After Clara Cullen became a mother, she got very sick. “Why? Because I was pushing myself so hard to be able to prove to myself that I was still relevant in the working area…[and] I got Hepatitis B. I was so yellow, my husband thought I was dying,” she tells me during a phone call. The idea for Manuela was conceived during her recovery, as a source of comfort inspired by her near-death experience: an image of Alma’s nanny, Rebecca, running away with her child in order to take care of her. “I knew that this image could be perceived in two ways: one, as a person robbing a child; but in my vision, it was a person saving a child. That ended up being the first image of the film,” Cullen says.

The film opens powerfully, showing a woman holding hands with a child as they run towards the U.S.-Mexico border. We then flash back in time, and we’re introduced to an Argentinian immigrant named Manuela (Bárbara Lombardo), who arrives in Los Angeles with only a tourist visa and makes her rounds to various cash-paying businesses in search of a job in order to support her family and young baby back home. Manuela finally lands a job as a nanny for a boss babe-style single mother with vocal fry and well-paying job in a creative field, Ellen (Sophie Buhai). Ellen’s daughter Alma (Alma Farago) quickly falls in love with Manuela, as Ellen monitors them, quite creepily, via a Nest home camera. Manuela also experiences tragicomic interactions with people around the city, highlighting the classism, racism, and sexism that female immigrants often face. When Ellen fails to return from a week-long business trip, Manuela is torn between hoping she never does and having to make a decision about her and Alma’s future. 

The cinematography is Cullen’s signature: a handheld, dreamy style that offers a dynamic, off-beat filmic portrait of its subjects by emphasizing the beauty of small moments. It’s camera work that she developed over the course of her career, starting as a documentary film student at The New School, working as a runner for Spike Lee, studying with Werner Herzog, and now creating video campaigns for Chanel, Levi’s, and Rodarte, and making video interviews of the likes of Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Raf Simons, and Jeff Koons. 

Argentinian-born Cullen spoke to me about her debut feature, which is now making the rounds at film festivals, from her mother’s house just outside Barcelona. She lives in L.A., but spends two months out of the year here to work and recharge. 

Manuela Trailer

Hannah Ghorashi Tell me about the genesis of the idea behind Manuela.  

Clara Cullen I just had my first baby, Alma–

HG –who plays herself in the film.

CC Yeah, she’s the [child] actress. So I was trying to navigate the first months of being a mother, but also being a working mother in the creative world. I was just having such a hard time, and I feel like everybody has a hard time with that. You don’t want to lose who you are. 

Like, during my day to day, I would have meetings, go to shoots, work, travel. And then all of the sudden you’re with a baby, stuck in your house, who’s sucking your tits. You’re like, “Fuck. I’m fucked.” 

I hired this great nanny, called Rebecca, who’s from Mexico. She’s still Alma’s nanny. And I was like, “Okay, this is helping.” I could work and she could help me during the day. Sometimes I would travel for shooting, and she would come with me. 

And then I got really sick. Why? Because I was pushing so hard to be able to prove to myself that I was still relevant in the working area. And I was breastfeeding. I got Hepatitis B–it’s the one where you don’t die, but it attacks your liver. I was yellow, my husband thought I was dying. I had this dream, this image that came to me. I was like, “If I die, Rebecca is going to take care of my kid, no matter what.” I imagined her taking Alma to Mexico, and I knew that this image could be perceived in two ways: one, a person robbing a child, but in my vision, it was a person saving a child. That ended up being the first image of the film.

HG How long did it take you to make this? 

CC No more than two weeks, I think. I think we shot with a crew for exactly ten days and I shot with Bárbara and Alma for one week on my own. All that little cream, you know? All those scenes that are out of focus. [laughs]

HG I wanted to talk about Alma’s mother, Ellen. I found her very funny–Sophie absolutely nailed it in regards to acting and speaking the way a wealthy, successful mother from L.A. would behave. This isn’t a comedic film at all, and her characterization is very subtly done, but it made me wonder whether you were poking fun at the classism in this dynamic. 

