Juan Carlos Fresnadillo interview | Damsel, fear, family, and designing a scary dragon

juan carlos fresnadillo on the set of Damsel
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Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo talks to us about his latest film, Damsel, designing an intimidating dragon, and Millie Bobby Brown facing her fears…

The subject of fear comes up in varying forms during our lively chat with Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. There’s the fear induced by the glowering dragon that lies at the heart of his latest film, Damsel, which will stream on Netflix from the 8th March.

There’s the fear experienced by rising star Millie Bobby Brown, who was forced to confront her own claustrophobia when making Damsel; the film’s centre-piece is a lengthy fight for survival in a network of caves inhabited by that fearsome dragon, designed by the legendary Patrick Tatopoulos (those cool bat-type aliens in Pitch Black? Those were his).

Then there’s the fear Fresnadillo felt while making horror sequel 28 Weeks Later in 2007 – the process of editing it, he tells us, left him “shaking every single day” – and the familial fear he often explores in his movies. Fresnadillo’s 2011 supernatural horror Intruders dealt with the way trauma can be handed down through generations; 28 Weeks Later sees a pair of siblings literally hunted down by their rabid, Rage-infected father, played by Robert Carlyle.

The subject of family shows up again in Damsel, for reasons we won’t go into here. But it’s a fascinating thread that runs through Fresnadillo’s films, as well as his stylish use of light and shade, which also makes Damsel look far more distinctive than Netflix’s typical feature output.

Ahead of Damsel’s release, then, here’s our full conversation with Mr Fresnadillo, who was charmingly open to all the meandering avenues through his career we took him down.

Congratulations on Damsel. I like the way that it tips over quite gleefully from a fairy tale into horror. Was that tonal shift what interested you from the beginning?

Yeah. I think in every single classic fairy tale or dark fantasy story, there’s always some sort of transformation – some sort of coming of age. It was the vision that I had when I read the script: if we really want to feel that, we have to show to the audience the implication of that. Meaning that the survival chapter in this movie is really important, because of it, because I think it fleshes out the idea of the transformation.

And that’s why I decided to put the camera so close to Elodie, to show that in an almost like a first-person experience, how she’s getting rid of layers, how she’s literally transforming herself, how you feel that she’s sweating, running, jumping – literally witnessing the physical transformation I think was really important in this case.

Probably because I’m Latin and I’m very passionate, I wanted to bring that kind of flavour to the story, which is showing the flesh and bone that implies a real transformation. That’s why to me those 25 minutes in the movie when she’s going through that survival are the core in terms of the transformation and the coming of age.

It’s important, isn’t it, that you actually believe that she’s in danger – that this dragon’s real.

It’s funny, because it was almost like a mantra that we had in the process of making this movie. Despite the fact it’s a fantasy movie, it has to be real, it has to be tangible. You have to literally smell every place that she’s going through. And when you see the dragon, it was kind of a joke that we have internally: the dragon has to look almost like we’re watching a National Geographic documentary. It has to look real in the flesh and the skin and everything. We have to bring the audience into the experience. And the only way to do that is creating this kind of realistic approach. But that was the idea – to make it emotional and intense.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo on the set of Damsel. Credit: John Wilson/Netflix.

You have Patrick Tatopoulos working with you on the design. What did he bring to it?

He’s a European Latin – he’s French and Greek. And I think he was really in the same alley in terms of that kind of realism. So that’s why, you know, when we discussed the caves and the dragon, we conceived the whole thing, almost like, ‘Okay, this is going to be the kingdom of the dragon’. So every single cave has to reflect some sort of quality of the dragon, too. And with that kind of vision in mind, we design every single step on the adventure. Because one of the most challenging things that you have as a filmmaker when you’re shooting in such a tight, claustrophobic space is, you could fall into some sort of boring area. Suddenly all the caves look similar, because it’s dark, you can’t see much. It’s always about rocks.

So that’s why we decided with the light and the introduction of different elements in the story, like the glow worms, the crystals, the big cave where the audience meets the dragon, it’s almost like a temple. We decided to bring new elements on each step in the journey. And that creates a rich, complex and emotional concept for the caves. I feel that we turned the caves into a character in the story. And that was really important, because again, this is the kingdom of the dragon and it has to reflect the beauty and the sinister elements of the story.

