A Conversation with Kleber Mendonça Filho (NEIGHBORING SOUNDS)
(NOTE: This conversation was first published on June 27, 2012.)
Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho is the picture of confidence, striding onto the upper deck of the L.A. Live parking structure, which has been turned into offices, a filmmaker lounge, and an outdoor seating area for the 2012 L.A. Film Festival. His first narrative feature, Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor), won the FIPRESCI Award earlier this year in Rotterdam, and is having a hugely successful festival run. It’s already been picked up for distribution by Cinema Guild (and opens theatrically on Friday, August 24, 2012). He speaks at an unhurried pace, like he’s accustomed to being listened to—definite opinions combined with an openness and sense of wonder.
Neighboring Sounds is the story of a group of upper-middle-class neighbors in Recife, Brazil—many of whom belong to a family that used to own the whole area where they live—who hire a security firm to patrol their street. The new security guards become increasingly aggressive, and the neighbors variously react with paranoia, resignation, anger, and efforts at appeasement, as an undeclared war quietly escalates. The first draft of the script was famously written by Mendonça Filho in seven days, to make the deadline for a competition. He drew on years of notes he’d taken: interesting and unusual observations of real life, seen through his unique prism. The synopsis of the story doesn’t do justice to a film that’s bursting with innovative narrative and cinematic ideas, melded into an organic whole. Each scene is a rich vignette, performed with flair by an impeccable cast. As suggested by the title, the soundtrack is fundamental to the story, incorporating artfully designed pounding and buzzing, a recurring barking dog, and other incidental noises.
And oddly enough, in the course of this interview, an incredible symphony of sound happens all around us: construction noises, air conditioners, traffic, and then even music: 1960s oldies playing over a PA.
Hammer to Nail: We know very little about you, since this is your first narrative feature, so can you tell me a little bit about your background? Did you grow up in Recife?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Yes, well I spent most of the ‘80s in England where my family moved—my mother got her PhD from a British University and then I went with her. It was from 1982 until 1987, and it was, yeah, very important years in my life. But I was born in Recife and grew up in Recife and went back to Recife after that. And then I did journalism in university and after that I started to write as a journalist and then as a film critic. Two years ago I stopped writing as a critic because I just couldn’t do it anymore, it got to be too much, and I had to make this film, and I was also finding myself in situations where I would rather not write about certain films because I was already a filmmaker and that created a situation where —I can’t be writing about films by friends or colleagues. It just got to be a little bit too much sometimes. And then I quit to make this film, and of course I miss it, but I’m very happy that I quit also because it’s like getting rid of one gigabyte in your hard drive. I was—you know, a normal week I could write two reviews or maybe five. The exercise of going to the films and coming back and having to write—I was already thinking of making this film—it was just too much. And I quit. Now, I’m working for my film, and my films, and I’m also a programmer. I program a cinema in Recife to show everything that the multiplexes will not touch. And it’s something that I really love to do—I’ve been doing it for 14 years.
H2N: As an artist, coming from a background of being a critic, what specifically, or generally, did you think you wanted to bring to filmmaking that was unique and that was yours? Did you see something that was missing in the films that you were watching? Or was there just something personal that you wanted to express?
KMF: The starting point really has to be Brazilian cinema—that’s the environment which has nurtured my desire to make films. It’s like I’ve been telling some of my friends: you’re in a conversation, or on a panel, and the conversation is going somewhere, and then you just feel that you want to put your hand up and say something. In terms of Brazilian cinema, this is the type of film that I would like to see, so that’s my personal contribution. But really it’s a big surprise, and I’m still in this cloud of satisfaction because I’ve been traveling with my film in international film festivals. The film hasn’t been screened in Brazil yet, and it turns out that the film seems to have good communication outside the environment where I made it. In the beginning I thought it would be a very local, regional, almost parochial film, maybe because I shot it where I live, you know, the street where I live. But I think getting these very positive reactions, not only from critics and programmers, but from cinephiles—people who watch the film—this is great. So yeah, in a way it was my way of giving a contribution to a panorama of Brazilian cinema, which I think is changing by the way, because I am one of the 10 or 15 younger filmmakers who are coming to their first features after many years or some years making short films. And the other sad thing is that the short film scene is very important and everything, but it is like a ghetto. And the other thing I find out now is that I got out of the ghetto. Which is sad, because short films should be—they should get the same respect. I always thought that, but they don’t. And now that I made a feature everything just feels more intense, and people seem to respect me more because I made a feature. But yeah, a lot of interesting filmmakers and their friends—some of them are not so close, but I have a lot of friends who are coming now to the feature film.