CC Yes, absolutely. I agree that the film isn’t a comedy or anything, but I’m a person with a sense of humor and I can’t help it. A friend of mine who is very funny watched the film in L.A. the other day, and they were like, “It’s actually pretty funny, in a very dark way. It’s very you.” I wanted Sophie’s character to personify that Type A, American mom from L.A. Sophie and I also have kids the same age, and we know that character. She’s not like that in real life, but she really knows that type of person–she can just breathe that character. She’s a cold person, someone who’s not really in touch with other people. 

Sophie is a well-known jewelry designer, but she’s my friend and I knew she could do it. Growing up in L.A., she started acting, to the point where someone represented her. She was reading against Kirsten Dunst for The Virgin Suicides.

Manuela, by Clara Cullen

HG So she almost had that role? 

CC She almost had the role, and that could have changed her whole career. But she didn’t get it, and she went into fashion. 

HG How did you decide to cast Bárbara as Manuela? 

CC Bárbara is a really well-known actress in Argentina, and she was living in Los Angeles at that time. We share a few friends, and one day I just asked her if she would consider the role. I thought she would never say yes, but she said sure. 

HG I have a question about her character: in the movie, she tells different people that she’s from different places, like she tells one that she’s from outside Buenos Aires, another that she’s from Bolivia, Ecuador—

CC She’s very fluid, let’s say, with regards to her country of origin. 

HG Is she trying to hide something? Why does she do that? 

CC Well, she’s sort of hiding something, but she’s also taking the piss of Americans, who basically don’t know absolutely anything that’s happening outside of their country.

A lot of times I run into people that are asking me like, “Oh, where are you from? And I say, “Argentina,” and they’re like, “Oh my god, I love Rio de Janeiro.” So she’s also taking that and playing with it. 

HG Unfortunately, I don’t know a lot about Argentinian immigration to the U.S. Do many Argentinians come to the U.S. looking for work? 

CC I’m sure there are, like any country. The U.S. is the number one country for people wanting to immigrate, you know? But of course, Argentina is much further south in the map than Mexico, or Nicaragua, or other countries in that area. So there is a different type of immigration from Argentina. Generally, people get a tourist visa; they arrive by plane, let’s say, and they overstay their tourist visa and get a job. 

That’s how I got into America. Obviously I’m not trying to put myself in the same socioeconomic place as Manuela, but I also came with a tourist visa and I nearly overstayed my tourist visa. I started trying to get a work visa while I was there on my tourist visa. Argentina is one of those countries where you actually needed a tourist visa [to come to the U.S.]–the UK, Europe and many other countries don’t need a visa to stay for three months. But once [Argentinians] get a visa, which is a little harder to get, we can stay for six months. And in those six months you have to get your shit together. 

HG I read that you studied film in New York. 

CC Yeah, I did documentary filmmaking at Parsons at The New School.

I started working in fashion, documentary–I was doing whatever I could, to be honest. 

I also really wanted to stay because I was in a relationship, and I didn’t want to be married. He didn’t want to get married, either. [laughs] I was, like, 22. Then I did this school with [Werner] Herzog, and he sort of switched gears in my head on how to make things. Basically, the first thing he taught me was how to open a door with a hair clip. I was like, “Oh my God, you just gave me the fucking clue to all of my problems.” Like, you don’t have to do things the right way–you just have to do them. I think this film is made in that spirit. I was trying to make another film that I was having such a hard time financing. And I was like, “What if I just do a film for cheap, with the things that I have?” I just wanted to lose my virginity. [laughs]

HG Would you say your approach to this film’s cinematography is different from the way you normally shoot? 

CC When I work in commercials or things like that, I always work with people that are good with a handheld camera. That’s all I care about, is [capturing] the movement and the rhythm of things. That’s key for me. I asked this great DP and director called Gillian Garcia–she’s also a part of our friends group in L.A.–who usually shoots on a tripod, if she could shoot on handheld, and she said, “Sure.” 

