Written by Lorien Haynes Thursday, 26 February 2009 00:00
Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles has enjoyed a prolific career, with films like Foreign Land (1996) and Central Station (1998) winning him both critical acclaim and a clutch of awards. In 2004, his Oscar-winning Che Guevara drama The Motorcycle Diaries introduced him to an international audience, and the next year he made his Hollywood directorial debut with horror remake Dark Water.
His first feature since then is new drama Linha de Passe, which takes Salles back to his South American roots. On the eve of its DVD release, Lorien Haynes caught up with the director for an exclusive chat about this deeply personal film...
Salles is currently in his birthplace, Rio de Janeiro, where “it’s 45 degrees!” We begin by asking about the films inception. “Linha de Passe was born,” he explains, “out of eight years experience as a documentary film maker. Where I explored different facets of Brazilian culture, where I shot documentaries in places I’d never seen before. The film follows the tradition initiated by our Cinema Novo movement, our version of Neo Realism meets Nouvelle Vague, where filmmakers in the ‘60s worked on exploring the fringes of Brazilian society and re-defined Brazil on screen.”
Despite all this tradition, Salles wanted to create a sense of Sao Paulo today. Believing cinema’s purpose to be a living testimony of our time, he reveals that the film depicts “a vital contemporary city with a population of 22 million, that never sleeps - you can be in a traffic jam at 3am. It’s tough, it’s violent and, like Brazil itself, it is evolving at alarming rapidity. Few countries change as much in two days as Brazil. We are a country whose identity is in the making. We are un-crystallized and defined by clashes between social classes. And the urban landscape is in constant metamorphosis. If you drive in Sao Paulo one day and try to find the same location three years later it will have changed, completely. It is a city with no regard for history, which lives in the present and that, as filmic material, was very interesting to show.”
Just as he sourced his motivation in geographic and gritty urban realism, Salles sourced his character narratives from true-life stories. First he wanted to show family; “how the tightening of ties between family and friends is the only way to survive here. That families have to fight not to disintegrate, to keep their integrity as a unit, while independently trying to find a second chance in life.”
To this end he selected four stories, of four fatherless brothers all trying to reconstruct their destinies. One is trying to be a professional footballer, another is seeking solace in Pentecostal religion, another in women and the youngest in an obsessive quest to find his unknown father. “These stories were the starting point,” the director explains. “We did a great deal of research, it took three years to learn their universes well enough to feel we could realize a family from within.”
To cast the boys, Salles sought relative unknowns, actors who had only worked in theatre - all except Vinicius de Oliveira, who was his lead in Central Station. And identical to the process he employed filming The Motorcycle Diaries, they “rehearsed prior to shooting for three months. We improvised. We played with the material. 30 percent of what you see on screen is a direct result of this collaboration. It helped because the second most difficult aspect of working on the film was working with actors who were extremely talented but complete beginners on screen.
“The most difficult aspect ultimately,’ Salles continues, “was shooting within the city, within the traffic itself. We never got permission to film on the roads, so it was all guerrilla filmmaking. The entire crew were on motorcycles, drifting through Sao Paulo. My co-director Daniela, faced with having to direct from the back of a moped said ‘Now I have to forget I’m a mother of two and get on with it!’ It was dangerous but the only way to do it.”
Salles and Thomas have worked together before; their last collaboration was on 1996’s Foreign Land. “I normally direct Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and she Tuesdays and Thursdays!” Salles laughs. “I’m joking. It has to be a completely holistic process. The fact we rehearse and define the grammar of the film first results in a very fluid form of co-direction. If you don’t blend and share all aspects it won’t work. I know the Coens and The Darden Brothers share a similar form of synchronicity.”
For the DVD release, Salles and Thomas have used the opportunity to expand on their understanding of Brazilian culture. “I’m not fond of explaining every single scene,” Salles says. “It eliminates the magic of the process. But the DVD does include interviews with all of us that should create a deeper insight into the Brazilian world and how much the society is changing on a daily basis. It should make it clearer what we’ve been trying to do.”
Now the film is set to find a wider audience on DVD, does Salles find himself personally drawn to any one character, to any one strand of the narrative? “No,” he says without hesitation. “I empathise with all of them. You have to if you want to grant your characters a real density, a true three dimensionality. Like an actor, as a director you should never judge your characters. You have to keep the whole in mind. Understand motivation and this alone will allow the audience to bond. People are more touched when they understand fallibility, the reasons why a character fails in life, the reasons why someone desperately wants a second chance. It is only this that can generate a genuine emotional bond between all of us.”
Linha de Passe is released on DVD on March 2 from Pathe Distribution Ltd.