How the Oscar Contending Song “Brasília Bella” Is the Key to Watergate Film 18½
In making my Watergate historical fiction film 18½, I always knew that coming up with a consistent musical soundtrack was going to be essential for balancing the tone of a film that swings from comedy to thriller to drama at breakneck speed. One genre of music, and indeed one song, “Brasília Bella,” is the key to unlocking not only how our team navigated the tones and themes of the film, but also reflects the scale and scope of making an indie film at the high point of a global pandemic.
Around 2018, I started working on the script for 18½ with writing/producing partner Daniel Moya. We discussed how our main character, Connie, a White House transcriber (played by Willa Fitzgerald), was going to be stuck at a seaside motel with a reporter. Together they were trying to find a reel-to-reel tape player to listen to the infamous 18½-minute gap in Nixon’s Watergate tapes. Inevitably, they need to borrow a recorder from a middle-aged swinger couple who are listening to music. But what kind of music is playing, and how would that choice fit with the themes and plot of the film?
At the time, I was still on the festival circuit with my last film, Bernard and Huey. Our Latin American premiere was at the São Paulo International Film Festival (the Mostra, as it’s known). I was immersed in the music and rhythms of the country, and also struck by a strange anachronistic ’70s vibe I felt in São Paulo. I’d worked closely with composer Luis Guerra on the score and soundtrack of Bernard and Huey, and started talking to him about if and how we could use Brazilian music in 18½.
At least according to Malcolm Gladwell, for whom Luis writes music for his podcasts, Luis is a “musical genius.” I would heartily concur. He is pretty familiar with all manner of Brazilian musical styles, works with a lot of Brazilian musicians in LA and even speaks a smattering of Portuguese. He concluded that a score based largely on bossa nova would be malleable enough to work well with the various tones of the film. Using consistent rhythms and instrumentation of ’60s Brazilian music, he could tweak bossa nova and other Brazilian genres to accompany the various parts of the film: comedy, drama, spy, thriller, etc.
The choice of Brazilian music also solved the challenge of what the swingers in the film would be listening to. A cosmopolitan, but older, American couple of the early ’70s (played to groovy perfection by Catherine Curtin and Vondie Curtis Hall) would likely still be listening to what they considered hip and cool from the mid-’60s, and bossa nova fit that bill perfectly. In the 1960s, Brazilian artists like Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto were crossing over into the US and working with Americans like Stan Getz. Some songs, like “The Girl from Ipanema,” were popularized first in Portuguese versions and then re-released in English. It wasn’t until the late-’70s that they would be reduced to instrumental Muzak elevator music in the public consciousness. There’s also a backstory element to the swingers that was consistent with them having been in Brazil around the time of that country’s coup d’état in 1964. For the extended 20-minute dinner scene where the couple are listening to the reel-to-reel player, Luis needed to create a hypothetical album of mostly instrumental bossa nova songs.
There’s often a temptation to fill a ’70s period film with pre-existing needle-drop songs from the era. But I’ve long felt that creatively, it’s a bit of a crutch for filmmakers to use overly familiar songs. It runs the risk of bringing in the audience’s pre-existing associations with any given song into their expectations of your film. (“‘Paint It Black’!? Cool! I loved that Stones song in Full Metal Jacket. But this filmmaker is no Kubrick!”) Additionally, indie filmmakers know that getting rights to well-known period songs is prohibitively expensive and complicated. I also have a theory that when audiences hear lyrics overlapping with spoken dialogue in the same language, it distracts from their cognitive attention to what the actors are saying on screen. But lyrics sung in a different language get interpreted more as instrumentation, and can play over dialogue without splitting the audience’s focus.
Our choice of ‘60s bossa nova and related genres like Tropicália (Brazilian psychedelic rock that our hippie characters listen to) solved all these problems. We could have original songs in Portuguese when we needed them over our English-language dialogue, but we could also have English versions when we wanted the audience to focus on the lyrics.
Now we just needed to write some songs…in two languages! While we were still working on the screenplay, we needed one consistent song that could form the backbone of our score and soundtrack. That’s where “Brasília Bella” comes in. Luis came up with the music first, and then handed it over to me for the words. Fortunately, I’ve got a little experience as a songwriter, having worked on two musical films and contributed a song or two to most of my other films.