H2N: I want to ask you about the style you created which seems unique and personal. You seem to be able to create a slightly surreal cinematic world using naturalistic elements and acting styles, and maybe there’s something in the cinematography that adds to that, but it’s kind of subtle. Anyway that’s my take on it but how would you describe that or how do you understand that?
KMF: I really understand your question and I really respect it but sometimes I find it hard to answer a question like that, and something just came up that I haven’t really told anyone before, but it’s a little bit like asking somebody about their signature on a letter—how is it that your signature is so kind of round and then it goes [KMF makes a writing gesture]. It’s very hard to explain—I have had reactions about this slightly surreal aspect of the narrative of the film or the tone of the film, and what occurred to me is I remembered this fantastic story that Polanski’s cinematographer told in—have you seen a documentary Visions of Light? It’s about cinematography.
KMF: And I can’t remember his name—maybe it was Fraker? William A. Fraker? But he was preparing a shot in Rosemary’s Baby which was down the hall, and Ruth Gordon is supposed to be making a phone call and we don’t know who she’s calling, and Rosemary’s kind of disturbed by the presence of these neighbors in her house, and then the cinematographer set up the shot and told Polanski to have a look in the viewfinder and he goes “Nonononono, just a little bit more to the left.” And now we couldn’t really see Ruth Gordon’s face; we could just see the back of her back, and you could still see that she was on the telephone but you couldn’t see the face. And the guy says, “But we can’t see her face.” And Polanski goes, “Exactly.” So I think that little—the way he moved the camera a little bit is probably what—and I did think a lot about that when I was making my film, you know, instead of shooting a certain way, just move the camera a little bit. And after many instances where that happens, maybe that brings a kind of a slightly—things are slightly off, in a way. I just told you this, but I’m really not sure… I think a lot of what goes on in the film is very mundane and very normal, but maybe it’s the rhythm, or maybe it’s the way we don’t really give information about what’s happening, and you really have to stick to the characters and find out slowly. Which is something that a lot of people do, but not very often. There’s a filmmaker that I really love, his name is Elia Suleiman, a Palestinian filmmaker—he did Divine Intervention, that’s a film that I love—I love the way that he shows people in that film, and we never know what they’re doing but if we stick around, “Oh, wow!” And then you realize, and that’s something that I really enjoy, you know, when a film does that. Rather than giving you the whole Wikipedia batch of information before you even begin to… “This guy’s like this, so he’s gonna do this.” So maybe that explains some of what you’re trying to bring from the film. But it’s really hard for me to actually explain what it really is. It is very personal, and the other thing I could tell you is that when I was writing the script I realized it was very realistic, but I also felt that I wasn’t interested in making this 100% realistic kitchen-sink kind of realism, you know? I wanted to make a film that was a lot of fun to shoot. Each scene had to be fun. I could never hear from my assistant director, “What are we gonna shoot tomorrow morning?” and she would say this and that, and I could never go, “Oh, that scene…” It always had to be, “Oh, that scene! I wanna shoot that!” So that probably explains some of the way the film sometimes leaves the main part and then it comes back again. Because going there would be not only fun, but interesting in a way, to tell the story. Obviously, you get people who love the film and people who don’t like or don’t understand the film. And a lot of the detractors say that the film goes off—it just wastes its time with details which are not important to the story, but for me they’re very important for it.
