Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Emilie Lesclaux
Moving away from the poverty-porn aesthetics of City of God, Elite Squad, or Carmo, Hit the Road, Neighboring Sounds takes an extended look at the lives of old- and new-moneyed Brazilians. Its pared-down plot and large cast expertly touch upon the tensions that arise from close quarters as well as larger social disparities. FILM COMMENT sat down with director Kleber Mendonça Filho, a former film critic, and producer Emilie Lesclaux back in March.
Neighboring Sounds is the expansion of a short film you made about an up-and-coming middle class family in Recife in the 1990s called Electrodoméstica, is that right?
I wrote it in 1994, but it took so long to get financing that it became a period piece. I'm not sure I see it as an expansion, although I understand how that can be interpreted. Basically I liked the main character from that film and I wanted to bring her back. For me, it's just a new film with many different elements from my short films and also a lot of stuff that I haven’t done in them. So it's really a remix of a lot of what I have done, and things I'll probably be doing in future films.
It makes me think of something Zadie Smith once said, which is that you should always address the reader as if they were a friend. In a way, the similarities between this and Electrodoméstica are almost like a dialogue.
I like that, yes. With an artist you’ve followed for many years, you will always recognize certain pieces of ideas and recurring themes. Everyone has their own way of looking at things, and if they are going to discuss politics, love, or cities, the same issues will always come back. For me as a viewer or as a reader, it's often desirable to identify these recurring motifs—if you look at Godard or Truffaut, it's almost as if they're always making the same film again, but expanding on something they hadn't done before. And hopefully, if I have something interesting to say, that will also work in those terms.
Speaking of Godard and Truffaut, there's that nice little scene in Neighboring Sounds in the countryside, where there's an abandoned movie theater.
It could be read as an allusion, but it goes back to my graduation film project about the last cinema palaces in Recife. I really love old movie theaters. Every time I travel, I make an effort to visit one or two. I just love going to old cinemas. And when I realized that the location we were going to shoot had an abandoned movie theater, it was a no-brainer: I had to shoot there. It’s also interesting because these old plantation farms were like very rich little communities, which had their own post office, school, and movie theater.
You used to be a film critic. What brought about the switch, or is it not a full switch?
So far it has been a full switch. I couldn't keep on writing with the feature coming up, and preparation for shooting, and shooting, and editing. It became awkward—I would have my own film doing the rounds, and then I would have to criticize someone else's film. So I told my editor that I would only write about foreign films, but eventually I got tired of it. Sometimes it felt like I had become an opinion machine, 3000 words about whatever.
How would you compare the commitment of having to manage the set with coming up with 3000 words for an article?
Film criticism was slightly different because it began like a blessing. “Wow, I'm getting paid to write about films! This is fantastic!” Then after six, seven, eight years, it was like going to the chocolate factory and saying, “No, I've had enough, thanks.” “Oh no, you’re going to keep eating!” “But it hurts!” “No, no, just keep eating.” With filmmaking, it's self-imposed, and it's amazing to have access to money to make the films you want to make. Of course you feel very lucky. During the whole process I never felt miserable because I was making a film. I was always happy. With film criticism sometimes, I felt like, “Why do I have to watch Saw 7 and write about Saw 7 when I have nothing to say about it?” But when you start to write, you might actually find some interesting point. Some of my best reviews, they came out of situations like that. They weren’t about Sunset Boulevard or Bicycle Thieves; they were something I saw Tuesday morning at a bad multiplex. It wasn’t about cruelly dismissing them, but using them as a means to think about some other ideas related to cinema. It’s possible to make something good out of what initially feels like a negative situation.
How does the critic in you relate to the dailies, to the editing, or even to the final product? Do you shut the critic part of you off? Or do you mobilize it somehow?
It's impossible to turn it off, but it's very difficult to judge how much of the film critic comes into the process. I can have an idea, but still not a very precise idea of where a film like this would fit into the bigger picture of Brazilian cinema. Maybe something like that. But I really had no idea what the film was, and in many ways I still don't.
I find that's part of its richness, but also maybe one of the aspects of it that could be challenging for certain viewers: sometimes one thing, and sometimes another…
And in the end it's something that maybe it had been going towards, but also maybe not; maybe it was a complete rupture.
