Co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles discuss Bacurau, their collaboration, the film’s sound design, and how they embraced old-fashioned filmmaking techniques from the 1970s.
From the first scene of Bacurau, in which Teresa (Barbara Colen) is driving into town, it is clear that something is rotten in the state of Brazil. Coffins for sale line the highway. A dam is diverting the water from the people. And Teresa and her companion are discussing how they would never give up their friend Lunga, a wanted criminal, and we surmise, a maverick activist for the people. Still, the film feels like a realist drama with the rich colours of the Brazilian landscape.
In the town of Bacurau, we meet a cast of characters, including Teresa’s father who is the local teacher, local doctor Dominga (Sônia Braga), the town sex workers, and more. They are mourning the death of Teresa’s grandmother, with joyous celebrations. In this way, directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles establish Bacurau as a tight-knit community; Teresa’s journey into town, meanwhile, tells us how remote and cut off it is from the rest of the world.
For about half the runtime, Bacurau plays like a realist drama, albeit an eerie one. The town is clearly under attack by the local politician who screams into town with his loud campaign music and giant entourage, providing gifts of coffins, food, and books via dump-truck. Whereas Teresa’s arrival was met with a warm welcome and a community gathering, the streets are deliberately abandoned when this outsider comes to town — though we feel the presence of the townspeople through the rich sound design, which lets us hear them protest from inside their houses.
Once Bacurau is suddenly and unceremoniously removed from Google Maps, and a crew of American gunmen arrive, the bodies start piling up. Much of the pleasure of Bacurau is the deliberate precision with which Mendonça Filho and Dornelles slowly build up this tension. We see the signs of violence — bullet holes in the water truck, a too-quiet town — before we see the blood. Loud rustlings of leaves in the wind cue us that something bad is about to happen. The good guys enter the scene quietly; the bad guys enter with a bang. Before long, Bacurau becomes the last holdout against colonialism and foreign influence, with the town banding together to bloodily take out its enemies.
After the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I talked to co-directors Mendonça Filho and Dornelles about their collaboration, the film’s sound design, and how they embraced old-fashioned filmmaking techniques from the 1970s.
Seventh Row: You’ve collaborated before. How has that collaboration evolved since you wrote and directed Bacurau together?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s really about us liking each other, even loving each other, as friends, and respecting each other and sharing this enthusiasm for film, for cinephilia. This is something we don’t really discuss. It just is.
Juliano Dornelles: It doesn’t evolve. It’s always been like that. The only difference is that now I’m directing the film with him and writing the script, but the nature of the relationship is the same.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: We get a lot of questions. It’s almost like people expect us to say that I did the action stuff, and he did the dialogue or whatever.
Juliano Dornelles: It’s not like that.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It was never really like that. Even when [Juliano] was doing Aquarius [(2016)], he shared art directing with Thales Junqueira, who did art directing on Bacurau, and [Juliano] was a production designer in Neighbouring Sounds [(2012)].
Juliano Dornelles: And the short films.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: But it doesn’t mean he was restricted to just saying things about the decor. He’s a friend, like a consigliere on the set.
Juliano Dornelles: I’m always one of the first people Kleber shows his new scripts, for example, to see my reactions.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: And I know if it’s a positive or negative reaction, what kind of positive or negative reaction it is. It’s not mathematics; it’s just two friends working together and developing something together in a very fluid and natural manner.
Juliano Dornelles: And we’re still talking to each other. No fights!
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Which is good proof. I could be in Toronto alone, and he could be in another festival because we wouldn’t be talking anymore. It happens. I’ve heard stories.
7R: How did you develop the rhythm for the film?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Ten-month edit.
7R: Oh wow.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: That’s part of the answer. It doesn’t mean that it was a horrible nightmare situation; it was just a long edit. We had a lot of fun. It was like putting together a huge train-set or a puzzle without any instructions and not knowing if the pieces fit, because of course, when you buy a puzzle, you know the pieces fit.
Juliano Dornelles: The film is about a community. We don’t have main characters.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: That’s a challenge. Just to prove how challenging it is, Aquarius is about one main character, and it was a six-month edit. Neighbouring Sounds was a different period in my life; I worked in a different way. But it was a year and three months.
It was very long [on Bacurau] because everybody has to stand out. It’s hard to ignore Lunga (Silvero Pereira), the mastermind behind the resistance, because he steals scenes
Juliano Dornelles: And Udo Kier and Sônia Braga. Before the Brazilian release, I never felt Lunga was so standout. It was a response from the Brazilian audience: people keep making fan art of Lunga. Every day! Wonderful drawings.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: You can look it up on the internet. They can’t get enough of Lunga.
Juliano Dornelles: They want dolls of Lunga.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: They want Lunga hair extensions. So yeah, Lunga has become quite big. But the editing is like a machine, where you have to tighten the screws, and that takes a while. Today, films are very impatient in getting to the heart of the problem, and we wanted to do it the old-fashioned way: open the film, and this is Teresa. She’s in the truck, and she goes to the community and is introduced to the family and the funeral procession. And that is half an hour, and a lot of people say, What am I watching? And I love this. And then, little by little, stuff happens. All the other elements come in.
