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An Interview with Jac Avila, Director and Star of Justine

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2017

Films directed by Jac Avila on (re)Search my Trash


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I know we've talked about this before [click here], but your new movie Justine - in a few words, what's it about?


The story of Justine, a woman who wants to preserve her virtue at all costs and all she gets in return is endless punishment. That describes the film and the story.

Our description says: Innocent Justine endures extreme torture and violation at the sadistic hands of the Marquis de Sade’s disciples of pain, pleasure and sexual deviance. In this latest artistic rendering of de Sade’s classic novel, Justine’s steadfast faith and naive trust enslave her in a number of perverse practices illustrating that virtue is no match for vice.


Your films almost invariably have De Sadean undercurrents to them - so why adapt a story by Marquis De Sade only now?


We produced Le Marquis de la Croix, directed by Amy Hesketh [Amy Hesketh interview - click here], 5 years ago. I wrote part of the script taking some of the Marquis' monologues from Justine. I've been thinking about doing Justine for the last 6 years. We had other projects, so it had to wait. Another reason is that I had to process the story in my head before coming up with the script. It's a very long story, long on events, long on interminable dialogues and even lengthier monologues, each character in the story revealing a complex point of view where religion, politics, sex is all mixed in some kind of brainy brew. How can one tell such a story in film? I know others have done it, Jess Franco is one of them, with a cast of very well known actors, like Jack Palance and Klaus Kinski and a big budget… and in France. So I had to think about how to do it with the budget I had, with my regular cast and where I currently live and work, in La Paz, Bolivia, South America.


Of the two sisters Justine and Juliette, which one can you relate to more, honestly?


I think that they are two sides of the same coin. Juliette is the antithesis of Justine. You can't really relate to one of them alone, you have to relate to both at the same time. It's the old dichotomy, all sadists are masochists, all masochists are sadists. Two women thrown in hard circumstances and times and how they go about surviving from an early age. They take opposite roads, one thrives the other one suffers.

I can relate to Justine AND Juliette as Rodin does. One is his victim, unwilling perhaps, but still challenged by him. Who plays with whom? Is Justine playing with Rodin? Giving him what he wants? Is Rodin playing with Justine? Using her for his nefarious ends? In the case of Juliette, it is obvious who is in control.


In Justine, you play the villain, Rodin, an orchestrator of all sorts of torture - so how can you relate to that character, actually, also in your other role as director, and what did you draw upon to bring him to life?


It's very difficult to act and direct at the same time. When you direct you have to be in charge of the entire picture, you can't concentrate only in one part like an actor does or as anyone in the crew does. I thought very hard about this when I was developing the character of Rodin. What I ended up doing is letting Rodin direct the film. It wasn't me in the dungeon making sure everything was ok, it was Rodin. This was the easiest role I played so far because there wasn't a big difference with what I had to do as a director and what Rodin had to do as the the orchestrator of this particular version of a passion play he was staging. Everyone in the story is somehow under his command as it was the case with me in the role of the director. I can say that Rodin did a good job directing Justine.


I think it came to nobody's surprise that you cast Amy Hesketh [Amy Hesketh interview - click here] in the lead, and many will agree she's cut out for the role - but still, what do you think makes Amy perfect for playing Justine?


You only have to look at her eyes in the poster. She projects the right amount of naivety, self righteousness, innocence, dread and fear for what is to come. When Justine speaks to the audience, in those Brechtian breaks in the story, Amy transforms her character for that moment. It is as if Justine becomes a whole different person, unlike Juliette, who also talks to the audience as a second narrator of the story but never changing her inner character, she remains the same, self controlled and controlling Juliette.

Amy has a wide range in her acting abilities, she goes beyond the call of duty, she takes very difficult roles and makes it look easy, she's a great actress and so the role was obviously hers.


What can you tell us about the rest of your cast, and why exactly these people?


When I wrote the script I wrote Justine with Amy in mind. For Rosalie, Rodin's daughter, who in the book is a 12 year old girl, I picked Mila Joya, who has already a bunch of films with us including Maleficarum, she had to be the quiet, resigned to her fate, but unwilling collaborator in Rodin's schemes. She had to project that feeling of being lost while at the same time leading Justine into the dungeon.

For Omphale, Rodin's lover, I selected Beatriz Rivera, who worked with us in a small role in Olalla and a bigger one in Pygmalion, both directed by Amy. Omphale is the submissive lover and servant. Rodin uses her to satisfy his extreme pleasures, but now she will pay with her life his loss of interest. Beatriz had to project her submissiveness, her jealousy, her willingness to go along with Rodin's plans for her, her lover's own daughter and unfortunate Justine.

For the role of Juliette I talked to Cortney Willis, who played a role in Dead But Dreaming, she's of German descent but speaks English fluently, she has a bit of a nordic look that I felt would give Juliette that detached, in control of her life feeling. She had to be the opposite of Justine while looking like she could be her slightly older sister. Cortney had to project the kind of maturity an older and far more experienced sister would have.

The four leading ladies were not interchangeable, not at all. The characters fit the actresses or the other way around. Everyone else could be replaced, even Rodin, but not them. As a matter of fact some of the other characters were played by actors that were not cast for that specific role, like in the case of Young Bressac, the intended actor had an accident so he was replaced by Alejandro Loayza, who was not going to be in the film because he was in LA when I first started pre-production but returned to Bolivia just in time.


