Standing on Opposite Sides of the Road: Pedro Costa on Horse Money
Locating himself far from the mainstream of even international art cinema, Pedro Costa is widely regarded as one of the most important artists on the international film scene. Born in 1959, he was already a successful filmmaker when he began to feel, on the set of his third feature Ossos (1997), that something was wrong with the normal way of making films: “We should rethink all of it,” he thought. Jettisoning his professional crew, he made In Vanda’s Room (2000), shot by a one-person crew on a consumer mini-DV camera in Lisbon’s Fountainhas ghetto over the course a year. A landmark film, it has influenced a generation of filmmakers interested in the boundaries of fiction and documentary. It expanded not only the possibilities of digital video (no one has ever shot like Costa), but above all else, the possibilities of cinema. Three more features made over the following decade cemented his reputation.
Horse Money, which took the Best Director prize at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, began as a proposed collaboration with the late jazz poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, who died before the project got underway. It is Costa’s first “fiction” feature since 2006’s Colossal Youth, and again follows Ventura, the lead character of that film, but otherwise differs dramatically from the previous films with these shared characters. Fontainhas, the Lisbon slum where Ventura lived, has been torn down, and Ventura, Vitalina, and the other characters wander what seems to be as much a mental space as a physical one. The world they inhabit is sometimes a hospital, sometimes an asylum, and it seems to be in the past as often as the present, dealing with Ventura’s ongoing psychological problems as a result of the violence and marginalization that have been forced upon him by Portuguese society.
The following interview was conducted by David Barker and Matthew Porterfield in the Cinema Guild offices on the occasion of Horse Money’s US premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, 2014.
Barker: I was struck by the inclusion of the Jacob Riis photographs at the beginning of Horse Money, which locate the film in a much more general conversation about poverty or marginality than the previous films. [Riis was a 19th century photographer famous for his portraits of poverty in New York City.] How did you come to include these?
Costa: I really think that Riis had the kind of freedom, or naiveté, that all the pioneers like the Lumière brothers had. They are still discovering stuff. Because everything is new – the cameras, the flash, how to get in, how to get out, how to talk to people – they have more freedom. They are more amazed. Less “art,” let’s say. I was sure I was in that kind of water, but still not opening the film with great works of art, like Walker Evans. Also, these works are very close to what I remember from the old neighborhood, from ten years in Fontainhas.
Porterfield: How did you conceive of the montage?
Costa: It was extremely difficult to conceive the order, actually. Because, of course, you have to have an itinerary or a story if you put three photographs, or four or five, you’re already…
Porterfield: There’s a narrative.
Costa: I tried to edit this all along the process of editing. I put the policeman, this girl, the goat… It was like a puzzle. Then one day because we were so late for Lorcarno and we were due to mix the film Monday, I just did it. I think the final duration is two minutes and thirty-five. It was a bit intuitive and I took out at least ten or twelve, because it would have been much, much longer. I took them out and I organized the duration of each, and now it seems okay. Now I see a story that I wanted.
Porterfield: And the montage in the middle — the portraits that you took of the Cape Verdeans?
Costa: With the music? That probably has more traces of what the collaboration with Gil-Scott Heron would have been. It would have been a much bigger sequence with music, or just sounds and voice. In last months of his life, Heron was playing this kind of small electronic keyboard. I think he wanted to just sing and have a little tone. So it would have been a big passage with people and it would be a memory of the old place through sound.
Porterfield: Those were photographed in Fontainhas?
Costa: No, we did that in what’s left of another neighborhood, because all the places like Fontainhas have disappeared. There were many, many more around Lisbon. But there’s still one, and that one is mostly people from other countries — Angola, Mozambique, India. They had a bit more money, so it’s a bit more sophisticated. There’s some very good houses, then there’s a shack, and then there’s an alley, then there’s another big, three-story house. But those places are vanishing, and in two or three years everything will be gone. I was saying yesterday that soon we will be left with…I don’t know, a robe? In a way it could be good. It’s like Pasolini said: always do your films in the Middle Ages, because all you need is a potato sack. You cut a hole, the actors rest, they walk. [Editor’s note: it was actually Rossellini.] That’s kind of what I’m preparing myself for.
