Pedro Costa‘s films demand that viewers ask complex questions regarding theory, practice, and ontological qualities of the form, but even the most attentive viewer will be forced to contend with basic matters: plot development, character relationship, and chronology. Going into a long discussion with him is one thing; when it’s on the subject of his latest film, Horse Money, both a crowning achievement and a dense, convention-shattering, expressionistic work rooted in Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974 — hardly a well-explored topic — there are about 1,000 places one might head. Since we were sitting in the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade theater less than two hours before the post-screening Q & A for a retrospective of the man’s work and personal favorites, his earlier films, which Horse Money follows, offered a good starting point.
It was also to my fortune that Costa is an extremely open, generous interview subject, speaking in a lengthy, detailed manner with extreme honesty, all while willing to concede that he’s neither a huge cinephile nor interested in what many acclaimed filmmakers are even bothering with nowadays. What follows is a thorough look at his working life, relationship with non-actors he’s made the stars of internationally acclaimed films, numerous personal philosophies, and, once we were more or less wrapped-up, perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever confronted a subject with.
The Film Stage: Were you just doing an introduction?
Pedro Costa: This one? No. I should. I was supposed to, but… [Laughs] I preferred to do a Q & A. It’s not my film, so.
How’s this series going? Are you having a good time with the presentations and Q & As?
Very well, yeah. A lot of people are coming. Even for this very rare film, there was, I don’t know, a hundred people or something. It’s pretty good crowds, and, from the Q & As I’ve been doing, people are interested.
Do you find it strange to sit in front of a group of people who’ve just seen a film you made, say, 20 years ago?
Mmm… yeah, it’s strange, but… yeah, because, first, I don’t remember the films — some details, some stuff that people ask about. Certain things I really can’t remember. But, yeah, at the same time, it’s a good way to think about the films and think about how I did things and how I’m doing things. Talking and answering makes you think, so it’s always good.
I get the impression that you don’t revisit your work very often — that once you make a film, it’s essentially “done.”
Yeah. For me, I belong to that family of filmmakers where it’s really painful to see the films, because, in my case, I take so long shooting them. One year; two years, sometimes. In Vanda’s Room was one year plus one year of editing, so it’s a long time living with the film. When it’s done, it’s not dead, but it’s over. And, in my case, there’s also something a little bit special, which is that a lot of people are gone. The films that I shot in that place, with that community… it was a rough place. A lot of people died because of drugs, because of everything, disappeared — so it’s painful to see that. All the ghosts.
After Horse Money premiered at Locarno in August of 2014, you said that you’d only started to like the film, and that your relationship is evolving because you can finally talk about it a bit more. A year later, have you come to any sort of strong position? Does it sit resolutely?
Well, it’s very personal and, I’m sorry to say, there are secret ideas I have about the film — how we did it, what I think it is. But what happens to me in every film is that a bit of time passes and I become a bit more comfortable with the film because of the response or the relation I have with the friends that did the film with me — especially the ones in front of the camera. The community. Ventura and his family. All the families. The relation seems to grow or, I don’t know… after each film, I have this nightmare that they won’t like it, so they will break with me. They will say, “It was fun,” or, “No more. This is too far.” Because there’s not that much money involved, so they don’t expect… I mean, if they expect a new film next year, it will be for nothing again, or a very small money.
So it’s really a relation that’s growing with the films. With this one, there’s even new friends coming to “the boat,” let’s say. There’s a woman now, Vitalina, and she became a true friend this year. I have this new friend, and I have others that I just knew from two- or three-minute talks in the neighborhood, but now, after the film, they’re closer friends and I know them better. They ask me things and I can ask them things. That’s the great thing about the work I do: I don’t do films with actors who call and say, “How are you? Are you going to New York or Japan?” [Laughs] You see them every ten years or three years or whatever. These people I see once every day or every week, so they’re part of my family, I would say.
If you have this fear about an actor’s reaction, when did you realize your next fiction feature would once again concern Colossal Youth‘s Ventura? Was he always in mind?