Ruptures are the best thing that can happen during a film. If we went back to the Fifties, maybe someone would say the same thing about cinema then—but definitely today when you see the trailer for an upcoming film, you already know exactly what the film's going to be, except in rare cases. Every time Hollywood gives money to a very interesting filmmaker and he or she comes up with a very interesting film, they find themselves in a difficult situation: they have to sell that bizarre, strange film with a trailer which has nothing to do with the film itself. Punch-Drunk Love was like that. When I saw the trailer, it looked like complete rubbish, but when I saw the film, I understood that it would be impossible to make a good trailer for it. It's such a strange and personal film. But that's one percent of the stuff that we see in the multiplexes. Usually we know exactly what's going to happen from the opening scenes. I don't know, maybe that's the whole idea of making commercial films, that you should make exactly what people expect you to make. I'm still free and distant from that environment, so I can do whatever I want. But at the same time, it might seem like I mathematically planned each edit—well, this is something that has come up even in a few positive reviews. I'm not always trying to wrong-foot the audience. Who am I to know what the audience wants or knows? I just made the film the way I wanted to make it. It's not like I was always trying to manipulate the audience into thinking something, and then doing the opposite. It's not like that.
What was the editing process like?
I worked with an editor for the first six months, and then I continued editing alone for nine months. The process has for me—I'm not saying this is the way people should do it, because there are a lot of different ways—but for me, I really need a lot of time to edit the film. You know, solutions and new ideas, they always come up with time. And I'm amazed that some friends can edit their films in a month or two. That would be impossible for me because I really need time to get to a certain idea. It’s a personal process.
In the first six months, how far did the editor get into the film?
We reached what we called the “first cut,” which was very fat and redundant…
Emilie: And very close to the script…
Kleber: Very close, very respectful of the script. After that I began to distance myself from the script, switching some scenes around, finding a rhythm. The script is one thing and the film is another. Sometimes you are taking a shower and you think, maybe I could…And you stop the shower and you go to the computer, and find that yes, the idea works. But you wouldn't have that idea if you didn’t have the time to think of it.
Emilie: It's incredibly important to stop editing for a couple of months, and see the film again fresh…
Did you do that?
Oh yeah, I did that about four times. I just forgot the film. Last year I stopped everything for a month, went to Cannes, watched 42 films and then went back with a new perspective on a lot of things. It's kind of strange because the best thing about editing is when you realize that you don’t need a particular scene, and you feel good about that decision. Before that point it feels like you’re killing your child.
Were there a few scenes in particular you felt that way about?
Well, there were the typical scenes that didn't make the final cut. The kind of thing where sometimes you watch a DVD for a particularly good film, and then you watch some deleted scenes, and you understand exactly why that scene was cut even though you understand it was a good scene. Towards the beginning, there were a few scenes with João buying newspapers from a newsagent before he shows the flat to this woman. These scenes were kind of funny, but they literally stopped the film. It’s like they parked the film on the side of the road, so they had to go.
Thankfully, only five or six scenes were cut from the final version. The rest of the decisions had to do with the smash cuts that are in the film. The first smash cut is when the two cars crash in the opening segment. That was in the script: the cars crash and then you cut laconically to the next scene. So then I kept adding smash cuts to other parts of the film, and they seemed to work really well. In the first scene, the cars seem to be almost telling the viewer, “Right, sometimes in this film, you're going to see a smash cut.” [Laughs] And it seems to work in other places, especially in the end when the two brothers get up with the old man. As soon as they stand up, there's a smash cut to the film's final segment.
So many aspects of your shorts are pushed forward or bridged by music. And there's a lot of music in Neighboring Sounds, but it doesn't play the same role—the smash cut seems to have taken over for a lot of that.
Yes, and also other sounds: ambient sounds, sounds which are placed in a very kind of cheeky, almost like “I hope you don’t notice but… here is an interesting sound which is bridging this scene to the next” way. It was like a sound carpet. With the exception of the opening sequence with the photographs, all the music is diegetically motivated. And yeah, there are these strange noises in the Neighboring Sounds soundtrack, like a “dumm!” A friend of mine came up with that, because I told him I didn’t want a proper score with violins or guitars, or an orchestra. I wanted something that would be more than sound effects and less than music. I'd rather have a more laconic feeling; I wanted the associations to be more organic.
