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27th September 2013
Digging deep
Title of film: Seekae - Another
Director: Ian Pons Jewell
Production Company: COLOR MONSTER / Studio MURMUR
Ian Pons Jewell's latest video out of Bolivia is based on a chilling local legend of burying someone on the site of a new building - for luck. The track is from Australian band Seekae

How did you manage to get such extraordinary performances from the cast? Did you rehearse a lot before the shoot or simply direct them on the day?

I felt very lucky with the casting of this video. Casting is extremely important to me. I will often write scripts using actors and people I know as inspiration from the get go.

The alcoholic, Winer Zebollas, had a small part in another video I made here, and he made a big impression on me. He was so quiet, a real dark horse, but when you called action he changed into someone else instantly, as if he was only really comfortable in himself when acting. So I called him for the auditions.

The others were suggestions from the production company Color Monster, one of them being a guy I met while tripping on San Pedro in Cochabamba, but he unfortunately bailed. I couldn’t blame him really considering the setting of our meeting, so I called my friend Diego to replace him.

I went on instinct and put them into the roles I felt best for them, and the first run through we did was perfect. Andres was amazing, switching into this vampire like character on action. Winer of course smashed it, not overdoing the drunkenness, and really nailing this childlike persona I wanted for the character. My biggest worry was finding the right actors but they all fitted like a glove and a massive weight fell from my shoulders, we had the video and it was going to work.

We didn’t do any rehearsing at all as I am not a big fan of it, only when it’s necessary for blocking or when I have directed theatre. They all knew the story as it’s a well-known urban legend, so there wasn’t much need to explain the background to it. One of the actors, who says ‘cheers’ just before the alcoholic falls to the ground, is Cristian Morales, our DIT who managed to back everything up and then jump back on set to act!

You’ve certainly got under the skin of street life in Bolivia. What inspired the narrative? Is it a completely meaningless reason why they kill him?

When I first arrived in Bolivia and started to get to know people here and heard different stories, the one that really affected me was about how builders would conspire with the architect to kidnap a street alcoholic, bring them to the construction site, and feed and give them alcohol until they passed out. They then would bury them alive in the foundation of the building to give it strength, as a sacrifice. I heard that it was usually for the big high-rise buildings and large structures like bridges. For houses they tended to use llama fetuses for example.

All of it is hearsay, stories, I haven’t found one single article, but it seems to me that it’s a hidden fact. It’s such a strong superstition and so normalized that it’s not investigated by the authorities but I did hear very convincing stories from people who knew builders, and even from a guy who knew a builder on the site we filmed saying that there was a body buried in the other hole.

But to think that the architect would happily allow us to essentially re-create the same murder scene in the same location seemed absurd. He came to the shoot and watched with excitement. I mean, in general, can you imagine an architect in the UK allowing you to film the burial of a homeless man in his not yet finished construction for a nominal fee? Only in Bolivia.

And of course, only Ferdi (Fernando Ballivian) our location manager could sort something like this out. He got us the police station and a police car in return for a football trophy in our last video.

But just as I was finishing writing up this piece, my friend got back to me after seeing the video. She started telling me about her dad who is an architect, and that he witnessed his builders carrying in a dead alcoholic to the building site. They told him it was normal, that it had to be done to give strength to the construction and to keep them safe from harm. It really frightened him to see it, but he said that the man was already dead. This is the first time I have heard the story from a trustworthy source, but from hearing it so often from so many stories, for me, it’s undoubtedly true that this happens.

Through making the video, I discovered the subject has also been tackled before for the screen by a wonderful short film called Martes De Ch’alla, Directed by Carlos Piñeiro, which you can see here. And prior to this was the Bolivian cult film Cementerio de Elefantes, directed by Tonchy Atenza, based on the book by Victor Hugo Viscarra, also dealing with the same subject.

The camera movement device is very effective to the timing of the music – was that by design or accident?

It came after writing the treatment, I suggested the effect to my editor Gaia Borretti and she then refined it with some tests from other footage. We particularly liked the way it would all stop and calm down once he hit the floor and was buried, the effect brings about a slight nervousness to the film I think. It also allowed us to keep the slow motion vibe, but be able to get through the footage quickly too, as if picking out the essences of an action and holding on to it, before flicking through to the next part.

What were the main challenges of the shoot?

For me creatively, it was making sure that this video would be able to send shivers up the spine of a Bolivian, not just people outside of Bolivia. It had to be authentic, and at no point could it venture into something that would cause a Bolivian to switch off and think, “who’s this tourist director”? So that was always in the back of my mind.

The burial scene was hard. It was originally going to be cement. I imagined this quite beautiful scene of liquid cement slowly flowing down his face, rising around his body, until covering his whole self. It got right up to the end of the day and I still didn’t know how to shoot it, so we decided to stick to burying him in earth, it just didn’t feel right to go for something even slightly visually beautiful, it had to be harsh.

The last shot of the film, which is so important, was nearly dropped. We got to the spot where we could shoot from, and the owner of the land had locked this high metal fence that surrounded the area, before it was kept closed with some wire. He’d clocked us scouting it and locked it up. We were running around trying to find a new spot but the light was going, and that position was the only position we could get the shot to be so epic. So Ferdi turned a blind eye and we jumped the fence and shot it quickly before the neighbours managed to call the police (which they did).

Other challenges were the usual ambitious location moves I seem to have got into the habit of writing into scripts but we managed to shoot the whole thing in 16 hours. A reason I love working with Doug Walshe as my DOP is in part due to how quickly he can work without dropping any quality.

All in all though, I can’t talk highly enough of Color Monster who produced the video. The shoot went so smoothly, everyone smiling right to the end. I can’t wait to make a feature out here with them.

See production stills in Related Content shot by Michael Dunn Caceres

Production Company: COLOR_MONSTER / Studio MURMUR Director: Ian Pons Jewell Producers: Camila Molina / Álvaro Manzano DoP: Doug Walshe Focus Puller: Juan Ramos Camera Asist.: Álvaro Quintana DIT: Cristian Morales Art Director: Javier Cuellar Art Producer: Alejo Torrico Art Asist.: Zenón Make Up & Wardrobe: Kantay Melgarejo AD: Álvaro Manzano Location Manager: Fernando Ballivian Making Of: Michael Dunn Editor: Gaia Borretti Colourist: Luke Morrison @ The Mill Post Producer: Cath Short @ The Mill Gaffer: Guillermo Torrez Grip: Walter Acho Spark: Miguel Hilari Catering: Claudia Saavedra Drivers: Juan Colque, Flavio Colque, Ponciano, Juan Carlos CAST Alcoholic: Winner Zeballos Bride: Mariela Salaverry Gang: Andrés Rojas, Diego Poveda, Alejandro Viviani Builders: Cristian Morales, Zenón VERY Special Thanks to: Alan Galvez & Ariane Jauregui Muñoz The post went smoothly with Gaia cutting from London, and Luke Morrison giving us the usual beautiful grade remotely from The Mill, with us communicating over the internet. So a big shout out to Luke, The Mill and Cath Short for always sorting out such a great grade for us.