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A Castle Made of Shifting Sand - An Interview with Pedro Costa

 | Interview |

  BY Graeme Arnfield

Dark corridors, ambiguous hallways and crumbling half-lit municipal buildings, these are the landscapes of Pedro Costas’s new film “Horse Money”. Gone are the newly built tenements that made up the reality of his protagonist and frequent collaborator Ventura in his last movie “Colossal Youth”. Now Ventura shuffles and shakes his way through dusty remains. He is a ghost with a very physical existence, dragging his tired body through the ruins of his and Portugal’s recent past. “Horse Money” is a hushed and wholehearted document of the micro and the macro, the personal and the political; what it is to be ignored yet integral to the issues discussed. Ventura stands as the ignored immigrant of the Carnation Revolution that rolled through Portugal in ‘74. It is undoubtedly a film by Pedro Costa. The same sensitivity to people and the spaces they continually traverse cascades through “Horse Money” as in all of his previous work. It is a startling and bracing piece of contemporary cinema.

This interview was conducted at the 2015 edition of Courtisane Festival in Ghent where Pedro’s work was in retrospective.

Could you talk about the genesis of your collaboration with Ventura? How many films has this collaboration resulted in?
…(There was) the last feature, Colossal Youth, Horse Money now; two or three shorts in between. But I have known him since In Vanda’s Room. When I was making that film, I was alone mostly, and would go to the location you see in the film for eight to ten hours of work every day. I noticed this guy, standing in the corner and he looked like a… we are talking about a time when it was a very dangerous place. They had a lot of guards in the ghetto: for drugs, for kids who could peddle drugs and that sort of thing – I thought Ventura was one of them, but he looked older and stranger. I kept seeing him every day, and every day, he would walk up to me, mutter a, ‘Hi!’ or a ‘Bye, see you tomorrow!’. And then he would ask me how it’s going. He started a conversation and asked me if I am working on a film. Naturally, I said yes. He wished me good luck. Suddenly I felt to myself, ‘This is the perfect assistant. This is the assistant I don’t have and I don’t need.’

At what point did you begin thinking of making a film with him?
I think it comes from this curiosity he had - standing at a distance, looking at me make the film. I was a bit frightened of him, but he was also reassuring. So one day - purely by instinct - I asked him to come and join me for a film and he agreed. He was one of the first guys to come, one of the first guys to build a house in this place, one of the pioneers. One of the first victims, one of the first working accidents: he fell from a scaffold – so he would display this slightly strange behaviour; sometimes he would sing, sometimes other things. And then after Vanda’s Room, because that film was centered around young people, people closer to my age; with the problematics of drugs, solitude, the room. I thought I should broaden my scope, talk about the origin of this place. Then I remember, I asked a friend, ‘why not Ventura?’ He replied, ‘what?’ then “I think you are right”. It was a very frightful single moment, but followed by one of absolute certainty. I went to Ventura and told him about the next film I was about to make. I asked him whether he would like to participate with a bit of money involved and he agreed.

Did he confess to you any desire to act before this?
No, no, none at all. Except the desire common to all young kids: they want to play with guns and police and all, or some girls that want to create their own fantasy – no one has any relation to film or theatre, especially the older generation.

Did you see the change in him when you reunited with him at a much later stage? Has he changed much in terms of his response to the camera, in terms of how he responds to being filmed?
Not to the camera. I mean, that’s my job. But he has changed, definitely. I think he is venturing much deeper into things now. The film (Horse Money) itself is also a proposal towards delving deeper into the mind. It might seem strange but in my view it was a leap into something deeper, into remembrance, almost oblivion. Oblivious remembrance, a very contradictory thing. It was about going further into some dark areas. Trying to forget something through remembrance.

