Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019, Bacurau has received constant, and consistent, acclaim across the globe.
The Brazilian feature from writer/directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles won a Jury Prize at that festival, but that was only the beginning of the bounty of awards nominations and wins that it would be picking up over the next two years, which included a whopping 17 nominations and 6 wins from the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize awards in 2020.
While currently competing for the Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film, along with being eligible for numerous categories at this year’s Academy Awards (it wasn’t submitted for International Feature from Brazil last year, but is eligible this year for many categories including Best Picture and Best Director), I was lucky to be able to sit down over Zoom with Kleber and Juliano for an in-depth conversation about how the film came together, the process of making it, and the reception it’s been greeted with since its release.
I went into the interview expecting to be with the filmmakers for 15 or 20 minutes, and was surprised to find that when our conversation was over we had been speaking for an hour and a half! Their generosity with their time here made sense after hearing about the collaborative spirit they brought to Bacurau, as I learned about the ways that they incorporated the community into the making of the film.
Kleber and Juliano shared with me numerous entertaining, often deeply touching stories, along with so much insight into their creative process, the ideas that they wanted to convey with the movie, and how Bacurau is a demonstration of themes that we are not only seeing in our modern world, but have been present in events that have happened over and over again through the course of history, and will continue to happen in the future.
In a statement, Kino Lorber President and CEO Richard Lorber raved about the film and its filmmakers, saying, “There are blockbusters and genre busters, which are rarer and harder to come by. Bacurau is a dazzlingly smart cinematic stew of western, sci fi, and vengeance thriller that fuses its disparate ingredients into a contemporary political allegory. Ultimately though it’s a wild ride old time movie, a popcorn pleaser with a blood splattered social justice catharsis, cheering all with a good guys payoff. Not to betray the brainy art house crowd, however, all these themes are dispatched with a wicked winking eye to deeply informed historical cinematic sources. I really have no clue how the hell co-directors Kleber and Juliano pulled off this jail break of a movie, but in my mind, in their hands they’ve thrown down a giddy gauntlet for the future of cinema.”
Read on for my conversation with Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles:
Mitchell Beaupre: I wanted to start by talking about how the project began for the two of you. Bacurau has this fascinating mixture of political and social commentary worked within a framework of genre filmmaking. Did one of those aspects come before the other, or was it always a symbiosis where these themes would be delivered through a genre aesthetic?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s interesting how so many people say that the film is political. It is political, I understand from a pragmatic point of view, but I think whenever you focus on living life in society, and a lot of the problems and obstacles that living life in society brings, you will end up making something political. Me and Juliano, before anything else we wanted to make the kind of film that we would like to watch. For some reason genre films are hard to come by in the Brazilian industry. The other thing is that we come from the Northeast of Brazil, and there’s a historic separation between the Northeast and the Southeast. The way the country was put together basically took all of the development and all of the money to the Southeast, so there are cultural and political and economic differences.
We notice that whenever we see a film which is a production from the Southeast, where they’ve come to the Northeast to make the film, they get things wrong, even down to the way that people speak. A lot of that came into what we wanted to do in Bacurau, and sure enough the result is very clearly political. It’s political if you’re Brazilian and you understand these nuances, and it’s political because the film is very much about the world, about power and violence and war and invasion, and what the rich do to the poor. All of that had made the film extremely political, but it really began with two friends who wanted to do a genre film which would be very honest and very true.
MB: When the film first came out, a lot of people drew parallels from Bacurau to what’s going on in your country right now with Bolsonaro, as well as what’s been happening in the United States over the last four years. However, you had first conceived of the project over a decade ago. It speaks to how this commentary on class and power dynamics has current examples, but these are things that have always been there. Did the film start feeling different to you with how the world has changed (or not changed) within recent years?
Juliano Dornelles: People are very scared with politics these days, thinking it’s getting more and more violent, but it was always very violent. When me and Kleber started to talk about the film our first wish was to put people that we know very well on screen, in a way that we feel is more just and correct and precise. We are talking about our people, where we come from. When we think about history and why we are in this situation, why those people are in that situation, why other people treat them like that, or talk about them like that, you’re going to see that those things that are happening now are just repetitions of things that always happen.
