Agustina San MartinEmerging Masters

Agustina San Martin: “I refuse to be one thing”

Short Profile

Name: Agustina San Martin
DOB: 12 August 1991
Place of birth: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Occupation: Film Director

Agustina San Martin's first feature film, To Kill a Beast is showing at The Toronto International Film Festival now.

Agustina, what informs the unique creative universes we find in your films?

I use dreams a lot for inspiration! I've always had intense and memorable dreams that I could perfectly remember and write down after, and I always left the open door for that, for dreams to show me things. But I also had a lot of insomnia, almost throughout all of my life. So I would have all these endless hours in the night where everyone else sleeps, sitting in the dark, looking at the ceiling, thinking and inventing things… I think that between the insomnia and the intense dreams — it profoundly shifted the way that I am. Even though now I'm way more rational than I was before… I still can identify with that. I have always been very spiritual.

Were you raised in a spiritual environment?

I grew up in a pretty regular family in Buenos Aires, and my parents are scientists! My mother is Jewish, and my father, Catholic, but they decided not to raise me in any religion. So I never had an idea of God, I never prayed or anything. But even though I'm an atheist, I found that believing in the intangible and spirituality was a way that I like to make life have meaning. I've always had this feeling that we're not alone. And I had this mindset that I could feel energies and all these myths that I made up myself every night... I don't know, I would feel that I was a part of something. It excites me to think that everything is possible. So, to find meaning in anything — I let myself go with it.

“I've been in love with creating worlds since forever. It was always a rush to make something exist that didn't exist before.”

Is that how you first started world building?

I've been in love with creating worlds since forever. For me, it was always a rush to make something exist that didn't exist before. I always felt fiction was more exciting than real life! That’s also why I’ve always loved horror films, they make me feel alive. With my own work, I am aiming to change the movies that I do — not to change, but to explore different genres. I have the goal of doing a comedy, a classical thriller, maybe even a pure horror film, not an experimental horror, as I've done before.

That’s ambitious!

I refuse to be one thing! The thing is, I know that my esoteric mindset is going to come through absolutely everything that I do, always. So what I'm trying to do is not to feed myself with that as much, because I know it lives, like, rent free in my mind! (Laughs) But in general, I want to make movies in different countries and different languages. And I suppose that's very personal of me because although I do love Argentinian cinema, and I am completely in love with Argentina, I often make the exercise of thinking of myself as non-Argentinian.

To explore beyond your personal boundaries?

Right, because if I always sit here and do movies only in Spanish, it feels like a limitation. I started by watching movies from all around the world, and I've loved movies for exactly this. I could empathize with all these different stories, of these different people, that live in completely different parts of the world, and still feel this human experience. I'm very, very interested in exploring this, and that's not necessarily bound by being Argentinian, but by being a human.

How much of yourself is present in your films?

It's actually very funny because anyone that sees my movies, probably imagines that I must be a very nostalgic, silent, maybe tormented individual. (Laughs) Because that’s the energy that my past movies have — but I'm completely the opposite! I'm normally happy, telling jokes all the time, stupidly optimistic. And so it's very interesting for me to see the movies that I make, because I sometimes watch them and I am like, “Yes, this is a huge part of me, but this is not me.”

How did you deal with that sort of dissociation when you released your first feature film, To Kill A Beast?

It was fascinating, but at the same time, completely horrifying. I had the constant feeling that whenever someone would watch my movie, it wasn't my movie but me naked. (Laughs) When you watch a short film, you usually watch more than one, so there's that sort of protection. But doing a movie, which people are going to sit down and watch for an hour and a half, only that, and then talk about it...

The trailer for Agustina San Martin's short film Monster God.

The commitment adds to the pressure.

Totally. But it’s also because it was way more exposure that I believed it would receive before. I did feel a lot of external eyes on me when I was doing my first film. Can you believe I wrote To Kill A Beast when I was 21, and I am releasing it now, close to my 30th birthday? It took years to get financing, but when I finally found a great team and a producer, and we shot it — in the meantime, Monster God won the Cannes Special Mention Prize. So before that, I thought that I was going to release my first feature film in complete anonymity — but in the end, people started looking at it. And that started to freak me out.

Is it also true that once you put something out there and it gets attention, you lose a bit of control over it? It becomes its own thing.

Yes! And I think I had a big struggle between who I really am and who I think people want me to be in that whole process. But that’s why I’m also excited to do my second feature film, because now I feel like, “It's okay, I did it! It now has nothing to do with me, it's not my problem anymore!” (Laughs) It's just learning how to be the one you want to be.

Who did you look to for creative support during these processes?

I talk a lot about creative processes with my close friends, and I show them my work, they always can see further, because they know me so well. But scriptwriter Franz Rodenkirchen, for example, was one important mentor for me early on: he had always seen something in me, and pushed for that. He accepted the weirdnesses in me! And right now I talk a lot to Lin-Manuel Miranda. What he does is so different to what I've done, and that is so interesting because when we speak, we understand each other perfectly. In that sense, mentorships are such a great space to reveal yourself without any existential crisis. The idea of a mentor is not only soothing, but if you can communicate properly with that person and really understand each other, it makes you feel like chaos is not everywhere.

Apparently you also create what you call “film bibles” that break down each of your works moment by moment. Do those very precise guides help limit the chaos as well?

Oh yes! Having these moments in which I sit down, grab image by image, put it together, look at the line of dialogue, and then see how all of that translates into an aesthetic — it really helps me have clarity over this endless waterfall of ideas. Plus, having this item in my hands makes me feel like I'm less of a crazy ship lost in space when I’m on set. As someone from Argentina, living the realities that I’ve lived, I think I've always felt the responsibility of: if you're doing something, do it the best you can. And that was for me a tool of being sure of that.