I didn’t really have a very clear or precise, complete picture of what the film is going to be. Actually, I had this idea, which was Gil Scot-Heron, an idea born out of sound, music and visuals. When I met him there was something of Ventura in him, in his posture, the way he moves. He is very cool: his hands, his height, his built. I thought of a musical, an abstract idea. After he died all I had were small, scattered ideas: one of which materialized into the scene in the elevator - a very vague idea about the revolution, the day of the revolution - like in plays by Brecht.

I had scattered images of a station, a meeting of workers on the street. It would have been like a Jacques Demy film; dialogue and songs. We actually began shooting without a definite sequential plan in mind.  I had not figured out a definite continuation of the elevator – instead, I only wanted get to the end of the elevator sequence. It could be very long, it could be the entire film. But I got a little bit afraid. It had all the aspects of a researched whole, which would have to be composed and written. The film seems to have encouraged a mood for research – not as director, soundman, actor. We were experimenting everyday, trying and seeing if a particular direction was working or not; all together.

Is your collaboration with Ventura very much of that nature? He tells you stories, you respond and then share notes on these abstractions?
Yes.  Usually, we need time. Time is essential for writing, for the maturation of a project. Most of the things he told me were from years ago. Then I ask him to repeat or recall a particular incident, and he does. Sometimes, he doesn’t remember it at all; other times, he adds new details.  He could be making it up, it could be an exaggeration. He is aware that his memory could end up in the film, so it’s okay, I don’t care about that sort of a thing. If it works, it works. When we get to the actual shooting or the work, there must be ground, there is something solid.

… a written script?
Not written. Let’s say, a definite idea. Inside us. Ready to come out in words, or emotion, between us, ready to come. But the elevator, yes, we had it more or less written.

The sequence was a mirror of a similar sequence in Centro Historico (2012).
We edited it a little bit but it was more or less the same.


I watched the film with you in London and when I saw the image of the elevator in Horse Money, I had instant nostalgia for it – but details had changed, the position of the people was different. It was like a false memory. Does the notion of a false memory fit in with one of your aims with this film?
Yes. I don’t know, I may not be thinking of it actively. But it’s there. The idea of a moving, abstract landscape - like shifting sand. As stupid as this sounds, it is really driven by the visual. We’re getting to a point where, economically, money-wise, budget-wise, we cannot do certain things. We can no longer pay for locations. A lot of the bureaucracy around the shooting of a film is very boring and tedious. So we will always have an idea of telling, of staging the story very minimally – an office, or a hospital, or a construction site – and these may be the actual details of a future project, the next film, which will be even sparser, more abstract. It will just about the words, maybe. It’s a bit scary because I think it’s we have reached a very difficult space, for the actors and for me. The elevator was very exhausting for Ventura and you can see it because every day it was the same space, the same cage. It’s not for everyone to be in the cage. I’m a bit afraid of what is to come but I think it will be words. Like someone said (at the festival), ‘the power of words replacing or reframing the visual’. It is very fascinating. Actually, that’s what interests me a lot in the films I really like: Godard, Straub-Huillet, Fritz Lang, it’s the guys talking in offices, under trees, in the streets. The power of words and memory. This falsification of memory through words.


Speaking of Straub-Huillet, I wanted to understand the difference inherent in collaborating with someone like them on a film (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?) versus collaborating with an actor like Ventura. They are highly aware of the power of cinema and the camera…
Well, strangely enough, they all look like. Every filmmaker is a little bit like that – they choose a family that is similar: physiognomically, spiritually, politically. Vanda was exactly like Danièle – the same face, the same character. They had a huge attraction; Danièle liked Vanda immensely and vice versa. And there is a quality Jean-Marie shares with Ventura. Jean-Marie has this profound – I don’t know the English word – laziness. It’s like Jimmy Stewart, you know, you can lie down and think about things, look at things. They really are not working boys, they are dreamy souls. But the work was also very complex, very difficult to set, with the same limitations as now.  There is a very narrow margin of operation for the camera, the light, the duration of things.

