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By Mark Peranson
I walked with a zombie
I walked with a zombie
I walked with a zombie
Horse Money, the first new “fiction” feature from Pedro Costa in almost a decade, begins with a silent montage of poignant photographs from the Danish-born Jacob Riis of New York tenement dwellers in the early 20th century, immigrants who have arrived in the US from disparate lands expecting far more than the country—any country—could deliver. The last frame of this montage, however, is a painting of a black man, followed by one of the film’s few camera movements, a pan right and tilt down towards the familiar figure of Ventura, who again has come to life from art. He then descends slowly down a dark staircase, through a metal-barred door, into what we will discover might be a hospital or an asylum or even a jail, where he will bide some time, haunted by his past, haunted by what may or may not be ghosts, for most of Costa’s extremely unclassifiable masterpiece, winner of Best Director in Locarno before travelling, under shadow of darkness, to Toronto and places beyond. Ventura’s journey into what Costa has called “a Baudelairean night” transpires outside the realm of rationality, framed in expressionist angles, as darkly lit as Caravaggio, and, in no uncertain terms, resists a neat summary. (Certainly not the summary Costa provided to Locarno: “While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.” Right.)“You’re on the road to perdition,” another character, the striking Vitalina, recently arrived in Lisbon too late for her husband’s funeral, tells him, but is this road a circular purgatory? Is this a film that takes place as much in the head of Ventura as it does in Costa’s?
The anguish is up there on the screen, in every shot, every tremulous gesture of Ventura, trudging along in his concentration-camp-like pyjamas, and the tears that snakes down Vitalina’s cheek as she reads her birth certificate aloud. About as torturous to revisit in writing as it is to watch, the most true-to-form analysis of Horse Money should proceed in this painstaking way, shot after shot, because to examine the film as a whole, or as a connection of scenes that flow one into the other, is an impossibility. (Every review of this film is guaranteed to get at least one detail wrong; after seeing it three times the film remains intangible to me.) And this is the way Costa wants it, with Ventura’s mental landscape receiving a tangible form of resistance in the film’s aesthetics: like Jean-Marie Straub, Costa adheres to the philosophical impossibility of matching one shot to the next. (Costa speaks below of the significant influence of Straub’s elliptical 1965 film Not Reconciled on Horse Money.) The themes, yes, we’ve been there before, back in Fontainhas from Ossos (1997) to In Vanda’s Room (2000) to Colossal Youth (2006), but although the struggles of Cape Verdean immigrant experience remain on the level of the text, in stories provided by Ventura and Vitalina, formally we’ve ventured into another dimension, one of indeterminate space and time. Though Costa skirts the tropes of the horror film, there is something new here.
At points, in this sparse, haunting, and often stolid modernist film, Costa puts words into Ventura’s mouth, including a quote from a certain Jacques Tourneur film. It would not surprise me if there were a multitude of sources lying beneath, as in conversation with Costa, and in close observations of his work itself, films and filmmakers come up again and again. For him, films cannot be repressed—in Horse Money, in fact, nothing is repressed, everything pours out, achronologically, beginning with Ventura’s memory of a knife fight on March 11, 1975, which left him with a gash in his head that required 96 stitches, and may have left the other man dead. His horse named Money, torn to pieces by vultures. The time when his employer refused to let him work because he was only 17. The voices in Ventura’s head explode into action in the prolonged, manic elevator scene—a final-act monster mash of an elevator ride to hell and back—that appeared, in a slightly different version, as Sweet Exorcism (2012), Costa’s contribution to the Centro Historico omnibus.
According to Costa, Horse Money was an attempt to exorcise the demons from Ventura’s past, and there is a monumental sense of finality to this troubled work—but does a release necessarily equate with an exorcism? Where do we go from here? Ventura’s liberation from the Gothic gaol, beneath a surely digitally enhanced orange sky (as usual, Costa has more tricks up his sleeves than he admits), is met with a sign that his past cannot be escaped: the last shot of the film is a close-up of knives gleaming back at him from a shop window, reflected onto his feet. And there is no reverse shot.