If you go back to some of the fantasy films of the 80s and 90s, the dragons are absolutely huge. But in this…

It’s a reasonable size [laughs].

…it’s a reasonable size, yeah. It’s intimidating, but it’s more like a grizzly bear with wings or something like that.

That’s really good that you say that, because this was one of the obsessions for Patrick and I from the beginning. We thought that in order to make a more emotional and human dragon, the size has to be closer [to us].

Obviously, when you compare the dragon to a human, it’s huge. But the kind of iconic image that we have of a dragon is something that is unbearable in terms of the size. But in this one, it’s kind of imaginable, you can feel the proximity of the dragon with that size.

So that changes the whole thing – that changes the complete perception of the dragon. And it makes the dragon more human, which was one of the big points in this story. As you’ll notice in the storytelling, there is a big twist in the second act related to the dragon and related to what happened to the dragon in the past. And that affected the design for sure. So that’s why we [chose] that size – it’s about making the dragon more human and more relatable as a character in the story.

Yeah. So with those set, how much did you physically build?

It’s all sets, because as you can imagine, shooting in natural locations is impossible. So we used references from caves all around the world to make these sets. And the kind of craft and precision that Patrick brought with his team is delightful, because I think we made a huge point in this movie, which is, again, making this experience so real.

So you can literally feel that those caves exist, but it was a complete set. And also, with the help of Larry Fong, the director of photography, who brought some new concepts in terms of light, he was very bold in not using too much light. And he was also very faithful about the sources of light in this movie – in every single cave, there’s a different source of light. Whether it’s a little lamp that she lights, or the glow worms are lining the whole thing.

So we were very faithful with the reality of that, which is really sometimes, because you’re challenging the audience. But I think at the end of the day, when you see the movie, in terms of the big picture, you really navigate through these caves, and you feel the experience in a very real way.

Credit: John Wilson/Netflix.

Do you feel like exploring light and shadow is something you return to a lot in your films? I re-watched Intruders last night, and I feel like it does a similar thing.

Yeah, it’s true. I’m really obsessed about light and shadows. Because you know, it’s funny, my background as a storyteller started when I was so young, as a photographer. The first thing that I did was photography.

In fact, I’m still doing that – I love to do street photography. It’s one of the things that I usually do when I try to be by myself and look for ideas and inspirations. And to me, it’s almost like a meditation thing that I do that takes me into a different energy.

So that’s why, probably. I started that way because I put a lot of emphasis in the image, and in the light and shadows. To me, you can tell a story with that. And in fact, in Damsel, the use of light in the kingdom at the beginning – with that golden, flamboyant light – is part of the story. We create a beautiful place that feels almost perfect. And then little by little, shadows are creeping in, you know? And you as an audience member, you can feel that as the story goes. So definitely, it’s one of the things that I pay a lot of attention to when I design movies, to really feel a journey through the light and shadows.

The kingdom Elodie goes to is an island, of course – and you grew up on an island…

Yeah, and on my island, Tenerife – I don’t know if you’ve ever been there – there’s a huge mountain. It’s a big volcano – it’s the biggest mountain in Spain. It’s called Teide. And it’s funny, because one of the stories about the ancestors on the island said that there was a devil inside of the mountain.

So it was such a beautiful thing to have this story with a dragon living in a mountain, because in some ways, the story of Damsel was touching my DNA as a storyteller. Because when you’re raised in a place like this, all these stories and all these little things that people tell you when you’re a kid are inside of you. So the connection that I felt when I read the script, and I discovered it was the same story that I was told when I was a kid, that was really moving to me. And I think that’s why this movie is so moving to me, because it represents that kid that I’m still feeling inside myself.

The Princess Bride star Robin Wright plays the altogether frostier Queen Isabelle in Damsel. Credit: John Wilson/Netflix.

So growing up in Tenerife, what sort of things were you watching? Were you watching a lot of genre films?

