or the Germans. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? There are flags and uniforms. War, nowadays, doesn’t have those lines. You see Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria – these are wars fought from the backlines. The idea of who wins, or what is winning, is not so clear. Alliances are continually shifting.
“So I wanted to make sure you don’t go at this conflict through the traditional notions of left or right, or communist or capitalist. That’s not what’s being fought for right now. I think the more important political games are the human dynamics that would happen in any group. For example, who wants to be leader, who wants to be loved, who wants to fight with who?”
He describes Colombia as a young country. “Colombia was formed very little ago. But young and old countries are still looking for their identity. Politics is so polarised nowadays. It’s like adolescence: there’s who you are, and who you want to be. It’s like you’re in a battle. Your body is changing. Your hair and voice is changing. You want to belong, but you also just want to be alone.”
Since the film’s premiere at Sundance, Landes has become a hot name. The trades reported of a bidding war for his next feature, which he will continue to write once he returns to New York. And if the film industry collapses, there will always be architecture. In 2016, Landes designed, furnished and sold a house for $50 million. “You’re playing with light and emotion, and creating something even better than what’s on paper,” he says, casually. “It’s very similar to shooting a film.”
For now, though, there’s Monos, which is already haunting from the get-go – but then, moments from the end, Rambo breaks the fourth wall and pleads with the viewer for help. Is this the moment Monos awakens from its fever dream? “It’s a film bursting at the seams,” Landes says. “The end confronts you with a question: who are we as a species? Where are we going from now?
“What’s novel about the film is you’re watching it from the backline, not the glorious frontlines. It’s not like our grandparents who fought in World War One or Two. These are modern wars that don’t have a clear end or beginning, and don’t have a clear notion of victory. This is a war film for our generation.”
Monos will be released in cinemas on October 25