INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
In Arganil, a poor and sparsely populated mountainous region known as “the heart of Portugal,” the beloved month of August is abuzz with natives, tourists, and drunken activity, with fireworks, boar hunting, religious celebrations, roller hockey, alien abduction, and, if you’re part of Portuguese film critic-turned-filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ intimate circle of friends, filmmaking. Gomes set off north from Lisbon, brick-sized script in tow, to make a somewhat conventional film about the affective relationship between father, daughter, and cousin, all three members of a barnstorming middle-of-the-road Portuguese pop band called Estrelas do Alva—although he didn’t have a cast, nor enough money to make the film as intended. But instead of packing up, Gomes and his skeleton crew decided to document the people and the celebrations they saw around them, in the course of their adventures discovering the liveliness of their country, and, whilst playing quoits, a few fresh faces that in an alternate universe could easily become superstars.
In his second feature-length film, with the greatest of ease, Gomes moulds documentary into fiction and vice versa, bridging scenes together by the grace of their own movement and popular Portuguese melodies. In the process, traditional boundaries are obliterated, then rebuilt in a way that defies simplistic logic—a pattern seen in his debut feature, the remarkably obscurantist The Face You Deserve (2004), a kind of claustrophobic version of Rivette by way of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)and late Godard, but that’s only the second half. Organically constructed and impressively humble, Our Beloved Month of August shows the fantastic, mythic elements present in everyday life, and the mundane realities present in filmmaking, presenting the two as links in a neverending chain of dominoes—and goddamned if, against all odds, it doesn’t all come together. But such is life, connections magically folding and unfolding, in a series of invisibly refereed games.
And such is Gomes’ magical oeuvre of, as he has often labeled them, “musical comedies”—along with two features, he has directed six shorts, all of which screened this year at the Viennale (further complete retrospectives will surely follow, Buenos Aires being confirmed as the next). Their oblique subjects range from a coming-of-age ménage a trois (Meanwhile, 1999), a holiday tale of children and their toys that in 1/6th of the time puts Arnaud Desplechin to shame (A Christmas Inventory, 2000), and St. Francis of Assisi (Canticle of All Creatures, 2006). Then there’s a black-and-white whatsit wherein adults claim they are children, and, when they open their mouths, yawp drone-like gibberish (Kalkitos, 2002). For 19 excruciating minutes. In Vienna, a Q & A after a shorts program began with interrogator Olaf Möller challenging: “What the fuck is Kalkitos?” It’s a question not out of line, and a question that might be asked of pretty much every one of Gomes’ films. The answer, but of course, is: “A remake of The Wizard of Oz (1939).”
A Gomes film is likely to evoke numerous cinematic comparisons, but also comprises wild shifts in tone, a characteristic traceable to a keen yet impatient intelligence. All come together in Our Beloved Month of August, one of the year’s best films and an unlikely—to say the least—Oscar nominee from Portugal. Nashville (1975) without its sense of world-historical importance, it’s a film about the creative process possessed inherently by all people on this planet, and only betrays its true nature on multiple viewings. Halfway in, there’s a scene with two nonprofessional actors chatting, surreptitiously recorded by Gomes. One of them complains that the director keeps changing the lines on him, that he’s nervous, and why not. Minutes later, they walk through the old town and the other, who we first met performing karaoke but who becomes the band’s drummer in the second half, is whistling a throwaway tune, which, about half an hour later, is performed for the first time by Estrelas do Alva. It’s the title track, at first just another song among many songs, and only becomes catchy when performed by the full band, vocals and all. This small recognition hints to the ways that in Our Beloved Month of August direction, screenwriting, and editing have molded as one in a magical place somewhere over the rainbow.
Cinema Scope: So what the fuck is The Face You Deserve?
Gomes: Is that a real question?
Scope: Yeah, that’s a real question. Why did you want to make this movie?