I knew, after Colossal Youth, there was something that was in the air, that was floating between me and Ventura. It was this story, this episode, things that he told me about the years of the revolution — how we lived the Portuguese Revolution in ’74. It was an intriguing and very mysterious subject for me. I knew I wanted to make something around that; I just wasn’t sure if it would be with him. It could be, perhaps, that just a sort of screenwriter would give me the ideas and would probably write a little bit of the story, then I would shoot it perhaps with other people — younger people. I thought of doing a period film, and, for that, I would need a young Ventura — a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old. I would need teenagers. They were all teenagers in ’74, the grandfathers of today.
I was not sure, and, one day, I thought… it began with the elevator sequence that’s more or less the center of the film. It was not an elevator, but I imagined a sort of duel or a court scene. It could be a court scene like in the court films, or a duel, and I thought about this soldier, and I needed Ventura. And I thought Ventura could be young and old at the same time in this black box, in this mental black box that would have cables back and forth to the past and to the future and to the present. Then I assumed that the film would live with different time frames and lines, and that would be the film. So Ventura would be the actor, could be the actor — older, talking about the days before; the young life. As he says, “The young life.” Yeah, but it was more the subject than the idea of having Ventura. I wanted to do something about the revolution — but the screenwriter was Ventura, so I’m happy that he became the actor, too.
You’ve often said that Horse Money is “a film about forgetting” — specifically the trauma of this revolution. But I’ve never quite understood how one spends so much time on the depiction of something as a means of forgetting it. Historical recreations are usually meant to help someone understand, to make these times feel as if they’re a part of the present moment.
It’s more for us, I think. It’s more for us. When I told it — it’s not even a joke, but it’s a bad joke — I said, “We make films to forget, as opposed to making films to remember.” For us, it’s about exhausting this trauma. It’s like an analysis: you talk about it. In an analysis, you say it once or twice; in our work, we say it 200 times or 300 times. We exhaust the subject. It becomes one moment. On the third day or the fourth day, it becomes matter or material — like a piece of wood or a curtain. It becomes something. We’re in the space, doing the work. You have the soldier, you have the walls, a certain light, and then you have this memory that becomes almost plastic, you know? You work with that, but you forgot really about that. It became just a… the bricks, the plaster with which you’re making the film. For us, it became another element in the work.
When we begin, I think we begin with the idea that — and Ventura, too, probably, and all the neighborhood and all the community; it’s fair to say for every community that is like that one — we shouldn’t forget oblivion, let’s say. We shouldn’t forget that we will forget, but eventually we will forget. That cinema, film has a part in perhaps helping not to forget, still. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I’ve been asked that so many times, and some friends and people I know have answered that so many times: if cinema can change, can help, can do this or that, or can help to remember or help to not forget — I’m really not sure. I think the other elements are more powerful. I mean, [Points out window] reality is more powerful than the reality on the screen.
Our reality on the screen, and I’m talking since the beginning, everything that’s projected on the screen today — old, new — I’m starting to be less a believer in the power of film, of cinema, but it’s not a reason to give up, so we keep on doing it. In the beginning, of course, you must not forget our natural tendency to be forgetful. In the most trivial ways. Forgetful in relations, in our everyday life, and the big, big moral things. Then I’m saying that memory, this material we’re working with, becomes so, so foreign to us that eventually we forget about that. We have to forget about that to turn it… to try and feel it, or for those words to resonate as a foreign, strange fiction. Fiction, really: it has to become fiction. And that’s a way of forgetting, a little bit, for me.
You might not give up, but if you feel this way, how do you, as a film artist, continue?
One of the few things I can really say I love is cinema. I’ve lived a long time for cinema. I lived with it, I still like it a lot, I like doing the work. Now I think it goes a little bit beyond cinema. I was much more of a cinephile 20 years ago; I was much more a believer in all the powers — natural, supernatural [Laughs] — of films. Now cinema, for me, has become… I always say, if I’m just doing a film, I think I wouldn’t bother. There’s something else for me. Perhaps not for other filmmakers; they are into doing a film and its form, its content, working with actors. I’m into working very, very hard and also very, very fascinated by a lot of things that I discover every day in form, content, etc. But if it was just that, I wouldn’t do films now. So there’s something else. The life I live, it’s not only when I’m doing the films — it’s around, before, after. Of course, the life I have with these people, it’s a relation that I began with them, with their story, when I wrote, because it has been, I don’t know, an evolution or a progression. Not a progression. I have to do a lot of things for them. I have to because I want to. With them, for them, help them in some ways, that transcend the film completely.
