I’m interested in films that speak about people, not about great events – this story is not an exposé of the living conditions among waterfront prostitutes and hustlers. It’s a story about people like us, who desire, feel, love, suffer, weep, get horny, get pissed, have orgasms, it’s good and it’s bad, it’s violent and it’s peaceful – Sergio Machado
SHORT SYNOPSIS ‘Lower City’ is the story of a love triangle between friends Deco and Naldinho and stripper Karinna – a tale of jealousy, temptation and lust: the ultimate test of friendship. ‘Lower City’ is directed by Sergio Machado and produced by the director of ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, Walter Salles.
SYNOPSIS Deco and Naldinho have known each other since they were kids. They make their living together doing cargo jobs and petty hustling on board the Danny Boy, a motor boat they own as partners. The story begins when the two friends offer a ride to Karinna, a stripper set on finding work in Salvador. Karinna sleeps with both men in return for the lift.
After unloading cargo in the town of Cachoeira, the two friends go out to have some fun. Naldinho bets the money they made on the cargo, gets mixed up in a fight, and ends up getting stabbed. Deco comes to his friend’s defense, fatally wounding the aggressor. They are forced to flee to Salvador. While Naldinho is recovering, Deco sets out to make some money to help his friend, and Karinna starts working in the Xanadu nightclub.
Despite now being in the big city, the two friends keep crossing paths with Karinna. As the story unfolds, the attraction grows between Deco, Naldinho, and Karinna, and they are faced with the possibility of life as a threesome. Desire soon turns to obsession.
Deco and Naldinho are sucked into a whirlwind of jealousy and petty grudges that ends up undermining their friendship as they realise that they don’t want to live without Karinna anymore. They start visiting her separately and contending to win her heart.
The relationship between the three begins to fall apart, and they go their separate ways. Deco goes back to boxing, Karinna keeps working in the nightclub, and Naldinho starts holding up drugstores. Suffocated, unable to go on without each other, the three come together once again. This new reckoning leads them down a path of no return.
PRESENTATION “Lower City”, by Sérgio Machado, is the story of a love triangle between friends Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) and stripper Karinna (Alice Braga) on the waterfront area of Salvador and other cities of the State of Bahia, on the Northeast coast of Brazil.
Produced by VideoFilmes and in Official Selection in Un Certain Regard at the 58th Cannes Film Festival, “Lower City” follows the paths of these three characters as they look to find a sense of direction through love. Ultimately their lives are drawn into a spiral of passion and sex, jealousy and rage.
“Lower City” marks the feature debut of Bahian filmmaker Sérgio Machado, who directed the award-winning documentary “At the Edge of the Earth” and was assistant director to Walter Salles on “Central Station”, “Midnight”, and “Behind the Sun”.
Walter Salles (“Foreign Land”, “The Motorcycle Diaries”) produced the film together with Maurício Andrade Ramos. To write the script with him, Sérgio invited Karim Aïnouz, director of “Madame Satã” (shown in Un Certain Regard in 2002). The soundtrack was written by the world-renowned Carlinhos Brown, in his first project for cinema, in collaboration with Beto Vilares.
LETTER FROM SÉRGIO MACHADO TO THE CAST (written during preparations for the film):
Truffaut once said that cinema is the truth 24 frames per second. It’s this kind of cinema that interests me.
People have to believe in every second of our film– if for one instant people doubt that it’s the truth, we’ve gone wrong somewhere.
I’m interested in films that speak about people, not about great events – this story is not an exposé of the living conditions among waterfront prostitutes and hustlers. It’s a story about people like us, who desire, feel, love, suffer, weep, get horny, get pissed, have orgasms, it’s good and it’s bad, it’s violent and it’s peaceful...
I think we should seek out the contradictions in our characters, make them human, and give them life. The rehearsal period will be crucial for this. The script should be seen as a tour guidebook (the word for script in Portuguese, roteiro, is suggestive of this, since it’s akin to “route”) – we can and should search for alternative paths, find shortcuts or sometimes even more winding roads.
One of the greatest risks we run is falling into stereotypes, like THE whore, THE Bahian hustler. The problem is that this is a fascinating world, to the point that it’s tempting to describe it – but that would be a mistake. I repeat: the film is not a chronicle of customs. It’s a story of people.
It’s Deco, Naldinho, and Karinna that should tell me where to position the camera. They’re the ones who are going to show how to light them and how the location should be... the film should have the rhythm of their collective heartbeat.
Naldinho, Deco, and Karinna could just as well work in a supermarket, be film actors, or punch in at a factory or shopping center. They could have been born in Norway or Ethiopia. They would act differently, but they would love and suffer the same... in other words, what’s essential, what really interests us, is maintained.
