Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s star has been on the ascent for some time now, generally kept as a secret until 2006’s Colossal Youth’s screening at Cannes aggravated a certain kind of audience enough for us to know a new master had suddenly jumped into the limelight. That impression, at least in the US, was confirmed in 2007 when Costa took six of his feature films—including the “Vanda” trilogy of Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2001)—and several shorts on a tour around the country. It was an eye opening and formative event to discover this director uniquely channeling Jacques Tournuer, Ford, Ozu, Ray, and Straub-Huillet through his own sensibility and setting. It was not just a discovery, but also an important moment for internet criticism; bloggers, particularly a younger generation, gathered around the Costa and Jacques Rivette retrospectives that toured that year, showcasing a new form of engagement and awareness of cinema in entirely new, quasi-collective, highly personal, and absolutely invigorating ways.
We all waited to see what these filmmakers would do next, after the discovery. Costa’s path, less established, is also less certain. Since his “purer” documentary works—many would argue his masterpieces—In Vanda’s Room and Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), his video on Straub-Huillet doing post-production on Sicilia!, Costa has re-invested fictional elements into his recent films. Colossal Youth, and the two shorts that followed it, Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters (both 2007) take the same setting as the Vanda films—the Fontaínha slum of Lisbon—but move in more allusive directions, suggesting fantasy. So we were considerably caught off guard to discover that Costa’s next film was another documentary, his first in black and white since his debut O Sangue (1989), and on a French actress’ singing career to boot. Ne change rien played in the 2009 Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, where both David Phelps and I wrote about it. I had a chance to sit down with Costa the day after his film premiered, on the rooftop of the Palais Stéphanie. The filmmaker already seemed weary of the festival atmosphere and process, and finishing cigarettes and espressos while squinting at a beautiful day in the French seaside town, seemed to talk of the film, shot long ago and only recently finished, as one would about a poignant but receding dream.
NOTEBOOK: What was the difference between making Ne change rien—which is about working to make music—and Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? , which is about making a movie?
PEDRO COSTA: I could answer it another way. For the film about Danièle [Huillet] and Jean-Marie [Straub], that began as a request from Cinéma, de notre temps, and that began as a 60 minute film for the TV series in a certain format that I should more or less respect. When I prepared myself to shoot the thing, we really prepared. There was a film [Sicilia! ], there was a declaration of film production, and I was a bit afraid because I had this idea that I couldn’t to shoot Danièle and Jean-Marie shooting their film or being on a set because you can't see anything. We either had to see the work with the actors—you could probably see something there—or the editing. So I chose the editing, knowing it would be very difficult technically, just because it takes place in a dark room, and the concentration involved. And, above all, Jean-Marie and Danièle, who I knew a little bit before, but I had an image of what it could be. So I had sometimes two cameras, I had someone assisting me with the cameras; we were there always, always from 9-7, so we ended up with 100 hours or more of footage, just because I wanted to have it all. I was afraid of missing that moment.
For this project, it was a bit different, there was no film, and there is no film still.
NOTEBOOK: There is an album.
COSTA: There's an album, but there's never a moment I said to Jeanne [Balibar] or the musicians "I'm doing this to make a feature, I'm doing a documentary." It began because I knew Jeanne, apart from the fact that she's certainly the actress today I most admire. She kept inviting me to things, to a theater play, or "come see this, even if you don't like theater," that she was going to be in the studio and come spend some days; simple things. There was a moment when I said "yeah okay I'll come;" probably I didn't even say I'll bring my camera, I just arrived with my friend who does the sound and the musicians weren't surprised. And we were there as the other musicians were, the technicians. So there's this formality with Danièle and Jean-Marie that was not here. I don't want to say the work with Jeanne was lighter or more superficial, but it's a bit different than the work done from the editing of the film and especially Jean-Marie and Danièle’s methods. First, in this film, there's much more people around, even if you don't see it on screen, there's a lot of intrusion. You can feel it a bit in some moments, there's guys testing, some rock sounds, even some dispersion.
NOTEBOOK: The way the soundtrack works, you are never quite sure what the audio source is, whether it's coming from what's live on camera, or if it’s a playback loop, or if it’s off-camera.
COSTA: Exactly, there's friends visiting, there's people just sitting around. If the shots were wider or if my camera moved like in One Plus One, you could see the same thing, guys sitting around in funny hats. Of course, Jeanne and Rodolphe [Burger]—the corpus of the thing—were as concentrated and anxious as Jean-Marie and Danièle were, and for me that felt familiar. I saw the same protection. What I like about this film, and what related to Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, is the generosity they share. "If you fail, I'll fail"—very simple. Even if I don't like the projection here [in Cannes], if you see the film with a good print and good sound in a smaller theater, you'll see the eyes, which are very important. Small things in Rodolphe's attention and protection, that's very obvious. There's a link, a bond between him and the other guy, the bass guy, that's very close, almost an out-of-time bond. There's something very touching about that.