Yep, fantasy. Because when you live on an island, you imagine, you know? Especially when you’re a kid, you’re limited by the sea. So every time you go to any border, or any place on the island, your imagination flies, and you imagine different places and lands. I get the impression that islanders have a much more vivid imagination. And probably that’s why I tend to do fantasy movies, too, because I was raised onn an island, and that affected me.

So how did you get from from that upbringing to making Intacto with Max von Sydow? Because that’s an incredible bit of casting for a debut film.

[Laughs] Yeah I know. To be honest with you, when we sent the script to Max, I thought it wouldn’t happen. But when he said yes, it was a big surprise. I got lucky, because he really loved the script. I think he was so [taken] by this tragic story of his character, and how the tragedy and the sadness of the background of that character, almost builds the universe of Intacto, with all these games and fantasy rules. So he was really moved by that story, and that’s why he said yes, which was a huge surprise for me. But at the same time, I felt like I was blessed by the presence of such an iconic actor.

How did that lead to 28 Weeks Later?

Danny Boyle watched Intacto. He loved it. And then he called me and said, ‘You know we would love you to do 28 Weeks Later,’ which was kind of a strange invitation, to be honest with you, because I wasn’t a big fan of horror movies.

It’s funny to say that. But then I had a very good conversation with him. And he said, ‘You have to bring your heart into this story’. And then we discussed the concept, and then I could put in 28 Weeks Later something that was in my DNA, which is a family drama within the horror. And we developed the story, and I made the movie, which I felt… I’m very proud of 28 Weeks Later. I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever, ever done. And I was treated so well by Danny.

And it was my discovery, in some ways, of the horror landscape. I think from that experience, a little touch of that is in every single movie that I did from there, you know? But as you can see from Damsel, I like to combine different flavours and tones, and horror is in Damsel as well.

Oh yeah.

So yeah, 28 Weeks Later was kind of my beginning for that – in some ways it was my school of horror, I would say.

Millie Bobby Brown as Princess Elodie. Credit: John Wilson/Netflix.

It has that amazing sequence when they go underground, and it’s all viewed through night vision cameras. What was it like to make that?

It was really difficult, challenging and painful to be honest with you [laughs]. Because I’m one of those filmmakers who… I really feel that if you want to put the audience in a very horrific place, in some ways, you have to go with them. You have to travel with them in order to experience that.

Imagine, as a filmmaker every day, going to the cutting room, and edit, for months, 28 Weeks Later. It was really tough to experience and to be shaking every single day of that long process with such a brutal story. But it was worth it. It was really worth it, because as I said I’m very proud of that movie. And I think it shows a place that I needed to show, but I’m not sure if I would go there again, to be honest. It’s so dark. It’s the darkest thing that I’ve ever done, you know. I was happy to do it, but it’s one of those things that you have to do once in your life, but maybe not too much.

So how would you regard intruders, then, because that’s pretty dark.

It’s really dark, but it’s a different movie I would say. It shows darkness in a different way. It’s more reflective, it’s more like a psychological thriller, I would say. It doesn’t go in the kind of horrific direction that 28 Weeks is taking you. And to me it was a very important movie to make, because I was kind of intrigued by the idea of what is the origin of fear.

And in exploring that, what I found very exciting to see is how fear is almost like a heritage. You inherit from your family fears, and you learn to fear in the family, you know? From my father and from my mother, I realised when I was making Intruders, that many of my fears come from them.

That kind of psychological thought made me feel, ‘okay, I have to make a movie out of this. And let’s explore something with that idea in mind’., And we developed that story, and I really love it. But again, it’s a more psychological kind of adventure into the horror, because I think what Intruders is trying to show is something more connected with the idea of the origin of fear and how we inherit fears from others.

It’s interesting that you talk about families being so central to your story, because in Damsel, the father…

Yes! And in Intacto, there is a family, which is the police woman and how she lost her family in that car accident. But all the relationships, all the emotional connections in the story, are really family, are really familial. Like Max Von Sydow, and the other character, played by Eusebio Poncela, there is a kind of father and son relationship between the two of them.