Porterfield: Just two actors and two chairs?
Costa: I’ve been very worried because I’m afraid I’m doing a parallel with Rossellini. He started by making a film about a city, then a country, then a continent, and then Socrates. I’m very worried that I’m climbing that ladder, because it can get to a very difficult place where it’s really just about ideas.
Barker: Which you’re already moving towards, because this film is not in a specific place?
Costa: Yeah, but you can feel that we still have an appetite for some sort of fiction. I think that the character of this film probably has more to do with this absence of that place – the houses, the streets — than anything else. Ventura, or Vitalina, or anyone in this film was dispossessed already. Now they’re doubly dispossessed, because each time they enter the frame they do not possess that place. Before the space belonged to them, they could get in and out easily. Now, they cannot recognize it. It’s always night, dark, or the unknown. It’s always against them. There’s always a menace of death, or illness or tragedy. It has a lot to do with this disappearance of a space they could recognize. It’s much more cinematic in the sense that it’s more fictional. It’s hospitals, or unknown territory, woods. It’s at night.
What’s more important? The form or the content as they used to say? Now we have that problem. Is memory form or content? If all I have is Ventura’s memories, or Vitalina’s memories, is this a form? What form has this memory or this story? Should I picture her in the islands? And coming in a boat? Or just talking, sitting in a chair?
Porterfield: In Horse Money you recreate Ventura’s memories as if they were part of this kind of collective unconscious. What was it like for him to see these memories manifested in the final film?
Costa: I’m not sure. That’s always an even bigger mystery for me. I think the films needs the secret to be kept secret. I don’t really know what he thinks after seeing it or while performing it. Because when he tells me something, I think to myself: that’s interesting, we could do something around that. Then there’s a huge silence, or he says, “I’ll tell you another day.”
Porterfield: So he keeps it for himself.
Costa: It’s just hints. Dramatic, huge hints. Like, “There was a very tall figure in a steel helmet.” I can’t ask “Where?” or “Was he black or white?” He’ll say, “Hmm, I don’t remember.” Obviously, he remembers but doesn’t want to say because it’s too painful, or just to provoke me, tease me. I’ve been saying that there’s a known map, ocean, a hole between me and him, and that this is what makes the film. There is this very beautiful sentence, actually Jean-Marie Straub says it in my film [2001’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?]. It’s something from The Diary of A Country Priest. They stand on opposite sides of the road, or the river, and they stare at each other: “The distance is just the road, but it’s immense.” This is what makes the films, and we keep it that way. I think he and I know how to preserve this black hole.
Barker: You mentioned that you worked with Ventura for several months on the elevator scene in Horse Money. In that work, is it primarily you altering things as you’re interpreting what he was telling you about? Or is he involved? Is he never looking at the image, or never discussing representation?
Costa: Not really. He’s not very interested in seeing what he is doing, or how he is doing. And that’s true for all of them. Even Vanda was not curious. I remember I was in her room for three months already with the camera, and she said, “So when are we starting the film?” I said, “It has been three or four months already.” And she said, “Oh, okay.” The ceremony was not like she used to know in Ossos. At the same time she had told me at the end of Ossos: “You should do this in another way, because this is too painful, too hard, too difficult, too noisy.” It hurts a lot when somebody like Vanda says, “Yeah, well, I’m miserable. You could say I’m selling drugs, or I’m a junky, or I’m a whore. But, you! Man, this cinema thing! What you do is really the worst!” The relation they have with this small camera, it’s quite invisible. Of course shooting in this elevator or in the studio, it’s a bit more. But, the studio is so small, it’s like this room, we’re the same three people we know. We have a small monitor where we see, and you could watch it, but Ventura’s not interested in that. He doesn’t want anything. It’s the feeling, I think for both of us: I cannot take anything from him, and he will not give me anything. It’s very comfortable like this. We do what we can in our mutual respect and I won’t kill him, he won’t kill me.
