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João Pedro Rodrigues Interview (The Ornithologist)


João Pedro Rodrigues is a Portuguese filmmaker who regularly collaborates with João Rui Guerra da Mata. Their films include the theme of transformation within a number of circumstances, including national identity. He has directed three feature films with sole director credit – O Fantasma (2000), Two Drifters (2005) and To Die Like a Man (2009) – a host of shorts, and his films co-directed with João Rui Guerra da Mata – China China (2007), Red Dawn (2011) and The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) – have blended non-fiction and fiction in their exploration of globalization, post-colonization and formal experimentation.

His latest film, The Ornithologist (2016), is a quasi-western shot in anamorphic widescreen that follows one man’s bird watching trip that takes him through the pressures of nature, mysterious cultural rites, and a bricolage of mythologies that in turn transform him. The film had its North American premiere at TIFF 2016, where João discussed the production of the film with Christopher Heron.

The Seventh Art: I’m interested in how you shot this film given its aspect ratio is new for you, specifically because I know that you have a preferred distance between what you’re shooting and where the camera is located. But physically, how far do you need to be for these anamorphic lenses?

João Pedro Rodrigues: It’s totally different. I was not aware when I started, because it changes how you perceive a human body or an actor – the scale, the relationship between the landscape. You really have to think about it. Sometimes people say you can do scope just by cropping and that is really ridiculous. It’s a way of building the space with the lens. Something that I really like is physical and you have to perceive it while shooting. We just had three anamorphic lenses and we mostly shot with the one that is equivalent to the 40 in 35mm. It’s difficult to do a close-up with anamorphic widescreen. It’s why there are so many Westerns, made with anamorphic, that use a lot of long shots. It’s also a format where you can evolve a character in a scene using long takes, just moving from one place to another, through the relationship to the background and the actor – making it differ. I really have to learn, it’s a different perception of the world. It’s as if you are looking with different eyes, in a way, even if you are looking with your own eyes. It was hard to get close. Usually, I’m a little bit far, but what I like is variation: the decoupage, how you cut from one shot to another and why you cut the moment you cut. With anamorphic lenses, everything is overwhelming, so powerful, because there’s so much space around the character. Because my film is mostly one guy alone, so it’s almost a contradiction: there’s a lot of space around him, but what I wanted to shoot what was around him, as if it had the same importance. That’s why I chose this actor. He’s half-French, half-American, but I think he has something from old American actors like Randolph Scott or a character from the westerns. 

You have a dedication to Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.

…And Randolph Scott, too, because they were people I was thinking about when I was looking for an actor. It’s not that I wanted to find the actor that more resembled this, but how this mythology of the cowboy was built, and how I see it through my eyes in a totally different place (the north of Portugal) and a totally different ambiance. It’s not that the ambiance is different because of the place, you could shoot westerns there and I think the film is a western – that was one of the main ideas, because it’s my favourite film genre. Paul Hamy lives in France, but has some of this physicality of older American actors, also because he doesn’t speak much.

I picked up on the influence of the western, but it also made me think of a sub-genre of horror movies where someone enters a strange space that they think they have control in, but they don’t – like when the rituals are being performed. Which is also true for the tension of the colonizer and the indigenous in the western.

And also what is also touching in westerns: the actors are at natures mercy, they suffer a lot. There’s all the opponents, the “Indians” or whatever they are, there’s a lot of westerns where the path of the characters is one of survival – this idea of being lost in nature and having no references anymore. The film is set today, but we shot in places that are very wild even now. Some places you cannot go because they are protected, you have to have a special permit to go there because of the wildlife that lives there, so they haven’t changed for a long time. The fact that the film is like a voyage in space, it’s also a voyage in time, because it’s reconnecting to a story that was lived a very long time ago: St. Anthony’s story. It’s a story in the Middle Ages. I felt that when I was there, in the space itself there is an atemporal feeling, it’s now but it could be ages ago. He’s looking for birds, these birds haven’t changed in the last two thousand years, I’m sure that they existed. It’s not dinosaurs two thousand years ago [laughs].

They are dinosaurs!

They are in a way. You’re in a space that immediately transports you to another time. That’s why I call this an atemporal space.

I want to talk about the main character’s system of order, his desire to catalogue, and then coming up against a number of experiences where he doesn’t understand the order – a chaos. I know that this was something that was close to you as a child, an interest in birds as an obsessive act, but have you grown to embrace chaos or do you still seek that order?