Cinema Scope: How is Vanda?
Pedro Costa: She’s fine. She’s in Germany, working in a Spar supermarket.
Scope: In talking about Colossal Youth you made it clear that the starting part for the film were anecdotes and stories from Ventura. Horse Money seems to focus on one of these anecdotes, from some violent incident that happened on March 11, 1975, in Jardim da Estrela in Lisbon.
Costa: I’m almost the same age as Ventura. I’m a bit younger, and we were almost in the same place when the revolution happened in my country. I was very lucky to have been a young man in a revolution, really lucky; you don’t know what it is probably. And I was discovering a lot of things, music and politics and film and girls, everything at the same time, and I was happy and anarchist and shouting in the streets and occupying factories and things like that—I was 13 so I was a bit blind. It took me 30 years to discover that Ventura had been at the same place, at the same time, crying, very afraid, of what I was doing, and what the soldiers were trying to do. So this is an interesting thing. I was shouting the slogans, the common revolutionary words with the banners and the stuff, and he was hiding in the bushes with his comrades, the black immigrants, that had started coming in 1968 from all the Portuguese ex-colonies. Then with our friendship, which has gone on for 20 years, he has been telling me stories about this prison—he calls it a prison. He fell into a deep sleep.
Everything that I could say is in the film. It was a very difficult film to make, very devastating. We shook a lot. He really is sick and ill and he really tries to remember, and trying to remember is not the best thing. So I think we did this film to forget, actually. Some people say they make films to remember, I think we make films to forget. This is really to forget, to be over with, and I hope the next film will be a good thing.
Scope: Before I forget, the Ford question you referred to in our public discussion was if you’ve ever showed Ford to Ventura, and I think it was a follow-up to your comparing him at the time of Colossal Youth to Judge Priest.
Costa: That’s a bit pretentious…but why would I show it to him when he’s the real thing? He lives in a Ford movie everyday. A strange Ford movie, but almost in the same kind of world, the same kind of people. They are deranged, but they are the same breed. Two faces, hero and bum…it’s more Hawksian, actually, Ford doesn’t have so much that two-sided guy…a little bit, in The Searchers (1956) or My Darling Clementine (1946). Ventura is exactly like that. One young guy from Fontainhas when he saw Colossal Youth said, “Ventura, you’re a piece of shit every day in this neighbourhood and we see you up there and you’re all of us.” He really said that, every word. So why should he see Ford.
Scope: But does he watch movies at all?
Costa: No…I tried to show him some adventure stuff, I think I was showing them Anthony Mann, something with James Stewart. They were bored.
Scope: It’s not part of the culture?
Costa: No, not even TV, not even the soaps. The wives, yeah, but the men, no. They didn’t grow up with movies, but with music. Music, I’m discovering a lot. It was very important, and I should do something else much more carefully done, with music, with them. Because you can see it’s important. They sing, they know the lyrics, they have a lot of songs in their heads—they all dance. The music is in the film just because of Ventura. I’m very careful with music. I never use it a lot, but this time the song was for Ventura. It was really for him, and he sings it because it’s like a salvation.
You know what, this is going to sound funny now, but I have kind of an affection for Spike Lee. I always have. It’s not just because of the black thing, but there’s something there that’s generous. He’s a lot better than a lot of the American guys, no? Sometimes. Summer of Sam (1999), that’s not bad. Do the Right Thing (1989), there’s some good stuff there. The first film’s great…And then, I never say this, but I should: Gil Scott-Heron was on this project, but then he went and died on us. He was the guy who was going to make the connection between Ventura and another thing…When I began I was thinking about the last poets, Curtis Mayfield and the black rappers in the ’70s, the poems, what they wrote, what they sang, how they did it, and there was a connection to Ventura. And then Scott-Heron had this double face also—hero and bum—he was a very strange guy. And I met him and we had a very interesting discussion. And he saw the films, and he said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s great, let’s do something.” I sensed that he was doing anything to escape his thing…I didn’t know that he was so heavy into crack. For example, the montage in the neighbourhood that you see with the song was just part of the intention. I wanted to do half-an-hour of music; one-third would have been a rap between Ventura and Scott-Heron. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to tell it now, and perhaps it wasn’t a good idea at all.
