Not what it seems
“It’s like a straight line with many layers,” shares filmmaker Marcos Mereles of his debut film All Is Vanity, which premiered this month at the London Film Festival. Born in Argentina and currently based in London, Mereles has produced a number of short films throughout his career, leading to the creation of his first genre-blurring feature.
Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, the film does indeed possess varied layers, stemming from Mereles’ willingness to challenge the conventions of script and story and reveal worlds within worlds. The first part of the film takes us to a London warehouse where a fashion shoot is taking place (unlike any of ours, let us assure you), here we meet a sarcastic photographer (Sid Phoenix), his intern assistant (Yaseen Aroussi), a make-up artist (Rosie Steel) and a model (Isabelle Bonfrer). There are countless things that can go wrong during a photoshoot, and when a bizarre disappearance takes place, this steers the narrative in the most unanticipated of territories.
“What about us? The other us?” a character asks at one point during the film. There is a distortion of reality, of characters in a world knocked off-kilter within a blending of mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi. With All Is Vanity, viewers are invited to smash the fourth wall and dive into the inventive world of Mereles’ unpredictable imagination.
JLS: You crafted such a unique world with this film. What was your early exposure to film, and what used to spark your imagination?
MM: In Latin America, there are lots of folk tales, so you grow up hearing these things and when you’re a child you believe they are real. You hear all these stories about witches or whatever it is and as a kid, your imagination goes wild with them. That was a huge influence at least on the things I write. In my early exposure to film or filmmaking, my dad used to buy me lots of VHS tapes, mainly Disney movies. I grew up watching lots of Disney stuff, from the 60s and 30s [films] to The Lion King and Hunchback of Notre Dame. That helped me develop my imagination in general.
JLS: And how did you come up with this project?
MM: I first found the location, and from that I wanted to create a world because I knew I was going to make it on not a huge budget. I wanted to a location that could give me all the things I was looking for, so I could create other worlds inside that. It wouldn’t just be a fashion studio, it would be a separate ecosystem or different world where anything could happen.
JLS: So you were working within the parameters of one location and seeing how far you could go?
MM: Exactly, and from there everything would evolve.
“It wouldn’t just be a fashion studio, it would be a separate ecosystem or different world where anything could happen.”
JLS: In terms of writing, the plot is not conventional. Did the writing come in stages, did you know where this was heading?
MM: Initially it was going to be just the two parts, the fashion shoot and then the second part, the film part. Then I started creating more layers. It’s a single story that revolves around the disappearance of the make-up artist and from that everything just happens.
JLS: How was it to write this script and how long did it take?
MM: I wrote nine or ten drafts. I mean I wasn’t writing full-time, let’s say around two years – in 2017 to 2019 and then it took me a while to go through different drafts. The first draft took the longest of course because it was the basis of the story, and then reviewing and trying to make all the things that I’m describing to you – like the plot points that tie all the stages together.
JLS: Within the story, the characters have to shift their roles. How was it working with the actors in this process?
MM: During the filming they had to switch characters between the scenes we were shooting and it was interesting because for them it was a challenge, and also for me to create two opposite characters. I want the characters to be different from the actor that plays them, so those are really interesting exercises as well. You have different people, one is the character and the other is the actor, so I wanted to experiment a little with that.
JLS: The film could have gone in any direction, and slides into different genres. Which filmmakers do you look up to?
MM: I really like the films by Federico Fellini. He makes really surreal stuff, I also like this French filmmaker called Alain Robbe-Grillet, he wrote Last Year at Marienbad, Trans-Europ-Express, L’Immortale, and they’re all fantasy, surreal, and oscillate between things. You also have Charlie Kaufman doing this and other filmmakers
“The lines were blurred during filming…”
JLS: There are meta layers in this film and at one point, a character says, “What about us? The other us?” Were you trying to tap into elements of identity within artists? Other versions of the self?
MM: It’s more about the creative process itself, that’s why filmmaking is something major in the film. Even when we were shooting, there were setbacks that happened, things that were sort of similar. The lines were blurred during filming, so that was very strange. I remember one of the actors was late one day, and there was something similar to what happened in the film where the model was late. It was interesting because they are making a film called All Is Vanity and I was making a film called All Is Vanity, so there’s all this subtext in the making of the film.
JLS: How have you found the reaction to be so far?
MM: Very positive. There are people who perceive it differently; for some people it’s just fantasy, for others it’s surreal comedy. Some people prefer the first half, some people prefer the second half, so the twists sometimes get different responses. That was part of what I was looking for because the first part is a film in itself. If you stop watching the film at 30 minutes and you say, “I’m going to continue to watch it tomorrow” for some reason, it will be a different thing. So that’s something that was intentional when writing the script and I’m happy that people are seeing it that way.
JLS: Is there anything you think people should consider before jumping into this film?
MM: I think they should just watch it without any references or spoilers. It’s better they come unprepared and are surprised by the things that the film shows and tells. That’s the best way.
All is Vanity is in cinemas and available on digital now.