Gomes: Let me try to remember. Well, I wanted to do a film about this, you know, crisis of being 30. In Portuguese, there is this sentence that goes, “Until 30 you have the face that God gives you, then after you have the face you deserve.” And so I had this idea to create a character that at a certain point just could not continue. So he was interacting with other people, and then he gets abandoned, and comes down with the measles. And then the film turns into Snow White, so he has to return to his childhood and try to…well, he becomes like a film director, he has to make a film to save himself.
Scope: I told you before it took me two weeks to figure out what the film was about, and I concluded that it was about filmmaking—even if all films are about filmmaking in some way, this one is in particular. But my interpretation is not just that he acts as a director, but the moral of the film—as fairy tales have lessons—speaks to the view that all the rules you know up to 30 you have to forget, you have to start again. And, in particular, regarding how films are made, how they have been made in the past. In The Face You Deserve—in all of your films, including the shorts—there’s an obvious preoccupation with rules, and, actually rules that are often completely absurd. Here the actors obey the rules, and they realize they are absurd by the end.
Gomes: Yes, the rules in my films may be a little bit ridiculous, but I also think that most rules in the world outside my films are also ridiculous. We are even, me and the world. But in this case, yes, I wanted to have this Oz world in the forest and the friends, who are like the seven dwarfs, and, yes, they are obsessed by rules. The film progresses until there is a moment where one of them breaks the rules, then they start to doubt them. When that happens, you’re fucked, and then the film must end. So the last sentence in this film is “Goodbye my friends,” which is a sentence you hear before when one character, Nicolau, buries grasshoppers in a little grave. So this, “Goodbye my friends,” is goodbye to the old rules, but it’s very sad, too.
Scope: In a general sense, though, were you also thinking about changing the old rules of narrative filmmaking, as a process a serious director must do once they’ve reached a certain level of understanding, or maturity?
Gomes: I think there are lots of films that I really like—we’ve talked about The Wizard of Oz, but there’s also Moonfleet (1955)…
Scope: Disney. And in The Face You Deserve you see a lot of Rivette.
Gomes: Yes, and Rivette is very obsessed with rules, and games. But that also comes, for instance, from the classical American cinema, where you can solve a problem with a bet, or just summon up destiny. For instance, I love American screwball comedies. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), the characters behave like children—it’s all games all the time. It’s very regressive.
Scope: Most, if not all, of the short films, are about children—or naïfs, like Saint Francis. Games and fairy tales have an appeal to children, obviously—adults don’t believe in fairy tales any more, or in magic…or, say, in The Wizard of Oz.
Gomes: I believe in those things, but I also think they are kind of ridiculous, so I guess my films have both of those things in there at the same time. They do strange and maybe silly stuff, like burying the grasshoppers…
Scope: They are all rituals, too, not just games, and maybe this is more the point in Our Beloved Month of August—to simply exist people need games, or rituals, or legends. Or a job. There are things society requires to stay together. And every filmmaker has to choose what part of society to concentrate on. You can’t have a believable film with people interacting unless there is something binding them together, even on the most basic level—language, for instance. Language is a rule-based system that can even be absurd, like in Kalkitos.
Gomes: I think the important thing is not rules, but people believing in the rules. There is a time where people believe in certain rules, then there’s another time when they don’t believe in them, but believe in another set of rules.
Scope: That’s what the first short is about.
Gomes: That’s a very bad film.
Scope: Technically, though, you just described a rite of passage film, which is what Meanwhile is.
Gomes: Adolescence is like no man’s land. You have childhood, when you believe in things, then in adolescence there is a moment, for instance, you understand that grown ups are sometimes full of shit and they tell lots of lies…
Scope: The moment you realize that God doesn’t exist.
Gomes: Yeah, sure, and then adolescence, and you start to accept other rules—you are forced to accept them, you need money to live…
Scope: In Our Beloved Month of August, there’s an awareness of the rules of fiction and documentary, and their absurdity, and the willingness to keep some and throw others out and not worry about the consequences.
Gomes: Maybe that’s why I’m now writing a script that has two parts, again. I never thought about these two-part things, maybe it has something to do with creating rules and then destroying the rules you created, imposing another set of rules, and seeing how the rules in the two parts are mixed, or clash, or something like that.
