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‘Externo’ Co-Director Leandro Taub on divine plans and unconventional filmmaking

Leandro Taub has led a fabulously eclectic life to date. Having authored a number of books, toured as a motivational speaker, and acted in films – such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Endless Poetry, Fin Manjoo’s Woodwind, Ralf Schmerberg’s An Innocent Mind Has No Fear, and Luis Alvares Armenta’s ¿Quién Soy? – he finally turned his hand to making in his own feature-length project, in collaboration with his brother Jonathan. He spoke to Indy Film Library about channelling sibling synergy, the wisdom of Rabbis and his love of dance into Externo.

Externo is a unique tapestry of different artistic styles and techniques, all bound together to tell a strange and subversive story. It seems almost like a blend of Monty Python and the Coen Brothers, with a dash of Marcel Marceau thrown in to further discombobulate us. Who or what inspired you to do something like this?

All of those artists are really great: Monty Python, the Coen Brothers and Marcel Marceau. They all had (and still have) original ways of showing us something special and help us to experience an art form. Indeed, they are very good inspirations.

We are students and constant learners. We try to study and learn as much as possible and everything that comes to our minds becomes an inspiration.

It may be that some part of me wanted to become the human king of the world and doing this film was a way to achieve it… Externo was inspired by the desire of doing a movie by ourselves, and using creative and accessible ideas to bring this movie into reality. The tools we used were the tools we came out meanwhile planning and doing the film. Plus, changes provoked by the divine providence. 

Let me reframe it like this: we have some plans and G’d also has some plans. We ask, and G’d answers, and then we do in response to His divine answers. The result, in the case of this movie, is what it is. I hope the film helps someone.

The trailer for Externo was probably the most arresting compilation-clip from an Indy film I’ve ever seen. If I saw it in a cinema, I would definitely have sought out the film, and for a film without studio backing for distribution, having that kind of impact is like finding a recipe for bottled lightning! What tips would you give to other Indy filmmakers with regards to trailer construction?

Thank you for your kind words. The answer to your question is: have an amazing team.

The trailer has been edited by the talented David Garuchava, who makes great trailers and knows how to capture the essence of a film into a one or two-minute video. 

The editor needs very good photography and sound to make his work well. The cinematography of the film has been done by the very talented Jesse Mickle and Jonas Schneider, who knew very well how to jump into this story and create these beautiful images. The foleys and sound capture by Niklas Matthaei and the sound design of Emmanuel Gayosso and Mauricio Nicoli made it possible to have a very good sound experience.

Also, the editor needs a great colour grading, that we got from Ana Montaño. And he needs to have a movie with very well post-production management, which we got thanks to the talented José Alfredo Acevedo Taja. 

And all of them need a very good production and assistance team, that we got with Manouk van Kuyk, Zee Marla Osh, Ignacio Farias and Benjamin De Vuyst. 

And they all need the work made by Ánfer Chávez with his designs, plus the assistance of many people I am not mentioning right now.

In this film, most of the things have been built on top of what came before. And the results were achieved by looking for talented and hard-working people who helped us bring our ideas into reality. 

With that being said, as much as I enjoyed Externo, it might be debatable as to whether the film matched the trailer. The clip is very brooding, ominous and measured, whereas the actual feature – while it has a range of dark themes – has manic spells of light-hearted or even enjoyably silly segments. Personally, I don’t mind, because while I might have seen it for different reasons, I still thoroughly enjoyed it – but did it ever worry you that audiences might feel ‘duped’ by this shift in tones?

I like to receive good surprises. I hope this film is a good surprise for our audience. I believe in their goodwill.

It would be arrogant from my side if I answer your questions as if all these have been planned, because that is not how it happened. At least that is not how it happened for us. For us it works in a different way: we study, we plan, we do, we deal with the adversities and this cycle repeats until in one moment we say to ourselves “this is enough” and that becomes a book or, in this case, a film.

Indeed, there are shifts of tones between the trailer and the film, and within the introduction of the film and its development, also within different moments of the story and within the end of the movie and its body. 

A lot of films regarding geopolitics and economic-theory concern themselves with conveying a certain level of ‘realism’ but from the get-go, you make it very clear that the story is allegorical, and that it might not necessarily work in ‘reality.’ What were the factors behind you wanting to tell a story in this way, and why now?

