Maria Photo: courtesy of Frightfest
One of the liveliest entries at this year’s Halloween Frightfest, Argentinian grindhouse thriller Maria is the story of a porn star who goes through a strange transformation and becomes a feminist avenger. It was written by Nicanor Loreti and directed by Gabriel Grieco, who kindly agreed to join me for a chat the night before he was due to fly to London for the festival. Readers should be aware that this interview contains a spoiler, though it’s one which you’re likely to guess pretty quickly when you start watching, and it doesn’t really spoil the fun.
Like many of the best grindhouse films, Maria mingles entertainingly trashy ideas with little slips which reveal the skill and cinematic knowledge of its creators. The first thing I shared with Gabriel was my first impression of the film: that it was drawing heavily on Fritz Lang classic Metropolis.
“Of course,” he says. “It's like an homage to a tribute to that film. That is one of the first things we saw. And the writer is Nicanor that is going to join us, he had the main idea. One of his favourite film is Metropolis.”
We chat about Frightfest, which Gabriel is really excited about, and then Nicanor arrives and we return to the subject of the Art Deco classic.
“I named the character of Maria after Metropolis and it was a small homage, to say the least,” the writer explains. “I also thought it would be interesting to update what that robot would be like in this present day, in this future we have which is different somehow from the original future of Metropolis. So that's how it came about. And I also thought it would be interesting to see this revenge story about a woman taking power against not only male oppression, but also these characters which are the worst you can think of.”
Gabriel laughs. “First, there's a really true homage in the final scene in the epilogue that is like a spin off, after the credits, that is explicit. Besides, Demián Salomón’s character says in a phone call that he doesn't know if it's like a Terminator or a RoboCop. So we play with that because it's the films that we love. The sci-fi and action adventure of the Eighties is something that we love and we wanted to pay tribute.”
“Yeah. We grew up in the Eighties, so those were definitely inspirations,” says Nicanor. “Especially the first Terminator for me, because it's a B-movie. RoboCop is closer to a Hollywood big production but Terminator is a B-movie and I love everything about that. It's a big film with an amazing screenplay which still holds up. So I took a lot of inspiration from it while writing the screenplay. But I think the character of Maria is closer to RoboCop because she's human and not a machine.”
So why did they choose to set it in the context of pornography?
“It's a good question,” he says. “Originally, when I had the idea, it didn't have the sci-fi element. I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't seen the film, but the original idea came to me that it should be set in a porno set because there are not too many movies in which this happens.
“My original logline was they are shooting a porno movie and the main star dies and they bring some guys who want to have sex with the corpse and it becomes a horror movie. So that's the original concept that I had in mind while I wrote it. And then I started thinking it should be a revenge movie. I had a reference which was The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, sand another film, I don't remember the name, but it's a Spanish movie in which they want to have sex with a corpse and it's a horror movie.
“I thought maybe I could combine them both, the supernatural with these necrophilia villains. And then I was talking to my usual storyboard artist and I pitched him the idea and he said ‘It's lacking something.’ So I said ‘What if she's a killer robot?’ And he says, ‘Well, that has not been done, I think.’”
I ask Gabriel how he approached shooting the porn set in a way which, despite being heavily stylised, made it feel like a real workplace, and not erotic.
“The first idea of the film was like exploitation, but then we decided not to go all the way down that path,” he says. “I think that there's a lot of themes in the film that are heavy, that are something that is very modern, something also about feminism. We wanted to pay some respect. We can say things, we can speak about things, but we are not women. So we wanted to be very careful about the exploitation thing.
“We wanted to be careful with Daria [Panchenko], the actress, so she could feel comfortable with everything was doing. She was also like a director because in that sense she came with us and started to say ‘Well, we can do it like this or we can do it like that, and what do you think about it?’ She also had the idea to make the costume more sadomasochistic. We all discussed it and made it together with the actress in a way, and I think that also we wanted to have an image that was aesthetic and cinematographic.”
It contrasts quite strikingly with the two women who are there as crew members, I observe.
