Raising a Werewolf: 'Good Manners' blends horror, fairytale and musical
The story is simple: Clara is hired to nurse Anna through her pregnancy. They become lovers. When Anna dies in childbirth, Clara keeps the child and raises it as her own.
The film itself is anything but simple, though. A mixture of horror, fantasy, fairytale and musical, Good Manners defies expectations and offers unlimited surprises. Director Talk recently spoke with director Juliana Rojas.
Director Talk: The film got its start when your co-director, Marco Dutra, had a strange dream. How did you turn that dream into a film?
Juliana Rojas: His dream didn’t have a narrative, but it was a very strong situation that we found very attractive. It was about two women living in an isolated place and raising a monster child. We were really attracted to it both because of these two female characters who are resisting and protecting a creature from the world and also because this creature is half child and half monster. We thought those two parts coexisting in the same individual would be an interesting conflict.
From the start we wanted to make it a werewolf story. First, we really like the werewolf tale. We studied it and know that it’s present in many cultures all over the world. In Brazil it’s very strong, especially in the countryside. Stories about werewolves are passed on for generations there. I have uncles who are farmers who used to tell me those stories. In Brazil, the curse of the werewolf is mixed with religion. Usually the reason why you become a werewolf is connected to some transgression you’ve committed against religious morality. You can become a werewolf if you’re not baptized or if you commit infidelity or if you commit incest or if you have relations with a priest, so we thought that was really interesting, and it made us think a lot about our country.
It’s also a very strong, touching tale because it talks about a creature that is half human and half animal. We all exist with a balance between our rational side and our instincts, because we need to live—we need our rationality to evolve and to live in society—but we also need our instincts because they’re our passion and make us want to stay alive and to love and to protect.
We started to build the whole film with this idea of contrasts between two parts. The narrative itself has two parts. We created a São Paulo that is kind of stylized but shows the social differences and the racial issues that are connected to those social differences. We also see two sides of motherhood, both biological motherhood and adoptive motherhood. We tried to see the doubles in all the layers of the film.
DT: Like many fairytales, this story uses those social issues as subtext. How did you use filmic elements—story, script, music, set design—to convey the elements of class, desire, loneliness?
JR: We really wanted to make a fairytale in São Paulo that had a balance between a magical, supernatural side and the realistic presence of the city, as well as those geographical sociopolitical issues, so for us it was very delicate, especially in the way we portrayed the landscapes. We used a technique called matte painting. We painted over a shot that we’d already filmed to give an artificial aspect but still respecting what was strong about the real part of the city.
Thinking about two parts, we tried to build the production design, use of colors, and score to develop in a way that each part would have its identity but also would have elements of dialogue between one another. The first part, in the rich neighborhood where Anna lives, is like the castle in the fairytale. It was cold, they have less human contact, it’s mostly just the two women in the whole first part. There’s a more restricted use of colors. There isn’t much nature, it’s more electronics and devices. The second part is like the woods in the fairytale, or the village. In the second part we tried to have more colors and more life and more sounds and more interaction with other characters to have a sense of community. We tried to build the city in a kind of allegorical way but maintain its geographical social issues.
DT: In American horror films, the horror element is the focus of the film. In this film, it’s much more natural and organic to the rest of the action. When Dona Amelia discovers that Joel is a werewolf, she’s not alarmed—she just says, “I’m calling a priest.”
JR: Although we have realistic references, this film is a fantasy world, where the characters are more willing to accept things. It’s a fairytale in São Paulo, so because it’s a fairytale, there’s more flexibility about reason. When you do a very naturalistic film, you’re stuck to rationality. In this film, we are more in between: between rationality and dream and fantasy. That’s what allows the film to travel to different genres, because not only do we have horror elements but we also have musical elements and comedy elements, so it was important to have that freedom.
DT: Is that acceptance of the fantasy element also an aspect of Brazilian culture? Is there a touch of magical realism?
JR: We don’t have much of that in film or television, although in Cinema Novo they play with baroque, which is also a kind of genre and a kind of fantasy. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Our folklore is very strong, and Brazil is a very big country. We have many different regions that have their own folklore, so I think that affects us.
DT: Your answer to my previous question made me think of Jacques Demy. Was he a reference for this film?
JR: Yes. He was not the main reference, but we talked about him—not only Umbrellas of Cherbourg but another one called Donkey Skin, with Catherine Deneuve transformed into a donkey. It’s a really interesting film and also very free, because it’s like a fairytale but also has a lot of humor. We talked a lot about that film.
DT: That’s precisely the film I was thinking of. Your film uses a lot of music—does the song in the music box have any particular significance?
