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Gabe Klinger on Shooting Porto on Multiple Film Gauges, Approaching Sex Scenes and Manoel de Oliveira’s Influence

Lucie Lucas and Anton Yelchin in Porto

After taking home the Best Documentary prize from the Venice Film Festival for Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, critic-turned-director Gabe Klinger’s first scripted feature is the fractured, woozy love story, Porto. Set in the titular Portuguese city, it dramatizes in non-linear fashion the shared experiences of a rail-thin American nomad, Jake (Anton Yelchin, in a hypnotic parting performance), and a charming local woman, Mati (Lucie Lucas, making her feature starring debut). Porto debuted at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in late September and followed with showings at the Zurich Film Festival, where I was able to catch up with him to discuss the film’s eccentric formal decisions, vibrant (albeit tacit) dialogue with cinema history, and troubled perspective on the irrationality of love. The film plays this week at the BFI London Film Festival.

Filmmaker: You opened your introduction at Porto’s Zurich premiere by discussing image texture, so let’s start there. Porto is shot on three different celluloid gauges — 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm — yet your use of these formats is distinct from the current analog trends in American microbudget cinema. You’re doing something more classically painterly. There’s a shot of your two leads having sex that reminded me of a Caravaggio nude.

Klinger: I was thinking about painting, for sure. Caravaggio is a master of light from that period, but I was also thinking about other painters like Bacon. Bodies, dissected in space and time. I think cinema is very figurative. That’s the nature of it and the beauty of it. It just captures things in a very direct way. And then you can go into a very painterly dimension that betrays the inherent quality of cinema, which is to be more figurative. Stan Brakhage is one of my masters. Brakhage achieves a kind of impressionism through editing, not through the image itself. Those sex scenes in the film were always conceived as [using] very low light. We went about 2 stops below what you’d normally expose it at. That gave it the candlelit texture that we needed.

Filmmaker: Which also amplifies the grain structure.

Klinger: Exactly. And then you’re pushing it back up when you’re developing the negative. What Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon, which is always a reference for low light…he was achieving that through lenses. We achieved that through crafty on-set lighting and crafty lab work and finally in the DI process, returning it to something a little more natural and less distractingly grainy.

Filmmaker: The film also uses its formats toward structural ends. The 35mm widescreen photography captures an idyllic moment in the past while the smaller, more compressed formats indicate the frustration of the present. Did your decision to use celluloid have more to do with structure or with texture?

Klinger: At the beginning, definitely the structural components. Conceptualizing the film, it was very important to have the different gauges. As we were making the film, of course, texturally, compositionally, it also became very important. You start to give each frame a certain look and dimension, but it’s very hard to think of those things on a conceptual level. You’re not faced with the location, and you’re not faced with the light or with the actors.

Filmmaker: Your leading actress, Lucie Lucas, looks like a brunette Brigitte Bardot, which only dawned on me after I detected certain parallels between the scenes in her character’s flat and similar scenes in Godard’s Contempt. There’s even a jarring 180-cut in ‘scope, with both characters neatly arranged on either same of the frame.

Klinger: Well, Contempt is one of those films that’s at the center of all discussions of postwar movies. Same thing with Vertigo. The movie has a lot to do with Vertigo but what movie doesn’t have to do with Vertigo nowadays?

Maybe I have to look at Contempt again. Every scene in Contempt has a very memorable design to it. I don’t think that’s true of my film. I think there are scenes that are more discreet. Godard was such a showman — a technical, formal, conceptual showman. When I think of Contempt, I think of the camera moving a lot on a dolly. I couldn’t compare it [to Porto] because that movie’s fucking brilliant.

Filmmaker: Lucas’s character self-identifies as crazy, and I’m curious to what extent you’re engaging, critically or otherwise, with the idea of the female as an unknowable other that’s prevalent in early Godard.

Klinger: I don’t think that’s Godard’s forte, actually. Lucie, on a personal level, was very struck by this character from the script and related to it a lot. We fought about some things but she really wanted to breathe life into this character. It wasn’t really a muse relationship; it was really a collaborative, hands-on kind of thing. Lucie’s not literate in those references so she didn’t approach it that way and I had to meet her halfway. It wasn’t a cinephile project for her. It was a very human project for her. I could never ask her to surrender her sensibilities to mine. I feel like that would be too selfish and at the end of the day make it a lesser film.  

Filmmaker: While we’re on the subject of acting — you use very lengthy close-ups of people sitting across from one another, which creates a space for your performers to try things, to be small and subtle. It’s a method you see in Double Play, too. Yelchin, for instance, has a very commanding presence despite keeping away from “tics.” He has a slumped, fatigued quality. It’s not your conventional “Hollywood” performance.

Klinger: You have to define which era of Hollywood. We talked a lot about ’20s Hollywood: people like Lon Chaney Sr., Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks. Those were the main references, just in terms of the way they physically move through scenes. Chaney and Valentino were especially significant to Anton.

