Friday, December 26, 2008

Pedro Costa: "I Have to Risk Each Shot" | GreenCine

Pedro Costa: "I Have to Risk Each Shot" | GreenCine

I did film school and just after that I had four or five years of [working] as an assistant to the producer/director. I did a lot of things from just getting sandwiches for the actors to picking [them] up [and driving them to location]. Those five years just before this film, that was the period where I saw a lot of things that I didn't like. I chose film or cinema; but then I had this experience of the hard reality of making films. What I saw was very bad. I did a lot of films - maybe 20 or 30 - as an assistant and each one of them were mirrors of the worst parts of society, from power relations to all the worst part of our organization as human beings. I was a bit afraid that this work could become the rest of my life because I saw a lot of directors collapsing, failing, afraid, usually in very bad situation[s]. It was all about money or about lacking time. As I was assistant director, my job was to say, "Calm down. Everything's all right"; but I saw that everything was collapsing. That's what an assistant director does more or less, is to calm down the paralytics. It's a phony job actually, at least in Europe.

Then I had this moment in my film where I tried to avoid a lot of things. I think we succeeded. We had a very good crew. We did this film in five weeks. It was very quick and hectic with a lot of lighting. We had no time to rehearse with the young boys. There were a lot of locations. Because I was a little bit experienced with this kind of organization, we managed through it, but it was more a sensing or feeling [of] what the secret of making a good film could be - not the film itself - but the way you make it; the way you live it. It took me many films and many experiences to get to that point, to get things more or less right, as I feel I have now. Now, the film and the way we live the film during the making has begun to balance. I feel I have achieved a certain balance between being behind and in front of the camera. Here [in O Sangue], though there were not a lot of production problems, there is still a lot of me in front of the camera. The balance is not right, correct. It's more [that] everything was a means to an end.

...There's not that much money that comes in and less and less every year. You can feel it. Also, there are less possibilities of showing my films. But they're dangerous in the sense that I have to risk each shot of my film. There's a French writer, Céline, who I like a lot. He wrote Journey to the End of the Night, a classic novel. He used to frequently say that the writer should "put his skin on the table"; that was his expression. I feel the same way. If you don't risk yourself and the people with whom you're working in almost every shot you make, it's not good, it's useless, it's just another film. For me, this danger takes a lot of forms. I'm shooting with video, which - perhaps - some people think is easier and has more freedom, is cheaper. It is cheaper - you can do it yourself - but at the same time, if you want to do something ambitious, it's difficult for this small-medium machine to accommodate so much ambition. Can it produce a bigger form? A bigger picture? Sometimes, I think, not always. It's a very limited machine, a limited medium, and you can easily make false moves.

It's risky to try to use video as I'm trying to use it, almost like a 35mm camera. It's no different for me. I used to work with a crew and big cameras. I have the feeling it was safer for me when I had this crew, these assistants, this large machinery. It was protection. I was surrounded by people that were there for me, sometimes a bit naïvely, sometimes very sincerely, but that's a kind of work that no longer interests me. I don't know. There's a danger to the kind of engagement video affords, letting yourself be in reality, aware of certain aspects of reality. When I did films in 35mm with a crew, every day the thing that I wanted to shoot, to film, was happening either to the left or the right or behind the set-up - it could be some bit of the actors; it could be just a bit of light on leaves; it could be something happening just to the side - and with a big crew and cameras, lights and everything, you never had time to turn the camera and just shoot this small spot of sunlight on a rock. You never have the time. If you do that, it will kill your production schedule. So you never do it. The producers don't allow it. The machinery does not allow it. It's too complicated.

Again, this freedom or lightness in the way I work now doesn't mean that it's completely improvisational or that it's a vacation with a video camera. Not at all. I try to impose, almost, the same discipline and the same consciousness as working with a 35mm camera; but I feel that everything is really more risky. Technically, because we have to be as good as with a 35mm camera, which is nearly impossible. I'm adjusting my camera to conditions and always trying not to make false moves because video is not good for certain things.

One of the things I especially respect about your work is that you grant agency to your audiences. You're not just spoon-feeding us. The films pull us into their gravitational orbit and require an accommodating physicality, an attention, exploration, engagement, endurance.

It's not only me or the style or the way the film is structured; it's more the rhythm of the people inside the films. They also put themselves in danger because they are naked. These are naked people; they have been all their lives really, not only sentimentally, but socially, economically. They have little and they're giving a lot in the films. Giving a lot almost like actors though, for me, better than actors. They're more sincere. They want to share, they're trying to express some things, and - in that sense - they also are very much in danger. They reveal a lot. I think they expect that the viewers and the audiences can be as naked or as responsible or as conscious. Responsible is a good word because it's about memory, it's about rhythms, it's about different timelines and timeframes, all these people, and you have to accept that or walk out.

