As a teenager, I was obsessed with movies. It was the mid-’90s, and I was stranded in a small town. Movies provided my only real access to sex , which had a lot to do with the obsession. I spent hours in the local Blockbuster Video, cruising the impoverished gay and foreign sections, convenient neighbors relegated to a back corner. I knew most of the VHS titles by heart, but every once and a while, a new addition promising explicit content would slip past the corporate censors and land in my eager hands.
I’m pretty sure that if I had discovered João Pedro Rodrigues’ ‘The Phantom’ (2001) then, it would have been the Holy Grail.
As it happened, I came across the film later in life. But it remains one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen – a film truly worthy of more than adolescent obsession. Sergio, a beautiful young trash collector, is driven to shocking extremes to satisfy an insatiable sexual desire. His transformation into an alien outfitted in a full-body black latex suit crawling alone through a wasteland still haunts me. In the years since, Rodrigues has produced a prodigious body of work that includes sublimely idiosyncratic films like Two Drifters (2006) and the To Die Like a Man (2009).
He’s currently at work on an ambitious new film project that involves an entirely different type of infatuation. A chance encounter with the director at my local café in Brooklyn (of all places), lead to a series of wonderful conversations weaving together birds, maps, saints and kings.
Sergio, a beautiful young trash collector, is driven to shocking extremes to satisfy an insatiable sexual desire
Paul Dallas: One of the things I really admire about your films is the use of locations. You capture such a precise sense of atmosphere. I remember the emotion of those places as much as I do the characters. I’m thinking of nocturnal Lisbon in The Phantom, the hilltop cemetery in Two Drifters, and the forest in To Die Like a Man. There’s a strong erotic connection between landscapes and bodies in these films. For me, the two become inextricable.
João Pedro Rodrigues: In these films, I tried to make my own map of Lisbon. The locations are places that are part of my memory and that I feel inside me. They are places that obsess me. Mysteriously, they come to me while I’m writing the films, and I’ll visit them over and over. For me, writing about these places is similar to filming bodies. When I’m filming a body, it’s all about eroticization – at least it was with The Phantom, because it was about my obsession for the actor. The places, in a way, also become eroticized by their physicality, their brutality, and their violence. In The Phantom, you see Sergio at night, walking along a country road that is suddenly cut by a freeway. This is in the north of Lisbon, the outskirts. It’s where old farmland had been annexed to the city. You understand that the road had to be cut for the freeway to exist. I like this idea of intersection, and a place being a border or a frontier where there’s friction between past and present. I try to film the mystery that is concealed in these places.
Paul: I was thinking about how you studied biology before becoming a filmmaker, and in particular your interest in ornithology. It seems to me that the sensibility and sensitivities required in this field – the precision, the intensity of observation, being tuned into behavior and environment – are reflected in the films you make.
João: I think your right. I hadn’t made that connection before, between science and filmmaking. I recently showed my work to an audience with a lot of scientists and they were puzzled by it. I realized that I’m not really as rational as people who work in science! I started watching birds when I was very young and it’s an activity that requires a lot of patience. You must be able to be quiet in a place for a very long time, just waiting. This is actually how I learned to shoot locations and actors – by observing them. Sometimes with an actor, it’s not even about talking with them. Everyone has their own gestures and ways of moving, and I try to take what I observe and put it into the character that I’ve written. It can also work the opposite way. Sometimes I will ask an actor to do something that is completely different than what is normal for them. There are no rules. It’s an intuitive process. At the beginning of any relationship, I am always frightened and must overcome the fear. This fragility I have and that I find in other people helps me develop the relationship. Filming them is my way of showing my desire.
People sometimes think obsession is something negative, but for me it’s a positive thing
Paul: I like this relationship you draw between bird watching and working with actors. Bird watching is a solitary activity, while making a film is social and collaborative. But, as you say, both are about reading and understanding behavior on some level. Where did your interest in ornithology come from?
João: I was a very solitary person. When I was eight or nine years old, I bought a field guide in English. I didn’t know how to read it very well, but I remember looking at it. I always had a strong connection with the countryside. My family spent weekends at a country house outside of Lisbon. At that time, I had this idea to make a catalogue of all the birds in that region that I’d organize by season. It was an activity that involved mapping and precision, which are both very much part of my process as a filmmaker. Most of the native birds are not very extraordinary or exotic. Everything with me happens through obsession, and ornithology became an obsession. People sometimes think obsession is something negative, but for me it’s a positive thing. It was the same with going to the cinema. It became an obsession. Also, it’s something you do alone. I started going to see films when I was fifteen, and I saw everything that played at the local cinematheque. By the time I went to university to study biology, I already knew that I wanted to make films.
Paul: I imagine the process of sitting outside for hours waiting for a bird to appear sharpens your sensory perception. It’s similar to what you were saying about the close relationship you have to the locations in your films.
