Tousled Hair and Threesomes: A Talk with Unmade Beds Director Alexis Dos Santos

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Like any good hipster, director Alexis Dos Santos is a melange of influences: There's the Larry Clark-like fixation on near-underage threesomes, the formalistic touch of the French New Wave, the exoticism of his Argentinian heritage and the Anglo artiness of his British film school roots. All of those forces find their way onto the screen in Unmade Beds, his Manohla Dargis-praised tale of Axel (Fernando Tielve), a young man searching for his birth father while couch-surfing and sleeping his way through boho London.

As Unmade Beds had its LAFF premiere this week, I talked to the unkempt auteur about hip clothes, his first film, Glue, and the artistic siren song of the menage a trois.

You've said that other films you've seen that are set in London, like Dirty Pretty Things, aren't putting the city you know onscreen. What's the difference between those movies and the real London?

Often, films in England are based on social issues, and they're traditionally focused on either a working-class environment or these upper-class stories. I thought there was a whole range of worlds in between. In particular, there was this youth culture I saw, where music and art is such a big thing. The whole thing you see as an environment in the film, with young people there from all over the world and all this art and performance, it's closer to London in the 60s.

Have you seen the BBC show Skins? Do you feel like that represents the youth culture there?

Yes. Skins is more teenage -- it's younger, isn't it? I've heard that the writers of Skins had a reference to Glue! Someone told me that. But yes, I've seen like two episodes or something. It's a little different.

All these tousled, aimless boys kind of remind me of Gus Van Sant's work. Have you ever met him?

I've never met him, no. I'm a huge fan of his work -- probably, My Own Private Idaho was the first film I've been obsessed with, compulsively.That was back when I was twenty. I don't usually think about other films when I'm making my films, but sometimes there are references, and one of the films I gave Fernando, who plays Axel, to watch was My Own Private Idaho. There's something about River Phoenix, the way he plays that character. This sort of orphan thing he's got -- it's a totally different story, but the way he does that is amazing.

When I first started watching Unmade Beds, I immediately thought back to that piece of narration right at the beginning of Glue where Lucas says, "You can be an orphan even when you have parents." And, of course, Axel essentially is an orphan. What interests you about these parentless young people?

Well, Glue is more about defining yourself as a teenager, so the family is a strong element there. But at the same time, I know that the two films kind of speak to each other, because when I was editing Glue, I was rewriting Unmade Beds, so I ended up adding things.

The main characters in both films don't just resemble each other -- they also look like young versions of you. Is that intentional?

Yeah, maybe. Directors always end up using people who look like us. [laughs] It's just something that happened. You're right, they look a little like me in some ways. You put yourself in different characters.

And you put yourself in Axel's jacket, didn't you? I saw you in Sundance wearing what appears to be the school blazer Axel essentially steals in the film.

That's the jacket that inspired the story, actually. It was my friend's jacket from boarding school. I don't know, it's a very iconic jacket, and I ended up writing a story for that jacket that goes from one character to another. It links the two stories [in Unmade Beds].

You're a pretty stylish guy. How much do the costumes of your films matter to you?

Like with everything as a director, you have a say in what goes onscreen. Style and stuff, I'm interested in that world. I had a really good costume designer, and we had fun defining characters through clothes and giving them individuality. There was already something about the characters that they have this peculiar way of looking at life, and that's in their clothes as well. You kind of don't want to think in a superficial way about clothes, but you don't want to make too many theories about it, either. It has to be organic.

You mean, it's like throwing on an outfit for the day without overthinking it?

But at the same time, it can also be a form of communication, you know? Sometimes you use iconic things and they can tell a story as well. It's like every element you use in the film -- it's like production design, or the locations that you use, or the color scheme. They all relate to the story.

If I looked at pictures of you from when you were a teenager, would you still have the same hipster fashion sense?

I don't know, it'd probably be really embarrassing -- like everyone's pictures from when they were teenagers! [Laughs]

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What's next for you?

I'm working with a writer who worked with Michael Winterbottom. It's in the very early stages, and it's got some of the international elements of Unmade Beds. And it's about young people.

Will it also have a threesome just like Unmade Beds and Glue did?

[Laughs] Yes, actually.

Why is that a sexual situation you keep coming back to?

I don't know, different things. In Glue, it was this sort of sexual tension that kept building up between the characters, because the whole film is about these boiling hormones. The interest keeps switching from one character to another in the triangle. In Unmade Beds, it's more spontaneous -- something that happens out of the wild night, and it leads to something in Axel's character. It becomes confusing for him.

It's sad when he had this threesome with his friend Mike and his girlfriend, but when he comes on to Mike later in the film, he's rejected.

He knows that's not the right thing to do, but whatever. Yeah, it's kind of heartbreaking. I thought it was interesting to explore that confusion in him and his feelings with Mike when, at the same time, these things are happening with his father. Because Mike becomes sort of a substitute father as well. He's a friend, but they have sex, so it's all very tense. I thought it was an interesting element to add to their relationship. ♦



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