Casa de Areia / The House of Sand is Andrucha Waddington's first feature-length fiction film since his 2000 award-winning Eu Tu Elles / Me You Them (Official Selection Cannes Film Festival / Un Certain Regard and Toronto International Film Festival; and Winner, Best Film, Karlovy Vary Film Festival). It features Fernanda Montenegro (Academy Award nominee for Central Station) and her real-life daughter Fernanda Torres (Best Actress for Parle-moi d'amour at Cannes), two of the most renowned actresses of Brazil, brought together for the first time in a film's leading roles. I met up with Andrucha Waddington early Monday morning at the Hotel Adagio for coffee and conversation. I'm keeping Andrucha's broken English intact because I found it charming and uniquely communicative.
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Michael Guillén: First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on winning the Alfred P. Sloan award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Andrucha Waddington: Thank you very much.
Guillén: Sundance has been very good to you! They initially gave you $10,000 for the development of the film, did they not?
Waddington: They gave more! They gave $150,000. It was $10,000 for development and $140,000 for a pre-buy NHK deal, that when we had the film ready, NHK bought the film for t.v. in Japan. So then it was a guaranteed pre-buy so you could count on that money for production.
Guillén: And then at this year's Sundance you won the $20,000 Sloan award?
Waddington: Yes, it was amazing! I couldn't believe that! And actually, for me it was very touching because the jury was made by scientists, and actually Antonio Demasio which is an amazing neurologist and he's a guy who studied about human behavior and I read many of his books and when I saw him in the jury, . . . I was really moved and I said, "I can't believe, Antonio, that you are on the jury; it was my dream to meet you!" And then I went to L.A. after Sundance and I went out with him and we became friends. So besides the honor to get the award, the money, I got a friend!
Guillén: That's absolutely the best perk! The Sloan Award is presented to an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character. The expedition that features in House of Sand was a true historical scientific expedition, was it not?
Waddington: Exactly. This expedition was sent to Brazil by Albert Einstein to prove the general theory of relativity. He sent two expeditions: one to Africa and one to Brazil. The Brazilian one was leaded by Cromley, which was an Irish—if I'm not wrong—an Irish scientist and they made this picture of the solar eclipses, the total solar eclipses, that took place in May, 1919. Actually, the sky was cloudy in Africa so the theory was proved in Brazil by this picture. This picture was taken 200 miles from where it was shot so we did this small political … no …
Guillén: Artistic license?
Waddington: Artistic license! And we brought this expedition to the camp of dunes and we actually saw many pictures in the research about how was this expedition, how they had equipments, because they had photographed documents about their day by day during this expedition. So we tried to recreate as it was and actually there is something that was a challenge for us because I didn't want to put dates in the screen, just in the beginning to set the audience really quick where we are, but, from this moment on I didn't want to have like, okay, 1919, 1942 written in the script, so we had to find a way to have a locator on time. We noticed that being out of society, being away of everywhere, the only connection would be from the sky.
So we used the 1910, the Haley's comet, with the appearance was really really astonishing and it's very subtle in the film, but, it's there. [The night when Aurea first arrives to her new "home", she scans the sky and Haley's comet can be seen off towards the horizon.] The solar eclipses of 1919. The war planes that used to fly during WWII used to fly from U.S. escaping from the German U-boats that was patrolling the North Atlantic. They used to fly through the north shore of Brazil and we are almost in the shore. So when I went to make a research in that place I was talking to some people that was alive in that time and living and there was no radio, no communication, no nothing, and suddenly started to fly like hundreds of planes went over their heads every day. And they said that they were really scared in the beginning and then they started to get used. But in the beginning everybody used to run and didn't know what's going on, so we took that as a locator as well. And, finally, the man on the moon in 1969. So we choose like four events that would locate in time and would connect them to the rest of the world by the sky.
Guillén: The element of time is fascinating in House of Sand. Not only did you have this direct reference to Einstein trying to prove his theory of relativity but you actually folded the theory into the film. It's a very challenging film to an audience. You're asking the audience to accept certain conventions. And one of them was this leapfrogging of the actresses over the generations. When it first happened, it was a very interesting feeling in my body because I didn't know what was going on mentally, but, I knew what was going on visually. House of Sand has a unique visual signature—quintessentially cinematic in that way—and exquisitely rendered by your stunningly beautiful desert location. Why did you choose the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park? Was it from the photograph?
