Alejandro & Adan Jodorowsky Talk Art, Truth, and Keeping It in the Family
The surrealist director cast his own son to star in 'Endless Poetry'
On a humid Wednesday afternoon in downtown Manhattan, Alejandro Jodorowsky is escorted (or assisted) into the offices of ABKCO Films, the studio that produced his latest film, Endless Poetry. It’s the eighth feature in the decades-long career of the Chilean artist best known for his culture shocking films El Topo and The Holy Mountain.
Today is a day of press meetings and interviews, and Jodorowsky’s assistant organizes and manages each session down to the minute to optimize the productivity of the 88-year-old director, screenwriter, playwright, actor, author, poet, producer, composer, musician and mystic.
Shortly thereafter, his son Adan Jodorowsky—who is Endless Poetry’s leading actor and plays a version of his father in the film—enters the office with his wife and his own son. Alejandro finishes a meeting just in time to hear the toddler cry, and shoos his assistant away when he tries to prepare him for our interview. While the director takes a couple minutes to see his grandson, his assistant escorts me into a conference room. After a couple minutes of waiting, Alejandro arrives at the table. The baby is still crying.
“That is my first time seeing him,” he says in heavily accented English with a smile on his face. I can’t tell if he means his first time ever, or in a long time. In any case, I momentarily feel like I’m interrupting an intimate family gathering, until Adan joins us and closes the door behind him.
Within the first ten minutes of your new film, a drunkard gets disemboweled, the character playing your father beats up a dwarf and you find out the character playing your mother only speaks in opera. How much of a spectacle did you actually want the film to be?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: I wanted to show from where I am coming. An artist, an underground artist, with the best art—the real art, not industrial art—it’s human. And from where I was coming, it was terrible. It was a poor street in Chile, there are workers and thieves and prostitutes, and a lot of sin. A lot of bars, a lot of fights. I showed that in order to see from where I come, where I was born, the art. But, in another way, when I chose Adan to interpret me, he was not born in that kind of life. He was born in a life where he could make whatever he wanted. He needed a big, big piano when he was a child—he had the big piano. And then it was the continuation of two generations.
What was that like for you, playing your father on-screen, in this particular part of his life?
Adan Jodorowsky: It was incredible, it was strange, it was… I don’t know how to describe it. In fact, I still don’t know what I felt. But I was directed by him, my brother was playing my grandfather, his wife was doing the costumes, so it was a working family. So I felt the family effect, and talking about family story, and it was beautiful to do this work. It was very intense also, because we had to get up every day at five in the morning, it was in winter, it was a lot people, a lot of stress, happiness, sadness, everything. It was not only a movie—it was talking about his past and his suffering, so it was like rebuilding a story into something poetic.
Did you know much about this part of his life before you started shooting?
ADJ: No, I was imagining, but the fact that I was acting in those scenes made me start to have new images in my mind, so now my past has new images. Before, I had images of something horrible. Now I have images of something poetic.
ALJ: But there is something you may have never known, Adan, that I will say now. The story of my father—in what time was that? That was in the time of the second World War. And the enemy of [the] Jewish was Hitler. Really the enemy! He was killing millions of… My father, he was hiding Jewish [people], but in order to sell things, he put Hitler, and SA…
ALJ: SS soldiers on the door, using Hitler to make his [money]. And a lot of people who were there didn’t know why [there was] the actor you see in the picture, but I said, you must not understand what you are seeing. We think with words, but we think with feelings also. Myself, I am searching all the feelings, not the ideas.
Most of the acting seemed to lean towards the theatrical side than traditional, on-screen cinema. It felt like the actors were putting the characters on display, as opposed to “becoming” these characters, which I felt said something about the characters themselves. Was that kind of outlandish style of acting an artistic choice, and was it reflective of how you felt about that part of your own life?
ALJ: I don’t think like that. Industrial art doesn’t think if something is good or bad. It thinks, “They like or they don’t like, and I will find what they like. If they like murders, murders! If they like a prostitute woman who married a rich man, I will do that!” The people will go to the movie, and they show the movie as reality. You are not seeing reality there. You think you are seeing reality there. For me, I want [the viewer] to know he is seeing a picture, all the time, and have the feeling, but at the same time, love the art, the artistic creation. This is a picture, and that is not bad, because I am not cheating you. You are not seeing reality, you are seeing a dream. And a dream can be beautiful, more beautiful than reality.