Scope: Did he ever record anything?
Costa: I think it exists, somewhere in his coffin, his house in Harlem. He told me he wrote something, I don’t know if he recorded it. I shot something in New York with him, just talking and talking, but he didn’t come to the set. When I showed him Colossal Youth he said, “I want to meet this man, this man is my brother…He’s me, I’m him,” and he started doing exactly what I expected him to do. But as always, fate intervened…This is to say that there was a musical genesis to this film somewhere.
Scope: There’s music throughout the film, plus at times some aspects of musical composition: besides the organ music, even the elevator scene is musical, polyphonic.
Costa: Yeah, the voices, the rhythms, the speed, the tone, the resonance. I spent two months mixing the sound. It should be like Messien…I should have put the name of the piece that you hear in the elevator in the credits. It’s not there not because it’s not paid, but because I like people to discover: it’s called “The Apparition of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Scope: I don’t remember exactly—aside from the addition of the music, is the elevator scene the same as in Sweet Exorcism?
Costa: No, it’s a little bit more compact. It’s shorter, as each shot had much more than it should in the other film…I’m talking five, six, ten frames, sometimes a second. But a lot of shots are eight, ten, 20 seconds long. Some dialogue is also not there.
Scope: Were you shooting the entire film at the same time, or did you begin with the elevator?
Costa: I began with the elevator because we thought it would be the most difficult. We shouldn’t shoot in a real elevator, so we did it in a studio, and I knew that we were going to stay there for some time. We were there for months, first just talking, drinking, Ventura telling me stories. Most of the times we wanted to get out of there immediately, but we tried to do our eight hours a day—that’s something missing from cinema, work, a little bit. Because I’m working with people that are so used to violence and work, they can sometimes handle it, they can see what’s coming, and they are strong enough for some propositions I have and sometimes they don’t understand, or sometimes I don’t understand. There are lots of things I don’t understand in the film that come from them.
When we started shooting in the elevator, there was a problem because the guy who plays the soldier couldn’t wear the paint for more than three hours at a time, because it becomes very toxic. So it was very difficult for him, but we did the whole shooting day for six to eight hours. For three months, every day. And that’s the first thing. Then I got this call for Centro Historico as I was just finishing, and I said, “I can’t, I’m doing this,” and they said, “Why not use this,” and I said, “It’s an elevator, it’s not Guimarães.” But they were fine with it, so why not.
Scope: Were you worried that it couldn’t stand alone as a short film?
Costa: When I saw what Ventura was doing I knew it would be fine. I was a bit afraid because…It was a test. I wanted to see it there, to see what it looked like, and I knew the film would do some festivals. I’m not saying the other films are bad, or they failed, but it’s the kind of project that never goes too far. Unless it’s about Paris or New York, but about Guimarães? So it was a test screening, a preview for me, and they paid for the sound mix, which was expensive, because there were layers and layers of sound, it was very manipulated.
Scope: Was that the first thing you ever shot on a set?
Costa: I think so. Probably. The Straub thing is more or less a set, because we took out a lot of things. The students were right behind the camera. We changed the room a little bit. Well, Vanda’s room, that’s kind of a set…it’s not bad for Ventura, for Vitalina, for these guys, going to a set helps them to concentrate.
Scope: As you were saying, if filmmaking for you is essentially work, having a studio set is having a place where you can go and work for a day.
Costa: Ventura is still proud of his workbag and his hard hat. He talks about these things, walking to the bus, the bus taking him to the construction site, and working, and going to lunch, coming back, taking a shower, going home, making pork chops…but they used to do it like that in movies, you know. They still do that in the Cahiers. Cinema Scope does not even have a home…
Scope: The internet.
Costa: The internet is not a place. But we’re not having that discussion.