Anyway, the documentary aspect was much more explicit in various other films I made. Of course, you can say, ‘after one week, you know your actors, you should know your space, so you merely react’, but my direction has always been very minimal. A word or two to Danièle, almost nothing to Jean-Marie and mostly things related to light or the frame. Then at the end of the shooting, when they got to the final cut, of the final shot of Sicilia! the work was over, I asked them to stay for three days to do certain things that I thought I needed. Things that may not be in the final film: Danièle reading a text and Jean-Marie reading some material. There is a version of this film for television, where a little bit of the mise-en-scene I staged for them is different. What happened with this film is not actually depiction or narrative or fiction. When I was editing it in the edit room, the whole thing was turned around. All the Straubian lessons: one soundtrack, one image track, just plain and simple reality – were completely subverted in my film, everything was manipulated. I designed and organised the story.

I think I know how they are in life. It’s like that thing in Godard’s Le Mepris – I tried to my adapt my desire. I wanted my idea of Straub and Huillet to be exactly in the film. The film gave me an opportunity to materialize my image of them. I made Jean-Marie say something about Tati. Danièle shouts at him and she was absolutely silent. My job was to organise this ménage, the disputes between a married couple. Those were there too, but in a rare bad moment. But those are not interesting. It would be just like life, which isn’t very interesting.

Was it a collaboration with them? Did they ever kick back against your image of them as filmmakers?
No, they let me completely… I had a good introduction to them because they liked In Vanda’s Room a lot. And also, it was one of the first feature films shot with a small camera. It was quite recent at that point in time. They were curious and intrigued. Danièle had - I don’t know if you know - since the very beginning, had a strong interest in mythology. She always dreamed of doing films in Africa – about the old myths, about the Levi-Strauss conception of myth. She had a project about a Lynx, a beautiful project, actually. I think she saw something of that in Vanda – a mythological, a beyond sociological film, and the fact of me shooting alone would have been very fascinating to her. So they saw that and at the same time, Jacques Rivette, who I knew a little bit and he liked my films, and Rivette for them is God. He must have told them that the young guy is good, so they must have thought I am okay. In every interview I would give, I talked of them, so there was a little bit of trust. And then, it was exactly the process they describe in the film. Every day was more than an artistic conquest; it was a human thing. Of course, I was trying to do the best I could with sound and image, with my small camera, but the thing was, they should also be very interesting, bigger than life and funny.

The film ultimately did have not an obligation, but instead, a need to be about them, to really show who they are to people who don’t know them. And their popular image, the mythology around them was what I wished to elide. Them, as even their friends didn’t know them, because their reputation – built entirely through bad publicity – veers towards Marxist-Leninist, minimal, awful, angry animals. And I wanted them to be the punks they were but also the loving, funny couple that they are. Obviously, there was also the experience of the film being set in an editing room. That, I thought, could be a good idea, because I don’t know any other film set inside an editing room, which is a very strange and singular space. It’s a very original work, Histoire(s) du cinéma by Godard has something to do with this, the same quest to see what’s between two shots and how can you get there, the small difference, the frame, the explosion. There is there is allot of Hollywood in that film too, comedies in apartments different sorts of monkey business.

You spoke about the space and the editing room being interesting – was that something that interested you in Horse Money? The spaces: the hospital, the prison, the gothic castle…
It is almost natural. The fiction I was creating demanded these spaces. The things Ventura was suggested asked for these spaces. These are natural to this social class: the lower class, the immigrants. Those lives are spent between the hospital and the prison, the police, the bureaucracy. Neutral, but very oppressive. A guy from a magazine whose name I don’t remember told me, ‘If you are not on the inside, you don’t know if you are on Venus, or a strange planet.’ The other spaces are forests and strange bits and pieces of the urban ruin. I am thinking of the nightmare set in the woods, or even the sequence in the neighbourhood with the song. That’s something that is clearly in the past for me. It is really a flashback, a space that no one exists: artificial, like a studio.