Scope: What rules did you have while making this movie?
Gomes: I had one golden rule. As we were invading this place, Arganil, so we should be in this film. Because we were demanding the locals to play characters, we had to do the same. And everything that was brought with us from Lisbon should be in the film. So every piece of equipment is in the film—the camera, the tripods—that was a rule.
Scope: Why was this so important to you?
Gomes: The film is a clash between cinema with this part of the country, so us and everything that was with us should appear. Normally there is behind the camera and in front of the camera, and this time I wanted to put everything in front of the camera, and even what’s in the middle should appear—which is the camera.
Scope: Some people don’t get this point, and think the appearance of the crew—and you—in the film is, well, self-indulgent.
Gomes: Yeah, they call me a “wannabe Fellini.” But I think it was only fair to do it. In this part of Portugal, they don’t have cinema, or theatre…but I think it’s a film about the common desire of making films.
Scope: For making films or making art in general? Is the guy who jumps off the bridge a filmmaker?
Gomes: This guy Paolo Miller is a simple character. But he’s always acting. He was completely drunk all the time, but he kept acting, almost until he passed out. I let him do his own mise en scène, and it’s the centre of the first part. In the first part I’m looking for people to play characters, and I couldn’t ask him to be a character in the second part because he’s already a kind of character in the first part. The other people give him roles, so in a way he’s bigger than life. And you can see he’s lying, he’s acting. So he concentrated his movement of the film in himself, which is why I chose not to ask him to return in the second part.
Scope: It’s easy to say that the difference between the two parts is that one is documentary and the other is fiction, but that’s not quite accurate. Maybe it’s this point, that in one part the actors are making the mise en scène, and in the other part you are. Is that accurate?
Gomes: Yeah. At least, I’d like it if people think of it in that way.
Scope: It’s not exactly true in one sense—when I was watching the second part again, I was looking at the camera style and trying to see if there was a noticeable difference in the way that scenes were shot…
Gomes: No, I tried not to. I even tried to prevent my cinematographer from putting equipment in the shots, but he snuck things in—you can still see them. But it could not exactly be the same because we knew what was going to happen most of the time. Anyway, some of the scenes with the most explicit mise en scène were in the first part, in the scenes with my producer, and the dominos…those Spaghetti Western scenes.
Scope: When you initially began the film, was there this idea to problematize this traditional fiction-documentary divide? Did the film’s structure develop just in the way as you see it happen on screen?
Gomes: No, it’s not like in the movie, there were no dominos… but yes, we intended to do a film with more than a thousand extras, and it was really making a film with normal cinema means. We were going to try and control the concert scenes. I was trying to do something between what’s in the film and maybe a Minnelli film, something close to Meet Me in St. Louis (1944),for example.
Scope: And then did you realize that there really isn’t a point to constructing this reality? Because you can just take a camera to a concert, shoot the concert, and you’d get the same thing? If not better?
Gomes: Yeah, yeah. And we had no money to do it. My producer told me there was this guy who was going to give money to the film and then he died before he signed the authorization. Seriously. Then we had no money.
Scope: To get back to this idea of fairy tales, I’m wondering how you see Our Beloved Month of August in this sense. Fairy tales are supposed to have morals, but maybe your film reworks the fairy tale in not having a moral, or maybe having a dubious moral—like the critic in Vienna who hated the film because he said it was “pro-incest.”
Gomes: When you arrive to this shot where the girl cries and laughs at the same time, in a normal film this shot should be the moral shot, but, in this case, things are a little bit mixed, she’s crying and laughing at the same time, you can’t tell if it’s the character or the actor who is either crying or laughing… I think the moral may be in that shot, but I’m not sure what it is.
Scope: Maybe moral is the wrong word. We can talk about structure and process, but what were you after in making the film?
