Viennale 2014: Filmmaking On High Seas-An Interview With Pedro Costa

Contributor; Austria
Viennale 2014: Filmmaking On High Seas-An Interview With Pedro Costa
It was a very special occasion for me to talk to Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa. He is one of the last rock stars in directing today, a maverick in the tradition of a craft orientated directing style but like with the great filmmakers of former times his films are still full of poetry and personality. His latest film Horse Money was screened at the Viennale and it is a beautiful work of tense tenderness and vibrating observations.

As a young cinephile I could not help to imagine an interview with one of my big idols (though I only had 30 minutes before the next one came in) as my personal Peter Bogdanovich meets John Ford, François Truffaut meets Alfred Hitchcock or Olivier Assayas meets Ingmar Bergman moment. But like with all those things in a young life my expectations and my obvious nervousness was transcended by something much more profound.

The way Mr. Costa answered my questions, the professional and careful consideration of all aspects he was talking about and the way we ended up talking more about his filmmaking methods in general than his latest film made me realize my own mistakes in terms of ambition. Ambition in terms of filmmaking and/or film-criticism makes you go faster, makes you forget things in order to achieve other things.

Mr. Costa reminded me that the work and thought that goes into cinema is more important than all the money, power and timelessness that surrounds it. Like in his films he is able to create an intense atmosphere of attention. Though his answers might seem cryptic sometimes there is always an exciting thought or question underneath it, one that does not come from representing himself as a film director but one that really cares for film.

Patrick Holzapfel: I wanted to start this interview by asking you about John Ford. Yesterday, after the screening of Horse Money you mentioned that you have watched one of his films here at the retrospective. I think it must have been 3 Godfathers?

Pedro Costa: Yesterday? No, it was The Whole Town is Talking and his war documentaries.

PH: Ah, ok. As I live here in Vienna it is just great to see that much of Ford with this retrospective, it is really amazing. As I know he is very important for you as a filmmaker I wanted to know in how far this is true. Is it because he is one of the most important filmmakers in cinema or is there something specific about him that relates to your work?

PC: It is a bit like you said. I don't know if it is still true but when I started seeing films more carefully you could really see the difference between one of his Westerns and somebody else`s Westerns. You could see a lot of differences. Not only in terms of visual aspects but there was also immediately another level. People say that it is very poetic, I would say that it is much more abstract. There is much more room to think. When I say think it implies also to a certain amount of mystery. So yes, he is obviously one of the great filmmakers of all times. But yesterday I was just referring to John Ford because I wanted to share my feelings about the films that are made today. They seem to me very, very weak and almost handicapped. If the films today were a person, they sometimes could not walk, they sometimes could not talk or move an arm. A lot of things are missing. And in the old days they had this craft. They had the notion that it was a difficult work. Today people work on a film to work on themselves. The filmmakers talk more about themselves than about their films and even the films speak more about the filmmakers than reality. I recently visited a festival with Horse Money and I was at one of the press events that never end and I was waiting there for my interviewers and I heard this big-budget Hollywood guy whose name I have forgotten. I heard the terms "me" and "myself" 25 times in 10 seconds. The film was about himself and he wanted to make that very clear and the interviewer was really amazed by that.

PH: I understand. Your films strike me as a very democratic endeavor insofar that it is not only your voice we are hearing, I think we are hearing your voice by means of framing and editing for example and I can feel the presence of a filmmaker. But by having dialogue written or given by the actors and by telling their stories there is something democratic but I don't know if that is a justified term here.

