Conversation with Sandro Aguilar: “It’s about misplacement”
While watching MARIPHASA, one enters an otherworldly universe of the kind that probably only cinema can create. Your film pushes narrative boundaries. It opens up a space that one has never visited before. Even though we see a lot that we are familiar with, we are given the freedom to navigate independently through this universe. We experience, recognise, feel and fear or we do not. It is up to us. The complex opening of your film ends with a tracking shot – the camera follows some feet that are walking over rocks and passes along a broken TV. What was the starting point for MARIPHASA? Did you have a specific filmic reference that was accompanying you?
Sandro Aguilar: I guess I was somehow flirting with these thoughts of inner demons, domestic horror, duality of the self, the beast within; labyrinths and trespass, and so, naturally, some horror tales came to mind, some founding characters like the minotaur, like vampires, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, and, of course, werewolves. I love horror films; most of them are just plain bad, but maybe the simplicity of their premises allows a certain primitive quality of cinema to come into play. I love the way they playfully create their own worlds, maybe similar to ours but not quite like ours, with their particular set of rules and rituals, like garlic for vampires, like mirrors not reflecting the undead, like the transformative power of the full moon, magical flowers such as the mariphasa lumina lupina serving as an antidote for lycanthropy (WEREWOLF OF LONDON, 1935, directed by Stuart Walker). When at dawn these creatures awake from their actions, everything they did – the hunting, the killing of their prey – is blissfully forgotten. Whatever they did feels like a nightmare they can’t really put back together. Something happened for sure, because they have bruises and blood stuck in their fingernails, dried blood in their hair; but they’ve lost access to these memories. I have no fascination for these magical twists and gadgets by themselves; I’m not particularly interested in mythological monsters, but I like to transpose these motifs – of sleepwalking, of dealing with unsolvable mistakes by protecting ourselves from living further – and bring this to a familiar ground, to translate them into simple propositions.
MARIPHASA is a film about misplacement; each character must deal with their loss while they occupy the empty space left by someone else’s loss. They haunt each other’s lives. Whoever disappeared cannot be forgotten; those who died cannot be buried. In that sense it’s a ghost story, a very physical one. In terms of storytelling it’s interesting for me to work not with incidents and consequential action as a progression tool but rather to focus on the aftermath of events that have been discarded. The opening of the film can be used as an example of this mechanism in motion. Strokes: Blood cells – Funeral ceremony, woman resentful of bruised male’s presence – Car wrecked from accident, little fluffy bear hanging in the rear mirror – Bleached clothes inside washing machine, Man advises bruised man from before (no signs of injury anymore) to stop trying to get in contact with girl that works in the laundry – Dusk, we follow man as he walks to work, footsteps over rocks from a collapsed building. He never looks back into the shadowy past, unlike Orpheus coming back from the underworld, but equally doomed, he passes by a broken TV (we’ll see that TV later on in the film) and moves on. Door opens to be closed later on.
Shadow and light, a unique visual and acoustic framing, as well as a radical editing style create MARIPHASA’s mesmerising, and at the same time, terrifying atmosphere. You studied editing at the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema in Lisbon. How present was the editing for you during the development of MARIPHASA? Did you, in advance, fix most of the cuts and sound design in your script or did you arrange them later in the editing process?
Editing is probably the most pleasurable moment of my working process.
I feel that although I can take a lot from the writing, the framing, working with the actors and all that, it’s at my desk that I truly and finally think things through and unveil the sense of what I did before. I’m a rational person so I feel like I have to protect the film from myself. The sense of what I do must be somewhat unclear to me throughout the process; otherwise I’d be paralysed with possibilities and ideas. Instead of paying attention to all those miraculous, fruitful accidents happening before me, I’d be busy taming, narrowing things so they’d fit my ideas.
I work instinctively, word by word, shot by shot, day by day. I don’t allow myself to overthink the film in advance. As a writer I prefer to leave unanswered questions, as a director sometimes I don’t quite know why I decided to break down a scene a certain way but I play along, it’s like the film is whispering to me. Sometimes I’m left with a couple of words, not a whole sentence. No problem, I’m sure we’ll get back to whatever later on and then I’ll realise what it meant.
