By: Patrick Roy
CREDIT: COURTESY OF PEDRO MACHADO
Karim Aïnouz’s latest film, which won Un Certain Regard Award at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, introduces us to a period in which patriarchal order was still in place and a country where birth control pills were not yet available to women.
Inspired by a book, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão , the latest film of Karim Ainouz, would have been more suitable for a TV show, however the film has successfully compressed the book into its two-hour format. The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is more accessible to the audience compare to the director’s earlier films. Ainouz mastery at casting, directing and shooting the scenes, all have contributed to the film and making it an outstanding achievement. At the Cannes Film Festival, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with the director where we talked about the story, the performances, the production design and the financial aspects of the film..
Patrick Roy, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): Can you talk a little bit about your source of inspiration for this movie? Where did the idea come from?
Karim Ainouz (KA): Some inspiration came from the novel, which seemed worthy of adaptation because it was different. The thing that happened in Brazil over the last two years has changed the horizon a lot in terms of what’s happening to women. But when it really started it had a lot of intersections with my personal life and I actually made my first short film, A Portrait of My Grandmother, in 1999. I made that because I thought she was going to pass away when she was 80 years old but she lived to 108 so I was lucky. Then my mother passed away five years ago when she was 85. I thought that there’s so little account of what was life for women before the pill, before the sexual revolution, and before divorce. So, you see, with these women who are 80 and 90 it is very important to tell the stories of how they grew up, how they met their first men, and how they got married. What did their lives like at that moment? That’s what the book does and I thought that it’s almost like saying “thank you so much.” It’s almost like you feel looking at the Holocaust survivors since a lot of them are going away. It’s very important to have firsthand accounts of what was actually happening at that time. That’s how I became really obsessed with adapting the book because I thought that after interviewing a lot of women at that age it would be really great to do something that I haven’t seen in Brazil, which is to paint a sort of portrait of that generation.
UM: How did you adapt the book to film? Did you change the story?
KA: Yes, it’s quite different. The plot is quite different because, to be honest with you, I think the book would actually have been great for a television series but I’ve never watched television. So then the question is how do you take the book, which takes place over seventy years, and condense it to not just be like an encyclopedia. The first thing was to decide on the time period when this was going to take place. The book is very much like an epic. The other thing in the book is that they meet each other in different chapters. This is like a technical thing that works in a book but not in cinema. The book begins with the line “Oh, did you see her?” She’s been looking for her sister who had run away twenty years ago. She’s never been able to see her despite looking at every woman in the streets. This works in one paragraph in the book but is harder to present concisely on screen. There were a lot of technical things like that which I changed in terms of storytelling but for me what didn’t change was the most powerful aspect of the book, which is the fact that it’s a fantastic portrait of a generation that I really missed seeing in Brazilian literature and cinema. You know, it’s a bit like what Elena Veron is doing in Italy. There’s really a portrait of women of a certain of generation that needs to be present.
UM: So for you cinema seems very political.
KA: Listen, I don’t come from a place of privilege. I’m not rich and I was born and raised in a country that was a military dictatorship when I was a teenager. I never thought that I could work in film because it was too expensive. I don’t know how I’m still doing it but I am. So for me, cinema is always political. It’s not a circus, with all due respect to the circus. Film has an immense power. I think that it’s because of where I come from but it needs to be relevant. Why am I going to wake up every morning for three or four years to fight for an idea if I don’t think it’s relevant?
That’s why I’m not really interested in doing television, for example. I was joking with a journalist here that I’m not going to spend six hours watching a TV series. It’s boring and I prefer to be in the club. I think that’s much more interesting because you meet more people. Or I’d prefer to be having lunch with my friends. So when you make a movie and you’re asking somebody to sit in a room and watch it for an hour and a half or two hours, it needs to be relevant. Relevant can be many different things but at least for me, I’m always asking myself why this movie should be made now. Why should I tell that story now? It’s like having tools but not using them for their intended purpose to accomplish something. We don’t use tools just for their own sake. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I really think it’s because making cinema was never easy where I grew up. And when I was growing up most of the films that we got were American. You want to have your own stories. But still, I think that ultimately, the question for me today is always whether or not a certain movie is necessary. If it’s not necessary then it demands too much from you and from the world.
