Interview with the brazilian filmmaker Ulisses da Motta Costa who directed Kassandra, the black-and-white short film premiered at the 41st International Film Festival of Gramado (2013) in the section Curta – metragem Gaúcho as Best Cinematography.
Ulisses talks us about his works, passions, crowdfunding and future projects.
L: Hello Ulisses, tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What’s your background? When and what made you get into filmmaking?
U: I’ll try to be as brief as possible: I was born and raised in South Brazil, in the countryside. I lived in a small farm until the age of 22, in a small town called Montenegro, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. As most Brazilians, I’m a result of a very special miscegenation, so I’m part Portuguese, part Spanish, part Arab, part Guarani, part German, part French and, of course, part Italian! An entire part of my family still uses the last name of our Italian ancestor, Manfredini.
Anyway, about filmmaking: my favorite play as a child was to imagine movies inside my head. There was an old cinema in the town, but it was far from home and I went there only a few times in my childhood. So, when my mother finally got money to buy a VCR, in the early 90’s, I began to watch every movie I could. Didn’t take much time for me to decide that I would have been a movie director, which was a problem back then: the Brazilian cinema production was living its worst crisis ever, with only one feature film released per year. People used to say at that time that our cinematography was almost dead. The only universities with Bachelor’s degree in Film and Television were in Rio de Janeiro e São Paulo, over 1.000 kilometers away from where I lived.
So, I had to wait to be a grownup; wait to move to São Leopoldo, a bigger city near the State capital; wait until cinema production increased again in Brazil; wait for the digital cameras arrived in the industry to finally, in 2004, with 25 years old, I started to produce my first short film, O Gritador. And yet this 15-minute-long movie took almost three years to be completed! But since then, I always worked with cinema, sometimes as film critic, sometimes as cinema teacher, sometimes as producer, director and writer in small projects.
U: I think that we always make the films we’d like to see. Nobody will dedicate days, months, years to make something that don’t want to watch, I guess. But I also believe that the movies you create are a sort of self-purge, or at least a self-fantasy. The movies are either a representation of how the world should be or an intense therapy. Kassandra is a movie of the second kind. But, in the moment I decide that I’m going to make a movie, I think about the audience. We use a lot a Portuguese word, “espectador”, which means only one person in the audience. Someone you don’t know, a faceless man or woman. I like to think that this particular person wants just to be part of a story, whatever if this story is short or epic. So, I want that the “espectador” goes along with the characters and the story we are telling. Even if it’s a difficult story.
And I always wanted to work with black-and-white. When the idea for the film erupted in my brains, it was already without color. Since the beginning it was a story to be told only with light and shadows.
U: Well, like I said, a movie can work as a purge for its creator… I took care of a person who had psychiatric problems for some years. It was a complicated, painful and intense experience for both of us. People used to ask me, after they watch the film: how did you come up with these ideas? Of course, Kassandra does not tell a real story or something like that. Perhaps it’s the revenge that never happened in the real life, hehehehe. But these ideas came from my observation and from my experience of what was happening to someone I was close to.
L: Tell us something about the title. Why “Kassandra”?
U: Let’s say that the idea for Kassandra took my mind in a massive and coordinated assault. Most of the main concepts for the film were born at the same time, one winter night, including the protagonist name. She would have visions that no one believes to be real, so I remembered the Cassandra from Greek mythology, a priestess who was doomed to foresee the future but not to be believed in her previsions. The K in her name is a reference for this legendary character, although it’s definitely not a modernization or a modern adaptation of the myth.
U: It’s a wonderful thing. The prove that it’s something important is the fact that, more and more, filmmakers and artists already known by media and public and with available resources are preferring the crowdfunding, because it liberates them from companies or government bureaucracy. The artist doesn’t have to negotiate to achieve its creative independence, doesn’t have to play the game of interests inside a studio or a record company. The audience decides what is worth to be supported. It is like an “artistic natural selection”, if I can say so. Of course, if you’re an independent artist, or a beginner, you can’t just ask for a million dollars. You have to find your way with 1.000 dollars. But they are 1.000 dollars coming from people who believe in you, or at least believe in your project. This kind of support is more important than the money itself.
L: Have you done any other films before this? If so, how many others? Can you talk to us about them? What about “O Gritador”?
U: Yes, Kassandra is my third fiction short movie. I don’t like to repeat myself, because I have interests in various subjects. And I also like different kinds of cinema and its countless genres. So, “O Gritador” (2006, I think we can translate it as “L’Urlatore”; in English, The Screamer) was supposed to be a kind of an adventure film, but some people consider it as a “light” horror film. My second short, “Ninho dos Pequenos” (“Nido dei Piccoli”, 2009) is completely different: it’s a family drama with only one scenary and two actresses talking all the time.
“O Gritador” was an insane project not only for a beginning director, but for a beginning crew. As I said previously, it took almost three years to be made. I shared the script and the direction with a friend, Carlos Porto. The film is about a folkloric legend in our State, the Gritador, or Screamer. It’s a kind of screaming ghost that wanders at night in the woods and in the fields. And if you answer its yell, the ghost comes closer and closer to you. Well, our locations were more than 200 km away from our city in places difficult to reach: we broke at least two cars during research and shootings. We also wanted to use visual effects, with actors in front of a blue screen and compositions with hand-made drawings and CGI elements. All this, of course, without any money. There are some things that only naivety can provide… If you guys want to check it, there is a version subtitled in English on Youtube.
L: How do you feel about the increasing popularity of indie films?
