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Venice: Pablo Larraín Explains His Haunting Pinochet Vampire Satire ‘El Conde’

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has been a looming offscreen presence in the Pablo Larraín filmography for years. But with the acclaimed director’s latest feature, El Conde (The Count), a scathing Gothic satire shot in luminous black and white, the figure who haunted so much of recent Chilean history is finally front and center.

Legendary Chilean actor Jaime Vadell stars as Pinochet, who is reimagined here as a 250-year-old vampire who faked his own death and absconded to a dilapidated estate in the Patagonian countryside. Suspecting that he may finally be dying, the fascist icon’s children gather around him in hopes of learning where he has stashed the many millions he pilfered during his long, brutal reign. Meanwhile, his wife is cheating on him and the church has dispatched a nun disguised as an accountant to assassinate him. It’s not an easy time to be Pinochet, but vampires are known to be as endlessly crafty as they are eloquent.

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Produced by Netflix, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival Aug. 31. It will next get a limited theatrical release in the U.S., U.K., Chile, Argentina and Mexico, before launching worldwide on the streamer Sept. 15.

The Hollywood Reporter connected with Larraín at the Italian festival to talk about El Conde’s inspirations, how he created the film’s stunning visual aesthetic and whether the U.S. might be haunted by an orange vampire of its own.

What were the origins of this idea of portraying Pinochet as a vampire? How did it come to you and how did it evolve over time?

I guess it’s that Pinochet has never been portrayed before. It’s quite unbelievable, I think. Never once in a movie or a TV show. He’s never been an object of fiction. So it was a difficult decision to go and put a camera right in front of him and really look into his eyes.

The motivation also involved Jaime Vadell, the actor who plays Pinochet. He’s a man that I have worked with before and he’s a big master for me and someone I felt was the right actor to do it. And he’s 87, so I thought it would be good to do it sooner rather than later. But at the same time, I had the feeling that maybe the time was finally right — that maybe we were ready to film him. That is a very oblique answer. But if the question were how many years need to pass before it is proper to film Pinochet, I think with Dr. Strangelove, it was shot about 20 years after World War II. That movie was a very relevant reference for me — it’s such an eloquent masterpiece. But the chain of thought involved the fact that Pinochet died in complete freedom — and with the most vile and absurd impunity. And that impunity made him eternal in a way — we still feel broken by his figure, because he’s not really dead in our culture. In Argentina, for example — and Santiago Mitre made a beautiful film about this last year, Argentina, 1985 — they took those criminals and put them in jail. That somehow created a national pact that this should never happen again. We never had that in Chile, so his figure remained very vivid and alive. So, that idea took us to the figure of the vampire and that satire was the only way to approach him.

Pablo Larraín
“Pinochet died in complete freedom — and with the most vile and absurd impunity,” says Pablo Larraín. “And that impunity made him eternal in a way — we still feel broken by his figure, because he’s not really dead in our culture.”

You mentioned Dr. Strangelove. Was that film your reference point for the tone you wanted to take with this film, and how you would balance the dark humor against the real-life evils he perpetrated? 

One of the smartest things Stanley Kubrick does in that film is how the satire and farce can help you face those characters without creating empathy. When you have a protagonist who is played by such a sensitive, interesting human being like Jaime, the big danger is that you could end up feeling empathy for him. And that’s not acceptable. It would be completely immoral and dangerous to do something like that. So, the satire, absurdism and filming in black and white allowed us to have the right distance from these people.

You’ve spent a lot of your recent career re-examining world-historical figures, such as Jackie Kennedy (2016’s Jackie) and Princess Diana (Spencer in 2021). How was it different for you to engage with a figure like Pinochet, who is much closer to your home turf and personal cultural memory? 

Pinochet and the political figures who are at the center of the movies I have made at home are closer to my idiosyncrasy and closer to my perceptions of politics and culture. It’s a very intimate affection — in the way that I see the world and live my life in my home of Chile. In the case of Jackie and Spencer, they are more universal figures of recent history. I ended up being very close to them from the research and process of making the movies. But it’s different, of course. I would say, the movies I made at home could trigger nightmares, and the other movies — although sometimes uneasy — can trigger all other types of dreams.

