Steamy Brazilian film Lower City went down a storm in the Un Certain Regard section at this year's Cannes. An assured and memorable directorial debut from South American Sergio Machado, it depicts a love-triangle set in the urban low-life surroundings of Brazil's Northern Salvador del Bahia.
Lower City has already made a deep impression on critics, but what's Machado's take on his own film?
"For me, it's about people who desire, feel, love, suffer, weep. They get horny, get pissed, they have orgasms. It's not necessarily an exposÃ© about the living conditions among waterfront prostitutes and hustlers. It's about people like us. It's good, it's bad, it's violent, it's peaceful," says Machado.
The film revolves around the steamy love triangle between friends Deco and Naldinho (Lazaro Ramos and Wagner Moura), who as co-owners of a small boat pick up prostitute Karinna (Alice Braga), not realising that by paying for her services, they'll be unleashing wicked emotions of temptation, outright lust and jealousy.
Lower City boasts great credentials. It was produced by Walter Salles, director of The Motorcyle Diaries, and made for just $1 million, pocket money in Hollywood terms. (In Brazil, privately funded films get tax breaks which helped).
Finding the story
The origins of Lower City stem from Machado's curiosity about Brazilian youth.
"I first asked myself who are the young people at the age of about 20 in Brazil right now and particularly the young people from lower classes, the working people. They don't have help from the government in terms of family support. They're trying to go on and trying to be happy. I tried to look at these people in a personal way through a love relationship. That was the main idea that guided me."
It was co-written by Machado and Karim Ainouz (of Madame Sata fame) who did a fair amount of research before a word hit the page.
"Telling a story well is not easy, particularly this one. I didn't want to fall into depicting stereotypes, such as just showing the whore or the hustler. So I and Karim spent several weeks discussing what we would like to see in the film and then realised that when you view someone for the first time, the first thing you notice are the differences between you and them. But when you look closer, you observe many similarities. So we tried to look at this world populated by prostitutes, hustlers, and say they're not far different: notice how they have the same hopes and fears."
The script was written over a period of a few months after which Machado then stayed for a further period of a few months living in the environment in which his film was set.
"Every night," he muses, "I would go to the street bars, and to the harbour and I met a lot of people, and my script was then laced with things I saw, heard and felt."
He was less prepared to take his cast into such less-than-salubrious surroundings as a form of method acting.
"We really prepared the cast in a very particular way. I didn't let them see the screenplay. They didn't know their lines. They just did an exercise with the acting coach so that they would feel the same way as the character, and that way I wanted them to give their own feelings as the character inside the film." Very Mike Leigh.
"There was a lady called Fatuma. She worked with Walter Salles on both Central Station and City of God and she did exercises with the actors to get them into the right feeling of emotion for a particular scene, so I didn't need Alice (principal actress) to meet real prostitutes, I just needed to think how would she react in a particular scene."
Alice Braga - one in a thousand
Was he worried about how his leading actress, Alice Braga might take to the role of a beautiful, young prostitute?
"Yes,' Sergio confirms. "In the beginning, it was a very demanding role for her. I screentested many actresses to do this role. Over 1,000 actors in fact, all over Brazil, and not just actors in fact, but also dancers and real strippers. It got to two months before the shoot and I had to choose somebody and finding Alice, who at the time was promoting City of God, initially was hard because she was apprehensive about taking on such a demanding role at just 21, especially when it also involved nudity and sex scenes. So I went to the airport to pick her up instead of a driver, and she was really scared. So I said, 'Close your eyes. Hold my hand and let's jump! I promise I won't let you down.'
Braga's performance was vindicated when she won a Best Actress award for her part in the film at the Rio De Janiero Film Festival.
Keeping it real
Shooting in the low-life district of Salvador del Bahia gave them problems with the sound. "It's a very noisy place," Sergio declares, "but on the other hand it was useful as we could frequently just go on to the streets and shoot, using real people in the background and saving on the need to employ extras. Sometimes in a particular location, people didn't even know we were shooting! It was a very nice process. It was a very small crew and I had worked with them all before."
Machado's been working with Walter Salles for the best part of twelve years. "Since Central Station, he's always tried to teach me things on set. I had to tell him which kind of lens we were using in each take for instance. This project Lower City came to fruition whilst he and I were out in L.A. looking for locations for The Motorcycle Diaries and he told me to stop looking and that I was more than ready to make my own film and that he would produce it. So he encouraged me greatly. He was very generous and a great friend."
"You know Georges Armada, the Brazilian writer ? He was the one who introduced me to Walter, they've been working together and now I and Walter have been working together on projects for the last 10 years !"
So what's next? "I want to do a film about a bank robbery that happened in the Eighties in Brazil, because ultimately I wanted to look deeper into the acting experience. I wanted to find the limits in the relationship between directors and actors. I want to make a film in just one location with maybe 13 or 15 actors and prepare them a lot."
Sergio Machado was interviewed at the London Film Festival. Lower City is out on general release in the U.K.