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“I Don’t Want to Find a Method… I Like Questoning What I Make”: João Pedro Rodrigues on The Ornithologist

The Ornithologist

This interview with João Pedro Rodrigues was originally conducted in 2016 when his new feature, The Ornithologist, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival. We’re reposting today on the occasion of the film’s U.S. release via Strand Releasing. The Ornithologist opens today in New York at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

The last few years have been truly a whirlwind period for Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, with career retrospectives in the US and Japan, filmmaker residencies at France’s prestigious Le Fresnoy and at the Harvard Film Archive, and even a competition slot at Locarno for his 2012 fake-noir playful docu-fiction hybrid The Last Time I Saw Macao, co-directed with his long-time creative and life partner João Rui Guerra da Mata.

For all that, it’s easy to forget Rodrigues hasn’t really put out a new narrative feature since 2009’s To Die Like a Man premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar – and that was only his third feature-length film in a career that started in 1996 with the breezy short Parabéns! 20 years on from that debut, Rodrigues is finally unveiling his long-awaited new work, The Ornithologist, in competition at Locarno.

The story of an ornithologist whose scientific expedition in search of an endangered species becomes (in line with pretty much all of the director’s work) a fantastic journey of self-discovery and awakening, shot mostly on location with French actor Paul Hamy in the lead, it’s a film he has been talking up for the past seven years but whose journey from script to screen has been fraught with obstacles – not unlike the obstacles that, as a screenwriter, Rodrigues laid out on the path of his hero. Reasons for this drawn-out process? The economic crisis that effectively suspended arts financing in Portugal for two years, followed by an ongoing series of production troubles still hanging over the filmmakers (neither Rodrigues nor his regular DP Rui Poças, among a dozen other cast and crew members, have been paid so far for their work on a film whose shoot ended almost a year ago).

While all of this is going on, Rodrigues has just premiered a multimedia exhibition co-signed with Guerra da Mata, From the Pearl River to the Ave, commissioned by the Curtas Vila do Conde short film festival and showing exclusively at the Solar gallery in Vila do Conde, near Oporto, until the end of September, where his 20 years of filmmaking are reframed and redesigned in a modern gallery context. And he is also preparing a new installation to be presented at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, accompanying a complete retrospective of his film work and the French premiere of The Ornithologist (the first country to release it commercially) in November. A discrete, soft-spoken and thoughtful conversationalist, the 50-year-old Rodrigues spoke to Filmmaker in Vila do Conde, shortly after the premiere of From the Pearl River to the Ave. Parts of this interview were published previously in (and appear courtesy of) the Portuguese newspaper Público, and appear here in English for the first time.

Filmmaker: 2016 is shaping up to be a big year for you. The Ornithologist premiering in Locarno, plus your retrospective season at Paris’ Centre Pompidou and this multimedia exhibition in Vila do Conde, all of it 20 years after your official first short film Parabéns! (1996). It suggests that you’re taking stock of your career…

João Pedro Rodrigues: I do think my films are somehow mysteriously connected, but I think it’s essential to understand that none of this was planned, it just happened this way. People speak of my films like they’re “my first three films” or “a trilogy,” but they were never planned like that. Both the Pompidou and Vila do Conde exhibitions have been ideas floating around for a while now, it just happened they’re coming on the heels of each other. It’s true I have been talking about The Ornithologist for a long time now, but that’s also because films take a long time to set up and, deep down, its lead character could have been me if I hadn’t discovered cinema. When I was a very small boy, about 10 or so, I wanted to be an ornithologist, and because I deal with things in an obsessive fashion, all I wanted to do was watch birds. We spent the weekends outside Lisbon, in the Portuguese provinces, in my father’s birth village, and I wanted to make an inventory of all the species living there. I’ve always been attracted by the scientific side of things. Years later, when I started going to the movies, I was again going to the movies obsessively, and one thing replaced the other. So maybe that’s why it comes up now…

Filmmaker: Your films do suggest you’re observing people as if you’re observing birds.

