The Brazilian filmmakers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra have been working together for over a decade now. After an award-winning career in short films, their feature debut Hard Labor (2011) world premiered at Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. Following this, the two writer-directors pursued their solo careers, continuing to explore the genre of horror and musical.
I interviewed the duo about their long-awaited reunion for their new film Good Manners (2017), which will have its world premiere as part of the International Competition at the 70th Locarno Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: The two of you have been working together for over a decade now. How do you understand the development of this long time partnership?
We met in film school when we were at the end of our teens. What first brought us together was our common interest in musicals, fantasy and horror films. These are the kinds of film that formed us as an audience. Genre films can be full of shadows and yet playful. The love for that mix keeps our partnership strong after 18 years. Of course we changed a lot during this period, so the relationship also grew and changed. It’s a professional and affectionate relationship that needs care, some concessions and the belief that doing a film together results in something different and more exciting than the movie we could do solo. It’s important for us to know which work we feel like doing together and which we could handle best as lone directors.
NOTEBOOK: The retrospective at Locarno this year is dedicated to Jacques Tourneur. Films like Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943) seem to be strong references for you. Were he and his films an inspiration for your new work?
JULIANA ROJAS & MARCO DUTRA: Yes, we are both fans of Jacques Tourneur. The atmosphere and tone of his movies were of great inspiration to Good Manners. The magical setting of films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Night of the Demon (1957) was also an influence in the work of cinematographer Rui Poças and production designer Fernando Zuccolotto, since we wanted to create a version of São Paulo that was slightly dreamy, almost like a “studio version” of the city. We were positively surprised when we found out that Tourneur will be honored in Locarno. We feel it’s a blessing for the opening of our own film.
NOTEBOOK: What is the screenwriting process is like for you two? How do you develop initial ideas into a story with characters?
ROJAS & DUTRA: Usually, we discuss embryos for stories, very early ideas, and try to understand what feelings connect us to the material. We also research books and films that deal with similar themes. In the case of Good Manners, the original image came from a dream of Marco’s: two women living in an isolated house and raising a strange baby. We started to investigate the werewolf folklore in different cultures and saw how the myth usually relates to impulses of violence and sex, and also to religious and conservative values. We started diving deeper into the two main female characters and their conflicts of class, race and desire. Regarding the wolf child, we saw him as someone who is finding out something crucial about his own nature, the same way all of us do while growing up.
NOTEBOOK: How did you find the balance between horror and musical for the film?
ROJAS & DUTRA: We found inspiration in Disney’s earlier works, such as Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). In those movies, tone shifts between humor, suspense and horror and music is used in key moments of the story. We also love Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s approach to the use of music in their epic theater. We use music in our film according to the needs of the story—it can create suspense and mood, but can also be an emotional statement from a character. We wanted to create meaning by mixing music, songs and the content of each scene. The film does not have a classic antagonist. All characters have dark aspects. We wanted the tone of the film—and of the music—to represent that duality.
NOTEBOOK: What is your understanding of your characters as they embrace unusual and fantastic experiences?
ROJAS & DUTRA: We tried to balance the journeys of Clara, Ana and Joel in the film. While they deeply affect one another throughout the story, they also go through a process of self-understanding that is unique to each. But all of them are able to embrace the fantastic at some point, as you would expect from characters belonging to a fairy tale—it’s not the existence of the supernatural that they question, but the meaning of it.
NOTEBOOK: From early rehearsals to the actual shooting of the scenes, how do you guide your actors from text to set?
ROJAS & DUTRA: We begin with a table reading of the script with the cast, and then rehearse and improvise a lot before shooting. The rehearsal process results in scenes that are richer and more alive than the original written version. In Good Manners, the process with the children was a very intense one, as they had to bring out some inner shadows in order to play theirs parts. Marcio Mehiel was our acting coach during the process with the children, and we worked very close to the actors all the time, and paid special attention to details, pacing and accent. It was also a challenge working with the special effects around the character of Ana and Joel. We had Miguel Lobo, the child actor, but also an animatronic baby and a CGI creature. Miguel acted all the CGI shots using special green clothes. Keeping the intensity of his acting in the final CGI character demanded a lot of work and care from the French Mikros Image team.
NOTEBOOK: How was to work with the Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças?
ROJAS & DUTRA: We loved Rui’s work in movies such as To Die Like a Man (2009) and Tabu (2012). He’s much more experienced than us and at the same shares our playful approach to filmmaking. He’s incredibly young at heart and fascinating to work with. He also has a deep understanding of drama and knows the core feeling of each scene. All the shots are designed to strengthen that meaning. He can be very rigorous sometimes, but can also come up with incredibly simple and wonderful solutions. We talked a lot about the importance of moonlight and shadows in the film. His gaze was essential in the building of our fantastic universe.
NOTEBOOK: What is the editing process like for you?
ROJAS & DUTRA: In Good Manners, we work once again with Caetano Gotardo as an editor – he previously edited Hard Labor, our first feature. Caetano is also a director and a very close friend since film school days. He understands us as storytellers and brings his own sensibility and sharp look to the pacing and structuring of the film. Good Manners was a hard film to edit. Our first cut was very, very long. We had to make choices, like one is expected to do while editing. Some of them were hard, as we had to find a balance between the two parts of the story. Our films usually last less the 100 minutes. Good Manners is our longest film to date. We tried to give each character and story its right to be told in detail, also allowing the elements of each genre (horror, fairy tale, fantasy, musical) to have a lot of breathing space.
NOTEBOOK: It feels like you preserved the essence of your grammar and style but also decided to take new steps in the post-production process. How did this choice impact your own creative process and the outcome of the film?
ROJAS & DUTRA: We wanted to be immersed in the fantastic elements and felt the whole universe of the story should be designed carefully, without losing the real reference of the city of São Paulo. The story naturally asked for some special effects, both mechanical and digital. We tried to balance all of them, using matte paintings and animatronics to reference our beloved classical movies, but also adventuring into the world of CGI. All of these sequences had to be planned and designed in advance so the team could make them work on set. Some of the scenes had to be planned before we even had the locations locked, and that made us think very carefully about the characters and what how they would behave.
NOTEBOOK: As filmmakers, where would you position yourselves in contemporary Brazilian cinema?
ROJAS & DUTRA: It is hard to answer that from the inside, but we do feel part of a very creative and strong generation of filmmakers that is not afraid of using different tools of visual storytelling and genre. And the films come from all over the country – if you watch, for instance, Aquarius (from Recife), O Animal Cordial (from São Paulo) and Rifle (from Porto Alegre), you hear very different voices at work, all with something to say, and all very daring.