Whilst at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in June this year, I got the chance to interview Portuguese director, Miguel Gomes, about his recent film ARABIAN NIGHTS, which had only been unveiled a few weeks previous at Cannes.
Miguel was in great spirits which made for a very light-hearted interview.
Photo by Ella Karttunen ©
Neil McGlone: What first gave you the idea to use the structure of Arabian Nights and transpose that to present day Portugal?
Miguel Gomes: Because I thought that there is this kind of excessive, delirious, dimension in the fiction of Arabian Nights. It’s delirious. It’s sometimes too absurd. It’s scatological and sometimes obscene, much more than my film. I’m a shy guy, but there are these kinds of absurdities in the stories of the crises of the country where the crises existed. So I’ve seen the connection. Of course, the crises was part of the media coverage. We are into the situation, so every time on television we talk about this and in newspapers. But I think to cover only from the point of view of facts, factual reality; it’s not good enough. I think you have to have the other side, and the other side is storytelling and imagination. I think that in moments of crisis there is this collective imaginary that exists in a society. And you have to try and pick it up and put it on a screen.
NM: You used Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, to shoot most of the film, but I believe you used two cinematographers overall?
MG: It’s three, in fact.
NM: Three, OK. And some of it is 16mm, some of it’s 35mm, using again a lot of natural light. I’m guessing the reason you may have picked him is because you’re a fan of his films and the way that his movies look?
MG: Of course, I’m a huge fan of Apichatpong and his work. Well, I was trying to work with my usual DOP, Rui Pocas, that made TABU (2012) and my previous films, and he was not available. It was very difficult this idea of having someone available for one long year because the problem was we should be ready to shoot at anytime. We had the camera equipment all the time with us and so we should be able to phone the rest of the crew and go to wherever and he could not do it. He had already too many compromises. And we said OK what can we do? And then someone from the crew knew Sayombhu, the DOP, and said I have his phone number, do you want this guy? And I said he’ll never come! What are you going to do to propose someone to live in Lisbon for one year, saying to him OK you have to be able to shoot any day and we don’t have any idea of what you’re going to shoot. So only a crazy man would accept a proposition like this!
NM: And he did.
MG: And he said yes! He said yes right away. He said let me just talk a little bit with my family.
NM: Was he living in Lisbon at the time, did you say?
MG: No, he was living for one year in Lisbon. He went to Thailand like two times during that year. And this is one of the reasons we used other DOP’s for the shoots; two other stories in that period, because he was not available. But the rest was his work. And I think the reason for 16 and 35mm was because me and Sayombhu, we don’t like to shoot on digital. We think that film is much better looking and we cannot overcome this. No one until this moment convinced us that we should do otherwise.
NM: I’m just curious, it’s interesting that you say that because the film premiered at Cannes and I remember Alice Rohrwacher who was here last year with her film THE WONDERS. Her film also played Cannes and she said that Cannes wouldn’t let her screen the 35mm. They made, at their own expense, a digital copy and screened the digital copy. How did you do it? Was there no issue screening the print?
MG: No, but we didn’t screen the print because there is no print for it. We don’t have money. I mean, let’s face it, it’s six hours! It’s very expensive. So we just did the DCP, but we left everything in it; the dirt, the scratches on the film, and the digital lab tried to remove them but we said no! We have the right to keep them in! I mean it’s stupid to shoot on film and then not to have the imperfections of film. We want all of it. All the hairs and all the dirt, they are welcome. Normally, there’s a ritual when you do a shot, normally the camera assistant opens the camera and he looks with a little lamp and he says “no hair”. And in our case we were hoping that he would say “a hair!”
NM: It’s interesting because the other day Aki Kaurismäki said this great phrase. He said that “film is polite, digital is just numbers”.
MG: Yeah, it’s organic. I’m talking with you and you know beer. It’s something you have in your country. So I think that cinema is a little bit like beer. It has to have bubbles. If not, it’s dead. Digital, it’s like, even one of the more well known brands of digital cameras that is in the market, it was invented not by the guys that worked on the cameras and the logical cameras, but the guys that built glasses. It’s a different thing. I think it’s much more organic. I miss this. I’m forty-three years old, so I’m used to seeing films that were not still, that were moving, oscillating, all these things I miss. Maybe we are the last dinosaurs.
NM: There’s nothing wrong with that!
MG: I like dinosaurs.
NM: There’s a lot of humor throughout the film as well as taking you on a journey through many quite stark emotions. We even see you running away from the film crew at one point, kind of overcome by the grandness of the project. I just wondered if you could talk about that particular moment in the film?
MG: Yeah, it is an easy explanation. Sometimes, it happened before in another film where I appear too called OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST (2008), and it was the same thing. It was on a day that we were supposed to shoot someone and finally he was not available. So if I have the camera, I have the crew, and nothing to shoot; what shall I shoot? So the scene takes place in the hotel because we were in the hotel and I have to profit from everything. We just made up this scene where I said okay I’m going to run away from the hotel and you’re going to look for me all over the city.
NM: That’s great. I like that.
