The Wow of Joao: A talk with Two Drifters director Joao Pedro Rodrigues

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“People are crazy here, no?," director Joao Pedro Rodrigues half-asks over the phone from LA, where he’s making a brief visit to promote Two Drifters (aka Odete), which opens in the Bay Area this week. His words bring to mind a certain observation by a Hollywood starlet that then became a Rex Reed book title. But in Rodrigues’s case the remark might partly be inspired by the star of Two Drifters – the person whose apartment he’s visiting, Ana Cristina de Oliveira, who has since gone on to a role in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice remake. De Oliveira plays a volatile character in Two Drifters, and some swear words delivered loudly by her bring this interview to an abrupt end.

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Guardian: You’ve used the same bold red font for title credit in both of your features. Can you tell me a bit about deciding that?
Joao Pedro Rodrigues: I like it. I like red, it’s like blood. It’s like something that’s inside you.

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G: Within the making of this film, was there a favorite scene for you to shoot, a sequence that turned out better than you had initially envisioned?
JPR: I like the first shot of Odete [on rollerskates in the supermarket], when she first appears.
For me, the beginning of a film is very important. I hate films that are not striking from the start. By striking, I especially mean visually striking. There are lots of film noirs from the ‘40s and B movies that have really striking beginnings. Then sometimes they are not as good, but the beginning keeps you hooked. It’s a ‘Wow,’ almost a physical sensation.
I also wanted the kissing [between Rui (Nuno Gil) and his boyfriend Pedro (Joao Carreira)] in the beginning to be impressive. I like to remember shots of movies -- most of the time, more than the stories, I remember shots.
Not that I just try to make unforgettable shots, but the way you shoot something tells the story. You’re telling the story in one way. My process is to find what is the right way to shoot something.

G: Once again you’ve made great and unique use of darkness in this movie, though it isn’t quite as immersive as in O Fantasma. What thoughts did you have about it and about qualities of light in approaching the cinematography?
JPR: Two Drifters becomes a darker-looking movie as the story becomes darker. The first film [O Fantasma] was a way into darkness. The main character was walking or journeying into darkness -- the darkness was his solitude, and solitude grows in the dark and blecch blah blah.

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G: You feel the darkness almost physically in O Fantasma.
JPR: That’s why I wanted to shoot with very little light and go to a point where you almost couldn’t see. You have to have light to shoot, and the proposition I made to the cinematographer [Rui Pocas] was to shoot with no light if it was possible – or use only the light that exists in night. I hate the artificial night lighting in most films. And the story of O Fantasma is built very much around what you see and learn of this guys’ life and what you don’t.

G: Two Drifters has a great sequence set in a steam room -- I think there’s something both hotter than and more honest to the way that you show sex in the movies. Do you think other filmmakers allow taboos to dominate the way they visualize or even think about sex?
JPR: I try to shoot it as I would anything else. I don’t try to have the sex be something different than the other things. In the steam room scene in this film I didn’t want to show the blowjob again, like in O Fantasma. I think the blowjob in this film is when Odete sucks the ring [off of a corpse’s finger].

G: A lot of French directors in recent years, for example, seem to view sex as a way to provoke.
JPR: It’s very intellectualized. That is the problem. They really treat it as a big deal.

G: Like Catherine Breillat?
JPR: In Catherine Breillat’s movies the characters never stop talking. I hate her movies.

G: How about Gaspar Noe?
JPR: I hate that guy's movies, too.

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G: We were at the Vancouver International Film Festival at the same time, and I remember you walking out of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. That film was on tons of people’s top ten lists.
JPR: [Quiet sigh] That film. It was like I kept bumping into that film -- at every festival.

G: I also want to ask a bit about your use of Lisbon in Two Drifters, since the city’s outskirts also figured heavily in O Fantasma. In particular, I’m wondering about places like Odete’s apartment building, the cemetery, and the bar where Rui works.
JPR: I think it’s something that is very much connected to me personally, even in this film. The cemetery -- I always felt attracted to cemeteries, since I was young. The bar [in the film] -- I met my boyfriend in a bar, though not that bar. This film and the other film have a lot of things to do with my life. The places in both movies are places I’ve known for a long time. I had these places in my head and I was just waiting to find stories about these places in Lisbon.
I quite like that frontier between countryside and city. It’s more mysterious. I try to capture the mystery in those spots, even if they are banal in a way. I’m not drawn to the “beautiful” settings.

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G: Two Drifters is saturated with echoes or imitations, whether it be Odete as Pedro, Odete as Holly Golightly, or the cover versions of “Both Sides Now” and “Moon River.” Did you want to explore a certain mutability in regards to identity?
JPR: I wouldn’t be able to say it.
I started thinking about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, especially the end scene. I don’t even like Breakfast at Tiffany’s very much. It touches me, I love the beginning and the end, but there are lots of things about the film that irritate me. But I had the idea of a romantic scene with the rain, and my film has the same melodramatic qualities.
The ring that is in the film: there is also a ring in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I tried to think of an object that could unite all the characters. It’s an object that goes from character to character. The ring is a symbol of union -- it separates and reunites people. I wanted to make the journey of the ring into a film.