Can you talk a bit about your compositional eye?



No. To be very frank, people are always comparing and referring to filmmakers of the past. I forget to mention that there is a tradition that moves me a lot. Here, in France, in Portugal, in Spain, there were people all over the world at the beginning of the 20th century who were photographers. One of them even called himself a "citizen." They were more or less amateurs - you could say documentary photographers - because photography was so young from the turn of the century until the 30s when it became something else. But photography is still something that touches me and I always forget to say this because it replaces for me a lot of things that I miss in film today and in filmed documentaries. I don't like to talk about framing or the composition because I don't know how to talk about that. I really don't. I know that in Fontainhas it comes from the material space. You have to think about the space.

My friend Jean-Marie Straub says something obvious, "When you see a film by Stroheim, you are afraid for people when they cross the street." It's that material. It's two things. One, he was saying cars are bad. Second, the very powerful effect that just crossing a street at a street corner could really materialize fear on the screen; it's just incredible. Fritz Lang, the way he organizes space - I'm saying Fritz Lang but it could be 30 different filmmakers - all of them, even the not very good ones, are fantastic. Today, you don't see doors or windows. You never see a door. If you see a door, it closes in perfect silence. "Stuck in a perfect silence," that's what Jacques Tati used to say. Now a door closes and it's a different conception of space. I don't know if it's a conception that people accept today. I don't know how to answer your question.

...There was film criticism that I really hate completely, that almost killed people that I like, like Straub, all this semiology, and I hated that and I still do. It's pathetic if you read it today. I think everything communicates. They say nothing communicates. Perhaps people have difficulty communicating but things communicate. They organized space to communicate. That's what was the cause of one of my fascinations.

...The scene in the museum brings a little bit of the art into the film and, of course, says also that we say hello to these artists but without being too reverent. I don't like films that try to be paintings or try to imitate paintings or try to be close to certain paintings, as I don't like films that are too close to films, to cinema. A lot of vanity and fetishism is involved in that and I'm trying to get rid of that. So this museum scene is for me a nice way to come together with people that we liked in the past who did the same work we did. Very tough, very hard. Reubens worked like that with enormous canvases that he spent months and months trying to find something; it was not about some secret or strange mystique; it was just work, and our's too, so we meet and we do this moment where it's not only an homage to Holbeins and all the paintings but it's an homage to Ventura's work also.

Well, there's work and there's work. I've been taught that within indigenous cultures there's a belief that soulfulness is embodied and corporeal and that it comes through the body to register as creative expression. In other words, it comes from within and literally emerges through the whorls of the fingertips into the creative object. Fine craftsmanship is thus recognized as soulful. When I first read about Ventura's visit to the Museum, I considered that he was in essence admiring the soul he put into those walls.

...The best answer for your question is something I shot in my film on Jean-Michel Straub - Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? - the film about the editing. They say something that is not a mystery but that everybody tends to forget a little bit. All the critics and people that write about cinema, they tend to forget what is evidence for me and for Straub. He says it and I could say the same thing: there is not so much psychological investment when we are working. We're not trying to compose a dream or compose with dreams; but of course psychology comes into the film and - for me and for Straub and for a lot of filmmakers, especially the most classical ones, the ones that depend on at least some kind of narrative; it can be modern but they have this minimum narration they have to achieve - psychology comes into the film when you edit the film.

When you edit the film, you are composing, you are analyzing, you are choosing more deeply than when you are shooting. Of course you are choosing certain things when you are shooting a film - you are choosing a space and not another; you are choosing an action and not another; you are choosing a smile against something else - but when you're editing, you're choosing and you're going deeper and that can affect the psychology of a character, of the film. It depends on how you cut your film. It depends on how you put your shots together. It can say things and there it launches a lot of possibilities. That's when a lot of psychology is coming into the work. It's like that; you cannot refuse it. It's like Straub says in the film, you cannot refuse it because - if you cut close to a smile; if you cut close to someone that cries; then you have your next shot and it's larger and the reaction or response of someone to this laughter or this cry - this is psychology. This will tell things in another way, in a psychological way. I cannot refuse it. I'm just saying that when we are shooting, we are trying to concentrate on something that is very dry, actually, very dry. We're trying to get to what's rough. It's not a sketch. We start with the sketch of a thing and then we try to improve and improve and improve, but in movement, in rhythm.

It's more like a musician perhaps than theater work. There is not much psychology; feelings are absent; we tend to expel them to find them again at this editing stage. That's also very fascinating because you can change a lot of things and create a lot of affinities, which are psychological, even more than psychological. Editing is almost a psychoanalytic process, as you can see in the film about the Straubs.

