A Wolf at the Door/Fernando Coimbra

A director’s director, Fernando Coimbra has crafted a terrifying and cinematically brilliant study of a spurned mistress who kidnaps her lover’s daughter. Based on a real-life incident that rocked Brazilian society, Wolf at the Door subtly employs the language of cinema to draw the audience into a story they’d rather reject. The film, Coimbra’s first feature, was a hit at the Toronto, San Sebastian, SXSW, Miami, Havana, and Rio di Janeiro Film Festivals. Availability:  Opens March 27, New York, L.A., and Ohio.  Click here for listings. Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  The movie was like a very fine chain, with everything linked together to form a seamless whole. Let’s talk about how you put together the mise-en-scene, and the dialogue, and the storytelling, and the lighting, and the sound design.


FC: For mise-en-scene, the two things that were important for me to decide in terms of shooting were the flashbacks and the story the characters are telling. The first thing I decided was to shoot in long shots with no editing—no cuts. I always try to have all that I can with one shot. One thing that was very important to capture was the acting. I wanted the actors to be acting in real time; I wanted them to be looking each other in the eye and we see the scene happening in front of us. The shot would be good when I saw that it really happened in front of the camera—it wasn’t something I viewed in the editing.  I also wanted to see the characters’ reactions. When actors were saying their lines, it was important to see what was happening with the actors who were listening. In real time. That’s why I shot the film this way.

The film is very realistic, but at the same time the mise-en-scene is not so realistic, because the actors are also telling the story. I wanted to capture all their emotions at that point in time, so I worked a lot with different ways of lighting and moving the camera, depending on what they’re feeling. When the husband and his mistress go to the apartment where they have their love affair, the apartment changes a lot along the way. In the beginning, it’s sunny, it’s nice, and as their relations become darker, we have a lightning scene. I wanted to bring what they were feeling to this scene because it’s very subjective—they’re telling their own story. I wanted to make this visible.


DT:  What struck me most was the composition of the shots.  How did you use composition to tell the story?


FC:  I always want to bring the right emotion for a scene, and somehow it’s very instinctive. I worked for a long time in theater as an actor, but also as a writer and director’s assistant. It’s like riding a bicycle; when you learn it, you have this kind of relation with mise-en-scene, where the actor should be when he looks at the other actor, how the camera moves, the way we put it in the space. In this film I try to put the camera very close to the actors’ faces, but sometimes I like to lose them. I made a short film before this called Tropico das Cabras (Tropic of Goat), where the actors leave the frame and come back, and then have a relationship with what’s outside the frame. We don’t need to see it. I like the suggestion, I like when we don’t show everything, when the audience can complete in their minds what’s happening.  So sometimes one of the actors is not in the scene, or something is happening that we are not seeing exactly, but you understand what happens.  I like to work with something that’s out of the frame and put the audience to work with the film, to complete the film, to not show everything so the audience is less passive.

I didn’t want to make the film with the camera static the whole time, because there are a lot of films like this nowadays—not in the US, maybe, but in Latin America and Asia. I got inspired by a film called Millennium Mambu, by Hsiao-Hsien Hou, the Chinese director. He has exactly this: very intimate relations between the actors in the film, but the camera touches things and loses the actor and then finds another actor. The scenes are very intimate, and the camera moves very organically. I try to do this, but without cutting.

A lot of scenes became a challenge, like the one on the merry-go-round. We wanted a scene where they’re talking, and you see one and then the other’s reaction, so we used a merry-go-round turning, with the camera going around the whole time at the same speed on the outside. And the merry-go-round changed because the actors talked, and stopped, and moved, and the cinematographer was following them. It was the kind of thing you have to do a lot of times because you cannot rehearse this and say, OK, now you move here, now you move there; the actors moved spontaneously. I told them, “Just do this in a natural way, and we’re going to find a way to make this work.”


DT:  How many takes did you do?


FC:  Not a lot. I don’t like to do a lot of takes, but sometimes we had to. It was more than five.


DT: How about the five-minute scene in the bedroom?


FC: Two takes. There were some scenes I rehearsed much more than others, scenes that have the whole complexity of the characters. These are scenes where the emotions change a lot; they start one way and finish in a completely different way. We built a very special set for the bedroom scene. For the dialogue, I just put the camera very close. Then he leaves and comes back, and I want them to be looking at each other eye to eye, even closer. For me, if you don’t believe in that scene, you’re not going to believe anything in the film. You must believe that she wants to be his lover, that she knows he’s married but she wants it anyway and that he wants her also and that’s why she wants him.  People could say, Why does this woman want to stay with this guy? so the scene must really happen in front of the camera. But we were able to do it in two or three takes because the actors were very well prepared.

