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Grimmfest 2021: An Interview With Andrés Beltrán, Director of Tarumama

Image courtesy of Andrés Beltrán

I like the range of films I watch to be truly cosmopolitan, but I can’t say I recall watching a horror film from Colombia until now. So I was most intrigued to talk to Andrés Beltrán about his new film Tarumama, an atmospheric tale about a family forest getaway, which has its UK premiere at Grimmfest on 10 October.

As well as Tarumama, the film is also called Llanto Maldito, so (after breaking the ice with a laugh over my pronunciation) I asked Andrés to explain what they mean. “La Tarumama is a local folk tale here in Colombia, similar to La Llorona. When I started writing my story, I realized that was a great story for my script, so I used that legend and kept that title. But when we were about to release the film here in Colombia, we realised that the title didn’t sound like a horror film but like a fairy tale; people in Colombia like to hear the title of a film and realise it’s a horror film. That’s why we decided to use this other title, Llanto Maldito, which means something like ‘crying curse.’”

Unsurprisingly, a crying woman appears in the film, and I asked Andrés how much of the story came from folklore. “You can find the folk tale in Colombian books,” Andrés told me, “and I read it when I was a kid. There are plenty of stories like that. I didn’t retell the story of that entity, but instead a story about a family in crisis. They go to a cabin in the woods and find the Tarumama there. We don’t get much about her in the film except that she’s lost a baby and that she haunts the area somehow. She inspired the direction of our story; we don’t tell hers.”

Andrés has directed both films and TV series. I asked him how they compare as a creative experience. “Well, I love to make films,” Andrés answered. “I’ve done two feature films and many, many short films. I think they are more personal than TV, and they help me develop my voice. Also, it’s very important for a filmmaker to have the chance to make their own films. At the same time, TV shows here in Colombia are getting stronger. We’re making shows for Netflix, Amazon, and so on, and it’s a great opportunity to learn the craft, to direct a lot, to direct actors, and really learn daily. It’s really impersonal, though. There are a lot of big, big bosses in the TV industry, and I guess you can learn to cope with that. Eventually, though, the two things are just as important to my career, as long as I get to make my own films.”

Andrés’ most recent work has been for Netflix; a bit of a coup! “Yes, it’s called Wild Rythm,” he said. “It has nothing to do with horror, more like a dance series, and it’s for youngsters. It’s about young people who are learning to dance reggaeton, which is a popular type of music here.”

Andrés Beltrán, director, with Paula Castaño (who played Sara) and Jerónimo Barón (who played Tomás) on the set of Tarumama
Image courtesy of Andrés Beltrán

Back to Tarumama. I commented that the family who were central to the story had a very believable dynamic, and I asked Andrés if they were modelled on people he knows. “Not particularly,” he said. “But they have a lot of things from myself and my family. When I was writing the script, my wife and I wanted to have a child, and then she became pregnant while I was writing. Then during the shooting, my daughter was about one year old. So I was talking about maternity in the film—as a man, of course—and also my co-writer Antón [Goenechea] has a kid, same age as mine, so we were trying to understand what could happen to a marriage when you have kids. We were basically imagining things that could happen, and the fear of losing a kid; we couldn’t help thinking about how horrible that would be. Also, when I was a kid, the idea of my own parents getting divorced was like a horror story for us. They didn’t divorce, but when they got into a fight, we would think, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to break up’. So that was something I knew I could use from my own background. Basically, the family’s story was made up of things from my own experience and fears that I have.”

I hope things go better for Andrés and his wife than for the couple in the film!

I was curious about something else I’d seen in the film: a chicken stew cooked outdoors, which made my mouth water. I asked Andrés if that was a Colombian tradition. “Yes,” he said. “It’s called Sancocho, made with chicken, plantain, and coriander. It’s a really good soup. We go out and people bring wood, make a fire next to a river, drink aguardiente. And it’s a great tradition, usually a Sunday thing.”

I understand that the cabin in the film was made specially, as Andrés hadn’t been able to find anything suitable; this was quite different from the experience of other directors such as Aaron Bartuska. So I asked Andrés how come he hadn’t been able to find a suitable location. “I had this idea of a cabin in the woods, which you’ve seen in so many films…but not in Colombia. We’ve never done anything like that. So I wanted to have a film like that but without using a local house, like a hacienda or fincas, the houses in the countryside. We couldn’t find anything like that, at least not near Bogotá, because we had to go every day to the location and then back to Bogotá. So I talked about this with Natalia Echeverri, the producer, and said, ‘We need to build this.’ She said, ‘No way, that’s crazy, this isn’t a studio film.’ But I kept pushing and pushing and finally, I found a way with the production designer to make a house that wasn’t too expensive. And then, we started looking for the woods because I wanted a house within this environment, these foggy woods, to build the house in. And the place we found is wonderful: almost every shot you see in the film is real!”