I think the exact term would be "psychoid" rather than psychological, in the sense that you're not trying to create a meaning or generate equations saying this means that or this is the consequence of that. To be in a psychoid state is to say you are seeing with the psyche, imagining with the psyche. The affinities an audience might catch might emanate from a psychoid state and might not be your psychological intentions at all. You may not have put an affinity there; but, a spectator can look at a well-crafted, well-edited image and feel an affinity.

Sure. Then there is the interpretation the audience chooses or makes; but, that's another thing. Yeah, when you are structuring or constructing your film, in the editing especially, you're creating enemies, affinities, certain things begin to become enemies of other things, some things connect very closely, just because you cut one or two or three frames. It's fragile and magical. It's unexplainable. You cut a little bit and images become closer in every sense. You cut large and they clash.

I can't even fathom that work: shaping 340 hours of footage down to three hours. I can't imagine the process or the commitment of time. You took a year to edit Colossal Youth?

Yeah, it takes a long time. But it's great because it forces you to be patient. It's a discipline that, I think, lacks in a lot of cinema today in general. It's a lesson - well, this is very pretentious and reactionary - but, it's a good lesson for young people. I think young people today are used to things that are so easy; the films are so easy to see and easily made. That kind of work is everywhere so they don't imagine hard work. Probably they don't want to do hard work. I tend to say that it's not a mountain of suffering that comes for you; it's just work you should do like everybody else does in all aspects of society, like the simple guy that has a shop and opens the shop at 9 and closes at 6 or 7 every day for years and years. Cinema should be like that and not just special and incredible with funny and strange moments in six weeks of the life of someone. It should be everyday. It should be patient. That's the only way to learn a little bit. You should give film time. You should give cinema more time today. That's what I think it lacks a lot.

When I see a movie, I always see that they had no time to think. It's like Jean Renoir. Renoir said something that is not very true; but he said his American films, the films he made in Hollywood, were all bad because he had no time. He couldn't get used to the four, five, six week production schedule, shooting very fast, so he said his films were not good and that - after the films in Hollywood - he had to go to India to do something where he could really discover and work properly. He did The River.

Speaking of that temporal quality to film, you've used the term "material" to describe your films, and suddenly materiality in film seems better than metaphors in film! Letting something just be what it is and apprehending it that way, appropriately. The Maya of Central America had a concept called the ilbal. An ilbal could be any number of things - a rock crystal, a folded book, an inscribed monument, in your case a cinema lens - basically, an ilbal is a seeing instrument that furthers perception. Your films allow me to see. I don't always understand what it is I'm seeing but, then, I think you like my not always understanding. I think as a filmmaker you want me to question what I'm seeing?

Of course.

And it ramifies. Now, I will accept that your films are not metaphorical and I will accept that they are not necessarily symbolic or even representational, but - because of the temporality and the materiality in your films - I would have to argue that there is a mythic quality to them. Yours are stories that slow down and dilate perception, shifting them into mythic territory. Let me offer two examples from Colossal Youth, which I'd like to run by you to see if I'm projecting or not.

Returning to the doors, I know you have talked about leaving the door closed, that it's a philosophy about access or lack of access, but for me such a philosophy implies a necessary transgression on the part of the audience, in the old style of fairy tales, let's say, where a character is told, "Do not open that door. Do not open that box. Don't do that!" And yet it's absolutely imperative for the character to open that door, open that box, and to do what they're not supposed to in order for the story to move forward and for the wisdom to be gained. Are you doing that?

[Costa smiles ear to ear and chuckles.] Yeah. It's so obvious for the films that I've been making at Fontainhas and Casal Bobol that we are dealing also with space and fear. Everything comes together because it's about space, it's about being in space, creating your own space. It's all about rooms and it comes from a very faraway place also, from childhood, from being a teenager.

For instance, In Vanda's Room is a film that I thought was about all the rooms, all our teenage rooms, where we close doors and decide not to talk or to talk, to play a guitar or read a book or imagine. It's a film about creating your space or how space is created for you to be in. It's about the problem of space today because the space today is paid for and it has to be almost fought for. This space is a way in and out also. Even the light comes in through some holes and so I'm very used to this being my center for making a film. I have to find the center of a room, the center of a neighborhood, so that then I can begin to have an almost 360° view of things. I start opening some doors and closing some other doors, letting some people in or not, and sometimes I decide to close some doors because it's better for the audience perhaps or for the story or for the film. While other doors are just open, mostly windows I think, lots of seen or unseen windows, sources of light, there are spaces. You can see that the light comes in through some indirect window or hole or aperture. That's very interesting for me.