For me now, after answering that kind of question for so long, it is very simple, but maybe back then it wasn’t that simple. When we started to discuss ideas and think about images and characters and things that could happen in the film, we thought it was a good opportunity to make a film about us, about our country. At the same time, we also wanted to have a lot of fun because all of those horror films or Westerns that are actually saying something about their society and the time that they are located are much more interesting than industry films. It was a natural process I think.
MB: While the film is culturally specific, you’re also drawing from influences ranging from Spaghetti Westerns to Australian New Wave and more. Do you feel that there’s always been this catharsis that comes from genre filmmaking for audiences?
JD: I grew up in a moment of cinephilia that had a very strong scene of documentary filmmakers in Brazil who were largely and consistently denying that catharsis element of films, and I never agreed with that. I always thought that cinema has space for everything, and every kind of emotion or thought. Catharsis is something that makes me want to see a film because it’s all about fun in the end. It’s good to have fun, and at the same time to have a feeling that you are learning something.
KMF: We began thinking about the film in 2009 after we worked on a very successful short film called Cold Tropics, which was a sci-fi experience with genre and comedy. We had such a great reaction to that and it made us think about something bigger and even more extreme. Bacurau started out as a classic meta kind of experience about a group of urban filmmakers who go to a very remote location to make a documentary about which is, in their minds, a kind of simple minded people.
After a number of years we began to pay attention to what was going on in Brazil, where we had this deterioration of democracy. In 2016, there was this soft coup, and it drew out attention to what was happening and how cynical everything had become. Then slowly Donald Trump creeps in, and he goes from a clown to a real possibility of becoming the President of the United States. All of these things really fucked with the way we were looking at things. The one thing that Juliano always says, and I’ll say it now, is that we were always connected. We were not isolated, writing in a mountain. We were watching YouTube and all the media —
KMF: Yeah, Twitter, and all of the social media stuff, and that began to give us a sense of how absurd everything was becoming. Suddenly our idea that the town of Bacurau would just vanish from the map wasn’t so absurd anymore. The idea of people shooting other people just because they can wasn’t absurd anymore. We found ourselves feeling both comfortable and awkward dealing with all of these ideas which were becoming real, so we kept building and adding more information to the script. Every time we added something absurd we went deeper into what was happening, and what’s still happening.
MB: You’ve spoken before about how the Vietnam War was a comparison that you were drawing to specifically in Bacurau, with the idea that when the U.S. invaded Vietnam they thought that they could easily conquer this territory because they had the biggest weapons and the biggest army. Then once they got there, they realized that the people they were fighting had the advantage of knowledge, not only knowing how to fight but also the location they were fighting on. Was this message of the hubris of invaders, and the underestimation of their opponents, something you wanted to infuse into Bacurau?
JD: We never thought about a message, we just thought about things that could happen, and this is something that is very interesting to put on a film. This wasn’t just in Vietnam, I think it’s a general human condition.
KMF: Napoleon got into heaps of trouble with the Russian winter, and Hitler got into the same situation, the Americans in Vietnam, who had forgotten to talk to the French who had been in the same situation in Indochine. I think history tells you a lot about the present, about the human condition. Of course, there’s a huge historical event in the region where we come from in the late 19th century, the War of Canudos. The Brazilian army massacred this community that was basically a utopia.
JD: It was actually a massacre, they didn’t offer any resistance.
KMF: They were crushed. It was all of these things. You know, the two Brazilian characters, the man and the woman who come in on motorbikes? At some point in writing the script I told Juliano about when Hitler invaded the Ukraine in 1942, that there were collaborationists from the Ukrainian side that were actually helping the Germans, and this is another mind boggling development – local people helping the invaders to massacre the other local people, because at some point you think yourself as better than your countrymen. That was a strong idea, and it was a recurring motif in many wars and conflicts, and it says a lot about Brazil and how the Southeast looks at the Northeast, and how this government looks at their relationship to Trump’s United States. It really clicked in the end, and it all comes from history.
