Manos Sucias/Josef Wladyka

Along the Pacific Coast of Colombia, Afro-Colombian fishermen are forced into the drug trade by paramilitary groups and guerillas threatening to kill their families and steal their land.  Out of countless stories collected firsthand from the people living this nightmare, director Josef Wladyka has fashioned a heart-stopping tale of two brothers forced to deliver a shipment of cocaine stuffed into a homemade torpedo. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Availability:  Check local theater listings here. Thanks to Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.


DT:  Let’s talk about your research into representing the Colombian drug trade authentically.


JW:  The research started in 2007 when I was just backpacking with my friend through Ecuador and Colombia.  We were going along the coast, talking to locals in all these towns that are under siege.  You’d hear stories about people getting inside homemade submarines and doing all sorts of crazy things trafficking drugs. It sparked my initial interest:  What’s going on here?

I speak enough Spanish to get by, but I’m not fluent, so I was always with someone who spoke perfect Spanish. When I went with the very specific intent of researching these areas and trying to find people who were involved in actually going on a mission, a friend of mine from Tumaco [Colombia] went with me   I also went to Malaga Naval Base, which is near Buenaventura.  I got permission from the government to see captured narco submarines and narco torpedoes. It was probably five years of researching and just going back to Colombia and Buenaventura, and starting to meet with some of the theater students and actors in the film.  It was an evolving process. The script was always changing as I learned more.



DT:  At what point did you know you wanted to make a film?


JW:  In 2009.  I was going through the graduate film program [NYU], and I was starting to think about what I was going to do for my thesis film.  This Colombia material was always in the back of my mind.  A lot of stories were starting to come out in the newspapers about the narco submarines and all this stuff going on, and that’s when I really wanted to research this and see what type of film there was here:  What was really going on in these places?  This script evolved from there.


DT:  The film included a lot of references to guerillas and the paramilitary, and even witches.  Who are they and how are they involved in the drug trade?


JW:  That’s an extremely long conversation. Buenaventura is a place that’s very much historically been forgotten by the government.  It’s over the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast.  It’s the biggest port in Colombia, so lots of imports and exports come and go.  It’s the richest port, but the people who live in the area have been completely left out of that economy, and since it’s in a specific region of Colombia with hidden mangroves and jungles and all this dead stuff, it’s the epicenter for a lot of narco trafficking.

Paramilitary groups and guerilla groups control different regions. In Buenaventura, the barrios have these things called invisible borders, where the barrios are controlled by different groups. For example, in real life, my lead actors couldn’t go to each other’s neighborhoods. A lot of the time people are extorted into doing this stuff; the drug traffickers come and take over their land and force them to plant cocaine, or they’ll come and start killing people to take control of the place. The right-wing paramilitaries are one group, but there are also these bands of gangs.  It’s an extremely complicated thing. In this area of Colombia there’s also a lot of superstition about witchcraft. Those little motorcycles on the tracks at the end of the film are called brujitas (little witches).  It’s a place that’s very much under siege. Last month [April 2014], Buenaventura had become the most violent it’s been in several years, so there was a lot of protesting going on, people asking the government to come and help stop the violence. It was all over the news in Colombia, and our film was premiering in Colombia while all of this was going on.


DT:  How was it received?


JW:  Colombians loved it. It’s interesting—now that I’ve sat with the New York audience, I see it’s completely different. Colombians are a lot more emotive.  It was beautiful.  I was extremely nervous; the actors hadn’t seen the film.  The production coordinator, who was from Buenaventura, was very, very emotional.  A lot of laughing, a lot of crying.  It was intense.


DT:  Imagine…all that from your thesis film. Can you tell me about the folk music you used?  It was very powerful, and a great use of music.


