"I Am All My Characters": Director João Pedro Rodrigues on the Transformative Delights of The Ornithologist

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It’s scorching in Los Angeles and it’s just as warm in Paris. That’s what director João Pedro Rodrigues tells me at the beginning of our conversion about his equally sun-drenched feature The Ornithologist.

He is in the French capital to promote the DVD release of the film there, a luxury that doesn’t happen often for home releases stateside. We speak via Skype with several hours, without seeing each other’s faces—it’s better for audio recording to do a voice call—but I do see his chosen avatar: a hawk. Later he would tell me that this photo was one of the few available in the application and blames his poor computer skills for it. I choose to believe that the ornithologist in him subconsciously had something to do with that selection. It is, at the very least, a fitting coincidence.

Religious faith is not Rodrigues’ area of expertise, which could come as a shocking surprise for some considering that a version of St. Anthony of Padua, a prominent Catholic figure in his home country of Portugal, is the commanding character in the film. Like his protagonist, Fernando, played by French-American actor Paul Hamy, the filmmaker is fluent in several languages, and we run into a fun hurdle when he tries to use the Spanish-language adjective dulzura to describe his hunky lead. The literal translation in English is “sweetness,” but Rodrigues finds this definition stupid, so we settle on “tender.” Speaking with Rodrigues is like a getting a crash-course in the history of Portugal and the symbols that have marked the Iberian nation. Every answer is laced with humor.

The Ornithologist is fascinating, sensually profane and delightful, adjectives that, depending on who you ask, could easily apply to its creator as well. It’s a work of art in which magical realism is a playful ally of storytelling. Literal and mystical transformation abounds in a universe populated by frozen fauna, resurrected messiahs, Latin-speaking female warriors, Chinese visitors on a pilgrimage, and an ornithologist observing birds while being himself observed by intangible forces. St. Anthony and all the powers attributed to him make an appearance when least expected.

I consider myself a fervent believer and a disciple of The Ornithologist and its gorgeous impieties. If in the future I’m granted another Skype conversation with Rodrigues, I hope that once again his avatar reflects his shape-shifting interests.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Of all the saints, why did you find St. Anthony and his myth particularly interesting? 

João Pedro Rodrigues (JPR): Because he is the most popular saint in Portugal—and, I found out, he is even the most popular saint in the world. He is very present in Portuguese culture: in churches, in people’s homes. Especially during the dictatorship we had until April 25, 1974 [the so-called Carnation Revolution, ending the ruling of Marcelo Caetano]. Catholicism was one of the pillars of that regime, and St. Anthony was recast as the saint of marriage and family values. I wanted to go back to his origin story—which is also a myth, because we don’t really know anything truthful about this saint. He was born in Lisbon in the 12th century and died in Padua, Italy in the 13th century. I liked this idea of working on popular mythology from Portugal, of course, but even more broadly speaking, world mythology.

MM: Why is he so adored around the world? 

JPR: I think mostly because he became the saint of lost things, so there is a very well-known prayer for that. When you lose something you say this prayer, hoping that you’ll find what you lost. The prayer is even present in my previous film, To Die Like a Man. At the beginning, the protagonist of the film is looking for her rosary, which she will end up finding at the end of the film while she is digging for stuff in the garden. She prays to St. Anthony. It’s something that is very close to people’s lives, though not everyone’s lives. Not mine, because I’m not religious, myself. My grandmother would say that prayer.

[I was interested] in the origins of this order, the Franciscans. They have been very much distorted because they were men who left everything to be closer to nature. They were in a way the first ecologists. It’s a little bit generalized, what I’m saying now, but I wanted to go back to this idea of being closer to nature. I think it’s something that is very prevalent in many people nowadays. People go hiking not for a religious purpose but I think you get a feeling of belonging to a world that is still not totally destroyed by men.

MM: Did you have a religious upbringing? 

JPR: No, I didn’t. 

MM: That’s interesting. Do you feel that because you weren’t religious growing up, you have a different perspective on the concept of sainthood and the ideas around it? 

JPR: I don’t know if it’s different. It’s mine. It’s my perspective. Since I was very young, I was very much interested in painting, so that’s how I got interested in religion. Because painting, since the beginning, has been about that. If you think about cavemen, they were painting these animals. We don’t really know what their purposes were, but people think there was a magical or mystical purpose in these paintings. Then, throughout art history, Western painting especially is pretty much about stories of saints, the story of Christ, the bible and mythology—a bunch of cruel and horrible stories.

Paul Hamy in The Ornithologist

MM: Could you tell me about choosing Paul Hamy to play the lead? Did you deliberately choose him because he is French so that you could dub the dialogue with your own voice? 

JPR: Let me ask you: Did you notice that yourself while watching, or did you read somewhere that he was dubbed? I’m always curious about that.

MM: I read about it. I did not notice. I assumed Paul Hamy spoke Portuguese or that he’d learned it. 

