A sense of the cinematic

Luis Javier Henaine on Mexican witchcraft and Disappear Completely

by Jennie Kermode

Disappear Completely
Disappear Completely

Film festivals are busy events and it’s impossible to see everything interesting at the time, so I count myself very lucky, in the aftermath of it screening at Fantastic Fest 2022, to have had the chance to catch up with Luis Javier Henaine’s Disappear Completely (aka Desaparecer Por Completo). The story of crime scene photographer Santiago (Harold Torres), who begins to lose his senses one by one after falling prey to a witch’s curse, it may not sound strikingly new or exciting, but it’s a class act, put together with rare skill and with strong underlying themes which will extend its appeal far beyond the horror genre. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to speak with the director, if only to thank him for the experience, so I was delighted that he was interested in doing an interview, and he began by telling me about his first encounter with Ricardo Aguado-Fentanes’ script.

“I got involved a long time ago, like 2017,” he explains. “I was about to make my second film, which is a comedy, and the screenwriter sent me a couple of recent screenplays, and one of them was this one. And I read it and I fell in love with it immediately. So we did some work on it for these last five years. We worked together for a few years, and then on my own, I did some rewrites.”

It's a tricky film because a lot of it is really subtle – often we only just catch enough clues to know what's going on. Was he worried about getting the right balance with that?

“Yes, of course. It's very difficult, because I think, you know, the audience is used to the jump scares and the music cues coming in at the right place and then stopping. What I wanted to do was make a more personal film with more down to earth issues, like having a baby or not having a baby. Underneath the other story are his doubts about being a parent. Here in Mexico, witchcraft is something that people take very seriously and something very, very real for the majority of our population. And I like to reflect that in a way. So, all the time, I was trying to say, ‘Okay, this has to look real, this has to feel real, this has to be very realistic.’ And that's how I tried to go throughout the whole film, with the production design and with the cinematography and with everything. Our references were real things, how people behave in these environments, and we took a lot of references from several films that were not necessarily horror.”

The writer had already done research into the witchcraft in the story, he says, and contributed additional background information, but it wasn’t a new subject to him.

“Living iin Mexico, you are involved with all that witchcraft. Even from a young age, you see it everywhere. Everyone is, like, ‘Oh, I don't feel good, I feel kind of sick’ – ‘Oh, go to the witch and she'll do a cleanse or whatever, and it will stop.’ So everyone, you know, from low class people to higher class people, they have their own witch – well, not everyone, but a lot of people have their own personal witch. And so I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of researching with newspapers and stuff. There's a lot of real witchcraft relationships with politicians.

“Also, a few friends of mine have been involved in some way with witchcraft. I heard first hand stories and even a friend of mine, when I was in pre production, I gave him a ride home and then he said ‘Come down here, get out of the car for a second.’ and he showed me this tiny clay ball. It was outside of this building, and it had a dead chicken and all that and, you know, it's everywhere. You just know where to look for it. He even told me a story about a family friends or someone who lost her eyesight because she was cursed.

“So yeah, I just started talking to people. And there's a market here in Mexico called Mercado Sonora, that specialises in witchcraft. So you can go there and buy the potions or the ingredients. It's actually in the film, where he goes – where he finds that the ingredient for his ritual. There's also a couple of books. They're called Los Brujos Del Poder, which translates as the witches’ power or something like that. And it's a history of all the politicians that have been involved with witchcraft in Mexican history, from the colonial age, so it's very interesting.”

Because he had international ambitions for the film, he had to keep two audiences in mind.

“One of the things that the screenplay didn't have was an explanation for the foreign audiences. Because yeah, we Mexicans know some of this stuff. And I tried to do a little more in showing something that maybe some audiences wouldn’t know about. For example, the egg cleanse, when he goes to see the witch the first week, she does this cleanse with the egg. That wasn't in the screenplay, and it's a very common thing. Everyone in Mexico knows it. I thought, maybe it would be interesting for a foreign audience to see that thing that they're not used to, and just get a glimpse into what happens in this scenario.