So there wasn’t any line that you felt you had to draw between art and your personal narrative in the creation of this particular film?
ALJ: No, no, no, no, no, no. Because reality mixed with non-reality. But in the non-reality, there is reality! My father is the problem, who will play my father? Who? What actor? It will be fake. I make him my son. My oldest son will make my father, and this is all real, because he is playing his grandfather. And I say, “Who will play myself?” Even if it was the most beautiful actor, it’s not me. But, Adan, my son, he can play me because he’s a continuation of me. It’s normal, and that is non-reality, really real. And they are myself fighting with my father, naturally I come—here I am! That is reality. I feel the drama, I forgive my father myself, not my son dressed like myself. Reality comes there, because in this moment, for the first time in my life, I say to him, “I forgive you.” This is reality. That is the real him.
ADJ: And you know, the movie was shot [in] chronological order. So it was really a progression. First the childhood, then after when he’s young. I started the movie acting like a naive, young Alejandro, and more and more as I was acting I was opening myself more and more and more. It was very good for that.
What comes to mind when you hear the word truth?
Yeah. What does that word mean to you?
ALJ: What is truth? For me, truth is what is useful for my health—mental, physical—in this moment. That is truth. And what is a lie, is what is destroying me. That is a lie. I don’t believe in that. But I am living in a world of lies, and I need to fight in order to find the truth. But the truth is not just a word. The truth is when I come to be whatever I am, and not to be what the others want me to be. We live like slaves, like the others, the system wants. And when you live as you are, there is truth.
ADJ: For me it is short. Truth is in the present moment. Not what I see, not what they tell me, not what I say, but what I feel. The truth is what I feel in this present moment.
ALJ: Truth is the unity of the multiplicity! In another way you can say, they are only a truth! Go! But I don’t say that.
When I saw the film, I felt like it was really about the journey that you had to go on to find this truth in yourself and establish what your personal truth is, coming from a home where your father wanted you to be something else from what you decided you were going to be.
ALJ: I should say something to the people who are going to see the picture, no? I say, be yourself! That is all.
What role did truth play in your thought process in the making of the film?
ALJ: All the time I say to my active producer who manages the money, “Be honest.” Not even for one dollar, don’t lie to the person, be honest. And the actors, be honest. Don’t play nothing because we see you, be natural and be honest. And that is truth, to be honest. To be what you are and think in the work, but not in the production of the work–the money. Don’t work for money! Make money, do what you love, yes, but don’t make money and then you do the work. Don’t be a businessman, be an artist!
Was there any pressure for you?
ADJ: Yes, there was pressure because I had to play my father, directed by him, and it was my first movie as a lead character. And he believed in me, so I had to be a good actor, I had to not disappoint my father, I had to not disappoint the audience. So it was very stressful for me. But it was a big work and me, I have a horrible memory, but now I learned how to have a memory and how to memorize a script. I learned something.
What was the hardest scene for you?
ADJ: I don’t remember. Do you remember?
ALJ: The one where you get drunk!
ALJ: Yes! It was so difficult for him to play a drunk! He doesn’t drink.
ADJ: No, you don’t remember! I did it in two shots, and you said it was good.
ALJ: No, I say what was the most difficult moment in the shooting.
ADJ: Ah, in the shooting. Do you mean difficult emotionally?
ADJ: Yes, I remember I was really drunk because I was drinking beers and beers and beers to feel the feeling of being drunk.
ALJ: Our family, we don’t drink alcohol. This was the one day he drinks, and he did not have the experience to be drunk.
ADJ: I never had the experience to be drunk so I had to drink for real! So I was really drunk, and I remember that I thought I had to walk and not look drunk, because I was already drunk so I had to walk as I walk. It was not acting, I was really walking like this in the scene for real.
That’s funny, was there a lot of method acting?
ALJ: No, I don’t have method acting.
ADJ: My acting studio was all my life with him. I was observing him all my life, so I didn’t have to do Robert DeNiro work.