Telling a story well is not easy, but I want to do even more. I want to tell about feelings that are universal, that relate to each of us. Loyalty, passion, jealousy, envy, courage, fear, lust, friendship... This is very difficult. It’s more than making a film. It’s jumping into an abyss with no fear of what we’ll find at the bottom. It means believing in each other, allowing ourselves to search for things that we’re certain exist.
The other day I was thinking, that to make a film has a lot to do with jumping from a trapeze – especially the moment in which the acrobat lets go of his bar and the other is on the other side, ready to catch him.
That’s all, for know. Let’s take the leap together and pray to God, to Oxalá, and to all the Orixás in Bahia to help us on this journey.
INTERVIEW WITH WALTER SALLES “Sérgio is not just somebody who loves cinema, but also someone who thinks cinema ─ and this is evident in his debut film. The cast directing, the precise use of grammar, the music… each element is at the service of the whole. The story and the characters’ logic guide each decision. This kind of narrative integrity is uncommon in debut films, and we’ve had the privilege of seeing two such films emerge from VideoFilmes: ‘Madame Satã’, and now ‘Lower City’.
It was Jorge Amado who made the bridge between us. Jorge, who was an extremely generous person, phoned our production company one day to recommend a young Bahian director whose work had caught his attention. I saw Sérgio’s debut medium-length film and was also quite impressed with the sensitive way in which the story was told. I met Sérgio and invited him to work on a project that was beginning to take shape, namely ‘Central Station’.
Sérgio is someone who knows how to see and hear the world around him, who is sensitive to what is intrinsically human – and these two qualities, I believe, are at the basis of ‘Lower City’. ”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION Before shooting, “Lower City” went through a preparatory process that lasted nearly three years, including research, script, rehearsals, and pre-production. During the research, director Sérgio Machado spent two months in the world of the film, which takes place basically in the striptease nightclubs, bars, and waterfront in Salvador, capital of the State of Bahia. A large share of the dialogues and situations in the film resulted from this research.
To write the script for “Lower City”, Sérgio Machado decided to repeat his successful partnership with Karim Aïnouz, with whom he had already written “Madame Satã” (directed by Aïnouz) and “Behind the Sun” (by Walter Salles). According to Aïnouz, the film’s conceptualization was just as important as the actual drafting of the text.
“We kept asking ourselves why we should tell this story. And we reached the conclusion that we wanted to show the love triangle as a vehicle for the affirmation of life. The story was born from the desire to understand and love these characters, to say that it’s not worth it to kill each other, that it’s necessary to find a way to go on living,” says Aïnouz. The shooting took place in Salvador, Cachoeira, and five other cities in the Recôncavo Baiano region on the coast of Bahia. All the scenes were filmed on locations, some recorded without any interference, others transformed according to the narrative necessities.
“The locations determined the film’s art. Our main reference was life in these cities. The film incorporated the local people’s vibes and aesthetic behavior. To look simple and natural is a lot more work than stylizing,” says Marcos Pedroso (“Madame Satã”, “Cinemas, Aspirin, and Buzzards”), the film’s art director. According to cinematographer Toca Seabra (“The Invader”, “Nelson Freire”), the main visual reference for “Lower City” was the book “Laroyê”, by Bahian photographer Mario Cravo Neto, which portrays the same world as the film. “The concept of ‘laroyê’ that we adopted requires symbolic guts, blood, orgasms, smells, and sweat; it determined some strategies in the idiom, like the handheld camera, the low lighting, and consequently the saturated colours.”
According to executive co-producer Maurício Andrade of VideoFilmes, “Lower City” involved complex logistics, despite the streamlined crew: “We had more than 70 locations in seven different cities.
Two sequences in the film are outstanding for their degree of realism: the boxing match and the cockfight. The boxing scene was rehearsed like a ballet. The actors repeated the same choreography several times, for it to be recorded from different angles.
The cockfight was also totally staged. Most of the time the roosters were held apart, lunging into thin air with their beaks. Using a telephoto lens, they appear to be fighting. In addition, the production placed silicone over their beaks and claws. None of the roosters were hurt during the filming, which was monitored by IBAMA (the Brazilian federal environmental agency which is responsible for animal protection).
ABOUT THE ACTORS’ COACHING Together with the script, the actors’ coaching was one of the key factors in producing “Lower City”. To take charge of this crucial work, Sérgio Machado invited Fátima Toledo, known for her work in such films as “Pixote”, by Hector Babenco, “Central Station”, by Walter Salles, and “City of God” by Fernando Meirelles.
