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Economy of the Arcane: Pedro Costa on Vitalina Varela

Ventura in Vitalina Varela (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Pedro Costa will not separate films from how they are made. We cannot escape that “how” from what we are seeing on screen, so we must make films the hard way. It is not enough for us to get them made: We must know our technicians closely, see that they are compensated fairly, ensure that our project is optimized for our tools and that those tools only operate at their zenith. Ease, Costa warns, is the sure sign of a “trap,” that, if succumbed to, will expose one’s work to “bullshit,” a word he does not use lightly. If we slack in our labor, that sloth contaminates the groundwater, and the film does not recover. So, we work harder. 

But Costa’s films are not only the gestalt of elements under his control. They are also the consequence of an “economy” of work conditions imposed upon him by demagogic industry heads and the serious limitations of the digital format, which he feels so many filmmakers ignore. But these restraints, which he describes with equal parts assurance and resentment, also siphon him into the working climate he fought so long to attain. The impotence of accessible digital has forced him away from the skies and water they fail to render correctly, toward a widow’s reality of a Lisbon that has nothing left to offer her. 

The namesake of Costa’s latest, Vitalina Varela, first ambled into his version of Fontainhas in Horse Money, a new guest star opposite Costa’s old muse Ventura. Certainly, the Ventura collaborations (Colossal Youth, the short films The Rabbit Hunters and Sweet Exorcist) chronicled the plight of Fontainhas’s displaced Cabo Verdeans, but they were set in bright rooms and woods, with conversations in good company—sometimes over music, sometimes even song, often in repeated framings and reappropriated (or, depending on your lean, recycled) footage. 

But where Ventura’s Fontainhas dwellers found respite in remembering their old homes, Vitalina can only feel embarrassment. She spent her life in Cape Verde waiting for her errant husband to return from his escape to Lisbon. When she finally goes to face him, Vitalina learns she is too late: He has died. She spends the rest of the film tucked into his deathly hovel, confirming the reality she knew and repressed. There is no music, no song and hardly any light between blackness to break up the heft. Ventura, now the guest in Vitalina’s Fontainhas, trembles harder than ever and can barely lift himself off the ground. Difficulty is both the dominant quality of Vitalina’s experience and the strain on form Costa has always strived to justify.

Discussing Vitalina Varela in an empty Elinor Bunin Munroe Amphitheater during the New York Film Festival, Pedro Costa said “No” to me a lot. The film opens February 21 from Grasshopper Film.

Filmmaker: Digital’s usually described as perfect and precise, but the capture is inherently flawed, prone to infrared pollution, color bias, unusable noise, etc.—issues that simply do not exist on film. In the Q&A, you said it limited what you could do on Vitalina Varela. So, in many ways, its shortcomings shaped the film.

Costa: No, because I did the opposite of some young filmmakers. I switched from 35 to digital on purpose, by choice, not because I was forced to. I could have continued doing 35mm for the rest of my life. I could have stayed with[in] a certain sort of economy that was troubling. At least in my country—and I can’t see myself doing films anywhere else—things were, at that moment, very, very conventional, in the sense that you could only do a feature in a certain way: 35mm with a certain crew, a certain organization, a certain hierarchy and everything that goes with that. That side of my film life was troubling me, so I decided to abandon a lot of things and bought my first MiniDV camera in the 1990s. Now digital, as everybody knows, has been growing, developing, more and more progress like everything else, destroying everything that could be nice. All the lies and propaganda, the possibilities of digital, turned out to be completely false. You can do a small film on digital but never show it, unless you have friends, some connections or upload it somewhere on the net. But [with] cinemas and theaters, it’s difficult. Digital now is big, heavy [and] expensive, and it will become more expensive and not that accessible. 