Waddington: Yes, from the photograph. First I want to go back to what you said about the intelligence of the audience and to don't underestimate the audience. Yesterday in the Q&A here a guy asked me, listen, I like a lot the film, but I didn't understand why you choose this kind of time lapse. I took a couple of seconds or minutes to understand and I said to him, I did it because I don't like to be underestimated when I am an audience, so I believe that the audience likes to think and realize things and understand—not in the cut—but take a couple of seconds to understand and to read it and to think about. And I think this is something that we don't see too much in the films in these days. It's something I think the cinema was counting more the intelligence of the audience in the old times, in the old films, and here as we were exploring like—actually, it's an original story that it's almost a tale, but we tried to make it as real as it could be, but this idea to believe that the audience is capable to read, to understand, without being explained and to take their conclusions is something that I appreciate a lot when I am watching a movie. When I answered that, the whole audience was like [hurrah!], they liked it! Because it's a kind of a gift to the audience. To don't underestimate them.
Back to the photograph, how this film started, it's really odd how it started: Luiz Carlos Barreto, he's a great producer in Brazil, he was coming from a trip from Ceará, which is another environment with dunes in the North of Brazil. They have a couple of dunes around. He was in a bar and on the wall of bar was a picture of a house half-covered by sand. He asked it to the owner of the bar who was living in that house? And the guy said there was a woman who was fighting against the sand for almost her whole life and when she died the sand took over her house. He arrived in Rio and there was a party, I was coming in, he was going out, we met at the door. He grabbed my arm and said, "Andrucha, I was going to call you, because I arrived from Ceará today, I saw this picture and I was thinking on you in the last 24 hours and you need to make this film." And I didn't took too serious, I went home, and I had seen Woman in the Dunes from Hiroshi Teshihagara two weeks before and I went home and I had a dream and I mixed in the dream the image that Luiz Carlos Barreto described in color with the images from the Teshihagara's movie. So I woke up in the morning, totally in shock, then I called him, I said, "Barreto, you told me this story, I didn't took it too serious, but, it's in me and let's make the movie." So I went to his house, we spent like six-seven hours talking about how the movie could be. After this first session we called Elena Soárez, the screenwriter, to develop the original story with us, Fernanda Torres and Fernanda Montenegro, and said, "We have this idea. We will write this script for you. As soon as we have this script we will send it to you." So this script was totally written for them. Actually, when I saw Teshihagara's movie and mixed everything, the other film that made me be really strong about this story could be a great story, was The Exterminating Angel from Luis Buñuel, which talks a little bit with this idea, being in this place that you cannot leave you cannot leave you cannot leave you cannot leave. Those are films that you don't see very often in the contemporary cinema.
I was talking to Walter Salles, which is one of the co-producers, and he said to me, listen, you are really going against the current because here in Brazil now everybody is making films that's very contemporary about political statements or the day by day life, but, you are making a film that is totally against the actual current of the Brazilian cinema. I said, this is a compliment! So let's do it and I was really happy because, in the beginning, was a film difficult to … I think all the time there was a doubt how successful the film would be. The film in Brazil was very successful with critics. It was released as an art house movie with 35 prints. And it did really well for the amount of prints we released. So in the end of the day I was really happy. Now we have distribution here in the U.S., we have distribution in France, in England, in many countries of Europe, in Asia. So it's something that you never know when you make a film if it will achieve the audience and if you will be able to distribute a film and to bring them to the audience. So now I am really happy because I am here, like the film is being played in a very nice way, and the best thing is the fact that the film is against the current makes the film different.
Guillén: It is different!! Someone was asking me yesterday—because they're going to see it today; I'm also going to see it again today—they asked, "Is it a costume drama?" I said, No. I mean, It has that. For me it was almost like a very subtle piece of science fiction.
Waddington: I love it!! I love what you said. My wife, Fernanda Torres, she always say it's 2001 with no money, with no space, 2001 in terms of it's a science fiction. And she describes the film as a science fiction every time we talk about the movie. [Chuckling.]
Guillén: That's how I saw it. I saw the time lapse scene as very similar to Tarkovsky, to Solaris.
Waddington: Yes!! Which is a film that I loved. Tarkovsky is a master!
Guillén: Another movie that's at the festival this year is one out of Mexico, Ricardo Benet's News From Afar. It has a similar introduction in the sense that it has a woman who is taken to a place she does not want to go with a husband who forces her to go there and is trying to eke out a living in a place where it's impossible. Both husbands die, in News From Afar and in The House of Sand, and the women are left to discover their destinies. Were you trying to talk about patriarchy at all in Aurea's husband Vasco?
Waddington: The idea it's very simple. We talked a little bit about the foundation of Brazil. Brazil was founded—Brazil as it is these days—was founded by immigrants so we have a tripod in this film, which is, like, the runaway slaves, which was very important for the population of Brazil and there is a huge black community in Brazil that came from all the ships that brought the slaves and when the slavery was abolished they had to set their lives in a new way and, like, there was no help to establish them. They were, like, thrown to the sharks, you see? Okay, slavery is abolished, so now you have to find a way to survive. So that's why there was like the quilombos that were made by runaway slaves. They were hidden far away and a couple of quilombos lost a lot of time to understand that the slavery was abolished. So this was one element.