So yeah. I think family bonds and the scenario of the family as a kind of dramatic landscape is something that I’m so attached to. Probably because I had a very peculiar family, maybe. And that’s why I’m so keen to go there and explore and find out things, because, to me, it’s like a therapy, making movies about family.

You said your family was peculiar. In what way were they peculiar?

Because my father was a very peculiar guy. He was very lonely. My mother was very fantasy… In fact, I’ve always said that I was infected by her in terms of a passion for making movies. She was a big moviegoer – she really enjoyed those old Hollywood, classic movies. She was always telling me stories about the actors.

And so between my mother, with that vivid imagination, and her love for Hollywood movies, and my father with his Super 8 camera – he was shooting all the family events with that – I think between the two of them it gave me the tools or the influences to becoming a filmmaker. Since I was a kid, I was surrounded by that kind of energy, which is really important.

Credit: John Wilson/Netflix.

Right. So going back to Damsel – was that shot digitally?

We shot in digital, but we treated the digital in a very [analogue] way, bringing some kind of grain, using very soft lights. And so the kind of treatment Larry did with the digital was kind of driven into the analogic concept. Because going back to the idea of the realism in the movie, we wanted to bring more of a gritty texture to the story. And that’s why Larry did some kind of treatment that helped push that for sure.

Does shooting digitally help when you’re filming in low light?

It’s easier than celluloid. That’s one of the advantages when you’re shooting digital, that you have a range of shooting low light that’s bigger than analogic, so that was an advantage, to be honest with you. And also, it’s a huge advantage when you’re shooting – especially on a film as dark as this one – to be able to look at a monitor and be able to see how far you can go. You can decide on the run if it’s too much or not. So it gives you the control in challenging environments like the ones that we shot this movie.

Millie Bobby Brown is in almost every scene in this movie. It’s a lot to place on her shoulders, isn’t it?

It’s a huge challenge for her to make this movie. Because I mean, for almost half of the movie, she’s by herself. So imagine shooting that: you don’t have anything to play with, you have to follow your instincts, and you have to be guided in such an intimate way, all the way through. So it was tricky and challenging for her and for us. But that’s why it was really important to create a team with her, to protect her, to really support her all the way through.

She was really great, because she was accepting of this challenge, in a very honest and naked way [metaphorically]. She was there living every second of the journey of Elodie, and that’s kind of a gift, because you can see in her eyes, all the emotions, all the difficulties and the obstacles that Elodie has.

It allowed me to put the camera so close to her and really show that to the audience. And so what Millie shows in his movie is that she already has the craft to portray anything. I would say she’s willing to make anything. I’m so happy that she did it. I’m so happy to witness with her how big she is right now. And I think the future that she has in front of her is gonna be amazing. Because to me without any hesitation, she’s the best one of her generation.

So what was she reacting to on set – did you have a prop dragon? Or was it a ball on a stick, or…?

It was a ball on a stick – with two bulbs there [indicates a pair of eyes]. Which is ridiculous all the time [laughs]. So that’s why it’s another compliment for Millie, because to show fear and rage and all the things that you saw in the movie, when she’s with the dragon in those scenes, it’s kind of a miracle, because she didn’t have anything. She used her imagination on my instructions. So it was kind of like a game, you know? But she’s there – she literally brings the dragon out through her eyes. And that’s something that is a privilege as a filmmaker to have an actress who is capable of doing that.

Credit: John Wilson/Netflix.

So what would you say was the toughest sequence to create from a technical standpoint?

Many of them, because as you can see, this movie is really challenging. Because the physicality is tough for the actors, especially for Millie. And for me, because I have to be there and properly guide everything. But I would mention, bearing in mind that Millie has claustrophobia…

I didn’t know that.

Yeah, yeah. She has that. So imagine accepting this movie.

Yeah, blimey.

So we always had the joke that this movie was almost like therapy for her, because she literally confronts her fears by doing this movie. And that’s why the scene when she’s stuck in one of the caves – I don’t know if you remember, but she’s literally stuck and she can’t move forward – it was really tough, because you cannot cheat that scene.