It was the same with the next scene on the beach, where they’re in the car and the camera is moving. We didn’t have much time. The beach was very far and we got there late in the day, so we didn’t have light for very long.  We had half an hour to do everything, but the second time we did it, they got it.


DT: Let’s talk about the sound design, because that was the very first thing that struck me.


FC: I was very concerned about that.  Nowadays, I think it’s the only thing we can make new and different. With mise-en-scene and shooting and camerawork we can do very fresh things but not completely new, whereas sound has a lot of things to explore yet dramatically, and not only with special effects. I work a lot with the same people—the cinematographer and editor—but the sound designer is the one I worked with more times than any other.

We thought about the sound design from the very beginning; I wrote it into the script. The sound designer did something that’s not so common in  Brazil, though I think it’s more common in the United States: he also composed the sound track. He didn’t want to do this, but I insisted. I thought it would be better for the film because we were going to think about the music and the sound design as one thing. He went to all the sets and recorded the sounds around the place while the sound recordist was focused on the dialogue. He tried to use the real sounds of the places as much as he could, because we wanted to be like Japanese theater, where they use sound a lot to tell the story. I just used the music when I thought it was really necessary; when I can use something else, I do.  I think it’s richer for the film.

At the end of the film, for instance, we have the sound of the crickets. When I shot the scene, there was this cricket very far away, but I thought, Let’s improve it—let’s use it like a musical note. When they’re fighting in the apartment, we used a jackhammer to make things more difficult; there’s also a car alarm the moment he approaches her. There are a lot of very subtle things that we introduce in the film: urban sounds that could be normal; dogs that bark in the night. We tried to use things in the right moment. I like it more than music to comment and bring the right emotion for the audience. When it really makes a difference, I use music. When the mistress starts telling her version of the story, we created the music using the sound of the train, where her lover works. The voice of the train station and the sound of the train were built with the music. It’s not the music and then the sound.  For me that makes a difference for the sound design.


DT:  Let’s talk about some of the dolly shots. In the first one, you were dollying away from the mistress; in the rainy scene in the apartment you dolly in; then there was a third shot on the little girl where you dollied out. Was that intentional, or just another instinctive thing?


FC:  No, they were very built. In the little girl’s scene, for example, I wanted the audience to think for a moment that the mistress has left the girl in that shop. I dolly out, and you can see that fragile girl in that place where she doesn’t know anybody and she’s alone with her juice. In this moment we used the sound design a lot also; as the dolly goes out, all the sounds of the city become higher and higher, and you start to hear what you’re not seeing but what’s at our back and on the street. I wanted this image of having this girl alone in this town.

For the dolly in in the rainy scene, I wanted to capture the emotions of the actress, because that was the moment that she just went to his house and saw the wife and realizes that her lover is never going to leave his wife. When she agreed to be the mistress, she actually thought, I’m going to change him. He wants to stay with his wife, but I’m special. Then she starts to realize it’s not like this, and I wanted to have the sensation that things are not working anymore.  In the beginning of the shot we have the dialogue and then he leaves the frame and we have just her, and the rain on her body and the shadow of the rain. We need time to see she wants, she doesn’t want, she wants, she doesn’t want; we stay with her, get close to her, and then we go to him and see that we cannot have. They start to be more affectionate, but then they start to be more violent. It’s love but she wants to fight with him, to harm him, so I want to see this change, all this complexity of the emotion of the character. The same thing when they fight and he goes to the bathroom. When he becomes very violent with her, you feel, Whoa, that’s something more serious and more difficult than I thought. I wanted the same slow dolly in, to come closer to her as she’s crying, and you see that something really changed in this moment. At the end I want to be very close to her; when he comes back we don’t see his face, we just see his hand that’s not hitting. This is the complexity that I like in the film and I like to work in the shot. He harms her, he hits her, and then hates her, but he wants to stay with her. I like the image in the beginning of the scene where you see them in the big frame and at the end we’re very close, you just see his hand.  We could cut, but I wanted to do this in the same shot.  Now she’s crying, but the hand that hit, the hand she’s afraid of, now it makes nice. I wanted to bring this sense that the same hand that hits is the same hand that loves.


DT:  In another interview, you said that Bertolucci’s films made you understand that cinema can do more than entertain. What did you want this film to do?


