Rarely does a short generate interest like The Daughters of Fire, an ink-to-runtime ratio that could best be explained by its status as Pedro Costa’s first project since 2019’s Vitalina Varela. But it merits that bandwidth. Speaking by phone earlier this month, Costa described Fire with clarity, conviction, and care that wouldn’t suggest his film runs, sans credits, just seven minutes and primarily consists of three shots spread across a single wide frame. Nothing less should be afforded a work that yields so much each time through: new textures in its seemingly rigid design, new resonances in musical arrangement, and perpetual surprise when it cuts, in the final moments, to archival images shot by Portuguese historian Orlando Ribeiro.
Our interview started with Fire before expanding to a cosmology of Costa: the joy of Stevie Wonder, the pain of film festivals, and memories of Jacques Rivette. The Daughters of Fire opens alongside in water at NYC’s Metrograph and LA’s American Cinematheque on Friday, December 1 and will expand.
The Film Stage: The Daughters of Fire has a peculiar design: this kinetic close-up on the left; in the center a wide shot that’s stationary, notwithstanding a woman standing up; and the right side’s static close-up marked by shifting light. Each time I’ve seen the film I ask how you determined the geometry of this piece––the size, the shape, and order of these three shots.
Pedro Costa: How can I put it simply? I didn’t. [Laughs] No, I didn’t. Because, well, for each segment––or each shot––we’ve worked a little bit before starting filming and recording. I spent a little bit of time, but it was more from the technical aspect of things because it was a bit challenging for us. And that’s why we started this thing: because there’s this project that I’ve been working on trying to finance, which will hopefully be a feature film with these girls, this will be one of the songs, and it will be a film with music. Not a musical, but with a lot of music, with a lot of singing. And we needed to, our crew––sound and image, my usual friends––we needed to test some stuff. How could we, seamless, record the music in the sound? Can we record the singing live? The girl singing and hearing the orchestra before? Or should we do playback? Etc.
Lots of technical problems that are involved when you do this kind of film, musical. Then there was the sort of scheme that we used just so we have something with the girls. So we began just with the girls singing on the blank, empty studio––not even the studio; just a small garage––and then we thought: let’s go a little bit further and try some settings. So we went for the most difficult things today, which are projections. Well, it was very simple in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s. They used to do that all the time and very easily––it was just what they call “projection.”
Today it’s completely different: it’s CGI or it’s such a different procedure. But this is nicer and has a nicer feeling and texture, and it’s a different material. So we tried that and that was another test. I always say, “This is a test. It’s just three separate tests for something that will maybe happen.” Not on this form. Certainly with these girls and with this music, but maybe not on the same, let’s say, “spectacular” [Laughs] triptych form.
So it began like that: I wanted to work with each of the three girls. You know, a singer is not an actor. I cannot do as many takes with a singer as with an actor. And I’m used to––as you probably know––with Vitalina, we worked the scene for days and days and takes and takes and retakes and improvement and etc. So with the singers, we’ll have to––of course––be prepared. The music has to be recorded. They have to know what they are singing, and then they cannot sing the same thing for, you know, 50 takes. The throat, the voice cannot speak. So we wanted to know about these things, and that’s what we did. We shot two days for the girl on the left because it was quite difficult. She was walking and singing; it’s always more difficult. Then we shot one day with the girl in the center and the one day with the girl on the right. And then we went for this post-production––mixing sound, mixing. Not editing, because it’s just one workshop. So there was just cutting the beginning and the end.
I don’t know what really happened, but you know––digitally today, with screens and computers––if you put three images, or four or five, it’s super-easy. You just join three images, to just hear them together, and then I saw it on the screen and I thought, “This is really impressive.” Because the counterpoint, which is the musical form––especially baroque-music counterpoint, which is this sort of dialog of voices, this question-and-answer, this conversation that happens between the left and right, the center, etc.––it seemed to work visually. It was completely there. You could see it: the girl on the left talked to the girl on the right, or some connections and associations were being made through the screens and the visuals.
So I thought, “Let’s make a triptych, a three-part film, and try to show this for small screens.” Then we tried and we went to see a screening in the theater, and it worked quite well. I mean––yeah, well, of course it works. It’s like Napoleon works [Laughs] and it was very spectacular, very big, and very interesting and complex. And what really worked was the counterpoint, this question-and-answer. The talking, the singing between the girls worked really, really nicely. But this will be just this film, and then… well, I don’t think it will repeat this again.
Clearly there’s a thoughtful construction of the counterpoint. Do you have hopes for how a viewer will focus their attentions as they watch? On the second and third viewing I kind of made a point to focus on one plane at a time.
