João Nicolau's John From (2015), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 12 - June 11, 2017 as a Special Discovery
João Nicolau has become one of the main voices of contemporary Portuguese cinema, next to the likes of Miguel Gomes or João Pedro Rodrigues. John From, his second feature, is a dreamy coming of age tale of both epic and intimate proportions, just like first love. By way of an irresistibly warm 16mm cinematography, a candidly charming protagonist, and the exuberance of Melanesia, Nicolau delivers a truly original, enchanting ode to adolescence and fantasy.
NOTEBOOK: Is this a film about love, about fantasy, or about love being a fantasy?
JOÃO NICOLAU: Cinema and passion have two things in common. One is that they make you see things. The other is that they make those things become real. Within this frame, fantasy is just one layer of reality. I guess John From is all about this.
NOTEBOOK: All your other works revolve around male protagonists. What made you want to explore the universe of teenagehood and first love from the perspective of a girl?
NICOLAU: It was not all rational. It was a kind of a challenge. I suspect it had to do with a need to learn more. Although I’ve never done any autobiographical film, the fact that I used male protagonists made things easier—because I had a reference. This time I didn’t and it forced me to observe more. Oh, I enjoyed it a lot. I’m forever grateful to Júlia Palha and Clara Riedenstein.
NOTEBOOK: How did you approach the depiction of adolescence, unrequited love, the tedium of a summer in the city? Did you have personal memories or images that came into play while writing or making the film?
NICOLAU: I must tell you that I lived my adolescence in the very same neighborhood the film is shot in. So that had to play a part. But I also must state that I tried to leave personal memories at the door. In fact, the approach in John From was based fundamentally on research. The around 100 girls that showed up for casting were told that—that I was not only casting but also researching. Also me and my co-writer Mariana Ricardo rang some female friends up looking for stories from their teenage years. Then there’s the key source: rehearsals. That’s where you can really observe and learn what the girls think about the situations you propose. Only at that point I felt there was an open road for serious work. (By the way, Júlia and Clara are not at all like the characters they play in the film. That made the three of us very happy.)
NOTEBOOK: The film is often very funny. Was humor important to you from the conception of the film? Or rather a result from reality and fantasy coexisting?
NICOLAU: If you don’t let humor in then it’s not a serious film.
NOTEBOOK: Your use of composition and color is very powerful in the film. You shot on 16mm and the cinematography is warm, colorful and dreamy—it really enhances the exoticism of Melanesia/Lisbon. Could you talk about your work with these and why shooting on film was important to you?
NICOLAU: Let’s get physical here: I need the movement of the silver particles. I think that this movement adds a lot to the way I tend to shoot. Also, the nature of color you get in film suits the physicality I need to feel in a movie.
Shooting in 16mm was a production constraint (I wanted to shoot in 35mm). But after the very first tests it became a blessing: 16mm and basic colors in deep sunlight really work well together. And my DOP, Sir Mário Castanheira, works even better.
The work with color in John From started with the neighborhood. The neighborhood is a character in this film. So in order to treat it as a character we needed to find its language. That was revealed to us by architecture and color.
The deep red of the elevator was already there, as was the blue of the handrails and of the mailboxes. We had to respect that. To give it a voice, to have a proper character, we had to respect the building. The same goes for the rest of the neighborhood, we just followed its space conception. This procedure suggested some guidelines to us of how to portray the transformation this character undergoes in the film. Then we worked accordingly.
NOTEBOOK: How do you feel about national labels and do you think you make Portuguese films? Is there such thing as Portuguese Cinema?
NICOLAU: I understand that labels are very useful in human communication. In the specific domain of cinema they are crucial to journalists, critics, sellers, programmers and even individual viewers. Unfortunately, they also serve to boost the laziness that corrupts the majority of these agents. Since 1974, Portuguese Cinema, here understood as the total amount of films produced in Portugal, has always benefited from a funding system that kept its independence from economic or political interests (it’s not even supported by the State’s Budget). Sadly enough, this situation is about to change drastically if the new law promoted by the government is approved—a law that basically legalizes the lobbying from corporate media and communication groups. Not without a fight.