SOME cinema-goers in Brazil were surprised last month when Erik de Castro's new film “Federal” was released just days after the blockbuster “Tropa de Elite 2” had opened. They rightly believed that “Federal” would be unfairly compared to “Tropa”, which had a much bigger budget and opened on nearly ten times more screens than Castro's film.
In the following interview, Castro, who studied filmmaking in Los Angeles in the 1990s, talks about the timing of the release of his film; what it was like working with Selton Mello, one of Brazil’s most popular actors; why he thinks the sex scenes in “Federal” were not excessive, and why he thinks Brasilia is the capital of cocaine.
QUESTION: Why was your movie released shortly after “Tropa de Elite 2” in Brazil? Didn’t your distributor realize that it would face stiff competition since it is a police/action movie too?
ANSWER: That's a long story. To make it short: we had no option. “Tropa” is a blockbuster. “Federal,” which was called "a masterpiece" by a film critic in Rio shortly after its first screening at the Rio International Film Festival, is more in the path of a cult movie now. That's okay, though. “Blade Runner” was indeed one of my influences!
Q: Why did it take so long, from the inception of the script in 2001, to the filming of “Federal” in 2006, and then finally to its release this year? Was it because of a lack of funds?
A: Film production in Brazil is a tough endeavor. Also “Federal” was a completely independent production, from a first time feature filmmaker, out of the Rio/São Paulo axis — and it had a lot of action. We shot in 2006, than it took us a few years raising the money for its conclusion and proper release.
Q: At the beginning of “Federal”, the opening credits say that the movie was made with the support of the Prefeitura do Rio, which confused me. For a moment I thought I may have come into the wrong room and was about to watch “Tropa de Elite 2”. Was your movie edited in Rio?
A: No, but the whole sound editing and mixing process was done in Rio. Riofilme invested in the production, as a co-producer. Jose Wilker was the president of the company and he liked the screenplay a lot.
Q: How was it as a director to work with Selton Mello, who is considered a star in Brazil? Was he difficult to direct? Why isn’t he promoting the film right now? Is it because it took so long after the film was finished for it to be launched that may have lessened Mello’s enthusiasm?
A: The same as it was with any of the almost forty actors and actresses that I had on my cast on “Federal”: a creative collaboration. Also, I just didn't see him as a star. I've known Selton since 1995 when I invited him and he accepted to be in my first short film shot in Brazil — I had a few others shot during my student period in Los Angeles — called "Reason to Believe" (1996). I showed 'Federal's script to him in 2001, right before the Sundance Lab Institute selection, and he promptly accepted. He was not difficult to direct at all. Like I said, filmmaking is all about creative collaboration.
As for the last question, why don't you ask him about it? He's currently dedicated to his own projects that he is producing and directing and that is happening at the same time of “Federal's” release.
Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained about the various sex scenes in the film, saying they were gratuitous and too explicit. Did you include them on purpose to “spice” up the story?
A: To me they're very organic. Sex is something that is part of our lives. So some cops in “Federal” do have a lot of love to give to their ladies...and vice-versa! I think people should relax more with sex scenes in films — and enjoy it. Truth is I've heard a lot of people who loved them in “Federal”!
The “spiciest” one, the scene of the character Rocha (Christovam Neto) and his “blonde” is the favorite of a lot of people, including my film professor Tom Stempel who defined it as: “My kind of sex scene: fast, funny and keeps the story going.”
Q: In the movie one of the characters says that Brasilia is “the capital of the powder,” a reference to the trafficking and consumption of cocaine here. Don’t you think that cocaine as a drug was more widely consumed here in the 1980s, and that nowadays, at least among the younger generation, ecstasy and crack have taken over as the drugs of choice?
A: Other drugs come and go, but cocaine is always there. I don't see a character like the diplomat Sophia consuming crack or ecstasy. Cocaine made our point. Cocaine is the classic drug. And that phrase (“the capital of the powder”) didn't come from me. It came from UnB Professor Argemiro Procópio, PhD, one of the consultants of the script. He's the author of many books about drug trafficking and how it affects our society. One of them “O Brasil no Mundo das Drogas” (“Brazil in the World of the Drugs”) points out Brasília as one of the cities where drug consumption, especially cocaine, has grown more than elsewhere in the entire country.
