“Oh No, Now It Will Be The Pink COVID”: Writer-Director Iuli Gerbase on the Inadvertently Prescient The Pink Cloud
“This film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019,” reads a title card at the very beginning of Brazilian writer-director Iuli Gerbase’s debut feature The Pink Cloud. “Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.”
As the film’s plot unfurls, it becomes clear why such a disclaimer is necessary. Set in a present-day Brazilian metropolis, The Pink Cloud begins with protagonists Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) in the midst of a playful, seemingly inconsequential one-night stand. When they wake up the next morning, it’simmediately clear something is off. Yago shows Giovana a notification on his phone, to which she replies it “must be a joke” before nodding off to sleep again. Seconds later, an alarm begins blaring through the city, accompanied by a droning announcement: “Close all the windows and doors immediately.” There’s an encroaching shade of pink on the sky’s horizon, the titular cloud which will slowly envelop this city—and the entire world—in a toxic gas that can kill anyone who breathes it in ten seconds.
In a matter of moments, two strangers become long-term companions and cohabitants. They quarantine together for weeks that turn into months, months that turn into years. The waistlines on their clothes become increasingly more elastic, and they kill time in their new normal with various odd activities—roller skating, Pilates, video chatting with now-estranged friends and family—but mostly they do a lot of talking. During one such conversation, the two lovers reveal their hopes for the future. Yago would like to have children one day, while Giovana is staunchly opposed to the idea. When Yago challenges her, she replies: “Is it so bad that I want my freedom?”
While much of Gerbase’s film resonates with obvious parallels to our current pandemic woes (amplified by its premiere at the first—and obviously not the last—completely virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival), it is so much more than that. The Pink Cloud is a richly layered yet achingly intimate debut that grapples with themes ranging from the coercion women experience when assenting to traditional femininity to the overarching political peril currently affecting Brazil.
Gerbase spoke with Filmmaker via Zoom ahead of The Pink Cloud’s January 14 theatrical premiere run at the Quad Cinema in NYC.
Filmmaker: So, obviously, everyone has been labeling The Pink Cloud as a pandemic movie, though clearly you had no intention of making an eerily prescient film. What has the film’s reception and current relevance meant for you as a filmmaker? You planned to make a work of fiction that then transformed into something so unintentionally real.
Gerbase: Yeah, and it was not just a fiction, but a sci-fi! It’s crazy when you write an intimate, surrealistic sci-fi and then it becomes kind of reality. In the beginning of the pandemic, I had the normal anxiety everyone else did, but also another layer of anxiety, of feeling that my film had become real: “Oh no, now it will be The Pink COVID, not The Pink Cloud.” Ugh—my cloud turned into a terrible virus, you know? And my friends were saying, “At least people everywhere will relate to it.” But I was very nervous. I finally relaxed when I got into Sundance, because I thought, yeah, at least people would watch the film!
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to constantly navigate the COVID comparison?
Gerbase: It was. But even for me—though I watched the film many times during the process of editing—when I watched it after one month of the pandemic, it was a different experience. I couldn’t ignore it, I couldn’t say it’s not related to COVID, because even for me it was bizarre. Of course people will relate to the situation. But I’m very happy when critics in their reviews, or people who talk to me, see other layers. And of course, it’s frustrating when people think it’s just about COVID. At the same time, if they are thinking about that, they are relating to the film, and I’m happy that people can find something on-screen that they can relate to. But it’s definitely been a process of changing my mindset.
Filmmaker: Of course, your film wasn’t totally untouched by the pandemic. It was written and shot during the so-called “before times,” but I read that the editing process occurred during the early stages of lockdown. How did that experience color the film’s final form?
Gerbase: Yes, and people always ask what I changed about the film after the pandemic hit. Really, just two things. We put the warning in the beginning saying the film was shot before the pandemic. And, in the film’s first cut, the cloud was only in Brazil. Then when the pandemic happened, we decided that we would make the cloud be everywhere, because the pandemic is everywhere and it would be easy for people to relate to. It just made sense.