HG How do you choose which shots to leave in when you’re doing this naturalistic, handheld style? 

CC I made a first edit of this film myself.  It was okay, but it wasn’t as good. Then I worked with another editor, Valeria Racciopi, and she put in so many bits I hadn’t used. She was like, “I’m just going through the trash.” She took so much of the “trash” –in quotation marks–and put it back in. That gave the film, so much more style and so much more of a vibe.When you’re the director and you edit yourself, you’re trying to hide all your mistakes. But I think Valeria had a really good sense of how to make this edit realistic and she helped the film breathe. For me, it’s very important that the film breathe. The film is a lot about rhythm, and how [the images] flow. I don’t like those Latin American films that are stuck forever in a scene. I want to move away from that, and allow people to be with a character, as close as they can. For me that’s done in a mix between the handheld camera, the relationship between the actors, and the edit. 

HG I was going to say it’s kind of like you’re making a portrait of Manuela. I’ve watched some of your other films and it’s almost like you create a filmic portrait of people using what others would normally consider to be “trash footage.” But it feels like such a natural and fresh way of observing a person. 

CC Completely. You could say that’s my style. I think trash feels more real, and reality is more beautiful. When I started my career as a director, doing these portraits of people, I was shooting them all myself, and because I was doing the questions also, sometimes the camera would go down, and I had to bring the camera up…I liked that. And then I got represented, and I got a little bit more of a “thing,” you know, and they would bring me all of this equipment and all these people working around me and then I had a DP and assistants and walkie talkies. But I felt like I wasn’t being honest. Now I’m at a point where I can do both. I can shoot the camera myself and I can do little small projects, and I can also bring my style into bigger projects. I can find these DPs that understand my style, and it’s like, “oh, you’re not messy. You just have this type of aesthetic.”

Manuela by Clara Cullen

HG How long have you been wanting to make a fictional film? 

CC I feel like if you’re a director and you don’t make a  fictional film, you wake up with some anxiety, you know? I know so many directors who are incredibly successful in commercials and they have this internal problem. 

HG What’s holding them back? Is it funding? Because when you’re a commercial director, you don’t have to fund anything, on top of getting paid. 

CC Part of that is true. Part of it is also that, as a commercial director, you go on set and there are 150 people waiting for you to give orders. To film your first feature in those conditions is really expensive, so partially they doubt how to finance the film. Also, they’re afraid of exposing themselves. I remember one day I was looking at myself in some sort of reflection in a restaurant and I was like, “I don’t want to be a virgin anymore. I only want to fuck.” [laughs]  I didn’t want to like the person that, like, is trying to make a film, you know? 

HG Who are some of your favorite directors?

CC Agnes Varda, Werner Herzog. Those are my mom and dad, so to speak. Agnes’s birthday is one day after my birthday. I never met her–that’s something that I regret the most. You see how her films also breathe? 

HG Yeah, it’s funny–I think a lot of really masculine movies don’t let the characters breathe. It’s all plot, plot, plot. You know what I mean? 

CC I used to work with a very good friend of mine, an editor who I absolutely adore, and he’s the most talented person ever. But I was always like, “Please, just make the cuts a little longer.” I find that men editors tend to cut in shorter and women tend to get cut a little bit later, and I like that. I like the off cut. 

HG So, how did your nanny Rebecca feel about the movie? 

CC She felt good, she liked it. I also invited my childhood nanny, who is named Manuela, to the premiere in Buenos Aires, and she sat next to my mom. It was very cute because when I was growing up, my mom was a workaholic and beyond. I grew up with Manuela, but my mom fired her when I was six because she was jealous of her. I’ve always kept in touch with Manuela, and she calls me on every single birthday. So Manuela came to the premiere and sat next to my mom and I was so happy to have both of them. Manuela told me “I really love the film, but I didn’t really like the part with the dildo!” [laughs]