Gomes: Well, many things. I wanted to show local stories and the relationships between these people, for starters. I like also the idea of making a summer film—boys flirting with girls—and then also the, well, pro-incest part of the film, this tragic thing, more melodramatic, with the relationship between the father and the daughter…I know I used some rules of the documentary, like using voiceover… so there is a moment where you think you are watching a documentary. But I don’t like documentaries in general because I think they know too well what they are documenting, and in this case I didn’t know what I was documenting.
Gomes: For instance. You remember at the beginning there’s this scene with this English guy and this girl from Lisbon who have this bar—it’s the guy’s birthday and he cuts the cake with an ax—and there are lots of people from England, mostly freakish people, neo-hippies. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing in that scene. I knew he was going to cut the cake with the ax, and I enjoyed that idea so I wanted to film that. And then I talked with them, and I didn’t know what was going to happen…
Scope: In that scene you’re talking off camera in English, and if you had a plan, you wouldn’t be doing that…
Gomes: Yeah—I was off camera, and I started to understand that something funny was happening, that the shot was becoming about translation, and about the relationship between the two of them. And that’s good—I thought it would be a boring talk, I would cut it in the editing, but things were happening. You just have to be open to be led in another direction—while you’re shooting. That’s also a rule.
Scope: So when you got to the editing room, and you had all of these scenes, did you know you’d have this flowing structure?
Gomes: When I was there for the first time, in the summer of 2006, I just didn’t know what I was going to do. There was a script and I knew I had to return to the script in some way. And—this is one of the biggest lies in the film—I already had some of the actors already cast, like the cousins (Hélder and Tánia). But I filmed them like the others, as if I found them there at the moment. I filmed about four weeks the first time, then I thought about it, then shot two more weeks, two weeks after. Then I added this material from the first shooting and I asked my screenwriter to be involved in the editing, and I asked my editor to be involved in the rewriting of the script. Because it was almost the same thing. And then we understood, let’s make this first part of the film seem like we’re looking for characters. Maybe if we can convince Joaquim Carvalho—who is Pedro Costa’s producer, you know—to play the character of the producer and the father, just have those scenes with me and him, then he will be a character. So we imagined this structure, we wrote the scenes on cards, decided here the dominos will fall down, here the girl will go to the crew to ask to be in the film when they are playing quoits…
Scope: Did you shoot those scenes already?
Gomes: No, I had the girl, and then I went and shot the scene. And then we just rewrote the script and tried to make some connections between the first part and the second. And it wasn’t very hard, because there aren’t many people, they aren’t doing that many things, basic things—drinking, walking with the parade…It’s easy, but only if you have the time to do it. We had the time because then we shot again in 2007, all of the fictional scenes. If you look at the girl for example, you can see that she’s much fatter…
Scope: And he’s a better guitar player?
Gomes: He’s not a good guitar player.
Scope: And the music, you had those songs in your mind all along?
Gomes: The idea for those songs came with the original idea, which was to do a melodrama with music, the not-so-good music that they play and sing in this part of the country. So we listened to many songs…
Scope: The lyrics are all original?
Gomes: They are the regular songs, and I heard hundreds of records, and chose the songs to fit the scenes. And then during shooting I found some others because I heard people playing them…
Scope: And in the scene with the dinner party, and the drunk guy starts singing this confrontational song about incest…
Gomes: That’s something that happens in the area. But yeah, I got the guy drunk and I forced him to sing the lyrics that I wrote. But this kind of interaction is very typical—in real life sometime it ends in a very bad way because people insult each other, but they have to do it in rhyme. It’s very, very difficult, and they fall down drunk in the middle…
Scope: It’s like a kind of rap music…
Gomes: Yeah, and in that scene it’s also kind of like the Greek chorus. In the real script that we didn’t shoot, this relationship between the father and the daughter was more explicit, but with the revised film, I couldn’t do it in that way. So I had to introduce it there, with the drunk guy singing, “Is this father and daughter or husband and wife?” So I hope that some of the things that you saw before are clearer, and it becomes more explicit from that moment on.
Scope: Let’s go back to the beginning. The idea of making something that has no one set of rules, or has rules that change as they go along—is this a way of making films that’s more enjoyable?