Barker: This relationship to the work, actually, is very similar to older Hollywood actors. When I lived in L.A. and someone was finding these old stars in their 80s and screening their movies, often they’d never seen the films they were in. They weren’t interested. It was a job.
Costa: Probably Ventura is the closest to that in my experience. If he was in the 1940s, then he’d be a guy like Dana Andrews. I mean, yeah it’s a film, but screw it. He does it. He goes away. It’s fantastic, but he couldn’t care less. It’s the same disappearing act. But at the same time there’s this nakedness. You can almost watch the interior of their chests, Andrews and Ventura. There’s no camouflage. It’s very close to Ozu actors. Every time I see a film by Ozu these guys are like this. There’s nothing else. There’s no need to be appealing or charming. There’s no seduction in the Western sense, no turning the head the other way, no camouflage. It’s just that face. Ventura is becoming a bit like that. And in this film I was thinking — this is complete bullshit — but that it should move very fast, not giving you time to think. Very fast, like a 70-minute Tourneur or Phil Karlson or Andre de Toth film where it goes very fast and you don’t have time to think about stuff. The next shot is already there, another sequence.
Porterfield: Along those lines, I was wondering if you might say anything about – for lack of a better phrase – your time signature. There’s a pervasive sense of time in each of your films. Do you feel yourself aware of time on location when you’re working with the actors, when the camera’s rolling?
Costa: No, it’s nothing like that it’s very – another word I don’t like but – it’s very emotional and intense when we are doing it. I don’t know if you can find other words. When Ventura is there, or Vanda is there, or even the other guys, it’s very emotional, intense. I mean they are opening their selves but it’s all absolutely obvious. This absence of secrecy, and she was exposing completely. I’m always in complete admiration for this.
You know, they don’t have money. Why are these people doing this? They give you so much, they are so interested in this work. They give you a lot. Not only their memories, their stories, their lives. It’s very fortunate to have a bunch of lives to photograph. Because when you have an actor you can’t do that. Even if you say it’s a documentary about Isabelle Huppert, or somebody, we know it’s not. It’s Filmmaker, Film Comment bullshit. It’s a kind of fantasy that never happens. In this case, I know I’m approaching some very dark places in their lives. Usually dark, and painful, and tragic, because that’s how their lives were, and still continue to be. I have to be careful. I observe. I am watching. I did my work. I have my camera. I have the light. I have the sound. I have everything…and then something happens.
I have to accept what happens, even if I don’t like some story. There’s a lot of things that I don’t like in my films that come from them. Opinions, words, small things with the eyes, the hands, the head, the legs. Any other film director would say, “I don’t like this kind of thing, so please say it this way.” I know I have to let those things inside in the film, absolutely. The camera is rolling now because it’s digital, and nobody knows when. There’s a moment when something starts but there’s lots and lots of moments before the action. These moments that you shouldn’t have in the film, those are the moments that sometimes we use.
My friend who does the sound told me two or three times, “We don’t really have shots.” Even if everybody tells me, “Oh, the shot! The shot!” I am a guy who works in this kind of unity, but when we are shooting we stay in the same place for a while. Even Ne change rien, or this one, or Colossal Youth. It becomes days, months. It becomes studio, home. You know you’re going back tomorrow at eight. It’s your office, lab. So more than this shot, or that shot tomorrow, or these three shots today — it’s days, you know? That’s why I’m always thinking about this nine-to-five, nine-to-six Ozu, Hollywood, Fritz Lang, office kind of routine. It’s not shots, it’s days. Days and days and days, doing the same thing. Trying to improve, trying to work, trying to find while the camera is rolling. A bit like Chaplin. Chaplin used to rehearse on film. It’s more or less the same method. It’s not really rehearsing but it’s doing exactly the same thing over and over and over again, until something happens. In Ne change rien, it’s a theory around that. It’s: “Let’s keep on going until we get it right, and probably we won’t, but let’s keep going.” That’s what happened in the other films, exactly. It’s very frightening, because the stories are what they are. The lives are destroyed the way they are. You are behind closed doors and you repeat, you repeat, you repeat something that is already monstrous.