Scope: Is the reason for Ventura’s pride because it feels like some kind of upward mobility…
Costa: It’s risky to talk in those terms, those words, but all the words in Ford are very present, even if they are not spoken now. You feel that in Ventura when he starts telling you about what he used to do, and the pain he had not doing them when he was hurt. That’s something I think that this lament shows—it’s kind of like a lamentation, the whole film, but in the elevator it’s really clear—he’s for the other workers too, we all fall down. We want to do well, we want to work for you, and we do it well, more or less, but we fail, we fail, we fail…it’s very present too, this sense of guilt. I mean, Ventura’s head was cut, 93 stitches and all, you see the scar, that was a true story, the guy cut him with a razor blade. The other guy’s scar on his arm is real, which is from a fall he had when he was working on an elevator…the story how he got it is there in the film, but transformed to another guy. The other guy is dead; he was three months in a coma…Benvenido is telling the story of the guy that we see with the arm, that cut Ventura. The stories are all true except, except what…What’s not true is the most absurd, horrific—like Ventura’s dreams, with the birds.
Scope: But they are all dead. In the film.
Costa: They are all dead? I don’t know.
Scope: Everyone seems to think that Horse Money is a ghost story.
Costa: Yeah, well, but they will have trouble. Because it’s not simply the ghosts. It is, because people will read that, and they will see another ghost, but they will have to pay a little bit more attention, it’s a little bit hard and intense. There is some work to be done.
Scope: The compulsion to see them as ghosts may be a result of the acting styles, the heightened artificiality…
Costa: Probably, probably yeah.
Scope: In terms of directing the actors then, did you approach things differently in Horse Money as opposed to Colossal Youth?
Costa: Ventura is working here a little bit more, we talked—but not too much—about this film being final, that if we do something else, we have to do something different. So he is not in good health, he has that tremor, but not all of the time, sometimes I told him to exaggerate it…But he knew that and he saw that with Vanda. He was very present in the shooting of the last film, and he said perhaps it was a good thing for her to see the film, so she can see how she is, this poor girl. So for him it’s really amazing what he does. I would hope that Jean-Marie sees the film on the screen and agrees with me that here it’s really, really close to what the Brecht guy would want. There is something in seeing yourself quoting something from yourself, and from other guys at the same time. There’s a lot of work in what Ventura does and I can see it.
Scope: The second significant character is Vitalina, who we haven’t seen before, and has an equally remarkable screen presence.
Costa: She is related to Ventura, a cousin of a cousin, and I met her because I was in that neighbourhood as always, and I saw her cooking or doing some stuff, and she lives in the house they talk about in the film, the white house you see. I asked her to do some things in the house, and we talked and she told me about her story, and it was a little bit like Ventura, I felt I could work with her. She’s very special.
Scope: Why was it important to have Vitalina read the birth and death certificates in their entirety?
Costa: Because that’s how we met. When we met she said, “Come in, come in, let me show you something.” And she showed me all of the papers, she had a pile…it’s very important for immigrants, papers are fundamental, a dossier. It’s going to the embassy, they spend hours and months and days in queues, they think about that. She reads the real stuff. I didn’t expect her to do what she does, to be so emotional.
Scope: So the crying wasn’t rehearsed or on cue?
Costa: We did three takes, and she cried each take. Then she said, “It’s too much, I cannot read this anymore.” She reads about her husband and she doesn’t cry, then she reads about herself and she cries. Yeah, to begin, it’s the first time with this woman and me, to begin with her own stuff, with the bag—she came with the bag, and the visa, and the papers, so tell your story. And the rest would be brought by Ventura, as a gift…but that’s not even for the viewers, that’s just for her. She’s reading the documents, like in a Straub film, then there’s that other part, like in a Tourneur film, like Stars in My Crown (1950), because there’s nothing in the letter. There is, it’s written, but you know in Stars in My Crown he tells that great thing and then you see a blank paper.
Scope: And the smile at the end? Is that also an intuitive response?