JR: It’s an original song. Marco and I wrote the lyrics, and Marco wrote the music. It was also sung in the first versions of the script. It’s a lullaby from Anna’s childhood, but as the film goes on it becomes Clara’s lullaby to Joel. When we were writing, we thought to bring those elements so that it would have meaning for both Anna and Clara. For Anna, we tried to write the lyrics for a mother singing to her child, but we also included nonhuman mothers, like many kinds of animals. This is a reminder from the countryside, because Anna talks about the little horse. That has strong significance for Anna, but it’s also a mother singing to a child about freedom, so that was important from the point of view of Clara singing to Joel.
One of our inspirations is the song “Baby Mine” from Dumbo. Dumbo’s mother is locked in a cage. She tried to defend Dumbo from being mocked, and the people from the circus thought she was crazy, so they locked her up. Dumbo goes to her cage in the middle of the night to try to see her, but he can’t get in. He puts his trunk in the cage, and she touches it with her trunk and sings that song. It’s very beautiful, and all the other animals of the circus really love it. That was our inspiration.
DT: The production design and cinematography were fantastic. Can you talk about working with your DP and set designer?
JR: We worked really closely with our cinematographer, Rui Poças [who recently shot Zama], and Fernando Zuccolotto, the set designer, because we wanted to make a fantastic universe. For us it was very important to create the rules: which colors we could use; what the references for that universe would be; how could we balance horror with fantasy and fairytale? We talked a lot about color palette. One of our interests was the work of Mary Blair, who did a lot of illustrations and set design for Disney. We talked about how she used colors and how she used different layers to create a set. We talked a lot about other Disney works, especially Sleeping Beauty, the use of color and lighting and shadows to create horror. We talked a lot about Jacques Tourneur, especially Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie and how he used shadow in a very dramatic way, as well as off-screen sounds and off-screen atmosphere to create tension.
We also spent a lot of time discussing Night of the Hunter. It’s a very theatrical film, and it’s very interesting. It’s also like a dark fairytale, with two children in danger. The director [Charles Laughton!] uses shadows and different dramatic layers to create that atmosphere. Marco and Julian and Fernando and I shared a lot of references. Both Julian and Fernando are very connected with the dramaturgy—what’s happening in the scene, and what emotion we need to pass on in the scene. It was also very important to choose the way we were shooting and which lens was appropriate for each shot. It was very collaborative work with both of them.
DT: In another interview, you said you like the element of surprise. Hitchcock famously described the difference between surprise and suspense. Why do you like surprise, and how did you achieve it in this film?
JR: Maybe I like surprise because I’ve seen a lot of films, and it gives me a lot of pleasure when I see a story and don’t know where it’s going to take me. It’s very good to feel out of control, like you don’t know what’s going to happen and suddenly you think it’s going in a certain way and then it goes in another. I’m not only talking about plot; I’m also talking mood and rhythm. I also like films that make me think about them after they’re finished, like they didn’t give me exactly what I wanted. It’s good that you don’t get all you want and that the film also has space for the audience to project and understand things. It’s important to have that relationship between the movie and the spectator. I’m excited by that, so we tried to do that. When we were creating the film, we tried to make a film that we would like to watch, a film that would give us the most pleasure.
DT: So you’re not talking about the kind of surprise where someone pops out of a dark corner and scares you.
JR: No, no, it’s more about you thinking this is going to be a certain kind of film and then it’s a different kind and out of your comfort zone. Something you can’t quite classify or put a label on. I like that.
DT: You and Marco have collaborated on a number of short films, and this is the second feature you’ve done together. Why do you like collaborating, and what does it bring to the mix?
JR: Marco and I met in the first year of film school, when we were really young. I was seventeen, he was eighteen. We’ve been friends for almost twenty years now. It’s a very interesting friendship. We first got together because we both like the same kinds of films. After school we would go to the cinema or rent some horror films. We also really liked musicals. In school we also learned a lot about cinema together, both theory and in practice by making our first films and our first narratives. That’s a really strong bond, and we have a lot of synchrony because of that.
Of course, we’ve changed over the years. We’ve gotten more mature, and now we have tastes of our own, different tastes, but it’s still really important to have that kind of connection to someone. We talk a lot about what we want to do and how we’re going to develop the story. We don’t divide functions—we do everything together, from the writing to postproduction. Sometimes we disagree, but when we do, we talk until we find a solution that suits both of us. That makes us go to places we would never have gone if we’d been alone, so that’s really interesting to be challenged by the other and to be taken to other places. We support each other when we want to do things that are risky and crazy, like doing the songs in the middle of the film. It’s really important to have that support and to have someone share your excitement and your doubts. We want to continue doing the partnership, but we also have to work alone. That doesn’t interfere. Sometimes we do things alone, and sometimes we do things together, and it’s really good.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
JR: I hope people are open to the film and have fun watching it. I’m curious to see how the American public is going to react.
Click here for the trailer. A Distrib US Films release, Good Manners opens today in New York City at the IFC Center and on August 17 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal. The author thanks Carlos A. Gutiérrez of Cinema Tropical for arranging this interview. This interview is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2018