JW:  There are three types of music in the film.  There’s the score that was done by Scott Thorough, which is the music in the cinematic moments of the film.  There’s hip-hop and rap from Buenaventura, so we have some songs from two very popular rappers in Buenaventura. The third type of music, which you’re speaking of, is called currulao. It’s African-Colombian folkloric music very specific to this region of Colombia.  It’s very beautiful. My friend from Tumaco sent me two hundred songs from the area, and I listened to all of them. Halfway through the editing process, we started editing the a cappella parts over the images and it became very beautiful and powerful. There’s not a lot of women in the film, so it was almost like the voices of the women longing for the men as they go on these crazy journeys.  They’re singing about the ocean, and the beach, and God, and I hoped we could use the music, since it’s really hard to track down the artists who make the actual music. We found them, though. There’s two groups:  Grupo Gualajo and Grupo Socavon. They did all of the folkloric music.  We feel very lucky to have permission to use that music.


DT:  In the rap song the younger brother was singing, there’s this notion of fighting to maintain harmony.  What does that mean?


JW:  Buenaventura is a complicated place.  There are people who are just trying to maintain and go to school and have a normal life while all this madness is going on, and there are rappers who are trying to be artists while all this stuff is going on.  He’s basically saying, There are a lot of problems here, but we’re trying to be at peace in my neighborhood. He’s talking about a specific neighborhood in Buenaventura.


DT:  Can you talk about the filmmaking workshops you did with the local community to maintain a positive impact on the region?


JW:  That happened when the production crew saw Buenaventura for the first time. Elena Greenlee [producer] and my cowriter/cinematographer Alan Blanco had never been to Buenaventura before. It’s a very intense place, and we went on very extensive location scouts to talk to the community leaders in these neighborhoods. We were always extremely upfront and honest with them. We said, This is exactly what the film’s about, this is why we want to do it;  we’re gringos, and if you don’t feel comfortable with us doing this film here, that’s fine. But they wanted us to make the film and tell the story so much because it’s reality. It’s a matter-of-fact way of life.  But they also said, What are you going to give us?

We were a very small-budget film. We didn’t have big money, and that’s when Elena and all of us came up with the idea of doing filmmaking workshops.  She had worked on the film City of God and they had done a similar type of thing, so she was really brilliant in championing the whole curriculum of how we were going to do it. We did it all during preproduction, which was a crazy intense time, but we made sure to do it. It was a beautiful collaboration, and a lot of our crew came from these workshops. A lot of the cast came from them as well.  And that’s how we earned people’s trust for them to say, OK, we’ll let them come and shoot in these neighborhoods; they want to use us. Buenaventura’s a place where a lot of things are promised but little is followed through, so people there have this natural defense: You guys are just talking.  At first, because I’m American and they saw that Americans were coming to these displaced communities, they thought, Maybe this is something real. And I kept coming back, and they thought, Why does this Japanese Polish guy keep showing up here?…maybe he’s for real.  Then once the production people started to show up, the locals thought, OK, this is really happening, and we’re going to get on board with this.


DT:  From what I’ve read, it sounds like the offscreen relationship between the actors who played the two brothers was very much like their onscreen relationship.  They were really terrific.


JW:  They’re in my heart.  I love them so much.  They’re both from Buenaventura, they both have had extremely difficult lives, but they’re both very serious actors.  They went to the same theater school in Buenaventura, and they take their acting very, very seriously.

When they were first cast, they didn’t know each other very well and were feeling each other out.  I wanted them to be in the same hotel room from the beginning of it all so they’d really be like brothers, could really form that relationship.  I remember the moment Jarlin told Cristian, We’re going to be the first guys from Buenaventura headlining a film—this may never happen again, so we’ve really got to come together and work hard. They were in their beds every night studying the script together.  They took it very, very seriously.


DT:  In the press notes, Jarlin said, It’s a social responsibility to show the pain.


