What is the origin of the project?
Originally, I was supposed to make another film with Paulo Branco called The Ice Track (from Roberto Bolaño’s novel), but we could not find funding because the rights of the novel became more and more expensive; then, in one of Raoul’s (Ruiz) closets, I found a script written by Carlos Saboga that he was supposed to direct after Mysteries of Lisbon. At the time, the script was not very long. Much later, Carlos reworked it and I brought it to Paulo, and told him that since The Ice Track was still pending, we could do The Black Book. Paulo agreed right away because he loves Camilo Castelo Branco, the author of the novel, and he also loved the Mysteries of Lisbon. It seemed like a nice continuation, to make a second film about another novel by the Portuguese writer.
Is it a prequel to the Mysteries?
Livro Negro de Padre Dinis (the original title of the novel) is a story that, in a way, precedes Mysteries of Lisbon where, using flashbacks, we witness the birth of a child. In The Black Book, we hear about the childhood of a boy named Sebastian, as well as the very important story of the woman who raises him. Raoul was interested, as he used to say to Carlos, by the character of the Cardinal. But I was more interested in the character of the nurse. I found references, elements that are very clear to us in Latin America. I thought about these stories of initiation in some bourgeois families, where it is sometimes the young housekeeper who awakens feelings of desire, and which can sometimes lead to terrible stories, because in a certain way it is the employees of the house who introduce the adolescents to sexuality. So I decided to focus on the character of the woman rather than the cardinal.
How much did you work on the scenario?
I followed the initial script of Carlos Saboga, even though I slightly reduced the importance of the cardinal’s character. We had even thought of integrating a part of the Mysteries of Lisbon inside the film, but we would have had to shoot again, because we did not have the same photography, or the same framing or rhythm, and of course not the same actors. So I decided to skip this sequence, something that Carlos may not forgive me for...
Is it a series?
It is, indeed, a serie in which historical characters appear. Unlike Raoul, this was the first time I had worked on this period. After reading the novel and the script, I learned a lot about that time. An era linked to the presence of libertines, like the Marquis. I read a book that taught me a lot about it, The Last Libertines by Benedetta Craver.
You practically never work with actors with whom you or Ruiz have worked before...
I was in Chile and Paulo sent me the names of five actresses selected for the role of Laura and I watched extracts of the films in which they had played. I discovered Lou de Laâge in Les Innocentes, and by reviewing excerpts, it convinced me that she had to play the role. She has something frail, fragile that attracted me. She seems fragile but with an inner fire. For the rest of the characters, it depended a bit on Paulo Branco, for both practical and economic reasons. It was the first time I worked with them.
You film her with a generosity and sensuality that is new.
One of the things I discover with age is that I can look at young people with a lot of tenderness. I saw the couple she was forming on the screen with Niels Schneider, and I thought they were very beautiful examples of human nature!
The image and texture of this film is surprising...
I had done the Lines of Wellington with chief operator André Szankowski, and we were supposed to work together again, but he was not available.
So I came back to my old friend and collaborator Acacio de Almeida, with whom we worked a lot, and it went very well, again. He is for me a director of photography so malleable, kind. He will soon be 80 years old ... I wanted the film not to be too realistic. And for that, we looked at the possibility of removing a color ... I discovered that after the Second World War, the Spaniards, not having the means to equip themselves in Technicolor, had invented a similar technique. They made several impressive films with this technique... with an astonishing result, where the greens turned to blues. In a subtle way, on our side, we used a filter to try to have the effect of these films. But the costume sets already had, say, one less color. Thus, we reached an impression of unreality, which is what I wanted in the film. One does not always realize how much the image, the colors, determine the vision that we can have of a film. Especially in this case of reverie, another time as fantasized. I wanted the viewer to enter the atmosphere of a tale. This seems to me more true to the script, since the main character is a legendary character. In any case, who is destined to become one?
We were looking for this effect, a kind of... fake in the color. It’s very sweet, you can see it little by little. That’s why we worked all the sets and costumes upstream, removing a color which is blue. It therefore became complicated, for instance regarding the soldiers’ uniforms. But if we succeeded, it is thanks to the talent and the work of the teams of Isabel Branco, who makes both the costumes and the sets. I have already worked with her three times. She is a great artist because she knows how to work with few means. Thanks to her, each era had its own coherence. Imagine, we could not use blue, and yet, we did well!
The film extends from before the Revolution, say 1770 to the second campaign of Italy, in about 1800. We had a map, a kind of giant frieze in which we noted the times of the script, with historical clues. We organized the eras, and then Isabel adapted the costumes and sets. I think that thanks to her also we reach the dreamlike feeling that is characteristic of this fantastic saga.
And how is the shooting of a film going on at different times and in different places?
We filmed for six weeks, which is short for a costume film. We mainly shot in Portugal, around Lisbon, Sintra... Portugal is the only place where we can still find palaces available. This may be the last time, since now to shoot vintage films we are starting to pay a lot of money. The story takes place all over Europe, but everything has been shot in the same place. There are certain details that evoke different places. For Rome, for example, we have put a little sound of bells, or the well-known sound of the “cobblestones of Paris”: it is a fiction, and we ask the spectator to believe it.
And you, often the editor, you entrust the editing to someone else.
When I make fiction films, I never take care of editing. Here it was Luca Alberdi, an Italian editor working in Portugal. I asked to work with him for the Lines of Wellington. What is interesting is that they are two films with a very different style. Here we needed to go fast, to have this series move at a frantic pace, whereas in the Lines we had to settle in the tempo, follow long and complex shots-sequence, since we wanted to see how the war settles in the life of the characters. The Black Book was designed as a series, it follows the rhythm, and you have to constantly revive the action.
I think there has to be a vertigo induced by the narrative, which does not let go of you for a second. The duration of the film must preserve this suspense, this very sustained rhythm.
Like the number of ellipses, for example?
This rhythm requiring ellipses is desired by the structure of a series. It was already present in the original novel: everything is linked, we go from the French Revolution to the Empire and the Napoleonic wars.
Have you found some of your usual collaborators?
Yes. For example, for the music, we worked with the composer Jorge Arriagada, from the beginning of the editing. We sent him edited sequences and he proposed music, and then we could, thanks to that, resume the editing process.
In his collaborations with you, he is a true chameleon.
I know Jorge well, I edited a good part of Raoul’s films with his compositions. Sometimes, as was the case for Telenovela Errante, he “lends” me some music.
The wandering Telenovela, an unfinished project of Ruiz, which you have just edited. And by the way, you have just finished a series for Chilean television. What is the transition to an 18th century adventure film set in Europe like ?
My project in Chile is also a period film. It is the year 1952, when women have for the first time the right to vote in Chile, after terrible moments of communist persecution. This is the historical background of the series, told in ten episodes: the story of two women trying to recover their father’s store. I did not have to worry about moving from low budget films to another type of economy, since I work with different teams.
One thing is very clear in my work. On one side, there is fiction. I started as a fiction director with Corín Tellado, for example, by adapting sentimental stories. But when I make documentaries in Latin America, I make documentaries on very difficult themes. Like a kind of split personality. For the moment, before returning to shoot documentaries in Europe, I have to finish another unfinished project of Raoul, El Tango delviudo.
And that famous Black Book, then?
This is typical of a series, and this is what the Cardinal, played by Stanislas Mehrar, says. It is always better that the mystery remains...