WE ARE JUST SHADOWS
Interview with João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata
by Alessio Galbiati and Roberto Rippa
from Rapporto Confidenziale 36
Rapporto Confidenziale: We read that your initial idea was to make a documentary. What made your change idea along the way?
João Pedro Rodrigues: The idea for this film came as a documentary because João Rui lived in Macau as a child, and I’ve never been to Macau. He had always told me stories about Macau, about his childhood and his memories. We always wanted to go there just for a visit. After doing my third feature, which is called Morrer como um Homem, there were several events – because Macau was a Portuguese colony until recently, a little more than 10 years ago – so when Portugal gave back Macau to China, we thought it was a good time to go there, but then we missed it. Anyway we thought the moment had arrived to finally go. And we wanted to make a film there. The film started as a documentary about the city, about João Rui memories, but when we went there for the first time, in 2009, we realized we didn’t really want to make a documentary. Because the city was talking to us, in a way it was telling stories to us. What we tried with this film is organizing the stories that the city was telling us, creating a structure which is closer to fiction than to documentary.
João Rui Guerra da Mata: I’ve been João Pedro’s art director, production designer, since his first short film, somehow helping him with writing the scripts and stuff. One day I wrote a short film called China, China, which is about a Chinese family living in Lisbon, and then we went on writing it together. That was our first approach to a subject that is very dear to me: Asia in general, China in particular. João Pedro kept making films and one day – it was the perfect timing – we applied for money to the Portuguese Film Institute to make a documentary. We went to Macau three times in different periods, the first time in 2009, and we also stayed there for six months. When we went there we were basically thinking about the territory, as we had my childhood memories as anchors for the subject, and what we really wanted to do in the beginning was comparing memories: the one I had as a child – it’s such a cliché to say that memories are like fiction because you can always rebuild them according to who you’re speaking to – with João Pedro’s memories who had never been there before. He had his memories built on cinema: on classic Hollywood films, Japanese cinema, contemporary Chinese cinema and the way cinema has been portraying Asia, and obviously von Sternberg’s Macao. Those were the bases for what we were thinking it was going to be a documentary. Then, the first time we were in Macau, we understood that there was more happening there. We looked at any street, small parts of fiction were coming and we were thinking about stories coming from those locations. Some locations had to do with my memories but others I didn’t even know they existed. So it didn’t make sense anymore to make another documentary about Macau, one more documentary, and we thought it would have been more interesting to use this idea of memory and make up a fiction still including my memories. Like my memories mixing with the fiction we were creating. That’s why it’s so important for me and João Pedro not to have our bodies in our film. We are just shadows: my shadow and João Pedro’s voice – almost like phantoms from the present, the past and eventually the future.
RC: The editing is a very important part of your work. We would like to know how long it lasted and according to what logic it was made. And We also would like to know how this phase has developed between you two.
JRGdM: Actually, we were three working on the editing (Rodrigues, da Mata and Raphaël Lefèvre. Ed.).
JPR: The editing process took at least eight months. It had several periods because every time we came back from Macau, we would look at the rushes and at the beginning we made sort of catalogues of scenes. We had 150 hours of rushes and so it was very complicated to think what we were going to do with all this.
JRGdM: We had to organize all the scenes: night and day scenes, places…
JPR: The film is about ambiances and between us and Raphaël Lefèvre, our editor, we started imagining a story. Because it’s a film that was totally built during the editing process. Usually, in my previous films, it was never like that. Every scene was written before, in a very detailed and precise way, and so the editing process never took a long time. In this film it was totally the opposite. It’s been a totally new experience for me and I felt anguished, in a way, because when you have a such amount of material in front of you, you have to find a way to go from one image to the other, from one sound to the other. At one point, we still hadn’t found that thread and I have to confess that I felt lost. Then, when we found the direction we wanted to go to, things started to make sense, images and sounds started to have power. The film started to write itself, in a way.
JRGdM: We were working at all the rushes and we knew we had a story there but we didn’t really know how to tell it, considering that we still didn’t what it was. I know it sounds a bit confusing but it was so.
JPR: We knew there were several stories but we had to find out which was the one that really interested us.
JRGdM: One of the times we went to Macau we thought it would be interesting to shoot all the sequences in a room, just with the shadows and parts of the bodies. That was the beginning of the fiction because that was the first time we weren’t shooting scenes around us but we were actually acting and trying to make a short fiction in this big documentary idea. Then we realized we really wanted to do something that had to do with film noir because Macau and its ambiances were really talking to us. We knew we didn’t want to make anything touristic because that is what people do when confronted with something exotic. We wanted to go to back alleys, we went out during the night, also because of silence, because during the day it’s really, really noisy.
When I lived in Macau, there was no Portuguese television, just Chinese communist TV, then we had Kung-Fu movies from Hong-Kong and Japanese science-fiction, so I saw some of those things in our film: a mix of film noir, science-fiction. We were free to reinvent our territory. A Última Vez Que Vi Macau is not really a portrait of Macau, it’s probably more about the way we see it. It has more to do with the stories I would invent as a kid looking at that new territory, China. I think that João Pedro felt the same when he was there, we could see all those scenes happening, although they were not really happening.