With Justine being set in period France but filmed in Bolivia - where were the challenges there to make the sets and locations look authentic?


I think the problem was not just the locations, but the costumes too and the budget. The challenge was to make a film that takes place in pre revolutionary France in modern La Paz. I took some liberties as far as where the actions took place and I added some post-modern elements. France is never mentioned and the dialogues are in English, although the names stayed French, like Dubois, Couer De Fer and so on. The main set was the dungeon, that was not difficult, I used the same set I used in Maleficarum and Le Marquis de la Croix, but making it look different, very different. The courtyard, where a lot of the action takes place, is in an old house in the center of La Paz. The same house we used in Olalla. The exterior locations are a park and a far off neighbourhood.

We had great costumes and props like rifles and guns from the era. We built props, like the rack and the wheel that Rodin uses to torture Justine and the other ladies. It's not our first period film, we already produced period films like Maleficarum, Le Marquis de la Croix, Olalla and Dead But Dreaming, so it wasn't that hard. We're collecting tons of costumes dating different eras.

The hardest part for me was the sound. We shot in the middle of the city with all the noise that is part of city life, from ambulances, trucks, planes, car alarms, crowds, fireworks, every day we have fireworks in La Paz, either to celebrate something or to protest against something, I think I should get in the fireworks industry. Lots of noise and that is a problem when shooting here. I don't post dub, I prefer direct sound for dialogues. So, it is a challenge to record the sound.


What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


I had a limit in time this time around. In previous films I had the flexibility that allowed me or Amy to take our time producing and directing. With Maleficarum I had plenty of time. I could stop production for a week or two and continue later. Doing Olalla we had to stop production for almost a month because our DP was assaulted one night and ended up in a hospital with a broken jaw and for the scenes in Potosi in the same movie, we had to postpone from December 2013 to May 2014 because of the location availability and the weather. Not this time. For Justine I had a set date where I had to be done, and done completely. December 16th 2015 was looming over from the very first day of production, which was November 23rd.

That was the difficult part for me. It brought a lot of stress to the work, so, every time there was a delay for one reason or another, I went into panic mode, which wasn't nice. We also had some very upset people in one location, the co-owners of the house where we were shooting, they were constantly pressuring us to get the hell out. That too, added stress. Then we had some rain on the days we were shooting in the courtyard. It was madness. In addition, we were shooting in the middle of the city, so we had a lot of city noise out there. But we managed to complete the film for the set date. The last day of shooting with Amy was the worst. I needed at least two days to shoot a big scene but I only had half a day. It was totally crazy. The work itself was great, overall, the cast and crew did their work very well, we all did a good job and all. I can't complain, the film looks great. But not having the extra time I had with previous productions made the whole experience a very difficult one.


The $64-question of course, where's your film available from?


For the time being, you can get the film at our store - you can get a DVD or download it.


What can you tell us about audience and critical reception of Justine so far?



It's too early to tell, we just released the film. There's your review, one by Dean Andersson ( where the writer says that the film is unique, transforming and surreal, the envy of Buñuel and Dali, and I think that's really nice to hear. And there’s a very engaging, interesting and in-depth, seven parts study of the film by Rich Moreland:

Our fans seem to love it, which is not strange to me. Justine was in a festival the 8th of November, by invitation, which is awesome. Overall, I think the reaction is positive. I expect to have a better sense of how people are receiving the film when more reviews start coming in.

I believe that many people will love my film and many will hate it. I know what to expect, it happens with every movie I'm involved in. Having said that, I'm satisfied with how the film is doing out in the world. It's doing very well.


Based on the experiences with Justine, will you ever adapt another of De Sade's stories? And/or other future projects?


There are some De Sade stories I would not mind adapting, or using them as inspiration for other films. Right now I'm working on two or three scripts, one of them more in the line of Maleficarum, an inquisition story. I'm also developing a television series that I wanted to make in the 90s but I didn't have the necessary means. I do now, so I'm anxious to get that going. I'm also busy with the script for a sequel to Dead But Dreaming. Our production company is also involved in pre-producing other films by Amy Hesekth and by Erix Antoine. It will take some time before I think of adapting another De Sade story, but, who knows, I might wake up tomorrow with the urgency of making the story of Eugenie.


Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?


Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


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I have to say that we're very proud what we accomplished with Justine. We had a very low budget, a time limit, limited locations and so on, and we made a really great looking movie. To compare, Jess Franco did an adaptation of Justine in the 70s. He had a budget of over 300,000 USD, which would be like a couple of million today. He had stars like Jack Palance, Klaus Kinski and others. He had great locations in Europe. So, when I think about that and I see what we did with a little more than 20,000 USD, which back then would've been like 2,000, I feel very, very proud.

We make NO-budget movies but they look impressive. Justine looks impressive. When you make films with less that 100,000 dollars you are in the NO Budget category. If I were to get 1,000,000 dollars to make a movie, I would think to myself … I'll make ten great films with that money, and I would build a studio in a big piece of land to do it. I would have a lot more control over the location and the sound that way.


Thanks for the interview!


Thank you very much for the opportunity.


© by Mike Haberfelner

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On the same day
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directed by
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written by
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Ryan Hunter and
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out now on DVD