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An Unexplained Order: João Pedro Rodrígues Discusses "Will-o'-the-Wisp"

The Portuguese director reflects on the radical surprises and genre-blending choreography of his new tragicomedy.
Pedro Emilio Segura Bernal
The fogo-fátuo, or will-o'-the-wisp, is a chemical reaction that resembles small phantasmagoric flames. The phenomenonon generally happens in marshy areas or burial grounds, where phosphorus and methane are released from decaying organic matter. After a reaction with the environment, these substances combust in ghostly bursts of light that float on swampy surfaces.
This is a deeply accurate title for the new João Pedro Rodrígues film, a spontaneous explosion in the midst of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Thirteen years after Rodrígues’s last appearance on the Croisette with his fatidic melodrama To Die Like a Man (2009), Will-o’-the-Wisp takes a different approach to tragicomedy, a deconstruction of the musical genre embellished with a potpourri of hilarious eccentricities. 
A  67-minute package of voracious cinematographic twists and turns, Will-o'-the-Wisp recounts the long life of King Alfredo (Joel Branco). On his deathbed in the year 2069, he remembers a fleeting encounter with love and desire, longing for the proletarian life and freedom of his youth, when he aspired to be a fireman. This path led him to abandon, at least for a moment, the fetid perfume of privilege and wealth, to let himself flow from the certainty of the royalty into the uncertain choreography of emancipation and passion. 
Alfredo's attempt at liberty is portrayed by Rodrígues in his renowned, characteristically free style, which combines queer eroticism with a taste for the bizarre. In this case, his tale of faith and transfiguration is part of a Portuguese cinema tradition that embraces artifice; the film mixes dance, comedy, and music while addressing grand topics like global warming and colonialism. All of this comes together in an ephemeral yet intensely passionate love story: a multilayered demonstration of cinematographic creativity, referencing indie music videos as readily as Francis Bacon’s fascinating expressionistic technique. 
After the film’s warmly received world premiere during Directors’ Fortnight, I sat down with Rodrígues to discuss the exquisite world behind, and inside, this self-aware contemporary piece. 

NOTEBOOK: During your introductory speech at yesterday’s premiere, you congratulated Paolo Moretti for the years he worked as head of the Quinzaine, mentioning that he did a really hard and magnificent effort of sustaining that curatorial space as one devoted to radicality. As you mentioned this, I assumed that you consider your latest and, in general, your whole body of work, as a radical one. But I’m curious about your definition of radicality. 
JOÃO PEDRO RODRÍGUES: Yes, because it’s the cinema I’m interested in. Radicality is really hard to define. For example, there’s a lot of American classical cinema that, from my point of view, is radical. Radical doesn’t only mean experimental. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it but what I don’t like is this normalization of language. Films are made from images and sounds, not only dialogue. Nowadays, in cinema, it feels like it's only made for and from the dialogue. Like things can be shot in this or that or whatever way, and it doesn’t matter…
NOTEBOOK: Because it’s notorious, a lot of filmmakers are not thinking about cinema in this way.
RODRÍGUES: Yes. And for me, that’s the beginning of a film! To think about how you’re going to turn ideas into images and sound. Cinema is a visual art. If we think about it, cinema started as a silent art—well, you had a piano accompanying it. In cinema, you have this story that you want to tell, but in fact, it's all about how you decide [you] want to frame reality, about what you put in front of the camera. In my films, there are no maybes. In my films, what I search for the most is things that surprise me. I’m obsessed with controlling everything, but I’ve learned that it's impossible. Reality is what makes things change, and that’s what I enjoy the most, to see that the film has its own laws and rules that are not laws and rules by themselves, just that the film has its own life. And that life is its emotion. That’s what matters to me. When cinema was born, people got scared of this train that was coming toward them. That’s radicality for me. To surprise and be surprised. In cinema nowadays, nothing surprises me anymore.
NOTEBOOK: I guess that’s why you feel the need to make films, to surprise yourself! And it must be hard to surprise yourself with your own creativity, with your own work, especially as you just mentioned that you are really into controlling everything.
RODRÍGUES: When you’re shooting, there’s a tension that, even when you rehearse, you can’t generate. It’s something that’s produced in the moment, in front of the camera. That comes from this formula of the camera, plus the equipment, plus a team, plus a schedule… Cinema is made from a lot of uncountable things, things that arise from an unexplained order. We shouldn’t rationalize everything in cinema. It’s not that I’m a believer in intuition, but intuition has to be worked out. To work towards reaching a point of absolute clarity. It’s magical, unexplainable.
NOTEBOOK: So the surprise comes from this irrational energy. But you can control and manipulate this uncontrollable surprise later by repeating a scene, or transforming it in the editing room. For example, in Will-o’-the-Wisp you have this really beautiful, funny, theatrical tableau dinner scene. It's constructed with a lot of dialogue and has the richest sound design, with these amazing bird sounds that create some kind of musicality but that, strictly in terms of sonority, work as part of your comic mise-en-scène. For me, it’s hard to believe that this mix of elements can be imagined when someone is writing a script or when the scene is being shot. 
