Berlin: Wagner Moura Talks 'Marighella,' Filmmaking With a Conscience

Wagner Moura - P 2019
Courtesy of O2 Filmes

The Brazilian actor-turned-director tells THR why the subject of his new film, a 1960s era resistance leader, had always interested him — even before Brazil’s new far-right leader rose to power.

Best known internationally for his Golden Globe-nominated role as Pablo Escobar on the Netflix series Narcos, actor-turned-director Wagner Moura is also recognized in his native Brazil as, in his words, "a progressive, left-wing artist."

Moura’s directorial debut Marighella, about a 1960s revolutionary who fought against the Brazilian military dictatorship of the era, won’t do much to change that reputation. The film is premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival out of competition.

Fresh off Sergio, the Netflix film he produced and starred in as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights killed by terrorists in Baghdad in 2003, Moura flies to Cuba directly after Berlin to shoot Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network, the 1990s-era story of five Cuban spies controversially tried and imprisoned in the U.S.

The candid first-time director talked with The Hollywood Reporter about why his film, which elicited threats during the shoot and as yet has no release date back home, is especially relevant today in Brazil, but wasn’t intended as a response to the country’s new conservative government.

Can you tell us about the origins of this project?

This is a film about Carlos Marighella, who was the leader of the resistance in Brazil against the dictatorship. He’s from my hometown Salvador in the northeast of Brazil, so I grew up having him as a strong reference of resistance, which was something that I was always fascinated with, especially coming from a country where social differences are so huge. It’s not just people that resisted during the dictatorship back in the '60s and the '70s, but in all of Brazilian history — the African slaves that resisted, the native Brazilian people that resisted, the people that fought against the Portuguese during colonization. This is a part of the history of my country that I was always very interested in.

And, of course, the dictatorship from ‘64 to ‘85 was really close to me. I was born in ‘76 under the dictatorship, so I feel that my generation that grew up under the military dictatorship was very different from the generation that resisted the dictatorship. Our values were like the bourgeoisie values of the entire capitalist world — having a family, getting married, getting a job. The film comes also from the fascination I have for people who believe in something, that whole thing of the ‘60s — the Cuban Revolution happened, then Algeria, then Vietnam, the hippie movement. The whole world lived for doing something not for your personal sake but to live an ideal and for a cause that would benefit other people.

The journalist Mario Magalhaes wrote a short biography about Marighella. ... It’s an extraordinary piece of journalism. I read the book, and Marighella’s granddaughter, Maria, who is from Salvador and is a very good friend of mine — she’s an actress and she’s in the film — she said "we should do a film about my grandfather." My first instinct was to produce the film because I wanted a film about Marighella to exist, but then I started to think that directing was something that I was already kind of interested in. I wouldn’t recommend such a difficult project for a first film because there’s a lot of political implications about doing a film about Marighella, especially today in Brazil. But I decided to direct it myself. We shot it at the end of 2017 until February of 2018.

Did you have any trouble finding financial backing for the film?

Oh yeah. Absolutely! How much time do you have? When we started the project in 2012-2013, we were still under [President] Dilma [Rousseff]’s government, but there was already a strong conservative wave in Brazil that culminated with the coup d’etat that ousted her and, tragically, with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as our president. But back in 2013, this wave was already very strong, so [it was hard] to finance a film about a guerrilla who was a very controversial figure because he was an extremist. It’s still a discussion here whether his decision to face the dictatorship with an armed struggle was [right]. I find it really hard to judge the decision these people took back when they didn’t have any democratic options, but it is a controversial thing.

Everything in Brazil, and not just here, everything that is remotely controversial is hard to finance, especially with the conservative wave. People identify me here in Brazil as a progressive, left-wing artist, so things were hard in the beginning. But then, in 2014-15 and especially 2016 after the impeachment, it started to be very aggressive. The producers of the film at O2 [Filmes] were starting to get very aggressive responses, like "fuck you for putting money into a film about a terrorist or directed by this red asshole."

When you watch the film, you’ll see that it looks like it has a very strong production value and that is to the credit of O2, but we did it with a very low budget, even by Brazilian standards.

When you say you had an aggressive response, what do you mean exactly?

Through emails when the producers tried to schedule meetings. And even people who were polite and would receive us — I would go to some of these meetings and during them I’d have this peculiar feeling they were just receiving me to see me asking for money and to have the pleasure of saying no. … When we were doing the film, we received a lot of threats through the internet, on Facebook, saying they were going to invade the set and beat the shit out of all of us and break the whole thing up, that kind of thing.