Gomes: I look for pleasure in films… I look for pleasure everywhere, of course. To have fun during the shooting. One of the things that I hope to get from cinema as a viewer is pleasure. For instance, I have pleasure with things that keep transforming. When you think, “Oh, I got it,” then you have a kind of mutation. That gives me pleasure, even as a viewer.
Scope: Not knowing what’s going to happen. Maybe that’s a problem with typical art films today, you know what’s going to happen, and how…So was there more pleasure in Our Beloved Month of August than in The Face You Deserve? Which I gather must have had a tighter script. And also the shorts, for example, A Christmas Inventory…
Gomes: The Christmas film was the only one with, well, they weren’t exactly storyboards….There was a moment in A Christmas Inventory when one of the children started to cry, and she messed up the whole shot, and then I got it. I understood. She did something unexpected, and it was better than anything I could come up with. Then I made 31 (2001), and there was no script. The first day of film school they tell you never put your money in a film, and never film with children and animals because they are uncontrollable.
Scope: And all of your films have children and animals. So you start by breaking the cardinal rule.
Gomes: But maybe they can clash. For example, the establishing of this shot, the girl had a rule. Her tricycle was taken by another boy, so she started to cry. So they were breaking a rule, it was her tricycle, and he took it. And there’s also a clash between cinema and the desires of the actors.
Scope: Not just rules, but boundaries—between the people, and documentary and fiction. And they are artificial boundaries.
Gomes: That’s editing. Editing puts things together. I very much enjoyed editing this film; it gave me a lot of pleasure. Like, for example, this girl standing in this lookout tower, then putting a shot of the forest fire, which was totally fake. But somehow you believe in these things, and this is the most important thing—to believe in the unbelievable. Maybe that’s why cinema can be like a return to childhood, to the time you could believe. And now you have more distance, so you can be ironic, but sometime you can be touched because you want to believe.
Scope: But it’s very rare to get that suspension of disbelief now with Hollywood films.
Gomes: Well, you can, with Wes Anderson. He makes a film with a shark, and it’s like Douglas Sirk. A silly Douglas Sirk, but it’s very touching to me.
Scope: That’s a product of his artificiality, no? He makes precisely these fairy tale worlds—adults behave like children in all of his films, that’s the rule. And children sometimes behave like adults, like in Rushmore (1998), which is what makes that film so beautiful. And this is hard, because you’re not only suspending disbelief, but your own ironic detachment from life. It’s strange how those films work.
Gomes: Eugène Green, who just made a film produced by my producer in Portugal, said it was a Portuguese thing, to be serious and not serious at the same time. Think about Manoel de Oliveira, it’s very difficult to tell in his films if he’s joking or if he’s being serious.
Scope: And he uses John Malkovich, who has that precise quality as an actor, you don’t know what to make of him: Is he supposed to be serious or funny? Or both at the same time?
Gomes: In the Oliveira film The Letter (1999) there is this absurd guy who is singing this 18th century dialogue about love. He’s very ridiculous, singing this ridiculous song, but he’s real, he exists. But I don’t know if it’s a Portuguese thing or not. I’m not sure about anything, to tell you the truth. I’m always astonished by these filmmakers who are prophets who speak the truth. Basically, I know nothing. I can try, but I don’t know if you ask me the same thing in two hours I’ll say the same thing. Maybe I’m not very solid as a person.
Scope: Because you used to be a film critic.
Gomes: But when I was a critic I had to say if the film was good or bad. I guess we are always at the same point when we are doing a test, we are also doing a character, like the guy who jumps from the bridge. You have to be sure of certain things, normally, when you have a test like being a film critic.
Scope: Did you learn anything about filmmaking from being a film critic?
Gomes: Yeah, because in cinema school I didn’t learn a thing. Not one thing. When I was writing about films it made me think a little bit about cinema. The most important thing was that I was forced to write. I was working for a daily newspaper, so if I didn’t deliver the text there would have been, I don’t know…
Scope: An ad.
