TheWrap Screening Series: How Peru Got Dirty to Look Good for ‘The Cleaner’

“We wanted the world to be without colors,” said writer/director Adrián Saba

In “The Cleaner” (“El Limpiador”), Peru’s submission for the best foreign film Oscar, writer/director Adrián Saba creates a world where a mysterious illness has killed much of the country’s population. Amid the death and devastation, a forensic cleaner must care for a young orphan who has survived.

But to film this bleak, post-apocalyptic environment on a limited budget in Lima, a vibrant city of 9 million people, the first-time feature director had to re-envision his hometown.

This was no small task.

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“The feeling I wanted was for foreigners to never imagine Lima like they saw it here and for Limanians to see their city in a different way,” Saba said to TheWrap’s Oscars columnist Steve Pond at the film’s Thursday screening in Hollywood.

For the muted look that “Cleaner” required, Saba explained that he and art director Aaron Rojas spent many hours discussing the film’s overall appearance — and were able to “create an imaginary Lima.”

“We wanted the world to be without colors,” Saba said.

But securing just the right look for the movie — which was financed through private investments, crowd funding and government subsidies –wasn’t just simply a function of using flat colors.

Saba’s version of the Peruvian capital required everything from ensuring there were no shadows to dulling set dressing and dirtying building walls. He noted that even the timing of the 21-day production was carefully considered for maximum effect; for that shooting schedule, Saba said there was only one logical choice.

“Lima in the winter is just one big gray cloud, and the sun never comes out for three months. It’s perfect,” he said.

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Of course, like any production, challenges also arose, and periodically Mother Nature wouldn’t cooperate.

“There were days when the sun came out and we had to cancel and go to the beach, which wasn’t that bad either,” Saba said through laughter.

Matching up with the film’s sparse look, “Cleaner” offers limited dialogue between the leads Eusebio (Víctor Prada) and Joaquin (Adrian du Bois). Saba said this was by design, as he felt this would help the audience better understand the budding relationship between the two.

“I wanted the film to slowly grow on you. And take you somewhere without (you) really realizing,” he told Pond.

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As far as the film’s concept — wherein a man charged with cleaning up after the deceased is now responsible for the life of a young boy — Saba said it’s a bit hard to explain how the idea came to be. But he gave it a shot.

“I saw a documentary about forensic cleaners. And then I had a conversation about death,” he said, mentally revisiting how he pieced the movie together. “Ideas bubble inside of you. And then they come out like champagne.”

While it only took Saba two months to write the movie, using another champagne analogy, he said, “it was bubbling inside of me for more like three years.”

And if “The Cleaner” picks up an Oscar nomination, Saba will have another use for a champagne reference.