Alice Furtado’s debut feature film – Sick, Sick, Sick – tells the story of a young girl who undergoes a strange and dark transformation after losing someone she loves.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Furtado to talk about the film, paying tribute to the origins of the zombie genre, working with Claire Denis, and much more.
Q: What interested you about exploring the aftermath of loss and the transformations Silvia goes through?
A: It is a very feminine perspective on loss and desire, and that of a young girl too. It comes from my own reflections on personal experiences. I wanted to work on this kind of feeling where the world around ceases to exist, and how does a girl keep going with all her memories, body’s imprints too.
I was also interested in exploring this dark side of desire, which sometimes can be totally reckless. Silvia’s desire is so strong that it gives her super powers, but also draws her to tragedy. She doesn’t care about destiny, nor, at some point, to her lover’s own wishes, because nothing is more important to her than being back with him. Like a friend told me once after a screening, it’s like Orpheus and Eurydice. You have to face hell and all its horrors to get your love back. And she does.
Q: The title ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ really grabbed me. What was your thinking behind this title? Does the repetition reflect a form of insanity or a loop of some kind?
A: It is definitely an insane loop, but one that transforms itself in each stage, like three phases of sickness that the main character goes through in her body.
First one is about lovesickness and passion, this kind that takes us out of our tracks with its intensity. After Artur’s death, Silvia falls in an abyss, becoming physically sick and somatizing the loss through her own body, which is the second phase. Third phase would be more like a mental kind of illness, when she becomes more and more obsessed with her memories and thoughts about Artur, until the point she will make this decision of bringing him back. Obsession grows until her body reaches the trance state.
Q: I understand Voodoo comes into the film in later on. Why did you want to bring these supernatural elements into the film?
A: Voodoo came as a way to pay tribute to the origins of the zombie genre, but I always wanted to bring it up in this fashion that is much more related to pop culture’s appropriation of its signs than the tradition itself, that’s why it was important for me to introduce it through this book – The Magic Island by William Seabrook – which Silvia finds in the beach house. It’s a travel memoir that presented Haitian voodoo to the rest of the world in a sensationalist way during the 30s, and it went mainstream.
The film points to this appropriation and its problems at every chance, starting from the beach house itself which is all about that, and this was an important commentary to me. We’re living a worrying moment in Brazil where all African-rooted religions are under attack, so when I was writing I wanted to be clear that all the “demoniacal” aspects of the story came from Silvia’s desire itself and her reckless appropriation of forces she knows nothing about to get what she wants.
For me her ritual should reflect more as a chaotic, teenager digestion of multiple signs than an emulation of a real ritual. I called contemporary choreographer Alice Ripoll to work on the movements, so it wouldn’t look like anything else, while Orlando Scarpa Neto was composing an electronic tune that should distance us even more from real ancestry. I wanted to be clear that Voodoo is not the problem, the problem is how/why Silvia uses it, and it goes the same way for Matthieu’s family. All of them messed with religion without proper knowledge and for bad purposes, so they got doomed.
As for why bringing the horror and supernatural, it stepped in the story since the beginning, when I decided it would be a film about the best and the worst side of desire, which includes the wish for resurrection, and blood came as an important element for this transformation.
Q: As you mention, Brazil is going through troubling times at the moment. Did that impact this story and the making of the film?
A: Luckily enough, we got to finance the film before the public funding criterias started to change in Brazil, and also the country’s politics as a whole. Today it would have been impossible to make it, not only because it is a first film produced by a young company (Estúdio Giz), but also because the National Agency for Cinema (Ancine) is currently paralyzed.
I don’t know if it impacted the story itself, but it certainly affected the way I look to it. Now I feel that the nightmarish atmosphere of the film and its sick state reflects a lot on our society. Silvia stands as a character who can’t find any sense in the world she leaves in, a world that is full of uninteresting privileges for a few (including her), that’s all about functioning (for the Capital) and leaving aside intense emotions (except for hatred, which is at full rise nowadays).
If you’re rich enough it means paying all the doctors, exams and treatments you can to not give space to the disruptive nature of real feelings. And I think that’s what Silvia stands against, when she refuses to take her medications, when she refuses to stay in the house with the rest of the family, choosing a tent in the yard instead, where she can live in her own crazy world. In the end I think she acts on the destruction of all that, even though it wasn’t the plan, and it’s quite tragic, but at the same time, if you look through it in a more allegorical way, it sheds some hope to the future.
Like the new generations are coming with all their intensities, love against hatred, to shake down the structures of this old, white patriarchal system of privileges that is now ruling the country.
Q: What was your collaboration like with lead actress Luiza Kosovski and the rest of this cast? Did you work with Luiza to help guide her through this character with little dialogue?
A: We spent a lot of time together trying to find those moods, but it wasn’t difficult because Luiza is a deep girl, she can balance from very different and intense states easily, it’s something I’ve noticed from her audition.