H2N: Also in terms of your style I wonder about—at least in American indie film there’s a kind of an orthodoxy of using the handheld camera, and it seems like your film has gone completely in the opposite direction—even bringing back like the camera zoom that hasn’t been seen in years, or things like that.
KMF: It was because as a viewer I can’t really stand—well, I don’t wanna sound like a radical, but I can’t really stand watching films which use the handheld as proof of reality. You can use the handheld any time, but not when you’re—and this is something that I picked up from James Gray, right? James Gray, the American who did We Own the Night and Little Odessa, and yeah, he’s James Gray, that’s his name… I might be wrong. And I was watching the Blu-ray for Two Lovers a couple of months before we started shooting, and that’s a film that I really like, it’s very classic, but at the same time it’s extremely realistic. It takes place in a Brooklyn apartment; the characters are very normal, but the film is shot in such an elegant style, and then I think in the commentary track he did mention you don’t have to push the handheld camera and the lens in somebody’s face to prove that you’re being realistic. This is something that really matched what I was planning for my film, and it was great to hear that—this guy that I admire, this filmmaker that I really admire, making a beautiful film in the way that I wanted to make my film—telling me that on his commentary track out of his own experience. And there is a handheld sequence in my film but it’s the only one and I thought that it would fit the sequence. It’s when they visit the old house which is empty and there’s a swimming pool and stars on the ceiling. And I think in Brazil—it’s not only American independent cinema, in Brazil there’s a lot of that, and you ask, “Why did you go handheld?” “Because this is so realistic.” [KMF laughs]
H2N: In your editing also you make some interesting choices, like using dissolves within a scene, or you’re just cruising along and then you have a shocking moment and then you cut away—where did that come from?
HMF: Well the editing choices, they’re very much like when you have this idea for a song in a film and then you put a song on the timeline, and within two seconds you know that it’s the right one, and you know that it’s completely wrong if it’s the wrong one, if it doesn’t work, you know? And sometimes, especially when you have a lot of time to edit, like I did—I edited the film for a year and four months—you come up with interesting solutions. If you edit a film under pressure you might even arrive at a very interesting result, but if you have a lot of time you can actually play with interesting ideas, and a lot of those ideas, they came from, you know, I’m driving and I go, “Wow, maybe I can shorten that shot because…” And then you go back and you do it and “maybe I could try a dissolve there.” And those smash cuts—it’s funny because the smash cut with the car crash in the beginning was already in the script, but after I did that one I enjoyed it so much that I began to re-think a lot of the cuts in the film. Especially when everybody gets up in the end, you know, the two brothers and Francisco the patriarch—that wasn’t supposed to be like that, but I just liked the way they—the physicality of the act, of just getting up like that, with a little bit of sound. The sound was greatly exaggerated with them getting up, you know. I even added some kind of chair being pushed away, which was not in the sequence but it made sense to put it in—so it just adds this shocking movement, and when you smash cut it, it seems to stay with you, even if you’re already on the next scene or the next shot—so that’s the idea, I think. But the cars crashing in the beginning was already in the script, and I think the script said, “Two cars crash and we cut, laconically, to the next shot.” [HMF laughs] And it was good because it was a very simple crash—it wasn’t cheap but it was very simple and the stunt guy was very disappointed that that was it [HMF laughs]; he wanted something really spectacular, and I just wanted two cars crashing at very low speed. “That’s it?” But it seems to enhance—however small and uneventful, it just seems to enhance the moment.
H2N: In terms of the story and the characters—you’re following this family that is sort of in decline; were you thinking of it… maybe I’m trying to over-explain it, but I was seeing it as the middle class as a whole in decline, as represented by this one family.