MB: Those two characters have a great scene in the local shop, where the woman asks the shopkeeper, “What are people from Bacurau called? Bacurauns?”, and a young boy answers, “People”. Did you want to speak to this idea about how the people of Bacurau see themselves as a community, while the invading forces are all about division, and using that division to elevate themselves above the people they want to put beneath them?
KMF: Yeah, I have found myself in many situations, especially as a filmmaker, where I’m in situations abroad in France or Portugal or Germany where this idea comes into play. I’ll be with another Brazilian and then somebody from the U.S. or France who will say, “So, where are you from? Do you come from the same region?”, and the other Brazilian would be very quick to say, “No, no, no, I come from the Southeast. It’s a very rich and developed region”. Then you cut to my reaction shot where I go, “Hmmm, I see. What the fuck are you trying to say?”
JD: I have this in my family. My mother comes from the South, and when I travel to the South to visit my grandparents, I’ve experienced this since I was a little boy, they always try to make me feel as Southern as possible, to speak more like them and eat their kind of food, to like their football teams. Those kinds of things happen all the time.
JD: The same thing that happened with the little boy actually happened to me too. Kleber and I went for this sit down to make another project, this installation for a museum that Kleber directed and I helped him with. With the best of intentions I asked this boy the name of this little city, it had a peculiar name, and the boy immediately put me in my place. It’s very good when you make a film based on your own experiences. You have your ears and your eyes wide open. We did this a lot with this film, not only by history books or literature or our own cinema, but our life experiences. That community of Bacurau is based on our community of friends, not from the big city, but the people that we respect, that we love and that we admire.
KMF: And people we actually found when we went to make the film.
JD: Exactly, that’s the whole point, because we never thought that they were different from us. We needed to show that these people they’re not naive or cute or exotic, they’re the same as us.
KMF: Our worst nightmare was to be the kind of film crew that we were talking about back in 2009, where we go to a remote community and behave like locusts, destroy the whole place and people’s expectations, dreams, and respect for themselves, and then leave. That was our worst fear, and I can report that nothing like that happened here.
JD: When you have money and you are giving your money to other people, you immediately think that you can do anything because you are helping that person, because you’re paying so you can do whatever you want. It’s another kind of violence. We’re still connected with the people who made this film with us, we still talk on WhatsApp and social media.
KMF: Just last week we got new videos of the rain season beginning. When you’re living in a place where it doesn’t rain for two years, when it finally rains it’s a huge event. We got videos last week from one of the contacts from the film, and it was so beautiful. In fact, one of the reasons we chose the location for the movie was because it doesn’t rain. It hadn’t rained in seven years, so the place looked amazing, and then as soon as we set up shop it started to rain. So then we have this local priest in the town —
JD: (laughing) That’s a good story!
KMF: He’s celebrating mass and thanking the film crew for bringing rain and we’re going, “Noooo, we have nothing to do with this!” (laughing)
MB: When the movie opens the conventional cinematic language tells us that Bárbara Colen’s Theresa is going to be the main character and we’ll follow the movie through her perspective. Yet you then diverge from her and the main character really becomes the community itself, spending time with each individual character rather than one focal point. Was this designed to convey the idea that every character in the movie is equally important?
JD: That’s exactly it. It’s Bacurau. That’s the title. It’s the people.
KMF: I’m personally horrified by the idea of having a professional character in foreground, and then you have extras in the background, but you could change an extra and put a table there and it would be the same thing. We never called them extras when we were making this film. We called them actors, and now we call them our friends. Everybody knew exactly what they were doing in each scene. They didn’t read the script, but they would ask us about the story, and we would tell them it, and tell them exactly what was going to happen in the scene. At the end of the film when the camera pans to the right and you see about 30 or 40 people, they all look exactly right. One of them could have been thinking about laundry or something, but no they are all just completely into the scene. I think it says a lot about the way we worked.