RC: About this mix of genres you were talking about: that ambiance was already there when you were thinking about the film or it came out while filming?
JPR: Since the beginning of the project, von Sternberg’s Macao was an anchor. It’s kind of a film noir, a thriller. That ambiance was already there since the beginning. Then it took also other directions, it started as a musical too, there’s a musical number at the beginning. In my previous films I’ve always been interested in classical genres and all of my films are about how to reinvent them: is it still possible to make a melodrama? It is still possible to make a musical nowadays? Because you have the tools and my idea is about taking control of those tools that are already codified and use them my way. This is what I tried to do in my films. You learn to make films by watching films, that’s what I feel. So this film is sort of a mixture:it is kind of a documentary, still, a personal diary, kind of an essay. We let the film be free, we wanted to make a film that was free, that could to go in many directions but that still made sense as a whole.
JRGdM: Then something happened while we were in Macau: we had Jane Russell in our heads all the time, because of von Sternberg’s film, and all the Portuguese newspapers’ headlines were about «The lady from Macao died». So we felt we needed to pay a sort of a tribute, you know? (Jane Russell died February 28, 2011; Ed)
JPR: The fact that she wasn’t alive anymore made us think she was haunting us even more. It looked as if her shadow was all over that territory. We felt her everywhere, in a way. That’s why Cindy Scrash sings the song from von Sternberg’s film at the beginning. It’s a song called «You Kill Me» and she, our character, is also going to die so it has a new meaning.
JRGdM: She starts the film by singing «You Kill Me», but the song’s meaning is «you kill me with love», but then she’s someone who is about to die, as a character, and we knew that. That’s why we really needed the body, because if you kill somebody in a film you must have a body, otherwise it is not as strong.
JPR: A living body…
JRGdM: You need a figure, you must see the face, even if just through a song.
RC: That’s why she’s the only person you can see in her entirety in the film.
JRGdM: Right. Because all the people in the film are not actors, just people passing by, or us.
JPR: The fact that the film was made with a budget for a documentary, made us work with very little money. The second time we went to Macau, we decided we wanted some actors to play, to make an example, the guy who exchanges the cages, but then we couldn’t really find actors…
JRGdM: Because of the lack of money.
JPR: …and so we thought: «Why don’t we do it ourselves?». That’s one of the reasons why you never see faces. But it made sense, in a way, to make it abstract. Because the film goes very much into an abstraction.
JRGdM: I don’t really like the idea of something being conceptual but I have to admit there’s something conceptual in our approach in this film.
Besides the editing that was, as João Pedro said, complicated, we understood that sound had to be very, very important. Most of the action is off the screen so you really need the sound to be present.
JPR: In the editing process we had the picture in the beginning and then we edited the sound and we had to reconstruct many of them, and then we went back to the picture and we edited some more and went back to the sound. There was always a movement between sound and image in order to build the fiction.
I started making films on film, not in digital. This one is made in digital. So I’m used to this: I see the picture and then I see the sound. I feel that here sometimes the sound goes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes perfectly tied together, sometimes totally apart from the images.
JRGdM: Yes, sometimes we would edit the images and then the sound and then we would go back to the images and so on. Because sometimes we got ideas from the sound and through that those ideas were so good we had to go back to the images so we had the same development. We also wanted to be kind of ludic, playful. We wanted also to play with this idea of catastrophe, «It’s the end of the world as we know it» kind of thing. And we wanted it to have a happy end. OK, the people die but maybe they don’t really die, they turn into animals and the story starts again.
RC: Are you are going to work again in such a free way?
JPR: I’m very afraid of creating a style where I can feel comfortable. I like the idea of having a style as a filmmaker because it means there’s a point of view, but I don’t want to find an easy way to make films. I want to question myself all the time. That’s my main purpose. Because I think I’m also learning by making films. This film is more experimental than my previous ones. It was made in a totally different way. I don’t know how I will go on from here, I never plan how my films will be. I can identify myself with my films and I think also other people can do that. Now I know what y next film will be because it’s already written but I really don’t know what my next film, the one after that one, will be.
JRGdM: There’s a thing I think we should really point out: there are films that João Pedro directs and films that we co-direct. Those are different things. Of course we are talking about the same people and I also participate in João Pedro’s films as an art director but next will be a João Pedro’s film.
JPR: Those are different things.
JRGdM: For example, I have a short film in competition here in Locarno, O Que Arde Cura, a film that I made by myself. But he’s the actor… Sometimes things get a bit mixed.
JPR: I think that, nowadays, if you want to make a film that stands out from the majority, you have to have a point of view… that’s all. It has to be personal and if it is it has to do with your life.