Filmmaker: Many people obviously embraced The Pink Cloud as a COVID-era allegory. However, I think so much of it is clearly tied to environmental crisis and collapse. Being from Brazil, many of the world’s most heinous environmental practices—such as deforestation and destruction of the Amazon—are perpetuated in your country for the gain of other countries’ economies, as well as the elites of your own. It seems the titular pink cloud is an oppressive force over the citizens of Brazil, while also affecting citizens across the world. Is there any sort of metaphor you intended here about the inevitability of the environment punishing humanity for so callously destroying it?
Gerbase: Yes. There’s a scene where Yago asks, “Do you think the cloud is a punishment?” But a punishment for what? I was writing this script for my Master’s in creative writing and had to present the film’s thesis and what it meant to me. For me, the pink cloud represents the limitations of freedom, which can be many things: being in a marriage, getting old, getting sick, having to work. And it could absolutely also be the environment punishing us and getting its revenge. The first cut was way too long, so we had to cut many scenes, but there was one scene in the beginning where Yago asks if nature is punishing us, or that maybe it’s something that came out of a factory accident. Really, I just love to stay open to all of the possible meanings of the film. There were two theories I heard during festivals that were also super interesting. A young student in Spain said, “For me, The Pink Cloud represents making decisions, especially the ones you can’t undo.” In Romania, another man said it was about not being able to leave a relationship, which can feel like you’re almost going to die. I always encourage viewers to find their own meanings and hear all the possible interpretations.
Filmmaker: I mean, when I first saw this film I was really struck with how relatable it was—not in terms of quarantine, but of navigating femininity and womanhood. It’s still somewhat controversial to choose to be child-free, even though there’s so much going on in this world that impacts our potential futures: climate change, financial instability, immense debt. Yet there’s still so much pressure for us to bring children into the world despite these things!
Gerbase: And we shouldn’t even need excuses! But all you hear is “Why? Don’t you like children?” It’s crazy, but I think all women have this pressure. If they don’t, they’re lucky. Society pressures us constantly, asking us all these questions: Do you want children? At what age? How many? Do you want a boy, or a girl, or both? And what will their names be?
Filmmaker: Just, like, being five years old and already playing with baby dolls to get us ready.
Gerbase: But boys get cars!
Filmmaker: And even in the film, Giovana at first says she doesn’t want kids, citing the cruelty of raising a child while the cloud continues to limit human life, though she changes her mind later. Why do you think that even during these disastrous times, one thing people can’t understand is why women (or anyone, really) would rather not have a nuclear family?
Gerbase: I think that if my mother is pressuring me it’s because someone pressured her, so it just continues the cycle. I mean, as animals we have the instinct to procreate for survival, to perpetuate our species. But we also have the ability to think. There is that animal instinct, and there’s also the more rational decision. Sure, maybe some people are very happy with children, and of course some women want to have children or adopt, or have a nuclear or non-nuclear family. But there’s definitely this pressure. I was raised as a Catholic by my grandmother mostly, so I don’t know, maybe it’s the church. She never said anything homophobic or hateful, but for her, of course, the “normal” thing to do is to have a family. And this pressure is not only for having children, of course. The way that we fit into society, we’re never totally free. That’s one thing that I was definitely thinking about when I wrote The Pink Cloud. We are never totally free because we live in a society. If I walk naked down the street, something will happen, you know. People wouldn’t like it—well, maybe in a park in Germany—so we’re not completely free. But we’re used to that. For example, the cloud is normal for [Yago and Giovana’s son] Lino, because he was born and raised with it. For him, it’s okay to live his entire life in an apartment. If we want, we can live in these alternative societies and [away] from capitalism—but it’s not an easy choice to make.
Filmmaker: In fact, something the film explores that’s super compelling is the notion that society will tightly grasp onto upholding these norms, even as the world humans built around these norms begins to break down and become unlivable. Why is there such a desperation to keep things as they are when we are no longer forced to?
Gerbase: Now, with COVID, we have to make even more rules. And some of them are totally necessary! Like wearing a mask on the subway—who wouldn’t want to do that? But you know, I went to London, and they weren’t wearing masks on the subway. I think we feel that we can trust people 100% to make us safer and make the right choices, but it’s crazy that we have to beg some people to put on a mask during the COVID crisis while they’re riding the subway. So yeah, rules sometimes are bad, but they’re necessary.