Lyrically, I wanted the song to underline the second-wave feminism of our lead character’s journey from anonymous transcriber in the White House, to potentially blowing the lid off the entire Nixon presidency. It should also embody the personal agency that goes along with that responsibility, and I was influenced somewhat by Sonny Curtis’s “Love is All Around” (The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song). Our theme uses Brasília, the shining new Brazilian capital city built in the 1960s, as a metaphor for Washington, DC. In the script, Connie comes to her White House job, still starry-eyed and optimistic about Washington and the allure of working for the president. But as her character transforms into a cynic over the course of the film and Connie has to use violence to defend herself, the lyrics reflect that “Brasília Bella” is a “spy caterpillar” who metamorphoses into a “deadly butterfly.” As critic Matthias Jeske put it on his public radio show The Atomic Hour: “‘Brasília Bella’ follows our heroine Connie throughout the film, at first seemingly mocking the type of person she is when she arrives, and ultimately forecasting the type of person she is when she departs.”
Since some of the lyrics reflect Connie at the end of the movie, we thought it would work well to use a Portuguese version during the second act dance scene with the swingers. Then, we’d only reveal the full meaning to English-speaking audience members—and indeed, to Connie herself—in the very last scene of the film. Connie tunes the AM car radio to hear the English-language version of the song that’s haunted her throughout the film. Just as the audience wonders what happens next to her, the image cuts to black as they hear Caro singing “she’s a secret agent Cinderella” and the white credits pop up to the beat of the song. Luis was also able to craft an instrumental version of the song for an early diner scene in the film, as if playing on a local soft-rock radio channel. Luis and I often have used original songs as “scource” cues. These are crafted specifically for scenes, like he would with the score, but the audience hears the songs as a diegetic music source just as the characters would. Luis also incorporated the melody and rhythm of “Brasília Bella” into the score in several other scenes, from our aptly named “18½ Overture” to our final climactic cues in the film.
For help with the Portuguese translation, we turned to an old friend in northern Brazil, Emilia Wolfrum, who gave us carefully organized Excel spreadsheets showing translation options for every word and phrase in the song. Then she walked us through the various linguistic and cultural implications of each. Luis, meanwhile, had already worked on the music for “Brasília Bella,” and had an instrumental scratch track ready for us to use on set for the dancing scene. Additionally, he’d created a suite of bossa nova, samba and Tropicália-influenced music that we could use on set for inspiration.
We started principal photography on March 3, 2020, filming in remote Greenport, New York, on the northeastern tip of Long Island. During our second week, we shot the dancing scene with actors Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis Hall and Catherine Curtin. On set, we played the instrumental version of “Brasília Bella” out loud on an iPhone, while we filmed a blank reel-to-reel tape in a working player in the foreground (one of our era-appropriate split diopter shots). As the characters had dialogue, we knew that there would be some bleeding of the music onto their individual lavalier mics and the boom. But as I’d learned from working on my 2004 musicals Open House and Half Empty, as long as the key and tempo of the music is consistent with what you’re going to add in post-production, then it’s totally fine to have some bleed-through. You get better performances from the actors if they’re dancing to the actual song that the audience will also hear.
11 days into the shoot, we found out we were one of the last features still shooting in North America. Turns out there was a global pandemic brewing! With just four days left to go, we shut down production and took what wound up being a six-month “health hiatus” until we could return and finish shooting using SAG and DGA COVID-safe protocols in September of that year.
Normally, filmmakers wait until well after they’ve locked their picture edit to start working on the score of a film. But this six-month pandemic pause gave us a unique opportunity. When we shut down, I grabbed the hard drive and took the last flight out of Islip back to Culver City, where I live. I was able to edit whole scenes and sequences of the film with the footage that we had. This was at a time when musicians around the world were stuck wherever they were and couldn’t perform live anywhere. While we knew these scenes wouldn’t be completely locked, it made sense for Luis to start assembling his team of bored and eager musicians to start working on the film.
First, we needed a singer who could embody the voice and represent the conscience of Connie, but could also sing easily in both Portuguese and English. Fortunately, Brazilian recording artist Caro Pierotto splits her time between LA and Brazil. She and Luis had several mutual friends, and Luis had seen some of her videos on Facebook. She was a perfect fit. Caro was able to record scratch tracks at her house, but about four months into the pandemic, we realized she could safely venture to Luis’s studio, which had a glass isolation booth where she could sing without a mask. It was their first time working in a studio with other people since the pandemic had begun.
