Interview with Natalia Smirnoff - Writer and Director of Puzzle

by Melissa Silverstein
May 26, 2011 2:15 AM
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Puzzle is the story of Maria del Carmen an average 50 year old woman whose role in life is to take care of her husband and two almost sons. When she discovers that she has immense talent for putting together jigsaw puzzles she discovers another piece of herself and it opens her up to a whole new world. It also forces her family to see that they need to compromise and allow her some space and something for herself.

Here is an interview with Natalia Smirnoff the writer/director of Puzzle. It is translated by Carla Marcantonio.

Women and Hollywood: How did you come up with this story?

Natalia Smirnoff: I was wrapping up the shoot as Assistant Director for Jorge Gaggero’s Cama Adentro (Live-in Maid) which was the last of three consecutive films I had worked on, and I was exhausted – the other two films were Lucrecia Martel’s La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl) and Alejandro Agresti’s Un Mundo Menos Peor (A less bad world). I had been traveling all over the place and had a 22 month-old son. I wanted to take a break. I felt in crisis with what I was doing. A process of reflecting on what it meant to be a mother had taken hold of me, of observing and experiencing my own mother from a different vantage point. That’s what gave rise to Puzzle. Running parallel to everything I was experiencing, it all seemed part of a piece: discovering a talent, being able to start a different kind of job, becoming a mother, etc.

Playing with my son, I also rediscovered my own childhood, play, and jigsaw puzzles. I got the urge to write, and what I wanted to write had to do with telling a simple story, as simply as possible, with little plot and lacking multidimensional characters, where the focus would be on their development. I felt inspired by Live-in Maid, where I had really enjoyed the shooting process. I wanted my story to be about a 50 year-old woman, an age that I think is a tragic turning point in a woman’s life, speaking in dramatic terms. At this stage in her life, no matter what she does, everything is going to fundamentally change (her home, her body, her partner, etc.). This was the inspiration for Puzzle.

WaH:: Maria starts out the film taking care of everyone but herself but as the film progresses, she really finds herself. Is this a film about a woman’s awakening?

NS: On the one hand, yes. On the other, no. She does not discover her essential self in the film. Maria del Carmen has already found her primary role in life – what is most important to her and defines her as a human being. She is already living it. This has to do with her family and her children; these are the things that bring her happiness. In my view, what is “awakened” in the course of the film has to do with her discovery of an unknown part of herself which gives her strength and in a way transforms her. I think she finds a small, and new, sense of freedom. This is something she was missing. In my opinion, this is what comes of pursuing one’s gifts and one’s passions. The end of the film underlines, precisely, the fact that she doesn’t discover everything, just a new, important piece.

WaH: Why puzzles?

NS: I liked the jigsaw puzzle as a motif precisely because it lacks social status. There is something slightly ridiculous about it. No one will ever remark: “You are so intelligent, look how good you are at putting together jigsaw puzzles”, as would be the case with chess. As a society, we decide what has value and what doesn’t, and we pay reverence to it. But at their core these conditions are temporary; they change across centuries. The Greeks didn’t hold value for the same things we now do. This is the case even if we go 300 years back. Our era of productivity has turned spare time into a sin. And Maria del Carmen is guilty of it. This was a central point for me. No one would get quite so angry if she instead went to play tennis non-stop, or took up Afro-dance. They would forgive her this. But putting together jigsaw puzzles is useless and makes one waste time. It does not help one’s health. It doesn’t keep one healthy. It is not among the things that are socially acceptable. At the same time, the puzzle provides a nice metaphor: there are pieces to be arranged; a new image is to be built. An Argentine philosopher claimed that playing helps quiet existential angst. She lists three types of games in particular: the jigsaw puzzle, the crossword puzzle, and hopscotch. She argues that each, respectively, has to do with chaos, emptiness, and aimlessness, then, through playing the game, they are transformed into order, fulfillment, and direction. Each of these games engages one of these dyads; the jigsaw puzzle responds to the chaos-order pairing.

WaH: You’ve been mentored by strong Argentinian directors. What was the most important thing you learned from them?

NS: I suspect that the most important thing has to do with understanding that filmmaking is about communicating a point of view, to, in some way, tell the story from one’s vantage point and no one else’s. And the deeper one goes, taking care to pull from the most intimate places, allows one to generate the kind of situation where many more people will feel identified, as you reveal things that are also a part of their intimacy. When I look at the film today, I see many of my secrets revealed. At first, I even felt bashful. But little by little I got used to it. I have seen the same thing happen with my director friends. It has to do with handing over a piece of your soul.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NS: After working with different directors for many years, and criticizing them, I suppose that the greatest challenge was to meet the standard of my own criticisms. Put another way, directing has to do with being in charge of everything, which is very difficult. All decisions are left to you. And that’s a huge burden to carry. To be able to enjoy yourself and to succeed in applying everything you had learned previously is the greatest challenge.