The other thing I wanted to say is that I liked developing the story with the logic of life. A lot of viewers complained about how we had Theresa open the film, saying that we led them to believe she was going to be the main character. For me and Juliano, she is a main character! The problem for some people is that there are probably 11 main characters. I always remember this situation where I went to the Sydney Film Festival, I think it was with Aquarius, and I got to the airport and there’s another filmmaker from Texas there, who had been asked to wait 20 minutes for me to arrive. We shared the ride to the hotel, and we had this great conversation, and it was my introduction to that trip to Sydney, so I thought, well, we were going to be friends and we were going to be meeting many times during the festival. I never saw him again. Except the day I was leaving, and I go into the car, and there he is, and we’re being driven back to the airport. That’s the logic of life. You think this guy is going to be your friend now, and no, you never saw him again. I think that’s a little bit of what we do with Theresa. It’s not like we don’t ever see her again, but she introduces us to the film, and then she’s part of the story, and I like that.
JD: I just want to say something about the extras situation. We had this very competent and intelligent crew that were finding the people to work in the film to be our community. Some of them are from the nearby area, some from that specific village, and they were all very talented and intelligent. We never sent them the full script for them to read, but in the preparation they discussed the story, and what happens in the film, and they could manage to use their own life experiences to feel like those characters. I think this kind of preparation is very important for the extras, not just hiring a bus full of extras and dumping them on the set. Part of the reason why the movie works is because those people are in the film. There are many other people that are not in the film. They are.
KMF: Juliano, remember when we were going to shoot the museum sequence, and we went around and told the friends in the community that we would be shooting a violent scene in the film, and that there would maybe be some screaming, and then we showed them the heads? We explained the situation and one of the women, an incredible lady from the community, said, “I don’t like violence, but I understand that sometimes it happens.”
JD: (laughing hard) Oh my god yes. This community, they wrote us a very beautiful poem and read it to us on the last day of shooting, and me and Kleber we went and cried a lot because —
KMF: Not only because we were finishing the film, but when you hear somebody writing a beautiful poem, and it’s all about respect, about themselves feeling respected by these people who came in to make the film, and it was very touching. They could have just been extras coming in and just waiting around, wishing they were home because it was too boring and too tiring, but we didn’t get that. They were completely fascinated with the process, and with being there, and they felt respected.
MB: When the movie first came out, there was so much talk about the violence in it, and how graphic —
KMF: I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
MB: Yeah, exactly! When I first saw it last year I was surprised that it wasn’t nearly as violent as I had been led to believe. I wondered if that was partly because cinema in general can desensitize us to violence, but I think it’s more about the fact that when you’re portraying the violence in the movie you do it all with such intention. Violence in Bacurau never feels like it’s being done in this stylized way where we’re supposed to feel like it’s “cool”. I think the reason why it has such an impact is that it’s all done very deliberately; it makes you feel sick the way that you should, rather than feeling energized by it.
JD: You said it all. There are two things about violence. One, we want you to feel the violence and feel bad about what you’re seeing. When you see a film that is very graphic and violent and gory and stuff like that, without those kinds of trepidations and context, you don’t feel anything. This is something that is happening with 90% of those films, maybe more. The other thing, we never wanted to have violence in the film as something that could be “cool”. Violence is ugly, it’s destructive and it’s a bad vibe, and there’s no celebration of violence. If you remember the end of the film, everybody’s devastated with what happened. Nobody’s dancing or releasing firecrackers into the sky, or hugging and laughing.
KMF: Like the ending of Return of the Jedi.
JD: (laughing) Clever! You used this reference! In Bacurau, they are filled with regret and anger and it’s a bad fucking vibe! Another thing about violence is that it’s difficult to kill someone, right? Kleber always said something that I love: Someone has to have a very strong motive to pull a gun on another person, you know? We are used to seeing films where everybody’s grabbing guns like they’re brushing their teeth. So, we put it in this kind of perspective where everybody can feel the violence, but actually, mathematically, it’s not that violent.
KMF: I have to say that I’m mystified by the amount of reactions and mentions that Bacurau gets for its violence. I simply do not understand. What I could probably begin to try to understand is that we think in terms of dynamics, almost as if you’re thinking in terms of a song. Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, it begins with these guys singing just a chorus and it keeps building and building and suddenly, if you’re listening to it on vinyl, at the 4 minute mark, it’s like holy shit, this is really loud now, but it never seemed like it was going to be so loud in the beginning. I think it’s funny, sometimes people say that, “I had to wait an hour before something happened in this movie”. It’s wonderful. Some of the best books and films —
JD: Yeah, motherfucker, you sit and wait, motherfucker! Calm the fuck down! Watch the fucking movie, man.