JW:  Yeah. He wanted to put his own personal stories and things that have happened to him out there. Alan and I wrote the script based off my research. Then one of my good friends, Orlando Cordozo, who lives here in New York but is from Barranquilla, translated the script into Colombian Spanish. I brought him down with me to be my translator, to be attached to me, because he knew the script so well, and he’s my friend and I needed someone as a reflection of me.  I speak Spanish, but to articulate intellectually, especially with the actors during the rehearsal process, I needed someone there with me. He was a godsend.

Once we’d cast the two main actors, we went through the whole script scene by scene and changed all the dialogue to local Buenaventura dialogue. At the same time I was always open. Because I wanted to be as authentic as possible, I was open to their ideas about changing stuff around. For example, we had written a scene where one of the brothers is crying and talking about his son who was killed, but the actor brought a real story that happened to him, and that’s what he’s saying in the film—that he was one of those little kids at the soccer field where all his friends got killed. We did a lot of stuff like that to include as much as we could. There’s a lot of racism in the film. In Latin America in general there’s still a lot of racism toward Afro Latinos, so I asked, Does this seem real to you; is this too much? And they said, Do more, do more. We didn’t want to beat that over the head too much, though, so it was a process.


DT:  One of the things your film made clear is the fact that film is such an international language.


JW:  Film is a powerful thing. When you backpack as a traveler, you only learn about a place to a certain extent, on the surface.  But if you make a film somewhere…  Buenaventura is a part of me forever.  Probably seventy-five percent of my friends on Facebook are from Buenaventura.  They’re making and posting videos, so I get to watch all this stuff they’re doing.

Our film deals with an international issue, so I think it transcends Colombia. Obviously Colombians know about Buenaventura, but we’re really hoping that the rest of the world can go past that.  That’s why the film has action-y elements to it. It’s accessible. Alan and I always felt that it still had to be an entertaining piece of fiction so that people would go see it. Then, if we leave the audience with something to think about at the end, we did a good job. It’s not a documentary.  We could have made a documentary, but it’s a narrative film, so it should be dramatic, it should tug and pull on the audience and be a good ride.  Our whole style, and the way we shot it, and the way we wrote it was to just ground the audience immediately in going on one of these trips.  Not a lot of stuff is going to be explained.  It’s just all happening, and you’re going with them.


DT:  What’s the biggest difference between what you learned in film school and what you learned on set?


JW:  The biggest thing you’re not going to learn in film school is what you have to do to get people to jump on board and actually get a film made—navigating all the different personalities you need to help you make your film.  In film school you make a little short film and that’s it.  But if it’s a real feature film, there’s a lot of people involved. Just the sheer size of a feature is overwhelming. I don’t know if that can ever be taught.



Copyright © Director Talk 2015

The Ladies of the House/John Stuart Wildman

Pity the man who disturbs the domestic bliss of three cannibal strippers—the titular ladies of the house—in this postfeminist horror film. Director John Stuart Wildman plays on gender roles in the horror-film genre, as well as gender relations in real life, in this candy-colored rendition of a happy home, imitating the bright, sunny carbro prints popular in the ’50s and ’60s, when shows like Father Knows Best were standard fare. Availability: Nationwide on Cable on Demand and iTunes.

DT: What attracted you to this genre?  And do you call it grindhouse, exploitation, horror?


JSW: It’s definitely a loving homage to grindhouse, but it’s very much a feminist thriller as well. We purposely didn’t want to be that easy to pin down. We wanted audiences to enjoy themselves and either be scared, filled with a proper amount of dread, or enjoy the dark comedy. We also didn’t want it to be something easily consumed and forgotten. We wanted a film that, when people left the theater, they would have to—pun kind of intended—chew on it some more. We wanted people asking, Is it OK that at a certain point my loyalties shifted to the women?  Is that so wrong?