And it’s not that good. The rendering is not the best. I’m not saying this because all the DPs and technicians in the world say it. Of course, it gave me a certain freedom to change, in some ways, my discipline, my time, my schedule. But at the same time I was forced to find a certain [way to] work with light in the beginning, because I didn’t have definition. The image was very poor, very pixelated, so I had to black out parts that couldn’t be read correctly, that had no information. So, I had light only for certain parts because I couldn’t light the whole shot. [Up] until today, I’m shooting interiors, walls. I’m not shooting landscapes, or [if I do it’s] very, very rarely—sky or water, things like that, I can manage them, but still it’s a lot of work. You have to find and work [with] the light that’s suitable for this kind of image. 

Filmmaker: In an ideal world, you’re shooting on infinite stocks of 35mm?

Costa: In an ideal world, we’d all go out to any cinema and they’d be playing Charlie Chaplin.

Filmmaker: Digital’s main appeal to you is its economy?

Costa: No. The system runs faster than anything else. It grabs you before you get there. Even small young guys, small productions, small filmmakers, short films—I keep seeing everywhere, credits [for] 20 minute films that are longer than mine. That puzzles and disturbs me because I feel that if you cannot change or cheat, just a little bit, this system, that people have little chance of doing good work today. It’s more and more difficult, I think, to make a film, to get there. It’s difficult for a young guy to have a clear mind in the middle of this chaos. People are dissolved, dispersed, more and more, and cinema is the contrary of dispersion—it’s concentration, getting to the bottom of things, going to the bone. All of the big machines, big corporations, that make the cameras, lights, everything, brought us back to where we were before digital. Things are bigger, more expensive, and worst of all [are] the wages of technicians—we’re not even going to talk about actors or stars. It’s absurd, scandalous. There’s no relation whatsoever to any economic reality.

Filmmaker: You said a sparse crew with zero bullshit is essential to making a film without bullshit.

Costa: When I say bullshit, I’m not joking because I’m referring to not making mistakes. I think you need to waste time if you’re doing a film, or writing a poem, or composing a piece of music. Of course you need to waste time. The only form of, let’s say “art” for the first and last time, is this cinema thing that is not allowed to waste one second. No one is allowed to waste one second of this precious time and money. If I’m working with Vitalina or Ventura to find a solution to a problem. I have to waste time. So, that’s the bullshit. 

Filmmaker: I don’t know how to word what I want to ask. Vitalina Varela is a difficult film—

Costa: I don’t think so, but go on. You’re helping a lot.

Filmmaker: Not just difficult.

Costa: You’re on my side, I see. You know, films used to be difficult. I mean, take Trouble in Paradise—what a lovely title. Try showing that to 13- or 14-year-old kids that are used to Game Boys and a certain kind of musical violence. They will not understand anything. It’s difficult with children. 

Filmmaker: Is difficulty an indicator of something immune to bullshit?

Costa: No, it means that when Mr. Lubitsch worked he worked deeply, profoundly on feelings and emotions, and he knew how to use his camera and his sound to organize this multitude of feelings, and the way they are projected and come to you in a way that avoids most traps and bullshit. He worked very hard, I think harder than we’re working today. That’s what I miss, I think—the work. If something doesn’t work for me in a film, something’s not there. The film doesn’t keep its promise, let’s say, or stumbles and falls because the director didn’t work, or the editor, the DP and the sound guy didn’t work because they work for the minimum on too many films. Professionals jump from plane to plane from Lisbon to New York. In a year, they do dozens of films. That’s why.

Filmmaker: And the crew you work with works differently?

Costa: No, [it’s] because they are younger. Some are fresh out of school. I tell them they’re going to start in a very difficult way that’s a little different from what they taught in school. And then there are two or three people I’ve been working with for a long, long time that choose their projects well, don’t do everything for the sake of just doing it. They have other jobs. My friend Leonardo [Simões, credited as DP], who works the light with me, is a teacher at film school. My producer [Abel Ribeiro Chaves] owns a little shop around the corner where he sells cameras and digital stuff. We are tight, we have to be. I won’t let go of my desire to make the film from beginning to end. It can last three years or three days, but it has to be very high up there, this faith that we’re going to see some light and shadow, see some things appear because of our work. 

Filmmaker: At this proximity to your light and camera, your technical knowledge must be tip top.