Rodrigues: One thing I like about film is distance. I don’t mean by this that my films are always distant from my characters; I mean there’s this thing in contemporary cinema which is an obsession with the long shot, everything far away in the distance. It’s either that or the shaky hand-held camera following after the characters. I don’t like either of them – though I do like some films that do that. I always felt that what film is about is looking at the body that is in front of the camera, the body of the actor that is about to portray a character I created for him. How does he interact with the other actors? How does his body move in space? The tension in the shot also comes from the way you set up the actors in a limited space and have them interact with each other. What I’m really interested in is in finding the right distance. Film is also born from that counterweight, between the very near and the very far. I also don’t like films that tell you what to feel and that explain what the characters feel. I’m interested in mediation, because film isn’t like life; film is a mediation, a fine-tuning. It’s a structure constructed out of moments that are articulated, not just juxtaposed.

Filmmaker: You’re speaking of structure and distance, but there’s such a hyper-romantic side to your work, with big, bold emotions coming through…

Rodrigues: Well I do like that over-the-top thing. And I hope it is possible to stage and present those over-the-top, excessive emotions in a way that is fair and just… It’s really hard for me to explain all of this. My films are always teetering on the edge of the grotesque, yet the grotesque is what I most abhor, both in film and in real life. But I’m constantly attracted to it, and somehow I always find myself on the edge but never falling into it. It’s looking down at the abyss, taking risks.

Filmmaker: Is it about curiosity?

Rodrigues: I’m not sure. I do believe that things aren’t entirely rational, even when I’m thinking them through or explaining them. There is a big instinctive side, and I’m learning to trust my instincts. There are things I find come together, or make sense together, or are logical together, but the reasons why aren’t necessarily rational. I do think I’m learning to let go more easily, trusting my gut more often.

Filmmaker: Does that come from having co-directed many of your latest projects with João Rui Guerra da Mata? The films you’ve signed together are somehow lighter, freer, less serious.

Rodrigues: I’m not sure I’d agree with that. I do make my films in a serious way, but I follow a certain methodology, an almost moral seriousness. It is possible that my films with João Rui may be more playful; in The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012), for instance, there’s an aspect of gambling, of risk, so playfulness would be appropriate there. It’s the only feature we shot together and its lead characters are versions of ourselves, so there has to be some sort of irony involved… I can probably relate more seriously to characters other than myself, even though I’m partly inside of all my characters. That is my way to believe in them, to make them come to life. But to come back to your question, there really isn’t a reason for me to do some films with João Rui or others on my own.

Filmmaker: But you do think your approach to film has changed over the years. Has that affected The Ornithologist?

Rodrigues: I think it gave me more freedom, also to experiment, as in the meantime I did a number of short films. I’ve always felt shorts are as hard to make as feature-length films, but it’s an illusion to think people look at them the same way. The shorts always come across as something minor, less important. But I was making these shorts because I felt I had to go on working. Some of them were also commissions, like The Body of Afonso (2012) or Mahjong (2013). After I finish a film I always have this huge anguish, like I’m bereft of ideas. I never know what the next film will be, I don’t have 30 ideas hidden away in a drawer. Not that I wouldn’t like having them, because I would… I do know now how to deal better with this feeling of… “desert,” of finishing a film and not knowing what to do next. And, after all, the films are always born from that anguish, from a commission, from an invitation, from my thoughts… All my films are different from each other, and I don’t feel ashamed of any of them. I feel I’m on a path made of many paths, of country roads, of detours, and these shorts are like detours, leading me to find a new way to look at things. The Ornithologist harks back to a lot of things in my previous films, but despite its many production problems, it may be the film where I felt the freest – that comes probably from knowing myself better, from feeling less insecure or believing more in me. I don’t want to find a formula for my films, I oppose that idea wholeheartedly. Instinct probably plays a part, because I’ve been trying to follow it more often, but I try not to over-engineer things. That’s not my role.

Filmmaker: You’ve repurposed some of these shorts you’ve made since To Die Like a Man (2009) as multimedia pieces.

Rodrigues: To be honest, I’ve always thought my films are made to be shown in theatres, not as gallery pieces. But we, me and João Rui, were invited to create something for a show in South Korea’s Mimesis art museum, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So I looked at Manhã de Santo António (2012), which is probably my most performative or conceptual work, with a very specific, almost geometric side to it, and thought how could I recreate it as an installation for a museum, and what sense could it make in such a radically different environment. What we were interested in was in presenting these films in another way, what connections we can make between them.

Filmmaker: There’s a sense you approach it as if you’re setting up a space, a film set.

Rodrigues: Yes, definitely. Almost sculpturally, theatrically.

Filmmaker: Is that why people ask you consistently to do installations?