KMF: A little bit, but not really. A little bit, because historically that region was always known—or for three centuries was known—for sugar cane plantations. Which means that one of our problems—which maybe we’ve reached the end of that problem and now we’re beginning a new era, with the whole thing with Brazil and the economic boom, and Brazil is growing very fast—so for 300 years we had monoculture. The only thing that came out of Pernambuco, the state, was sugar cane, which means that the money was in the hands of maybe no more than 50 families, which were very rich of course, and over the last 40 years, 50 years maybe, sugar cane production became decadent. And ten years ago it reached a low point, the lowest point probably. So these families of course became decadent. And most of these families still act like they’re royalty, but they’re not. They’ve lost most of their money, property. So in a way, yeah—I think Francisco is a typically decadent child of sugar cane. But I don’t think the Brazilian middle class as a whole is decadent, in fact they are growing and becoming wealthier, and there’s a whole interesting social revolution going on now because the middle class is getting bigger because the lower classes are now becoming middle class, and maybe the upper classes are becoming rich, so it’s like a ladder and people are going up and pushing the people who were in the middle towards the top. So that’s why I said yes and no—yes historically but no in terms of the Brazilian middle class as a whole is not decadent. Maybe it is in terms of values, but I was thinking in terms of the sugar cane families. And you can see that when they go to the plantation. Beautiful place, but it’s falling to pieces. And the old cinema, and the actual processing plants, the mill.
H2N: And yet back in Recife it seems like the middle class is losing control of their streets to these working class people.
KMF: That happened to me and my wife: we live there and one day we had these guys offering their services, and we were exactly like João in the film: “Who sent you? Do you carry guns? I mean why are you here?” But we were the only ones, because everyone else thought it was a great idea. And that’s the interesting thing, because all you have to do is show up with a vest and an attitude and you can get a job as a security person. Because everybody’s so paranoid about security, and there’s this very strange relationship between the inside and the outside in Brazilian cities. And this is something that I have a really hard time explaining when I travel, because I don’t want to sound like a paranoid person or like my film is a harsh or negative depiction of my society, and I keep saying it’s perfectly possible to be happy there. You can be happy there, but there is this discomfort, you know? And people are afraid and they do silly things, like they don’t walk on the streets and the streets are kind of empty, and there is an underlying fear of—I mean some places in L.A. are maybe like this. I don’t know, maybe South Central? Am I watching too many movies?
H2N: Well in South Central people do walk on the streets and they do get killed sometimes; in other parts of the city that are much safer people don’t walk on the streets at all even though it’s perfectly safe.
KMF: But is it fear? Car culture?
H2N: Well I guess yeah it’s mainly car culture, and in L.A. things are just so far away that you don’t—it wasn’t built as a city where people could congregate; it’s very decentralized, so it’s unusual in that way.
HMF: Yeah, Steve Martin did L.A. Story, which is a very personal look into L.A., and yeah, then a foreigner might watch L.A. Story and start asking these questions. And then sometimes it’s hard for me to answer these questions because I want to make it clear that we all have our issues and problems living in Recife but it’s a great place to live at the same time. But this thing with the security—that’s the thing that’s really photogenic. And I think it’s always been there. A strange reaction from Brazilians who have seen the film in foreign festivals is they usually come up and say it’s amazing that no one has made a film like this before, because this is it, this is exactly how it is.
H2N: For me one of the things that was interesting was how the class relations work in your film—I think here in the U.S. we have a similar class structure but we have at least a veneer of being a classless society, whereas in your film you see upper class people being openly condescending toward their servants. Maybe it comes from the sugarcane culture?