At the same time, that’s what really does the films. It’s not only talking about that detail of the revolution, or let’s talk about your first years in the neighborhood, or let’s talk about what happened with your mother or your father yesterday in the film, and let’s work it. It’s more than that. The days we spent together, the days we spent to get the passport or get the papers or go to the doctor or try to get the school for somebody’s son — or just shoot a marriage, like I’ve done so many times when somebody gets married. Now I don’t do it because they all have digital cameras like mine. [Laughs] But in the first year, yeah. So if it was just doing the film and living for the film, I think I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
Because that’s why I changed so much my ways of working. I changed my ways of working because I needed something else then — assistants and seven weeks of shooting and screenplays and festivals. I needed something else than the life of a filmmaker. I’m not talking the life of a social assistant or the life of a missionary. It’s not that. It’s belonging somewhere, probably. Before I felt I belonged to the cinema world, really — this fear, this planet of cinema that I didn’t like. I’m always saying that I hate that world. Of course there’s people I like in that world; there’s good people, there’s good films, but it’s a rotten world, anyway. The world of agents and sales agents and festivals and money and relations that are based on interest and profit — that doesn’t happen in my new world. I’m very far removed from that world. Of course, sometimes I have to go to film festivals with a film. And I feel I have to even much more, because they don’t do it; I don’t have actors or crews to be with me on the press conferences. It’s too much. [Laughs]
No matter. I love hearing about this community you have with your actors and how they spark your creative mind. For instance, you’ve had plans to direct something about a character in Horse Money, Vitalina, and the letter she reads at a crucial point. Is this project still in progress?
Yes. I had a project immediately when, I think, the first micro second I saw Vitalina; I have ten thousand projects. [Laughs] It’s like a Proustian thing. But then I had to concentrate and I shot this one, but I felt we could do something else — perhaps now, after Horse Money. I don’t know. We’re thinking. I’m not yet working; just thinking and talking. Again, you see? There’s a lot of things I have to do before I do anything with Vitalina, because I think it’s done — we got it. But we had to get all her papers, or all the papers she didn’t have to stay in Portugal, because she wanted to stay, and she didn’t have everything that she needed — the passport, the citizen card, etc. It’s becoming very difficult for immigrants in Europe, as you probably know. In Spain, Portugal, the North Africans, etc. So they need work contracts. They need a lot of stuff. Then she has health things, so I told her, “Now you have a social security card, so now you need to take care of your lungs, your teeth.”
So there’s a lot of stuff like that; there’s a lot of hours spent in waiting rooms and hospitals, rides in buses gong to the passport office. And we’re talking, so, again, that will make a film. I’m not sure; I thought about letters and the bank, the big bank, because she told me she was fascinated with the marbles of the big, big Bank of Portugal downtown, so that’s what she does — now replacing her sister, who’s also a cleaning lady. And, anyway, the way she goes out of Horse Money, she disappears of Horse Money, I think she opens a door and she enters an office — that’s how she disappears — and I think this office is her new life of, I don’t know, as a worker in Portugal. A cleaning lady or something else. So now she’s joined the working class, let’s say, of Portugal, and she will probably work around that. As soon as we go back, I will start working, thinking with her. I don’t know; we’ll see.
Describe that gestation process a bit, when the seeds for an idea are being planted. Do you just begin writing things down and let it grow from there?
Some notes, but it’s really a… I can’t say it’s even outlines, because they’re really notes. Three-sentence stuff like that. What happens is, now that I know them, I want to do a film — perhaps with Vitalina, perhaps with Ventura, perhaps with somebody else, so I think about two or three ideas, or I have one idea. I’m with Vitalina and talking, and she says something, and this idea I had disappears completely, because what she said is much more interesting or amazing. Sometimes I say “I have no ideas.” That’s stupid, of course. I have ideas, but my ideas are not strong enough when confronted with the reality of what Vitalina or Ventura or Benvindo or all of them tell me.