JRGdM: You really have to be honest with yourself when you make a film. You really have to believe in what you do. You have to take things not for granted. It’s easy to say: «Let’s make a film on video, it’s cheap». OK, it’s cheaper – at least when you’re shooting, because post-production can be really expensive – but I think people really have to believe in what they do. Making a film is tough.
JPR: It can be fun, also…
JRGdM: Yes, it can be. It’s what happened with our film: it was very difficult but then suddenly we were having such a good time making it. We were so happy and felt so free.
RC: Going back to the initial documentary idea: what was the aim of that work? Did you want to tell also about the urban changes in Macau?
JPR: There was never a “before and after” idea .It’s about how we feel Macau now. It’s our personal portrait of Macau. It’s still a documentary about Macau, but it went also in other directions.
RC: The film appears to also work for its symbols. It’s full of enigmatic images.
JPR: I’ve always been afraid of the words “symbol” and “metaphor”. I think they are very dangerous in cinema because they simplify in a way. If you have a character or an action that you use a symbol, it remains just that. It remains closed in the idea. I don’t like this in cinema, I like things that are something but can be also something different, or go in several directions.
JRGdM: Isn’t it beautiful to give the viewer the chance to form his own opinion abut the same subject? Every time you put scenes inside boxes, it’s difficult to take them out then. Isn’t it beautiful to look a a painting and maybe don’t understand it but still liking what you see because it makes you wonder about what you’re seeing? Mystery is a good thing!
RC: So, being this a very personal film, you’re ready to accept people taking what they want out of it?
JRGdM: I see the film as personal because it was made by us. It’s not supposed to by our “closed” Macau.
JPR: We didn’t make it for us.
JRGdM: We never make films for us. I hate the idea of making a film for myself.
JPR: We made it to share it with other people.
JRGdM: We made it from our point of view but art is something to be shared and once you make a film or you paint or compose music, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the people, the viewers, the listeners .that’s the beauty of it, in my opinion.
RC: Everybody is talking about the problems that Portuguese cinema is currently suffering of. The risk for them is to be overwhelmed by this and that’s why we won’t ask you anything about it. Anyhow, we would like to know when and how it’ll be possible for everybody to see your film.
JRGdM: That’s a terrible question.
JPR: I would like to say something about Portuguese cinema because it’s a very tragic moment for our cinema. We have a new right-wing government and the first thing they did…
JRGdM: And they promised this!
JPR: Yes, they promised during the election campaign. The first thing they did was to close the Ministry of culture. So we don’t have the Ministry of culture anymore. The Portuguese Film Institute is totally frozen, it doesn’t do anything. There’s no money for cinema this year and we don’t know until when. We are here, at the Locarno Film Festival, but we don’t have any support from any official entity.
JRGdM: This is a co-production with France and we were lucky that our co-producers managed to make it happen, they managed to allow us to be here. And then we have our Portuguese producer, João Figueiras, who put his own money to finish the film because they won’t even give us the money they owe us. We didn’t get the money to make the film.
JPR: We just got a part.
RC: And people voted them?
JRGdM: Yes! Aw c’mon, people voted for Berlusconi! People are people wherever you go, as the song says. But the question is: how many Portuguese films are made being made every year? A lot. And it’s considered a very interesting cinema.
RC: Yes, but Portuguese cinema is now happening outside Portugal. Looking for money outside, looking for sets abroad. We were thinking about Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, one of the best movies of the year.
JPR: I think Portuguese cinema is regarded abroad – as Olivier Père was saying during the introduction to our film – as one of the most interesting in the world. So who is supposed to support us is not supporting us at all.
JRGdM: Let’s say that the guys in the government don’t like the films we are making. They don’t like Portuguese cinema. That’s my opinion. So, why spend money in culture when people want football? Why spend money in theater when people want football? I don’t have anything against football and I love Cristiano Ronaldo as a beautiful dancer. But they are basically giving people what they want. A country, if it’s not rich – and Portugal is definitely not a rich country – is known for its culture. And people are defined by the culture they have. If you ruin culture… We’ll always have football.
A thing I have to say that’s very important to me because I have been asked this several times. Is it true that people get more creative when there’s a crisis? Or when there’s censorship? I don’t think so. I think this is a terrible way to think. The thing is, when you have censorship or you don’t have money, you feel obliged to make points. This is our way to fight what is wrong. Proving them that against all odds we are making it. Against all odds we can prove them wrong. Even if they don’t see or understand – or want to see or understand – we feel at least that we’re doing our part. And we know they’re not doing their part. So, censorship or nor supporting doesn’t make anyone creative. On the contrary, it’s very, very dangerous. Because it’s not just us. If a government show people that they are not supporting culture, then they are showing to people that there’s no need for culture. And we will keep talking about how big we were in the 19th Century. This is very fascist. •
Locarno, August 8, 2012
Image by Emanuele Dainotti (settesecondicirca.com) / modified by Rapporto Confidenziale
numero36 (ottobre/novembre 2012)