João: With bird watching, you’re always expecting the unexpected. Well, perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit. Bird behavior has patterns and if you’re familiar with them, you more or less know how to find the birds. It’s similar to humans, in a way. If you know a person, you know where to find them. But with bird watching, you are always hoping to find something that surprises you. I think this is very similar to film. It’s what I feel when I’m working with actors. I am always hoping that they will give me things that I am not expecting. It’s the most precious and difficult thing. There’s no logic or rationality for how to achieve it.
Paul: The new film you’re working on is called The Ornithologist, and I understand that you’ve already shot certain parts of the film that involve birds. What birds are you looking for and how are you finding them?
João: I have professional ornithologists who are helping me. Many of them also work as conservationists or park rangers. They keep records of where nests are located, which is generally the most reliable way to find the larger birds of prey, like Eagles. In general, I’m looking for birds common to the landscape outside Lisbon. But I’m mainly interested in the black Stork, which is the most meaningful bird in the film. In Portugal and Europe, there are a lot of white Storks. They are very gregarious birds and they nest together, but the black Stork is the opposite. They are very isolated and territorial birds. They only nest when they want to breed, and then they migrate to Africa, where they tend to be more social. Black Storks tend to like silence and solitude. It’s not easy for them to find such places today, so they’ve been under protection to help restore their population. They don’t like to be close to humans. The main character in The Ornithologist also moves away from humanity. It’s about a guy who loses himself in nature and becomes someone else. In a way, he and the black Stork becomes a pair. The film is partly a biopic of St. Anthony, but it’s set today.
Paul: That sounds amazing! I read that St. Anthony was a 12th century priest who became the patron saint of Lisbon. Tell me about your interest in him and the connection to ornithology.
João: I’m very interested in tradition and myth. St. Anthony’s life is very well-known to Portuguese people, but I’m interested in how myth can be subverted. For instance, there’s a village not far from Lisbon where they make dolls of St. Anthony that have huge penises. The doll wears the Franciscan cloak, and if you pull a string, an erect penis emerges. People have always satirized saints, I like this idea that you can play with these very serious characters. I’m interested in how sanctity is always connected with blasphemy. St. Anthony was from the Franciscan Order. Franciscans give up the material world and live on only what nature provides, so there’s a strong connection between St. Anthony and the natural world. One of the miracles of St. Anthony involves him preaching to the fish. Another saint, St. Francis, preached to birds, so I am freely appropriating for my film. But there’s also this idea of a journey and transformation. St. Anthony was born in Lisbon but died in Padua, Italy. He was not born a saint. He became one through his deeds. It wasn’t that he wanted to become a saint. It was perhaps something stronger than him, and I like this idea of being called by something outside of you. In the case of Franciscans, of course, the calling is a religious vocation. But this connection to transcendence also interests me. It’s connected to sex, if you think about it. If you read the writings of these mystical saints, like St. Theresa, you find that they’re very physical and sexual. There’s a very famous statue in Rome by Bernini, The Ecstasies of St. Theresa. She’s holding an arrow and it makes religious ecstasy look like sexual ecstasy.
Paul: I’m glad you bring up this connection between the erotic and the spiritual. It’s something that’s present in a number of your films. You made a short film called The Morning of St. Anthony’s Day where we see a silent procession of teenagers parading through Lisbon. At the end, one of the boys throws a small potted plant at the statue of St. Anthony, as if spurning a lover. The film made me think about the eroticism of certain religious rituals and how it’s expressed in the objects of reverence.
João: I’m very moved by the way religion is expressed in people, objects, and art. St. Anthony’s Day is a very popular celebration that happens in Lisbon on the 13th of June every year.
People go out at night and drink and dance. It’s actually a very pagan celebration, in a way, because it has nothing to do with reverence to the saint. It’s also a very populist celebration that takes place in more working class neighborhoods. One of the things that you do during the celebration is offer basil in a flowerpot to a loved one. I went out on one St. Anthony’s night and I took the subway home very early in the morning. The subway car was filled with all these young people throwing up and sleeping on the floor. They were moving like zombies, which is how I got the idea to make the film. There’s not a lot of explanation about what’s happening, even though it’s a very simple film. You see all the kids diverge from a square, and the metro station you see at the end is where I live. In a way, the film is also a portrait and a kind of mapping.
It’s similar to a state of ecstasy, in that sense. This mixture of expectation and frustration makes time go in a different way.
Paul:Instead of birds, you’re mapping a different species – hung-over teenagers. This may be something of a leap, but it occurs to me that there’s a clear connection between ornithology, cinema and cruising. They all involve intense observation, anticipation and the thrill of encounter.
