Friday 26 February 2021

Home - In Conversation - Every Frame a Feeling: An Interview with Denise Fernandes

24 Frames: You can treat films, at times, like poems from directors, waiting to be decoded by their audience to get to the essence of what they have to express. In an interview with Denise Fernandes, Writer and Director born in Lisbon from Cape Verdean parents, and raised in southern Switzerland, we talk about her filmmaking journey, as well as contributors to her poetic language. Denise’s most recent film, Nha Mila was a nominee for the Golden Pardino at Locarno Film Festival 2020, and a prize winner of Vila do Conde Festival 2020, becoming a European Film Award Candidate. Her debut feature film, “Hanami” is currently in Development. 


1. Could you tell us a little about yourself? How did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker?


It was many things that crossed my path.

I was born in Lisbon and raised on the Italian side of Switzerland. During my childhood and teenage years, I was an avid reader. So, I thought I wanted to be a writer. When I was eleven, I started writing. After two pages of writing, I was so bored. Until one day, I turned on the TV and I saw a trailer of a favorite book of mine being turned into a film. I felt so sad, I thought something was stolen from me because I loved that book but the trailer was terrible. I thought: This is not how this book is supposed to be. So I realized, I want to be a filmmaker, I want to be a director.



2. What would you say mainly inspires you to come up with ideas and develop them into films?


I think that as a filmmaker when you find an idea, in your gut you know that this is the thing that you are going to make. It’s a magical moment. It’s almost like receiving the idea out of somewhere, and knowing that you’re going to protect and express that idea at all costs. The ideas come to me very fast, almost like a punch, and then I work on them for months, even years. I believe an idea comes from many things that cross: Things that are happening or have happened in your personal life (even if the film has nothing autobiographical per se,) a desire to tell a story that has never been seen and knowing that it needs to be filmed, and the exciting way you are previsualizing it. An idea is a combination of your vision and identity, and also a lot of it comes from the unconscious, from something you need to process. In my case, it’s only after a while of writing or years after making a film that I can look back and realize where the story came from.



3. What do you hope to achieve most with filmmaking?


I think one of the things that I’m trying to achieve is a connection with the audience, but a very intimate and personal one, almost like a secret between me and the person that sees the film. At this moment in my path, my big goal is to introduce the country that I come from, in my feature film. I am an African raised in Europe, and my first feature is going to happen in Cape Verde, a West-African archipelago in the Atlantic seaboard,  that is not known to most people. Small islands can suffer, universally, of this imposed look on themselves defined by tourism. So, with my story, I aim to introduce the universe of Cape Verde, but I decide how to show it. I’m trying to achieve a story with no clichés, that introduces Cape Verde on my own terms. For example, when you see my film Idyllium, you don’t realize that it is happening in Cuba. Because I don’t give a specific location. The short films I made before Nha Mila don’t express any clear location too, but they’re immersed in the atmosphere and the universe that belongs to those cultures. 




4. What is your process of scriptwriting? How strict are you with the final draft while on set?


I have to say that I’m quite faithful to my script. I don’t need to do many changes on set and I’m precise. What I do is, I adapt my final draft to the circumstances of the shooting. When I start writing I don’t see the final draft coming, and I become desperate. I’m extremely hard on myself. Looking back at my work, I’d say it’s ok to have a bad first draft that is quickly written. It’s only now that I realize that this is a part of the process because now I finally understand that it’s normal for the first draft to be terrible, and it’s normal to be frustrated because you feel this is not what you want. But then I start again and try to finalize the draft. Even if I don’t like parts of the script, I try to go through it and then little by little, take my time to make it perfect. I worked 9 months on Nha Mila’s script until a draft that I was able to send to the funds. Also, film funds or any other type of deadlines are very helpful for me to have a time structure during my process. Another important thing for me is, when I write, the characters need to be super connected with me, so I can follow them and find the story naturally.