Of course I love soundtracks. But, going back to the trailer thing, I think audiences have been trained like animals to react to certain aspects of films. This is a romantic scene, so now there is a romantic score. This is a sexy scene, so here is the sexy score. And I love when a film has a scene that comes completely without a score and the audience is really tense because they don’t know what they're supposed to do. They’re like little kids: “Should I laugh? Should I cross my legs? What should I do?” I love feeling that nervous energy from an audience.
In addition to making a film without a traditional soundtrack, I wanted to make a film about violence without showing a gun. Unfortunately there is the scene where the kid is punched. But there is no classic gunplay or anything like that.
I wonder if you'd talk about some of the beautiful close-ups in Neighboring Sounds.
Well, first of all, Neighboring Sounds was shot in widescreen on 35mm. This was my first experience with widescreen, and I talked extensively to Pedro, the cinematographer and a good friend, about it. This film was as much about places as it was about people. I wanted to shoot the film very wide almost all the time, but at the right moment suddenly go to a close-up. That usually makes the cut more dramatic or startling. You’ve been trained since the beginning of the film to see things wide-open, from a distance. I always think of a scene from Eyes Wide Shut that has a very unexpected close-up of the Tom Cruise character. The scene is a long shot, and then suddenly there’s a very tight close-up, exactly at the moment when he understands something and it upsets him. I saw it again last year, but I always remembered that moment because the close-up was used at just the right time. And today most films, especially those—well, it’s bad to generalize—but a lot of modern films, they are always like this [mimes tight close-up of face], and that bothers me. They play with focus and this is in focus and that is out of focus, and it's all very tight. And then they use handheld cameras “because it has to be real” [faux-grave voice]. Realism is not in the shaking of the camera. Realism is in your point of view, in how you frame the story and how you tell the story. There’s no use shaking the camera and shooting so you can see the sweat. I made sure that Pedro understood that we wouldn’t do this.
Roger Ebert liked your film, comparing it to Robert Altman’s work. Would you say he’s a major influence, or is it sort of a “trickle-down” effect?
I'm a big admirer of Robert Altman—M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, A Wedding. But it's almost embarrassing for you to make a film and keep hoping that your film will be anything like a film from Robert Altman. It's just not part of my preoccupation. If it comes out like that and if it's a good film, yeah, it might make sense. But I could never tell the press, “This is going to be very much like a Robert Altman film.” I saw Short Cuts in the Nineties. Short Cuts almost began a peste…
Yes, a plague of these multi-character films where stuff happens, of which, in my mind, the worst examples are the Alejandro Iñárritu films. I was really concerned that this film would be compared to those Iñárritu films, which I dislike very much. But, I thought that maybe if I worked in a more concentrated environment, only one street, with 12 or 15 characters . . . I thought that if I did that, I could get away without the comparison.
Emilie: And Bia has nothing to do with João's family, so it's not like the characters all end up together in some crash or cataclysmic incident.
Kleber: Right. Some people read the screenplay and asked, “Won’t Bia ever meet João?” I said, “No. Why should they meet?”
So Bia is just a neighbor?
Emilie: She’s just a neighbor. She just lives on the street.
Kleber: Yes, in my mind she’s not a part of the family. A lot of people have asked me why I included her, even though she’s not part of the family. I did because she's part of this milieu, of this reality. And maybe a lot of the stuff that happens in the family reflects her family.
Can you talk about how you got funding for Neighboring Sounds? Also, is it true that Cold Tropics, your short film about climate change, was funded by Petrobras [Brazil’s largest oil company]?
Emilie: They sponsor most Brazilian films, and give millions away to cultural programs. They don’t care about what you talk about in the film. [Laughs] You may have some problem if you show another oil company.
Kleber: Yeah, but it's the way to go if you have a project or a script. It’s more akin to European funding than American. There is a lot of criticism of course, especially from right-wingers, who say that filmmakers should not have access to this kind of money and film should always be commercial. I disagree. For Neighboring Sounds, we got money from different places to make the film: from the local state fund, Petrobras, and the Ministry of Culture. No one is expecting some kind of profit, so I was free to make something without worrying whether the ending will be perceived to be a downer. And even with independent American films, there is a push to make the ending be positive. That impulse gets in the way. I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with that and can let the film be received, good or bad, on its own terms.