Juliano Dornelles: Bacurau disappears from the map.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: This is more like American cinema in the ’70s. A more classic approach to telling a story. These days, after 45 seconds, you have a big scene in a superhero film: huge special effects extravaganza.
Juliano Dornelles: And then, the next day, you already forget about the film. We don’t like this. We wanted to make a film that people will talk about for days and maybe years. It’s our relationship with those kinds of films made in the 70s.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: My main concern is just to tell the story and make it clear. Hopefully, you will get involved with the characters and like them, or find them interesting at least. And then, when things develop, and take new turns, you will be involved. It’s basically what I think everybody should do, but it’s just not really the style of things how cinema is going right now.
Aquarius: ‘Age in Place’
Jesse Thompson looks at how Aquarius depicts the housing crisis in Brazil, which is not so different from that in Sydney.
7R: In Aquarius, the apartment was very important. In Bacurau, I feel like you glean the same sort of richness from the town of Bacurau and its community. How did you think about building that so we got a real sense of the geography and history there?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: That was written into the script. In Brazil, a lot of people talk about the little boy who has two very good lines in the film. One, he asks the teacher, “Do we have to pay to be on the map?” And the other is [when the outsiders ask], “What do you call the ones born in Bacurau?”, and he says, “People.” Those are very brief lines from a little boy who is not an actor, and everybody remembers him.
Our concern, and this is something I thought about a lot in Neighbouring Sounds, is there are no small characters. It might be a small character on the page, but you will remember. In Neighbouring Sounds, there was a water delivery guy, and everybody remembers that guy because he was also the pot dealer. We just wrote these characters, and hopefully, they are interesting. And the actors had a very good time with it.
I’m very fond of Dominiga’s (Sônia Braga) partner: she’s responsible for the museum, and in the end [of the film], they [are] cleaning up, and she says, “Don’t touch the walls. I want the walls exactly as they are.”
Little things like that that are written into the page; people remember. I think it’s a strong scene because it’s about history; it’s about archives. Aquarius was very much about archives, and now, this film is built on an archive of personal and regional history. That’s what the outsiders didn’t bother to try to understand.
Juliano Dornelles: It’s interesting what Kleber is saying because now we are getting the confirmation of our intentions when we go on Twitter to see the reactions: people keep repeating those lines of those characters.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: From many small characters.
Juliano Dornelles: Different lines.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Each one identifies with a different piece. Like when Lunga comes in, all fabulous with the clothes, and people applaud, and this tiny little lady says, “Nice outfit, kid,” with a very strong regional accent. That becomes a meme.
I think we are very lucky. We’ve been getting a lot of crazy reactions on the film. Like from Australia, where they feel they could be watching a group of Aboriginals in a small community fighting off the outsiders.
Juliano Dornelles: Even here in Toronto, last night, the Q&A, the people were very excited and interested to know more.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: A guy from Texas said the whole thing about the wall which Trump wants to build and turn into a physical manifestation of segregation. It could mean many things.
7R: Can you tell me about the sound design in Bacurau? It’s so rich.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: I love sound. I’ve always been crazy about sound since as far back as I can remember.
Juliano Dornelles: We talked a lot about Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s one of my favourite sound designs.
Juliano Dornelles: Very simple, very clear.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: And very strong.
Juliano Dornelles: Not a lot of different sounds all together. You hear one thing, and then you hear another thing: very strong and meaningful.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Commercial film sound today is very cluttered. It’s too many sounds. Gives you a headache. Also, it behaves in a very predictable way with sound cliches. You just know how a certain kind of film will sound. For this film, it’s like we are trying to mix a notion of sound from the 1970s but with the crispiness and the weight of what we can do today with technology.
Juliano Dornelles: I think the difference is most films use the sound as perfume, as a flourish. But we always prefer to use the sound to tell the story better, not only physical sensations: it’s narration; it’s storytelling.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: There’s something about the bluntness of violence which is quite effective in the film — the way violence can hurt a human being. You know, the whole scene with the exploding head. But I’m very happy about the use of sound in terms of the region. Everything you hear was actually recorded in the region.
Juliano Dornelles: The birds. The wind.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Because you can always do this using library sounds, but it means you might use some forest in Alaska, which bothers me because, if you are going to make a film in Brazil, just do your fucking job and make it sound like it’s in Brazil. And a lot of people will say, “Yeah, but nobody will notice.”
Juliano Dornelles: I will! I will.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s complicated. The American industry is incredibly rich, and it might set the pace, set the rhythm, set the aesthetics of what you do in cinema, and that goes for sound, the software for the image, editing software. Because cinema is based on technique and technology, if you are not careful, you might end up doing what everybody else does the same way. This is something that we discussed extensively: how to make it our own but still make it a modern film.