Costa: The smile is intentional, I said, “Be kind to Ventura, he wrote you something.” There was something written, I know what’s there, I have it. You probably know what’s there. You know. It’s a four-page letter, it’s written, you see text. It will be in another film. This is how I get my scripts. I am very fortunate to get the scripts written by the actors during the shooting. Ventura wrote a little bit what I should do in the near future. Every film it’s a little bit like that. A message.
But something else happens that we were not expecting, because the movement with the camera was difficult…if you see the film again you will see a very strange thing in her face, because she smiles and then it kind of morphs, and she moves in like a bullet and she disappears. I just told her, go in and get your pension. And she did it in a way to say, “I will never again look at this man, this piece of shit.” That’s what I wanted, that’s what she did. I like that moment, but it owes everything to her, the way she opens the door, the way she goes in. It’s a very violent thing.
Scope: You told her to whisper?
Costa: I told her to talk slowly because she was talking… almost half-dead, like she was in a hospital. I didn’t expect her to walk like that; she did this almost choreographed thing. The whisper was so enchanting that I told her to keep doing it. The last thing was very surprising, because I didn’t expect it so sudden, so violent. I’ve very happy. It’s my Exorcist 5 moment. Shame on you, Paul Schrader! I did it!
Scope: All of this speaks to the fact that there’s something even more intentionally Straubian to me in this film. And it traces back to the voices, and the movements, and this is also what people will connect to some idea of the supernatural, or of death.
Costa: It’s also the bodies. Some are very ill, and showing their illness: the trembling is for some people very poetic, for others sad and dramatic, for others it’s metaphorical. You can’t hide it. It’s real. You ask if Ventura is okay, he’s not, the pills, everything he takes…that’s already something that determines a certain kind of acting. Those hands. And then the stupid things about the film references, mirror thing about the films we know, the Germans, Peter Lorre, Val Lewton…they are very rich and real. Of course, in some people we know and our friends you see some nice bodies, ways of showing bodies, but it’s not the usual stuff.
Scope: What camera did you shoot with?
Costa: It’s the Panasonic AG-DVX100, it’s HD card, but not 2K. But it’s much more difficult to light, every DP will tell you the same. It’s much more difficult to get anything that looks interesting at all because you have to fight against so much stupid stuff that’s put inside the cameras, and you feel it when you go inside the cinema, if it’s not Lav Diaz or Béla Tarr or Godard or Straub or something, everything’s the same. And it’s not their fault, but at the same time you should fight a little bit against that. My kind of fighting is a funny way of fighting.
Scope: One very curious moment for me are the first exterior shots of the film, the statues, first by the airport…it’s curious.
Costa: It is. Let’s leave it like that.
Scope: I like the airplane landing in the background, is that Vitalina landing in Lisbon?
Costa: Probably yeah, I hope so. The truth was I have six or seven more statues, shot at night, and I thought it could be nice for her to tell about her problem, I’m coming for my husband but I don’t have a visa etc., and have a voice telling you about this over some scenes at night in Lisbon. And I thought about the statues because probably of the soldier, or the bodies, I don’t know, the stone and iron and the glorious bodies. And I have some more, I have a Portuguese poet, but it didn’t fit. So it ended with that goddess. And it was very unconscious but now I always see like a cemetery, with the goddesses and angels above the crypts. It’s not, it’s just a fountain, half-Egyptian, half-kitsch goddess…close to the airport. And the other is Prometheus unbound, you can’t see it but he’s writing stuff. I also had the big Egyptian falcon with Mister Gulbenkian that Ventura helped build in his garden, but it seemed a little bit too much out of a horror film.
Scope: Were you concerned that it might become too much of a horror film? How did you decide on the final form?