So I’m influenced by the fact that I know I’ll be structuring all these lost, missing pieces along the way, farming and collecting, patiently waiting for the film to reveal itself as much as it is possible. Even when I decide all’s said and done, some elements fortunately remain hidden and mysterious to myself and hopefully to the audience. Those are often my favourite scenes, the ones where I’m left wondering what they can possibly mean. Why not just drift for a couple of hours? It’s not easy to balance these elements while you’re editing; the audience must always feel someone’s in control, otherwise they just quit. It can’t feel random simply because that’s not filmmaking, I guess. I trust the audience to share this adventurous spirit and find its way through. As an editor, I go over and over through the footage, the sounds, the characters, the scenes, each time forcing myself to forget so I can find something new – destroy, gather, clean and rebuild.
MARIPHASA’s darkness often obscures what is actually happening. We look into faces, but only when the heads turn around are the injuries revealed. The way in which you use shadow and light is very precise. How did you and your cinematographer, Rui Xavier, find these images?
I’ve been working consistently with Rui Xavier since 2010. He has been generous enough to share his intelligence, sensibility, technical wisdom and friendship and I’m truly thankful for all the things he brought to these projects. We are partners in crime, we don’t have to over-prepare, we don’t have to talk things through to find a common ground, and we just know that when something is in front of us we’re looking at it the same way. That’s all we need in order to assemble and fine-tune each shot coherently. It helps that we’re both fascinated by light and darkness, how it hits objects, shapes spaces, the moods and atmospheres it creates. In a ghost story about split, troubled, suicidal, violent drifters, lost in this everlasting nightmare, this primitive and fearful tension played throughout the film between what is seen and what is hidden in the shadows, just seemed like the right approach.
Isabel Abreu (Luisa), Albano Jerónimo (Felipe), António Júlio Duarte (Paulo) and also your son, Eduardo Aguilar (Rui), appeared in previous films of yours. Somehow their filmic characters seem to create lives of their own which continue living throughout the world of your films. Also objects, actions and sounds reappear. How would you describe the collaboration with your actors? What are your thoughts on the art of repetition?
Isabel Abreu and Albano Jerónimo are immensely talented and inspiring professional actors, certainly among the best of their generation. António Júlio Duarte is one of the greatest Portuguese still photographers ever. Eduardo is my son, so what can I say? It’s naturally different to work with each one but the reasons why I go back to them are very, very simple: I love their presence, their energy on set, their emotional intelligence, their courage and trust. All those things reassure you, they make the process warm and comfortable and I need that to create. I normally won’t do rehearsals except for technical reasons; just a brief introduction before each shot, so they know what’s the scene about, to establish their frame of action and off we go, by trial and error. We slowly narrow it down to the bone, not by talking about it, analysing everything, but because you make something happen before the camera and you just know when it’s right.
I often work with variations over similar subject matters, with the same actors, so it’s natural that you can find things evolving from film to film, I never meant for their recurrent presence to mean that the films should be communicating. I prefer to see them as individual pieces. It’s probably easier for someone else to give a bird’s-eye look over my work and realise those connections and repetitions.
Music plays a big role in MARIPHASA. When did Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s “We’ve Got Tonight” from the LP “Stranger in Town” come in? When did Lee Hazlewood’s “For One Moment”? How do songs and their lyrics guide and inspire you?
They were both brought into the film later in the process, while I was editing. “We’ve Got
Tonight” is a song my brother used to listen to before going out for his Friday nights. I remember seeing him all alone in our living room, facing the yellow vinyl, rehearsing imaginary flirtations while the song was playing loudly. It’s the ultimate one-night stand song. How would you convince a girl to go recklessly wild into the night without promising her oblivion? ‘We’ve got tonight/who needs tomorrow.’ No consequences for their actions, right? They can go fearlessly. It’s a romantic lie, except for someone who knows tomorrow won’t really take place; in that case the lyric sets a deadline, it has urgency. So the first time I use the song in the film it should work like an invitation (from the troubled upstairs neighbour) to the woman living downstairs. It’s like he’s howling those enchanting words like a wolf before a full moon. During the last segment of the film, he plays it again, but by this time, you’ll have guns, knives, pictures of red planets, magical flowers, so I guess there’s little hope of a tomorrow for any of them. The spell is over and transformations can take place. As for Lee Hazlewood’s song, it’s played in the final credits of the film. During the shooting I was listening to the song; it has this western vibe. ‘The hurt I hurt is nothing like the hurts I’ve hurt before.’ Somehow every character in the film is haunted and numbed by something happening outside of what we see, in the past; some unsolvable mistake or loss that makes them disconnected from the world around them and to some extent from themselves.
(Interview by Caroline Pitzen, January 2018)