The film starts with these images from Jacob Riis. How did those enter the project? They seem tied in but also dislocated; were they part of the initial idea?
No, you said it. You did it in stereo: question and the answer. It was absolutely that. I have great admiration for him, he’s is one of the few photographers who is not merely a photographer. He is from a time when photographers were a bit more than just great artists – they worked with assistants and friends. He spent a long time in those places. He would write, then go back, record, and then go back and write again. He was obsessed with those places, their problems. It’s very, very interior. It’s something that I immediately felt when I saw it a long time ago: there are alleys, rooms, movies. I have had long standing this desire to do a documentary on Riis, but I wouldn’t want to, wouldn’t like to…

…you felt like it wasn’t your story to tell?
It’s exactly like you said. I thought I knew about it. I wanted the film to start with Ventura being arrested; I didn’t know if he would be arrested in the street. Then I thought of a shot of him just going down into a dungeon and then I thought that it really should be like a dungeon in a castle. So, a little bit before we could have these early 20th century pictures for purposes of research, I thought of Riis, because there is a lot of that space – it sets you in a kind of mood.

The tank is such an amazing appearance. Is it something from Ventura’s stories?
It’s like the soldier in the elevator. When Ventura talks about those moments that exist somewhere in the back of his mind, it’s not exactly a tank, or a soldier. They are much more childish perhaps. I don’t think they are complete sketches in his mind. When he talked about that, he said, ‘Yes, could be! More or less, more or less!’ When we arrived at the elevator, he was supposed to be chased by a guy. I asked him if it was a soldier, or what is it? Is it a guy from the middle-ages? But he refused to commit. ‘No, no! He had scissors, a full helmet.’ So then when we showed him a street-artist, he said, ‘Close! But not this.’ So it may have been something that resembled a creature from the Transformers. That’s why I think the Americans are still very powerful because they still have the money and the desire and the stupidity to create pervasive images like that, because probably, when Ventura is thinking of the Revolution, he imagines it to be like Transformers or Planet of the Apes: We had one tank, he is imagining an army of ten thousand, but anyways, that’s why the tank and the soldier. It helps placing the film where it is actually playing; that moment in his life, my life, the country’s life: 1974-75. I remember the soldiers, not the tanks. Not many tanks. Jacques Tourneur or was it, Ulmer? He had one tank, William Wyler had four hundred. We just had one.

 Where did you get this tank from?
The army, of course. Actually, they are these crazy guys who do own tanks privately as well – we called them, but to be honest, they are really strange, they made strange demands, and so we decided not to go with them. We decided then to call the army and surprisingly, they said that if you close really close to our base, our headquarters, you can have the tank for one hour, not more. We said okay – so the street in the film is right next to their compound and we shot exactly for one hour. The tank just entered and I think Ventura was really surprised and scared when he saw the scale of what we were doing…

…was he surprised that you actually found a tank?
Yeah, I think. But we told him, ‘Ventura, now we are trying for a tank’, and he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then I told him, ‘We will have a tank Thursday night and you will be there.’ Not only will you be there, but you will also be naked – because you see, it is part-fiction, part-reality. He told me, during the events of ’74 or ’75, he had this nightmare with birds flying over his shack and so, he ran out of the shack in his underpants and then got lost in the city. He got arrested by the militia. So this is actually a mix: we have the tank, the underpants, the militia – probably cinematic, but it works. It is very surprising, even for us. The tank was weird for us too.

Can you still have disbelief in your own films – can you disengage with them? For instance, when you see them in a festival like this, do you acquire a distant, out-of-body perspective? Is it strange to have to rewatch your own films in festivals…
I don’t actually see them so much in festivals. It goes from zero minute to the last minute, so I have to go from pre-production to the writing to the production to the editing to the preparation of the DCPs – the DCPs are not a simple matter either, you have to really be careful, also because I don’t have people. Well, I have people, but sometimes they can’t. I have to check the subtitles – this digital world now needs [extra caution]… with 35mm, you could rely on the format, really. I just went down now and checked a 35mm print of Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001); it starts and immediately you know it is all fine. It may shake and stretch and break but you know nothing bad will come out of it. With digital, you know it can always stop, or there can be damage, so I have to watch different scenes – I try to always watch the same scene to check everything because… but no, it is a very special film – I still watch it. I was exhausted during the shooting – but they are my heroes, and I was interested in being endlessly surprised and amazed. And therefore I made the film with them. When they weren’t fascinating, I used the scissors of course.

