At this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival, Yellow Bread talked to Jerónimo Rocha, the director of “Arcana” that screened in the Shadow Shorts competition program, about the film, his inspiration, the horror film genre as well as the short film scene in Portugal and what else he has in the pipeline.
Can you talk a bit about your background?
Jerónimo Rocha: Since I was a kid I loved storytelling. Instead of playing soccer like most of the boys my age, I would rather reenact movies and TV shows I had watched the night before with a small bunch of renegade colleagues. Then, came an associate degree in Graphic Design at Soares dos Reis in Porto, a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts Painting at FBAUP in Porto and a post graduation in Media Project Development at ECAM in Madrid, where I acquired a broad array of tools with which to make this particular craft flourish. I work at the Lisbon-based Production Company, Take it Easy, since 2005, as a director, illustrator, editor and animator and I have worked on an extensive set of projects that include feature films, commercials, music videos and animations. Since 2014, I run the company’s animation department EASYLAB. I still dislike soccer to this day.
This is your second time at TIFF with a film in the Shadow Shorts Competition. The first time was with “Dédalo” in 2014. Can you talk about that experience?
J.R.: It was amazing to be able to come to the heart of Transylvania to present “Dédalo” in Shadow Shorts. I was very impressed by the fact that TIFF invested in me, payed for my travel expenses and accommodation, thus showing so much respect for the short film format. It was my first time in Romania and those four days were quite magical: walking about and discovering Cluj, seeing wonderfully selected films, meeting other filmmakers and festival programmers and, of course, tasting Ciorba de Burta for the first time!
“Arcana” is your seventh short film, is that right?
J.R.: “Arcana” is indeed my seventh film. My first was (with Sven Gossel) “Three Nights in Madrid” in 2004, fresh out of college; then came “Little Jesus” (with Nico Guedes and Joana Faria) in 2006, “Breu” in 2009, “Les Paysages” in 2012, “Dédalo” in 2013, “The Mirror of the Mirror’s Mirror” in 2014 and now “Arcana” as well as “Macabre” (with João Miguel Real) in 2015.
And, it was inspired by short stories and tales from popular Portuguese witchcraft as well as “The Legend of the Lady with the Cloven Hoof”? Were there other sources of inspiration?
J.R.: Definitely. I did some research on Portuguese witchcraft only to realize that each region has its very own rich folklore. Portugal might look like a small strip of land on the tip of Western Europe, but it has many different regions – great plains, big mountains, long beaches, vast woods – some very cold and humid, others dry and blazing hot. On top of this, it has quite a history: the Celts, the Moors, the Romans, and many other different civilizations left their roots deep inside this land. The result is a pool of amazing stories to draw from. There was one story in particular that had some relevance in “Arcana”: a tale of a man that discovered that his wife was a witch and spied on her as she prepared a magical mud so she could levitate and fly to meet her peers in the coven. She spread the mud on her wrists and shoulders while reciting the mantra “Por cima das silvas, por baixo das olivas” (“Over the woodland, under the olive trees”) over and over again. Whoever sees “Arcana” will recognize this piece of folklore.
Where does your film fit into these legends?
J.R.: This film started just like “Dédalo”, as a spot for MOTEL X, the Lisbon International Horror Film Festival. Take it Easy, the production company I work at, has been this festival’s partner since its first edition, ten years ago. I’ve been helping with the TV spots since the beginning and directing them since 2011. When I believe that the content in that particular year has the potential for something bigger, I ask my producer Frederico Serra to give me one extra day of shooting. In return, I give him a short film. In 2015, I wanted to explore the witch archetype within the horror genre, and after a while, I made a peculiar connection: What if the Lady with the Cloven Hoof, a famous mythical Portuguese creature, was considered a witch? In Alexandre Herculano’s retelling of the legend, there is a moment in the story where the Lady morphs into a sort of devil and disappears, taking her baby daughter with her. She reappears years later, but her daughter is never seen again. For “Arcana”, I invented a moment between her disappearance and resurgence, during which she was captured and put in a dungeon. This was the main ingredient to kick start the creative process.