RODRÍGUES: That was something that came during postproduction, while we were working on the sound design—an out-of-field element that we can add at that time of the production. This thunderous sound, as you put it, is a peacock. An animal that belongs to the garden fauna of the royal family’s world, to which our characters belong. And there are plenty of other sounds there that we added as a means to construct this world. Comedy is originally visual in cinema, yet there are a lot of scenes in which comedy comes from the sound, from what’s present, what’s not…
NOTEBOOK: That’s a bit of what I’m wondering about: how do you work with these different phases of creation—writing, shooting, editing—that you have at your disposal as a director to construct and give order to your cinematographic world? Dealing with this idea of having and wanting total control, but working on surprising yourself.
RODRÍGUES: Normally, I do all of this really fast. Editing. My way of shooting is one in which there are not many options left for editing later on. I don’t do shots from all points of view. The point of view is an essential thing for me. I conceive scenes in a way that I can only shoot them in one way. For example, in this film, I didn’t throw a single shot into the garbage. All that we shot is in the film. In fact, we shot every scene several times. This is something that had never happened to me, and it’s because this is a film that was worked on and prepared a lot, mainly because we had little time to shoot, just two weeks and two days. I had never shot a film in such little time. And as everything was so well-prepared, it produced something in the shooting. It became self-evident. The film was very clear to everyone involved. 
NOTEBOOK: A synergy of precision.
RODRÍGUES: Yes, but precision is something I’m always obsessed with. [Laughs.] Usually I’m very precise about what I shoot, but this time it was a bit extreme. But I don’t like to waste time shooting things that I will end up throwing away. I prefer to prepare and think a lot, with precision, about what I’m going to shoot. In this case, the editing process was really simple and fun because I knew what I wanted Everything was extremely prepared and [it] basically was just choosing between the best shot of every scene. 
NOTEBOOK: Now that you mention this precision and this hard work of preparation, that may turn Will-o’-the-Wisp, for me at least, into your film most reliant on artifice.
RODRÍGUES: Yes, of course. It’s visible. Here, the characters even face the camera, they interact with the spectator… This film is about how we, as people, get on stage. How in interactions, we act as if we were in a scene. About characters who discover some things that are hidden about themselves. The prince, the main character, passes from this formal, serious stage of living, of the royalty, to a space of freedom. The film is about changing, too, but it's also about how we see ourselves and our roles, how one introduces us to the other, about our mise-en-scène—about how we always construct our own being.
The film is about a prince who discovers another side of himself, and about this tragedy when the character has to renounce his happiness of having met love and freedom. It’s like To Die Like a Man, where the main character doesn’t achieve her final change as well. For me, that’s the tragedy of both films. In this one, our main character decides to fulfill this supposed destiny as crown prince, following what he assumes is his role.
NOTEBOOK: And I feel that it's also a bit about the tragedy of the cinema you were mentioning before, the “dialogued” cinema, the one that assumes roles and renounces freedom.
RODRÍGUES: It could be.
NOTEBOOK:  Something else that I feel is shared by both of these films and, in fact, by your entire filmography, is that your point of view is always the one of desire.
RODRÍGUES: Interesting. I think it comes from the desire I have toward what I want to shoot. When I shoot an actor and actress, or a place, for me, it always means to desire them. What I dislike most in cinema is cynicism. This cinema that ridicules its characters and the world. Jean Renoir is one of my favorite filmmakers, even though my work is so different from his. He used to say that in order to create a world, you have to have a bit of everything. And I believe a lot in that. In my films, and this one especially, I wanted to have a bit of everything. Different bodies, unexpected elements, various approaches… In this film, you have really serious topics that are talked about with lightness.
NOTEBOOK: This posture toward the world, one that takes it with grace, with lightness, is something very hard to find in the entire selection of Cannes. This cynicism is practically dominating the main competition, and you can find it in a really terrifying percentage of the films that have screened in the festival. It's like cynicism is our main prism through which we can see the world, at least cinematically.
RODRÍGUES: Nowadays, all these serious topics that surround us are approached only with some kind of seriousness. I wanted to talk about them with grace, as you said. Comedy has always been… Let’s take Lubitsch, for example. All his work has this apparent lightness, but it's actually very deep. 
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, Lubitsch was able to make a delightful comedy out of tragedy with ease, no matter if it was war, fascism, adultery… 
RODRÍGUES: That’s what I wanted to reprise. The melancholic comedy. I wanted to make a comedy, a musical one, but the only comedy possible to me seems to be the melancholic one.
NOTEBOOK: Just as the world we are living in, I don’t think there’s any other way we can face it. 
RODRÍGUES: I don’t know about that, but I know that it’s the way I can do it. It’s in my nature, and I can’t go against my nature. I’m always interested in working in different genres. Will-o’-the-Wisp was really organic, how I approached it. I always think about it as a tragicomedy. 
NOTEBOOK: Shooting these choreographed comedy-musical sequences was new for you. For someone that has this idea of having just one way of shooting something, with this element of precision, I was wondering how it was for you to stage this for the camera. Physicality is really important in the film for both the comedy and the musical aspects. How did you approach the relation between the tensions of camera and body?