FC:  I want the film to stay with people for a long time. You leave the theater, and the film stays.  But why?  Because of the motivation that made me do this film.  I read about this story in the newspaper, and I saw how society and the press treated this woman as a monster, as a beast, as a non-human being. I don’t agree with the crime, of course, but I think it’s a passionate crime.  She’s not a serial killer or someone who has a sickness in her mind. She’s a little more crazy than normal, but all the emotions she experienced, anyone can experience. Anyone can get close to that. There are people who will cross that line and people who won’t cross it, but we can get close to that line. If you are really in love with someone, you can lose your mind. It’s common to everyone and I want the audience to experience that, because when we deny our madness, our basic instincts and emotions—that wild or dark side of human beings—it’s much more difficult to deal with. But if you learn how to accept that you are an animal, that you have instincts to survive, to defend your family, to defend yourself, or to harm someone because of anger, it’s much easier to live than denying it and thinking, Oh, I’m a human being.  I’m civilized.  These things don’t belong to me anymore. That’s why we have a lot of  very brutal crimes—they’re treated by society as something you don’t talk about.  But let’s see what is normal, what is human in this behavior, let’s understand that it’s not so far away from us as we think.  That’s what I want the audience to experience and to have.


DT:  Your actors are very well known in Brazil.


FC:  Four of them are famous in Brazil now, but when we began shooting, only two were. Leandra Leal, who plays the mistress, is very famous. Her entire family is in the theater. She did a lot of feature films, but she also did a lot of soap operas, because in Brazil the star system is from TV soap operas. It’s much more popular than cinema. Milhem Cortaz, who plays Bernardo, is famous in a different way. He did two Elite Squads with Jose Padilha, who remade RoboCop. When we shot the film, the actress who played the wife and the actor who played the sheriff were not so well known, but just after I shot the film they did one of the most popular soap operas of all times, and they became very famous.


DT:  That’s good luck for you.


FC:  So now we have four superstars in a low-budget film.  We wanted to have some famous actors because it helps us with the audience. In Brazil, we have very commercial films that usually are comedies, and we have very arthouse films. It’s difficult to find a film where you can work with cinematic language, make more elaborate mise-en-scene, all the aspects of film that we were talking about before, because these comedies are very popular there. But this is a film that any audience can watch and understand. It’s a very basic story; anyone can follow it. So we tried to do something in the middle, between being commercial and being arthouse. For this I needed some famous actors, but at the same time they had to be great actors.


DT:  I also read that you might be working here, in the US.  How will those movies differ from movies you make in Brazil?


FC:  I never directed a film I didn’t write.  That’s the first difference, and it’s a basic difference.  In Brazil, I have an idea, I write the screenplay, and I make the film. Here it’s different. You have many more writers here than in Brazil, so you have scripts that don’t have a director. In Brazil we don’t have this industry; the director is working on the film from the beginning, developing it together with the writer. It’s a different way to do films. We’re starting to change things now in Brazil because the industry’s becoming bigger. I always wanted Brazil to be more like it is here, because there we depend on government and a lot of things that don’t have to do with making a successful film.  In Brazil, there are people who make films their whole life and no one sees these films. They keep doing films because they are someone’s friend, or they have good political influence.

Now it’s going to be easy for me to make my second film—here—because the film’s successful in Brazil and abroad. The way the industry works is tougher, more cruel somehow, but I like it. I didn’t expect this reaction; when I was in Toronto, agents and managers and people looking for projects were coming to me.  Really?…I just made one feature.  For me it was a surprise, because I thought it would happen after the second or third film. This kind of recognition here is bigger than in Brazil.  So it’s wow.  I was expecting the opposite.


DT: Why? It’s a great film.


FC: The premiere was in Toronto, and I had no idea if the film was going to work. I like it very much, but you never know how the audience will react. For example, I thought that maybe I wasn’t going to any important festivals because the Europeans want to see a kind of Brazilian film that they believe is a Brazilian film. The same with Argentina. Europeans say, This is an Argentinean film, or this is Brazilian cinema—a film that’s slow, nothing happens, it takes ten minutes for someone to get a coffee.  That’s Latin American cinema.  And I was worried, because my film’s not like that.  I was talking with an Argentinean script consultant. He’s mad, because Argentineans are making films that the French and the Germans think are Argentinean films. Everybody starts to say, Oh, this film went to Cannes, so let’s make a film like that.


DT:  As a matter of fact, Julia Murat, another Brazilian director, said exactly the same thing—that film festivals almost demand a certain type of film and that people are making films for film festivals.


FC:  That’s why I was worried about my film: because I did the film that I wanted to do.


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