The other element is Vasco, which is the Portuguese, first generation, that arrives in Brazil and wants to settle a new life, to settle and starts to create a new life, and he bought that land but he was cheated, there was only sand over there. And he actually paid the debts of his wife and, by paying the debts, he had her as his wife and she had the compromise to come with him. So the women at that time used to be a kind of slaves as well. She had no way out. She could not complain. She had a deal with him. So when he dies and this is like the male kind of imposition on the women of that time, so there was like this dual slavery—slavery of the woman, slavery of the slaves—and they were two released, these two segments, the women and the runaway slaves they were, they found each other in the middle of nowhere and I think the union of Aurea and Massu tells a little bit about the next step in the Brazilian society. This was something that I didn't planned, but this is something that I can read as—because for a woman at the time to accept to be with a black man was impossible. That's why I think Aurea, it took for her ten years to understand that she was in love with Massu.
Guillén: But it shocked her daughter Maria.
Waddington: Maria was shocked by—in my opinion—by two things. First, to see her mother having sex, it could be with anyone, when you are nine years old you see that. But I think the main reason she was shocked was because her mother was promising her that she would leave that place since she was born and when she saw Aurea having sex with Massu, she understood that she would not leave any more. And, before that scene, she says to Maria, "Let's go home." And then she cut the hair. It's the first time she says "home." She says, "Let's go home, Maria." When she sees that the expedition has gone and then she walks back to the hut and she says, "Let's go home, daughter." They arrive in the hut, it's night, Aurea cut the hair, and it's like a cut to the previous life and she starts a new life from that moment on.
Guillén: People are always looking for ideal relationships. I was taught, however, that you don't need to look for relationships because you are already in relationships; you just need to recognize the ones you're in. What I saw in this movie was a landscape that was in relationship to these women. They were in relationship to the landscape. They just didn't understand that relationship.
Waddington: The mother understands first.
Guillén: First. But it took her about ten years to understand that and eventually her daughter comes to the same understanding. What were you trying to effect with that landscape? How were you hoping it would define the characters of these women or, more appropriately, isn't the landscape itself a major character?
Waddington: It's a character that brings isolation, that brings them out of the society and allows them to create a new way of living, her statement, their statements, they create a tiny little small society with their rules, with their new way of facing the world.
Guillén: But with memories too! The thing I thought was so beautiful….
Waddington: The music?!
Guillén: Well, yes, the music. But not just the music. The film is very subtle and multilayered, interconnected. True, it was beautiful that when Aurea heard the music in the expedition camp, it reawakened memories, reawakened her sexuality, reminded her of someone else she had been, could be. This was equivalent to a natural fact about the desert. Those sand dunes in Lençóis Maranhenses become lagoons when the rains come and the lagoons, amazingly, fill up with fish! Where do the fish come from? They come from the sand.
Waddington: That's right!
Guillén: Because there are eggs dormant in the sand just waiting for rain. It's like there's something there already. And in the final scene, where Maria returns to her mother with the gift of music, she plays Chopin's Prelude Opus 28, #15, "The Raindrop." I thought that was a brilliant touch! Music for Aurea was like rain for the desert; it brought so much back to life! How did the choice of the Chopin piece come about? You obviously have a very keen sense of music, I know you've worked with many Brazilian musicians . . . .
Waddington: Yes, but, I will tell you there, I will be frank here. Because there was no music in the film and then there is this gift that comes in the end. I selected like tons of cds to try to experiment. The first music we put in the film was that raindrop prelude. And when we saw it, myself and the editor, we looked at each other and said, "It will be very hard to replace. We will not find anything better." And we kept trying for months. Every day at the end of the sessions of editing we spent one hour listening, trying to find the right music to be there. In the end of the month we said, okay, it's done. And so then it was like a gift that came from casuality but I think it matched. It's a piece of a puzzle that came first that didn't allow any other piece to replace it.
Guillén: There's an organic feel to the movie that way. It does feel like it was created in process. That comes across in the film. As I was reading the press notes, I came to the understanding that the actors contributed to the film.