If you are a Brazilian cinephile, and you know the history and image of Brazilian cinema, there is something very strange about this film. It is a very Brazilian film, in many ways, but it was shot with Panavision lenses, and this is really weird. It has the distortion of Star Wars.
Juliano Dornelles: It was maybe the first time a movie in Brazil has been made with anamorphic Panavision lenses.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: They are not available in Brazil, and you have to spend a lot of money to bring them, in our case, from Paris and Los Angeles. But I think it’s one of the most successful aspects of the film for me. as a filmmaker.
Juliano Dornelles: For me, too.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: There’s something about the distortion, something about the way the lenses look, that even if you are not really thinking about technique, you recognize the image. It’s very cinematic. It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s Die Hard. It’s Deliverance. It’s The Wild Bunch. It’s Heaven’s Gate and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. It’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s Blow Out by DePalma. All these films use the same lenses.
There is something that is really crazy when you look at some shots of the film and you have this extremely Brazilian image but shot with these lenses. For a year, it was almost an academic theory, but now, we realize we are right. There are even a couple of reviews that mention a certain something about the image, and I love this.
Kleber Mendonça Filho on the sounds of Aquarius
In 2016, we talked to Mendonça Filho about creating the sound design and soundtrack for his film Aquarius.
7R: I’m wondering about the music, both the score and the diegetic music, including the man who plays the guitar.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Oh yeah, from the Middle Ages we have these characters from little villages in Europe: they have a fiddle, and they sing merry little tunes. It’s a very classic structure, and he’s an amazing character, as an actor and as an artist. He has a great face. He’s kind of like our own little Johnny Cash. We wrote those lyrics, and he messed them up a little bit; he gave the lyrics some musical sense. It’s just taking the piss out of those people who come out. But that’s a live performance in the film.
For the other music, we always wanted to use [John] Carpenter’s “Night.” In fact, it was written into the script as the opening track, and we realized it wasn’t so interesting so we took it to the capoeira sequence. The opening track came up [when] I was at home; I wasn’t really looking for music, but I was listening to music and thinking about the film, and then I came across Gal Costa’s recording of Gaetano Veloso’s amazing song “Não Identificado,” which means Non-Identified.
Juliano brought to the editing process the song that closes the film, which is a 1965 song by Geraldo Vandré, which is beautiful, from a great Brazilian film [The Hour and Turn of Augusto Matraga] which was also in Cannes in 1966. And a good friend suggested another piece. It just happens very organically. It’s almost like some good friends have read the script, and then they say, “I was thinking about the script, and maybe you should listen to this piece of music,” and then they send you a link or a Spotify name. And then we might say, “Yeah, that’s not interesting,” or “That’s incredible. Let’s try it on the timeline.” It’s a great process finding music for the film. I enjoy it.
Juliano Dornelles: We have a lot of friends that are music freaks. They want to contribute with our films very much, every time. It’s so good.
7R: How did the music and the sound affect your editing and figuring out the rhythm?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: There was a strange incident when Juliano brought the Vandré song. We already had the sequence when Pacote (Thomas Aquino) is taking his dead friends to Lunga’s hideout; it was already edited. And every time Vandré would sing, the actor would shut up, and then when Vandré would stop singing, the actor would interact with the scene. It just clicked. It was just perfect editing magic.
For example, in the capoeira scene, it’s a straight capoeira scene like you’ve seen in many Brazilian films. We shot it because the actors just spontaneously started doing capoeira, and we thought, “Let’s get the camera”. They were waiting to work and were just relaxing. I thought, “I’m not going to put a capoeira scene in a Brazilian film. It’s the worst cliche ever.”
However, we’re editing the thing, and I go, What would happen if Carpenter’s “Night” just ran over the capoeira scene like a truck? I also suggested the capoeira sound begins to fade, but not the sounds of the feet, because there’s a great sound of the feet, a lot of weight on the floor, cause they are throwing their weight around. Just keep the body sounds, which we had to do in a studio with foley — keep the body sounds not only the same, but raise it a little bit. It’s a very strange effect. In fact, I think it comes from The Last Temptation of Christ.
Juliano Dornelles: Yeah, a lot of things happen in the shot, but we only [hear] stomp, stomp, stomp.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: And then Carpenter’s synth, which is amazing, incredible, comes in, and it’s a great sound moment in the film.
Juliano Dornelles: In concept, it’s perfect because it’s the tension between the foreign element and the very Brazilian element.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: But run over like a huge truck.
Juliano Dornelles: It begins in the overture with the space image which is very related to the tradition of Hollywood films, but we hear that very Brazilian song, with that very Brazilian voice.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s a weird collision of elements.
Juliano Dornelles: We keep repeating that tension.
The sounds of You Were Never Really Here
In our ebook on the film, we talked to sound designer Paul Davies about how he put us into the PTSD-addled brain of the protagonist of YWNRH with sound.