We also have to talk about your intentions with the cinematography and the visual aesthetic of the film. It looks magnificent. 

Ed Lachman is a master I met many years ago and have wanted to work with ever since. It was not easy to find the right occasion. He went to Chile to shoot with us, which was a very big thing for this movie. For two reasons. One is the aesthetic side, of course. Getting the images with the right tone and emotion, and somehow creating this black-and-white fable that references other movies, but is a stand-alone perception of that sort of darkness that flirts between the genres of the vampire tale and the political movie.

The other side, for me, when I’m filming, is that I know that if I have someone like Ed sitting behind the monitor, he’s seeing and photographing in a way that will make those images very universal. So I know that with each piece of the film, if he likes it and understands what’s going on, then a lot of other people will be able to understand, too, because he’s going to bring a visual universality to the narrative I’m chasing. I want these movies to travel and to be understood and enjoyed — and, hopefully, to create a trace of memory with them.

I wanted to also ask about the set design, because the dilapidated, rural estate the characters inhabit for much of the film makes for such a particular but weirdly timeless setting. 

It was all built. There was the exterior of the house and then we built 1,800 square meters [about 19,400 square feet of set space]. Our production designer was able to create this out-of-time reality. We took out all screens and any modern elements. So even though we know this is a near present, by choosing certain elements and removing so much of everything else, he was able to deliver very atmospheric sets for Ed to illuminate.

This connects with something else that could be interesting … I usually don’t rehearse. I’ve done it, but it’s not my thing. Sometimes I read with the actors, but in this case, I never even read with them. So for these actors that had never rehearsed, when they walked on these sets, it was a very affecting and moody physical place to be. So then, the first indications were just to be in the present. And that creates a very interesting feeling of uncertainty and unsettledness. It created this slight oddness in the performance, which was very interesting.

That’s fascinating, because that tone totally suits the circumstances of the story and the themes. I also loved how the vampires essentially make blood and heart smoothies with a blender. I found that to be recurrently hilarious throughout the whole movie. Where did that come from? 

Well, it’s a joke. I don’t know … every time I go to L.A., there are all these people making smoothies out of anything and everything. (Laughs.) And that became a fashion everywhere — it spread from California to everywhere. So, we thought that instead of having the vampires do the classical neck bite and sucking the blood and all that, this smoothie thing would be a funny idea and an interesting political comment, too — to open the chest of someone and take out their heart and put it into a blender. You know, the vampires are very eloquent and particular in their motivations.

Jaime Vadell in El Conde.
Jaime Vadell in El Conde

Can you talk a little more about the films that you reference visually?

Yeah, well, of course, [Carl Theodor] Dreyer. Not only Vampyr, but any and every Dreyer movie. That’s just something that you carry. They are unforgettable images. The Passion of Joan of Arc was a reference for the nun. Certainly, Juan Luis Buñuel’s Leonor and even [Werner] Herzog, that sort of thread of vampire filmmaking Dr. Strangelove, but a joy in the absurdity and the humor of Barry Lyndon, too. Those are references that could speak about tone and atmosphere.

But the narrative can’t be linked to another film. I think it’s very unique because it’s very Chilean. Pinochet has been alive for 250 years and lives in Patagonia at the very end of the continent. He’s there with his family and there is not a single soul around them. They’re isolated and he’s broken by his past — and by the fact that he’s been called a thief. And it’s narrated by this very sharp voiceover that comes in and out, which represents the way that many people in the world see us. It’s a European, in this case, patronizing perception of this “little country down there,” having their crazy wars — until we go there and put our feet on them. They look at us as these peasants trying to construct their identity. Something minor and absurd. So the voiceover creates these frictions that are unique. It’s also a reflection on time. It’s such a cliché, but it’s so important that we must repeat it: Fascism starts with a smile, moves to fear, and then ends in violence. And that is a form of politics that can be located in a lot of countries in the world nowadays. It’s something that’s breathing and it’s a real danger. I’m not into lecturing, but it’s a shout on the screen and hopefully, it leaves a little trace.

Last question: Is Donald Trump a vampire? 

Well, if Trump is a vampire, the good news for me is that he’s your vampire, not mine. (Laughs.) We’re already dealing with ours.

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