PC: I used to say that my goal in a few years is to have the best possible balance between what is happening behind the camera and what is happening in front of the camera. I mean that in every possible sense. I'm talking about work and power relations, how do you pay people? How do you get people there? How do you get out of that place with them? And these things have to be in balance with the way you capture the images and sounds. I think this is the most difficult thing for any filmmaker to achieve because this is a very dangerous balance. It involves a lot of bad things that shouldn't be in this world like power relations or ego-trips, vanity and money, of course. That destroys a lot of things. I always say that this has even more to do with what we call the production site than with the artistic site. Every time you see a film that I made I can tell you that much more than 60% of the work I did was on the production site. Trying that people feel at ease, helping them so they can do their best is not just directing something or knowing how to place the camera which is also very difficult but it is much more than that. It happens when the camera is not there. I think in good movies, also John Ford movies, a lot of the work is done when they are not shooting. You can see and that with John Ford, you can read it in interviews or his testimonies. Everybody agrees that his films happened when they were eating, when they were travelling on his boat, when they were meeting at home or when he was preparing stuff with his writer. And he was a producer, too. That's something nobody remarks today but a lot of filmmakers I admire and you probably, too, even in Hollywood at one point or the other became their own producers. This was not only to escape the dictators among the producers...well, the producers weren't even like that. Take Darryl F. Zanuck as an example. They were very, very interesting at least. They could think the films and they could think a lot of films at the same moment. But the directors I am referring to thought a lot about production and they became producers for certain films. In John Ford's case it is very obvious because afterwards he always mentioned that he particularly liked the films he was producing. And even more amazing, when people like Ford, Renoir or Fritz Lang created their own companies and were their own producers usually the budgets went down and the films were better. It is amazing but this is always the case. It is true for Renoir, for Lang, for everybody. So, it must have something to do with all this relations, money, social hierarchies, you know? Cinema is a lot about that, I think. Cinema is not like painting or music, cinema cannot avoid reality. A big part of reality is how I can manipulate or destroy you.

PH: But the way I know filmmaking it is hard to find the courage...

PC: I don't know if it's is really need to see it on the screen. If your films don't need the things I have been telling you it's okay, you can work in another way. I just feel that today most of the films that I see-and I don't see a lot-suffer from the things I have been telling you. They are weak and we have seen these films already because they are not working at where they should be working. They don't work on what is interesting. Interesting is what happens between everybody that works on the film. But this everybody can be like in the case of my work four people or that can be 400 people. I am not saying that a film cannot be made with 400 people but something must be happening between the 400 people. And no one of the 400 should avoid this thing they call reality because it is reality we try to analyze with our film. Most of the films we see today are escaping this reality. These films are cowards in a way, films I don't want to see.

PH: Maybe my question was aiming at something else. I read or better watched your book Casa de Lava-Caderno which helped you to find this way of working and I was asking myself how can you work when you haven't anything real in your hands...I mean you have reality one can sense that in any of your films.

PC: It is quite curious what you said because the key for all of this lies in your notion that I haven't got anything real in my hands. It is quite true in a sense. The first thing I don't have is something certain. We are not sure and we work around that. So we need time to discover. That is one of the main things you have to create for yourself, especially today. This is also a problem of contemporary filmmakers. I don't want to continue accusing my colleagues but they don't give themselves the time they need. They are in this kind of ego-trips comparing themselves to the guys who worked in Hollywood and tell that they can finish their films in time and work fast. That doesn't mean anything, absolutely not. It is not the same system. They are not in Hollywood. They are mostly financed by TV-stations and public money. More or less every film in Europe is made with money from everybody. There are no rich guys or studios financing films. And most of the films suffer from this urgency. That kills a lot of things. This is my feeling, I am afraid of my first idea, I suspect everything I think about. I need more time to think, test or rehearse. The same is true for the people who work with me. We don't have strong convictions. We are not religious, we are not communists and this is unfortunate because we tend to be a bit weak and doubtful. There is a lot of doubt in our work. So the first thing is that you have to create a bit of time which is already production. And then we don't have that kind of certainty or reality that the filmmaking world dictates. Like a script. We don't have a script but a script is like a central piece of this business. So we make films on high seas. And as we do not have this book of laws we work in a very dark area which is memory because our material is memory. It is not only the memory of Ventura or Vitalina but also my memory, probably the memory of the sound guy. We work with certain things we remember from our lives or the films and we are trying to adapt that to what we are seeing today and what we want to talk about. So yes, you are right. We don't have anything but this desire and sometimes a little bit of money, a car...