UM: How did you choose the main cast?
KA: We did casting with about 3,000 auditions. The first thing that I did was ask people to send me a three-minute video of them peeling potatoes because if I’m interested in watching somebody peel potatoes for a few minutes then there’s something there. It’s a very repetitive action so I like that. Then I would move on to doing proper auditions, sometimes with scenes from the film and sometimes without. Then from there with the main cast I tried to see how they worked together since they’re two sisters. There’s something there that you need to believe in, a question of chemistry, for lack of a better word. I was actually looking much more for theatre actors because a lot of the girls of that generation were doing soap operas and I really didn’t want somebody from that world. I have nothing against soap operas but for me it was very important that two people would be very expressive with their bodies and when you work with actors who are accustomed to soap operas they are almost paralyzed because it’s all just medium shots.
UM: So a good actor is somebody who can be expressive in the presence of camera?
KA: It’s not that complicated. They need to have charisma and 90% of my job as a director is to identify that. The rest is the rest. I mean that with all respect to the rest of the process but I think that as a director the biggest part of my job is to identify that thing which reaches into me and into the camera.
UM: A source of mystery you mean.
KA: Yes, there needs to be mystery. It’s not mathematics. It’s intuition and I think that’s our job.
UM: Some directors imagine how a certain scene is going to be performed and then look for the same thing during shooting in order to say that the acting is either good or bad.
KA: Not for me, shooting is the most live process and when it works, it’s better than you imagined. There’s a scene in the film where she comes home and her husband is there. I think it’s the best scene that I’ve ever shot. It was magic. For me, what I do is I set the bed. Then we see how sex happens. This is how it works. When I say that I set the bed, it’s the room, the light, the set design, and the camera position. Then I play with the actors and see what they can do in that space. Then I decide where to put the camera and how to shoot. I plan everything down to the smallest detail but when you’re on a movie set things happen. Something interesting about actors is that they can actually propose things that you hadn’t thought about. For example, there is a moment when Antenor sort of sleeps on her arm and he disappears. There’s all of the choreography but you can only plan so much, though I think it varies from director to director. I’m very interested in the accidents while shooting a film. I think that you need to surrender to the film. It’s like having a child. You cannot decide that your child is going to be a doctor. You need to see how your child feels. I would have a very hard time blocking a scene where you just go from A to B. I very much cherish the fact that I’m working with people so there is always an aspect of accident and surprise.
UM: How is your working relationship with your director of photography? Are you very into calculating everything beforehand?
KA: Yes, we plan because I normally try to have a 360-degrees set. I always consult my production design team when choosing locations. Then I go to the locations with my DOP and it’s the same thing. It’s literally like actors and actresses. That’s the first thing. The second thing is if it hits you and you can imagine things happening there. That’s why I never shoot in a studio and I don’t think that I’m really interested in shooting in a studio. There’s something about locations and their history so we go there. First, I go with only the DOP and one assistant just to understand where we can position the camera and where the action takes place. Then I go again with the actors and the DOP sort of stays behind and away from the action space. I let the actors occupy the space and see how they can move around and play with the objects. That’s how we work together. Then we sort of calculate more or less where to put the camera but it can fall apart, because it really depends on how the actors take on this place. And we do a lot of camera tests for the way that the film should look. I obsessively do a lot of tests.
UM: What do you mean by tests?
KA: Before we decide what lens or ASA to use, we do a lot of technical experimenting. Especially with digital you really need to be careful that you treat it just like a negative emotion. So we do a lot of shooting in different lighting situations and experiment with a lot of lenses. We do a lot of work on sort of grading the film before shooting.
UM: But that doesn’t impact the duration of shooting?
KA: No, we do that way before when we’re preparing the film because the other thing that’s very important for me is that when you use digital people always say that you can change it in post. I don’t change anything in post. It needs to be the way it is when I’m shooting so we do a lot of tests and then we shoot with the way that the film should look.
UM: What is your relationship with the editor?
