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Interview: Venezuelan director Nico Manzano on his debut film “Yo y las Bestias”

By May 5, 2023No Comments11 min read

It’s unclear who the beasts in Yo y Las Bestias (Me and the Beasts) are, but these elegant, mysterious, bright yellow creatures seem to support the film’s protagonist, Andrés Bravo (Jesús Nunes) as he tries to record an album in Venezuela. The film premiered in Venezuelan movie theaters just last week, however, it has appeared in a wide variety of film festivals around the world since 2021.

After being selected to be part of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia and the Mar de Plata International Film Festival in Argentina, it was featured in the Belo Horizonte Film Festival in Brazil, the Norient Film Festival in Switzerland, and showcased at the Lincoln Center’s “Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema” in New York. Back in its home country, the film won five awards at the Venezuelan Film Festival including Best Film, Best Sound, Best Debut Film, and Best Directing.

The film’s abundance of recognition and accolades can primarily be attributed to director Nico Manzano, who brings a unique perspective that blends intimate narratives and music. He masterfully tells a compelling story in the categorical context of Venezuela in the late 2010s, where the economic collapse and emerging exodus started permeating every aspect of its citizens’ lives. His background as a musician paired with his artistic persistence are unveiled in this hypnotic film that has resonated with audiences all across the Americas and Europe. 

We spoke with Manzano about the origins of Yo y Las Bestias, the experiences behind the film’s production, and what it means to create art in the environment of Venezuela. 

You mentioned that the original plot of the film arose from your friendship with a Georgian musician named Nika Kvaratskhelia. Can you tell me more about how you met and how the idea came about?

This is a story about everything coming together and transforming. Nika and I met at film school. He only studied for the first year, but he has developed a career as an illustrator and animator. I continued in the cinema. When we met, he invited me to a concert because he already had a band. I saw the concert, liked his voice and the music he made, and said, “We’re going to start playing together”. There was chemistry that we still have. We are musicians who complement each other. From there, we developed a friendship, and I joined first as a producer of his album. There is an anecdote about that album. The sound of the beasts is explored for the first time there, which we later incorporated into Yo y las Bestias. I remember it as a great moment, as what the Greeks define as anagnórisis, which is a literary device in which characters discover important information for their own identity. We were recording a song when suddenly, Nika made an almost onomatopoeic sound. I asked him to repeat it, and to that onomatopoeic sound, I added a series of effects intuitively. We went through a chain of effects, and when we heard what we had done, we looked at each other like, “Wow.”

It’s like Coldplay, a song of theirs that started like this, like with a joke, and now it’s very famous. 

It’s “Yellow,” I think, because he was imitating Neil Young, I think. At that time, I was living in Spain, and I returned to Caracas to live in 2013, and the second album or the longest album of Sexy Bicycle (Nika’s band) stayed shelved because I returned to Venezuela, and we didn’t finish it. We had the responsibility to do something with that music, but we didn’t know yet what it was. Turns out, part of those songs… At least 3 of the 5-6 songs in Yo y Las Bestias are from that period. They were songs that we had already made and that we had unknowingly composed, which ended up being the music of a movie.

When you returned to Venezuela, I understand that you taught at the National Film Academy, right?

I was at the National Film School. At that time, the director of the school was Gabriel Brenner, an Argentinian who also devoted many years to advertising in Venezuela, but he was the first person who bet on me to be a teacher. Imagine, I was very young, only 28 years old, and he bet that I would teach classes at the National Film School. But being such a young teacher was quite a challenge. In December, as it was summer in Argentina, he usually traveled there, and the vacations that the school took in December were a little longer. Those vacations of the National Film School between December and January were enough for me to think. Obviously, I always worked as a freelancer, working as a photo director and as a freelance project manager. And at that moment, I said, “I’m going to take these two months because I want to write the movie.” At that time, I also received a double album by Rafael Giner, who is a Venezuelan friend. He had taken about seven years to make that album, and I said, “Wow!” I listened to the entire disc in my house and said, “What would it be like to create a double disc? In other words, I was interested in the creative process of a multi-instrumentalist making an album for a long time. Suddenly, I thought about what would happen if he was in Venezuela in 2016 – which was the year I was there, and the idea began to form. However, something was still missing. One day, I saw an image online of a festival in Nigeria of two massive, hairy creatures in the middle of a forest, and it clicked. The entire concept came to me, with the beasts as the centerpiece. I combined this with the musical foundation we had created, as well as the story of a musician who produced an album in the complicated context of Venezuela in 2016. I believed that I had all the necessary elements to start building a script. So, the script came together relatively fast.

As if the idea had been forming unconsciously.

Exactly. I had been preparing for this.

You completed writing the film in 2016, and most of it was shot in 2017, which was a challenging year for the country due to the protests and the worsening economic situation. How did this affect the filming process?

It was challenging, I won’t lie to you. Many of our pre-production meetings occurred during the protests. We had to meet very early in the morning, at around 5:45 or 6:00 am, to discuss the movie and check its progress. After that, some  went back home, and some joined the protests at around 7:00 or 8:00 am. On top of that, the context of hyperinflation made things even more challenging. All the budgets we had for the film lasted only 24 or 48 hours, so it was very difficult to tie certain things together. For example, the bright yellow color of the beasts was initially chosen at El Castillo, a fabric store in Venezuela, by the wardrobe director, Lucía Dao. However, we didn’t have the necessary funds in bolivars at the time, and we had to sell a few dollars to purchase the fabric. While we were figuring that out, somebody else bought the fabric. Eventually, we had to buy a different shade of yellow, which was much more saturated and squeaky. I told Lu, “It’s better to buy that fabric with good flair because we don’t know when the other one will arrive. Let’s make the costumes with that one, and I’ll make sure that when we do the post-production of the color of the film, that yellow goes to the tone that we had thought.” As a result, I still have the saturated yellow costumes of the beasts stored in my closet.