PH: A tank.

PC: The tank yes. Well, the tank it was just a bold thing. We just asked the guys and they said: Yes, you can have it for free. It is easier to go and get a tank than to shoot in the street. So you see how schizophrenic and absurd this world is. The day before, we had just asked to shoot a scene at the entrance of a hospital and they asked for 2000 Euros. You know it is like in Germany. You put your tripod on the street and then there is police. You cannot go into a public office or bank.

PH: There was one question I wanted to ask you about the camera you used for Horse Money. I looked it up and read some information about it (Panasonic AG-DVX100) and then I talked with a cinematographer who just said: You cannot shoot with this. This is out-dated. And then I watched your film and those images are amazing.

PC: They are amazing for you...and for me, too. I am very grateful to the camera. We are not fetishists or high-level technicians, I just know what I do and for my friend who also did the camerawork it is the same thing even if he does know much more. He knows much more about photography. But we know when the light is right, we take care of different elements and it all awakens during the experience or at certain moments when you remember things you like. I suspect those very professional people. My experience tells me that I am right because it is not only cinephiles that tell me that those images are great but sometimes even very, very high-professional cinematographers are saying that it's okay, it's a nice work, it's not bad. You can do it with what you have. But it is risky. You don't have certain things. But I like to have a certain kind of atmosphere and I have been working some time now with digital alone and then with my friends in a very intimate and solitary mode. It is very difficult to get a sense of reality with digital. It is much more difficult than with film. If you go out on the street with a 16mm or 35mm-camera things come much more easily and they are much nicer. We used this camera which is not very sophisticated as your friend has told you. It is very poor in certain aspects. But we try to work around that and she (the camera) works with us. She helps with a lot of things. She cannot go that far in terms of resolution compared to other cameras. And we don't want that, we don't need that, so we go in a certain other directions. But it is a lot of work. If you have somebody in front of the camera saying something then it is already very difficult and today the cameras became difficult. I do not mean difficult in a technical sense but relating to the filters they have created between us and reality. It is amazing. They are putting more and more into them of what people think is realism. But there is nothing more unreal than digital, I think. Film could give you at least a more sensual impression of the world. It is very difficult to get a rich, sensual film in digital. I have always been working with the same brand which is Panasonic. And the first I have bought was not really by chance, I do not believe in chance but I just bought it because it seemed a little bit more green...we all had this idea that video was blue, no? I think it was because of TV. So I went to this greenish Panasonic. And this was very famous, it still is today. You can talk to cinematographers, I just talked to Edward Lachman and he really liked the images of Horse Money. And I talked to him about the DVX-model of Panasonic which was the first one and he was also very fond of this camera. I shot In Vanda's Room with that which was the first film I had shot in digital.

PH: I enjoy very much how you construct things we don't see, things we don't see at first like for example people walking towards the camera in dark corridors, faces that are hidden in shadows or the tears of Vitalina. Is that an important structure for you to start off with something that makes me curious as a viewer?

PC: Sure, it is a big mix of a lot of things. It comes from John Ford and Renoir and a lot of filmmakers. They used to do that and I learned from them. There are ways of creating another kind of expectation and working around this desire of seeing something more closely. Film is always made around one very simple almost stupid idea which is: What is going to happen next? This is very simple and also very human. So you have to really think about the next...but not in terms of pure efficiency. You are not working for the surprise of the surprise of the surprise. It is not an inflation of surprising the spectator. That would be stupid because that would mean that you would need more of everything all the time. It is just the amusement and the joy of seeing new things and not expecting them...that would be see the same thing but new every time. Seeing the person you like every day differently and new again. The person you love, the chair you sit on, the table you work at, your house, the sky, everyday something new. This desire and expectation makes a serious, interesting and fun film. Sometimes it happens when a moment in a film gives you that impression. Unfortunately I find those moments more in music or photography. In cinema it happens less. It happens more often when I see an old film. A big part of our work is to break the clichés.
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