Five years after winning the Palme d’Or for his acclaimed and Oscar-nominated short film Timecode, Spanish filmmaker Juanjo Giménez has returned to the international festival circuit with his second scripted feature, which makes its North American premiere on Monday at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Giménez and co-written by him and Pere Altimira, Out of Sync (Tres in Spanish) follows a talented sound designer named C — played by Marta Nieto, the star of Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Oscar-nominated short Madre and its feature follow-up of the same name — who must rethink her life and career when her vision and hearing fall out of sync.
For his first feature in two decades, Giménez, who has worked in a number of areas of post-production, wanted to play with the two most basic elements of cinema: image and sound.
“[Altimira and I] had this idea of [being] out-of-sync very, very early, and we wrote a first version where the delay was the main character, not the woman now that we have as a main character,” Giménez tells Observer. “But then, we decided to put this disease in a human being and try to play with a woman who is self-conscious of this issue. We play with [this idea of] internal and external desynchronization,” which means that the more C avoids confronting her own personal issues, the more out of sync her vision and hearing become.
In a brief Zoom interview from his home in Barcelona, Spain, Giménez speaks with Observer about the process of casting Nieto in the lead role, the way that this film mixes elements from multiple genres, and the unique challenges of shooting asynchronous scenes.
Observer: There is a real sense of angst and discomfort throughout this film, because hearing sounds is an intrinsic part of human nature. When you first set out to write this screenplay, did you speak with any specialists to get a better understanding of the way that the brain synchronizes sound, or the role that sound plays in our daily lives?
Juanjo Giménez: Yeah, absolutely. We contacted some neuroscientists, and there are even some real cases of this disease. There is a Korean pilot who has something similar to our character — not to these extremes, of course, but it’s a very real disease. And we know, reading these papers and from our experience [of making this film], that being out of sync is very, very uncomfortable. Our brain is making [an] effort every moment, trying to put images and sound in sync. Even now with Zoom or Skype, we’re used to this delay, and we watch the lips of our interlocutors moving, and we are not receiving the sound [right away]. There is always a discomfort, and you feel this kind of limbo, like you’re in a nowhere place, and this interests me very much. This nowhere place where sound and image doesn’t fit — that’s very interesting to play with.
Marta Nieto has called this project the most difficult piece of work that she has ever done. How did she first get involved with this project, and how did you work together to build and develop this protagonist, who seems to have no full name?
Yes, she has no name. Nobody in the movie is calling her by her name because she doesn’t know who she is. She’s getting to know herself [in this film].
Marta contacted the project in the very early stages. I was making a pitch in Galicia, about 1000 km from Barcelona where I live, and she was in the audience watching my pitch and watching a teaser that we had made. So after she contacted me and she asked if I was having some kind of audition, she wanted to be there. That was two years before the pre-production started, so I contacted her when the audition took place in Barcelona, and it was very, very clear that she was C from the beginning. We started to work, and it’s very, very difficult to rehearse something like that. You need to rely on [each] other and to have confidence in [each] other, and I had it with Marta. We invented some new sequences for shooting that weren’t in the script, and it was very, very rewarding because we didn’t know exactly the result of that. It was an adventure.
Out of Sync blurs elements from multiple genres, most notably thriller and fantasy. As the co-writer and director, how did you come to this genre-blurring approach for this film?
Working with Pere Altimira, my usual co-writer, we decided we wanted to make a fantastical movie — not a science-fiction movie in a pure sense — but we decided to put all of [those elements] in the sound part of the movie. I consider myself the No. 1 [fan] of superhero movies, like when Spider-Man gets bit by the spider and starts climbing the walls, so I wanted to create a superhero woman. We mixed the supernatural with this game of playing with sound and vision. It seems very complicated, but if you put your own rules very, very carefully, and then you [follow] these rules, you can put them to the extremes.
How difficult was it to shoot those asynchronous scenes as opposed to the synchronous ones, and how did you approach directing them differently?
Well, we had some kinds of codes — one code for in-sync sequences, and other completely different ones for the out-of-sync sequences. But even with that in mind, not only for Marta but for the rest of the team, it was like a small nightmare. (Laughs.) It was some fun, but at times it was disconcerting. It was like an extra obstacle — we had the pandemic too — so it was like an obstacle [course], but at the end, I think it stimulated in a different way than a normal film. At the time we were shooting and even writing, we didn’t know exactly the result. It’s not an experimental film, but it has something subversive [that viewers don’t always expect].
The protagonist begins with a rare medical condition that gradually evolves into the supernatural, where she is able to hear sounds from the distant past or even the near future. What was the reasoning behind that creative decision?
We were discussing this a lot because we needed to know the rules of this disease or whatever, so we decided to put it not only in time but in space. There is a moment, a turning [point] in the plot that everything seems related to time, but it’s not only time. It’s time and space. There’s also a willingness to play with cinema itself. There is a moment where we’re using subtitles like in silent movies, and she starts a trip to her own past at the cinema itself. There are a lot of parallels there.
For a film that hinges on sound design, you probably spent an even longer time in post-production fine-tuning the audiovisual elements of this project. What did you do during that stage of the process to really enhance the sensory experience and the role that silence plays in this film?
At the very beginning, I wanted t0 shoot the film in a different way. I wanted to shoot for two weeks, then stop and try to post-produce audio and video in order to find if this out-of-sync thing was working or not. This is not a usual way to work, but I wanted to do that… but it was impossible because of the pandemic and the conditions at the time. So we shot in a usual way, for five or six weeks and then stop and start post-production.
But working with Oriol Tarragó and Marc Bech, who were the sound designers, we discussed a lot. There were many sequences that were better than [what was in] the script. They were forced to do it wrong. It’s difficult to tell a sound designer: “Do it wrong, please, because that’s the goal.” (Laughs.) But they entered the project in a very, very creative way. They were very involved, and they told me, for a sound designer, this was like candy. Normally, they’re used to working in a way, and this film forces them to work on the opposite side, trying to work from a different point of view — or point of sound. (Laughs.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Out of Sync will premiere on Monday, September 13 at the Cinesphere IMAX Theatre in Toronto.