Costa: No, because we’re changing cameras for each film because they’re forcing us. Sometimes, some years ago, they wouldn’t let us show our film unless it was HD or more. We were still shooting on MiniDV, which is standard definition and not high definition. We were shooting in [the 1.33] frame, which now a lot of people shoot in because it’s fashionable or, I don’t know, because they like some very bad films, cult stupid films. I’ve always done that frame. Always. That’s something the small cameras do not have anymore. They want [everything] completely [in] the 16×9 format. You have to go higher, to the $50,000 cameras, to have that format. You can shoot on that format [with those cameras]. If not, you have to crop, to do digital interventions, if you want to shoot [1.33]. So, for a young guy who has a small camera and wants to shoot 1.33, it’s not there; they will not permit it. He will have to buy something else. So, this is Panasonic, Sony, etc. saying, “This is super-duper democracy,” but at the same time they’re completely directing you. 

So, we had to change, because our films are [made] every three, four or five years. During those intervals, those pauses, things evolve a lot. Since I made my last film, Horse Money—which we shot on HD, not on 4K or 2K—almost every camera around had become 2K or 4K, even the smallest. They changed completely. Standard definition doesn’t exist unless you want to do a retro thing, or something with VHS or Super 8. So now, [for] this volume of memory and definition—4K, 8K, etc., etc.—you need a lot of hard [drives] to stock your footage. That’s what they’re doing, of course: You have to buy. The cards for the cameras are super expensive, €500 per card. On my film, we started with three cards, which is not much. Any normal poor production has 30 cards. So, that’s the difference. Then the discs. We cannot stock everything, not the physical volume of discs or terabytes. It’s not just because we cannot afford the discs. Even the vocabulary is sinister. We cannot afford our memory. Inflation’s everywhere, and most filmmakers deal with it with no problem, guilt, scruples, nothing. They go through it like they’re just going to keep doing their films. There’s no discussion, there’s the contrary. I’ve always [said] that digital is much more difficult to work with. That’s something the technicians know and that the filmmakers seem to hide—not hide, but don’t know because they’re too naive or too into the art world. They get their tools with no idea of what that [assistant] gets [paid] a month or a week. I know. I have to know that. That’s part of the film, part of the structure of things.

Filmmaker: Are you not trapped within the tools that oppress you?

Costa: No, no. I’ve loved all of the cameras I’ve worked with. I know much more about my equipment than probably any filmmaker around except maybe five guys. This is true! I love my equipment, I clean it, I clean the set. We take care of things the way we should, the way everybody should. But they’re confining us. Not only do I shoot in small spaces—I won’t say we are the last of the last because there are [others] much, much poorer than I, but I won’t do what they want. I will take my time. I will cut the bullshit to have a work that works on different levels. It is not only the film but also how it was made. Every film is that, at least I can see the money on the screen every time, [or] the lack of money, or the lack of purpose, the stupid reasons, or how they forgot themselves inside a machine.

Filmmaker: [Publicist gives five-minute warning] I think I get one more question…

Costa: Ask more if you want, if the police—where are the police? [looks around]

Filmmaker: I did want to ask you about your sound. So much of the space falls off into total darkness that you can fill it with any sound that you want. How did you determine between a discordant bark and neighborly ambience? 

Costa: Well, it’s difficult to go into those details—of editing image or sound, working with an actor—in an interview. We would need the image, and perhaps to go back and forth with the shot. But I’m just doing work that, again, I think is not done, that is a little bit forgotten. I’m trying to do, with direct sound or ambient sound from reality, what 99% of filmmakers do with music. Sound seems to have no value today. A door is no longer a door. A dog barks because of something, not just because it lives there. We’re trying to do something without this camouflage of music. I don’t want music to say things I know are not there. I know if I had music over two or three scenes of Vitalina crying I’d have 300,000 more people in the theaters. But we don’t do that. So, I’m doing work everybody did, [that] Jacques Tati did so well, or Bresson, or Godard, or Straub, or so many Americans. 

Filmmaker: Who’s doing it right today? [The publicist comes in to tell us time’s up]

Costa: We’ll leave that a mystery.

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