The first time I saw it I was kind of moving back and forth, but subsequently wanted to look at specific parts to, maybe, take it in more fully. But I don’t know if there’s necessarily a hope for how people will watch it.
It’s not necessarily “hope” or expectations. I’ve been having responses from people, and most people… well, I think I’m more interested when people tell me, “I follow the voices, I follow the singing. So it’s like I hear what she’s saying, but that probably needs two or three viewings.” I think it’s what happened to me and to my four friends, the ones that worked on the film: we watched it and, yeah, we were a bit amazed by the looks. It worked quite well, the counterpoint. It was enchanted, let’s say. There’s a sort of enchantment. Like, I remember when you see something that is really oiled and works that well––with music, I mean. I’m remembering Jacques Demy––things like that, that you were completely enchanted with. You know? You see it the second time and you begin to separate the waters. You begin to see this girl is saying this, there’s the other one.
And for me it’s interesting. Not important, but it would be interesting if people follow the text––the lyrics. If the girl says “will we know,” then hear the one that says “we have to work.” I mean the correspondence. I hope this film does a little bit of… it’s not even a middle image or something, because there’s three shots in this film. So it has to be something created by the three of them. It’s something else––it’s a fourth one––and this fourth one, I think it’s more abstract. I think it’s more on the sound or musical side than on the image. I think the composition you make in your head, in your imagination, will be on the sound; it will be a sound plane. I don’t know how to explain.
But, you know, music––it’s always like this. It creates a dimension. In film it creates a dimension that elevates everything. When it’s good, it elevates things. Yes, you can say it “exaggerates” or it burns more quickly. So in the sense it’s easier; it’s easier. I just hope I can work it well in the next film. It won’t be just another stupid musical. [Laughs] I hope not. Because you can create something very, very, very interesting and rich and complex. It’s fast, and I wouldn’t say furious, but it’s fast. And then there’s this nice––I think, I hope––breath of morning air that comes with this footage of the volcano. The next morning, this is footage from ‘51 that you see in the silent footage. It brings, I don’t know, a breath of silence that is needed.
I remember, years ago, reading you had wanted to make––or at least had dreamed of making––a film adaptation of Stevie Wonder’s album Innervisions.
Is that a particular dream you still hold? Or did ideas you had about that film find their way into this?
It’s still there. You’re quite right. It’s still there, and it’s in this film. I sincerely––I’m completely honest––I think that record… there’s more, of course, from Stevie Wonder or others. Monteverdi or whatever. But that one in particular, it was part of my personal growing-up, teenage years. But it’s really a composition. It’s something that is so, so close. I think I always felt so close to the work we do in film, the way he did it––working all the instruments and trying to find a way to put his organ and the drums and the why and how––it’s a lot like making a film, I thought. Then the narrative side of the record. Not conceptual. The narration, how each song completes the other and goes beyond. Or frustrates the other, which is also a very important side of it. Yeah, but it’s been with me for ages and I always thought of doing something, as it has a very compact––even the duration of the album––it has a very compact, explosive duration.
It’s complete. It’s closed. It’s an aspiration. The same as when I see, I don’t know… the other day I saw a small, 73-minute film by Joseph H. Lewis, and it was absolutely amazing to see, again, the counterpoint. [Laughs] It was counterpoint. There was an economy that comes with it that is difficult to find today in the work because you’re so distracted, so dispersed, so––I don’t know––away from this kind of problem, the working problems. I want to work in this setting. I think Stevie Wonder and Joseph Lewis, Lubitsch and Bresson––people worked on this, you know, trying to make it tighter. In music, I think that’s the problem: how not to be too fat. Let’s bring it to the bone. Let’s concentrate. Because it’s notes.
You know, they don’t fake––musicians. That’s the great thing. There’s no faking, or very little faking. Because even with these girls, I mean, they cut the shot. They cut the take. You know? They said, “No, it’s no good.” It’s not me saying, “It’s not there,” or something. They say, “No, no, it’s not there. The note, the musical note, is not there. I did not sing it.” So there’s a sort of reality. For me, it’s great because there’s something that avoids the vagueness that filmmaking still thrives or is based on. It’s very vague, when you cut a shot or begin a shot. Yeah, okay, it’s nice or works very well, but no: with music it’s much more complex and much more strict, and I need that. That’s what I always hear when I put on Innervisions; especially Innervisions. It’s tight. Super-tight. He worked that thing really well. Now I’m rambling.
No, no. This is all very good. But I have to ask what the Joseph H. Lewis film was.
Lady Without a Passport.
Okay, good. That’s going on my watchlist.
No, Joseph H. Lewis is someone you have to absolutely watch. He’s one of the great forgotten, modest––really modest––great craftsmen that’s not appreciated. I mean, everybody knows Gun Crazy, but almost all his others are very interesting.