Sometimes I say, “What if we do something, or we do something like this?” She’ll say, “Yeah, okay, but my brother used to do something else.” I don’t know. It’s very powerful, everything that comes from their reality — I presume their reality. Their past, their memories, and I’m presuming that everything is the truth, but who knows? Now, because our relations has a lot to do with films, so they already know there is a film to be made, so probably they also like to fictionalize a little bit. I sense that in Ventura, for instance. I felt that with Vanda: the way she tells things, the way she goes back to certain details, has already something to do with fictionalizing a reality.
I remember you saying that using stories your actors tell you make the films mysterious to even yourself. Do you think you’ve come closer to understanding Horse Money, or do some things remain unknown?
[Pause] I don’t really like to put it this way, but the work we do is so hard and so difficult for them — for me a little bit, too, but for them — they have to be so interested in doing this, I think. Again, there’s no money, there’s no fame, there’s no nothing involved, so it must be because they are really interested and they want to follow some thoughts, ideas, memories — and the work around this is so exhausting and so hard. Really so precise, and gets to such a degree of precision in everything. The way they feel their own texts. The way they’ll express their own feelings and memories. The way they move their hands and the way they move their heads and the way they look at things. All of these meant so much work that I’m really amazed at the results sometimes. Because of them, of course. I think, “How could we do this” or, “How could this be possible?” And then, of course, we did it, because it’s just no artistic secret. It’s only going there every day and repeating and rehearsing and repeating and repeating, and trying something else. But, anyway, yeah: sometimes I’m genuinely really amazed and think, “Well, they did such incredible work.” And that’s all.
Most of the time, I see missing parts; I see missing parts. It doesn’t mean they are mysterious. They are still missing. It’s what I’m saying: a lot of the work, perhaps, not most, but a great part of the work we do comes from the unknown, the uncertain, the untold, the things we don’t talk about, the silences between us. There’s stuff between us that is not clear yet. It probably never will be. I hope not. I hope that there will be forever this unknown territory between us — between me and Ventura and Vitalina. Even more, perhaps, between Vitalina, because she’s a woman.
But I feel that this is a very, very delicate, strange, and dark — especially dark — continent between us. It’s very, very wide, I think. So it’s very hopeful, in a certain way. There’s a lot of possibilities, I think — speaking for myself. I don’t know what Ventura thinks. He probably thinks the same: that we could perhaps do other films, together or not, but it will be there — this unknown. There are things we cannot talk about and, probably, it’s very good, because that’s why we try to make some films — because we don’t know how to say something. Or he doesn’t know how to say something, and I perhaps help him, and then he helps me with something else, and it’s this game of pushing back and forth, back and forth.
In this back and forth, are there notable instances of where an actor becomes uncomfortable with broaching certain topics or going to certain places, where they pull back?
Never happened. Never happened. Never crossed my mind, anyway. Perhaps it will — I’m not sure — but it just reminds me, especially of the time of Vanda’s Room, when things were very tense, let’s say, because of how the place was at that time: very violent, very dangerous, very sensitive. Drugs, guns, everything. At that time, me and Vanda and all the boys never… of course, if somebody didn’t want to be in the film, that’s like a casting for the other guys. What’s a bad actor, in my case, is, “I don’t want to show my face,” or something. But, no. I think it will not happen with me, in my work. I think, with me, it’s how you deal with a certain image or a certain thing. It’s not about the image; it’s about you. It’s not about what’s the violence, the death inside that image, or the possibility of death in that shot, in that scene; it’s there, so the problem is you. It’s, “How are you going to deal with that violence? Are you going to refuse it? See it? Criticize it? How are you going to live with that?” In a certain sense, how we, as a community, now live with that image of violence and death in film today, in general.
I think I said at the Q & A of Colossal Youth, that — probably there’s more than one — but there is an actor, a boy who was in Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth and a few other shorts, and who probably will be in the next one. “Boy.” Well, young man. A good friend who still hasn’t seen Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, and has only seen the shorts — because he played “a character,” let’s say. He played a character. Himself, always, but let’s say “something soft.” In Vanda’s Room, he talked a lot — and only — about his father; in Colossal Youth, he talked only about his father, because he told me, “I would like to talk about my father. He just died and I would like to talk about something.” He’s always saying, “I am not strong enough yet to see the films.” So it’s not the same thing as you asked me, but, in a way, he cannot deal with himself on the screen, talking about those things. So it’s a relation between him and something.