So I really expect when we launch the film in Brazil — which we don’t actually have a date yet because our distributors here in Brazil [Paris Filmes] are concerned and say they don’t know yet when is the best time. I feel they are scared, which is a shame because if it were my decision, I’d release the film in Brazil right after Berlin, but I don’t think this is going to happen.

We elected a far-right, proto-fascist president here, so anything can happen.

Do you feel especially eager for Brazilians to see this film because it has such relevance right now?

I made the film for Brazilians to watch it, but I don’t want to reduce the film to a response to Bolsonaro because the film is much bigger than that. This film is not a response to any particular government, especially this one. ... I didn’t make the film as an opposition to any particular government, but of course any piece of art has to have a conversation with its own time. So, the way the film will be received in Brazil cannot be detached from the reality we are living here.

Looking through your filmography, you seem generally interested in working on projects with some social critique built into them. Is that fair to say, and can you talk about where that stems from?

I was always very interested in politics, and I think the nature of art, even if you’re not obviously doing a political thing, it’s always very political. It’s something that is made to interfere, not only with individuals and their daily lives, but with society in general. And I myself, as an artist, I am interested in politics. … I’m interested in that as a citizen and of course it reflects in what I do.

Why did you decide to turn to directing now in your career?

I’ve been working as an actor since I was 15, and I was naturally interested in everything — not only about what the actors do on a set, but I know exactly what all of the people who work on a film do. I’m interested in that, in how things work. And I felt that after all these years of doing films, that this would be something I would like to try. I don’t feel that I am a director or that this is going to be something that I will [continue], but I’d love to do more because it was such a pleasure, despite the aggressive political environment.

To give you an idea — this is my fourth time in Berlin and every time I’ve gone it’s been me, a director and another actor, maybe three or four people. This time, I’ve never seen this before, 14 actors from the film are going to go to Berlin and 10 crewmembers are going to be there, just because they want to be there when it premieres. Trust me, it’s not easy for them to travel to Berlin — it’s expensive for them. The relationship we all have with this film — it was such a pleasure, such a strong artistic [connection]. We all felt we were doing something that was in conversation with what was going on in our country.

And, for example, all the characters of the film are named for the actors themselves — all the young people that are surrounding Marighella in the film, though they are based on real characters, they have the actors’ names — they asked for that. This is how attached they were and how much they believed in this narrative of resistance in the film. It was just a very strong artistic experience for all of us. I love them, and I felt as a director something that I’d never felt in my life, which was this feeling of gratitude. The amount each actor gave to me. At the end after each scene I just wanted to kiss them and hug them. And I was like, oh, my god — actors are important, I never realized that!

For me, it was a very strong experience, and I want to do it more, but I will never become a hired director. I will do other things if they are like Marighella. But I consider myself an actor who directed a film.

In casting Marighella, did you consider taking a role in the film, and how did you choose the lead actor?

I never thought about acting in the film. I like to be directed as an actor. I wouldn’t have had a director if I’d played a character and it didn’t make sense to me. There was some pressure from the distributors and the producers — they thought the financiers would be more interested in the film if I played a character in it, which is proof that it wouldn’t work anyway, but I myself didn’t want to play a role. You do hear my voice in the film in one scene.

The casting of Seu Jorge, we actually started the whole process with a musician called Mano Brown, the leader of the most important rap group here called Racionais. Marighella was a poet. For me, a black man from the favelas who is also a poet and at the same time is very aggressive with his lyrics and the things he says — he was my first choice for Marighella, even though he wasn’t an actor. We started rehearsals with him, but at the time Racionais had a lot of concerts and I needed him to be very, very committed to that character, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

So I had to recast the main actor three weeks before beginning shooting, and for that I really needed someone who was a real actor. Seu Jorge is a very good friend of mine and probably the most talented person I have ever met. He’s brilliant, as a singer, a musician, he plays a lot of instruments and he is a terrific actor. His performance in the film is mind-blowing. I needed someone I could trust on the set as an actor, and I couldn’t have made a better choice.

The film has many characters — it’s a film with a lot of characters, and I was really excited to work with all of them. Marighella was a 57-year-old man surrounded by 19- to 21-years-olds, which was interesting. It was really cool to work with all these young actors. And when I talk about my generation being far from the generation that fought against the dictatorship, their generation is really close to them. They’re, all of them, very engaged in politics. They were the ones who decided to give their names to the characters. That was exciting because they’re so young, and I learned so much from them.