I have a background studying biology, but it’s something that’s not just in the character, it’s in everything I do. I have this very methodical way of working. I think one of the things my films could be called is “precise,” or at least I try for that. Even though I try to have them be ambiguous. It’s the paradox, something that can be very methodical – almost mathematical, from my scientific background – but all the ambiguity comes from there. Even if everything is very prepared beforehand, for instance I determine the decoupage beforehand, perhaps this is the film that I made the most later on. I usually write it down on the script, but this one I think I did it the day or night before. Perhaps I was not as close, the film was really shot in the wilderness. Some places were really difficult to get to, you have to have 4×4 cars, so I could not be in the locations with the actors as much as I was in the previous films. It changed the process a little bit. What interests me, what you’re saying about this chaos, is that it’s something that is very methodical and organized and written. I feel that when I finish the script, it’s as if I have shot it once, then shooting it is like shooting it a second time and editing is a third time, mixing is a fourth time. For instance, in this film, there is only one scene that has changed places in the editing from what was written in the script: the scene when he goes to the forest, where there’s the taxidermy. I don’t remember if it was earlier or later in the script. I try to know even in the shooting when I will cut to then next shot.

I’m interested in the recurring theme of the character meeting these seemingly chaotic orders, people with whom he doesn’t share a language and can’t understand their rituals – literal rituals at one point. The film is filled with a lot of potent symbols, Christian and not-Christian, even ones not everyone might understand.

They are even the opposite of Christian, they’re Pagan. All that comes from different mythologies. The fondatrice… the founding myth in Western Europe is Christianity, so it’s very strong in the Western world and a lot of the symbols come from the Bible, but a lot of the ceremonies that still exist in North Portugal and many other countries are Pagan ceremonies. In the film, the costumes are from young boys that are unmarried are free to do whatever they want, they disguise themselves in those strange costumes. I mixed up a lot of mythologies, trying to create something that is my own mythology or the mythology of the film. There are a lot of symbols, but I also hope that if you don’t understand why those people are there, you don’t have to know what exactly it means; they are menacing, scary threats on this journey of the main character towards… I don’t know… perhaps enlightenment – in this transformation of the main character into something else. Of course, the dove being the holy spirit is one, but I also just filmed it as if it was a dove. It’s a white dove. I don’t like films that are overly symbolic and I wanted the film to be followed like an adventure film, not to have to understand each symbol. Of course, if you do understand more, if you know that Jesus and Thomas were in the Biblical apocrypha, not the Bible, there’s this mythology that they were twin brothers. Before that, they were the same person. If you know about Thomas putting his finger into Christ’s wound, perhaps you get more from the film. I tried to amuse myself with those symbols and those mythologies, almost like a patchwork of a lot of references, but I hope they also remain hidden and aren’t so important. The scene is like Thomas putting his finger into Christ’s wound, but it’s also penetration. You see whatever you want to see. 

I like to think of the film as a western, like a Budd Boetticher or Anthony Mann western, which you went to be entertained, then they are much more profound and stronger than just that. There’s a lot of other b-westerns that are very bad. I wanted the film to have that quality where you immerse yourself in that story, even if you’re puzzled by what is happening because you’re following a character. It’s a little bit like my first, O Fantasma (2001), because you also don’t understand exactly what is happening, but if you just follow the character, you let yourself be the character in a way.

That’s a very urban film with a lot of spaces you know from your own life, whereas this one seems like new, hidden spaces.

It was a film with places that I knew for a very long time, but I never imagined that those scenes would be set in those locations. I knew them as mysterious locations that for me had a mystery and these were locations that we scouted, we mapped all the rivers in this area. We followed every trail that was going to the river – me and another guy, it was mostly him the first time. I looked at pictures and we looked for them. We needed places that you could more or less get to with a crew. Some of the places are really inaccessible. The location scouting was very long, but for me I felt I was in places that for ages people had not been there. Birds or animals had seen those places, not humans.

What happens for you when a person sees those places? There is a sense of spying that’s going on within this film, especially with the binocular shots, where you’re peeping in on something you weren’t supposed to see. 