Another mythic element I've foisted on Colossal Youth that I'd like to run by you: in Sumerian-Babylonian mythology the original descent myth is that of the descent of the goddess Inanna. Do you know that story at all?


Innana has a sister named Ereshkigal who is the Queen of the Underworld and, one could say, she doesn't really like her job. She's pretty miserable. It's not so much that Ereshkigal is a bad person; she's just a dark person and it weighs heavily on her. There are many elements in the myth of Inanna but the bit that I'm interested in that I think is relevant to Colossal Youth involves Ereshkigal. She has two attendants. They're like imps or spirits that live in the thresholds of the doors. They're threshold spirits and I see them as the original psychoanalysts, the original therapists, because what they do is they repeat back to Ereshkigal all her complaints. She'll say, "Oh, I have all these aches and pains. My arms hurt" and they'll whisper back, "Oh, your arms hurt." She'll say, "Oh, my back hurts," and they'll whisper back, "Oh, your back hurts." That's all they do. They repeat her complaints and it comforts her. I felt this with Ventura, that he was a liminal spirit moving through all these doors and rooms, listening to everybody, but never offering advice, just listening and sometimes repeating what people have said.

That's nice. I like this comment you're making. It's important because he never really gives advice. He's not a doctor or a psychoanalyst. He's not even a father. It's a bit like myself when I make a film with these people. The thing is I cannot rob them, but at the same time, I cannot give them anything. It's very sad sometimes. It's very ambiguous, but I don't think cinema can give that much to these people, but anyway, cinema is not there to rob them or dispossess them of something.

You've honored them.

I think so. It's done with some dignity. But we're equals. I'm not quite sure who is gaining in a profit sense and neither of us lose also.

Recently, I read Alexander Nemerov's Icons of Grief, which is about the films of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton. I'm looking forward to seeing Casa de Lava, which I understand is somewhat a remake, or a reworking, more a riff, of I Walked with a Zombie, which is one of my favorite films. Nemerov's thesis - and I can apply it to your films - is that, like John Ford, like yourself, the extra, the character actor, the minor role, the marginalized role, is almost the true story. The lead actors are primarily there to drive the narrative forward, but it's the brief appearance of minor character actors that carry the weight of unspoken grief and tragedy. Nemerov describes them as iconic. Especially in his collaborations with Tourneur, Lewton would film these minor actors standing very still, almost pictorial, invested with presence.

In many of the reviews of Colossal Youth, Ventura is described as iconic and mythic. He embodies, as you are saying, the grief of ages, the ongoing tragedy of a displaced, enslaved people. In Colossal Youth I noticed this iconicity was achieved through your camera placement, which is very low, looking up at him. Was that conscious? Why did you do that?

For me it was more about the daily work. Before starting every day's work, for me it was more about, How can I meet this man? This very big man that I had met and with whom I had talked and who had accepted my proposal to make a film? Then came the moment in the first weeks of the shoot where I had to find how I could be as - the words are not enough - how can I put myself at his height really with my camera? The camera came down and down and down because I could not be at his height. I had to be lower. It was not instinctive, but for the first weeks of shooting, I adopted this height, this position, this respect perhaps - but it came like that and stayed like that. It seemed good for me. It seemed good for him, especially for the image, and it seemed good for him in the space. He was the one who was more or less the designer of the space. He crosses some things that make you aware.

It's my feeling that when you see him at some doors or in some places like the museum, Ventura is a man for a museum also when everyone says no. There are some people that are not for the museum. This is also a metaphor. Of course he fits very well in this Louis XV chair called the "Canopy of Confidence." Ventura is more or less the designer or the architect and it is because he designed the neighborhood. All these men, these pioneers, they made this medina, this place.

So it's because he crosses the shots or he enters and gets out or just being in the shot, being there, made me be at this height of camera position. If there's not a living human being in a shot, the shot does not exist today. It's very strange. Even more with Ventura or with people with this mythical quality, I tend to be respectful. My camera wondered and was a little bit afraid of him. A little bit. It's not fear; it's...


Yes. So that was my feeling every day when I came to the place, when I arrived and saw Ventura, how can I do it again? How can I do it today? How can I go on? Because he seemed much more than what I imagined. And that was good because we both worked with imagination, especially the other's imagination, which is much more rich, confronting this other person and you have to begin the work with him, this challenge between him and you. This is what's going to be the film, the imagination and the void of the film, the ideas. The whole film is about me and him and it's also about space. The way we are everyday. Ventura is a very polite, elegant man that does not seem a man of today, you know? I have the feeling that some people are not of today. It's rare but sometimes you see someone who seems from the past, who has the force of the past, like our grandfathers, and Ventura is this kind of man. It makes you wonder.

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