Three Great Things: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

The acclaimed Spanish director, whose new feature, Damsel, hits Netflix today, on his love of street photography, travel and tennis.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the March 8 release on Netflix of the neo-feminist fairytale fantasy Damsel, starring Millie Bobbie Brown, Nick Robinson, Robin Wright and Angela Bassett, the film’s director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, shared some of the things he is most passionate about in life. — N.D.

Street Photography
Probably the only time I feel completely independent is when I take my camera, go into the streets and take photos. Street photography was my first passion when I was really young and I’m still doing it, because it’s a form of meditation for me. It’s the way I think about movies and stories, and it’s almost like therapy to me. I’m so happy every time I walk in the streets by myself with only my camera, observing and searching for bits and pieces of stories and characters. Every time I discover a new city, I have to spend one full day walking around with my camera and doing nothing except taking pictures.

A local market in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, reprinted with permission.)

Exploration and getting lost is essential for me when I do street photography, because it’s the only way to discover new things. One time, I was in Cambodia and I was freaking out a bit because I was in a neighborhood that looked a little bit fishy. But then I told myself, You have to challenge yourself, you have to be brave – if you want to find something really cool, you have to explore places that you don’t know. So I decided to go to a market in this neighborhood, and it was just the opposite of what I’d feared – the people there were so kind, they were so open, and they literally were opening the doors of their houses to show me how they lived. It was a very moving experience that transformed my perception of places, and how sometimes things are not as they seem and you have to be brave, you have to embrace experiences. And you discover amazing things when you do that!

I have a game I play with myself when I’m intensely immersed in writing or developing a project. Whenever I have a question over how to solve a scene or approach a character, I take my camera and go into the streets. I repeat to myself the question I’m struggling with, almost like a mantra, and then navigate the streets with that question in mind to see what reality reflects back to me. And I take pictures around that idea. It’s an inspirational thing I do a lot, as being by myself with my camera and exploring hidden places is a great way to explore stories I’m working on.

Another of my passions is traveling and I definitely see myself as a traveler. In Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky, he writes that the difference between a tourist and a traveler is the tourist knows when he’s going to come back and the traveler doesn’t know. I like that and I think it says something about the meaning of being a real traveler. You don’t know when you’re going to come back from certain places, because in some ways you don’t have a home. Your home is yourself, and you have to be at peace with yourself in order to feel that home.

Travel is such a big source of pleasure for me, because everywhere I go, I feel good and am so open to embrace new people, to discover new places. Traveling is a passion for me, because it gives me the chance to discover new worlds and almost discover the world we live in for the first time. That is a very exciting feeling.

I discovered my passion for travel by myself, because my father was afraid of flying and my mother also didn’t really travel at all. When I was very young, I traveled by myself from the Canary Islands, where I was born, to London. It was a disaster, because I was a kid and I was there by myself, trying to survive. However, that difficult experience made me feel like I needed to repeat this, but do it properly, to overcome that initial negative experience.

On one of my travels, I went to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and decided to go with my camera to a dangerous favela. There was a local guy with me who knew everybody there and was helping make the experience a little safer. But suddenly there was somebody yelling at us, being very aggressive, and the guy told me, “Turn around and run.” I didn’t know why he was telling me that, but once we’d escaped from that place, he told me, “You didn’t see it, but that man had a gun.” When I heard that, I thought, Oh my God, we almost had a really bad moment there, but at the same time, I realized that if you want to find something real and honest, if you want to find truth in the world, you have to expose yourself to difficult situations. Obviously, I always take all the necessary precautions, but from that moment on, I’ve understood that sometimes getting great things in life implies a certain risk.

I’m a huge, obsessive fan of tennis. That’s my sport, and I’ve been working for a while to explore the possibility of making a movie about a tennis player. To me, tennis is an art. It’s a dance, and it’s also a philosophical battle between two opponents who in some ways are like a mirror of each other.

I could talk to you about tennis for hours! It’s a sport that only finishes when you lose the last point, which I think is such a beautiful metaphor for many things in life. A tennis match can theoretically go on infinitely, and you have to win until the last point, otherwise you can’t ever win the match. It’s such a unique thing. When I have a little free time, I love to play tennis, because it’s a great workout, but at the same time it’s really mentally refreshing, because it challenges you in a very deep way. Tennis is about defeating yourself, it’s not about beating the other person. It’s about conquering your fears and conquering your anxiety. If it were taught in every school in the world, I think it would make kids both physically and mentally stronger.

Rafael Nadal in action. (Photo by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, reprinted with permission.)

I love to play tennis, but I also love to watch it and I’m a huge fan of many players. When I was a kid, I had a big poster in my bedroom of John McEnroe, my rebel icon, looking at me defiantly with his tennis racket. To me, he was a superhero, including all his bad behavior on the court. As a Spaniard, I’m a huge fan of Rafa Nadal, but for me the most elegant and refined player in history was Roger Federer. If you saw him playing tennis in real life, he didn’t even sweat – it was amazing. It was like watching a dancer, moving around without any effort. He was pure elegance.

Featured image of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo by Krista Schlueter, courtesy Netflix.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo‘s new film as director, Damsel, the neo-feminist fairytale fantasy starring Millie Bobbie Brown, is out now on Netflix. His previous features include directed Intacto and 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. His film Esposados was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1996. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, courtesy of Netflix.)