Costa: No, no. I think it escapes, it slides and shifts into something else. It’s there. When you have this soldier, and Vitalina with her eyes, and if we go with this windy atmosphere in some places, you’re into something risky. But then, like Rivette says, it’s a game. So if you play the game, with the rules…you slide a bit. When it becomes boring with the documents, the bricks, the cement, that’s when I hear, “Give us some more ghosts.” I think you can feel the work that we did—it’s a construction. This is a word I like, because you know, Ventura, he was in the construction business, he knows how it’s done…that’s why the film is a little bit boring with bricks and cements. So a little bit painfully we put one brick, and another, and tried to build this thing and tried to be interesting and strong and emotional or sentimental. Sentiment, feeling, everything comes from that. There are a lot of things wrong, that’s what goes in the garbage. Editing is more than that: it’s so far out that not even Godard knows what it is. But it’s also cutting. What Ventura does isn’t good all the time, and I’m not good all the time. Thank god, because that’s why films are made, to be a bit more intense than in real life. I would love to be in a film every second, but we have a lot of bad takes in our real life. So all those bad takes go into the garbage. They need the work, not only the actors, but the technicians, they need to work a lot but I think they like to work a lot. It’s very difficult, but there’s this moment where I feel and they feel that it’s there.
Scope: Talking about editing, in Colossal Youth there is the long scene with Vanda where she’s coughing and hacking for ten minutes or something, and it seemed to me at the time that the placing of that scene was a kind of a statement in terms of telling the viewer if you’re not with me, then get out.
Costa: Yeah, yeah.
Scope: And to me there’s a similar editing principle here…
Costa: You think so?
Scope: With the documents, the reading…And then you get the musical number, Os Tubarões’ “Alto cutelo,” over a montage of ex-Fontainhas residents, that echoes the Riis photographs at the beginning, as a kind of reward around the 50-minute mark.
Costa: When Vitalina appears, the film changes I think, she brings something. So yeah, maybe you could say that. But that I knew when we were shooting. If she was here you would be transported. Like Ventura she radiates something.
Scope: She has more of a spiritual quality, but I don’t know if that’s the right word. Maybe voodoo. Is that what she’s doing with the necklaces?
Costa: Something like that. I didn’t tell her to do that, she’s just doing those things. Telling him how it is. She’s always doing that, to occupy her troubled mind.
Scope: Tell me about the mask.
Costa: The mask is a 50-cent mask from one of those poor guys downtown. It’s not a fancy thing. The mask was supposed to talk, and I said enough statues and masks talking. That probably comes from Blake and Mortimer. You know Blake and Mortimer? Edgar-Pierre Jacobs? He was a Belgian comic-book writer, from the same time as Tintin. It’s as good as Mister Lang. He was a friend and enemy of Hergé, and he did this series of Blake and Mortimer adventures, two English, one a detective, the other a Royal Air Force guy, the most famous book is The Yellow Mark, which is a big M in a circle. And it’s really, really great. This is the ’40s, ’50s, the same golden era. It’s as great as Walsh, and Lang, with the decoupage and the action scenes and the characters. My favourite book is called The Mystery of the Great Pyramid, at one point one of them gets closed inside a chamber, and a Pharoah’s head starts radiating light and says, “Mortimer, you are doomed!” I read that when I was a teenager, it’s a bit more adult than Tintin.
But the mask, yeah, it’s there and it was supposed to talk, and now it’s mute, but that was before Vitalina came into the film. Then we thought, fuck all of us, because the mask is Vitalina. It really is. Everybody saw it at the same time. An evil wind just came across…But you know it’s things that we remember from elsewhere that help us go through to the other side. Because the important stuff is with both of them, and the two guys, and the elevator, and the song…Then I provide the little things, but they are nicely placed, I hope. I really love the way they were so clever and inventive and how we lost that kind of thing. Straub didn’t, he resists a lot. He really didn’t.
I think, I have to say this, this film owes a lot to Not Reconciled. It doesn’t compare. It’s a film I always love more and more, and the way it goes back and forth…a little bit like in Lang, it’s the most violent, concrete piece of present you can have on screen. It’s never the past, they are always the same, you cannot place the characters except in those bureaus, post offices, hotels. So I believe at least in this feeling that something about the past should be something about the present, and not about the past. Sure, you can put the wigs and cars, and it depends on the mood I think…or money, I don’t know. Now I’m thinking about Straub, because Godard can do Flaubert in the woods or Rousseau walking by, but Straub has the Roman stuff, and the Kafka, with the costumes, but sometimes not.