KA: Editing is one of the most fun parts. It’s about experimenting and forgetting what you did.
UM: Do you give the job to the editor and then you come in later or do you do it together?
KA: I do both things. I go and we select takes together. Then I let them work and propose things without breathing down their neck. Then they show me options of scenes and I try to put them together. Then I’m more present as we put in the structure together and at the end I’m really present. I think it’s very important to see at the end how you go from one scene to another based on the choices that you’ve made. That’s why I’m much more present at the end of the process than at the beginning. In the beginning it’s very important to let your editor play with the material that is given to them. At the very beginning, I’m only there once a week or even less in order to give them space to invent something. It’s like the same thing that I do when I’m shooting. The material is there and they need to experiment with it and maybe try something that I didn’t think about. That happens quite a lot.
Editing is writing. For example, there’s one scene in the film where she’s playing the piano during a lesson. There’s a shot in the middle and then she continues the scene so there’s this sort of jump in time within the scene. This is what I love about editors and letting them be free to just sort of reinvent the script. I said, “Fuck the script. This script is just a script. What we have is the stuff we shot so play with what we have.”
UM: I’m curious about how the financial aspect of the film worked. Was it easy to get funding?
KA: I’ve lived my life sort of bumping around the road. I come from a mixed family with a Brazilian mother and Algerian father. I was living outside of Brazil when I was very young so I’m somebody who has sort of been travelling around. For example, I’ve been living in Germany for the past ten years. I like to do co-productions because they always challenge you. Can you imagine showing this movie to a German person? There are some things that they will not understand and that’s great because it actually allows the film to communicate much more with other cultures. Co-production for me is much more about having partners in the middle of the process who are going to watch the film and say “I don’t understand this.” Then I can see how something is going to be perceived. It’s much more about that than the question of money, though, of course, money is very important. Still, for me it’s more important to set up a creative exchange and see if we can work together. Then the money comes in.
UM: That doesn’t have an impact on your authorship?
KA: No, nobody is going to take my authorship away from me. This is my seventh film and one thing that you learn is to listen. You listen. And what you don’t like, you don’t like. But can you imagine a hundred people working on a movie and all of them are doing it not only because it’s work but also out of love. That’s something very different than if you’re working for a bank. Everyone involved has great things to say and my authorship is actually also understanding that there’s a lot of collaboration there and that some of them can help me. It’s like calligraphy. You try with one pen. Then you try with another. My authorship is about having a vision and that’s what’s going to be there at the end but somebody has a better idea along the way that can improve my vision then I’m going to say “Thank you. Let’s go.”
UM: Regarding co-production, editors sometimes complain that it makes the production very time consuming and you spend a lot of time on paperwork.
KA: I think it does but it depends. I mean, if you have ten co-producers then it’s a nightmare but if you have three co-producers then I think it’s fine. The problem is really about all of the bureaucracy and all of the work that it takes but I don’t do that so it doesn’t get to me. The other thing I love about co-productions is that you basically always having an outside perspective on the story and the process. For example, we shot this movie all in Portuguese but we wanted to have a foreign editor. Even at the very beginning, I wanted to write it in Berlin because that’s my base. I also wanted to have an editor who was located there and would come to my house or that I could easily go to the editing room. That was the first thing. The second thing was to see who was the best editor there. The third thing was the question of “How are we going to fucking do this?” since the film is only Portuguese. So what we did was translate the film. All of the material was translated. I know it sounds crazy but then you have someone who is coming to the process from a completely different perspective. I think that helped the film a lot.
As for this idea of authorship, I prefer not to think of it as being demagogic. I’m always the one who’s going to make the final decisions but I’m interested in exchanging. When I’m editing, I like to exchange what I’m doing with my director friends or with other people I know because it’s a long process and sometimes you lose perspective. It’s very generous of people to somehow call your attention to other things. I think that this also has to do with my age since I do what I want. At the end of the day, if there’s something that I don’t like then I’ll tell the person but sometimes people have better ideas than mine so we bring it in. It’s like production design. Sometimes you have a certain idea but then you go to the set and they’ve made it much better than you expected.