On the Road with Walter Salles, Director of "Central
by Anthony Kaufman
Walter Salles has been the favorite son of Sundance, the golden boy of
Berlin, and the toasts of both Telluride and Toronto. Speaking through
sniffles (the traveling has taken a toll on his health), the 41-year-old
Brazilian director says, “I try to go to most of them, especially the
ones I haven’t been to before.” Next stop, Kazakhstan’s Eurasian Film
Festival, he thinks.
Wherever Salles has gone, the reaction to “Central Station” (“Central do
Brasil“) has been unanimously sympathetic across all borders. At
Sundance ’98, where the script had scored an award from the Institute
two years prior, Sony Pictures Classics reportedly paid $500,000 for
North American rights, and Miramax paid over a million for
international. In Berlin, it won the top prize (the Golden Bear), and
its 68-year-old star Fernanda Montenegro took away the Best Actress
Award. The story centers around the road trip of an unlikely duo: a
bitter old woman who writes (and rarely posts) letters for Rio’s
illiterate at the central train station and a young boy who loses his
mother in a bus accident right outside the station.
This rising new voice of Brazilian Cinema speaks here about the troubled
times in his country’s recent past (in 1990, the country’s president
froze the economy to curb inflation), the miracle of improvisation, and
the purpose of a road movie.
indieWIRE: Where were you in 1990? [When President Fernando Collor de
Mello halted Brazil’s banks.]
Walter Salles: I was shooting a documentary in Brazil that had to be
interrupted, because as you know, all the money that was in the banks
was frozen. The country came to a complete halt. The documentary, I
was shooting for French television, was about the city of Rio de
Janeiro, as seen by one of our main composers, called Chico Buarque. It
was about seeing a country through its music, but we had to stop for
several months, and then we finally got to an end. But I know it’s very
strange to understand this in this country, but imagine a situation
where the whole cultural production of a country would stop. Freeze for
several years. But this also explains the vitality of the current
renaissance that you have in Brazil, because for several years, we
weren’t able to say something. Now the need to do it is very visceral,
very much there.
iW: How did you function, not as a filmmaker, but just as a human being?
Salles: It was extremely difficult. People had to work in different
places. Most of the film industry was transformed into television. Most
of the technicians went into television and commercials. When we
started again 5 years later, there weren’t too many professionals
available to work in several specific areas of film. This obliged us to
improvise — and to work with people that never worked in cinema before,
but had a very strong desire to do so. So, 50% of not only the crew,
but also the actors on “Foreign Land” [Salles’ second film] and 50% or
more on “Central Station” were young guys that had never worked in
cinema before. But they believed so much in the possibilities of cinema,
that it somehow brought an incredible breath and oxygen to what we were
making. I think that one of the factors that explained this renaissance
is this incredible amount of young, gifted professionals working in
cinema as if cinema never existed before.
iW: In those years when things were bad, did you ever think of leaving?
Salles: No, I worked a lot for European television, doing documentaries
in Brazil. Eventually, I did some work in Europe, but basically I
decided to stay there and see what was going to happen in the country.
Finally, it was for the better. The actual situation is infinitely more
interesting today than it was in the beginning of the decay.
iW: There is a very powerful scene in the movie where a policeman goes
out and shoots a petty thief? What was the source for this material?
Salles: That’s a reference to a scene that really occurred in Rio three
years ago, in which a boy was seen robbing a walkman in a shopping
mall. As he exited the shopping mall at noon in the middle of a traffic
jam, he bumped into a police car. He was unarmed. And he was shot to
death in the middle of the asphalt. And someone with a VHS camcorder
recorded that. And it was on the 8 o’clock news. It was about the most
shocking thing you could see on television. Therefore, I wanted to
somehow reproduce that impression I had on film. It’s interesting
because some people reacted with incredulity to that in Brazil, saying,
“this wouldn’t happen.” It’s an interesting thing that they accept this
event in the current news, but they don’t accept any more the
representation of it, because it brings about the necessity to reflect
on it. It stays in your mind and reinforces what you want to forget.
I recently did a documentary on 12-year-old kids that entered drug
movements in the slums in Rio. And you soon realize, I shot there
intermittently for 1 and a half years — a little bit like “Hoop Dreams”
where we followed characters for a certain number of time — in those
underprivileged areas, the government doesn’t bring education, doesn’t
bring health care, and it doesn’t bring infrastructure. The only thing
they receive from the government are the bullets from the police. It’s
the only free item brought by the state. That’s blatantly there. People
don’t want to see it. Because somehow their vision of the world has
been totally anaesthetized.
iW: How long did it take to shoot “Central Station”, because it seems
like you span much of the country?
Salles: All together, 9 weeks, but we had two weeks of travel. We had
5000 miles of travel to do this film, so actually 7 weeks of shooting.
We finished one week prior to the schedule. With my previous film, we
had 5 weeks and we finished in a little bit less than 4. We never had
the sensation that we were running, to achieve something. We always did
what we wanted to do. It’s something that you will find rarely in
cinema, because you usually have the impression that you’re running
iW: You’ve mentioned certain “miracles of improvisation” that helped
keep your film alive. . . Any specifics?
Salles: The scene where the boy gets to [Montenegro] and says, “I want
to dictate a letter to my father.” That was a scene that was much
shorter than it is now. Because as we started to shoot, the boy was
totally into character — he’s very different from that character —
that somehow he didn’t want to leave Dora’s table. He insisted and he
was crying so much, he really pushed her to a point. That we didn’t
have in rehearsal at all. It’s just that he was so honest about his
interpretation that if he didn’t feel that she was sending him away, he
wouldn’t go. As she became harsher and harsher with him, he started to
cry and cry even more, but he wouldn’t let go. As that scene ended, we
were all so moved. No one stopped the camera. It just continued to
roll and roll and roll until it reached the end. It was a trance-like
moment. And that filmed on location, in the middle of a place where
300,000 people walk by.
In a way, the same sensation that a gift was given to us, was when we
put Dora’s table [in the train station] and people started to sit down
by their own will and ask if they can dictate letters. You find that
they have much more of an honest relationship with their feelings than
the psychoanalyzed middle class that rationalize everything before
saying it. Those people had such a desire to be heard and express their
feelings. Very honestly, we did not anticipate, even in rehearsal, the
emotional density would be that strong. I think that if you want to do
a road movie, which is, by definition, a genre in which the characters
change in contact with the unknown, you have to be open to all these
possibilities, because if you want to take the script and follow it line
by line, I think you are dismissing the most interesting possibilities
that road movies bring to you, which is the possibility to be constantly