Both Justina [~ Walford, cowriter] and I love genre films. We consider—only half kiddingly—Oldboy to be our couples movie, so that tells you a lot about us. We’re huge fans of Korean and Japanese horror, which influenced us, as well as many classic influences in the horror genre. Justina and I had written, produced, and directed a lot of theater before we met,  but none of the scripts we already had seemed to be the thing we wanted to do for our first film together. Justina half kiddingly, half in frustration, said, OK, cannibal strippers. And I said, If you write that, I’ll figure out a way to make it. I joined her about midway through the writing process, and five years later, here we are.


DT: I loved the way each character meets an end associated with his personality—the fool forever associated with silly plastic google eyes, the glutton disemboweled, the nice guy playing husband forever. It seemed to me like a mashup of Seven with character-as-destiny you find in noir and Westerns.


JSW: I love that you say that, because we employ these quickie flash-forwards of each character’s fate. We wanted each of the women to be very clear, iconographic figures—the kind that you would make figurines of. We wanted them to be that strong and that wonderful. We didn’t want a situation where women were victims or survivors or monsters. We wanted to clear the entire deck and have a world where men were superfluous, men were at the service of women completely. They had to negotiate, they had to deal with this world that was not their own, where they had no power whatsoever. The guys follow into that with their personalities, with weaknesses that oftentimes are attributed to women in these films. And their weaknesses bring about their downfall, exactly as you’re saying.


DT: What were the drawbacks or restrictions that came with working within this genre?


JSW: As far as filmmaking is concerned, there are no restrictions. There are no drawbacks to working within the horror/thriller genre. What’s wonderful about it is that you can bring up sociological issues, you can bring up political issues, you can bring up emotional issues that in a straight drama, and sometimes in a comedy, you sometimes feel you’re just being bludgeoned over the head with. But in a horror film, in a thriller, you can come at it from a different angle. Everybody’s scared about the bad guy, they’re scared about the monster, they’re scared about the horrific situation, and then they realize, Oh, wait a minute, this isn’t even about that, is it? How many times do you read a review, or you yourself are in a theater, and you go, Oh, the monster isn’t the monster, the people are the monster, and the “monster” is just bringing it out of the people.

The drawbacks and restrictions actually come from people’s perceptions—critically, journalistically, film writers. We really worked hard not to make this overtly a horror film, because we knew horror fans would find it. Like me, they sniff them out. They hunt them down. Non-horror-film fans see a poster image, and say, Oh, that’s going to be gory, that’s going to be gross, I don’t want any part of it. Early on we had a teaser poster with our own version of a classic Saul Bass design because we wanted people in more higher-minded critical circles, or even tastewise, to check out our movie and sample it and not be scared away by the prospect of gore or horror.


DT: The film is billed as a “postfeminist thriller,” and the heroes are women cannibals who feast on men. Comedy aside, is this your view of postfeminism, or is this a spoof on postfeminism?


JSW: Justina hates when I say it’s postfeminist. The two of us debate back and forth, Is it feminist, is it postfeminist?  What does that mean? For me, it means you’re going past the woman-as-monster or woman-as-victim scenario. You’re going past the typical debate about the role of women in these kinds of films. That’s the simple answer. As you dig deeper into it, you get into the idea of, Is it OK for me to be rooting for these women?  They didn’t invite these men into their house. The men encroached on their house, yet we can’t really justify what the women are doing.


DT: One of the women actually says that in the film.


JSW: Exactly. So we didn’t want to make it that easy. Yes, we wanted to give you clues as to where we might lean, but we didn’t want to make it an open-and-shut case.


DT: What were the filmic inspirations you talked about earlier?


JSW: Oldboy, as I mentioned, visually, stylistically. Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. We did one shot that was a blatant homage to a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That one actually goes hand in hand with The Devil’s Rejects, because they’re family films in a weird way. They’re films with very tight-knit families that are horrific from the outside, but on the inside, they care about each other. So you go, Wait a minute—if I can dismiss all this terrible, horrific stuff that I’m seeing and look at it purely from the point of view of whether this is a loving, caring family to each other, yeah, they are. Stylewise, Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. The use of color was very key to what we were doing. Very precise.