KMF: I think it does. It comes from—Brazilian society is a fascinating mix of European colonization, native Brazilians, African colonization through the black population that was brought over, Catholicism. Being tropical is also something that plays a big part in the whole thing, and yes there is almost like a promiscuous—not almost, there is a promiscuous relationship between all the colors and all the classes. I don’t think it really happens today anymore, but when I was 13 or 14 I remember kids in school talking about their sexual exploits with their maids—it was like a normal thing. And I would even get invited to go and f**k a maid, somebody’s maid. I never did it—I didn’t lose my virginity with a maid. But a lot of my colleagues did. And this was seen as something that was normal. Not that, you know, mothers would be proud of it. They would maybe turn a blind eye, but the fathers would be very proud of their kids, you know, having sex with the maid. But now things have changed a little bit because, you know, after the ’70s sexuality changed in Brazil. At the time it was something that maybe the girls from the good families wouldn’t really do, or maybe would wait longer until they could actually arrive at a sexual life. But today it’s like everybody has sex very early on, so the thing with the maids is not [as much of an issue as it was previously]. But that came from slavery, because if you went back to the plantations it was known that the masters would go over to the slaves’ quarters and have sex with the maids, and then children would be born out of wedlock, and there would be a new generation that would be half-white, half-black. I think that took place in America also.
H2N: Oh yeah.
KMF: And the relationship that João has with his maid—she’s almost like a mother to him, but she’s not a mother, so there’s a lot of hugging and kissing, but she’s the maid.
H2N: But he fires her.
KMF: Well he does but it’s like this: women, when they reach 60, have the right to retire. So I think it was actually better—I think you’re right, come to think of it, because he did fire her because it would actually be better for him not to have her around and paying like a salary. So he just moved on to the next modern format, which is have a cleaning lady come twice a week. Which is her daughter, which is the sad part. That’s another thing that happened to me, in fact. When the maid that took care of me for like 30 years became ill, she asked to retire and then I retired her, and then her daughter became the cleaning lady. And that’s how things work in the world, however disturbing it might be. And there’s always this loving relationship: it’s not purely professional, it’s not like that. It’s very patriarchal. Because in the last four or five years I remember I didn’t really need my maid anymore, but I just kept paying her because I knew she needed it. That’s another thing. I wasn’t like, “Oh this isn’t working out anymore so you’re out.” It was part of a long relationship that in a way needed to be maintained. I think I’m giving you too much information! [KMF laughs]
H2N: No, no, it’s a personal work so I’m sure your life is reflected in it! I wanted to ask you also about the trip to the country sequence, which has even more of a surreal feel to it.
KMF: In my mind, it’s a dream, but if you don’t think it’s a dream it’s perfectly fine. There’s no information saying, “This is a dream sequence.” But it came very naturally when I was writing the script, because at the halfway point I just got bored with being on the street so much and I just felt that it would be great if I could change the whole thing completely and open a new sequence with a huge landscape, a completely green landscape, and that would, I don’t know, maybe renew the energy in the film. “Now where are we going?” That’s what I wanted to do. So I just had this theoretical idea to make this sequence, but then something happened: I visited the location. And when I visited the location I was just in love with the location—“This is perfect. This is great.” It’s almost like The Leopard… When he’s walking around and seeing it. And yeah, and not only me, but when I took the actors there, Gustavo, he was so moved. Because he doesn’t come from Pernambuco, he comes from another part of Brazil. So for him it was almost like being in a foreign location because it was so rich and so full of history, and so decadent also—like the past is here. So that affected the actors in a very interesting way. Which is always a good thing, when the location affects not only the actors, but the photographer and everyone else. It’s like wow, this is amazing. So when I visited the location I was sure I would probably enjoy the sequence. But it’s funny because in the editing stage maybe I spent one day considering cutting the whole thing out. But then I got over it.
H2N: I’m glad you did! What about João—is he your alter-ego character?
KMF: Everybody says that, but Sofia is my alter-ego also. And the uncle is my alter-ego maybe even. And oh definitely the housewife Bia. It’s just because João is male and about my age. But Sofia is just as close to me—in fact Sofia is me in many ways because I lived on a street that belonged to a very traditional family, and 20 years later I started going out with this girl that happened to be a child of that family, and she lived on that street, so I went back as an adult to the same place where I had been, which brought back many memories of the place because I was, you know, I was a child, so that’s Sofia, that’s me.