There is a question I always wanted to ask – this relates to intertextuality, but I am interested in learning if Ventura or Vanda have seen these films? What do they make of them?
Actually this process starts during the shoot itself – I haven’t ever shot on film with them, I have only ever shot on video. So it’s very visible, it is a very small screen, but it is visible. So on In Vanda’s Room, I always said the same thing: almost, almost every shot in which Vanda leaves the shot or enters – she is probably sitting with me and watching the screen. I always remember the moment when her sister is playing. She calls out to her mother and I turn back to see Vanda standing over my shoulder saying, ‘This is no good.’ And I told her to enter the scene. Actually, she was right, she was much more precise. We did a lot of takes. She was supposed to talk a lot in the film and I would urge her to start, but she would always ask me to first let her think of something. And every take that she did, she delayed and delayed the entrance – so, not only was she looking at the frame, she was also directing her own performance, which happened a lot.

In Horse Money, Ventura is of course, all alone, so he had no time to watch the screen. But I showed him a few scenes because you really don’t know – the thing with actors is that they have this gratitude, so they will never ask you if their hands are visible, so I wanted to tell him that I can see your hands, or your knees. So that’s during the shooting. With some of them, it has become really professional, of course. Vanda was quite aware of a lot of things. She knew what was bad for her to stay and when she should stop talking – I think you can see it in the film. Ventura saw it when he was in Cannes. He was very detached. I think he would have liked to act in another film, in a normal production, but I am not sure if he can because he needs a lot of time. This is why I changed my process because Ventura or Vanda make me lose time – in a good way. I need it, I need it. I am not spending a producer’s money and it is not hurting anyone, so this time that I am losing is absolutely vital and necessary for me, for him and the film, for memory too, because each take is a step into perhaps, imagination or fakery. The closest we get to factual truth, the further we move into boredom. That is also the point of origin of this film. I asked Ventura, ‘24th of April, 1974, where were you?’ And he said, ‘I think I was walking down this street…’ – and then you can see yourself in a shirt, in specific clothes, inside a certain weather setting – and you are suddenly in another world, not this one anymore. The film too organises itself like this: he wears his clothes and goes off into another world.

Do you think each successive film you make is perhaps, in some manner, a response, or a reaction to the one that preceded it?
They are all involved, they are connected – they have to be. I am not certain I would call it a ‘reaction’ – I think and perhaps I am wrong, and I don’t want to talk a lot about it at the moment, but I know that the next film will be about Vitalina, the woman. I have more than a feeling that it will be something about her, around her. She is not like an actress I could have hired at an agency – she came because she had to. It is very – I think it is my Tourneur side. Like he said, ‘I don’t believe in witches, but they are here.’

Do you see a distinction between your shorter films and longer, feature films?
I would love everybody to think about that more seriously – even documentary film. Everybody these days likes to think that there is no distinction, there is no documentary, there is no fiction – but for short films, it is still not the case. And because there is Godard, there is Straub – they made shorts that are more powerful than features. One of the shorts that we made, Ventura prefers it. Something called, Our Man – a longer version of one called Tarrafal – I know why he likes it, because he just relaxes, listens while others talk. It is very concentrated, it is really what it should be. Even with Horse Money, one may feel that it is sometimes, in some places, too long…

… that it is right the moment you finish editing it – but two weeks later…
It is really something I haven’t been thinking about too much. But this isn’t Hollywood – this has nothing to do with industry, or commerce, or even the intellectual capacity you may have when you sit down in a theatre to watch a film. I really think that that tense one hour in a theatre – that really is enough. Other than that, you are going for the sky, the sea, you are extending time. I think Godard is quite right when he says, ‘One hour and a half is too much to say something.’ You say it in half an hour. But at the same time I understand Rivette when he says he takes four hours to say, ‘I love you.’ I understand that. Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks could say it one hour – I need four – because the world is more complex now.

