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[Interview] Director Miguel Gomes on How He Tried to Reinvent the Youth of Cinema With ‘Tabu’

Written by , on December 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm 

“[One] of the year’s true incarnations of movie magic,” I wrote of Miguel Gomes‘s Tabu back when I reviewed it during this year’s New York Film Festival. Naturally, as the months have gone by (and the number of great 2012 films skyrocketed), my attention was seized away from this black-and-white beauty by other, similarly accomplished, year-end offerings: Django Unchained, Lincoln, Rust and Bone, and Zero Dark Thirty, to name a few.

But transcribing this one-on-one interview I conduction with Gomes during the festival quickly brought back the film’s rush of lovesick joy. It really is one of the year’s most sterling achievements, doing for me what The Artist did for so many others last year — reminding us why we fell in love with movies in the first place. Check out my full-length interview with Gomes below, and, if and when Tabu opens up at a theater near you, do yourself a favor and seek it out.

The Film Stage: What sort of influence did F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu: A Story of the South Seas have on the genesis and development of your film? Was it merely a structural connection, or was there a deeper relationship?

Miguel Gomes: The other previous features I’ve done have this structure of two parts. So that’s not from Murnau, though Murnau’s film [certainly] has that. But, in addition to that, silent films, in a way. I worked a lot with very simple oppositions. For instance, night-versus-day, shadows-versus-light, like Nosferatu, countryside-versus-city – all these oppositions that I think in a way, in mainstream cinema or in art-house cinema nowadays, were put to the [wayside]. I think nowadays there is mostly a work of psychological construction of characters, and so there’s very simple but poetic oppositions don’t have much place nowadays in contemporary cinema. And I missed that. For me, Murnau stands for cinema in a general way. It’s not Murnau that I’m after. Initially the film was called Aurora [the name of one of the central characters]. And Aurora means sunrise in Portuguese. So it was another film. And then there was the Romanian guy Cristi Puiu [who] made a film called Aurora last year. And I said, “Okay, I have to change the title. Two Auroras in a row is not very good.” [Laughs.] And so I changed the film, and now I’m glad. I have to thank him – Cristi Puiu, thank you very much. [Laughs.]

I think that the film benefits by being called Tabu, and the relation with [Murnau’s] Tabu is [interesting]. [Murnau’s] Tabu is, in the history of cinema, a very strange film because it’s film made in Polynesia. It’s an American production, but it was made in the Polynesia Islands in South Pacific. And it’s with a non-actress, filmed on location. It has a kind of ethnological feeling but it’s completely fantasy and melodrama. So it’s a mix of things that usually we don’t associate. So it’s like a utopia of cinema-making. It’s a very a singular mix – being completely open to the world and, at the same moment, continuing to produce cinema as fiction. But it’s not Murnau I really wanted to quote. I don’t even like the cinema of quotations because I think [it’s] very superficial. It doesn’t go very far, I think.

But trying to establish a connection with this cinema and [especially] the youth of cinema is [important] to me. Because after 100 years of cinema, I think something got lost in the process. And I think the cinema is missing – like the characters in the first part of the film – its youth. And so I guess we have to reinvent a way to get there. Not just by pretending we are making a silent film like in the 20s, but by trying to invent a structure that allows you to regain something of this youth of cinema – which is, for me, the thing that got lost. And maybe it’s something like the process of aging. I guess that people who began watching films in the youth of cinema were more prepared to believe things. They were not so aware of all these films that existed. So I wanted to regain for the viewer this ability to believe in unbelievable things and be touched by them – that’s the beauty of cinema. It’s something that allows you to go back to childhood.

Exactly, because the film has so many otherworldly things – the recurring crocodile, the witchcraft, etc. It seems like that idea of putting together a bunch of different, fantastical things is something the film embraces.

Yeah, I think that after making a film it’s very difficult to try to reconstruct the whole process. But I know that in the process of making a film – which is very organic, in my case – where there are a lot of things mixed up, I know that I proceed a little bit like a guy that is trying to make a collection. There are things that stick with me that will the desire of filming certain people doing certain things, and that starts to create film. That means songs – the will of having some songs in the film – or to film these people in these locations. Even the will to film witchcraft or crocodiles. [Laughs.] So it’s certain elements that come together. I think the process of making a film is to gather all these elements and then invent a structure for them to exist.

In contemporary cinema, for instance, there is a school of these minimalistic films, and some of them I really enjoy – but it’s not me. My films are more full of different things. They are not very minimalistic. Doing a contemporary film, knowing that I’m in 2012, I don’t want to put away all these possibilities of stories and emotions. I can invent a way to have this kind of melodrama – to have these exotic worlds – but, at the same time, have the fatigue. So it’s not like you have to choose to do a minimalist film with a guy smoking three cigarettes in a row, very depressed. [Laughs.] And you don’t have to choose to make an adventurous film with silly stuff. You can have everything in the film – very different things, very real things.