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G: The last time I interviewed you, you had a lot to say about Bresson and naturalism, but this movie seems to have a contemporary affinity with the artifice of Sirk (referenced in the Written on the Wind poster on Rui’s bedroom wall), and in some ways it reminded me of Fassbinder and Almodovar. What do you think of those kinds of comparisons?
JPR: I think you’re right. And Hitchcock. I’m still finding out what my style is because I think it’s pretentious and horrible to say you have a style. I’m trying to find my way into making films. I think I’m learning. This film was more difficult for me to make than my first, even if that first one was difficult, too. Sometimes it’s easier to make movies where people don’t speak -- it can be. Not that those films are more simple.

G: Are you inspired by much within contemporary cinema? Vancouver isn’t as harried as some fests, but when I saw you there you struck me as more interested in going to movies than many directors, who like to pretend they don’t watch anyone else’s movies, or only watch old directors.
JPR: I haven’t seen many movies. Going to fests, you end up not seeing so many movies. Also, because you’re dealing with film people, you end up not wanting to see so many films.

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G: You’ve made a big switch in tone from O Fantasma to Two Drifters, which has more dialogue, and greater use of music. Does one approach – the supposed naturalism of O Fantasma or the more conventional soundtracking and scripting of Two Drifters -- come easier to you?
JPR: Two Drifters was much more difficult to make, partly because it has two major characters. Odete is the main character, but there’s also Rui. It was a challenge to find the balance between them in writing the screenplay.
But they [the two films] were written in much the same way. Everything was written before I shot. Two Drifters has more dialogue because there are two characters and they speak to each other.
Also, Two Drifters deals with feelings more than O Fantasma. Even if I think the films are not so different from each other.

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G: They do have a lot in common.
JPR: I think they are more or less the same. Even the title of this one could have been O Fantasma.
But I didn’t want to do the same film. I feel that I’m learning. In a way, my first film was easier because it was less narrative. It’s much harder to build a good narrative than to do a thing that is non-narrative. It’s harder to do it in a way that is interesting. The nice thing about doing something narrative is to be able to destroy that narrative. But you have to start with knowing how to construct it, and that is very difficult.
The script changed during the years that I wrote it. In a way I was going in a totally different direction and I felt I had to go back to the first idea because I felt that the first idea that makes you want to tell a story is the thing you shouldn’t lose. I’m totally convinced of that. That first idea is the essence of why you want to tell a story – if you lose it, it becomes artificial.

G: You have a real knack for discovering striking-looking stars. Can you tell me a bit about finding Ana Cristina [Oliveira], your Odete? You had the idea for her character in your head back when I talked to you in SF in 2001.
JPR: I met Ana Cristina after the first draft of the screenplay was written, but then I kept rewriting it over and over, thinking of her. Not that she’s the same character as Odete. It’s more physical for me. The way I learned [to rewrite] was more by observing her -- the way she moves, the way she looks, the way she talks -- than through a psychological approach.
Also, I think she has this extraordinary quality. At first during filming I thought it was strange and a bit frightening. While she was playing [the part] she was very intense, but then when I’d say, “Cut!,” she was immediately herself again.
I’m not like that -- I’m very worried all of the time. I had to learn to understand that that’s totally how she works, and I think that ability is wonderful. I didn’t ask her to be my character, I just asked her to play the character.

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G: Back in 2001 when you first told me about your idea for a hysterical pregnancy plotline, I hadn’t really envisioned the more comic aspects of the character, such as Odete’s love of Peanuts. Was that something you had in mind at the screenplay level?
JPR: I developed that -- I really wanted Odete to be very different at the beginning and end of the film. At the beginning, she’s a supermarket girl with this infantile quality, someone a bit lonely. So she has these little dolls and little gadgets. You can tell how she is by the appearance of her place. Also, you can see her obsessed side – she doesn’t just have a Snoopy, everything she has is a Snoopy.
First, she goes to the wake, and then she starts changing, and finally she goes on to dress as someone else – after a while, she dresses all in black. I thought this black could cover the more Technicolor, ‘60s pop, Godard and Warhol side of the film’s beginning, so it becomes darker and darker. It really infects her when the wind blows in her house – that’s when she dresses in black, and she’s never more the Technicolor girl.
I also thought a lot about Jerry Lewis movies, because I like them very much. There’s one in a supermarket called Who’s Minding the Store?. I wanted to try to approach the visual quality that’s amazing in the films he made, especially the ones by Frank Tashlin.

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G: Going in, what were your thoughts about the character of Rui, and were there any ways they changed during the making of the movie?
JPR: He didn’t change so much because he arrived after Odete in the story. He embodies variations of how to grieve the death of someone. Or how to be lonely -- I thought of the character as variations of that experience. He’s very passive in a way, also. Odete is the active person in the film.

G: At the end of the film, too!
JPR: [Laughs] Yes. She wants something. She wants several things in the film, but from one thing to another she’s always at a point where she doesn’t turn back. She always follows the wanting that keeps her going forward. For me, the idea of her in rollerskates goes with that – she’s someone who is always moving and changing.

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