And here is a guy who doesn’t think it’s possible to match one shot with the other. It’s not possible. How could it be possible to join 1952 with today, it’s not. Not even that one shot can match with the other shot. Anyway, Not Reconciled is something that now seems very inspiring for this and also because again that was my main love perhaps, history and ancient history, and the feeling that it will repeat again and again today. It was a disaster then and it’s a disaster now and if you’re shooting a film you cannot escape that damnation that when you’re shooting something now, you will record the disaster now. Ventura is very powerful in showing you the tragedy of a social condition, he’s very human, naked…It’s our fault. The secret is not to charge the film too much in the wrong places, and I think this one is perhaps a little bit too clever. You have to see it more than once to figure things out.
Scope: Maybe that’s why it seems like the exteriors were so shocking, not only the airport but also the exterior of the hospital, because everything else could have been shot in the ’60s if not earlier. The lower it gets physically, the more Ventura descends, the more back in time it seems to go.
Costa: Yes, you’re right, I agree. But then sometimes some things not only find their way into the film very cleverly almost without our help…
Scope: The red motorcycle is also very shocking.
Costa: It’s my friend, the biggest dealer in the neighborhood, I told all of them, “You have to go look for Ventura,” and he said, “I’ll go with the bike.” So what could I do? He has the big Ducati from selling the good stuff. Of course it comes from other films too… but the tank and the soldier in the elevator, this is Ventura. At the beginning when he was telling me about the revolution and how he was afraid in his shack with the big bird, he also said, and the noise, the noise… what noise? The cars? The soldiers? There were no soldiers. There were no tanks in March, there were in the 25th of April but not before.
Scope: Where are all those subterranean hallways and vacant rooms? The emptiness also makes it feel like some kind of dream, or an afterlife that Ventura is trudging through.
Costa: Most of them were shot in two different hospitals. Of course one doesn’t need to think about it like this, but Ventura said, “I know a lot of hospitals, I’ve been there.” Most places are where patients do not go, down, down, down, mainly in the biggest hospital that you see from the outside. The last one is one of the oldest hospitals in Lisbon, and that arch is the entrance-exit of the morgue—not of the hospital but the morgue. I used a trick, I wrote the guys in the hospital that I was making a true-life documentary about poor Cape Verdeans in this hospital, it’s only an amateur crew of two guys, no lights, nothing, and we only want to shoot in corridors and won’t bother anyone, so they gave us complete access every time of the night. I found out that it’s the complete opposite of ER, there is no one, all the guys are sleeping. You can rob the whole place. We stayed weeks and weeks and saw no one. It’s a very scary place, it’s good for the sound too…there’s a lot of breathing in the film.
Scope: There’s also a lot of death in the film.
Costa: Yeah, and I don’t like that at all, but it keeps creeping in, and I would like to repel that but I cannot. I am in a very preparatory stage of my filmmaker’s life, because I know it’s not very good. It’s not my dream to do this kind of film. I do what I feel like I have to do, now…There are so many bad things around, why should you bother to do anything? I’m very impatient, and I do not have the faith. I would like to, perhaps, I would like to be, but it’s so, so far out that it seems impossible, I would like to be my grandfather. I would like to be my filmmaker friends, one or two of them. I would like to be Ventura when he was young and he wanted to be somebody else. These are not the kind of films I would like to do, but these are the films I do.
Scope: If one can consider this a hospital film, was Bedlam (1946) an influence?
Costa: Probably yes, most certainly. Obviously more if you want more precise things, not the plot or things but something in the eyes, something in the faces, more The Seventh Victim (1943), it’s really strange. The Blake and Mortimer thing. Mister Lang, kind of…and the Russians I love, they were good, don’t forget them. They were really, really good. Barnet and Vertov and Eisenstein.
Scope: What I was going to say before is that the text of the film, Ventura and Vitalina’s stories, comes from them, but the details are the way that you deal with it personally, staging and shooting them, through the prism of cinematic history.
Costa: You’re right. I cannot deny it. No other comment.