Porterfield: Do you typically visit locations with your camera and think about the spaces and the angles that you might want to shoot?
Costa: Yeah, I go a lot. Not with the camera. There’s a word in French: “flâner.” It’s a mixture of promenade, an easy stroll, un-attentive, like that. So: no purpose. It’s not a professional thing, a location scouting. We do that all the time, with the actors actually. The best one was during Colossal Youth. We were fed up [with] working. We went four times to the zoo, because the first time we liked it so much. We go walk, we go in a car, we leave the city and sometimes I see stuff. We went, three of us in the car, just driving, and then Ventura said, “We’re very close to my old factory.” Well, the place you see in the film. It’s the place where they kept the materials, the bricks. Where they picked up everything to build. We never thought it existed because that’s a completely empty, ruined space a little bit outside the city. But he said, “No… it was here, it was here.” And we know Ventura has this absolutely precise memory of dates and places and people and names. We said, “No, Ventura, it has been so long.” It’s a famous place. They went bankrupt, the boss escaped to Brazil or something. He said, “No, no, no, no, turn left.” And we turn left and there it was.
And so we got out the car, walked a little. And there was a hole between a fence or something, and we got in. And again we stayed for three months, maybe a bit less. Just me trying to figure out what to do. Him telling me stuff, or just dreaming. And so one day I looked and Ventura had a telephone in his hand. He was playing, just kidding around with the broken telephone. I said, “Ah, that’s nice stuff. You could call your boss.” And he said just, “Hello.” And that became his phone call story.
Porterfield: But he hadn’t worked there since he was nineteen years old, right? Cause he fell from the scaffolding at nineteen and stopped working.
Pedro: But the man is a genius. He has a memory like a warehouse. That’s one of my regrets because now his health is not well. He’s tired and is exhausted very easily. But that’s my regret: not having done earlier something more musical, because his voice when he sings is great. Now I feel he doesn’t have that power, the energy, to really go. At that moment when I first met him he was exactly a character in a musical by, I don’t know, Stanley Donen: “So, shall we grab a sandwich Ventura?” “Yes, I don’t know if I’m hungry… [Singing] hungry!” Like that thing I think Danielle [Huillet] and Jean-Marie [Straub] had that they copied from Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Ventura had that with song: he would comment on everything with song. “Oh, it’s raining… raining in the streets!” He had an answer in song for every problem, every situation. Now he’s forgetting, but he knows millions of songs, all in Portuguese, Cape Verdean, and very funny ones. Without even trying, he comments on something poetically, or musically. I’m very lucky to have these kind of people.
Porterfield: I think I counted, I could be wrong: one smile, in the movie. Vitalini smiles when she reads the letter.
Costa: No, there’s more than one. Ventura smiles in the elevator when the soldier says something like, “So what about your ring, or what about your wife?” And he says, “Yeah, yeah I bought a wedding gown, and a ring, and a watch and everything. I bought everything. Seven grand.” And then he smiles and says, “Have you met Zulmira?” And he has a big, big smile. Vitalini smiles after reading the letter but then becomes a bit Exorcism of Emily Rose. She smiles, and then she closes the smile and becomes terrifying and opens the door in a great way. Smiling, yeah no… sorry.
Porterfield: It’s definitely a film that begs people to see it more than once.
Costa: It’s a film that no one understands. I was kidding with my friends, but it seemed to me that some time ago, there used to be films and filmmakers that people didn’t understand. You know, “Oh, I loved the film but phew, boy that’s difficult to get.” And that was okay, I mean, it existed. Straub had that a lot, all the time. Not now. I have those shoes. I mean, Béla Tarr. Wow. Nobody has this, “I didn’t get it.” Or an Apichatpong film. Everybody gets it. But with Horse Money: “Yeah, no it’s nice but, um, it’s difficult, I don’t get it.”