The Camera Becomes a Friend: An Interview with Pedro Costa
Pedro Costa makes images that feel like they were dredged up in archaeological finds. They’re so beautifully worn, so marked by ruin and trauma, like recorded screams on old pottery, shattered to bits by time. His movies have documented the drowned fortunes of Portugal’s poorest residents for three decades, chronicling depression and addiction, the silence of god when asked for mercy from those who need it most. Vitalina Varela (2019) is his latest, about a woman played by the actress Vitalina Varela, who flies from Cape Verde to Lisbon after the death of her husband, and even for Costa it’s a desolate wonder. Compositions like stained glass, howling nothingness rushing through the sound design, and a pair of fierce performances that feel like they’ve drifted in from the golden age of silent cinema, all gorgeous posture and eyes dug like wells into their aged faces. It’s a communion with the forgotten, a prayer for the dead. I spoke to Costa about his newest film, quietly and I hope not distractingly awed by the presence of someone who has managed to carve an aesthetic place for himself in the bedrock of cinema, where he and his drifters can live forever.
Can you talk about the way you design the sound on your films?
I like working with sound and light. I like when you have this possibility of enrichment, of bringing multiple things, parallel events, contradictory things into a shot just because of the sound in discussions, conversations, the life of that environment. Very intense, very rich, never stops. Can be quiet, but it’s very lively. It’s a little bit [like] the sound of the village where we all imagine we could live. The birds, the dogs, and something that has a lot to do with cinema, image and sound, public space and private space — especially in this kind of neighborhood, where I’ve been working. People say there’s nothing secret here. Everything is shared. Everything, tragedy especially. It’s a very intense place. Sometimes, an alley can be more private than a room at home. The confusion of those spaces, you never know if you’re outside or inside. If it’s a room just behind the house, or if there are people up on the roof. It works in a strange way.
Being there, as I have been for years, the sound gradually becomes very concrete. It forms its own rhythm and movement. I try to recreate that with a lot of tracks, ambient sounds that the sound director records. He has time to do it, the four or five of us. That’s the crew plus a production assistant. We’re always there for the shooting, the production. There are lots of days and weeks when we don’t shoot. We had to prepare; we built sets ourselves. So we don’t shoot when we do that, or when we have to rehearse. The sound director walks around the neighborhood and he records things day and night. That’s very useful because we end up with a suitcase full of interesting things that we can use in the editing. The soundtracks on my films are a mix of direct sound and everything that surrounds the location. That’s more composed, let’s say. Sometimes, it’s just a detail or a voice, the sound of air or wind. Other times, it’s more charged. Two or three conversations, a TV, etc. When everything’s done, and I hope this isn’t too pretentious, it has a certain musical desire. I don’t tend to use music. It makes me very angry what music does to films and what films do to music. It’s awful what’s happening. I don’t do it because it’s a bigger challenge. Vitalina gets there, and there’s no Vivaldi or Bach to help her get the skies up above, there’s nothing there. It’s a bit more difficult; it’s harder to watch. I love sound. I love music, too, but I wouldn’t think of putting any cellos under Vitalina.
This is the… what fourth or fifth film you’ve made with your director of photography, Leonardo Simões? How do you guys talk about darkness and shadow?
We don’t. That’s your stuff. You and other lads like you, who are very in love with a certain form of art. We don’t have those conversations. Not that we don’t like to, but it’s very practical. We don’t exchange references or paintings of whatever. In a way, there’s no other lighting reference but the movement of the sun in the place we’re shooting. We have to know exactly where it comes from, it sets and rises at this or that moment; in August it’s here, in September it’s there. That’s something we have to know. We try to work with mirrors and reflections. Sometimes, we have to help with artificial light. We try to mix sometimes, we use a system for electric light called parallel beams, let’s say, which is, instead of putting your light directly on someone or something, you throw it to a sort of mirror on surfaces that reflect. There’s a certain amount of them with different condensation or diffusion. The surfaces are different and serve different purposes. But they tend to recreate the effect of sunlight. It’s softer sometimes, or more intense, and it’s a nice way of doing it. We talk a lot about the equipment we’re going to use, things we need. Not the best, we don’t have money for the best.
That was a conversation we had: “Should we buy our own equipment?” We have the camera, the sound, the lenses, but we don’t have the big lights. Maybe that’s our next step before we make another film. Those are more the conversations we had — a little technical, very practical. The people involved, we had two young guys working the camera and sound with us. They can give their opinion, they can suggest anything, and we find a lot because we have four people working. When one gets tired, another steps in; it can be like a marathon. Sometimes, we get nowhere and it’s depressing, but we go back and change everything. Our work is very, you know, the results are what they are. Some people like them, some people say it’s too much or not enough, too dark or too depressing, but the work we do is very, very, very… would it shock you if I say boring? It’s a routine. We work like the old guys in the [Classical Hollywood film] studio. We do the lighting and leave it for the next day’s shooting. It’s a good routine. That’s all. [Laughs]
What set did you build, the church?
The church. The interior, not the exterior.