Do you therefore see yourself moving towards shorter work in the future…
Yes, yes. Yes, because everything annoys me – the vanity of the whole process of making a feature – it’s the Church; let’s dress up like the priests. It’s waiting, there is waiting, like the monster is about to arrive and you are waiting…

And the moment before its arrival is painful…
It is frightening. It is not desire, or longing, it is just waiting. There is a filmmaker, well, who I am not a big fan of, I don’t love his films but I admire a lot of the similar experience he had while making films – it is Rossellini. He went really quickly from ‘I love you’, to killing himself, to very strange, abstract ideas with volcanoes, then India, then Socrates, and suddenly, TV. I mean he really had no patience for film. Truffaut said something very interesting, something frightening, ‘Rossellini didn’t have what it takes to make films.’ You need a kind of stupidity, a naiveté, to keep on believing in this. Of course you have to succeed, you have to keep getting paid, the films should work, and I am not in that world, and I really feel that it is not that you have the same desire, the same appetite for the world of ideas. In his case, there was history, there was science, he was a teacher, a philosopher – I am not in that school, but I don’t feel the same kind of things. When I see Voyage to Italy, there is a car scene, there is love scene – I don’t have time for it. Let’s do a film if you want to do a film. I would love to still to still have the desire to shoot a flower, like Godard.

Did you see the newest Godard?
Yes. I really don’t know what to make of it. It’s a bit too much, in every sense. You cannot say that about Straub.

When I saw Colossal Youth in the cinema, I was really overwhelmed by the pixels on the screen – I saw them trembling. There were dancing images. And I saw Horse Money now and one finds Ventura tremble in a similar manner. Is this gesture important to you?
You are smart. I won’t answer your question because you are too smart. No, see, it has evolved too much. Ventura trembles – not because he has Parkinson’s or Atkinson’s.  His left hand trembles because of the side-effects of the various pills he takes for his Schizophrenia – atleast that’s what the psychiatrists say. But there are days, and weeks and months where he is stable. He can do the things he does in the film without trembling. One never knows, the crew never knows. The guy who is his friend asked him, ‘Ventura, what are you going to do?’ And he said, ‘We’ll see, we’ll see.’ And there is always the suspense since it could work either way. He is going to give Ventura the suit and if he doesn’t shake, it will be one thing, but if he shakes and drops the suit, it will be another – I think both will be good. That’s something Vanda explained to me when we were shooting Ossos. She said, ‘Do you realise that you are directing something that could be completely the opposite?’ I said, ‘No. This is what I want.’ And she said, ‘But if I did this, it would be better.’ That can shake your foundation, if an actor says that. It is more obvious in In Vanda’s Room because in it, it is the walls that tremble. When she is angry, it is the walls that tremble. I feel that with Ozu’s films. There aren’t pixels, but there is something in the air. There is movement. I think the static shot idea is really bullshit with his films – he doesn’t stop still.

In recent years, there has been a movement of individuals wanting to return to film – there is a desire to work backwards, retroactively, to go back to the format. Do you share this desire?
Not at all. I cannot. In my method, in my system, in my economy, I cannot go back to film. And no, I am now really used to this sort of powerful, my own industry, my own studio.

Thank you for the interview. I’ve been a fan of your work for very long, so it’s a privilege. I look forward to watching Horse Money again at the screening today…
We will see. We may go in and there may be nothing but Riis’ images.

Is that a digital anxiety?
No, nothing to do with the digital, really. It’s a worry I’ve always had. I don’t worry about the actors messing up their lines or the film not working at the box office, but that one day we may walk into the theatre and see that the film has faded away.