I think it’s cinema being very voyeuristic by itself. He gets into the rapids because he’s not aware, so you can get in trouble if you’re just looking. It’s a bit like Peeping Tom (1960) … it’s also a bit different [laughs]. I wanted the film to start peaceful, almost like a National Geographic documentary about this area or these birds. I wanted to film the actors with the same importance as the animals, as the birds. In the first scene, there’s first the bird, then there’s him swimming, then the bird also comes from underwater, and you first see his face when he comes from underwater. There’s all these parallels because I felt in the beginning that I could have chosen to shoot just the story of the birds and just abandon him, but I was also interested in shooting him [laughs]. I tried to film both with the same importance throughout the film. There’s mostly his point-of-view, which is kind of my point-of-view, but there’s also the point-of-view of the birds that see him throughout the film. That was something that I thought, even when I was very young and watching birds. watching birds is a very lonely thing, like going to the cinema; I mostly like to see films alone. I don’t even like to talk so much afterwards about films I see. I always thought [watching birds], “I’m looking at that bird – is it looking at me? What is it seeing?” You also have to learn how to watch birds. You have to behave in a certain way and you learn how to behave in a way – not that they’re not afraid of you, because they’re always afraid of you and they escape – but you move a little bit slow. You reconfigure your way of behaving as if you were also a bird, an animal. You go back to a state of animality so you have the same importance of the bird. Even if they see you sometimes, they are not so afraid if you behave properly or bird-like. It’s something you get out of experience. I was always thinking of what is in their minds. In this film, I thought perhaps it would be the glue of the film, in a way, because it’s a film about a transformation, as many of my films are. Perhaps this transformation could be seen earlier by these creatures that are more irrational, that don’t see as we do.

When the film shows the POV of the bird, it looks like you’re doing something to the image’s quality. Is that to replicate not just what they see, but how they see?

It’s shot in a different camera – a shitty camera, a GoPro – that I really hate. It has these stupid lenses that are round and they deform the space. I did a little bit of research, you don’t know how birds see, but they do see a bit larger than us. In a way, physically, [the lens] would be something that would be similar or closer to how they see. I also wanted to create this different texture in what they see – to concentrate – because they focus more in a way, even if they see larger, they focus more on a point. That was done in the colour correction stage of the film. The point-of-view is when they are flying and I like this idea of working with cameras and devices that are contemporary, but that I hate and am against doing it, because I hate films shot with GoPros and I hate drones. But I like the idea of putting those things into my films in a way that I can get something out of them that is different than what is usual. I hate these shots of drones going through the street, it’s really awful. There are so many films these days that are filled with that shit. Using those things that are part of our contemporary world, to appropriate them myself and do something different to create the language of the film. This film was supposed to be shot on film, but because of budget restrictions I couldn’t do it. Then, this difference would have been bigger. I shot with the Alexa and I’m happy with it, I think it was the best solution we could get.

With the parallels between people and animals, we tend to see in your films the transformations that people experience, but are there any transformations the animals undertake? There’s the taxidermy scene, which is one kind of transformation, but how does their story resolve alongside the man’s?

I think they become themselves mythologically in a way. They don’t really transform, but it’s that border between the white dove and the holy spirit. It’s a symbolic border, not a transformation, but it’s like the idea of the white dove being chosen in religious paintings or for peace. There’s this idea of how I got to all this religious imagery. I’m not religious myself, I got to the Bible through painting, because religious painting was most paintings that were made until the Renaissance and even afterwards there’s a lot. I like the idea of how these stories were told, how did you choose a moment from stories that are iconographic, like the Bible’s stories, but you have to choose just one moment. I think that’s similar to film, when you’re telling a story you have to choose one moment, you cannot tell the whole story. In a way, you have to concentrate the story in a moment. That’s how I got to the story of Thomas, you see him putting the finger in, but you don’t see the before and the after usually. I turn putting the finger in into an erotic thing. I try in all of my films to eroticize everything. In a way, it’s not that I wanted to make a blasphemous film, but like religious painting is in itself, a lot of it like Caravaggio, is very blasphemous because it’s erotic. It contradicts the sanctity, the pureness of what it’s representing. This is talking about religious mythology, but I also use Greek mythology. It’s a bit the same. The most iconographic reference is the Metamorphosis by Ovid. When there’s the huntresses at the end of the film, the bare-breasted women, I’m also playing with one of the myths from Ovid. It has this idea – why I said patchwork – because it comes from very, very different sources. I’m not trying to be explanatory, like I want it to be arranged, but they’re things I have in my head and when I was writing and re-writing, they mysteriously found a place in the film.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, and his written work includes numerous video essays, investigating formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.