Gomes: Yeah, they would have been richer. But that gave me some discipline. Now I can be chaotic, but you must have some discipline first. Even if it is a product of the silliest rules.
Scope: Is Our Beloved Month of August the only film ever made where the sound director has the second closing credit?
Gomes: The only concession I made to my producer is that I wanted to have one more layer in the last scene. When we appear, each one of us gets a credit, but I wrote a very detailed description of the film by order of appearance, starting with the chickens and the fox…I wanted to put it all on the screen in between the crew introductions, but the producer said to me, “You have subtitles, too, so it will be a mess.” And I said, “I like the mess.” And he said, “No, no, you really have to do it for me, because I produced your 150-minute film, and I let you put everything you want in it.” So I said, “Okay.”
Scope: And the sound director?
Gomes: Sound is very important to me. And I wanted to end with a scene about people who believe in unbelievable things. This guy, Vasco Pimintel, the sound director, is our version of the guy who jumps from the bridge. He worked with Schroeter, Ruiz, Monteiro, almost everybody. And he’s always saying things that are not exactly right, but he believes it. It’s the old-fashioned John Ford thing: Print the legend. In every shot we are printing the legend, you know. At the end, literally, the scene with the printing of the newspaper, and then the soundman does the same with the whole film, that there are things that nobody can understand, but they are there. He’s our own Jeanne d’Arc, he hears things.
Scope: During the film these weird sounds do appear from time to time.
Gomes: I can talk about pleasure, because of this scene you are talking about, because of this sound that you hear. It’s a kind of mantra that was sung by the whole crew—I was the soloist. Where we shot, there was this little church, with a broken window, and we just put the microphone near the window. Near the door of the church there was also a window, and it made a wonderful echo. It became normal with my crew that I would say, “Now it’s time to sing a mantra…”
Scope: Another game.
Gomes: Yeah, but cinema is a game. Sometimes I think it is good to grab things that are supposed to be functional and make them into a game, this is what children do. Sometimes I give my daughter some toys, but she doesn’t care about them because she wants to play with some stupid thing I have in my kitchen that can kill her, but she gets more pleasure with it.
Scope: The same goes for the script that you show in the film. But it’s for the producers. Was your producer really surprised with what you came up with?
Gomes: Yeah. I think they were a little ashamed about not having the money for the making of the film the way it was intended, so they didn’t come to the shooting, and I was in charge. But even if you are playing games and trying out things, there’s always a border you cannot cross. Okay, I had a very big range. I mean, I could just fuck my producers, and shoot three hours of my toilet…I could do it, because they were not there, but in fact I could not do it. And in the second half it was different. I told the producer maybe it was a three-hour film, and he said okay.
Scope: So it wasn’t as difficult as you made it out to look in the movie… but that’s a game you’re playing with the audience.
Gomes: Yeah…and I also needed that as a McGuffin, to show everything in the first part that will somehow repeat in the second.
Scope: Like in The Wizard of Oz.
Gomes: Yeah, two parts in The Wizard of Oz. There is a danger though in this kind of structure, it can get too mathematical. For example, I love Boogie Nights (1997) because it’s a choreographical thing, but not Magnolia (1999), because it’s meant to be structured; you see the effort. He can do it, but you can’t see the effort, like it’s an accident.
Scope: You mean the first scene in Boogie Nights where all the characters are introduced—it must have taken days to set up, but somehow you don’t feel the effort. Even the camera movement feels light.
Gomes: That’s true.
Scope: This is what I’m trying to get at, and what we’ve been talking around: the myth about your film is that there’s no structure, but there is one, and it still feels light and lively, and that’s why it succeeds. Because I can see that film not working, even the scenes with the crew could feel more like an imposition, but because they are playing games, or hanging around, it feels light. If you read about a film like yours there’s a certain way you think it would appear, but in the end, in the film, the people rise above the structure. And it’s more about life than anything else.
Gomes: You know, when I presented the film for the first time in that region, I said this is a film about a very underestimated subject, which is being alive. Because being alive you have more problems—you don’t have these problems when you are dead. And I think that one of the problems in many bad—and good—films is that they ignore this, the problem of being alive.