You have Ventura (Costa’s regular leading man since 2006’s Colossal Youth) step outside his comfort zone here, playing a priest very unlike his usual roles for you.
Well, Ventura knows that priest. That priest is real. Vitalina first told me about the guy; he’s almost a legend in Cape Verde, the priest who refuses to bless or baptize a group of people in a van and then they’re all killed, something like that. Apparently he loses his faith, gets lost in a nightmare, becomes a pilgrim or saint on the islands. Disappears. He comes back one day in Lisbon; no one knows how or why he got there. He tries then to be a priest again for the community of immigrants, but in a very strange manner. He didn’t have a church; he used to preach in a garage. He didn’t have a bible or anything; he was very, very, very crazy apparently. Back in the streets. When she told me this, I thought Vitalina will need a companion. I wanted her to be pitched against men. I didn’t want her to have a confidante. A man who would be so, so, so ambivalent. Who could stand the guilt and her insults and take it with dignity and generosity, and give back a certain sweetness? I was afraid of everything already, [He smiles] but it was obvious that Ventura could do it. The image of him preaching seemed to all of us very appealing. At the same time, it might be difficult to achieve. Ventura was very into it. During the shooting, Ventura had two heart attacks, so we had to stop the shoot. He was hospitalized; he had therapy, all those things. We were very worried. He was prepared to shoot but… we were so stressed, Vitalina too, we had all become so close, all of us. We stopped. See, and this is something the economy permits. This isn’t one of those compounds where they shoot those love stories where they kill people. [He laughs] You should say that in your magazine: “They kill people! They’re like a military unit, always shooting. They conquer places and destroy villages.” It’s like that funny story Godard tells: “If an extra in my film is sick, I won’t shoot.” With us, it’s the same. We have arranged ourselves so that we can wait for someone and take care of them. We took him to the hospital; we helped him with everything.
Anyway, he was very into it; he knew the priest. Some of the dialogue comes from Ventura, things he remembers. Vitalina’s a Catholic, but she’s very reserved. Discreetly Catholic. Ventura no. He makes fun of priests. His wife tried to force him to go to church; they all sing, but he never sings. It was a nice challenge for him. It was the first time he was really playing, as an actor, as any good actor would do, he was really savoring the words. He played with Vitalina, and he could be very intense and dignified. But he dove into this priest completely. I think what he does is amazing. There’s this fragility he can’t hide that gives us a little bit more of what the film needed. In the middle of this rage and despair, and Vitalina’s mourning and crying because of the cowardice of men, arrogance, and betrayal, there’s this man, this frail man, trembling and silent, begging for forgiveness. The film changes with him, the film needed that, the last shot that everyone asks me about. You do your work and suddenly there’s something that the text needs and it’s there. It’s not the result of a lot of discussion or conversation. We talk a lot, but it’s during the rehearsals: slower, faster, not this, this is very boring. Faster here. Etc. It takes a lot of time.
How long do you rehearse?
I do something I read about called “rehearsal on film,” something invented by Chaplin. I saw it in a nice movie, a documentary in three parts made by Kevin Brownlow, Unknown Chaplin (1983). He discovered some reels where you see Chaplin working, making City Lights (1931). You see him thinking about how to solve a problem, a difficult problem actually, where he sees the blind girl and the way she recognizes him. He went home for months and months, got depressed, paying everybody on the set for days and days, and couldn’t find a solution. But they were always shooting. Whatever Chaplin did was on film. He needed that to see how to get his shot. And since I brought my first digital camera, Panasonic, to do In Vanda’s Room (2000), I thought I could do the same thing. Cheap for me to do it, just tapes. The work with… well, I call them actors, but the people in front of the camera, they needed to find the words, to find the way to say, “My father was a bastard.” It’s good to have this machine rolling; it gives us a sense of rules. It seems to me that while we are searching for a shot, Vitalina’s searching for words; it’s on film. It gives all of us a certain gravitas; there’s a ritual when the camera starts recording. I’m very lucky because my people don’t refuse steaks or work. They were workers all their lives, hard workers, so they are there for the work. They can spend days or weeks working on one thing. The camera becomes a friend.
The decade’s about to end, and I know people are going to be putting your work on best-of lists. Do you think about your place in film history?
[He shakes his head, eyes rolling] I’m fond of this thing we did for this community [in Portugal], so far removed, so heathen, so subterranean, and across 5–6 films. I’m proud of the work we all did. The way it shines, this kind of archival material we captured, that surprises me. Vitalina, Vanda, and Ventura, the crew, the secondary roles in this film — it never ceases to amaze me. I see my mistakes; the craft is sometimes not all there. Sometimes, during the making of this film, I’d go home and I’d watch a little bit of a Mizoguchi film and I’d just say, “Ok… Go to bed.” [He laughs] When I see my work, I think these people were so generous, so invested, and it’s priceless to have such collaborators, you know, a gang. That’s what I think about often. Later, someone can put all these films together, and they’ll show or reflect a certain humanity.
Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela opens at Film at Lincoln Center on February 21.