'I had this image of my husband making love to a tree': directors on filming shorts for Netflix's Homemade

Steve Rose
·8-min read

“Shall we take a tour of the Vatican?” the Pope asks the Queen. Except his holiness and her majesty are not actually in the Vatican, they are in the home of the renowned Italian film-maker Paolo Sorrentino. And they’re not actually people; they are little figurines with waving hands, such as you would buy in a souvenir shop. Sorrentino’s bookshelves double for the Vatican library, plant pots for its gardens, the underside of a chair for a grand hall. Then the Dude from the Big Lebowski pops up and tells them there’s a lockdown. “Oh, that’s quite all right,” replies the Queen. “I’ve been in lockdown for the past 94 years.”

It is a bit of a departure from Sorrentino’s usual sumptuous works such as The Great Beauty or his HBO series The New Pope (which is set in a considerably more lifelike replica Vatican). But this is what film-making looks like under lockdown. Sorrentino shot the film on his iPhone, then got actors Javier Cámara and Olivia Williams to do the voiceovers. “It was a sort of return to the beginning of my life as a director,” he says. “When I was very young, I did exactly this kind of stuff: making movies alone at home with a VHS camera.” The Pope and Queen figurines usually sit on his desk. “They are both people who have lived their whole lives in lockdown,” he says, “so it was easy to tell a story of solitude, of melancholy between them.”

Sorrentino’s film is part of Homemade, Netflix’s new collection of 17 short films by renowned film-makers from all over the world, all made under quarantine conditions. As an exercise, it is not dissimilar to the Danish Dogme 95 movement, under which film-makers had to submit to certain rules: hand-held cameras, no special effects or genre gimmickry. Twenty-five years later, Homemade’s film-makers have been forced into a similar set of restrictions: confined to their homes, subject to local quarantining guidelines, with little access to equipment, crews, sets or locations. By comparison Dogme is almost literally a walk in the park.

“It’s like doing a dinner party but only cooking with what you have at home,” says the Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, Homemade’s chief instigator. “You have to be very creative.” Like many other film-makers, Larraín was at home, locked down in Santiago with his wife and children, and only able to move so far forward on any of his projects (which include a Princess Diana film starring Kristen Stewart). So he, his brother and co-producer Juan de Dios Larraín, and Italian producer Lorenzo Mieli decided to make a few calls and get things moving. On top of the strictures of lockdown there were a few other rules to do with format, length (roughly 10 minutes), and deadline (they only had 10 days). But apart from stipulating a PG-13/12A age rating, film-makers were free to do what they liked. “This might be something interesting many years from now to look back on,” says Larraín, “something that could stay as a memoir of what happened during these days. I believe that is something particular and beautiful.”

Homemade is also something of a test, both of film-makers’ individual powers of imagination under adverse conditions and their usefulness as artists in times of crisis. The responses vary. Sebastián Lelio gives us a lockdown song-and-dance; Rungano Nyoni chronicles a comical breakup in text messages. Larraín’s own split-screen film also co-opts social media: it was made entirely on Zoom. It begins with an old man in a nursing home (regular Larraín player Jaime Vadell) confessing his lifelong love to an old flame (Mercedes Moran). The regret and longing are moving at first, then things take a more comical turn. “It was made entirely over the internet,” Larraín says. “I never met any of these people face to face.”

It’s like doing a dinner party but only cooking with what you have at home

Pablo Larraín

Unsurprisingly perhaps, many of the film-makers turn the camera on their families. Gurinder Chadha in London and David Mackenzie in Glasgow offer relatively straightforward lockdown diaries. Nadine Labaki and Khaled Mouzanar capture a single take of their daughter improvising a childhood adventure in their Beirut office. Natalia Beristain’s daughter is home alone in a Mexico City ominously free of grown-ups. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison films her son frolicking outdoors in magic-hour California. She prays the pandemic won’t affect his childhood like her own mother’s death affected hers. “Recognise your fortune, be grateful, but also, be five.”

