Joey Nolfi
November 17, 2017 AT 07:24 PM EST

Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, filmmaker Sebastián Lelio and star Daniela Vega discuss their Chilean Oscar submission A Fantastic Woman (now playing), a gorgeous, complex portrait of a transgender woman, Marina, grappling with the sudden loss of her lover, and the burden of inequality — imposed by his unsympathetic family — he leaves behind. Vega, here a force of nature in her first big screen role, gives the most powerful performance of the year in a fiercely directed meditation on identity and grief that’s as fluid, engaging, label-defying, and dynamic as its helmer’s hand and its leading lady’s rapturous debut. 

Sony Pictures Classics

The film was originally about a cisgender couple, but Lelio changed his mind after spending time with transgender women

SEBASTIÁN LELIO: At the beginning we were playing around with the idea of a question: What would happen if the person you loved died in your arms? That’s the worst place in the world for a person to die, because then you’re the rejected one. Working through the script, I stumbled on the idea of this happening to a transgender woman… it’s contemporary and unexplored, and has the capacity to resonate with so many things going on in the world today. I couldn’t continue writing before meeting some transgender women… I was looking for a cultural advisor, and a friend asked me to meet Daniela Vega, because she was a really good singer and had some acting experience, and because she was, as they said, fantastic! I met her, and that was a milestone in the process, because I loved her immediately. I loved how witty and political she was, and I was fascinated by her complexity. She generously accepted to be our cultural advisor, and for several months we spoke through Skype and became friends, and I asked her anything related to the subject, and, almost without noticing, the script began absorbing things from Daniela, and I realized… she was the one. She was Marina!

DANIELA VEGA: Of course Sebastián and I love each other very much. Part of the final product and the way it came up has a lot to do with the relationship we had, including putting a lot of love into it. The moviemaking process… there are a lot of people involved and there has to be a connection among every single one of us to be able to create this work [but] it was difficult. Of course, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of the color of our skin, and the same thing is true when it comes to experiences. There are so many tones and different colors, there’s so much diversity. I experienced violence against me [in my life], but it was a different kind of violence from what you’ll see in Marina’s life. Everybody can experience something like that, but it may be different in intensity for different people.

From there, the film took on an ever-evolving identity, as defiant of labels as its lead character

LELIO: The film has its polymorphic identity. It oscillates between different tones and genres; it’s a romantic story, a portrait of a woman, it’s a thriller, it has musical moments, all of which reflects the inner freedom the film embraces, and in that sense, the film itself is deeply connected to its main character, who also has an identity that doesn’t want to be reduced in one simple gesture or to be labeled.

It was one of the most difficult things to accomplish, because the film is operating in so many directions, I owed this to Daniela because of her own complexity. She was so mind-blowing in ways that pushed our relationship, which also pushed the boundaries of what the film could be, so I found myself exposed to new cinematic territory. The film poses the question: what is a woman? But the film itself questions: what is a film? The question of identity touches everything, here. It’s not only about Marina’s identity, but it’s about the film itself as a cinematic device. Identity itself is under examination: It’s sometimes playful, sometimes hard, and that’s part of the DNA of the film.

Sony Pictures Classics

VEGA: The mission of the movie is to make sure that people’s emotions can be reconnected, because many times they’re actually silenced. The end goal of the movie is to make sure that people ask questions, not to provide them with answers. It’s to make them reflect. I want them to raise questions.

LELIO: I was [taken] by the zeitgeist of the film… Suddenly the subject was everywhere as I was filming it, but I wasn’t thinking of making a “cause” film. It’s interesting enough on its own. I’m talking about the film, of course, not the social reality [and struggles] of this community… Of course this is a film about a transgender woman, but I wanted to create a more complex animal than just a cause film, so my answer would be yes, because I care, but also no, because I wanted to make a film that was more than just a “cause” film.

Marina’s sense of self come into focus through striking shots inspired by Buster Keaton and Busby Berkeley

LELIO: Because of the polymorphic identity… the film invited me to push the boundaries of what was possible: Maybe I could do a Buster Keaton movement, like when she’s facing the windstorm, like in primitive cinema! I’ve always loved Busby Berkeley, and the dance sequence in the nightclub allowed me to explore a little movement in the direction of fantasy. I wanted to make a film that had a level of technical splendor: a film about a woman that was like a vignette, but not filmed in the raw light of social realism.

VEGA: As actors, we have to have the flexibility to create emotions and experiences to translate them into the character. A character is going to be rich when this character has a lot of emotional layers that you can navigate through.

The film’s bound-to-be-iconic dance sequence (with an intentionally Michael Jackson-esque aesthetic) took three months to prep

LELIO: We brought in a well-known choreographer in Chile, but she hasn’t necessarily had too much experience with films. Daniela was hanging from strings, flying 15 meters up toward the camera, so it was a good one day of shooting just to get that done.

We wanted the color palette to feel rich on its own, apart from the film… more intense. The nature of the movements, the choreographer was talking a lot about voguing, the dancing style that comes from a very marginalized [Harlem ballroom] background. We tried to incorporate elements like that, which belonged to different [LGBT groups] in terms of styles. We combined those inspirations with what Daniela could actually do, because she’s not a professional dancer, so it was a big challenge for her to learn choreography. The whole film was super demanding for Daniela: She was dancing, sliding, facing windstorms, being kidnapped, attacked… she was dealing with a lot of physical challenges.

VEGA: This is precisely the reason the movie is entitled A Fantastic Woman, because it’s about Marina’s ability to navigate between the real world and the world of fantasy without really wondering or asking why. It was an interesting and intense challenge, but I wouldn’t say that it was scary at all. There were choreographed motions, and it was about three months of preparation!

LELIO: I’d come to her with these ideas like once a week, and she was like, what? [Laughs]. I was like, “You’re going to have to face a big windstorm! You’re going to end up like Michael Jackson, doing a movement against gravity!” and the next week, I’d say, “You’re going to slide 15 meters upward toward the camera in proper choreography!” and she was like, “Okay?” [Laughs]

As for the film’s overwhelmingly positive response that could translate to an Oscar nod for Vega? It’s not going to her head.

VEGA: At the present moment, we’re standing in a unique moment, because art is allowing us the opportunity to once again understand the right path that we should follow. It’s the key to being able to unlock doors that will allow us to give the next generation things that they should have. So we are standing at a moment where we have an amazing opportunity to leave a great legacy for the next generation, and it’s also an opportunity for artists to create… I’m just walking right now, so I’m going to cross the [Oscars] river when I get to that bridge, but, in the meantime, we don’t know where that path is going to lead us, so I’m just enjoying the process.

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