Q+A: Daniel Dreifuss, Oscar Nominee for No

Daniel Dreifuss co-produced the surprise Cannes hit, No, a Chilean film that garnered the festival’s prestigious Art Cinema Award. On January 10, he received the news bound to change his life forever: No was in the running for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award! The only South American film and Chile’s first ever movie in consideration, No tells the story of Augusto Pinochet’s removal from political power.

Ever the optimist, I had to snatch up his first interview before he rolled out of pajamas.

What about your film, as different as the subject matter, time period and country setting were, resonates with today’s film audience now in 2013? Is there any truth we can take away in lessons learned, applying them to our own political climates in America and Europe?

I’m passionate about the universality of this story. When I first heard of the project back in 2010 I immediately thought how timely it was. There are many people in the world struggling for justice and freedom, to have a voice. The slogan of the 1988 “NO” was ‘Happiness is coming.’ For me, “NO” was an opportunity to inspire people, even those who may have never heard of Pinochet, or even Chile, to say “These people in 1988, under a dictatorship, with little resources, were able accomplish so much and change the destiny of a country. What can I do today with the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and all of this social media, to fight for MY happiness:”, whatever their happiness may be. The semantic meaning of that happiness changes from place to place, culture to culture. In some places it can be the right for a woman to drive alone or go to a doctor if she needs to without having to ask permission. For others, it could be the right of people marrying somebody of the same sex. So, the rights and the need for a voice remain. Here we are in 2013 still fighting for such basic rights in so many places in the world, even in the US or Europe. “NO” discusses the power of media in promoting social change. The reelection of Obama after a brilliant campaign is an example. The occupy movement that swept the world and organized itself with the usage of social media is example. Midway through the development of the film, but even before we shot, the Arab Spring happened. And gave us validation that these themes in the movie were very alive and current, and with today’s technological and mass media tools there is so much that can be accomplished.

What did you have to do with “No” to ensure its realism was as spectacular as it turned out?

We shot with U-matic cameras from the early 80s and in 4X3 format. We were always going to use original footage form the ’88 campaign and Pablo Larrain wanted it to be seamless. He did not want one to be able to tell what was shot and what was period footage. After tests, he realized the best thing would be to use the same equipment and format used in the original campaign. It was a daring and courageous creative decision. But ultimately it truly speaks to the movie’s audience. As a producer I supported and fought for his vision. I believed that it would allow an immersion in the period and the characters that would not be achieved with a sleek, modern look or if audiences watched the movie playing a game of “Guess the original footage.” And so it not a gimmick. Pablo strived for realism in look, feel, and performance. The images are not ‘pretty’ by today’s standards. The u-matics have lower resolution than most cellphone cameras. It was supposed to look faded in parts dark in parts. It was not pretty to look at, but then again neither was the dictatorship. And if for a split second I was ever unsure of this decision commercially, I knew it was the right decision creatively and that more than made up for it. It was bold but we would stand out and convey the message and essence of the time. And my hope is this honesty and authenticity in turn make it connect with even more people and cross over beyond its natural demographic.

As far as the script, when I became involved one of my main efforts was that the script reflected the universality of the story. It needed to be broad enough so that it could cross borders and fulfill its entertainment and social function, but never losing sight that this a watershed moment in Chilean history and had to be dealt with utmost tact and respect. That is why it moves me to see people respond to in such an enthusiastic manner in countries all over the world. It tells me we did something right.

Way back when the film premiered at Cannes, you probably had no idea it would be nominated for an Oscar. Not even the most glowing New York Tmes review can predict that! What was your reaction?

We were all ecstatic. It has been a most thrilling ride to be embraced in this manner since Cannes by audiences, press and critics alike. And not by the Academy. When you make a movie like “NO,” you can hope and dream of such recognition, but one cannot expect it. It is the first-ever nomination for Chile. The Oscar nomination is amazing. And I say this for me, for the cast and crew and for the film, I believe it gives a Spanish language film a chance to be seen, for this story to be shared and seen.

There are a lot of good films out this year and coincidentally many based on true events or political themes like “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Lincoln.” I’m glad films with more meaningful stories and characters have the momentum and the exposure. These are the kinds of stories I want to tell.

Which directors and producers did you admire when you were younger? How did they influence you? Was their influence visible in any way in this film, in its aesthetic, the production or your work ethic?

I am fortunate that my parents took me to see movies a lot, especially my mom. I remember as a kid going to see “Last Emperor,” “Cinema Paradiso,” and “Color Purple,” all as they came out. Then I remember going alone when I was 11 and 12 to see “Thelma and Louise,” “Silence of the Lambs,” etc. I was exposed to a lot of good films and diversity of voices early on. But if you asked me what movie opened the window of the magic of cinema, it would be “ET,” which is the first movie I vividly remember seeing in a theater around 4 years old. It taught me the possibilities are endless. There are not direct visual references in “NO,” but they informed my creativity and ability to tell stories, to work on scripts and narratives. It helped shape my job as a producer and how to bring characters, emotion, motivation, structure to the scripts I work and develop. I often think back to the greats and see how a conflict was well resolved on the big screen or how a certain dramatic issue was addressed. These movies also taught me that in this business we have to be driven by passion. It was not that I wanted to make a movie, it is that I absolutely had to tell this specific story. It kept me going on the rough days. But happiness has come!

Who are you excited to meet at the Oscars?

This is a dream come true. I was a kid growing up in Brazil, watching the Oscars on TV. It was a different planet, so far away. I was Oscar obsessed, I probably have memorized all nominees and winners in the main categories for the past 50 years. The Oscars were late in Brazil; they finished around 3 a.m., and they used to be on Monday, on a school night. But I stayed up every year and then would write down the winners so my mom could see when she woke up. So to have a chance to see some of the people who inspired me to pursue this dream is truly a gift.

What are you going to say if you make the Worst Dressed List?

I’d NEVER make the Worst Dressed List! HA. That is one thing you can count on. If you ask the “NO” team, I think they would vouch for me on this one. But on the other hand, outrageous outfits on the red carpet are remembered and as they say, no publicity is bad publicity, as long as they get your name right…well, I still dont think I will be on the Worst Dressed List!