Others head in the opposite direction. Running furthest with the idea, surprisingly, is the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal. She turns in a poignant dystopian sci-fi starring her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, as a lone survivor grieving his dead partner in deepest Vermont. In this scenario, the virus has claimed 500 million lives and is playing havoc with time and space. There are even special effects (which would disqualify it from Dogme certification). Gyllenhaal is preparing to direct her first feature, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, so this became her debut. “Because I had never officially done it before, there was something more at stake for me,” she explains from Vermont. It happened very quickly. “I was like: ‘OK, what are my assets? My assets are: I happened to have the most incredibly brilliant actor living with me, and this place, and then I was thinking about grief, and this really sad story I’d heard about somebody who had ordered a backpack for their child who was terminally ill, and the backpack arrived after she died. Then I also had this image of my husband making love to a tree.” She shot the whole thing in a day and a half, getting in the tree-humping before the light faded. “We just really rolled with it,” she says. “I don’t know, for me it was like so weirdly easy and kind of dreamy getting it done.”

As well as showcasing their creativity, Homemade also tangentially showcases these film-makers’ homes, which can be fun for snoopers, but sometimes sits uneasily with the global moment the project is trying to capture. While the coronavirus epidemic has brought death, poverty and suffering to many millions, most of these film-makers live pretty comfortable existences, from Chadha’s Primrose Hill pad to Sorrentino’s tasteful Roman villa (Oscar fridge magnet: nice touch!) to Morrison’s rural homestead with a canyon out back. Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard’s primary home is a 3,600sq ft brownstone in Brooklyn (they displayed it in Architectural Digest last year). They have been at their Vermont getaway since lockdown. By contrast, Ladj Ly’s film takes a drone flight through the crowded, overwhelmingly non-white Paris housing estate where he made his hit movie Les Misèrables. One of the few film-makers to strike a note of despair is Kristen Stewart, whose film is a glitchy self-portrait of anxiety and insomnia.

I couldn’t even think of how to fictionalise something that already feels like science-fiction

Ana Lily Amirpour

Pablo Larraín acknowledges his own relative privilege, and the way the pandemic has exposed underlying inequalities. “None of us are living through this pandemic in the same way.,” he says. “And as you can see these kinds of situations are exposing the crisis of capitalism in ways we never expected.” The crisis will have an impact on art to come, he feels: “There’s always something that stays with you, and probably changes what you are doing. That is one of the existential mysteries of the creative process: you’re just reflecting on what’s going on around you and hopefully leaving a trace that has some kind of a meaning. What else?”

In terms of capturing the true enormity of the pandemic, the most successful film in Homemade is by Ana Lily Amirpour, best known for her artful Iranian-American vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Rather than staying at home, Amirpour gets on her bicycle and tours a Los Angeles that has become a sunny ghost town. Nothing is open. The streets are eerily free of noise and traffic and people. Bustling tourist spots such as Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese Theatre and Los Angeles County Museum of Art are all but deserted. Filmed with a combination of drone, Go-Pro cameras and a socially distanced cinematographer, it is terrifying yet surreally peaceful. “I couldn’t even think of how to fictionalise something that already feels like science-fiction,” says Amirpour. “There’s nothing I could say or write or do that would be a better story than what was just right outside my house.”

The soothing narration by Cate Blanchett does much to assuage the inherent anxiety: “Art, in its simplest terms, is just a way to force a new perspective on to something familiar,” she says. “Our lives were familiar and now they must be reconstructed … If you are able to change your perspective, that makes you an artist.” Blanchett, who is in the UK, recorded it into her iPhone in her closet, sitting among her clothes, Amirpour tells me. She was aiming for a mix of National Geographic, Werner Herzog and children’s story. Her film conveys the enormity of the historical moment but also offers some context and humane reassurance. That’s about as much as we can ask of cinema. “I felt really vulnerable and open,” she says. “I was also aware of how this uncertainty and this fear is so unsettling to our core identity. At the end of the day, no matter how scary this is going to be, I was looking for the hope and the optimism, and the way we will navigate through things, because I think that’s useful. It was useful for me and I think it can be useful for other people.”