Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho discusses his new film Aquarius, creating its complex sound design, choosing the soundtrack, and Brazilian architecture. Read our essay on Aquarius here.
One of the best films to come out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho Aquarius. The film tackles gentrification, the evolution of a city, class, race, and the importance of objects, places, and sound in constructing our memories and identities. After launching a protest against the current Brazilian government on the Palais steps at its Cannes premiere, the film has continued to be the source of much controversy and discussion in Brazil because of how brutally and frankly it treats current issues.
The film follows Clara (Sonia Braga), a widow and retired music critic who is the last person left in her apartment building after a major buyout that caused all the other tenants to leave. She refuses to leave on principle, because she won’t be chased out of her home, but also because her apartment is where she’s lived her life and made her memories. Were she to move, she’d lose a part of herself. As the construction company tries more and more threatening tactics to push Clara out of the building, she gets increasingly stubborn about standing her ground. As this real estate battle plays out, we also get a glimpse into Clara’s day-to-day life, her relationship with her family, and the class divide between her relatively rich family and the poorer parts of town.
I talked to writer-director Filho about how he created the sound mix for the film, how he chose its soundtrack, and how he thought about shooting Clara’s apartment given its importance in the film.
The sounds of the city and Clara’s apartment
Seventh Row (7R): How did you think about the sounds of the city and ocean and figuring out the sound mix in the film?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: I divided the idea of sound in the film in these three sections: the presence of the ocean, music, and the city sounds of the apartment and the building itself.
Aquarius takes place on the actual beach. It does have a very particular sound there. The sound of the ocean is very present. So that was the first step in the film.
The second interesting element is the use of music. I had this idea, which turned out to be correct, to actually record the music played in the film live on the set. There are many scenes in the film where someone, physically, plays a cassette or vinyl or even using an iPhone, plays different pieces of music on camera. This is something we tried, and it seems to work. The music had to be the perfect mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic. It had to sound very good. But at the same time, you should feel it was recorded in front of the camera.
The third element would be much the same way I used sound in Neighboring Sounds, which is developing this mix of city sounds, of people sounds. Together, that would induce or suggest something closer to genre cinema, particularly when she’s alone at home. There’s a lot of apprehension as to what is going to happen to Clara in the film. A lot of what goes on in people’s minds is suggested very subtly by the sound.
7R: How did you put together the mix of city sounds for when Clara’s at home and alone at home?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: If you live alone, and I have lived alone, and you’re happy, everything is alright. If you’re not so happy, or you’re going through a bad week, the sounds that you hear in your own place, the sounds of the city, they begin to sound more threatening. They just have a different vibe, a different atmosphere to them.
For example, when Clara is home alone watching television, and there are people having sex on the beach and other people playing football, the camera tracks back and she’s in the hammock, watching this concert on television. Everything is fine up to a point. She begins to hear the sounds of people coming into the building. A lot of those sounds are timed to the images and to the camera movements. There’s a pan to the left when we show the door, and people are coming in and going up the stairs. There’s some shouting. Everything is timed for the best possible placement of sound, image, and camera movements. A lot of that becomes threatening because she’s alone. It basically tries to give you an idea of how her state of mind is.
Capturing music live on set
7R: Throughout the film, the characters listen to music on different devices, like the cassette tape in the car or the stereo in Clara’s apartment. The sound feels very real and specific to each technology and space. How did you do that?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: There’s something that doesn’t get a lot of discussion in cinema. There are many cliches in terms of images. Every time you see the sun setting is a cliche. There are many cliches in terms of sound, also. Sometimes, somebody plays a piece of music in the film, and it sounds like it’s coming from the mixing computer with a perfect digital file: the way it’s mixed, the way it sounds, how high it is, how loud it is, or how low it is.Whenever I don’t watch the screening at a film festival, I usually make sure I stay until the end of that sequence so that I can actually hear “Another One Bites the Dust” playing in different cinemas.Click To Tweet
The first time somebody plays something in the film, which is a cassette tape in the car, in the opening segment, it’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. I wanted to record the sound from inside the car. In post production, we were even bringing the actors to tap their hands outside the car, on the door, or on the side of the car. I just thought the vibe inside the car was so amazing, the way the actors were reacting to the track.