5. How do you manage to choose the right cast and crew to work with?


This is something that I’m still in the learning process of. Most of my short films were made in film school and so I couldn’t choose my team myself for my three or four first films. When I started Nha Mila, the problem was that I had previously shot films in Switzerland and then in Cuba, and now in Portugal. So if, for instance, I wanted to keep Quetzalli Malagón, the DP I worked with in Cuba, I couldn’t, because she is Mexican. In Nha Mila, the most challenging thing for me was starting from scratch. People didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. And now the same thing is happening with my feature film that I’m going to shoot in Cape Verde, so the choice of the crew is going to be an adventure. All in all, the fundamental thing for me is that my crew needs to be connected with the story. This is also an important factor for the cast. You need to choose the actors not because they’re good, but because you feel that they are super connected with the character. Actually, I don’t normally work with actors. My cast needs to like the story and the characters, not just treat the film like a job that they get. I write the script in a way that wants to attract a certain type of people and when I have to choose, I’m the least technical person on earth, and all I want to know is how people feel about it; if they don’t connect with the story I won’t be able to work with them.



6. How is your procedure to direct the non-actors?


This is a long process, and it’s something that you figure out. I have to say it’s quite a work on set to direct non-actors, but I really enjoy it and for me, it’s very easy to prepare them. First, if you choose the right non-actor everything is made easier. When I write I have human characteristics in mind for my characters, and when I find a non-actor with some parts of the character’s personality, it becomes easy. I like to improvise with them. I give my cast different situations that the character of the film could be in. For example, in Nha Mila, Mila’s character goes to the airport to fly to Cape Verde. I told my actor to imagine packing for Cape Verde, and I asked her what she would pack, and why. I asked her who is the first person that she’d call when she’d land.  And I asked her to answer me as Mila. This way, each day they connect with the character more and more. Of course, they’re not actors, but they’re human, and films are made of humans.




7. How do you usually communicate with your DP in each step of the production?


I’ll always start with the script. I write my scripts in a way that are intuitive; when the DP reads it, they get the style I’m going for, like if it’s a fluid movie or fast-paced with many cuts. So, when I have a draft that I’m happy with most of the work is done. I believe in the way you write, you are also transmitting some sensations. When I meet my DP, I try to tell the story along with lighting. For example, in Nha Mila, I remember telling Marta Simões, the DP, how important it was for me for the film not to start with a lot of lighting, and then when Mila (the protagonist) starts to open herself up with the city, it becomes more luminous.


Pre-production is very hard for me, so I prepare a lot. Because when you’re writing everything is ideal, but in pre-production, everything is failing and you start to feel that this film is not going to happen; The house you wanted is expensive, the location is not big enough, there’s no money for the traveling shot you wanted to have, you start questioning everything. For me, this is so difficult, but you have to survive this phase. Yet, in the end, it’s valuable because once I go on set, I know what I cannot do, so I try to work with what I can do.



8. All your films have a very strong poetic quality. How do you achieve the poetic language of your films?


For me, every frame is a feeling. I always have specific frames in mind for each film. For example, in Nha Mila, the essential frame for me is the frame of the earring. So, I put a lot of effort and care into writing this scene. It’s a simple scene, but it’s poetic in the way I wrote it. To achieve this, the first sensation should come from the script, without too much sugar, but you have to transmit it. With my DP, I talk about the feelings of the character and I ask them to follow the feelings. This poetic language is something that my characters are inviting me to explore with their mental state. I try to surround myself with people who are getting the spirit of the film, they even have to understand if the character is feeling cold or warm. 




9. Have financial challenges ever affected your films? How do you find suitable producers for each project?


I had the chance to study in two film schools, one in Switzerland and one in Cuba. They’re very structured in financially supporting the student films. I was very privileged to have much material and equipment. So, I didn’t have to think about it for the films I made there. Currently, I’m working in Switzerland and Portugal and these countries are very structured to give funding to filmmakers. It’s very competitive, especially in Portugal, but it’s structured. So, when you have to apply you have to do your best, your application needs to be bombproof.