H2N: What about the dream toward the end of the people descending into the garden? And there’s also the boy in the tree. There’s like this sense of… That also gave me the sense of the middle-class being encroached upon.
KMF: Those are two moments in the film: the first one is very psychological, I mean we’ve all had nightmares; I think you must have had one at least, as you were growing up, of an invasion. This idea of invasion, of—I think it’s recurring; it’s actually something I really wanted to shoot because it’s very cinematic in a way and it takes the film a little towards the horror genre. But I also wanted to make it clear that it had the ethics of a dream, or the logic of a dream, because you might not know what’s happening in the beginning, but after she opens the door and her parents are gone and the bed is empty—this is actually a nightmare that I had when I lost my mother, and I put that in a short film that I made called Green Vinyl, which went to Cannes seven years ago. It’s a film that I’m very fond of, and some of that is already in that short film. But the whole thing with the middle class, it’s true: everybody’s terrified of invasion, of trespassing, of having somebody coming into your home. And that’s one of the reasons that houses are less and less popular in Brazil. I love houses, but people feel safe in high-rises, because gravity is the main protection. If you live up there, you just know that no one will climb. Of course it doesn’t mean people can only get in from the outside—they can get in from the inside, through the elevator, but that also explains the high-rise culture that’s in the film. And you can see the messages written on the street, and they’re everywhere because there are so many people living way up there that they make a lot of sense. You wake up one morning and you go to your window and you look down and there’s a happy birthday message. It’s kind of nice, you know, but weird because they’re written on the street. But about the high-rises, the other thing is that I really love urban legends. I’ve done two short films about urban legends. And the last local urban legend was the Spider Boy. Spider Boy became known when he was 14 and he died when he was 18. And in these years he had this thing: he was addicted to climbing high-rises. He would use the cables for the cell phone companies and he would get into people’s apartments. And sometimes he would steal things; sometimes he would just help himself in the fridge, and he would fall asleep and he would be picked up early in the morning by the police—people would call the police. And he became an urban legend because he managed to remove the veil of security that people had because they lived on the 25th floor, because he actually got into their windows coming from outside. So I decided to put him in the film. And because the world is so small, my ex-girlfriend actually made a short film about Spider Boy, which is a very interesting film—I think you can see it on YouTube. And I decided to put him in the film because for me he was a very mysterious fact: somebody would wake up to go to work and there would be this 15-year-old boy sleeping on the couch. Where did he come from? He came from the window. And you live on the 19th floor. So I decided to put him in the film. And he finally got shot. He was shot like 14 times, nobody knows by whom. It’s like a mysterious death. I don’t think it was the police. I don’t know who did it. But he was actually shot something like 300 meters from where I shot the film. So all of that makes sense, you know, when I tell you this, because everything was happening there. And the tree sequence also comes from an incident. It was not related to the Spider Boy, but some other boy. He was found late at night hiding in a tree. And I thought that was kind of scary and creepy, to have this boy hiding in a tree and the guys have him come down and beat him.
H2N: I wonder also—if you could put your old film critic hat on—films like yours from what I see have become kind of rare. What we call art films, at least in recent years, have tended to be very sparse. Your film seems to fit into more of a 20th Century tradition of filmmaking.
