Cannes Q&A: Walter Salles

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Walter Salles' career has been characterized by implausibilities. In 1998, a small Brazilian drama he directed called "Central Station" came out of nowhere to become an indie sensation and garner two Oscar noms, including one for best actress. His foreign-language "The Motorycle Diaries" defied the odds and earned nearly $17 million in more than four months of U.S. release. And next he's taking on an iconic book, "On the Road," that no U.S. director has succeeded in getting made. THR's Steven Zeitchik spoke to the director Thursday morning after an all-night subtitling session in Paris for his latest movie, "Linha de Passe," a picture he co-directed with Daniela Thomas about four brothers facing challenges in modern day Sao Paulo.

The Hollywood Reporter: First off, we should say congratulations for getting the film done in time for the festival.
Walter Salles: I hope we did get it done. I hope we put the subtitles all in the right places. Otherwise it's going to become more of an experimental film. That could make for a very interesting review in the Cahiers du Cinema.

THR: That would be a problem. Of course, this film is not experimental but a slice of life in modern-day Brazil.
Salles: This is a project that tries to go back to the roots of Brazilian film. It's about four brothers trying to break social barriers in four very different ways, and all four stories are based on real events. It's a story we wanted to do with real spontaneity, and that's why you'll find 95% of the actors are making their screen debut. It aims for the urgency and freshness of youth trying to find a way out in adverse conditions.

THR: But it doesn't revel in those conditions as much as other movies have.
Salles: This isn't a film that can be linked to other films you may have seen in Brazilian cinema about drug-dealing, or where there's a conflict between police and kids. If you look at Brazil, the temptation for violence and crime is there because there's a high rate of unemployment. But only a very small percentage will opt for violence and crime -- yet these are the ones who are portrayed. We wanted to make a movie about the kids who save themselves.

THR: So there's a kind of socially conscious element to it?
Salles: What films like "City of God" did is very important because it brought to the surface a complex drama and created awareness for problems that were there but were not seen by many people. But if all films resemble "City of God," you'll end up with a biased understanding of a society that's much more complex. I liked that film a lot. But it reflected a certain reality, and the reality of Brazil changes every two days. Our country is very young and we're still defining ourselves. Our national identity is still under construction.

THR: One of your previous films, "The Motorcycle Diaries," tracked a Latin America that was in a sense also under construction. How do Latin Americans view that period now?
Salles: "Motorcycle Diaries" was about the story that preceded history. But the position we're in now is not that different from the one 50 years ago. When we shot, we were able to inhabit scenes as if we were doing the films in the '50s. We didn't have to re-enact anything. It's a country that still needs to be discovered. At the same time, that affords a wealth of cinematic opportunities.

THR: Such as Steven Soderbergh's Che movies, which take on the same character you did and will be at the festival, too. How do you feel about his undertaking?
Salles: I don't know Steven. I'd like to applaud the fact that he did these movies in Spanish, because Ernesto Guevara fought for cultural independence and language is a big part of that. Very few directors would have taken that courageous step. I'm sure the movies will be fascinating and it will bring more light to a character who's so complex. The general understanding of Che is more superficial than the man deserved. His acts, whether you agree with them or not, were done with extreme passion.

THR: Switching gears, do you look back at the earlier part of your career, especially "Central Station," and are you surprised by how it's all gone? Certainly it's been one of the more unlikely trajectories.
Salles: The funny thing is that when we shooting "Central Station" in the middle of nowhere, Fernanda Montenegro and I would look at each other and say 'will anyone be interested? I hope our families will watch.' It was a nice surprise to see the impact the film had. 'Motorcycle Diaries' was the same. Gael (Garcia Bernal) and I looked at each other in the middle of the desert in Chile and said 'we hope our families will see this.' Cinema is linked to risk and instability, and the desire for discovery.

THR: That discovery is something that seems to happen a lot here in Cannes.
Salles: If there is one place that still fights for and preserves a cinema with vision, it's Cannes. It's a place where you have a much better understanding of the world. Sometimes I wish politicians could stop what they're doing and come. They'd watch films from Iran and Turkey and China and maybe go back and do their jobs differently.

Vital stats:
Nationality: Brazilian
Born: April 12, 1956
Festival Entry: "Linha de Passe," In Competition
Selected Filmography: "A Grande Arte" (1991), "Central Station" (1998), "Midnight" (1998), "Behind the Sun" (2001), "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), "Dark Water" (2005)
Notable Awards: BAFTA for best non-English-language film; Spain Film Critics Assn. Award for "Central Station" (1999); Little Golden Lion at Berlin for "Behind the Sun" (2002); Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes for "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004); BAFTA for best non-English-language film for "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2005).
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