Filmmaker: All more expressionistic actors.

Klinger: But Anton is very expressionistic, I think. Of course there’s a contemporary side to him, too. I just think if we went in the full expressionistic mode, it would overpower Lucie’s performance, so it was about finding the right balance there. But I think those ’20s actors are there in his physical mannerisms, while the way he speaks, and his face…that was more related to Travis Bickle and early De Niro. Taxi Driver was Anton’s favorite movie, so that physicality is interesting: very muscular, lean, almost sickly.

Filmmaker: I saw Jean-Pierre Leaud in that, too.

Klinger: Definitely. Sorta pencil-thin, wiry, you really could flick this guy on the shoulder and he falls over. But at the same time, you don’t wanna fuck with this guy. With Leaud’s performance in The Mother and the Whore, there was a moment in my life when I identified with that character and other times when I found him absolutely repulsive. I think there are elements of Anton’s character in that. I wanted the audience’s relationship with him to keep expanding. If you don’t like him, you might tune out a bit, but by the end of the movie hopefully he’s endearing again and you’re relating to him as a fellow human.

Filmmaker: The ordering of the film’s narrative felt strikingly counterintuitive to me. You begin with fragmentation, with disappointment, and only later replay the blissful events in their entirety, without ever returning to that initial sorrow. Speaking from experience, that doesn’t seem like the way the brain typically recalls failed romances.

Klinger: When I’ve been in romantic relationships and they’ve run their course, I think there’s still a little bit that you can salvage from whatever’s left. You always ask the person, “don’t you remember the good moments?” But more often than not, the bad things cloud those things. And it works the other way around, too. The irrational side of us always wants things to stay as they are, but if you’re not in love anymore, you can take the rational posture, which is also kind of irrational, because love isn’t a coherent thing. So the person who wants to stay in the relationship becomes the crazy person and the person who wants to leave the relationship because it’s “for the best” becomes the rational one, but actually you’re both irrational. There’s no clear-headed way to summarize what happened to you.

Filmmaker: Your dialogue, which openly embraces hyperbole and cliché in the way it treats initial stirrings of affection, seems to reflect that.

Klinger: When you meet someone and you’re crazy about someone in a night, you’re trying to express a lot of things and those things might come out in a certain way. You haven’t taken a lot of time to think about them. You’re declaring yourself. Anton’s really declaring himself to Lucie. I understand the sincerity even though I don’t understand very precisely what these words mean together. So it’s really more about intention than getting down to specific phrasing. It can be kind of banal sometimes. If you look at the Before trilogy, what they’re really savvy about is the idea of trying to be your best, most sensitive self, and if you’re an American guy with a European girl trained in philosophy, you want to bring whatever you learned from the philosophy classes you slept through in college.

Filmmaker: Manoel de Oliveira gets a thanks in the credits. Was he involved in any way, or was this more of a spiritual debt?

Klinger: He was not directly involved in any way. He was alive when we were shooting though. My producer in Portugal worked with Oliveira on Centro Historico. Oliveira is the dean of the film scene in Porto if there is any film scene in Porto. Nobody has filmed Porto as…I don’t want to say beautifully because I don’t want to reduce Oliveira to a postcard. He really gets the heart of the city, what it’s about. It’s really the industrial center of Portugal. It really pisses me off that people talk about Porto as a tourist destination. For six centuries before that, it was an industrial city, a working city, so to reduce it to that is an insult to Porto. Oliveira really gets the vibrancy of it. Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931, Oliveira’s first film) was the visual map we started with. My DP (Wyatt Garfield, Mediterranea) and I would study shots from that film just to make sure we were getting it right. I hope people in Portugal respond positively to it.

Filmmaker: There are a few lengthy, intimate sex scenes in the film shot with minimal cutting. As a first-time narrative filmmaker, what was it like staging this?

Macaulay: That’s the kind of thing where you don’t know what the best approach will be until you get there. So we scheduled two nights to shoot the sex scenes, because I knew one of those nights could flop. It’s so experimental, you have two naked people in the middle of a room with a bunch of technicians around them. It’s such an unnatural thing. My first approach was to be really dictatorial about it, to walk on set like a big-shot director and say, “Alright, take off your robes, get comfortable!” I was just barking orders at them. I just thought it would make them more comfortable because it would make sex feel like just a job. But Lucie came up to me after and said; “You were really kind of an asshole that day.” So the next day I did everything I could to make them feel comfortable. Those are the kinds of scenes where actors know that they have to give it everything because anything less than that is a failed scene. They’re naked so no lav mics, only one audio track, and you’re not going to post-dub that because it’s just going to sound like a porno.

Filmmaker: A Porto, you mean.

Klinger: [Laughs]. In those moments, the most important people on the set are the focus puller, the boom operator, and the DP/camera operator. And then I’m the most fucking useless guy on the set, the guy who’s just looking at them making them feel uncomfortable. I probably could have walked off set and Anton and Lucie would have been fine.  

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