In more practical terms, there were three great difficulties: we had no money, we had to shoot in five weeks, and all the takes of the meetings with Roberto in the building room were shot in two days. Then there were the issues around making the whole jigsaw puzzle thing believable, both the process of building them and the competitions, and also that these were not boring for the spectator. Lastly, the family really need to be real, heir bonds had to be believable and palpable, because this was the essence of the film.


WaH: You started out studying engineering and then switched to filmmaking. Why did that happen?

NS: While I was studying engineering, I was working as a journalist for my father’s magazine. I was the magazine’s director for television and cable. Through journalism and all the travel the work required, I realized I wasn’t interested in systems (my degree was in engineering systems). I needed something much more closely related to the social sciences. I was good at math, so I did well in engineering, but I didn’t like it. Still, I was determined to finish my degree since I was already in my next to last year. Around that time I was involved in a silly accident. I was traveling at 25mp when a motorcycle hit my car on one side near a corner. The guy on the bike went flying off, and for a second I though he had died. The impact from the crash sent my car close to a column, which I just missed. In the end, nothing happened to me and he had some kind of fracture. We spent seven hours at the police station, complying with the bureaucracy and nothing more. Yet, I came to feel life’s fragility, the sense that it could end in a flash. Four months later I was walking past the University of Cinema and I just signed up, only seven courses short of finishing my engineering degree. Before this accident, I would have never allowed myself such a thing. I didn’t feel I had that freedom.

WaH: What do you want people to get out of this film?

NS: Something similar to what I stated earlier. We possess unknown parts of ourselves, perhaps they are not essential parts, but they are nonetheless gifts, passions that we have not accessed and that we may die without ever having done so. In my view, self-knowledge is the greatest of our life’s journeys. Moments of crisis are great opportunities for change. They are hard, but they are like doors that open into the unknown. Because one doesn’t change when one is fine, when one is stable. One can only change things when they no longer work. At the same time, I think drastic changes are easier, like moving or breaking up. The hard ones are when we seek to modify something that is deeply rooted and that affects the ways in which we relate to others. These are supposedly smaller but in my view, harder. It is harder to change the ways we communicate, how we ask or don’t ask for things, etc. This is something that I tried to show in the film, which is what I feel Maria del Carmen was indeed able to modify.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers?

NS: For some mysterious reason I feel film is in tune with women. I find it to be a compatible medium of expression. In general, I can almost immediately tell that a woman has directed a film. In my experience, the most important thing to keep in mind while directing is point of view, along with trying to find the simplest way to narrate the complex; to thoroughly understand the story and to spend time with the actors. The rest, for me, evolves from there. The story itself begins to demand what it needs. Intuition is fundamental. I recall having learned, while filming Puzzle, to make decisions from my gut, not my head. I never made mistakes that way. It was deeper. The crucial thing is to take care of the bond that links you to the story and then to remain in conversation with that.

WaH: What are you working on next?

NS: I am working on my second feature, El Cerrajero (The Locksmith). It tells the story of an anarchist locksmith; he doesn’t believe in marriage and he rejects the concept of the nuclear family. By accident, one of the girls he has been seeing ends up pregnant. She has also been seeing others, so she is not sure who the father is, but Sebastian, our locksmith, is among two or three possible fathers. He is sure that she must abort and be done with it, but the girl needs to take her time, so she absolves him of responsibility. Sebastian attempts to put the whole thing behind him, but quite mysteriously he begins to experience strange visions, intimate and jarring incidents from the lives of the clients whose doors he helps open, the exchange happens in a quick flash, and the clients have no control over the visions they share with him. This begins to transform the way Sebastian relates to the world and to himself. The experience takes him so far as to provide refuge to a Peruvian, no-longer housemaid, whom he has caught stealing in the home where she worked. The exchanges between these two characters, who have very different family and affective structures, become a bridge toward change for each of them. Sebastian can no longer hide behind certain ideas and concepts, which leads him as far as to take the DNA test that would settle, once and for all, questions around his paternity. Life, always cruel, has more surprises for him, but he has been transformed.

We are aiming to produce this film through Memento Films, Puzzle’s international agent, with Spanish and Uruguayan co-producers. We are hoping to start filming at the beginning of next year.

I absolutely love addressing the kinds of crises that transform lives; those moments when everything is possible and a totally new universe presents itself. I love those few and distinct moments in life. Another topic that draws my interest has to do with the kinds of interior limits we impose on ourselves, where we remain entrapped. The why, which, and how to overcome them interests me. I think I like to ask questions that have no answers, or at least not just a single one.


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