We want to establish from the beginning that this is a fiction film, and it is not reality. It is just a movie. We are not looking for people to believe that any of these stories are true, because they aren’t. The movie is a product of our imagination, work with a very good team and the always present divine will. The movie isn’t a documentary, or a piece of journalism.

Are reality and truth the same? There is a good example I heard from Rabbi Manis Friedman. It goes something like this: Are all human beings good? The truth is yes: in essence, all human beings are good. Are all human beings good? The reality is no: there are some guys who are good and some guys who are bad, there are people doing great deeds and there are people doing the opposite. 

There are a lot of conspiracy theories around. I am not into them. I don’t believe there is a world conspiracy, neither an evil plan from a small group of individuals. I believe that we are all here together, doing the best we can, some with good education and some others not so much.

This movie gives a story that may be taken as a conspiracy theory regarding geopolitics and economics. We want to make clear from the beginning that the movie is just a movie and is not real.

You wrote and starred in the film, but you co-directed it with your brother Jonathan Taub. It always fascinates me when I see siblings collaborate in this way, because I have a sinking feeling if I did the same with mine it would end in some kind of screaming match. How do you extract yourselves from your familial bonds (and tensions) to remain objective about what you are doing? Is it easier or more difficult to take notes from your brother than from an unrelated professional?

My brother Jonathan is a very good business partner. He is a very talented professional, and a skilled artist. And most important of all, he is a good person. Deep conversations, trust, family bonds, much care for each other, are some of the particulars that make this partnership work. 

In the classical Argentinean poetry book The Gaucho Martín Fierro by José Hernández, there is a line that says “Los hermanos sean unidos porque esa es la ley primera; tengan unión verdadera en cualquier tiempo que sea, porque si entre ellos pelean los devoran los de afuera.” Translated to English, this means “May the brothers be united because that is the first law; have a true union at any time, because if they fight among themselves, those outside will devour them.” When I was a child this text was taught in most of the schools. I find reality in there, and I believe there is also some truth. When brothers fight among themselves, others can enter into their reality and mess around. When they make a strong and healthy bond, the power they manage together is great, and not so easily broken.

Cain fought with Abel and their relationship didn’t work. The relationship between Itzjak and Ishmael didn’t work. Esau was very powerful but couldn’t control his impulses and his relationship with Jacob didn’t work. And finally, Jacob’s sons’ relationship worked out fine. And I am here because of them. They are my grandparents. I am very grateful that they were brothers with a very good relationship.

We honour and respect our parents. We protect our familiar bonds. We care for each other. I care for the notes that my brother gives me and he cares about the notes I give him.

Tip for whom may read: take care of the what, where, when and how. A good message in the wrong place becomes a bad message. A good message at the wrong time becomes a bad message. A good message not well said becomes a bad message. To be a good message, it has to be good, be in the right place, at the right time, and in the right form.

Do you plan on working together again after surviving this production?

We are working on it. Thank G’d we have several opportunities, some together and some apart. We plan to continue developing work together, plus work independently of each other. Both are good.

As we’ve already mentioned, Externo is not especially concerned with the practicalities of politics and economics as it is with some broader revelations regarding power and civilization – so it might not be especially useful for me to get hung up on the plot’s minutia here, with one exception. First, the film seems to take quite a top-down approach to change – suggesting if you really want to fix the world, first you have to rule it. Looking at human history, however, those at the top have only allowed for progress when facing mass revolt, or being toppled by it. Feudalism only ceded power to the emergent middle classes of early capitalism after a series of popular uprisings – which notably cost monarchs in the UK and France their heads – while many things many people now take for granted (universal suffrage, weekends, sick pay, public healthcare, desegregated civic spaces, etc.) are the result of generations of trade union activity or civil rights activism – so producing a story revolving around changing the world’s course which excludes those groups seems a pointed choice. What is it that you feel is different about this particular historical juncture?

Thank you for your words. You are making me think in areas where usually I don’t go with my mind.

Do the changes come from top-down or comes from the bottom up to the top? I think that everything comes from G’d, including the changes. Also, that G’d gave us free will to decide a bit. So, here we have very interesting questions: Is there a destiny or not? Are these changes provoked by G’d or by us? If they are provoked by G’d, can we control something? If they are provoked by us, they come from the rulers and generation leaders or they come from regular people?