“Yes,” says Nicanor. “As Gabriel said, since the subject was controversial, we wanted to be respectful and not make the pornographic scene erotic. Make it aesthetically interesting, but non erotic. And have the eroticism in the love scene between the three main characters, the two girls and the cinematographer, their love story. We thought if we presented the exploitation element in the sex of the film, that could fail. Maybe our exploitation element is in the gore and that is sci-fi and absurd and fun.
“We wanted to make a fun movie, a grindhouse movie that you could see in a theatre at midnight and have a good time and not know what was going to happen next. So that was our goal and to take the controversy, to be respectful with it. I think the movie pushes some boundaries, but closer to castration and that stuff than necrophilia.”
It's fun partly because it's very well paced. I ask Gabriel about his use of handheld camera to get that energy into it.
“I love the hand camera,” he says. “Nicanor doesn't much, but we make a very good team. I think that Nicanor put his best and I put my best, and it was a good equilibrium.
“We agreed on 99%,” Nicanor says.
I ask about the sound design, because they clearly had a lot of fun with robot noises.
“Yeah, well, we have the genius of Germán Suracce, that is, the sound designer,” says Gabriel. “We really like his work. And one of the things that we said to him was ‘Play with the sound, play with the robotics theme, but like Eighties sounds.’ And also in the music, you see that some electronic music is more like that, not like modern electronic music.
“Germán worked with a lot of real tools and recorded them and used those for the sounds,” Nicanor explains. “It wasn't pre-recorded sound. He did it specially for the movie.”
What about the location? It seems like there was an enormous amount of space to move around it. Was it really like that, or did they have to keep reinventing spaces?
“It's a good question,” he says. “Well, not exactly. We had to lie a little bit, but we tried to make it look bigger than it is and to not know where every place is. It's kind of a labyrinth.”
Working it it was a mixture of planning and invention. Gabriel says.
“We had organization, but suddenly, like every shoot, there were a lot of problems. We started to shoot in Covid, in the lockdown, in the pandemic. Suddenly it finished. So the location said ‘You have all this place for you,’ but suddenly everything started to open and it was a place where they made parties, like weddings or events. So we had the preparation for an event at night and suddenly there was a lot of noise and it was really uncomfortable to shoot. That happened because the world changed in that week. But we had to readapt and rearrange everything. “
It was still fun to shoot, says Nicanor – at least some of the time.
“Every movie you have problems that are stressful. But luckily we had a good team. Being contained as a crew because we were shooting during the pandemic was not easy, but most of the time it was fun. No movie is 100% fun, because of all of the adrenaline and the complications and you do not have enough time. When you have less money, you have less time too. So that's always stressful and takes some of the fun away, but mostly we had a good time.”
“We also have a great team,” says Gabriel. “We have been working with them and also actors and actresses that are friends. So in a way, we had a good spirit of friendship in the shooting. That was important. For example, there's a mixture because all the iconic actors from Nicanor films are there, all his friends, but also mine from my films. So some are the same actors that we shared and that was important. I think that all the people that were on set, we have previously worked with them. So that made it more fun, and good community work. We are like a team.”
Gabriel was looking forward to Frightfest, but Nicanor explained that he had to stay in Argentina to work on his next project.
“Miraculously, I have a film in late November, so I have the pre-production and everything. So I have to stay here. I say miraculously because our country is in a complicated time right now, like economics and elections and so on. But I thought that movie was not going to happen, and suddenly it is. So I have to work on that.
“It’s like a black comedy, punk rock Thelma And Louise. Two girls have to make some robberies in a short amount of time to pay off a district attorney to let go a friend of theirs. So it's like a Guy Ritchie comedy, but it's a girl's movie.”
Gabriel’s next project is something rather different.
“I'm finishing a movie from a rock star icon in Argentina called Fabiana Cantillo, and it's a movie that she wrote. It's not a biopic but it has a lot of rock and roll and those elements. And I will be releasing it next year, after Maria.”