Scope: But you can’t really exorcize that, can you? If the film was made to exorcise Ventura’s demons…
Costa: We do not believe in ghosts, Ventura and me. We play a dark, sombre game, we play with the forces…I mean, I play with movies, he plays with something more dangerous—his imagination, or his demons let’s say. His demons are nothing more than a boss saying, “You’re 17, man” and that’s terrifying for him. The man in the iron hood is the soldier, our gentle, gentle April soldier.
Scope: Can movies be demonic? Are you haunted by movies?
Costa: Sometimes, sometimes. Sometimes. It’s a difficult thing to answer. Rarely, no, they are evocative in a sense that for a little bit more than a second you can get lost in something that is your past and your present in seeing the film, something very complicated that happened long ago and that happens again, seeing the third thing, that is the film. Then there are films that you could say that are spiritual séances. Some Straub films are like that for me. Danièle would say of course they are, like Rouch. Rouch is showing how films can be so close to the possession game, passing from one world to the other, in a power situation. I’m lucky again to be working with people that provide very intense texts, like you say, the word, the body, so my work is very easy, in a way. In Vanda’s Room is a film about possession, not only the drugs, but she possesses the viewer in a certain kind of way that is different from other films. There are films that practice that kind of magic in different ways. That’s what I call the Brechtian thing.
Scope: The idea of the possession of the viewer is interesting, and I think where Horse Money is most successful is when it achieves this possession.
Costa: Oh yeah, and that’s deliberate. I still think Godard believes he can go there and he gets there, Straub gets there like that, it’s the most intense and shamanistic…talking with Danièle, the two great loves of her life were Straub and Rouch. And this is the game of believing and not believing, and it involves a certain power game. I will possess you, I will control, I control certain things that will make you see, or make you remember…just look at the eyes in this film. It’s what you’re saying: I’ve seen some films, so I know some things. I’m not going to sell you something that doesn’t exist. Fritz Lang exists, Straub exists, Godard exists, they have transported cinema somewhere else. If you can’t find a way of doing something closer to you with your fears and your doubts then you should go out. I resist folkloric things. That’s where story, the craft saves you a little bit. Sometimes I think people working today don’t give a shit. You can be saved by little things. When Ventura and Vitalina do something, it can save the film from a jump into something too metaphorical or bad poetry or bad imagery. It’s a fight.
Scope: Tell me about the title.
Costa: Do you want to talk about the horse or the money? You have two choices, man. I want to talk about the money. I like the title; I like it in English. I think it’s a good combination. What else can you ask for, horse and money. Speed, power, nerve, breathing. I think it’s good to have a film with the word money in the title. Scorsese is allowed to do that, but I’m not. We have to call our films “Sweet Flower…” or something like that.
Scope: But he had a horse named Money, that part is true.
Costa: Yeah, yeah, I can tell you more, he had that donkey, Fogo, he had a pig, the name of the pig is so funny, Actor or something. The title, that’s the film I wanted to do. Probably it has some meanings, I’m dreaming this up, immigrants, adventurers, dangerous guys that risk something, and have these words on their mind, get the money, earn the money. It’s not really the race, it’s the dream, the ambition, the nightmare. What I like is the pure simplicity, the concreteness of two words.
And with the money, the film cost 100,000 euros. We have no money in Portugal, and film is the least of our problems, I think. It’s in the film, it’s the best way we could talk about today. It’s not really a film about the past or the future, there’s only present. It’s very in the present, this film, I think. I’m starting to like the film now, because it doesn’t give you time to think, like in the old days, it just is. This condition, the film plays itself in an everlasting present. At least this elevator is a machine that says you leave now and you are a prisoner of your present. And you will die in the present. You will die now, you will suffer now…I don’t want to scare you. And film is always in the present. There are no films in the past, in the future: it’s today, it’s now, and it’s over. Ventura’s always saying, “I’m 19,” but of course he’s not 19 years old.
Scope: With the title, you’re also tempting the John Ford comparisons again.
Costa: For horse. Not for money.