Waddington: A lot! A lot. Actually, in all my films, I really like, I really appreciate like I think—to have a . . . I don't believe that the director can have a vision by himself only. I think to build a film and to build up a clime of working and to put everybody in the same mood and to understand the film you are making, I think these table reading discussions are the most precious things that you can have. So always like four months before I start shooting, I start to make these sessions with the actors, and without having any problem to be confronted, to be argued, so I really open the script, okay, let's read, everybody have the right to say anything so we should, like, criticize and understand which is the doubts and everything, so session by session this makes the script more powerful because you work in the lines, you argue about the scene that is there, but why this scene is here? And when you let the actors speak—because they will live their roles—they start to really think from the inside so when you start shooting everybody knows who they are. Like the actors they are in the roles already. We understand, I think I as a director, I absorb a lot from these sessions. I think cinema is a group work. Of course, the director is the one who chooses, okay, this I like, this I don't like, this I want, this I don't want, but a film is made by many eyes. So to not use these eyes I think it's a mistake because you are losing something that could improve a lot the movie. So I really believe that in the process if you have like these readings with the actors, and with the head of the departments involved, we create something that you became like a real group that will make something all together. You create a soul that belongs to this group that is working.
Guillén: Group soul. Kind of an ensemble vision?
Waddington: Yeah, exactly.
Guillén: When you have a film like this one and your previous one which did so well in the festival circuit, as you're traveling around from festival to festival are the audiences different? Do you find a commonality among the audiences?
Waddington: Actually, the film is different! The other film was a dramatic comedy, which in a sense relates a little bit to this one, but really tiny line because I think it's a different subject. There it's a woman … the only thing that is really connected to this film is that, in isolation, you create your rules and your statements. This is something that you have in both films, but, it's two totally different films and, saying that, the reception The House of Sand is having around the world it's almost the same of Me You Them. It's so warm as Me You Them was, even not being a comedy. In like the last five minutes of the film there is three spots where the audience is totally taken and laugh and when I made the editing I never thought that people would laugh over there. And it was because everyone was relieved. It's a kind of relief that the audience feel because they understand that the circle will close. Because I think the film has something that … the film drives the audience to somewhere that you don't know where you're going to get. So the conclusion comes really in the end. And I think this makes the audience really relieved.
Guillén: It's a relief because it's an acceptance. You see the characters accept. And accept not in a bad way….
Waddington: It's a reconciliation at the same time.
Guillén: It's a reconciliation, yes. I can live this life. I can stay with this man. I can stay in this place. And it is my life. It's a good feeling that you get from that. They're not prisoners, which I really liked.
Guillén: In terms of music, the guy that you had playing Massu when he's older, Luiz Melodia, is an actual musician?
Waddington: Yes. Seu Jorge as well.
Guillén: Oh? I know you've done a documentary on several Brazilian musicians, who I love. I adore Gilberto Gil.
Waddington: I've done a documentary on Gilberto Gil. I've produced a documentary on Caetano Veloso. I'm doing a documentary now about Maria Bethania. I like to do documentaries and I don't know what I started to make these documentaries about this artists and actually music, it's something that's very interesting, and I love very much Brazilian music, so it was something that appear in my life, and it happened, it was not too planned. It was something that I just grab it and then I let it go.
Guillén: So what's coming up next? You're doing this documentary….
Waddington: Yes, I'm doing this documentary that I'm finishing right now. I have one day of shooting when I arrive in Brazil on the 10th of May, then I finish it. It will be released over there by September. And I'm starting to prepare a film called Conquistador, which is a story of the conquest of Mexico. It's the story of Hernan Cortes. This is a Hollywood gang production, which is based in L.A., and it will be an American, Mexican and Spanish co-production.
Waddington: It will be a Spanish language movie.
Guillén: Well, thank you so much for your time. I'm looking forward to seeing the film again today.
Waddington: Thank you very much. I will be there waiting for you!
Cross-published on Twitch. Photographs courtesy of Outnow.
12/23/06 UPDATE: Kendall's Quest has an evocative response to House of Sand. Despite watching the film with friends who were less than enthusiastic, Kendall appreciated the film on its own merits and offered a great and pertinent paraphrase by Oscar Wilde that "women turn into their mothers: that’s their tragedy."
Kendall's final paragraph is lovely: "Would I be as moved by the film as I am, if I had not had my own adventures in the rust-red dunes of Namibia? Blinded, dazzled, and nearly overcome by heat stroke among those snaking mountains of sand, I doubted I would ever see anything that dramatic again in my life. I haven’t, till I saw this film. But the Khoisan people who live in the dunes of Namibia have the most difficult lives imaginable, foraging for desert melons and sucking precious moisture from them, pumping hours for drips of brackish water from nearly-dry bore holes, and erecting tin or plank shacks to screen out the sand, the wind, and the killing sun. Every man and woman born in that landscape ultimately makes some kind of life. That is the miracle–as Faulkner said, not that we survive but that we prevail. House of Sand raises all the attendant questions about the ways we prevail; the film pays its respects to all the people, especially the women, who prevail in the most inhospitable places of the earth. I will play it again and again in my mind’s eye."