And film-wise, which horror film inspired you? Which ones inspire your films in general?
J.R.: I would point out three cult classics – “The Exorcist”, “The Shinning” and “Alien” – as the main sources of inspiration. These are (for me) slow burners, with focus on the psychological aspect of horror and the darker side of life, all topped with an absolutely compelling storytelling. In all fairness, my cinematic interests are not exclusive to the horror universe nor do I consider myself that well versed in that particular genre. I love Film; it is a place I withdraw to.
Has the Major Arcana inspired the title?
J.R.: Actually no! I wanted a simple title that could be decipherable both in Portugal and internationally. For some time a considered “Hoof” as the title for the short but finally it was João Canadinhas, our editor, who came up with “Arcana”. Its definition was perfect; it means something secret, occult, and alchemic.
Can you talk about the shooting process?
J.R.: This was shot over the course of two days in the kitchens of a beautiful Palace in Lisbon, where a famous (or infamous) Portuguese figure – the Marquis of Pombal – was born. Initially, I wanted to have all the walls painted in blood so we were looking for a place to accommodate such a caprice, but after we saw that amazing stone floor we changed our strategy. The idea of putting her chained to a column with the blood markings all around her on the floor instead of placing her in a corner made much more sense. Íris Cayatte, our witch, was incredible. We discussed “Lady Hoof” and had some technical rehearsals before shooting and just after a couple of takes she was IT. Only a few people actually knew what she looked like in real life, which was funny because in the end, as she was saying goodbye to the crew, no one understood what this beautiful girl was doing there. She even got to have lunch in a local restaurant near the location with full makeup, and I have to say, she got by pretty much unnoticed. João Rapaz and Catarina Santiago did a terrific job with the special makeup effects, taking around 3 hours to apply the prosthetics – 2h30, the second day. The nasty bits where actually fun to shot: the roaches where made with chocolate by the talented Ângela Pereira and everything else was eatable but “Mickey” the rat (that was really a taxidermy rat) was a bit too real for Íris, who had to stop for a bit and gather herself before finishing that particular scene with the help of Luis Lisboa, my assistant director. So, at the end of the day, I was incredibly lucky to have this top professional crew at my disposal – professionals that work in commercials and fiction with high-end equipment everyday, some of them for decades now. It is paramount that I mention João Cabezas, the production manager, who made everything go smoothly and Luis Lisboa who was my right hand all the way.
And, the aesthetic and style?
J.R.: I owe the general look of “Arcana” to three people in particular: João Lança Morais, the DoP, who truly painted with light and Isabel Carmona, the costume designer, together with Luis Monteiro, the art director, for making everything so artfully coherent. I knew from the start that I wanted the imagery to be dark and to have this kind of almost imperceptible haze that would give some volume to the few spots of light present in the dungeon and, at the same time, make the imagery a bit soft and blurry. We shot with the ARRI Alexa in 2K RAW so Janeko (João Lança) could play with the light and darkness at his will in the color grading process.
The visual effects and make up are indeed stunning. How difficult was it to achieve them? (You also received an award for special effects at the Festival do Caminhos do Cinema Portugues…)
J.R.: The film had little to no visual effects – just a couple of wire removal and clean up shots, courtesy of João Miguel Real. Everything was practical, in camera – the way I like it – and focused on two elements: the special makeup effects created by João Rapaz’s OldSkull FX team to produce the Hoof Lady Creature and the special practical effects to animate the Forbidden Book and make it fall from the column, done by Luís Monteiro and Jorge Amor. The levitation scene, for instance, was just Íris hanging on a pole and carried by crewmembers on each side. João Canadinhas then cut the whole thing beautifully in the course of two weeks. The award at Caminhos was, of course, a deserved validation of João Rapaz’s great work. The year before, Luís Monteiro had won the best Art Direction award at the same festival for “Dédalo”.
“Arcana” was also featured in an exhibition at MOTELx in Lisboa. Can you talk about that?