NOTEBOOK: The interaction between Jean-Marie and Danièle in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is conversation. It's about the making of Sicilia! , but it goes far beyond that, whereas in this film, all dialog is strictly about the sound and getting the right sound, finding that tenor in construction and repetition.
COSTA: I was present for all the moments when you see Jeanne practicing the Offenbach opera, and that is probably the part of the film where I have more rushes. There you can see the same thing as between Jean-Marie and Danièle, the same severity, strictness, some very funny light tones, some erudition, there's more moments like "think of this Mozart piece," but then building the film, putting the pieces together, one part I was afraid of was charging these scenes so much, too much. It's a film about a form, I think, and it's Jeanne's form—tempo—and if I would put more of the opera or the rehearsals, it would just become…I don't know if I had the material to be that kind of film. Jeanne says it's more like Party Girl, but the gang, you know in They Live By Night when they go to the cabin in the forest and stay for four days? It's Nick Ray, it's [Robert] Siodmark. They're runaways, one has a guitar...they are running from something. It could be called The Fugitives.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your visual approach to the project? You shot it yourself on digital in color, and then printed it on film. I've seen digitally shot videos projected here in Cannes digitally, but I've never seen one of your digital films projected that way.
COSTA: I've done four or five films like this, and now I'm doing video, color—not HD, just regular digital—and then I do the transfer to 35mm. The problem with this film was that I wanted real 35mm, not color stock, but the real black and white negative, the silver nitrate. It's pretty expensive; five years ago you had Agfa, Kodak, Fuji, now you only have Kodak. The lab in Paris told me that in two years you couldn't do this, it's over, it's too expensive, it's too dangerous.
NOTEBOOK: It's a beautiful effect though, it reminds me of the black and white version of that high contrast digital in Godard's In Praise of Love, the vibrancy of the highs and lows. Did you light it yourself?
COSTA: I did some things, but I brought no equipment, really. I just improvised again, more like I did in In Vanda's Room, with some aluminum foil or light boards off-camera. That's one funny thing, sometimes the light is sun, you think it's a lamp but it's the sun, it's real, bright sun. That's Hollywood; I mean the good Hollywood. And sometimes it's night and you think it's the sun...so I just helped a little bit. The shine in the eyes, things like that, very, very small things. I was worried, actually, because I often have the tendency to pull back...
NOTEBOOK: But some of the close-ups are incredible, the shot that's also in the shorter version of this film, that profile of Jeanne that looks like Dietrich-Sternberg lighting...I don't know if that was the lighting of the club she was singing at or if it was your lighting.
COSTA: That was the club lighting plus a little bit—maybe—of manipulation, but just little things, density, contrast. That's a funny shot.
NOTEBOOK: Is it sync sound or was the soundtrack remixed?
COSTA: Everything's direct. There's only one shot—the one in Japan—where the sound is from elsewhere. The image is something I did in Japan, I went to a cafe in the morning where we shot the concert in Japan. I went with Nobuhiro Suwa to Naruse's grave, and this cafe faces the cemetery. The door in this shot, you can see it in the window...there's a moment where you can almost see the gate of the cemetery. I went there and saw the grave and then I went for coffee and these two women were there, and they looked at me and I looked at them. And I set the camera simply on the table, I had no tripod, they smiled, I smile—Japan! But I had to add sound in the end, so when I mixed the film, I added this very tiny, tender sound. Every time I see this shot it reminds me of Jacques Tati, I don't know why. But there's a lot to be said about this shot. I would like to do a whole film like that—not silent—but there's something there.
NOTEBOOK: Naruse's favorite actress, Hideko Takamine, once said that Naruse told her that his ideal film would be one where she stars against blank white backdrops. In a way, Ne change rien reminds me of this project, bodies hanging against a minimalist abstraction.
COSTA: We tried to find something that's under the surface of this film, not even a story, there's more than that, something about fear, the light and blackness. I’m sure it's not a documentary in that sense, a documentary about work, it's just about trying to get somewhere. But that comes from Jeanne's fragility, she's a bit misplaced at the opera, she's a bit misplaced in tempo with the guys, the pros.
NOTEBOOK: Did you complete this film a while ago? Because I first saw footage from it two years ago.