Scope: One of the hardest things for an actor to do is convince you that they’re alive.
Gomes: And people are more alive when they are having fun.
Scope: Or when they are not having fun. The scene with the guy who can’t remember his lines because you keep changing the scenes on him…
Gomes: But it reveals one aspect of being alive, which is that he’s very concerned, nervous.
Scope: It’s something you can’t summarize, being alive. But that’s why most cinema often doesn’t work for me today, it’s impossible to separate the actor from the character.
Gomes: But sometimes it’s good. You know, my favourite actor is Robert Mitchum, and he is always Robert Mitchum. And, of course, John Wayne…
Scope: Yes, sure, but they are playing themselves. Or maybe it’s that the time for that kind of acting has gone away, that the rules of the game have changed, and Hollywood is still for the most part playing by the old rules. When Tom Cruise is in the film, he’s always trying to act, but it’s impossible…
Gomes: Johnny Depp is a different story. He has an advantage. Which is that Johnny Depp, as an actor, he likes to have fun. For example, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), my favourite Tim Burton film, he is having the time of his life. Making faces and fainting. He faints like 20 times in this film. It was one of my last texts as a film critic—this is a film about a guy that keeps fainting, that’s his life. This has something to do with cinema, probably.
Scope: Maybe that’s why Anna Faris is so great—she always seems like she’s having fun.
Gomes: Let me ask you something: people are talking about me, Albert Serra, and Lisandro Alonso as if we are together. Maybe because the three of us all had films in the last Quinzaine. And I like very much Lisandro and Albert’s films. And I think that they work with minimalistic structures, even if they do different things…but me, I don’t.
Scope: In Vienna what I said about La libertad (2001), and the reason why it might be the most important film in the last ten years, is that this is the point where it is clear that the divide between documentary and fiction no longer matters. For me, El cant dels ocells is in a way like a documentary: they aren’t playing characters, they’re playing themselves, and it’s shot kind of in a documentary style. And the scenes that they play are the scenes that they are talking about as they are getting to the scene. The method maybe owes much to Warhol, as well. Maybe another way of saying it is that in all three of your films the process of the filmmaking is in the film, and is as important as the final product. Or that none of you, in a way, know what you’re doing—in a certain sense.
Gomes: There you have a point. But we were talking about The Face You Deserve for instance…for me the way I made that film is also in the film. We shot that in Sintra, which is very close to Lisbon, so we left Lisbon early in the morning to shoot the film, and it was like entering another world. The process may be in the film, but it’s not evident in that case because you don’t see me going to this place, and you don’t get to see Sintra and how it works…
Scope: But it’s important to you that you feel it in the film. And it goes back to the John Ford anecdote about shooting in Monument Valley, and the pleasure he derived from going to the location, waking up early, going to the set, working hard, coming back and eating a meal together, and then sleeping like babies. Maybe also it’s that the relationship between the filmmaker and the actors (or subjects) is not so unidirectional anymore. And you can talk about Pedro Costa here too. The actors are making the films.
Gomes: Yes, you must be talking about Vanda. Because it’s like a battle between him and her, and she has more power in the film than anyone else in his films before or after.
Scope: And you can say the same thing about Misael the woodcutter in La libertad, although it’s not a battle there. But now that I think of it, the films are of course very similar and Costa got there first. Okay, In Vanda’s Room (2000) had a bit of a higher shooting ratio.
Gomes: There is this moment in La libertad, where he imposes his own time on Lisandro, and Lisandro accepts, so the guy goes to sleep, and the camera instead goes into the trees. And that’s beautiful. I’m into it. That’s my thing. In Liverpool he’s doing this incredible thing, he’s starting in this place that we knew already from his cinema, and then he’s making cinema! It’s surprising, he knows cinema after all! Unbelievable. He made the best melodrama of the last five years, it’s a melodrama.
Scope: And it’s a Western. The tape’s almost over: that’s my rule. Only shoot one tape.