U: I believe it is an inevitable phenomenon. It’s easier to learn about different kinds of artistic expression on the internet. So, if you became interested in a certain subject, you can research about it in a never-ending way. You’ll always find something new. You can go deeper into things that have no access to the general media. That includes not only movies, but also music, visual arts, photography…
L: Who are your biggest film influences? What’s your top five favorite movies of all time?
U: Hum, that’s hard to answer… I think that everything we watch can be an influence. I feel that Bruce Lee is in my artistic DNA as much as Fritz Lang. But I try to use some filmmakers as example for me. Let’s say that Spielberg taught me to surround myself with talented collaborators, that Kubrick taught me to never repeat myself, that Hitchcock taught me the importance of previously planning what I’m going to shoot and that Werner Herzog taught me that you have to be a brave son of a bitch to make films.
About a top five… It will sound completely schizophrenic, I assure you: “Ben-Hur” (1959), “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “Metropolis” (1927), and “Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo” (1966). And my favorite filmmaker of all time is Akira Kurosawa.
L: Who is your favorite italian horror filmmaker?
U: Let me tell you first about my relation with Italian cinema! When I was a kid, there was a bunch of Italian movies broadcasted by television, which I didn’t know they were Italian (because, of course, these movies were dubbed in Portuguese). So, I spent lots of Saturdays afternoons watching old peplum movies, such as “I Giganti Della Tessaglia” or “Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei”. And, of course, some horror movies at night, like L’isola Degli Uomini Pesce”. I saw many times on VHS an 80’s Italian-Brazilian production, “Nudo e Selvaggio” (a.k.a. “Cannibal Ferox 2”). So, when I decided that I would be a filmmaker, I started to research about cinema in books and magazines. At that time, all I found about Italian movies were things about Fellini, Antonioni and Visconti, or the Neorealism. No mentions about giallo, peplum or spaghetti western, Mario Bava, Ruggero Deodato or Luigi Cozzi. I only learned years later about this awesome universe. Only then I discovered that these profoundly entertaining movies I saw as a kid were Italian.
My favorite Italian horror artist is not a filmmaker, it’s a band! I really enjoy the work of Goblin in “Suspiria”, “Profondo Rosso” and “Dawn of the Dead”. What they achieved is totally unique in terms of movie soundtrack.
L: José Mojica Marins is a loved brazilian filmmaker. What do you think about his character Coffin Joe (Zé do Caixão) created for his film At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma)?
U: Mojica is a colossus. He’s a major influence and example not only for Brazilian horror fans, but for the all the filmmakers in the country. He was a guy without any formal education about cinema and was simply revolutionary for its time, especially in the 60’s. He was persecuted and some of his works were censored during the Military Dictatorship. One of his most intriguing movies, “Awakening of the Beast”, was made thanks to his friends, who donated film stock for the production. Yet, the original print was apprehended by the government authorities. It came to the light of day only some years ago.
He also made all sorts of films, not only horror. He made from experimental movies to westerns. And he also directed pornographic flicks in the 80’s to survive. About the character Zé do Caixão, I believe that he is one of the greatest horror icons of all time. Do you guys know how he was created? Mojica once dreamt that his man with cape and hat who took him to see Mojica’s own tomb. He woke scared as shit and decided to make a film about this dreadful man. That’s how he made “À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma”, an amazing and powerful film for its time standards.
L: Who are the best brazilian filmmakers working now?
U: In the horror genre, the main independent name is Rodrigo Aragão who recently made a trilogy with zombies and monsters, “Mangue Negro” (Mud Zombies), “A Noite do Chupacabras” (The Night of the Chupacabras) and “Mar Negro” (Dark Sea). My friend David de Oliveira Pinheiro also made a curious blending of genres in “Beyond the Grave” (Porto dos Mortos). Outside the fantasy and horror universe, there’s a lot of good filmmakers, such as Fernando Meirelles, Afonso Poyart, José Padilha (who directed the new version of Robocop) and Jorge Furtado, who works in my State and is a major influence for me since the 90’s.
L: Who are your favorite horror writers?
U: I confess: I was never very interested in horror literature. But the idea for Kassandra came up when I was reading At the Mountains of Madness. So, as preparation for the film, I devoured H.P. Lovecraft’s works. And I made the cast and crew also read some of his tales!
L: What’s your next project?
U: I have a bunch of projects! Who doesn’t have it? I’ll begin to edit this month my newest short film, “Luz Natural” (“Luce Naturale”). It is an experimental work, entirely shot without artificial light and with only two actors in scene having a conversation after they made sex. Definitely, it’s not a horror picture! I was in Rio de Janeiro recently, working as assistant director to my friend Victor Fiuza in a social drama called “Os Olhos de Cecília” (“Gli Occhi di Cecilia”). We shoot most of this work in the favela and it was a really intense experience. I’m also producing “Pelos Velhos Tempos” (“Per i vecchi tempi”, I guess), a script written by Roger Monteiro, the man who wrote Kassandra, and that will be directed by Pedro Barbosa.
And there is the feature films. One of these projects is a science-fiction divided in episodes about the same universe, with six different directors (including me) working on it. Its working title is “The End of History”. Another project is “O Pecado da Carne” (“Il Peccato Della Carne”), an adaptation of a stage play which by its turn is based on the story of the first Brazilian serial killer, a man who turned his victims into sausage that he sold for an entire city in the 19th Century.
Oh, yes. The same Roger Monteiro is trying to convince me to make another horror flick, but with more gore and intensity. “Kiumba” is its name and is about an African-brazilian entity who is summoned when one wants revenge. But I’m still thinking about it…
L: Leave a message for the DarkVeins community!
U: I want to thank you for the opportunity and I wish that Darkveins grows more and more. It’s an awesome virtual space. Cheers from Brazil to all of you!
L: Thank you Ulisses! We wish you the best of luck!