Ico Costa • Director of Alva
“Non-professional actors can always give me something that I had not thought of before”
- Cineuropa sat down with Portuguese director Ico Costa to talk about defying conventional narrative structure and working with non-professional actors in Alva
Portuguese director Ico Costa has returned to International Film Festival Rotterdam, where his short Nyo vweta Nafta screened in 2017, to unveil his latest feature, Alva [+see also:
interview: Ico Costa
film profile], as a world premiere in the Bright Future Competition. His new outing is a minimalistic and naturalistic observation of its protagonist, which eschews a classical narrative structure. Cineuropa talked to the director about this as well as about working with non-professional actors and the thin line between fiction and documentary.
Cineuropa: You made Alva because you were intrigued by certain news stories and wanted to experiment with storytelling. Which was a stronger impetus for the film?
Ico Costa: I think it was both. When people have ideas, they usually start with something you see or read about. But how you put that into a film depends on other experiences. In my case, it was the films I’d seen, the things I like and the way I like to make a movie. Obviously, the way you make a film also depends on the subject, the characters and the rhythm. Alva is about a man who is alone, and there is not much scope to go beyond that. I would not make a film with dialogue or a classical narrative. I wanted to know what was going on in the protagonist’s head.
Did you have a conventional script, given that there is not much dialogue?
I had a very conventional script, but it was pretty short because, as you say, there is really no dialogue. Almost everything was scripted, but some of the shots were perhaps not. I always prefer to be on set, take a deep breath, put the camera on and just let it roll.
Did you use any improvisation?
Kind of; the leading actor is not a professional, and he has his own pace. A week or two before the shoot, we went into the woods together for a rehearsal, and I realised he had a rhythm that just couldn’t be brought under control. I had to adapt to that rhythm – in fact, the whole crew had to. Scenes I thought would take one minute instead took four, so I had to improvise a great deal around that.
You withhold a lot of information about the protagonist and his situation.
Sure; I wanted to find out how a person would react to that situation. I really did not want to tell a story with a beginning and an end; I didn’t want to explain things. I wanted the audience to see the protagonist in nature, immersed in his own thoughts and his own doubts. But I did not want to explain that; I am not interested in the causes or the consequences, but rather what lies in the middle.
Your previous project Barulho, Eclipse was a documentary. Was Alva’s style influenced by documentary filmmaking?
Barulho, Eclipse is more of a conceptual film, but my previous short Nyo Vweta Nafta is a kind of documentary-fiction hybrid. I always think in terms of fiction; I think very precisely, even though I allow myself to improvise. However, the boundary between documentary and fiction does not interest me a great deal. I am going to shoot a new film in May, which started off as a fiction and is now more like a documentary. The main thing is that I don’t really like working with professional actors, because I like the process of working with non-professionals. They can always give me something that I had not thought of before. I believe I can get more out of it this way, as opposed to when the actor is thinking what the character should be thinking – “Let me see what the director wants me to think.” With non-professional actors, it’s never like that.
Besides the naturalistic style, the film feels rather minimalistic. Was this intentional?
It was definitely intentional. Given the main story itself, we tried to be minimalistic. Also, it is a very low-budget production. I was able to make it with very little money and a crew of seven people, including the main actor.
Would you have made it differently if you’d had a bigger budget?
I would have paid the crew better, and we could have done more takes if we’d had more film stock. But this story is supposed to be made minimalistically, so I don't know how dramatically things would have changed if I’d had more money. I did not want to bring more people on set, or have a lot of lights or machinery. In this sense, the approach was much like making a documentary: you have a small crew, and you can be closer to reality and move around places without people noticing you that much.
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