Definitely the French films Martyrs and Inside. There’s an intensity to those. Halfway through the scripting process, we sat down and watched an Asian anthology film called Three Extremes. After Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, we turned off the TV, looked at each other, and said, We’re writing an afterschool special compared to what we’ve just watched—we have to step it up. It also made us reassess American-produced horror films. Why can’t we approach that type of intensity that Korean cinema often has, that this spate of French films has? And can we? That made us scrutinize ourselves much more carefully.


DT: What was it about those other films that you felt American films didn’t match?


JSW: The classic example I always give is in the original Oldboy. There’s a scene where the protagonist, to show regret and remorse and apology to the antagonist, cuts off his own tongue. That’s not something American films or American filmmakers would go to: I will get revenge on you, I will do this bad thing to you by doing this to myself. That’s a whole other level of intensity. That’s something we just don’t do, and it’s something I think we miss. That’s why we’re looking to French and Korean films. Even in the best American films there’s something lacking. We’re just pulling up short. We’re limiting ourselves because we say, Our audiences can’t take that. I think our audiences can take it if it’s in the right context, and I think it really can devastate an audience emotionally in a way they never forget.


DT: And what about French films?


JWS: In the same way, it was Martyrs, Inside, Frontiers, High Tension. They had this amazing run of films, and they’re just devastating. Films you’ll never forget. In a good way. You know they say there are some things you can’t unsee?  Those are films that definitely fall in that category, and very much by design.


DT: You based the look of the film on Richard Miller’s tricolor process. Why, and how did you achieve the same look in Ladies of the House?


JSW: Just by happenstance, Justina and I went to an exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angles, and they had most of Richard C. Miller’s work there—the carbro process, the tricolor process. There was a saturation, a presentation to the colors that’s very much associated with the ’50s and early ’60s. It was used in advertising quite a bit, and there was something about it that instantly created a surreal world. We desperately wanted that for the world these women live in—the romance, this ’50s, Norman Rockwell pinup kind of lifestyle. When we get into their house, that’s the world they build for each other. We wanted to heighten that, but we still wanted to keep it real. We didn’t want to make it a cartoon.

When you see horror films, oftentimes it’s dingy, it’s grungy, it’s brown, it’s dirty, it’s gross. There’s a grime associated with horror that makes you say, That’s just disgusting. I don’t want to be in that world. So we said, Let’s go the opposite direction in this candy-colored way. Let’s drop these guys right smack dab in the middle of it. And then, as clues, we went further, color-coding each of the characters and each of their rooms. When you meet the Lin character, the first thing you see is this stripper’s bustier. It’s black and it’s yellow and you go, It’s a bumblebee. You have these visual clues. Or Melody Sisk, who plays Getty, is always in blues—strong, manly colors. She has this style that’s very much Rosie the Riveter. You can have all the sound turned off and you’ll get the idea, She’s the matriarch, she’s the mom, she’s the patriarch, she’s the dad. Crystal, who’s always in pink, is the baby. Does it really play on people?  It’s arguable. When a character’s dressed in purple, do audiences know it’s oftentimes a harbinger of death?  You don’t know, but you put it in there because it may work on them.


DT: How did you achieve those colors?  Were the rooms painted those colors, or did you do it in post?


JSW: It was both. In real life, Justina and I never argue. But in production, in writing, in preproduction, we would have these very passionate fights about color. I’d say, The lingerie needs to be a deep royal purple, and she’d say, The lavender’s fine. The color schemes in the house and the production design by Adam Dietrich were very, very specific. It was done both in camera, and then we also enhanced it with the color grading as well. So we started off with having everything very precisely done, and then, as we were doing the finishing work, we would tweak things even more to push them over the top.


DT: You shot the entire film with a Canon 5D. How was it?