MB: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is where the two Brazilians go back to the sort of headquarters where the invaders are stationed, and we see them all speaking together around the table. You do a great job tracing where this violence comes from. That it doesn’t start with physical violence, it starts with them sitting around the table and talking about how and why they want to kill these people. That scene to me was more shocking than any of the physical violence, because it shows us the foundation of where this all starts. Could you speak a bit about that scene?
JD: That meeting is one of my favorite moments of the film. First of all, we had a lot of fun, but we had a lot of work to put those pieces together and figure out how to do that scene. It was a two-day shoot, a lot of actors, a lot of dialogue, but that moment, for me it’s the film. There was something very cathartic for me to put those two collaborators in that situation, when they say that they are white, and they are different from the people of Bacurau, and that they’re more like the invaders. It’s all there. It’s real. That kind of shit really happens.
KMF: It makes me think of business meetings where the chief operating officer is ruthless and everybody is kind of afraid of him, and tries to please him, but it doesn’t really work because it kind of turns against them and dramatically. It’s not only the violence, but what it means. They become victims of their own stupidity, I think.
JD: I remember something that I’m very proud of, and I think Kleber too, is those actors together, they are amazing. Everybody had harmony and they are friends to this day. They loved the story and the script and what they’re doing so much that they were always thinking about their characters, and how they could do something more about those characters. I remember the moment where Brian, the more hefty guy that has some problem with steroids, he went berserk and started to yell at the table. That was something that he brought to us, and we loved the idea. This is something that I’m very proud of because this is the environment we create, where the actors could feel free to just contribute to make things even more three-dimensional. Every time I see that moment in that scene I feel great because it hasn’t come from me or Kleber, but it’s so good. And don’t forget those big blue eyes of Udo Kier, in their best moment in the film. That image for me is like a dream. It was something so good, so good to have those eyes.
KMF: Udo is one of the best human beings on the planet.
JD: (laughing) So different from his characters!
MB: I wanted to ask about the casting of Udo and Sônia Braga. Out of everybody in the movie, they’re the two faces who people recognize and have relationships with in cinema, and I think our past experiences with them informs how we see those characters. Did you know all along that you were going to cast the two of them for those parts?
KMF: Once we had worked with Sônia before we discovered that she’s not only a great artist but an amazing human being, somebody we wanted to be hanging out with. At that same time we were developing the script for Bacurau, and we began to play with the idea of what if she played Domingas in the film. I mean, it would be completely unexpected because once we announced she was going to be in the next film, people think that it’s going to be Aquarius 2, and this is a very different kind of film. She seized the opportunity immediately. She saw the potential of surprising people, and offering something completely different, and I really like her in the film.
Udo, I happened to meet in Palm Springs at a festival situation, and we talked for an hour and a half. We were talking and I was sending Juliano WhatsApp messages, and we were talking about how Udo would be an amazing Michael. At that point we hadn’t thought of him. After I met him that was all we could think about, and it worked out. I can tell you with certainty that he’s one of the best human beings on the planet. He’s an amazing, amazing person.
JD: I think these kinds of things, we are very lucky, and it’s on the film, you know, all of the good things that happen in the process.
KMF: You can also help luck by generating good vibes so, we were lucky, but I think —
JD: (laughing) We did a good job, too!
KMF: I really believe we did. It helps.
(Kleber’s cat starts to bite him multiple times)
MB: You are getting bit up!
KMF: You know why? We spent two weeks away from home, and he was alone with somebody coming over every three days.
JD: It’s 6pm! 6pm is the crazy cat hour!
KMF: I think it’s kind of his revenge time because he keeps biting me and he never does this.
JD: You can kick him in the face.
KMF: He’s a good cat.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
A special screening of Bacurau will be playing at the Queens Drive-In at The New York Hall of Science on March 19th as part of a double feature with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, where Kleber, Juliano, and Udo Kier will be beamed in for a conversation during intermission. You can purchase tickets for that event here.