The track sounds so powerful inside the car with the bass line. There’s an engaging quality to the way it sounds. It probably doesn’t sound its best. It’s probably not the best the song has ever played or sounded like. But it sounds very real. It has a very raw energy.
Whenever I don’t watch the screening at a film festival, I usually make sure I stay until the end of that sequence so that I can actually hear “Another One Bites the Dust” playing in different cinemas.For most of the tracks to work, they had to be shot live in front of the camera. In some scenes, I shot three different versions of scenes because I was not sure, not only if I would want to use that particular track, but also if we would get the permission and the rights to use the tracks.Click To Tweet
Deciding on the soundtrack
7R: How did you decide what music to use in the film and when did you pick the music? Was it as early as the script stage or did you find the music later?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: I had a lot of the tracks already at script stage. New tracks came or replaced other tracks during the shoot because of the vibe, the atmosphere on the film set, and because some actor or technician had a suggestion for a given scene. The last batch came up in the edit stage. For most of the tracks to work, they had to be shot live in front of the camera. In some scenes, I shot three different versions of scenes because I was not sure, not only if I would want to use that particular track, but also if we would get the permission and the rights to use the tracks.
But the song by Gilberto Gil [“Toda Menina Baiana”], when the girlfriend from Rio asks if she can play a song, when the family meet to look at old photos, that was written into the screenplay, and it survived the shooting and the editing. “Another One Bites the Dust” came up during the shoot. When Clara comes back home, somewhat defeated after the party, and she plays a track by Roberto Carlos that came during the shoot. We were trying different tracks on the set. I finally realized that was the one I should use.I shot the physical space in such a way that you would always understand where Clara is when you see her in the apartment.Click To Tweet
Navigating Clara’s apartment
7R: So much of the film is shot within that apartment. How did you think about navigating that space throughout the film?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: I’ve seen too many films where the film or maybe the filmmaker doesn’t really care to show you where the character is. Maybe, the shots are too tight, closeups, and just behind the ears is already out of focus. You don’t know if the person is in the kitchen or in the living room. I wanted to make sure that I shot the physical space in such a way that you would always understand where Clara is when you see her in the apartment. I actually wanted that if somebody sees the film, he or she could go after the screening to some bar or restaurant and draw on a napkin a basic map of Clara’s apartment by just remembering the shots in the film.
The film presents the apartment as her very important physical space. It feels almost like her security or her safety is compromised, the perimeter is compromised in many situations of the film. If that idea of being compromised works, it’s probably because you have a very good idea of the physical space and what’s at stake.
How Brazilian architecture shaped the shooting strategy in the film
7R: There’s one scene where the family is together in the living room and we see Clara’s maid, Ladjane, in the kitchen off in the distance. How did you think about shooting those different spaces?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: One of the fascinating aspects of Brazilian architecture, and it really comes from all the way back to slavery, is the way the kitchen is isolated from the living room because that’s where the servants worked. They should be away from the more sophisticated part of the Brazilian household. As much as it’s terrible to give you that description, it is actually quite accurate, in terms of how Brazilian society works.
I just saw a very interesting documentary, by the same director who made Neon Bull, called A Place in the Sun. It’s about people who live in penthouses in four different cities in Brazil. There is one very bourgeois lady who says, “The beautiful thing about living in a penthouse is you can be all by yourself on the upper floor, and you would never be able to listen to the tinkling noises that come from the maid in the kitchen.” This is a real character saying something that is very real in Brazilian society, as much as it sounds fascist to you and me.
When I shot Ladjane in the kitchen, I gave the point of view of the family because that whole sequence has the point of view of the family together. There’s one point where Ladjane tries to get into the conversation, and she can’t. Nobody is rude to her, but there is a very strange atmosphere. They don’t know what to do with her coming into the conversation. She tries to show them a photograph of her dead son. It’s very awkward. It’s been much discussed in Brazil. It is very awkward even for myself to do what I did. But I think it’s very accurate in terms of how Brazilian society works, thinks, and lays out its architecture.