KMF: I actually thought about that: I didn’t want to make one of these sparse, laconic—I actually think my film is laconic enough, but, you know, not in the way that you have two people say seven words to each other in 30 minutes, because that is what is supposed to be meaningful. I think personality comes from the personal touches you’re able to put in your film or in your book or in your music. And sometimes I think people confuse that with certain rules that have to be applied to get a kind of result, and I think that’s the negative aspect, but the other thing that explains why some of these modern films are sparse and laconic is maybe the use of new technology—today you can make a film in a weekend, and you can make a good film during the weekend. But sometimes, or most times, they don’t turn out to be good films. Because they were made in a weekend. [KMF laughs] So I just made a very—well, definitely for my standards—big film, and I made it for almost seven weeks—which is like crazy for me—with some good money, and I just tried to make it as full as possible, make it very classic and a film with wide lenses and wide screen and zooms and people talking and other people listening and then they answer back! [KMF laughs] And then suddenly the film shuts the f**k up and nothing happens, but why not? And then there’s noise. And hopefully that would work. I had great feedback from the script. The script went to the usual funds around Brazil, and we got the money very quickly because people reacted—they said they couldn’t put it down, it was like a page-turner. But the same people who said it was a page-turner asked me if that would work as a film. I said, “I don’t know. I can tell you that I don’t know because films are organic. I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know.” Yeah, that’s what’s fascinating: you never know what’s gonna happen. I didn’t know anything about my film until I began to get the first five reactions in Rotterdam. After five reactions I looked at Emilie, my wife, and said, “I think it’s gonna be all right.” Well of course I had the selection—that’s one sign. That’s a good sign but you don’t know. It’s like you—when you write a review sometimes people react in a way they didn’t react to the last review and you wonder why. Maybe you caught a nerve.
H2N: Your film also has humor in it, but it’s extremely dry humor and in that sense it kind of reminded me of Dogtooth.
KMF: Dogtooth is extreme. It has an extreme situation. My thing with humor is that I’m probably terrified that something that is probably funny is not funny at all. So I just shoot it in the most discreet way possible, which I think you would call deadpan? Like Bill Murray. And that’s one of the great things about Bill Murray—look at his face. He’s so funny but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his face. Of course I love slapstick but it’s not really my kind of thing [KMF laughs]. One thing I’m really attracted to in a lot of films is when the film doesn’t really tell you how to react. It could be a horror sequence, or a funny moment, or a moment of sexuality because all these things in cinema, they usually come pre-packaged: the music, maybe the camera, maybe the actors. I love it when the film just leaves it there, like a bomb, and you decide what to do with it. And I think audiences today are so—they’ve been trained like animals how to react to things. Music and editing and the whole rhythm of the thing and so the film is shouting at you, “This is really sexy,” and you’re going yeah, well yeah… [KMF’s voice trails off, then he laughs] “This is funny!” “This is scary!” And you know, I really don’t like that. I really like to go, “Wow, did you see that? That was really… Did you see that?” That’s the best reaction, I think. The best language. Like in Cannes this year there were some really f**ked up films, which really—you really have to come up with your own—you really have to have had a life, you know, to come up with a reaction to that. Like the Michael Haneke film [Love], which is actually very beautiful. But it never tells you, “Cry now, you can cry now.” No, you really have to look at yourself and go, “This is really beautiful. I think I’ll cry now.” There was a funny moment in that film because there was a sequence—I’m not giving away anything—there’s a scene in the film and there’s a pigeon that comes into the kitchen, and the pigeon is just like this in the kitchen and the main character’s looking at the pigeon, and I think everybody was kind of like [KMF laughs], “Don’t squash the pigeon with your feet!” which would be a typical Michael Haneke sequence, and he doesn’t do anything.
H2N: In some of the sequences, like the condominium association meeting, you’re just watching it, taking it in, but then as it ends you realize, “Oh, that was really funny.”
KMF: Yeah, that sequence also comes from a real life event. A friend of mine lives in a condominium, and maybe he’s kind of a right-wing bastard and he was the actual administrator of the building and he wanted to fire the guy, and he actually gave the idea to this kid to record the guy with an iPhone, and the kid would be bringing him back footage of the guy and he would approve, like a direction—like “No, this one’s—maybe if you could get him from this side it would be…” [KMF laughs] And I said, “I can’t believe you did this, to the kid and to the guy. I mean you’re so wrong.” And then I said, “Can I put this in the film?” “Yeah, sure, put it in the film.” [KMF laughs] So it just feels like maybe a Romanian—well, some people in Rotterdam told me that’s the Romanian part of the film. You know, like Romanian cinema. Sort of raw, dry, kind of funny but in a weird way. Like Corneliu Porumboiu: he made 12:08 East of Bucharest. Great film; it takes place in a TV station. So some people have reacted to that as the Romanian scene in the film, which—it’s funny, but it’s a Brazilian scene. I think Brazilians have reacted very strongly to that scene because it’s exactly like that.