Luis reached out to many of his regular LA instrumentalist collaborators. Flute player Adrian Terraza-González was stuck in Mexico City during those early months of COVID, but he was eager to start working with us. He rustled up some other brass players at two different studios there, and they became our “Mexico City Studio Orchestra,” sending tracks to Luis remotely. Likewise, percussionist Michael Longoria was somewhere between Austin and New York recording his tracks. Brazilian native João Pedro Mourão worked out of LA to play the cavaquinho, a traditional Brazilian four-string guitar. Depending on who was working with whom, we used various software to communicate: Zoom, WeTransfer, Dropbox, Source-Live and just good old fashioned phone calls, WhatsApp and FaceTime more often than not. When I really needed to communicate in person with Luis, or beseech him for an extra cue, I’d bake a loaf of sourdough and throw it over the fence at his house.
Caro had to attend to family issues back in her home country. But while there, she also found time to record some tracks at Granada Records, a studio tucked into the rainforest in southern Brazil. Ironically, Caro wound up recording most of her Portuguese vocals in LA, and her English ones in Brazil. Despite the high (or sometimes low) tech communication tools, I’d given Luis the same mandate as I had to everyone on the cast and crew: to try only to use creative techniques and tools that could have been used if we’d made the movie in 1974. Whether that was vintage microphones, live instrumentation or late-’60s Moog synthesizers, Luis and the team tried their best to live up to our mantra.
The other nice thing about our six-month gap was that it gave writer Daniel Moya and I time to hone in on our remaining scenes; cutting some, adding others and tweaking particular areas of dialogue based on what we’d already shot and edited. As part of this process, Luis and I were able to add new songs, write lyrics to existing tunes and come up with new formulations for scenes. For example, when actor Sullivan Jones (who plays Barry, the leader of the hippie cult) offered to bring his guitar to set, Luis and I borrowed the “deadly butterfly” line from “Brasília Bella” and wrote a brand new song for him to sing live on set. Later in post, we reworked it as a Tropicália song that gets played as source music on the hippies’ 8-track player. By this point, we’d come up with the rationale that a low-rent studio in 1960s Brazil would have had a stable of musicians pumping out bossa nova one day, and Tropicália the next. Hence, it made sense (to us, anyway) that both styles of music would have the same singer, composer and instrumentalists.
Another song for the 8-track also evolved out of one of the earliest temp tracks that Luis had sketched out well before production. This Tropicália/funk tune called “Wonder Bread” became a perfect end-credit song, as it essentially describes the full plot of the movie, but through an Alice in Wonder(bread) perspective (echoing one of our recurring conspiracy theories in the film that ties together Nixon, ITT and Wonder Bread). It’s an upbeat banger where Caro’s vocals bring to mind Gloria Gaynor and mid-’70s pre-disco. If the audience doesn’t leave the theater with a grin on their face and a bounce in their step, then we’ve failed.
Things came full circle when Luis represented the movie at our international premiere at the Mostra in São Paulo last fall. Audiences and critics in Brazil loved the film and gave a hearty approval to our soundtrack. For them, they found parallels between Nixon’s excesses and their own Bolsonaro, but they also loved that the songs and score paid homage to so many Brazilian musical traditions.
After 25 festivals on four continents, a seven-month “Certified Fresh” theatrical run in over 60 cities, mile-high club status on six airlines and a limited run of flexi vinyl records with two of the songs, 18½ is now being talked about in rarified awards circles. Due to the quirks of the Academy, the Best Song category is one of the few where indie filmmakers can compete on almost equal footing. So far, both IndieWire and GoldDerby have declared “Brasília Bella” to be an “Oscar Contender,” and we’ve also submitted “Deadly Butterfly” and “Wonder Bread.” It’s all still a tremendous long-shot, but after our globe-trotting strange journey with these songs and the film itself, it’s an honor just to be eligible!
18½ is currently available on VOD in North America, the UK and Ireland. “Brasília Bella” and the entire original soundtrack is available on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube. Director/producer/lyricist Dan Mirvish is cofounder of the Slamdance Film Festival and author of the book The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking (Focal Press/Routledge).