Rodrigues: Possibly. But it is a challenge. I try to do things I feel comfortable in, but I also want to question myself within that comfort zone. I don’t want at all to find a method, a system to get things done; I don’t like that idea of a system, I like questioning what I make. I don’t want to keep making the same film over and over again. I don’t make each of my films in opposition to the previous, but doing something different is in fact a way of moving forward. I do feel my films sort of lead one into the other, like they’re some sort of delta… (long pause) I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but what interests me in these museum pieces is how they change the films. They become no longer just films, they become something else within a museum room with props or elements from the set or other films and they start making another sense together. I don’t just want a room where something like The Body of Afonso is projected, I want that projection to create a dialogue with photos from To Die Like a Man and with props from both films and create something else.

Filmmaker: As if the films communicated between themselves without you being aware of it?

Rodrigues: Yes. For instance, in To Die Like a Man there’s a character in a club scene that is wearing the latex mask from O Fantasma (2000). That wasn’t planned in the script, it was completely spur of the moment, but it invited O Fantasma into a film that had technically nothing to do with it. I like that idea of mirrors, of the films being vessels that in some way communicate with one another. Like a river that keeps flowing, back and forth.

Filmmaker: That’s very Asian, and very appropriate since you’ve never hidden your fascination for Asian cinema.

Rodrigues: Maybe. I remember seeing my first Tsai Ming-Liang film, The River, and being hit with something very strong, very visceral, almost organic. Some sort of identification. Even though I feel he’s since fallen into a system, his films don’t feel as fresh as they used to…

Filmmaker: But how easy is it to keep that freshness going once you’ve been making films for 20 years? You were just saying you never quite know what your next film is going to be, so how do you fight that temptation to just fall back into what you know best?

Rodrigues: By trying to take things really seriously (laughs). Film is something incredibly serious for me. The movies of the golden age of Hollywood were amazing because although the projects were assigned by the studio rather than chosen by the director, the filmmakers treated each film as if it was the only film, but moved on to the next and left it all behind. They weren’t expecting to be making a masterpiece every time, like so many contemporary filmmakers seem to want to do. Things aren’t like that. People make mistakes, make good films and bad films and keep moving, and I like that because it means taking things seriously and trying to make the best film you can make every single time.

Filmmaker: Would you feel more comfortable working within a studio system?

Rodrigues: I’m not sure. I certainly would like to try. John Ford’s films are all John Ford films, with his personal obsessions, his personal trademarks, but he was working within the system and making a film a year…

Filmmaker: Would you like to make a film a year? Or, more to the point, would you be able if you had that possibility?

Rodrigues: I think so, if I had the ideas to do them. I’m assuming, since it’s never happened. I have made two shorts in one year, but I know I’m not a “fast” filmmaker. I would like to take less time between films, it’s all a matter of circumstances. We wrote The Ornithologist very quickly, but soon after we won financial support from the Portuguese Film Institute the country entered a dark period where all arts funding was frozen, and then there was a need to find international co-producers, so it took us a very long time. I don’t take up too much time in the editing, I prefer to take longer in the shoot, and I fight very hard to have enough time to shoot, and I fight more and more because it’s harder to find the time.

Filmmaker: So your films are created more in the shoot than in the editing room.

Rodrigues: Oh, absolutely. They hardly ever change – in The Ornithologist we ended up changing only the one scene, everything else stayed in the sequence it was written in.

Filmmaker: How does that work? When you write the script, do you already have the sets and locations in mind and write around them, or you shoot around the script?

Rodrigues: The mise en scène is already defined in the final script versions. Of course things may change on set, or on location, when you put the actors in there, but things are pretty much defined in the script. It’s always been like that. In The Ornithologist the final versions of the script were extremely location-specific, and we faced problems because the film takes place along a river bank, and in between scouting and shooting there had been a draught and there was no longer water there, so I needed to find alternatives on the spot. But I don’t believe in finding my film in the editing room. The closest we got there was in The Last Time I Saw Macao; it was a film shot on the fly, with a four-person crew, we started with an initial script and then we rewrote based on what we’d been editing, and then reedited based on what we’d written… I do need to have a physical image of where it’s all going to happen. In O Fantasma I filmed a number of places in Lisbon that I’d known a long time and that I wanted to put in a movie. Streets and blocks that were in my mind, that I’d known all my life, and it felt as if within them they had stories waiting to come out. So I imagine those stories.

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