JPR: That’s good! Because it was really hard work doing it in a way that was convincing. He has a very beautiful voice and he really made the incredible effort to learn Portuguese. He learned all the dialogue in Portuguese. It was not my first idea to dub him. The idea of dubbing him came during the editing process. Even the idea of myself replacing him [as the character] at the end of the film: That was something that came later. When I started shooting I had this idea of filming some scenes from the points of view of birds, putting myself in the image instead of him, but I always shot those scenes first with Paul and then myself, because I was not sure if it would work

It was just during the editing process that I deiced to first replace one actor with the other, so him with me, and then also to dub him. The dubbing I did it many times throughout the editing process because I was never happy with it. It was very hard to find the right tone in my voice in order to fit his body, but in the end I liked this idea that I was always there, even when I wasn’t. I’m always there in the voice. You don’t notice this as a viewer, but there is a lot of breathing that is a mix of his breathing and mine. There are a lot of noises that are a mix. We kept some of his breathing noises and we added some of mine. It was very hard to do, but fun.

Going back to why I chose him: I was not happy with any actors in Portugal and because this is a Portuguese, French and Brazilian co-production, it was my French producer who suggested Paul to me. Paul is half American, half French. I also liked the idea of casting an American actor because I think the film is kind of like a Western. I was looking for that kind of performance, like from the actors from the ’50s, like Randall Scott or James Stewart, in the films of Anthony Mann. A very dry and rough character. Rough in the sense that they are very independent, but it’s not like the John Ford Westerns where it’s about the community. It’s more about one man in nature. Paul, I think because he is half American and half French, is closer to American actors than most French actors are. At least that’s how I perceive him.

MM: He looks like a saint, or at least the images of saints we know from art. 

JPR: Also, he is very manly, but he is also tender. He is not Vin Diesel!

MM: When it comes to directing actors what’s your modus operandi, specifically with someone like Paul?  

JPR: I directed him a lot, but in a very non-psychological way. It’s about the gestures, the way of looking at something, the positioning in the frame. It’s all very directed, but at the same time there is no theory. He is very natural as an actor. When I started the editing process I realized something I hadn’t realized during shooting, because I’d just been looking at the rushes with no sound and they were still not synchronized: I hadn’t realized how much I spoke to him during the takes. I imagine that for him it was a bit annoying sometimes [laughs]. Because I was always saying, “Look there, look there! Now lower!” There is always a period during shooting when you get to know your actors. It’s something that develops, then it’s almost as if they get what you want faster.

MM: You mentioned that the idea of you replacing Paul was not your original intention, but the idea of transformation is very present in this film, and in all of your films, for that matter. What’s behind your interest in transformation? 

JPR: I think for a character to be interesting, it has to evolve. That idea has been around since the Greeks. It has to become something, it has to change. Perhaps this is also connected with the desire to be someone else. Even if my films are not autobiographical, they are personal, and so I always think that I am all my characters. In this film that’s very clear because in the end I replace him on screen. I wanted to see if that would work, replacing one actor with another.

MM: There is also an element of transformation in the way characters communicate in multiple languages. 

JPR: There is this legend that St. Anthony understood every language and when he spoke he was understood by everyone. The idea came from there. Also, I wanted to get inspiration or take elements from different mythologies, so I had this idea that, for instance, this huntresses in the end, as they come more or less from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, they could still speak Latin, as in Ovid’s text. The film slowly loses reality and approaches fable. In the end I could permit myself to do things like this: these bare-breasted women speaking Latin and him understanding what they say. These animals that are no longer alive, but are the forests’ ghosts. It’s approaching an unreality that at the same time is real.

MM: You also decided to use an almost extinct language, Mirandese. What is its significance in Portugal and in your film? 

JPR: In Portugal there are two languages, Portuguese and Mirandese. Mirandese is really a language with its own rules, a language that—going back to what I was saying about the regime we had—was forbidden. It’s a language that has its roots in the languages that were spoken in the kingdoms that existed before Portugal and Spain existed. It was forbidden, because, as a good dictator, [longtime Portuguese prime minister and dictator António de Oliveira] Salazar just wanted one language throughout Portugal. Mirandese was forbidden but it survived in the small villages that were very remote at the time. It survived because it was spoken by older people. The place where I shot the film was really where Mirandese is spoken, so I was also inspired by these popular local mythologies. The party where the masked guys are dancing is also part of the mythology of that region.

MM: The film portraits St. Anthony as a sexual being, which might be troubling for those who’d prefer not to see religious figures in an erotic light. Why did you decide to approach his humanity this way? 

JPR: It’s just the way I see these characters. These are the characters that I know, and that exist in me, in the sense that I invent them. Religious painting is often very erotic. This idea of ecstasy and the way it’s represented is often very erotic. Religious writings about the enlightenment, and other mystic writings, are often very carnal. There is always this confusion between sacred and profane. That has always been there. I’m just working on something that was already there and trying to make it my own.

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