RODRÍGUES: We didn't have a lot of time to shoot but we had a long, long time to rehearse. We started rehearsals in 2020 and shooting started in 2021. First, only with my main characters. I was particularly interested in working on a musical, having the concept of a duo as a starting point, the two main characters, the prince and the main fireman. Then, I slowly added the rest of the elements and the rest of the firemen. I was extremely interested in starting something from these gestures, these movements that are trained by the firemen for their procedures, and taking them as a starting point to create the choreographies. Then, regarding what you just asked, how to shoot… Well, it all comes from musical comedies, like Jacques Demy, and video clips as references. Do you know Perfume Genius?
NOTEBOOK: Yeah.
RODRÍGUES: Well, I showed the choreographer [Madalena Xavier] some of his videos. Also, I showed her this short film that Paul Thomas Anderson made some years ago…
NOTEBOOK: The Thom Yorke one, Anima?
RODRÍGUES: Yes. I’m saying this just to make a point. [Laughs.] That we had seen diverse genres and references in order to approach the choreography. 
NOTEBOOK: Another element I think may have changed your approach is the use of music as the genre demands it. Did you edit this film like a “montage musical,” influenced by the rhythm of the music? 
RODRÍGUES: Yeah, I think it must be thought of that way. The film has very different kinds of scenes. You have this long single shot, and then some really fragmented choreographies. This all comes from the sound and music. All this editing, as you said, is defined starting from the music. And I truly looked around to be able to have different genres of music in the film. Music that I’ve never used: fado, some ’80s kids’ song about a tree, electronic music. I was interested in this mixture, a mixture that gives sense to the story as well. 
NOTEBOOK: This mixture is like a collision, a clash of elements. That’s an essential part of the film, I think. The mundane and the sacred, the tragedy and the comedy, traditional Portuguese music and contemporary electro…
RODRÍGUES: More about clashing, again, I think it’s more about surprise. It’s because this mixture only makes you wonder what the next scene is going to be about. Coming back to your first question about radicality, I always loved watching films that surprised me, in which I found unexpected things. And that’s why I’m always looking forward to bringing [this quality] to my own work. This is a really compact film. It tells the life story of a character in just 67 minutes. That forces you to have this mixture of disparate elements, one after the other.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a common trope in your body of work, and that is this path your characters pass through, in a constant state of change. In this case, besides being hilarious and entertaining, this is told in a staggering rhythm.  
RODRÍGUES: This comes from the fact that it's such a compact film. This film has so many ellipses. How can you tell a tale of a lifetime in such a short time? For me, the perception of watching this film feels like it has a very fast rhythm. And the length of the film is really an important detail. First, because there's a super obvious difference between my film and the rest of the films that have been shown at Cannes, besides it being a comedy, of course. But you see the other films, they’re all two hours and 40 minutes long, three hours and something. This is a film that goes really fast. When I made the film, I always had this length on my mind.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned before that the standardization of language, in this case cinematographic, is what scares you the most. Thinking about the importance of length in telling a story is like a self-imposed quest to work against standardization.
RODRÍGUES: For me, every film demands you to look for its own language, its own procedure. I cannot think about my past work or the work of other auteurs that come before me. What I tried to do is to use the tools that exist, from genres for example, that are coded, and turn those codes around to make my own. To twist them and see what I can get. For example, to me, beginnings are super important. I know that I’m going to like a film from the first few minutes. When you sit down and watch a film, there must be something that puts you into the film right away. B films were excellent at it, because they used to work with almost no mediums, and that forces you to be really effective. 
NOTEBOOK: You have to set the mood, impress the spectator, and set the rules of the game right away…
RODRÍGUES: Yes, exactly. [Laughs.] But for me, it mattered that those rules changed all the time.
NOTEBOOK: And to change and defy your own rules—that comes from being an auteur.
RODRÍGUES: I always try to be distinctive. [Laughs.] I never wanted to have a style. For me, every film is a challenge. “To move the floor below my shoes” is something that I enjoy. I like the feeling that every new chance is one to fall into an abyss. I always try to stand next to the cliff, just to push myself to do something that’s not what I did before.
NOTEBOOK: Just like the main character.
RODRÍGUES: [Laughs.] Yes, maybe. I always try to forget what I did before. To be in the present. 
NOTEBOOK: To always think about the next film.
RODRÍGUES: Actually, I already have a new film that's ready.
NOTEBOOK: Finished?
RODRÍGUES: Finished.
NOTEBOOK: Did you make it before this one?
RODRÍGUES: No, we ended both at the same time. [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: To wrap up, what surprised you the most about your own film?
RODRÍGUES: Perhaps the choreography scenes. They were the most complex to shoot: to handle the choreography, to work with so many actors. Two days of shooting, minimum. The editing of these scenes was the most surprising for me, and that’s maybe why one of these scenes is the most decoupaged one. It’s a scene with a lot of shots, and I worked on the scene for it to be like that. I really didn’t know what the result was going to be. We rehearsed a lot, but in the end, it ended up being something different, thanks to the tensions of the moment.

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