You alluded to something I wanted to ask. There’s the overwhelming stimuli of our modern world––phones, tablets, computers; you can’t even go on a subway anymore without having a digital screen in front of you, especially in New York––and I love that your films always play like a bit of a reset. They demand so much of your attention; they’re quiet; they’re pinpoint-focused in image. So I wonder about you, personally––if you’ve been finding your own attention dominated by these things, and if it impacts, influences the work you’ve been doing. Especially of late.
Hmm. It’s nothing I can answer, and no one can answer that. It’s too “now.” We’re in it; we’re in the soup. [Pause] There’s a lot of things there because… in that sense I’m very “Godardian,” let’s say. It’s film but it’s not film. It could be something else, if you want it. It just needs your desire. You know? It needs your will. It’s your necessity. It’s not about my desire; it’s about your necessity. If you can and will be willing to experience or see this on really any format––even an iPhone. On the big screen, it will be different. But I don’t think your attention will be different. I think it will be there or it’s… I’m making it very mysterious, etc, but it’s not. It really depends on what you want to be.
I mean, how do you want to be with… other people? [Laughs] You want it to be, again, in a theater with 500 people––that amazing, enchanting experience like it was. I don’t believe in that anymore. I really don’t. I’m sorry. I’m maybe pessimistic or too dark. But I don’t think it will come back. Not even in cinematheques, and less in film festivals. Those are schools of inattention, the festivals: it’s where people sleep and they leave and laugh, etc. No, I believe you can watch this on your iPhone, on the train going home, and be moved by it. It will not be in a film festival. It will not be in a good environment. It’s a little bit what I feel with, for instance, I like going to––sometimes––the Louvre or to the Prado or to the Metropolitan. I like seeing. Of course, of course. And people have been saying, “Oh, his films look like some paintings.” Maybe. I don’t know. I like some paintings. It’s not Caravaggio; it’s not Rembrandt. Of course they are great, but I like landscapes. I like when people move in landscapes. I like the Dutch. But what I really like is when there are 500 Japanese in front of the Dutch in the Louvre. It gets messy, it gets real, it gets noisy.
I think the Dutch––I think Vermeer––wanted that. I think he’s asking, “Come. Come, Japanese. Scream around my painting.” [Laughs] But that’s because I’m a filmmaker, of course. Maybe. But I really need… the reality, and not only the mystical experience. I need something to interfere with your… I don’t know if this has to do with your question, but I really think that everything goes today. I think you have to connect with some sort of reality. I’m even going to tell you something: I think this film, this small film, has some connection with what’s happening today in a part of the world. It really has. I’m turning on the TV, and I’m remembering these girls––the way they cry or they sing some stuff in the last shot of the film––and these people come out bewildered or completely shocked from this house in silence, naked in rags, and I see connections. I see Gaza. A problem is that we, very soon, will not be able to see Gaza anymore. And that’s the problem.
And that’s our problem: your problem when you write about films, and my problem. Because it’s very clear that we cannot stand images anymore. I can’t. I can’t. The images of the world for me [Exhales] I can’t. I turn my eyes, and I’m sure you do the same. It’s unbearable. And in some way it connects to this small film, and to other films of course; not only mine.
Daughters of Fire will play on this program Cinema Guild is doing with Hong Sangsoo’s in water. Both your short and Hong’s feature––which is itself “a short feature” at 61 minutes––I think I found necessary because of this thing you’re talking about: they play like resets. Which isn’t to say they’re unconnected from the world or very tangible ideas, but they’re not in the same flux of stimuli you’re talking about here. People called Barbie and Oppenheimer the year’s great double-bill, and I say: forget that. It’s in water and The Daughters of Fire. And I’d love to know how you feel about this particular Hong film as a complement to your short, because I would assume you’ve seen his films before; he’s been around for a while. Whatever the case, though, it’s a very unique idea: this visually sumptuous, three-screen short followed by an entirely out-of-focus feature.
Yeah, well, when Peter and Tom from Cinema Guild proposed this idea––because it was their idea––I said immediately, “Yes.” First, because I’m totally confident. And I didn’t see the film, Hong’s film, but I trust it completely. I saw many of his films. We met briefly in Seoul. But I think we can trust each other––I think. So no problem there. And then I heard it was out-of-focus, and it’s exactly what you said: my film’s super-extravagant and exuberant and extravagant. [Laughs] I don’t know. And his is maybe a counterpoint or a different way of looking, of course, and so I said, “Yeah, yeah, it might be interesting.” And the title: it’s the simple “Fire and Water.”
