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“We had no idea how the audience would react”

INTERVIEW: Brazilian filmmakers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra on their dark modern fairytale "Good Manners".

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Still from “Good Manners”

This bold, genre-splicing oddity sees an unlikely lesbian couple preparing for the arrival of a child destined to carry a supernatural burden. It hits German cinemas on July 26. Beware mild spoilers ahead.

Your film combines elements of so many genres, but feels very coherent, in its own strange way…

Juliana Rojas: We both love musicals and horror films, and we saw Good Manners as an opportunity to play with these genres. We were guided mainly by the characters and their emotions, and we allowed ourselves to use any genre that felt appropriate for the moment. We only felt like we’d pulled it off once we saw the positive response to the premiere! Beforehand, we had no idea how the audience would react.

It certainly feels like you were drawing on a diverse set of influences.

JR: Disney films were a big inspiration, because they blend comedy, romance, horror and music so seamlessly. We were especially inspired by Sleeping Beauty. Horror films like Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People were important – Tourneur created a very powerful and unsettling atmosphere with limited resources. The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton is another big inspiration, because it’s told like a fairytale, and uses lighting and shadows very effectively.

Marco Dutra: We were also inspired by the author Angela Carter, who wrote ‘The Bloody Chamber’. She wrote original fairy tales but also revisions of old fairy tales in a more modern and feminist way.

Given the realistic opening scenes, the first musical number comes as a surprise…

MD: We started with just one lullaby, but we felt it brought something really moving to the scene, so we decided to write more songs. It was risky because the movie wasn’t originally conceived as a musical, but we were inspired by the way Disney films use music as a storytelling tool.

The film deals with contrasts and dualities, and is also structured in two distinct parts…

MD: It was one of the things we realised when we were writing and especially when discussing themes related to werewolf mythoi. That idea of duality and contradiction, and how close a film made for children can be to a horror film. For us, it felt natural to combine those two, because when we were children, we watched both Disney films and horror films. Our parents allowed us to watch horror films very early on, and so it felt natural to approach both aspects in the same film.

Were you at all worried about tackling motherhood, given that it’s such a horror staple?

JR: It’s a multifaceted theme, and we were interested in both the biological and psychological aspects. The way that having a child can be wonderful but also disturbing – it’s a creature that grows inside you! Then there’s the issue of how society treats mothers, and women in general.

MD: We also wanted to explore non-biological motherhood. We love the Brecht play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, about a cook who takes care of a queen’s baby and grows to love a child that isn’t her own.

What inspired the lesbian romance?

JR: The original idea for the film came from a dream Marco had many years ago about two women living in an isolated place raising a monster child! We also wanted to explore different kinds of love and desire, and we liked the idea of two women living in defiance of a male-dominated society, raising a child in a manner that some may not accept. They form a different kind of family. They’re perceived as not having “good manners” by those who consider them outcasts.

With regards to the dominance of men, we don’t meet the male protagonist until well past the one-hour mark. That’s a rarity.

MD: That’s interesting, because it wasn’t a conscious decision. In the first version of the story, there were more male characters – we had a father figure playing an important role at one point. But as we developed the story, we realised that the story was better without him, that the focus should be on these two women and their son.

The film has a striking colour palette, and some parts are even animated and painted. Did you envisage a sense of heightened reality from the outset?

JR: We considered the colour palette very carefully, because we wanted it to look like a fairytale version of São Paulo, but also to be somewhat believable. The first half has more mysterious lighting and a colder look, because you’re in the rich part of the city, which we thought of as being like a fairytale castle. The setting for the second half is more like a fairytale forest, so it needed to look more lively and colourful. We used an old-fashioned matte painting technique for the landscapes, like they used in Hitchcock’s movies and Mary Poppins.

With regards to the creature, you use a lot of animatronics and some CGI towards the end of the movie.

JR: The effects for the film were a challenge but also extremely fun because it’s the kind of thing that we love in horror films. We collaborated very closely with two French companies that did the mechanic effects and the CGI. They advised us on the most appropriate effects for the film and both concluded that the best would be a mix of the two techniques, both make-up and physical effects, and sometimes CGI.

Was it difficult choosing how much to show and what to leave to the imagination, so that the creature doesn’t appear cartoonish or out of Teen Wolf?

JR: It was fun coming up with some of the details that would distinguish our creature from some of the other ones in werewolf films. It must be said that there was a delicate balance to be found, because of the budget. But restrictions were good for us – they forced to be sure about what each scene needed. And it’s important to create a sense of mystery, even if it was important for us to show the creature. We wanted to suggest certain things, but also give the audience the pleasure of seeing the creature, sometimes very explicitly!

This is your second film working together, after 2011’s Trabalhar Cansa (Hard Labour). How does your collaboration process work?

MD: We do everything together because we enjoy all parts of the process, and our dialogue is important to us. Even when we disagree about something, that’s when the most interesting decisions appear. We have a dialogue, we confront each other, and we try to understand each other’s point of view, and then something else appears in that process. The partnership has had time to grow since we first met in film school, and now we work in a smooth way!