In the summer of 1993, following the death of her parents, six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) moves from Barcelona to a rural town in Catalonia (a region in northeastern Spain) to live with her aunt and uncle, Marga (Bruna Cusí) and Esteve (David Verdagauer), who are now her legal guardians. The country life is a challenge for Frida — time passes differently in her new home and the nature that surrounds her is mysterious and unfamiliar. She now has a little sister, Anna (Paula Robles) that she has to take care of, and she has to deal with many new feelings including jealousy and grief at her mother’s absence. Frida becomes convinced that running away would be the best solution to her problems, but the family does what it can to find a fragile new balance and bring normalcy back into all of their lives. Slowly, Frida realizes that she is there to stay and begins to adapt to her new environment. Before the summer is over, she learns to cope with her strong emotions and her adoptive parents learn to love her as they do their biological daughter.
The award-winning Summer 1993 by Carla Simón was Spain’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards competition, only the second film in the Catalan language to ever receive that honor. The timing was unusual because it came exactly at the time when the he Spanish government was cracking down on Catalonia because of its referendum for independence which it felt was illegal. I sat down with writer/director Carla Simón in Los Angeles to talk about her very moving debut film that swept the awards at film festivals around the world, and how the film transcended the intense politics of the region.
Danny Miller: I really loved this film, I felt I got to know these characters so well. I have to admit I had no idea there was this spate of people who died of AIDS in Spain and Catalonia. In fact, I know so little about Catalonia in general until the recent independence referendum and Spain’s extreme reactions to that put the area on the front page. Was it weird having your film get so much attention in Spain just as all that news was breaking?
Carla Simón: Yes, it’s very strange what happened. But really cool that the film was being honored in Spain just as all that other stuff was happening. I think it’s a good sign that art can express important social and political issues but at the same time it can be separate from politics.
Do people constantly ask you what your stance is on Catalan independence?
Oh yes, they ask, especially in Spain, but, you know, I’m a filmmaker, I don’t have to give my political opinion. But, to be honest with you, I’m not even sure what my stance is, we change our mind every day! It’s a very confusing situation over there. Nobody’s doing it right, especially the Spanish government. It’s very complicated.
Were there people who objected to your film being chosen as the submission to the Oscars because of what was happening?
We were on a short list of three films and the other two films were in Spanish so we didn’t think we had a chance. But then we got picked on the very same day that the Catalan parliament approved the law to do the referendum which so infuriated the Spanish government. It was a really crazy day. We didn’t even have any Catalan journalists covering our film because they were all focused on the reaction to the referendum!
Of course, it’s kind of great that the film was chosen during that difficult time in Spain. It’s such a sweet and poignant look at a family and it reminds you that, politics aside, human beings and what they have to deal with as they move through life is completely universal.
Getting back to your wonderful movie, I have to say how incredible those two little girls were. I’m sure you knew that if you didn’t find the right girls for those parts, you just wouldn’t have a movie. Did you have a lot of anxiety about being able to find young actors for those roles?
Sure. I remember the first meeting with our casting director. She was looking at us like, “Do you know what you’re trying to do here? I’ll take the job but you’re crazy!”
Did anyone suggest making them a little older?
Oh yes, everyone, and I was like, no way! They had to be little. But I was confident in the sense that I’d been working with kids all my life. I used to work in summer schools, I’ve been teaching film to children, and I made a short film with kids so I knew how to work with kids. In fact, I sometimes even think it’s easier than working with adults because for them it’s really a game. You don’t have the problems you have with adult actors with them thinking about how they look and all that ego stuff.
Did you look at experienced child actors?
No, that’s the thing, we were looking in regular primary schools. We had a few kids coming from agencies who had experience and you could always see the difference. They were super clever but we were looking for kids who had never done anything before. It was important for me that they would really enjoy working on the film and Laia and Paula really enjoyed it, it was just like playing. The first step was to find children who were really like the characters in terms of their personalities, Laia is a bit like Frida, and Paula is like Anna, they didn’t have to create characters very different from themselves.
It still must have been a leap of faith for you to hire unknown actors. How did you know it would work?
During the casting process we had very long conversations and I asked a lot about their families. Laia doesn’t have a very conventional family structure which I think was very interesting for the character. One thing that was very revealing is that I made all the children we were meeting with tell a lie. The little one, Paula, was about three and a half when we met her and she was able to tell us a lie very easily. Most of the girls felt bad about it and would tell us the truth, but Laia was also very convincing when she told us a lie, so that was it.
I love it. Acting = lying, which is kind of true! Did you put them all together as a family before you shot the film?
Yes, they spent a lot of time together doing normal things — going to the park, shopping, cooking, so they created this intimacy. One weird thing that happened that ended up being very helpful is that both of the girls got lice just before we started filming .
Ugh, both my kids have had lice. Total nightmare.
Yes, it was horrible. So we spent a whole day with the mom in the film, Bruna Cusí, taking the lice out of their hair, it was amazing how their relationship changed just because of that. We created a lot of shared memories before we started filming which ended up being very useful during the filming. I role-played situations that I had gone through in the summer of 1993 with them, guiding them to improvise how they would react to certain events.
Some of the things that happened to you were pretty traumatic. Did you worry that it would freak them out?
You have to be careful. It was very important to separate reality from the film so we would always use their fictional names when we were playing. “Okay, right now you are Frida and Anna.” And then we’d finish and they’d be Laia and Paula again. They really got it. I’d let them know when we were about to do a very challenging scene and I’d emphasize that it was just a game.
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories here of directors in the old days telling child actors that their dog died or something happened to their mother to get the emotional reactions they wanted for a scene. I take it you would never do anything like that!
No, I wouldn’t — they have to come back the next day! (Laughs.) For me it’s a relationship of trust, they have to trust me completely. They never even read the script — of course the little one can’t even read it. The words were not important to me, it was about getting them to find the right emotions. But they were so good. Sometimes Laia would give a little look that I didn’t even see until we were editing that really let me see that she was believing what she was doing in the scene.
Do you think she’ll want to pursue an acting career as she gets older?
I hope so because I think she really has something, she’s very, very intuitive.
All the actors are great, but I especially loved Bruna Cusí, the woman who plays Marga. I found myself putting myself in her shoes a lot — she’s obviously a good parent but in such a difficult position and she shows those challenges so well. It could have gone where she’d just seem very unsympathetic to the audience, but it’s such a subtle performance.
We talked a lot about that. Marga is based on my adoptive mom, of course, and Bruna is very sweet in real life so I kept saying, “No you have to be tougher!” That was the most interesting character for me to write because, as a kid, you never think about how your parents feel, you’re pretty self-absorbed. But writing this script when I was about 30, not much younger than the age they were then, gave me a very different perspective. They had mixed feelings about suddenly having this new child in their lives, they made mistakes — for me it was so interesting to explore those feelings now.
Were you worried about how your family would respond to the film?
No, it’s actually been a really beautiful experience because my mom helped me a lot with the script. And we shot very close to where they live so they came to the shoot, my father even helped with the art department. And my sister is an actress in real life so she’s in the film, they were all very involved.
I love that you show how painful childhood can be and that you don’t over-explain anything. I don’t think you even say what Frida’s parents die of, do you? You leave it to us to figure out?
Yes, the main reason for that was because I didn’t know that my parents died of AIDS when I was a kid, I learned that for the first time when I was 12. And since this film was told from the child’s point of view, we never hear that word mentioned because I never heard it. I like to leave things open in films. I mean, you don’t have someone there in real life explaining to you what’s going on. It’s almost a game with the audience — I’ll put you here and give you some information but then you’ll have to think about it and make some connections.