ALJ: Yes, I was an actor. I made 130 plays in Mexico in the theaters. The avant -garde theaters, and even a production of Shakespeare—Hamlet Gonzalez.
ALJ: Hamlet Gonzalez! He was dressed in a cape made with beef steaks. With meat! In the ’50s or ’40s I made that.
ADJ: I was really only working once. You were in a scene, and he said, you go there, you look here, you do that, you move here, and then you move there.
ADJ: Yeah. Calculated, but with a lot of freedom.
Did you really cut down that tree?
ALJ: I say to him to do that, but not to kill the tree. It needs to be superficial, and then in the special effects, I make [it] bigger.
Were there parts of your personal narrative that you chose not to put in the film, whether in pre-production or in post-production?
ALJ: A lot of things, because all my life I was living like a poet. There was a lot of things I could not put. I only made love with one woman, and I only made love, at this age, with seven. I have seven lovers. I was searching, it wasn’t a sexual life, so I didn’t put that.
What about in post-production? Was there anything you decided to keep out?
ALJ: Now the post-production is the real art. Post-production is as important as shooting, because we need to change the colors, we need to erase scenes, we need to put scenes, it is a big work. It’s like shooting, as important as the shooting is the post-production.
What was the approach that you took in directing everybody so that you could get exactly what you wanted?
ALJ: I see myself as I am: [a] very, very very terrible person. Here you see I speak to you very kind, but when I’m directing, for me, I am playing [with] my life. I can lose my life. It’s very important art and it’s very expensive. I don’t have the money, every day $50,000, and I need to find $50,000 every day. If I can’t do something, I am crazy because there are idiots in the work, all the time you need to fight a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot. [He points to a garbage can in the corner of the conference room.] You have a box like this, and my mother come with the cake, which is his mother. The brother take the cake, and then the moment come when we need to put the cake in the, the…
ADJ: The garbage.
ALJ: In the garbage, and the box is little.
ADJ: The garbage was smaller than the cake.
ALJ: Where will I find something? I will lose my day! And that is terrible.
ADJ: The people who were working there found a garbage smaller than the cake, and in the scene they had to put the cake inside, and he was mad with the people, “You make me lose a day! An entire day, just for a box?”
ALJ: $50,000 for a box! Every day it’s something. You have to find a way not to lose the money.
Was that the biggest setback you had during production?
ALJ: I will tell you one that was very big. The mother of my mother need to be (a) very terrible woman, but (b) beautiful old woman. And I hired an ex-artist of musicals. She had, I don’t know, 80 years, and she came like a star! And she didn’t learn the things, what she need[ed] to say.
ADJ: She didn’t learn her sentences.
ALJ: And then I was frustrated, she was playing the big artist. I lost the day. I was furious. In the night I call her, at midnight, I say, “Listen. You are playing the biggest star. You are not the biggest star, and you are not learning the text, you made me lose $50,000. Let me know if you don’t know what to say, and then I can write and you can read, I can make a solution. You say nothing! This night, learn your role, and you come early and you shoot! Not like a star.” We come [in] the morning, and she didn’t come. She is making an ego trip, no? Go to search [for] her! They say the door is closed. Open the door! Force the door and bring her there! And then they go, they force the door, she was died. She died. She was dead. I think, “Maybe I killed her!” I feel guilty because I shook her so much in the night. But in the day, she died. This was the worst thing to have happened, and immediately I take another actor, who you see in the picture.
Would you have ever considered another actor, instead of your son, to play you?
ALJ: No. I would not do the picture. I wanted to make the continuation. If Adan does not want to do it, I will not make the picture. Maybe I will wait and I will use my [grandson]. I will need to wait 20 years.
ADJ: But I said yes immediately, to work with family. I don’t want to use my time to work in a Hollywood studio and movies, you know? It’s better to work with a real artist and it’s my father, so it’s better working with family than people with horrible, horrible egos.
Are you happy with how the film turned out?
ALJ: I almost died! You see that? That is the picture. I worked so much, so much. I am very happy. It’s exactly what I wanted. Exactly.
Endless Poetry is now playing in select theaters.