So I can tell you no problem there, but I have to tell you: I haven’t seen in water. I’ve been working so much, because now I’m in Spain doing this museum show. It’s a museum-installation thing I’ve been doing since last year. So I’ve been working, and I could have seen it on the link or something, but I thought… well, I didn’t. But the last film I saw by Hong was The Novelist’s Film, which I found beautiful and very moving. So I’ve no doubts. I will see it sooner or later, but you don’t need me to see his film.
I think it’s good; I’d recommend it. I’ve always appreciated your frustrations with the state of film production. You talk about the sales agents, the producers, the programmers, the need to pitch––all these things that dilute an artist’s goals. But recently you’ve been to some festivals and had this nice kinship with Wang Bing. And I guess I wonder if, spending time on a festival circuit, you actually get to see people’s films and talk to the filmmakers. Do those experiences pose a counterpoint to the negative feelings that can be drummed up by these forces you speak of?
Yeah, it’s a mixed-feelings experience. I’ve been to some this year because of the short, and it was a bit unexpected. Because I really didn’t expect this short film to play that much. We’ve been to Cannes, we were in Cannes, and then a few others. Not many. The film has been shown at lots of festivals, but… [Exhales] The filmmakers of my generation are a bit, you know––everybody’s on their own. We are living, each man, in his own night. Except for a few ones that I really admire––Wang Bing. Straub is gone. Godard is gone. Rivette is gone. Of course there’s others, there’s friends. Béla Tarr, in a way, is gone. There’s Hong Sangsoo. There’s lots. But I can speak for all of us.
Actually, I can’t, because the other day I was in London and then I went to the festival in London to have a talk with Víctor Erice. And we had a talk about everything, and we realized that we really don’t have that much to say. I mean, we like being with each other and have dinner and lunch and walk around and share some new books or things, but we don’t have that much to talk about. And the young filmmakers––yeah, well. [Pause] I don’t meet as much as I want; I don’t meet younger filmmakers. I think they are on a tougher road than I was, than we were, because of all of that you explained. It’s a tougher business now. [Laughs] You have to really succeed on the first short, or not even the first feature; you have to be there on the first short to get to do another one, etc. I think they have no time. Time is accelerated so much––and that was expected––that they don’t have the time to… it’s a criticism. Of course it is.
I mean, I’m always saying the same thing: I think we should take time as our friend and not our enemy. Because it’s one of the materials we work with––it’s time and space. So it’s stupid to rush and run. So yeah, I’m always saying: “Don’t pitch. Keep it secret. Don’t try to produce yourself. Think about production. Don’t think about direction––or too much. Don’t watch that many films. Remember, you have other things from the past to see that you haven’t seen yet.” I don’t know. “Run. Eat. Breathe. Don’t be too obsessed with…” It’s not film. It’s obsessed with… there’s a vice. There are junkies now, all of them. That’s what I can say I see in film festivals especially: it’s junkies of financial engineering. It’s inflation. A film that needs $500 will collect, easily, a thousand or a million, and then there’s no point. There’s no reason. There’s no reason. And when there’s no reason, well… [Laughs]
Someone had relayed to me this rumor––and I’m curious if you could confirm or deny––that you had helped finish Jacques Rivette’s final feature Around a Small Mountain, or that you had participated in the post-production and––
No, no, no.
Absolutely not. No, no, no. That’s strange. No. I can tell you: the last time I spoke with Jacques Rivette was on the phone and was before he did that one––it was when he was, I think, preparing or starting to film The Axe.
We know it as The Duchess of Langeais.
Yeah. Yeah. So that’s nice. Well, I had a very… I like to think of it as friendly, but we had a very sparse, and from time to time… it started with letters. The first one was a postcard he wrote me because he saw Casa de Lava. And then he saw the others, but it was not only with me. He did it––you see?––with a lot of young filmmakers. Because, you know, he saw three or four or five films a week in Paris. So he sincerely liked and he was a very generous character. He wrote beautiful… and it was, for me, not only because I had this pleasure––honor, pleasure––of knowing him, but since he was really one of the best critics, or the best writers, and he used to write three, four sentences about my films. Vanda. And still the last one, which was Juventude em Marcha––Colossal Youth.
Then there was silence and I think he became not-well. Then, because of Jeanne Balibar––who is a friend who was very much in touch with him––we spoke one last time, I think, when he was preparing the film with Jeanne, Duchess. That was all. No, it’s strange how this rumor… I’ve never heard it. [Laughs] No, I thought you were going to ask about Eustache. That was true: I helped restore a film called Numéro Zéro, which is a film that we found in his house, and that was a story I’ve told a number of times. But Rivette––I wish. [Laughs]
The Daughters of Fire opens alongside in water at NYC’s Metrograph and LA’s American Cinematheque on Friday, December 1 and will expand.