COSTA: We shot it a long, long time ago. The first time was a concert in 2005, I believe. And then every year I shot more, in the way I told you, I came and went. The last time I shot was late 2007. I stopped for a while, I had a short film to do, and then I came back to this, sat down with the editor. From November until March I was editing and handling the lab things.
NOTEBOOK: Was Ne change rien the same as with In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth where you had to sift through hundreds of hours of footage?
COSTA: No, we had much less. I had something like 80 hours for this film, because all the concerts are just an hour and I did not want to make a concert film where you go backstage or in the bus. I just shot the moments. Even the tiny small things that are in the film when the practice is over and the team goes to prepare food or whatever, really the rush just ends there. It's like Warhol, an experimental thing where you go to the end of the tape. I had much less material.
NOTEBOOK: Was there much interaction between you and the musicians? If I remember correctly, you talk to Jean-Marie in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?.
COSTA: Yes, with Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? the beginning was difficult, I was a bit lost in how to do it, and I found the door very, very late. But in this one, no, sometimes I told Jeanne something, but she's an actress so she knows what to do, she slightly turns a bit more to the light—but just for the light, not for the mise-en-scene like "let's do a scene like this"—I just served the thing, just being there, like a public service. [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: Are you working on something now? The two shorts came after this was shot.
COSTA: The shorts came in between.
NOTEBOOK: I love those shorts especially because of their length. When you were in New York for your retrospective, you talked about wanting to set up a television station in Fontaínhas and these shorts felt like episodes in a potential television series.
COSTA: I would love to do that, but it's impossible. Every day it's more impossible. But to see this idea more and more contemplated from here in Cannes it makes so much sense. I'll do another short, more a museum thing, and then I'll go back to Japan to do another short film, I don't know the idea, but it will be a film with other directors, probably Godard and Sokurov.
NOTEBOOK: From In Vanda's Room to Colossal Youth there’s a move towards more...I want to say fictional elements, but not really fictional, just a move away from specific documentary that allowed for room of mystery. The two shorts definitely continued in this vein.
COSTA: The films with my gang in Fontaínhas—it's not only me—they need that "fiction," or what we call fiction, they need it badly. That's very obvious and natural, this necessity, and it explains everything. We know each other very well now, it's been a long time–Vanda, Ventura, all the boys...well they're not boys anymore. At the beginning it was like "let's do the cop," and "let's do the chase," and "okay another boring one," and finally they are proposing—as in Tarrafal. I said I have this money, what shall we do? The second day this guy came with this letter about being expelled from the country, so let's do something around that, he said let's do that story, his story. I said where should we do it and he said "not here," "let's find a place." That was the first time they said let's imagine something, let's imagine our territory. The problem is they don't have a territory; they are between the new neighborhood, a no-man's-land, and a freeway.
NOTEBOOK: But there's that amazing sequence in the forest in those two shorts, where is that?
COSTA: [Laughs] That forest is...[indicates a small square]
NOTEBOOK: Oh, so just outside the frame there's nothing?
COSTA: It's ridiculous! But they needed that, and they wanted that. So now I think I should work on that, hear them much more, and go that direction. I think it will get closer to something..."purer" is not the word, but something verbal I'm sure. They want to tell the story with four or five elements, I don't know what they are…I don't want to talk about abstraction or minimalism but we'll probably go that way. So you are right; when I started, even with Ossos, I really wanted to see something, find out, put things in relation to find out about them. But now it's free. We don't care any more about a statement.
There used to be even a critique in what we were doing, and they say we should show a bit more, about how the other half live, and I said "no, this is just me looking at you." Now I don't care and they don't care, and it's about something else. It's freer. I hope the form will be freer. The monster is that it relates much more to the past than the present. They don't care much about the present, that's just it. They don't think a second about the future, they are completely numb, and violent, and much more violent than before. They are turning their backs and it's all about the past. It's all about missing people and missing the land. That's why I want to go back now.
NOTEBOOK: That sounds like a much more integrated approach to collaboration than what you are doing in Ne change rien or the Straub-Huillet film.
COSTA: Yes, and it's also much wider, more vast. In the beginning it was Vanda, it was a girl, then it was her sister and her friend. Now everybody is Vanda.
NOTEBOOK: Does that make Ne change rien, this kind of film, more manageable than your work in Fontaínhas?
COSTA: These are really prototypes, all of them, and this was unique in that it comes from no declaration of film, for the first time, not even a "let's see" attitude. It was strange, every time I went to see Jeanne, coming with a camera. I just read a Variety critique of my film, it says it all—"Arty fans will be enchanted" or something, "normal people, run away!" It's funny, because I know when "normal" people and Variety walk out of this film—it's when people start working. It's like Godard says, when people see a tiny bit of someone working in a film, it's dead.