H2N: I wanted to ask you a little about your actors, and specifically about Yuri Holanda who plays Dinho. I didn’t find anything about him online at all but he was so amazing …
KMF: He’s just a student. He’s the cousin of a filmmaker friend, and Emilie went to one of these birthday parties and I was abroad somewhere and she said, “I saw this guy and I think he’s Dinho. Maybe we should have a look at him.” And he’s just a student. And we invited him to an audition where we had other actors whom I had liked, but then when he did his scene I just—“That’s amazing. You are the guy.” And he’s great. He has this very intense energy. Completely—what’s the word? You know, professional actors, you can modulate them, but he’s not like that. He is what he is; he doesn’t have the… for example, he was a nightmare for the focus puller because he’s always doing this and this. [KMF moves his upper body forward and backward] A professional actor knows that you have to kind of stand still because of focus. And the focus puller was [KMF laughs] trying to get him in focus. I forgot the word… Disciplined! He’s not disciplined at all, he is who he is, and that’s one of the great things about non-actors.
H2N: You have a great shot where you cut to him standing up and he’s got that crazy look in his eye.
KMF: It’s the Godzilla shot. [KMF laughs]
H2N: What about Maeve Jinkings?
KMF: Yeah, she’s a professional. Well in fact I fell in love with actors in this film because I had never worked with professional actors; I did my short films with non-actors, which are great, but with this film I found out that it’s like a sophisticated piece of equipment that you can, you know, fine-tune: more or less, more wild, sadder, you know. This is really fascinating. Not to mention that those people were amazing people, like Maeve is really great, and Solha, the old man, is amazing—he’s like an old-school actor, painter. He has the kind of culture that nobody has today, or few people have today, because that was part of his generation, which learned a lot about many things—to speak French, German, Spanish. He doesn’t speak English, which is also part of his generation—back then it was French. And Irandhir Santos, he’s amazing, he’s—you know, the main security guy. Watching him work is a pleasure. Sometimes I would be distracted by just looking at the guy… “Oh yeah, I have to direct the film.” So much pleasure just seeing him act. So yeah, I finally found the wonderful world of actors. And I think strategically, I don’t think it was something that was thought mathematically, I picked strong actors for the stronger roles and the other characters in the film they’re mostly non-actors, but when you put a non-actor with a great actor it works because the great actor is so good that it bounces off and the person is completely at ease with the scene. So it’s a system that works.
H2N: What about “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”—was that always the song that was gonna be in that scene?
KMF: Well, that’s funny because we finished that day I think 25 minutes early. But there was this vibe of sadness in Maeve’s face, which I thought, “Maybe I should photograph her, sitting on the couch.” It would be like you smoke marijuana and then you come here and you’re completely like feeling bad, because of the thing with the sister, and she’s really sad and I said, “Do you know ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’?” And she says, “Yeah, but can you play it again because it’s been quite a while.” And I played it for her on the headphones, and, “Yeah let’s just shoot you, you’re just lying there, really sad, like you are now.” [KMF laughs] And then I shot it, in one shot, without any cuts, without even the clapper board. We just shot it. And then I played it live, in the room. I played it very loud, the song. And the good thing is that I know—he’s a wonderful person—the press guy for Queen, in England, so I thought that maybe I could try to buy the song, and we ended up buying the song. Yeah, I really like when that plays. Yeah, you get stoned and you’re sad and it’s not a good thing. And then you play music and maybe it’s a little better.