As to find producers, in my case, without knowing, I was prepared to meet my producers. When I met my Portuguese producers I had the second draft of my feature script and a draft of my short. I’m a perfectionist, and for example, when I met my producer I didn’t like the script yet. But actually, he was not interested in the draft, but the fact that I had those drafts meant to him that I was working. You have to be ready, don’t meet your producers with an idea. The idea needs to be ready and written down. They have to see something.



10. How has the process of releasing and distributing your films been since your first works? How do you find the right distributor for your films?


This was my weak spot at the beginning of my career and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. But now that I have the experience of working at a festival, I can look back and see the problem. I think you have to know the rules of the game. My film schools didn’t have the policy to distribute the films, you made the film and it was yours. So, I was sending my films to the festivals myself, and when they got rejected all the time, I was getting depressed and thinking I was a bad filmmaker. This thing lasted for years. Now I see the problem. Festivals receive a lot of short films. Firstly, it is not a good idea to wait until the last day of the deadline. And also, you have to work on your relationships with the programmers, you also should know how good your film is so you don’t send it to bad festivals and get rejected. You have to be brave and believe in yourself and start with the best festivals, not randomly submitting it with no strategy. Sometimes you just need to write an email to explain your background and promote your film and wish the programmers a good day. Take your space with no shame, this is not being opportunistic or wasting people’s time. Programmers want to know about you and your films. You have to understand how programming works. Also, don’t be shy to reach out to filmmakers that are ahead of you in their career and ask for advice. You don’t necessarily need to ask your producer or distributor, ask a person like you; Filmmakers help each other. Distribution is a very important step, because, in the end, this is the goal of each film, for people to see it.




11. How would you say your way of thinking and directing has changed since your first film? Do you have a lesson you’d like to share?


When you see my first shorts you can notice that they had nothing to do with me being Cape Verdian, nothing. It’s a stage that I’m reaching now, after the first ten years of making films. So, one of the things I’d learned is that you don’t have to feel forced to express your origins, your culture, your sexual identity or ethnicity in your film, or even stick with a genre, even when you feel that this is what people expect from you, don’t do it because you feel pressured or it’s a good strategy to be seen. Be true to yourself and to your filmmaking. It’s ok to simply take your time to understand what you really want to tell, even if from outside people won’t associate a certain type of film with you.



12. What is your advice for filmmakers who want to find their specific cinematic language?


Try to see yourself in the details of your film, not just in it as a whole. There are things that I like that have nothing to do with movies, but they are in my films; for example, I like earrings, and I have used them in Nha Mila. So, when my non-filmmaker friends see my film, they always find me in my films and say: This is you! They cannot specifically say why but they know the film has come from me. Also, you have to find your cinematic style in your personality, not just your identity. I have to know that my stories are things that no one else can tell but me. Not in an arrogant way, but in a way that it’s a story that is calling me to do it, and is a part of my style.



13. Your main characters are mostly female, is that something deliberately planned? Or a necessity?


It’s a necessity of the story I’d say. Oftentimes the films I make refer to some life experience of myself, so the chances of being centered on female experiences are quite high.



14. You are currently working on your first feature, would you like to share something about it?


Hanami happens in Cape Verde in Africa, a country that most people have no idea where it is. I grew up in Switzerland but I have this background of being Cape Verdian, a place that is rich in culture, sensation, and contrast. The film is finally giving me the opportunity to own and express my Cape Verdian ethnicity which is something that I’ve kept very quiet throughout my life.



15. Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?


What I will say is knowing yourself is a lifetime process and path. You can include yourselves in your films through your path. I think the most beautiful films are not about being perfect in any sense, but it’s beautiful to feel the author through them. You have to know yourself to make films, get intimate with yourself as an artist. This is for me both fundamental and a priority. So, prioritize not just your films, but yourselves.





Interviewed by Raha Amirfazli

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