Filmmaker: I’d love to talk about the presence of technology in the film, which is inevitably going to be focused on in any work of sci-fi, but I love how minimalist and subdued it is here. Of course there are the VR headsets, the monolithic mail-delivery system, online dating services, and even the pink drink concoction that’s doled out to citizens. Yet none of these things are heavily explained, though they certainly serve the characters—either in their complacency or frustration—in dealing with their surroundings. What was your vision with the technological element of the film, and what did you want it to communicate about technology forging connections or fueling loneliness?
Gerbase: One of the references that I used with the film’s production designer and DP was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, because it is a sci-fi, but it doesn’t feel like a sci-fi. It is one of my favorite films, so I wanted more of that and less of Alien—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t the vibe I was looking for. We also looked at [Karen Thompson Walker’s novel] The Dreamers, so it was more in line with that than something more technological or futuristic. We wanted to present it as if the cloud could come tomorrow, not at some point in the future. My idea was that with everybody staying inside the house, it would not involve changing clothing styles or interior decoration. You can’t get a big table or bed delivered through the tube, so things pretty much had to stay as they are. I also didn’t want to put something in the film that we couldn’t have right now. We have VR headsets, we have food delivery systems, we have Zoom—though it used to be more Skype than Zoom, or FaceTime. I think that’s also why it’s so easy for us to see ourselves on screen in The Pink Cloud.
Filmmaker: I think there’s such an innate appeal in bringing these large sci-fi stories to our most intimate spaces—the world is hostile around us, the only safety we know is in our homes and those who reside with us there. What’s the benefit in imagining our smallest spaces as places where the biggest shift in our lives are likely to happen?
Gerbase: This film could have had a $100 million dollar budget, where we see exactly how the cloud plays out across the world in many different countries, but my idea was to keep it intimate, because that’s also the kind of film I like to make and want to continue making. Well, one day maybe I’ll make a bigger one, but for the moment what inspires me are stories that are very focused and intimate, where we can see our emotions during these small but significant steps we take in life.
Filmmaker: Okay, back to the pandemic for one last thing—has COVID affected your ability to continue your work as a director, and are you currently in the process of working on anything that has been complicated by it?
Gerbase: Well, after doing part of The Pink Cloud during post-production, I thought “I never want to do this again.” Because I never met Caio [Amon] who did the soundtrack—which is amazing—and even the color correction was done online. I think for cinema, that process is very difficult. I actually did a small shoot this weekend for a teaser of a TV series. It was two days of shooting, but with a lot of COVID tests and masks and everything. And we could do it, but of course it’s harder. And there is this tension in the air of someone potentially testing positive. But right now, the pandemic isn’t really affecting me because I’m doing a lot of writing, and writing is something I obviously do by myself. But when shooting comes, it’s challenging. Writing is a lonely process, and I like it, but cinema is such a group effort. And it’s good we can still do it, but everything is better in person. This interview is great, but if we could be together having a coffee or tea it would be even better!
Filmmaker: Absolutely! Zoom interviews can get a little tiring.
Gerbase: They can also be great. But being in person is always a little bit better.
Filmmaker: Many have branded you as a future-looking fortune teller due to this film, so I’d like to play with that a little. What do you hope the future holds for yourself, your country, our world, our lives going forward?
Gerbase: Haha, like what I actually believe or what I’d ideally like it to look like?
Filmmaker: Either one is fine! You don’t have to be realistic if it’s too depressing.
Gerbase: I will say this—and I hope it comes true like the film did—but I hope that during the next election we get rid of Bolsonaro. I really, really, really want that. So, I put that forth into the universe! For me, I just want to keep making movies because it is a challenge—I mean, there are so many great movies already, and so many people who don’t get the recognition they deserve—but with Sundance, it really felt amazing because it gave me possibilities to do more things. And my dream is just to create more movies, maybe even some TV series, but to just keep doing it in any capacity. And to be able to do it with some sort of freedom, not just trying to please someone else. For the world, I hope we can just survive…you know?
Filmmaker: I love that you’re taking it so seriously, only putting forth positive things just in case your predictions really do come true again.
Gerbase: No, seriously! So many people have told me, “Okay, Iuli, in your second feature, everyone is happy and there’s no social inequality, no war, no COVID.” And I just say, “Okay, I will just write the most boring film ever. I’ll fix everything.”