This films looks different from entries into the Fontainhas trilogy. Could you ever imagine yourself going back to the smeary digital of In Vanda’s Room, which many saw as a breakthrough?
This film looks different because we had a lot of time to work on it. “We had a lot of time.” We have a lot of time because we won’t need a lot of time. While I’m doing something with Ventura on my side, my colleague is doing something with a light, and I say, “That’s okay,” or, “Make it a l little more like that.” So there is a little bit of working around an image, sound, even art direction. Much more than In Vanda’s Room, because that was me, myself, alone, facing this girl — it was about that, first of all — so that was my purpose, my reason. I think sometime around the middle of that shooting, I thought, “This is also a film. I mean, I should do also the most beautiful film in a room with a girl.” But so I said, “Yeah, let’s arrange this a little bit, alone.” The problem is that I was alone and I was with a very difficult… I had a very… the material, let’s say, resisted much more. I think that’s the reason why the films are different a little bit. Vanda, in that moment and that place, resisted me or cinema much more than this one. This one we rehearsed and repeated.
We are working in a no-man’s land, let’s say — this mental memory capsule, artificial capsule of a film. Everything in Horse Money is “filmic,” let’s say. In a way, it does not exist. It’s not in a hospital. It’s not in an elevator. But every time, now, that you ask, I wished I could do a film like that again, like Vanda’s Room. I think I can’t, because I’m a bit afraid. I just remembered my friend, Chantal Akerman, that you know, probably. I just remembered her because now I’m feeling exactly what sometimes she says. One of the films I prefer is called Je, tu, il, elle. Every time I tell her that’s an amazing film, she says, “Well, I will never be able to do anything like that again. It’s impossible. It’s too afraid.” Well, of course, time passed, people died, people are born, we’re old, etc., but I’m really afraid of getting myself into that mood again to do a film like that again. It’s a very, very hard, tough, rough experience. The results might be very interesting and beautiful for people to watch, but it was a very rough ride, let’s say, to make it. Fun, also, sometimes, and very beautiful as an experience in time. A lonely experience, let’s say, but very beautiful. I wish. Sometimes I dream of doing a film with Vitalina like that, alone, again, but I don’t think I can get myself into those kinds of… shoes. [Laughs]
Have you seen Akerman’s new film?
It kind of sounds like a companion piece to News from Home, which is exciting.
Probably. What she told me a long time ago — last time I saw her; last year, I think — her mother passed away this year. She was very close to her mother, as you know, and I think she was, for the last two years, close to her mother. She had to, because her sister lives in Mexico, and her mother needed hospital care, being weak or something. So she decided to start filming, but I don’t think she was filming her mother suffering or dying. I think — I think; I’m not sure — she started filming her… not nurse, but companion-nurse lady that was with her. I think she’s Hispanic or something. She told me she was very funny, and she deserved the film. Now I see it’s called No Home Movie, so I think it’s about that. I’m not sure.
There’s one last thing I have to ask you about — but it’s kind of odd. There’s this photo of you with someone who’s wearing a bad Bart Simpson costume. [Hands Costa photo]
[Squints, laughs, and puts hand over mouth]
This was posted on your Facebook page a few years ago and has always been an object of intense curiosity for me. Do you know where it was taken and / or the context?
[Nods] I think I remember. I think it was in Los Angeles. Who took it, I… I know who took it. I was with someone: a student from CalArts, and his name was Curtis. He was with me. I don’t know if he took the picture, but I remember it was the film festival… the L.A. Film Festival. L.A., yeah. Indoor, in the multiplex, where they do the festival, and probably The Simpsons film or something. I don’t know.
This was my Facebook profile picture for a few months, and there were instances where I’d add someone as a friend in front of them, they’d pull out their phone, and, not knowing who you were, ended up being very confused by it. I think I just needed some closure on that.
[Laughs] But that’s the truth, yeah.
Horse Money will enter a limited release on July 21.