Before the shooting began, Fátima held rehearsals with lead players Wagner Moura, Lázaro Ramos and Alice Braga over the course of two months, first in Salvador, then in Cachoeira. “During the coaching process, the level of deliverance by the actors was so radical that I was frightened. I think this was only possible because we succeeded in creating a climate of absolute trust. And this was further enhanced during the filming,” says Sérgio.
Fátima’s method consists of repeating a series of exercises to awaken true sensations in the actors, related to situations experienced by the characters. The main exercises used in “Lower City” include kundalini, which sought to liberate their sexuality by means of pelvic movements, and waltz, where the actors alternated between dance and confrontation. “The work is all led in such a way as to achieve reality. We searched for rage, for desire, for truth in the actors, the essence of the characters in each of them,” says Fátima.
According to this actors’ coach, “Lower City” was a turning point in her career. “I’m generally against creating emotional ties with the cast or crew. But in this film, my rule was blown out the window. Myself, Sérgio, and the actors were deeply attuned. I usually see 90% of my work appear in a film. In ‘Lower City’ it was 100%. This was one of the most special films in my life.” Proof of this is in Fátima’s studio in São Paulo: now, in addition to the “Pixote” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” rooms, her studio has a new room called “Lower City”.
ABOUT THE SOUNDTRACK For the soundtrack to “Lower City”, Sérgio Machado wanted sound that was both Bahian and universal. Naturally the name of musician and composer Carlinhos Brown came up, since he circulates with the same fluency on the streets of Salvador and the stages of Europe. “He impressed me with his ability to be linked to Bahian roots, without failing to remain attuned to the most modern sounds in the world,” says the filmmaker.
In his first soundtrack for cinema, Brown created songs based on the concept of “Bahia of the world”, where sophisticated and popular, and traditional and contemporary blend. “The work method was to run the film in the computer and improvise over the images, which are already very musical. The result was a kind of afro-jazz. I used percussion instruments that I invented myself, piano, guitar, and also sacred African instruments, which was very appropriate, because this is a sacred moment for Bahian cinema.”
The soundtrack for “Lower City” is also by musician and producer Beto Vilares (“Behind the Sun”), which was crucial for providing a definitive format for the extensive material produced by Brown. He reprocessed the sounds, created other new ones, and adjusted them to the scenes. “Our greatest concern was to not reiterate with the music what the images were already saying. The soundtrack works by contrasts, with smoother sonorities during moments of tension, and so on. The music has a lot more to do with the characters’ subjectivity than the action itself.”
INTERVIEW WITH SÉRGIO MACHADO Born in Salvador in 1968, Sérgio Machado began working in cinema in 1993, when he directed the award-winning short film “Troca de Cabeças” (“Changing Heads”), starring Grande Otelo. He made several video documentaries and in 1996 began working with director Walter Salles. He was assistant director and did the casting for “Central Station” and “Midnight”, as well as assistant director and script co-writer for “Behind the Sun”.
He was also co-writer of the award-winning “Madame Satã” directed by Karim Aïnouz, scriptwriter and co-director of the mini series “Shepherds of the Night”, by TV Globo, and director of the medium-length film “Agora é Cinza” (“Now is Gray”). In 2001 he directed “At the Edge of the Earth”, a documentary on the life and work of filmmaker Mário Peixoto that received 15 awards at festivals in Brazil and abroad. In the following interview, Sérgio speaks about several fundamental issues in the making of “Lower City”, his first feature-length fiction film:
THE LOVE TRIANGLE
“The classical situation of a love triangle in literature or cinema is to have two lovers and one betrayed, as in ‘Tristan and Isolde’. But this film is not about betrayal, it’s about passion. A love triangle always ends in tragedy. It’s always about impossibility, even in the most modern versions like ‘Jules et Jim’. I tried to view the issue from a different perspective. The question we asked when we were writing the script was, ‘Why not?’ What keeps these people from being happy? In this sense, the film has a kind of logic from Bahian thinking, which is present in the work of Jorge Amado and João Ubaldo Ribeiro, and also in the Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. In Bahia, issues are resolved through a logic which is not necessarily that of confrontation, but of accommodation for survival.
‘Lower City’ is a film that defends the desire to live and the capacity for reinvention, taking a stance against death drive, shame, and fear. The three leading characters have no one to rely on except themselves. For the three, life is always on the razor’s edge. What is at stake is not a guarantee of happiness. It doesn’t matter whether the three are going to stay together for the rest of their lives, or for a few seconds. What interests me is the insistence on not giving up, the will to improvise, to experiment. I think ‘Lower City’ brings a delicate view of a world that appears tough. But it is not a pious or complacent view. Nor is it an aloof spectator’s view. I think I’m speaking from the inside of the city where I was born, of a world I know.”