J.R.: Bruno Caetano was the big responsible and curator of “Arcana”’s exhibition. We love to share the creative process of each project we do with the general public and we always get nice feedback from it. It’s also a way of making the MOTELx experience more immersive: the festival does not only get a TV spot, but also a short film, an exhibition, a masterclass session and a whole expanded universe behind it. All connected, all tied together in a single concept.
How do you find your inspiration?
J.R.: When I was a kid, roleplaying in the backyard of my school with my mates, I experienced a creative freedom that I aspire to now as a storyteller. Hopefully I’ll never really understand how one finds it, but by now I’ve realize how to create the conditions to summon it. I call it the “filling the cup” experience. To travel, read books, have deep conversations with true friends, fall in love, fail and fail again. Those are the things that fill the cup. And, working creatively are the ones that empty it, because you distill and pour it into your work. I guess destiny and coincidences also help, of course. Being at the right time at the right place and having your mind clear to receive whatever is coming your way. However, once it finds you, you must labor. Do the homework. Work the extra hours. Push hard. And there is nothing romantic about that!
So far, you have made mainly horror shorts. Is that your favorite genre?
J.R.: Mainly – I agree. I think I was always fascinated with “the fantastic,” that thing beyond everyday life. I’m not sure if it is horror per se, but my path lead me to this road and I’m enjoying it very much. I love to create fantasy worlds and play with the atmosphere of a specific place and situation. When I was in college studying arts I played a lot with this concept I called “ambiances of anticipation”. Places that had the potential to create… energy. You would see them and you could sense something drawing you to them and have the feeling that something happened there, or was about to. Having said that, I enjoy watching all kinds of genres. It depends on my state of mind that particular day. From timeless classics to guilty pleasures. And I can see myself working on many other genres and techniques, as long as I feel a deep connection with the source material.
Can you talk about the short film scene in Portugal?
J.R.: There are several short film events happening in Portugal these days. The ShortCutz Network is one of them: a network of cities that screen two, three or even four short films on a given day of the week. It is required for the authors to be there to present their work and engage with the audience. It is a fine concept and a great platform for the maker to meet the public and exchange ideas and stories about the process of filmmaking. Between these kinds of events and the numerous festivals that occur all year round, a short film can have some sort of domestic life, though the dream usually is for one’s short to go beyond borders. However, if you’re talking about financing your short film in Portugal, than that’s a complete other story.
Do you agree with the common assertion that short films are a showcase of talent and that they only serve as a way to a feature film?
J.R.: Not necessarily. I agree that short films are a good place to start one’s filmmaking journey, but one can also work on a specific source material that functions the best in a short format. “Dédalo” is a short film that was made to feel as a part of a bigger story. “Breu”, on the other hand, needed no more than fifteen minutes to be told and was never meant to be bigger than that. Short Film is a great format to both experiment and reveal complete stories will full arcs.
How do you see the current situation of Portuguese cinema?
J.R.: I want to believe that Portuguese filmmaking is alive and kicking. We have the youngest filmmaker to win a Golden Bear for a short film at the Berlinale this year. Back in 2012 we had also won a Golden Bear for another short film. Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights” trilogy was one of Cannes’ favorites last year. And this is just to name a few. Things are happening. We’re fighting. I wish there was a little bit more respect for genre over here when it comes to funding, though…
If I understand correctly, you are currently developing “Dédalo” into your first feature? Do you have any other short film in the pipeline?
J.R.: Indeed I am. In these past three years, I developed a script for a feature and/or a mini series. The material was so appealing that I couldn’t just leave it with a short version. We are now looking for international partners to produce this wicked slow burner. Releasing the short film through a public Vimeo link was the first step to spread the word (https://vimeo.com/167710570) In the meantime, I’ve been promoting my latest two short films: “Arcana” and “Macabre”. Right now, I’m working on the spot for the tenth edition of MOTELx, which I would describe as a sort of gothic poem. And, I’m beginning to have some ideas for a new short but alas! I think it’s still too early to talk about that.