João: You’re right. They also all have the ability to compress and distend time. Time feels different in cruising areas. It goes faster. Maybe it’s because you loose sense of time when you’re there. It’s similar to a state of ecstasy, in that sense. This mixture of expectation and frustration makes time go in a different way. It’s the same if you’re having an ecstatic relationship with a film. Sometimes you watch a film and it doesn’t feel that two hours went by. It’s feels much shorter. It’s a bit like when you’re waiting for a bird and it finally appears. Everything goes very fast. It’s like that feeling when you’re falling in love. You feel it in your guts. It’s very much the same. When you see a film that gives you this kind of pleasure, it’s very sexual, in a way. The emotion is very physical.
Paul: It’s interesting to think about the relationship between time and eroticism. It hadn’t occurred to me before. What you’re talking about is the experience of losing yourself, of forgetting about time altogether. This is related to obsession as well, which is somehow about the pleasure of being lost. But let’s get back to bodies for a moment. I know that painting has always been a big inspiration for you. It’s evident in the way you photograph actors.
João: I was always interested in how to portray the human body, and I feel that my films come from a figurative tradition.When I was a teenager, I started going regularly to the Prado in Madrid. It was the first city that I traveled to on my own because it was nearby. I would go with a friend of mine and we’d visit the same paintings over and over. I was very taken with Titian and Tintoretto because even though their subjects are religious, there is a lot of physicality and brutality in the paintings. When I was eighteen, I went to Venice for the first time and spent two weeks there by myself. I wanted to see every painting there, so I mapped all the paintings that existed in the churches, palaces and museums. In Italy, the hours change all the time, so I sometimes had to go back many times before I was able to see a painting. I think looking at painting taught me a lot about narrative. It’s a frame. There are these Titian paintings at the National Gallery that depict scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which are important for my new film. There are three paintings about Diana. In one, she finds a pregnant nymph called Calisto. Then, there are two with the hunter Aktion. He surprises Diana while she’s bathing and as a curse, she transforms him into a stag. He is eaten by his own dogs.
Paul: That’s brutal! Speaking of pain-ting, I admire your short film The King’s Body (2013), which recalls historical portraiture as much as beefcake iconography. The film is a series of screen tests with different young men – many of whom are bodybuilders or trainers – auditioning for the role of Portugal’s first king in front of a green screen. There’s also an implicit critique: the men you’ve cast men are far from kings and aristocrats. They’re guys who are out of work because of Portugal’s economic crisis.
João: I was aware of the economic situation in Spain and Portugal as I was making the film, but I was very surprised that all the men in the film would have the same problem. It was during the edit that we realized they were all saying the same thing: ‘I’m out of work. I’m looking for a job.’ Most of them came to the casting call because they needed money and we paid them something. Not a lot, but something. Anyhow, the film was a commission from Guimarães, a city in the north of Portugal. It’s where King Alfonso founded Portugal in the 12th century. The city takes this history very seriously, so the fact that I undressed all these men was a provocation. Also, the men are from Galicia, which is a province in Portugal where they speak a language that’s a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. It’s closer to the language spoken at the time of Portugal’s founding. Our first king was, in the end, Spanish. That is also a provocation. There’s always been a rivalry between Portugal and Spain. The film plays with the myth of King Alfonso. He was supposed to be a big and powerful man. All of Portugal’s kings were supposed to be his descendants. During the Salazar dictatorship, from the ’50s to the early ’70s, a sword that was said to belong to King Alfonso was kept in a museum. It had been kept over his tomb, and whenever a king died, it was said that the sword fell in the ground. It was an extremely heavy sword. To be able to handle this sword, you had to be strong and powerful. That’s also why I tried to find guys with muscular bodies.
Paul: By casting them, you eroticize history. In a sense, you’re reanimating the corpus of the dead king. It’s a resurrection of sorts. But what I find interesting is the how the auditions become a series of speculative propositions that raise our awareness of the difference between the mythologized and the actual body. I found myself trying to image what King Alfonso’s body actually looked like naked.
João: The first idea for this film came from reading about King Alfonso’s tomb, which still exists in a church in Coimbra, which used to be the capital of Portugal. A few years ago, there was this scientist who wanted to open the tomb to see what’s inside. People didn’t let her, even though it was for scientific purposes. It’s like that line from the John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ In a way, this is what happened. People didn’t want to open the tomb and to disturb the myth. Nowadays, it’s possible to analyze bone fragments and find out a lot, but they refused to because it was considered a profanation. In the film, I tried to do something profane and open it up to make a crazy hypothesis. It’s as if I recreate the king out of many different bodies. I make him a body with many different arms, legs, and heads.
Paul: There’s also a connection between a king’s body and the body of a saint. They are both historical and mythological sites. I say ‘site’ because I’m reminded of our conversation about how bodies and landscapes become interchangeable in a way.
João: Yes, it’s actually quite beautiful. The writing about our first king was not produced during his lifetime. It was written much later, so there’s always a question about what’s true and what’s false, historically. There’s one story about an emissary of the Pope who traveled from Rome to meet with King Alfonso. It’s said that the king took off his clothes and showed the emissary the scars on his body from all the battles. In essence, you could read history on his body. His body became a map.