“I wanted the actors to keep miles away from any stereotype. I wanted to find the Deco in Lázaro, the Naldinho in Wagner, the Karinna there might be in Alice. As soon as I defined the actors, I began to write for them. Lázaro is more introspective, sweet, and elegant. Wagner more outgoing, crazy, hot-blooded. They are two equally talented actors, but totally different. Alice brought a more inner and sweeter aspect to her character. We did not give the script to the actors during the rehearsals. The lines were recreated during the process, but curiously by the end they were almost the same as in the original script.”
“Ever since the project took off, I said I wanted a streamlined, tight-knit, calm crew. I didn’t want to work with anyone who wasn’t a friend, or a friend of a friend. This smaller crew gave the film a more intimate climate. Everything was done to leave the actors more at ease. Toca (Seabra, cinematographer) showed enormous selflessness. We filmed some things without lighting. There are only two scenes in the film that were shot with a tripod – the rest is handheld camera. This gave us the freedom for ‘mise-en-scène’. Everyone bought into the idea. Nobody ever got in the actors’ way because the sound, the light, or the continuity weren’t perfect. Total priority was for them.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION COMPANY Founded in 1987 by Walter Salles and his brother, documentarian João Moreira Salles, VideoFilmes is a production company specializing in documentaries and feature films.
By Walter Salles, VideoFilmes has produced “Central Station”, “Midnight”, co-directed by Daniela Thomas, and “Behind the Sun”.
One of the company’s main targets is to make films by debut directors, like “Madame Satã” by Karim Aïnouz, “City of God”, co-directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles.
VideoFilmes has also enjoyed the privilege of producing documentaries directed by veterans Nelson Pereira dos Santos (“Masters and Slaves”) and Eduardo Coutinho (“Babilônia 2000”, “Master Building”, and “Metalworkers”).
The company recently produced the documentaries “Nelson Freire” and “Intermissions” by João Moreira Salles and “Paulinho da Viola – My Time is Today” by Izabel Jaguaribe. For its fiction films and documentaries, VideoFilmes has received more than 100 national and international awards.
INTERVIEWS WITH THE ACTORS LÁZARO RAMOS (DECO) At just 25, Lázaro Ramos is considered one of the most versatile and talented Brazilian actors. Having been discovered through the Olodum Theater Band in Salvador, he has already acted in 11 feature films. His first leading role was in “Madame Satã”, earning him several international awards.
His career also includes such films as “Carandiru”, by Hector Babenco, “The Man That Copied” and “My Uncle Killed a Guy”, both by Jorge Furtado – in addition to the as yet to be released “Cafundó” and “O Cobrador” (In God We Trust), an international production by Mexican director Paul Leduc.
In “Lower City”, Lázaro plays Deco, owner of a boat who goes back to boxing to make ends meet – and whom the actor considers the most introspective and romantic character in the threesome. The following is an interview with Lázaro about his work in the film.
How was the coaching with Fátima Toledo? At first it was difficult to understand the process. But after you realize that it’s to serve the story, your acting begins to flow like water. What Fátima does is activate the senses with a series of exercises for us to discover a kind of sincerity in our feelings, to succeed in playing an honest part. The work with her renewed me as an actor and gave me a new understanding of what it means to act. It also changed my life, strengthened values, and reinforced my friendship with Wagner.
How was your relationship with the crew? On the first day of shooting, I gave a speech saying it would only be possible to make this film if each member of the crew viewed that story through an accomplice’s eyes. And this complicity was there right from the beginning, thanks mainly to Sérgio’s generosity. He gave us time to warm up, to discuss the scenes. And the crew totally respected our way of working. They understood the importance of the warm-up. Sérgio succeeded in making everyone on the team, from the key grip to actors, feel like they owned the film.
In your opinion, what does “Lower City” talk about? It speaks about the possibility of loving. But not just in the relationship between a man and a woman. It speaks about the possibility of intensely loving a friend, of sharing a woman with this friend, and of loving her sincerely nevertheless. At a moment when Brazilian cinema has been focusing a lot on social problems, I think it’s important to make a film that values the possibility and the need to love, in which people are characterized by their feelings, not by their social class. I think cinema also needs to tell these stories.
WAGNER MOURA (NALDINHO) Wagner Moura, 28, is one of the highlights in the new generation of Brazilian actors. Like his friend Lázaro Ramos, he began his career in theater in Salvador and later settled in Rio de Janeiro.