In this movie, we are playing a bit with those ideas. We have a guy who wants to go up on the leader to provoke the changes. But, is it him the one who is doing it? Is he really the guy who is in charge?

I had many plans along with my life until this date. Some of them became reality, some not. I believe that the ones that became reality happened because G’d said yes. And I believe that the ones that stayed in the fantasy realm are there because G’d said no or He said no yet.

I think that G’d rules the world, and everything that happens does so because G’d allows it to happen. We may understand some of His decisions and we may not understand some of His decisions, but I am confident that He doesn’t make mistakes.

So, do I have free will? I do. I believe that my free will changes the way of the experience and the way of the way. Is this going to be a soft journey or a painful one? Is this going to be a way to G’d or a way in the opposite direction? I believe our free will is not there to decide what type of food am I going to choose, but to choose if I eat that food in a G’dly way or not.

As your character Joseph accrues more money and power throughout Externo, the stakes get higher, and the tone gets gradually darker – but these changes are punctuated by Joseph suddenly bursting into frenzied or ecstatic dance sequences, reminiscent of Arthur Fleck’s delirious descent into the titular role of Joker.It gives some of the film’s most fearsome moments a kind of morally ambiguous delight. What was your intent behind the inclusion of these segments?

Joseph, the main character of Externo, is a guy who calculates everything and does not do a simple step without a proper intention. He dances because it is good to dance, it is a healthy exercise, and it helps him to focus on his mission. Also, there is a special benefit on his way of dancing: it helps him to release tension and any possible bad emotion that got sucked on his astral body. He does this type of dance every morning and every evening, and sometimes when he feels absorbing more than he was expecting.

Also, I like to dance.

The scenes between She (Elizabeth Ehrlich) and yourself are some of the most engrossing in the film – demonstrating the push-and-pull of a relationship bordering on toxic, through (often wordless) scenes of experimental movement. Was it difficult to build your onscreen chemistry without the use of sustained dialogue – or did you find it removed a barrier to that?

Sometimes fewer words speak louder than big discourses. We wanted to show a relationship that was building up and let the audience fill the gaps of the dialogue, letting them decide what was the argument about, what was this or that conflict about, and so on. 

Once a Rabbi told me that a good relationship is not the one without problems, but the one that overcomes together the problems. Isn’t that nice?

Elizabeth is a very good actress, she got easily into character and was very precise in her actions. We feel lucky that we found her for the role of She.

The whole film essentially takes place on an abandoned property in the middle of nowhere – but through the use of projections, the production still manages to spice up the otherwise drab-setting take us on a journey around the world. Whose idea was it to frame the production in this way, and was it an artistic choice, or necessitated by a tightened budget?

The projections were an artistic idea that was there from the beginning. It was the way to make the relationships and Joseph’s connections work in a creative and special way. 

Initially, we were going to do all the film in one location, in a studio, using Lars von Trier’s Dogville as a reference with the projections. Some days before the production date we lost the studio, having the team, equipment, insurances, and other stuff in place. Moving the shooting dates was going to be more painful than trying to find a solution. It was a very interesting evening. My brother Jonathan Taub and part of the team were in a house that we rented in Berlin trying to find the solution. The first alternative was looking for a new studio. And Manouk van Kuyk our line producer found it! But we couldn’t make it work and we were less than a week from beginning production. So, we had to find a new location. And suddenly we found more than one; the ones G’d gave us and we used for the film.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your plans for Externo since its completion? What plans do you have for the project in the future?

We shot the film in 2017 and did the post-production between 2018 and 2021. In the middle, a real pandemic happened in the world. We were editing the film when this happened, so there was not a repercussion at that moment about the film distribution. Our minds were in the editing room. 

Now we have our minds on film festivals, online promotion, and film reviews. There is a good amount of people interested in seeing the film. We didn’t define through which medium we will make the film available yet though.

Are there any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about – and how can people stay up to date with your future works?

Indeed, we are working on multiple projects, the main ones on my attention right now are a continuation of Externo which we are developing, plus two very interesting films that we are working on, one to be produced in New York City and the other in Palm Springs, California. In the meantime, you can find more about the film via our website, or find me on my personal site and on social media @LeandroTaub. Jonathan currently doesn’t use social media, but you can always look for him somewhere else…

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