Regarding the post-production process, what can you tell me about how it went? I understand that it was the part that took the longest.

Yes, that’s right. The film was left without a budget in 2018, after we had finished shooting it. So, I decided to convert a bathroom in my house into a sound studio. I covered it with fabrics and duvets to reduce reverberation and used it to record the film’s sounds at zero cost. Jesús Fuentes also joined the team. In our free time, because we were all working on other projects, we worked on the sound design of the movie little by little. In 2019, I decided to leave Venezuela and moved to Mexico City. I brought the hard drive with me, under my arm, but adapting to a new country and leaving behind the old one was challenging. I spent at least 7 or 8 months without thinking about the movie, without opening any files, without seeing anything, as I tried to adjust to living in Mexico City. Later, we reactivated the movie and submitted it to Ventana Sur (Latin American Film Market). That’s when TRES Cinematography offered to handle the color grading and proposed a co-production deal. We also participated in Ventana Sur in Argentina that year, which was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. We won three post-production awards, and that’s when Bendita Films, a Spanish distribution agency, entered the picture. They expressed their interest in our movie, saying, “When can you deliver it to us? We want to represent you for sales. This movie has the potential to be screened in major festivals worldwide. We believe it is the flagship film in our catalog this year.” They had a small yet excellent catalog. We realized that our movie could be sold as part of a package deal with other quality films, so we went for it. Bendita Films later announced that we would have screenings at the Mar del Plata Film Festival and the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia. Both events are Class A festivals, and our movie received much attention and eventually found its way to other parts of the world.

How has the movie been received globally? You just mentioned Argentina and Estonia, so do you feel that it has resonated more with certain audiences than others?

The movie is built like an onion with layers that appeal to different audiences. The core of the story is a narrative that resonates universally. It’s about a person who can’t devote himself fully to his passion but has to have a day job to support it. This theme is well represented in Yo y Las Bestias, and people everywhere can relate to it. However, there are external layers that may resonate more with Latin American audiences, such as the issue of currency exchange control in Argentina right now. There’s a scene where the protagonist tries to sell a few dollars online but can’t mention the currency by name due to government restrictions. Audiences in Argentina possibly are experiencing something similar so they might relate. Venezuelan audiences also understand all the references and jokes. Overall, the movie has been well received both domestically and internationally, and we are very proud of that.

The use of sound in the movie is impressive. I especially liked the guacharacas and the sound of rain, which created an environment that felt Venezuelan. How did you create the sound universe?

In 2018, when we were making the movie, our field sound engineer Alejandro Silva, known as Alejo, had already gone to Argentina. I stayed in Venezuela and used my knowledge of audio production to make recordings of environments in my free time. I recorded car alarms and birdsongs and even experimented with creating sounds that harmonized with each other. For instance, in one scene, when the main character arrives at a beach-side apartment,  the sound of the air conditioning’s compressor is tuned to the tone of the song that plays two minutes later. This technique creates a seamless transition between the scenes and music, resulting in kind of like a harmonious chord. Many people have commented on the movie’s sound design, finding it satisfying to listen to, and that’s precisely the effect we aimed to achieve.

What’s the symbolic meaning behind the appearance of the beasts? They were inspired by images that looked like animals but ended up looking more like statues. 

Yeah, they kinda look like nuns. We wanted to create a visual representation of the music’s aesthetics, which were solar, breezy, and fluid. We brainstormed different images that would match these elements and came up with the concept of beasts. We wanted them to be faceless, devoid of a body or a physical appearance, much like music, which is an abstract art form. To achieve this, we covered the beasts with veils. This decision allowed us to play with the idea that the beasts were still animals but without a face. Currently in pop music, Pedro, there’s a pervasive idea that music must be linked to a beautiful face or body. It seems that pop music must be accompanied by the face of the person performing it. However, I believe that music is abstract and much larger than any physical appearance. I liked the idea that they were devoid of a face, just like music is more abstract than a physical appearance.

And just as a final question, what was the biggest lesson you learned while working in “Yo y las Bestias”?

When I was studying cinema, I had a lot of anxiety about being a filmmaker, and I didn’t consider myself one until I actually made a film. Even when I was making music videos and short films, I would write “graphic design” as my profession on forms because I didn’t believe I was a filmmaker. It was something that I held in my head and on a pedestal. However, that pressure eventually led me to make the movie. I learned that processes can take longer than expected, and it’s important to try to manage certain emotions and learn how to identify them. It’s also essential to enjoy the process and the journey, not just the end result. I’d like to apply this lesson to everything else I do.

Yo y Las Bestias is now playing in theaters in Venezuela. The film’s team is in early talks for a wider release in Argentina and Mexico. Check out the trailer below and listen to the soundtrack here

Pedro Luis Graterol

Based in Mexico, Pedro Graterol is the News editor for TV and Film of InBetweenDrafts. He is a Venezuelan political scientist, violist, and a nerd of all things pop culture. His legal signature includes Sonic The Hedgehog’s face.

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