“Obviously, if you want to know more, go to Google and look for Mexican witchcraft. You'll find a lot of story behind the film, and you'll get the references. But I've tried also not to have a lot of exposition. I tried to be as subtle as possible so it makes it more interesting, but it's a difficult balance to find, to explain that without explaining too much.”

I tell him that I think it works really well. It's also interesting because Santiago seeks medical help as well as consulting a witch, so we have a contrast between those two worlds.

“Yeah, yeah, that that was one of the things I wanted to do as well. I tried to put myself into the character’s place and I was like, ‘Okay, first of all, if I started losing my smell or my taste, I would go to the doctor. That's the first thing I will do and everyone will tell me ‘There's nothing wrong with you,’ or ‘You have this infection,’ or whatever. And you start with the medical process first, you know? And then I thought, okay, what happens next? Okay, if I find this thing in my apartment, I would definitely ask someone who might know about it, and then if they tell me ‘You should go to the witch,’ I might go.

“I talked to some witches, for curiosity’s sake. Even if they read your palm, or you just talk to them, or all this stuff, you just do it because it's part of our culture and everyone says ‘Okay, you have to do this,’ and who doesn't, you know? There's a lot of people who have economic troubles, and then they go to a witch ‘Oh, help me with this. I need to make money.’ So I was talking to people and just putting myself into the character's position, and I'm thinking, a good way to balance that is first try and exhaust all possibilities within the medical area. And then, okay, let's start getting involved in this supernatural stuff. And I wanted to play with the idea that maybe everything was happening in his head.”

Something I really liked about that part of the film is that Santiago doesn’t just wake up one day with another sense missing. He loses his sense of taste slowly, an experience which begins with things tasting odd. When his hearing starts to go, he experiences auditory distortions, just as people do in real life.

“That was in the script,” he says. “It was very subtle. When I read it the first time, I thought this would be a very immersive filmmaking style. I liked playing with this, with our audience. And that's how I imagined it, even the first time I read one of the artists’ drafts of the screenplay...I thought it would be great to just when, when he starts losing his sense of hearing, just play slowly with the whole film as well, make it subjective, put the audience in the character's mind. So yeah, that was something that I then tried to do with my approach, later, as we were making the film.

“I saw, obviously, The Sound Of Metal, and when I saw that film I was like, ‘That's exactly what I want to do.’ But I wanted to go all the way, because in Sound Of Metal you get both perspectives, right? The objective one and then the subjective one. I wanted the whole thing to be from Santiago's point of view, the whole way. So it's like from the start. We’re in his head, we’re with him. We go with him where he goes, and I wanted to just reinforce that. So in the end, it’s the idea of losing everything.”

It's interesting to be so close to him because he isn't always a likeable or fully sympathetic character. Is that something which Luis looks for in a script?

“Actually, yeah,” he says. “In all of my films, the main characters are unlikeable. I used to get this note a lot, like, ‘Oh, you have to make him or her more likeable, otherwise you're not going to connect with them.’ And I was like, ‘It’s the actor's job is to make the audience connect with the character, by the way he plays the part.’ There's a lot of movies where the main character ambivalent or, like you're saying, not very likeable. And I think it's obviously a challenge to make a non-likeable character connect with the audience. But if the actor does his part, he will create this empathy with the audience. And also, there's subtleties throughout the screenplay that make you like him, make him not as unlikable as maybe he could be, even if he does the worst thing, if he does something nice. If you put both sides of the coin, you can play with that, like ‘Oh, he's not so nice, but he's nice to his wife, or he's nice to his dog,’ or whatever. You also have to bring very human things to him, real problems or real issues, like ‘Oh, he's like this because he's frustrated with life’, or ‘He's surrounded by violence, and he's lost his sensibility.’ Then you can start connecting with him.

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