And I think there is almost even a documentary [quality] in the second part of the film. The African guys, in most of the scenes, are doing things that they do normally there. But there is also the fiction [quality] – that means actors with phony moustaches and hair made like in the 60s. [Laughs.] And that makes this clash. I remember, for instance, that there were these kids with Obama T-shirts, and people asked me, “Should we put them away?” And I said, “Hell no.” [Laughs.] It’s up to the viewer to believe in these things, because now, after 100 years of cinema, everybody knows that cinema is a construction, it’s a fictional thing. And the ability to believe and to be involved in this lie, in this fiction, comes from the viewer. It’s like a pact that is established between the film and the viewer. It’s individual.

How did you work with the actors? The first of the film is filled with dialogue, with conversation, whereas the second half, when there’s more of that silent-film aesthetic, is defined more by physical, non-verbal actions. So how did you adapt your direction to those different styles?

Every time, for every film and every part in the film – sometimes for every scene – we’ll have to invent a way to do it. That means that there is not a preconceived way of working with the actors or the other things while making a film. And that means, for instance, in this case, we thought that with the actresses in the first part, we should work with them in a more traditional way – to have rehearsals, etc. We had about four weeks of rehearsals before starting to shoot the first part of the film. And the second part of the film, for instance, I only said to Ventura [played by Carloto Cotta] to work on playing the drums. He knew a little bit how to do it, but not these songs. And I said to the actress playing Aurora [Ana Moreira] to learn how to shoot a rifle. That’s it.

And we [really] made up the film in the second part, while shooting – there was a script, initially, but we didn’t have enough money to do everything that was on the script. And so I just threw away the script and went with the actors. They knew the story that was there – the story that was previously written, the script: That Aurora was there and she’d eventually become the lover of Ventura. But we didn’t know exactly which scenes they were going to make. And so they were very generous. They went there, and we were making up the film with them every day. We had a menu of possibilities, and every day, after a full day of shooting, we erased some of the scenes and said, “No, this is no good.” And so we decided which scenes to keep and which ones to go back and shoot. We often made up scenes during the shoot. And the actors were available to do whatever we wanted to do, which I think is kind of crazy from them. [Laughs.] And I thank them – I think it’s very generous.

Regarding the fact that they don’t have dialogues in the [second half], there were two kinds of ways to do it. One, which turned out to [work] in 50% or more of the scenes, was to just have them move their lips. So the sound is sync sound – we are recording, and they are only pretending to talk. And sometimes it was not good because, with some of [the scenes], they could overdo it – they could do too much. They would start to act more like they were in a silent film, and I didn’t want that. So, on those occasions, I said, “Please talk about how God created the world and the man and the woman.” [Laughs.] And so they had to concentrate on what they were making up, and they started to act marvelously. So you always have to invent a solution. And working with them in every scene was always different, because every scene was different.

What about the voice-over in the second half? Was that completely scripted before shooting, or did you alter that during the process as well?

Initially in the script there was the voice-over, but it [became] different because the film is not the same. But because we had already started [altering] the script, we were not so scared of continuing to do so. We knew that, by the end of the process, while editing, we would have the ability of writing a new voice-over. And so we restructured the whole film with the use of the voice-over. And it was very useful, because we could reinvent the film, [in a way]. I think the voice-over is inventing that world, because you don’t get to see that much. He talks about lots of details that fulfill things we didn’t have – much of the historical detail, for instance, was presented mainly through the voice-over. So it invents the world and it invents a bigger scale than what you get to see in the image. And so, in the case of Tabu, the writing took place while editing. We were doing something that is supposed to appear at the beginning of the process at the end of the process. I mean, we were literally writing the story of the film while editing the film. [Laughs.]

Can you describe more about the push-pull relationship between the images you captured during production and the voice-over you eventually had to write during the editing process?

It was me in the editing room with the editor [Telmo Churro] and the co-writer [Mariana Ricardo] every day. So it was that same thing – editing and writing were completely mixed. So I needed both the editor and the co-writer. And while writing and editing, I was recording with my own voice. And we would just put the sound over the images.

When I was watching the film, the jarring aesthetic shift between the first half and the second half took a little bit of time to adjust to. But as I thought back on it, I realized that it was predicated by the character’s voice-over – that this is his memory, and this is how he would remember these events. It makes sense, for instance, that there’s hardly any dialogue, because he wouldn’t remember the dialogue.

Yeah, precisely. I thought about this, and of course I was interested in having the sensation a little bit of watching silent films. But I was profiting from the fact that there was this guy that was telling his story, so he could not remember the precise words that were said at that moment. And I guess it gives you this feeling of being there, but at the same time being a little bit different. And this is interesting to me, because the second part of the film has this feeling of almost like a ghost story – something that took place long ago, and can only be found in memory.

Tabu is currently in limited release. Click here for theater information.


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