JSW: We went back and forth on whether we would shoot this on a Red or on a D-SLR. Who sold me on the D-SLR was Sebastian Gutierrez. I was interviewing him in the Four Seasons at South by Southwest. While we were relaxing, I was talking about my film, and he said, You’ve got to shoot it on a D-SLR, and here’s why. He gets up and starts running around and ducking behind potted plants, saying, You can do this with it because it’s small.

We initially thought we were going to be shooting in this house we bought specifically for the film. It was a tiny house, and we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of room. A small camera would give us the versatility to move in and out of scenes, to not be setting everything up on a big tripod, so immediately that was a big win. As for quality, I looked at a lot of online tests and films that had been shot with that camera, and I was happy with the quality.


DT: You’ve been in the film industry for a long time, but this is your feature directorial debut. What did you learn about filmmaking you didn’t know before?


JSW: I knew a lot of things commonsense-wise going into this. Very, very early on I was an actor. Then I got a real job and started working at agencies and eventually in public relations. I know a ton of filmmakers from my work life, and I review and write about films myself. So I knew a lot of things and what to expect. But what I learned was the practical knowledge of improvising on a set, of managing a crew, being a leader on a set.

We had an amazing crew and we had a very smooth shot, but you occasionally have times where there’s a little malaise; that just happens. At one point, I said to one of our producers, I’m going to have to be Bad Daddy tomorrow. She stopped me and said, No you can’t. You have to be the cheerleader. I will be Bad Daddy as a producer. You have to be the force of positivity, the force of good. You have to be that guy until you cannot any longer. Until you absolutely have to do something, but until that time, you’re pumping everybody up. You’re keeping everybody excited and eager to work, and you let me and the other producers clamp down on people.

The other big educational thing is what happens when you’re done filming and you’re beyond post, and you’re now getting the film ready to actually put in the theater, or you’ve sold the film and now you have to deliver it, or, like this one, put it on VOD or in a DVD box. You have to deal with music rights, which is the bane of everyone’s existence. Until you’ve done it, you say, OK, I can see where that would be a pain. But you don’t really know until you have a scene and go, I really want to use this song, but I do not have $50,000 to spend on this one damn tune. And then there’s other things, like errors and omissions insurance, and copyrights, and chain of title, and bookkeeping—things like that. You’re saying, I made a movie. I directed actors. I put scenes together. What is this other stuff? Well, this other stuff is stuff you still have to do. Your job is not done unless you’re with a studio that’s taking all that off your hands and you can now just be an artist and go off to the spa. If you’re an independent filmmaker, you’re doing it on your own, and all that stuff is part of your job. That was a huge lesson.


DT: What’s your next project?


JSW: We have two shorts that should make the rounds in festivals next year. As far as a feature, we have a couple of projects on the horizon. One would basically be our version of a zombie film, which means that it’s not a zombie film at all but is the closest we can come. Expect kind-of zombies. And expect a love story. Because it’s also the closest we could come to a love story. The second project is much more experimental—not a genre film but a comedy that would take us back to our version of the old Playboy After Dark TV show. It’s something that’s fascinated me as a period piece and as a commentary on where we are with gender relations.


DT: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the film?


JSW: One of the goals we were trying for was, What if Doulas Sirk directed The Texas Chainsaw Maassacre? I say that to give people a flavor of what we were trying for. I’m not saying that I actually achieved that, that it’s a slam-dunk that you would watch it and say, Yeah, that’s Douglas Sirk, but I want people to be informed, to have that in their head. I don’t want a typical moviegoing experience for the people whose behinds I’m putting in seats. I want them to be prepared for what they’re going to see, and if you have that in your head, I think you’ll be ready for what we did.

I really don’t want to be put in a horror or genre ghetto, because as a film fan I look for something extra when I’m going to films like this—films like The Babadook, films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I want those things where films are reaching for a little bit extra. If that makes me happy as an audience member, why wouldn’t it make that audience member happy as well?


Copyright © Director Talk 2015

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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