And that has a reason: cocaine is an expensive drug and Brasilia has a lot of rich people. Period. Big shopping malls brands come here, great fashion stores, hip and very expensive concerts, and cocaine too. That's historical in this city but no one seems to care or talk about it. Professor Argemiro dared me: “I dare you to put that phrase in your film.” Well, it's there.
Q: I found many of Michael Madsen’s lines as a corrupt DEA agent to be very cliché! Him saying that Brazil has the best coffee in the world and that he needed to “fuck” a Brazilian woman made me squirm. Were these the original lines in the script or did he improvise?
A: Original lines and Michael loved it! Sam Gibson originally was a one-scene character, who was supposed to be a kind of a comic relief in the story, with all those lines and purposely cliché. His character grew in the story and some of the cliché lines stayed. That's all. We had a ball on the set with Michael.
I've heard different opinions about Sam's sense of humor and for me that's what “Federal” and any good film — or art form for that matter — is all about: Not having consensus.
Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained that the storyline is not coherent, and that you failed to adequately link the various scenes. How do you respond?
A: I don't. Others have congratulated me for the script and the way that the edited film kept them tight in their sits, waiting for what was going to happen next. These people understood the film thoroughly.
I had as an editing consultant on this film — and who is also a dear friend — Roman Polanski's editor, Academy Award nominee Hervé deLuze (“The Pianist”). He had read the script and appreciated very much the way Heber Trigueiro (“Federal's” editor) and myself were conducting the rhythm and pace of the film.
Again, film is a very complex art form. Either it hits you, or not. If everyone understood it the same way, it would be too boring. That's why cinema is so great: cinema is disagreement. I might like a film that you hate and vice-versa.
Q: In the scene of “Federal” where the federal police surround the chacara of the head of the NGO, the police shoot a stream of bullets into one of the cars trying to escape from the scene. Is this standard procedure for the police? To me it seemed like overkill. I would have thought that they would just shoot out the tires to get the car to stop so that they could get the passengers alive. Instead, they stop the car but have also killed everyone in it!
A: Come on, give me a break! It's a cop movie! They were being shot at. So, let's kill the bastards!!
At some point in a movie like this, it is a matter of kill or be killed. This was one of those moments. It's like a modern Western.
Q: What was the reaction of the Federal Police to your film? I read the comment of one policeman online who said that your movie shamed the Federal Police for showing them to be so corrupt.
Do you agree with this, or do you think “Federal” showed them in a more nuanced light?
A: Again the arrow hits you according to your own perceptions and thoughts. If this guy felt this way, who am I to disagree?
There were a lot of people at the Federal Police who knew about this project ever since its screenplay was written back in 2001. One retired deputy, to whom I showed the script in 2002, said to me that everything that was there was true.
I've heard about federal policemen who saw it and liked it very much. I just think that I've shown the cops, their wives and even the criminals in a humane way.
The Federal Police Department is a very big place and I'm sure you would get a lot of different opinions there.
Q: What are your next projects that you are working on?
A: I'm working right now on a romantic vampire thriller called “A Lenda de Cândida” (“Candida's Tale”), which I wrote with my “Federal” co-writer Érico Beduschi back in 1999. Diler Trindade will produce this one.
Also, I have yet another police story called “BR-306” (“Route 306”), written by myself, which is being developed with producer Marcus Ligocki, from Brasilia, for his company Ligocki Z Entretenimento.
Currently I'm finishing my production company's (BSB Cinema) third World War II documentary, called “Brazil and the Battle of the Atlantic”.
The previous ones were “Senta a Pua!” (directed by myself), about the first Brazilian fighter squadron in WWII and “A Cobra Fumou”, about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) in WWII, directed by Vinícius Reis.
Selton Mello in a scene from "Federal"