Andrés Beltrán, director, on the set of Tarumama
Image courtesy of Andrés Beltrán

But why didn’t he think the traditional houses would be suitable? “I guess sometimes Colombian films are grounded in our culture,” Andrés said, “and I wanted to have a more universal look, so that people from anywhere could understand and relate to the film. This ‘cabin in the woods’ narrative is something we know for sure, so I wanted to have a generic feeling so as not to take away from the characters: they were most important to me. I wanted people to understand the characters as human beings that could be located anywhere, and not pay too much attention to the rest.”

I had to ask Andrés where he draws his film inspirations from, especially as there isn’t a great deal of horror coming out of his own country. “There are a few horror films,” he said, “maybe five or six. Of course, I’ve watched American films, and one Australian film called The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. I saw Oculus by Mike Flanagan, The Witch (which I find a really beautiful film), and of course the classics like The Shining, The Exorcist. But this was my first horror film, so I wanted to see how great directors had done it. But yeah, they’re not from Colombia. I think this is growing throughout Latin America right now though.”

Andrés didn’t write Tarumama on his own but with co-writer Antón Goenechea. I asked what that partnership was like. “I started writing the script on my own,” said Andrés, “six drafts, in fact, at first. Then I came to a point where I needed a fresh look. So I started talking to Natalia. We knew Antón from some years ago, and he liked the sound of the project. We made eight drafts more, and it was great because he really understood what I wanted. I was keen not to lose the personal touch on the film, didn’t want to make something that didn’t feel like it came from me. So he really understood that, and because he was a scriptwriter and has done many films and TV shows in Mexico, he helped me to structure the film in a much better way. He knows his craft. The writing process is often better and easier if you work with someone else, I guess.”

I recalled the crying woman in the film, who I think only appeared once on the screen, which struck me as fascinating: how does a writer decide how much or how many times to show a character like this? Other films (such as those based on La Llorona that he had mentioned earlier) throw in many jump scares with a shape appearing too often, but Andrés had been subtle in comparison. I asked how this decision about her presence came about. “I guess I started to understand as we were shooting that this creature or entity might not be real. She might be Sara’s imagination, or she could think she had seen her but the other characters hadn’t—that could be more interesting. We could keep an area of uncertainty so no one could say for sure, ‘Yeah, she’s real,’ or, ‘She’s there.’ We actually had one scene that I wrote, where Doris (the landlady) had told the kids about someone in the woods, but we took it out and didn’t shoot it. We decided it would be more creepy that way, more psychological and less explained. It’s up to the audience’s judgment how much is real. And yes, it was a major decision, and it led to some editing in the film.”

Andrés Beltrán, director of Tarumama
Image courtesy of Andrés Beltrán

Doris (played by Constanza Gutierrez) does tell the family about a boy who had died nearby, though. “Yeah, I think that triggers an uneasiness for the family. Sara [played by Paula Castaño] has lost a baby, and she hears about a baby lost by the river, so somehow they all start to talk about that. It’s like an echo: even when they watch the birds, they talk about how some birds take eggs from other birds. Everything relates to how she is dealing with the loss of her baby, and also how she devotes herself to her kids. It’s all surrounding her: fears and anguish about being a mom, and she thinks maybe the other mom, who lost her kid on the river, wasn’t a good mom. It’s all about that growing paranoia.”

I asked Andrés what he expected his audience to take away from Tarumama. Is there a message about relationships, or about grief, perhaps? “Well, yeah, I guess sometimes we do things that are not conscious enough to understand them,” said Andrés. “For me, the film is about how we cope with our own fears, how we confront them, but also how they are bound to be there. Tarumama is always going to be with Sara, maybe not in a physical way, but her fears of losing a kid or not being a good wife or mother—they are always going to be there somehow. But we can still have a normal life, even with those demons around us and inside us. I think that’s most interesting about horror films: they talk about these things while they also entertain and scare us.”

The UK premiere is nearly upon us, and I asked Andrés how he feels about that. “I’m so thrilled!” he said. “I lived in London for a year when I did my master’s degree, and I shot some short films there. I wish I could be there. It’s a great festival, and I’m really happy.”

And what comes after that? “I wrote another script called Anima,” Andrés said. “That’s about grief as well, it’s a horror film, and it’s been selected in Sitges pitch book, so I’ll be pitching the story to producers and executives. And I’m really excited to learn more about making horror films. I think it’s a great genre, so I’ll keep learning. I want to do my next film in English; that’s one of my main goals. I’ll keep watching films and keep learning.”

The UK premiere of Tarumama takes place on 10 October at Grimmfest in Manchester, and if you are unable to get there, it can also be viewed from home in the Grimmfest virtual edition on 17 October (in a double bill with The Righteous).

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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