MG: And because it’s also a film about the crisis and many crises, in every story of Scheherazade and in every episode they appear in a different way. I thought it was good also to show us, that we’re making the film, also in crisis. We have to share this.
NM: Talking of the film, OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST, you used a technique of using real people in almost like a documentary situation playing themselves but as fictional characters. Can you just talk a little bit about that process and where that came from?
MG: I understood that one of the bigger pleasures of making films, was to understand that if you propose for someone to act and it’s not his job to do this, he’s not an actor, most of the people, at least in Portugal, they have lots of fun doing this. And I understood that one of the greatest things to have in the film is people having fun. I think it’s contagious. And so when you ask someone that is not an actor to play in a film I think there’s something of the pleasure of acting that becomes part of the film. It’s like being children. It’s like everyone did that. I think as adults we do this but we don’t understand that we are doing this. We just play characters. We are playing characters all the time. So, of course, there are some people that are professionals at doing this, they are actors. And in this case we have mixed everything there is. Actors and non-actors playing other characters and there are people playing themselves and I think the range of the film should have all this kind of different things because it’s Arabian Nights. Arabian Nights is a big book with a very Baroque structure and you have to shift and to mutate from one form to the other and this is also part of the pleasure of watching the film I hope.
NM: I understand you got stories from a team of journalists around Portugal who you sent out to get real life stories that you could then utilize in the film itself. Could you speak a little bit about that process?
MG: It’s this crazy idea of doing a project, a fictional project, but in sort of a live way because we wanted to pick things from what was happening and transform it by fiction into the smallest amount of time. We understood that to be connected all the time with reality we needed a part of the crew that normally does not exist on film, which are the journalists. We engaged three. Already there is something happening with the crisis where lots of journalists lost their jobs and so we engaged three and they were in the office with us. So in one room we were writing a script and in the other one they were researching other stories and leaving to go somewhere and just giving us reports on that and we were talking about this all the time and this was our process. When we thought a story really could be a Scheherazade story we would say to the journalists okay so talk with this guy, investigate this further and it was like this. It was a way of making this film and I think that the films are the result of why they are done. There are many things happening in the film. I think it’s part of the process of doing this nonsense thing and working this way.
NM: There’s a very good website (http://www.as1001noites.com/en/the-film/), around the movie which follows the shoot and there’s details about some of the journalists involved. It tracks the process of the movie itself.
MG: We said to ourselves the film will be visible in the moment where it’s done. But there is all this work with journalists so this can be visible. Not the film, but the research, because they are journalists we thought their work would disappear under the fiction. And so it was important for them and for me to have a visibility of their work in another way.
NM: Buñuel appears to be a heavy influence on your work. I wonder if you can talk more about your own cinematic interests?
MG: I don’t know. I don’t think that I was thinking about him during the process, but I think Buñuel is someone that, mostly in his Mexican period, I really love. When he was working with more stylized models of melodrama and he adds to this a kind of insane, surreal mood it’s very provocative and very sexy and very crazy. I really love his films. My favorite film of Bunuel’s is a very deranged film that he made in Mexico called Él (1952). It’s a story about jealousy, which goes to a very extreme form. It’s delirious and I think you have with this idea of crisis, that was lacking, you had effects but you should have the right to be delirious about this. To start to put some fever on it and then have cocks that talk and cows that talk with a tree.
NM: On the subject of influences, when you’re making your movies, do you ever look at anybody else’s movies for, not necessarily inspiration, but purely for the process of making your movie.
MG: No, because you know since I was a child I’ve seen lots of films and I don’t have a very good memory and this is good maybe for me because I don’t do quotations. A cinema of quotation, it’s like a game and it doesn’t go too far I think. But if you have a more blurred impression of all these films you have seen that gave you pleasure and it was important for you as a viewer maybe you do quotations without knowing it because you don’t remember already but there’s something that sticks with you which is the sensation of, I mean for instance Western movies, I just feel when it’s right for an actor to be walking away and not another way and I say this is vaguely John Wayne. But I’m not saying to him walk like John Wayne. But there are some guys that walk like John Wayne and then I recognize this and I say okay just keep walking.
NM: I picked up on several critics at Cannes mentioning this in their praise of the film, watching it “entailed rediscovery of the potential of the medium of film, renewing one’s enthusiasm for it’s possibilities” and somebody else went on to elaborate on that point “this is cinema that tries to change the world, and strives to evolve the ways in which cinema can be made and watched”. Those quotations almost seemed like they were saying what you’re doing here with this particular film is almost like the start of something new, that film is evolving to where we’re at now with this and I just wondered what your feelings were on this, I appreciate this might be difficult for you to answer?
MG: No, my answer is I’m flattered but I think that people exaggerate a little bit. I don’t want to have this responsibility for starters. I think that I cannot change the world and I am not very important and the world is very, very big. So what can I do?
NM: That’s fine. It just seemed like two different people saying pretty much the same thing was quite something. It was good to hear that kind of praise about maybe we are starting to enter a new era in film. And this is perhaps the start of it.
MG: I am not aware of this but they have my support!
© Neil McGlone 2015