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

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MM: How much did you know about ornithologists before making this film? It’s definitely a profession that we haven’t seen on screen often. 

JPR: I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a child. When I was 8, my father gave me a pair of binoculars and that’s what I did from then until I was about 15, when I started to go to the cinema a lot. That’s how I spent all my free time: I was a child ornithologist. I also studied biology before studying film. My idea was to become perhaps an ornithologist, but then cinema appeared in my life and I started becoming obsessed with it at 15. In a way this film is a path that I could have taken if I hadn’t been taken away from ornithology by cinema.

MM: Would you say this film is your most personal? 

JPR: [Laughs] I think they are all personal, but here there are these more obvious personal elements. There are even biographical elements; I’m not hiding it. That said, not all my films are autobiographical, but they are personal. It’s the way I’m able to tell stories. Not that I’m self-centered; it’s not therapy. I’m totally against that in film or in any other art. That does not interest me, even if some people do it.

MM: Why?

JPR: Because I think sometimes people enclose themselves too much in their own selves. I think those films are often very selfish. They don’t let outsiders in. What I try to do when thinking about myself is get away from myself. My idea is having distance, through inventing characters that are connected with myself.

MM: Did anyone find The Ornithologist profane, in Portugal in particular?

JPR: In Portugal not really, but in Italy, yes. There was a website that excommunicated me. It had this very funny picture of me with a cross in front of me as if I was Satan [laughs]. But that was just after Locarno [where The Ornithologist premiered last year], and I’m not even sure by reading it, because I speak Italian, if they saw the film. I think it was just crazy people. I’ve also met people who are religious, Catholic, and they feel very touched by the film. I think the film is also very ambiguous. If you think about someone like Pasolini, what he did in the ’60s and ’70s was very ambiguous, also. I’m not religious but I’m interested in religion, not only Catholicism. Through this film and through my other films—because there is also a lot of religion in To Die Like a Man—I’m trying to find my way into it.

Hamy’s character in The Ornithologist is modeled loosely after St. Anthony of Padua

MM: One of your long-standing collaborations is with cinematographer Rui Poças. Can you describe the relationship you two have?

JPR: We started working together in O Fantasma. He had also done very few films before that, and we experimented a lot in that film. My first three films were shot on film. My last two were shot on digital—to my regret, I should say. Especially because this one is in CinemaScope with anamorphic lenses, I really wanted to shoot it on film. I just couldn’t because of budget issues. Now I don’t even have to say much to Rui. I do the framing, with him of course, but I often choose the lenses myself. I also don’t like to vary the lenses a lot. I always use just one or two lenses per film.

MM: What does shooting on film give you that digital doesn’t? 

JPR: It’s physical [laughs]. It’s like a body. It’s organic. Digital is a bunch of numbers.

MM: The film is humorous and lighthearted at times. Is that something that you were after? 

JPR: I would love to make a comedy, but I think that’s the most difficult genre to do. It’s really hard. I feel that especially in my most recent films I’m approaching comedy, trying to get into that territory. I love silent films: visual comedies, like Buster Keaton or Chaplin. The comedy is in the framing. It’s in the image. In the films of Howard Hawks, the comedy is a lot about the dialogue, and I think it’s brilliant, but there is something about the visual comedy in silent film that is beautiful. MM

The Ornithologist opens in theaters June 30, 2017, courtesy of Strand Releasing.

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