Wagner has already acted in nine feature films, with such outstanding productions as Walter Salles’ “Behind the Sun”, “God is Brazilian”, by Cacá Diegues, and “Carandiru”, by Hector Babenco.
In “Lower City”, Wagner plays Naldinho, a Bahian sailor who gets mixed up in drugstore robberies. In Wagner’s opinion, Naldinho is the most outgoing and adventurous of the story’s three leading characters. In the following interview he tells about his part in the film.
How did the invitation for the film come about? At first Sérgio wanted to do the film entirely with black actors. I had always been enthusiastic about the film, because I already knew Sérgio from Salvador, and I already admired his talent. One day he called me to read the script with Lázaro, but just to get a feeling for the characters. I went there certain that I wasn’t going to do the film. When I read the script I really wanted to be a part of it, but I didn’t say anything. A few weeks later Lázaro’s birthday party rolled around, and I ran into Sérgio there. In the middle of the party, Lázaro made a speech, saying I was his best friend, that he loved me. I think this lit something in Sérgio’s head, like my connection with Lázaro was the clincher. A little while later Sérgio asked me to join the film.
How was the rehearsal process with Fátima? The first thing she said was that nobody was going to compose a character. “You are you”, she said, right from the beginning. So I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. But it was the most difficult coaching of my life, because we don’t always know who we are. The way we played our parts in “Lower City” is different from everything else we’ve done. We reached another level of truth. When the shooting began, we were ready. We were popping out of our skins. The process changed the way I view my work, and gave me tools to use for the rest of my life.
For you, was it also difficult to focus your aggressiveness against Lázaro? Yes. It was the hardest part of the process, because Lázaro and I are best friends. But Fátima succeeded in getting us to see each other with hatred, to say a lot of harsh things to each other, to the point where we almost beat each other up. And it was all for real, because Fátima works with the truth. But in the end our friendship came out of the process even stronger.
How would you define the world of “Lower City”? It’s a film about a tough world, sometimes violent, but with a very sensitive and tranquil view of the three leading characters. I think this comes a lot from Sérgio, who has the serenity and sensitivity to see poetry in the rarest things.
ALICE BRAGA (KARINNA) Karinna is the first leading film role for Alice Braga, 22, born in São Paulo. Niece of actress Sônia Braga (“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), she had played an important role in “City of God”, by Fernando Meirelles, and a leading role in the still to be released “God Only Knows”, by Mexican director Carlos Bolado. She also participated in the TV mini series “Carandiru”, directed by Hector Babenco.
In “Lower City”, Alice plays a stripper who goes to Salvador to find work and awakens the love of two friends, Deco and Naldinho. She defines Karinna as a mixture of force and delicacy, a far cry from the stereotypes of the character’s profession. The following is an interview on her work in “Lower City”:
How did you come to play Karinna? Waltinho (Walter Salles) met me during “City of God” and recommended me to Sérgio. He looked for me to do the tests but didn’t find me, because I was living in New York at the time. They did tests with hundreds of girls but didn’t sign with any of them. A month before the shooting started, they finally located me. I read through the script for Sérgio and Fátima, with whom I’d already worked with in “City of God”, and they invited me to join the cast. I agreed on the spot. I thought the script was really human, really truthful. That was four weeks before the shooting started. Wagner and Lázaro had already started rehearsing a month before.
What part of Alice is in Karinna? I think I brought a little girl’s thing to the character. Meanwhile I had to discover the woman inside me. That was a big challenge. Fátima would tease me, calling me menina (“little girl”) during the rehearsals, and I’d get mad. But I knew I had to fight it. I discovered my immaturity, but also my force, my will to learn more. In the end, I think we succeeded in showing three human beings, without being judgmental or hypocritical.
Was there any additional difficulty with the nudity or sex scenes? No, Fátima gave me a lot of kundalini exercises to loosen my pelvis, to free my sexuality. When I got to the set, I already knew exactly where I was going. The sex comes through strong in the film, but it’s never vulgar or gratuitous. We couldn’t be hypocritical in the film, because it would have gone against the story. I would say that sex is the fourth leading player in “Lower City”.
How was the relationship between the cast and the crew? Sérgio fought for every inch of Karinna, every word, every breath. His sweetness guided me. And the crew understood this spirit perfectly. I’ll give an example: before the scenes with the anxiety, I did an exercise in which Doca, the key grip, would lie on top of me, holding me down until I’d get desperate, and then shoot the scene when I was all primed. And he always totally respected me. At the end of the film I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. For me, this was the greatest example of the crew’s spirit of giving.