We have to be in a very tight place – not for much time, but we have to be there. And we made a pact together, Millie and I, that I would shoot it really fast. A few takes and that’s it. And I was there supporting, really close to her. So it was really intense for her, but in some ways, I get the impression that she kind of overcame a little bit of her claustrophobia, doing this, because I think the best way to face those fears is to confront them and be shaken by the by the experience – and she did it. I’m so happy that she did it, because she grew up making this movie as Elodie.

That’s exactly what you do in therapy isn’t it – you confront something in a controlled, safe environment.

A controlled safe environment. So in some ways the shooting represented that for her. So I’m happy that we did it. And I’m so grateful that she accepted these challenges and moments. It’s not easy for a young actress like her.

It doesn’t really matter whether the figure’s accurate or not, that’s not what I’m trying to get at, but I read somewhere that Damsel was made for about $60m or $70m…

I don’t know exactly the number. It’s something somebody at Netflix can tell you.

What I mean is, the film looks really good. But then we’ve got a lot of Hollywood movies that are made for getting on for something like $300m. I just wonder what your thoughts were on that? Where’s that money going?

I think it’s possible to make really good looking movies with not so huge money, you know? I think it’s a matter of preparation. It’s a matter of having a clear notion about what you want to make. If you prep the movie you, if you design the movie with enough time which we did… To be honest with you, it was a blessing in disguise, the pandemic – for us – because it allowed me to have more time to think more about the movie and design even better. So, my conclusion about that is, if you want to squeeze the money and take advantage of every single cent, you have to prepare, you have to design in advance. That’s the only way to make great, good-looking movies with not such crazy money, you know?

Yeah. So do you know what you’re doing next? I saw that you were attached to The Sword In The Stone for a while, but it’s on hold…

That project is on hold, you know, I don’t know what is going to happen with that. Because Disney decided to stop it. And it’s a great project. I don’t know, if they’re keen to make it, maybe I will go and make it, because it’s a great story that I think needs to be told in a different way – like Damsel.

I’m exploring different things. I’m not sure what is going to be the next one. I’m still doing closure on Damsel. And now, making this huge and exciting step, which is sharing it with the world. But I’m kind of keen… one of the movies pushed me as a filmmaker when I was so young – I was 16 – was Notorious. The Hitchcock movie. And I think from that time, I have a pending debt of making a romantic thriller. So lately I’m thinking about that, to kind of honour who I am as a filmmaker. So maybe I would do a romantic thriller, which is a genre that I never have never done. But I’m so excited and thrilled about making it.

So do you have a script or anything, or is it just an idea at this stage?

I’m developing the script with the writer of Intacto [Andres M Koppel]. And, and we are exploring that. But let’s see – let’s see what happens. It’s one of the possible projects that I want to do. I don’t want to commit to anything so much. But definitely, that project sounds like a possibility, because as I said, it honours one of the genres that influenced me in a really strong way.

There have been some lengthy gaps between the films that you’ve made. Is that because you’ve got so many other interests – like the photography you mentioned – or is that because you’ve been developing things that haven’t panned out?

I’m a slow cooker! [Laughs] It takes time to make movies, man, you know? Especially if you want to design and shape them in a way that reflects the vision that you had, you need time. And I’m an islander as well, and as you know, islanders, we have a different rhythm of life. And yeah, it’s funny – every movie takes me, normally, around five years.

Between this one and the last one was 13 years ago, but I did other things in between. I did TV in the United States, and I was attached to different projects that didn’t happen. But funnily enough, Damsel took me five years. Since I put my head on this project until I finished was around five years. So yeah, it feels like five is my number! [Laughs]

Even the short film, Esposados, was five years, too. So I don’t know, I have that kind of pattern of preparing really well. I’m so picky. I’m so obsessive as a character [giggles] – and that’s why I need time to develop things and to make movies.

Well, sadly we have to leave it there, but it’s been fantastic speaking to you. I really enjoyed Damsel, and I’m looking forward to seeing that thriller – in five years?

In five years! [Laughs]

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, thank you very much.

Damsel streams on Netflix from 8th March.

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