Since it was her first film ever, we also took the time to follow her around with a camera during rehearsals, also understanding how to best capture her presence. Juan, on the other hand, had a lot of experience, so we worked mostly building the ways of the character, and of course bringing some deepness to their experience as a couple. During preparation most of the times I would make some propositions and watch, and it was always very physical, we worked a lot with music and things that lead to non-verbal situations, which usually helped me to visually understand our scenes.
With the other actors it was also a question of creating bonds between them more than anything. Nahuel, unlike the others, came straight to shooting, and I knew I had no reason to worry, he was perfect. In the end I think most of the work resides in casting the right people. It’s important to feel that the actors trust themselves enough and in me in a way that we won’t need a lot of questions when we get to the set. I need to give them space to think and act, and I’ll be there with the camera trying to witness it in the best possible way, like a mutual, telepathic understanding.
Q: Screen Daily commented on your ‘talent for arresting visuals’. How did you approach creating the atmosphere of this film – both in terms of visuals and Orlando Scarpa Neto’s score?
A: Visuals usually come way ahead of the story to me when I am starting to imagine a film, so there are some scenes that exist in my mind from the beginning and will look almost exactly the same in the end. Besides that, when I am writing there is this process of finding what is important in those ideas and trying to imagine the best form for it.
I wanted the film to flow as a sensorial journey and it was clear to me that it would only work if we could feel Silvia’s body states, share her unclear vision of things, so that’s why from an early stage I decided to work almost entirely with tight shots, and the camera would usually be set in the vortex of the scene and not outside it.
I discussed it a lot with the DoP Felipe Quintelas, who accompanied me to the rehearsals for testing, and we agreed it worked. There was also an important discussion with him and the production designer, Elsa Romero, about the film’s colors, textures and shapes, which also play an important part on the film’s atmosphere. The scene of the dream, for instance, comes from one of this conversations and decisions made between the three of us, because in the script it was still very abstract.
Music also plays an important part, and I have a long-term collaboration with Orlando Scarpa Neto now, having worked together in two projects before Sick, Sick, Sick. This intimacy helps a lot because I know where his music can go and he understands what I need. In this film most of the soundtrack was composed in post-production, with the exception of the ritual piece, which he started working on before shooting, so we could build the dance scene (although it changed a lot after).
A few other pieces came to the right point during the editing, but most of the music was done after, because I needed to be fully present in the process, and we spent like a month working exclusively on soundtrack before going to the other postproduction phases.
Q: The film recently screened at Cannes. How did you find that experience and what are your hopes for the film as it reaches international audiences?
A: I’m still processing the whole experience. Cannes is such a huge festival and you do get the feeling that the whole world of cinema is there, which can be a bit frightening.
I think that in Brazil we are not so used to this huge industrial side of the business (although it did grow really fast this past decade), so everything there seems different from everyday life, at least that’s how I feel coming from where I’m from. It was a great opportunity for all of us, specially considering the difficult moment which we’re living here, when it became more important than ever to occupy those spaces, standing up for culture and cinema.
I honestly have no idea what will happen when the film reaches international audiences, but just having the chance to show it worldwide is great enough, and the film is going to some festivals now. I hope that it can find its public wherever it goes, of course, I don’t deny that making a film is also about seeking connection with other beings.
Q: Can you tell us about your upbringing and your early interest in cinema?
A: I have always been fascinated by the experience of going to cinemas, since I was a kid, and I think it was probably because of this effect that the dark room and giant screen immediately create of personal unawareness, and a challenge to fully relate yourself to different lives and perspectives.
It always felt kind of magical to me… I remember that from a very young age I used to be very anguished about the idea of being stuck to a single point of view of the material world through your entire life, and it almost made me question reality sometimes, a disturbing feeling as I remember. Today when I think about it, I believe I got cured from this anguish through love and cinema, which are two beautiful ways of experiencing otherness.
Q: You worked under the guidance of Claire Denis earlier in your career. What was that experience like?
A: It was during my residency in Le Fresnoy, she was one of the tutors the year I got in, and I felt lucky because I already admired her a lot from her films, but I was also amazed by the person she is. She really stood up for us students in a very generous way, while also encouraging us to do it for ourselves and our projects.
I was a young Brazilian with some crazy ideas on how to make films and almost no experience at all facing the French rules and perspective (today I see they had a point!), and it was fundamental to have her guidance through that, I have learned a lot from it. The discussions around ideas were always great, and she had a very interesting approach to scriptwriting.
A year later she came back to Le Fresnoy to shoot a short film there and invited us to participate. Just watching her work with Agnès Godard was probably the best lesson I have had.
Q: What are your plans for the future? Have you thought about what is next beyond ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’?
A: To be very honest, I am currently trying to figure out how to survive making cinema in Brazil. I do have projects, at least one documentary I would like to shoot next to this, and some ideas for a next feature. I also wanted to keep working as an editor, which is something I also love and teaches me a lot. But the present situation is really complicated here, so it has been hard to think about the future…