Just like its economy, and the social welfare of the most vulnerable and poverty fettered of its population, the collapse of the Brazilian film industry in the early nineties was yet another victim of irresponsible political actions. But this being a conversation about cinema, things changed in the final act. The industry fought back, and brought with it a band of talented filmmakers and movies that would inspire a new generation of creators.
Claudio Ellovitch is one of them. His visually stunning and surrealist horror short film Pray has been garnering awards and accolades wherever it plays. We caught up with the daring Brazilian filmmaker and got into a conversation about the intricacies of dreams and what costume he would wear on Halloween.
When I tried to describe Pray to a friend, I found myself for the first time, in quite some time, talking about a film almost entirely with purely emotional adjectives. That is to say, details regarding the plot didn’t seem inherently important. Is this a common reaction that you encounter?
Yes, and I feel much happier when this happens than when I find someone trying to analyze this film in a purely rational way (which is far less common) because Pray was planned to work on this emotional, primal level. The plot is based on well-known archetypes, quick to recognize and understand without any logical exposition, and it is used as a “delivery system” for the symbolism and the subconscious reactions that are at the core of this experiment. I mean, there are so many elements in this film that even people who have watched it repeatedly are not able to see all its themes, at least with the conscious mind, until it is pointed out to them. But these elements make all the difference when it comes to the overall audiovisual experience. It is something much deeper than simple storytelling conventions. Something that can be shared between cinema and dreams, but not often explored in the former.
Something that can be shared between cinema and dreams. That’s an interesting thought. Cinema has been used to explore and depict dreams from its earliest days. What’s your favourite dream inspired film or sequence?
A favorite one… That is a tough choice. Even though most of the mainstream films don’t explore the possibility of communicating straight to the unconscious mind, the history of cinema is indeed very rich and there are some wonderful, truly magnificent films and sequences that do. I think right away about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Lost Highway by David Lynch, Mario Bava’s Kill Baby, Kill. There are so many great dreamlike sequences in films it’s almost impossible to pick one. Lately I’ve been really passionate about the colored sequence in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Prisonnière. It is a 1968 film, but I saw it for the first time last year. This sequence is perfectly designed for the context of the film. It is a spectacular summary and resolution of the conflict and it works in a completely emotional way. It is awesomely fluent in the language of the unconscious and subconscious mind.
You mentioned the inclusion of recognisable archetypes in your film, but Pray doesn’t seem like something born from the conscious mind. Where did the idea come from?
Pray didn’t come from a single idea. It evolved mainly through my creative partnership with writer/producer Stephen Cheng. Before I even met Stephen, he had already outlined a script for a short film, for which he had raised a budget to produce.
The original idea was for a very straightforward story. It was to be a simple thriller called Downtown, based on a series of books called Dear God that he was working on publishing. It had none of the psychedelic horror or the metaphysical symbolism of what eventually Pray would become. But all of the main characters, most of the settings and some of the plot points were all in there.
After I was hired to direct the short film and work on the screenplay, there were two major catalysts for the evolution of Downtown into Pray, a piece of poetry recorded as a Hip-Hop song called Light, and a comic book that became known as THTRU.
The poetry, like the series of books that motivated the financing of the film, was written by Amit Desai, an Indian-born artist who also stars in the film as the Monk. Stephen and Amit had recorded it as a song and Stephen asked me to find a way to use it in the film.
It’s interesting that you mentioned comics because Pray has a very illustrative look to it. Not just the art direction. It seems that it also encompasses the framing of the shots and camera moves too.
I am and have always been very much involved with the world of comic books. My early short films (live-action and animated) were inspired by them. Stephen first met me as the owner of a comic book store who was creating a graphic novel. I know a lot of people involved with making comics in Brazil and it made a lot of sense for Stephen that we should make a comic book together, in addition to the short film.
We started working on the script of the comic book before writing the screenplay of the short film. This process was very important because in our attempt to tie the poetry to that basic storyline, it liberated us from the constrains of the original format. The comic book became a laboratory where we could mix our own personal influences with the same rigor and daring spirit as alchemists. I was able to work into the story most of the elements that make art important to me, such as exploration of the limits of the mind or spirit; and the disturbance of the nerves as a gateway to transcendence.
That is quite a feat to incorporate so many elements into a screenplay. And a short one at that!
When it came time to write the screenplay of the film, we had already figured out all of the symbols and the myths that we wanted to represent. The final layer of meaning came from the song Light. Even though I could not use the rhythm, the lyrics (poetry) were always in the back of our minds during the writing of the two projects. So, I directed Amit once more after the filming of Pray in Brazil. We met again in Hong Kong and he gave four interpretative readings of his poetry, which I later cut together and rearranged as the voice-over of the film and our insight into the mind of the main character.
Curious…If you were going a Halloween party what or who would you go as?
I would go as Coffin Joe (Zé do Caixão). Coffin Joe is a Brazilian national treasure. José Mojica Marins, the creator of the character and director of the films is an inspiration. I already paid homage to them in my animated short film Undertaker. I would have the iconic dark clothes and cape. The dark beard, top hat, and really long fingernails. Joe’s unibrow and medallion are optional.
Are you planning on making any more films?
Yes. I can’t talk too much about it yet but I am working on my first feature-length film. I have been immersed in this project since the beginning of 2015, but in a way, it has been gestating for several years now. All I can say at this point is that I am working on making a film that pushes the boundaries of the media. Narratively, it is more entertaining than Pray because it has more thrills and will reward the audience’s attention with some payoffs. In other words, it is more conclusive in its enigmas.
Having said that, the entertainment is the hook for the psychological and emotional magick (with a K) that runs from the surface to its core. Visually and sound wise my goal is to really transgress the ‘tried and tested’ formulas of filmmaking and hopefully giving the audience a different kind of experience, both primal and sophisticated. Something more akin to looking at certain kinds of paintings and listening to certain kinds of sounds of a transcendent nature. The aim is to overwhelm the senses and reach the human beings locked behind the programming we go through, on our way into becoming “productive adults”.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON JOSEPH