Sundance 2021: Artist Amalia Ulman and her mother launch ‘El Planeta’
Premiering as part of the world cinema dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, “El Planeta” is the feature filmmaking debut for interdisciplinary artist Amalia Ulman, who wrote, directed and stars in the movie.
Ulman gained notoriety in the art world for her work that reflects on gender, class and technology. Perhaps her best known work is 2014’s “Excellences & Perfections,” in which over several months she posted to Instagram a scripted performance piece that some misinterpreted to be real.
Born in Argentina, Ulman grew up in Gijón, Spain, before moving to London to study at Central St. Martin’s college of art. She then lived in Los Angeles for five years before recently moving to New York City.
In the film, Ulman plays Leo, who returns to her hometown of Gijón from her studies in London after the death of her father. Her mother (Ale Ulman, Amalia’s actual mother, in her acting debut) is on the verge of being evicted from her apartment. The two women scrape by as long as they can, running a series of scams big and small, mostly small.
A melancholy comedy shot in black-and-white, the movie recalls the deadpan vignettes of early Jim Jarmusch films crossed with the mother-daughter mix-ups of “Grey Gardens.”
Amalia Ulman sat for an interview over Zoom from New York ahead of the film’s festival debut.
First of all, what made you want to make a feature film? What was it that you couldn’t do in the mediums that you’ve been working in?
Because I worked in narrative performances before, it felt like a feature film was the right way to put together all the other works that I’ve been doing as an artist previously, but in a larger package and something that contained all the disciplines that I’m usually working with. So I think that was appealing to me. I always tend to work on my own and movies are a big group, but I got to a point in my own art practice where I was working with more and more collaborators because the projects were getting bigger. And so that’s what led to like, “Oh, I can just make a movie now.”
Is it getting easier now to bridge the divide between the fine art world and more conventional commercial feature filmmaking?
Personally it was so hard for me to have people trust me. Only a few people from the film world that knew my practice was very cinematographic already were convinced that I could make a film, they were, well, you’re already making something that fits, that kind of looks like a film already. But there was a lot of people that didn’t know my practice, they just knew I was an artist, whatever that means. And they made it very hard for me to make a film. Not only lack of encouragement, but more like, “You cannot do that.” Which for me was interesting because they were saying that I couldn’t do things that I have already done in the past and that already worked well for me,
I think both worlds are very protective of the people that are part of it. And they don’t want outsiders coming easily. I would say the same about the art world. The art world is very protective and they don’t like when actors start making art and they’re not very welcoming. I think it goes both ways.
Well, her involvement is kind of funny because it comes from a lack of involvement originally. I know Miranda because we gave a talk together organized by Hans Ulrich Obrist with David Lynch in Los Angeles. I think it was maybe 2015 or something like that. And we stayed friends from that, I studio-visited her a few times while I was living in Los Angeles. And I really like how she has a world [and] that it all interconnects with one another, like the books and the films and everything is all Miranda. And that’s kind of the way I work too and everything that I’ve always done, it’s always very interconnected. So Miranda, I have told her about the film originally and she was one of the people that didn’t believe in me. And then at the end of it, when I reached out for feedback on the finished film, she changed her mind and was aware that she had been one of the people that didn’t believe in me making a film.
But there were a lot of people that were supportive from the beginning, even if it was small advice, but just encouraging and that helped a lot. And Miranda gave a last push to the film that was very much appreciated. And also it was nice for her to admit that she hadn’t believed in it originally because of how hard it is to make a movie, but then once she saw that it was good she backtracked and she was super-helpful. That was very nice.
How did you come to cast yourself and your mother? Is the story based on your own experience when you and your mother lost your home in a court case with your father?
Well, the film is extremely fictional. The character of my mom is purely fictional. That’s not how my mom is. That’s not how my mom dresses. That’s not how I dress either. And the origin of the story had to do with these two female scammers from my city, that my mom shared with me. And originally I thought of making a documentary about them. And that’s how I sort of started. Then I thought about making a movie loosely based on them and that developed into my mom and I playing those characters. And I think we only use our own real experiences as actors being able to tap into that, in a way giving us the freedom to be comedic about it.
Which is something a lot of movies about these topics do not have, because they are always from a different perspective on it, always very pitiful and always very melodramatic. Because they wouldn’t dare to approach the topic with some humor. And I feel like what allowed us to do that is the fact that we actually went through that. So it gives us that ability to that. But everything else in the movie is fictional. It’s not a documentary, everything is made up.
Is the dynamic between the characters in the movie similar to the way the two of you really are? What do you gain from having it be you and your mom?
That we’re good at it. And it is a very low-budget film and it’s a family endeavor. And when you have a low-budget film, when you have to rely on semi-professional actors, your choices are actually very limited. And so sometimes it’s better to work with totally untrained actors, like non-actors, than bad actors. This was the case for this. I kind of didn’t want to put myself in front of the camera because I know how much it takes away from all the other work that I do as a director, as a writer, as a producer; once you’re in front of the camera, you’re only an actress, like acting takes a lot from all the other work that I do. So originally I didn’t want to do that, but then at the end of the day, my mom and I were the best people to do this in the city of Gijón. It just worked.
What interested you in the story of these two female scammers? And then how did you extrapolate that into the way in which the two characters in the movie are sort of obsessed with presentation and self-care?
Well, what interested me is that it represented very well the society structure, the hierarchies in old Europe. People that might have mild connections to royalty, people that, despite the way they look, might be actually rich. And my mother and I in the film are playing traditionally Spanish characters, which for us is like another layer of comedy because my mom, for example, could have never really pulled something like this off, because she has a mild accent and then people know she’s South American. And so I was fascinated by the story of these woman, because it could only make sense in a small town like this one, the fact that they would just go around saying, ‘I’m rich, let me have it for free.’ It’s like, what?
They don’t have anything except themselves. And how they present themselves to the world is the last resource that they have.
— Amalia Ulman on the main characters in her film ‘El Planeta’
And then on the other hand, I was interested in representing the dynamic between the mother and daughter and the fact that they are maybe the way you were saying, they are obsessed with presentation or whatever. I think it’s not like they’re personally obsessed with it, but that’s the only thing they have left. Because their bodies are the only thing they have left. They’re about to lose [the mother’s] home in two months. They don’t have any money. They don’t have anything except themselves. And how they present themselves to the world is the last resource that they have. The mother is broke, but the only way that she can get some groceries or not be suspicious if she shoplifts is by her appearance.
So I didn’t see it so much an obsession, but more like a survival mechanism that women have when they don’t have anything left. It’s like, that’s the last thing you have.
Lastly, what are your expectations for Sundance? Obviously you’re premiering in this very unusual year, but as an artist you already have a lot of experience with the virtual world.
I have never been to the real Sundance, which maybe is a good thing because I have nothing to compare it to. I do miss cinemas a lot, but I’m not as traditional as other filmmakers in that sense. And one of the reasons that I moved into video art or filmmaking is because I’m disabled and these are very accessible formats that you can watch from a hospital bed or on your computer. And I don’t mind people watching films on a computer or even their phones. I’m happy that this year the festival will reach more people. My expectations for this festival is that it goes well and people like it and hopefully we’ll go to more festivals and we’ll have a great premiere in Europe and then later on people in Spain can see it and I get to make more films. That’s all I want, I just want to keep on making more films.
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