In last year’s The Ornithologist, one of our picks for the best films of 2017 (and available on Netflix), gorgeous Fernando (Paul Hamy) seems as though he is ready for the surrounding wilderness to consume him entirely. To rid him of his immense loneliness. If he finds himself in porn-reminiscent scenarios and mise-en-scene—like getting tied up to a tree a la St. Sebastian or urinated on—those incidents are flashes of something that injects him with life and feverish sensuality.
The Ornithologist is the latest film care of Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, whose work could be a grand exploration of the topography of queer loneliness: not just its intangible ephemera, but the relationships his characters have with their physical setting. He began this keenly observed, dream-like journey with his first feature, O Fantasma (2000), which follows a young trash collector, Sérgio (Ricardo Meneses), whose becoming of self may transform into an unbecoming. Rodrigues recontextualizes the explicit, fetish-adjacent sex, suffusing it with emotion: Sérgio’s anonymous fucking has a thrill and a streak of melancholy. A crucial shower scene continues to reveal how alone Sérgio is, as he, in spite of an obsession with another man, is consumed by marginality.
Long out of print and only seen through torrents and, amusingly, on PornHub, Rorigues’s O Fantasma is finally getting re-released in the U.S. on DVD, for the first time in nearly two decades, through Strand Releasing. Over the phone, Paste talked to the director, speaking from Lisbon, about making the film, and the queer loneliness and intimacy of his work.
Paste Magazine: Could you tell me a little about the origins of your debut?
João Pedro Rodrigues: It all started when I was living in Lisbon. From my apartment window, I could see the trash truck go by in the street where I live. I was going confidently to the window to look at the people that were working in this trash collection, that were doing this job. It almost started, I think, as almost voyeuristic, like trying to find out who these people were by looking at them, like physically, from my apartment window. And so I wanted to contact them, and I asked permission to follow them. I followed them there for around six months. There wasn’t a script, because I wanted to know more about how they were working, who these people were a little bit, their background. So what I did was, during the six months, I went twice a week to the depot where they depart at night. I followed them everywhere, even in the trash truck, where I was experiencing being at night in the street. I was able to ask them any questions. I was more interested in hearing talk about themselves. Because the film became kind of like a documentary; even though you see a lot his coworkers, it’s not really about them. It’s more about this guy, that has his life as a trash collector, but also his fantasies.
His personal life and his professional life as a trash collector get entwined. For me, the trash collectors trace a kind of geography of the city. This route traces kind of a map, which is like a map of the city of the outskirts. Many places that I shot in the film are places that I’ve known since I was a child. When I started making films or thinking about making films, I had this urge. I always felt these places were, in a way, potentially locations for a film. I didn’t know which stories I was going to place in those locations, but they were places that intrigued me. Like, this [is an] investigation about trash collectors—who are these people?—and [also] the places around the apartment where I lived and have always lived since I was born. Because I live in my grandmother’s apartment now. Not that I was living here when I was a child, but it was my grandmother’s place, so I’ve always been here. That, I think, was the origin of the film.
Paste: You talk a lot about the different locations in the film, and how they’ve always been a part of your life. How have those locations in O Fantasma changed or evolved since the making of the film?
Rodrigues: It’s funny because, as I still live here, I go by these places almost every day. Not all of the places, [obviously]. But they haven’t changed much. This is the north of the city; it’s a part of the city that was built in the ’50s and the ’60s. Before that, there was nothing here. It was just countryside, and there were just like old farms. So there’s still a lot of these traces of a past that was not really the past of a city, was more of a past when this was not Lisbon. So I think it’s also a borderline. It’s a borderline territory, in between urban and more countryside. For me, these places tell stories just by themselves, because they are kind of ruined. You see ruins of old farms. You see ruins of old roads. You see a past that becomes also part of the fiction, in a way.
Paste: A lot of your filmography, particularly O Fantasma, takes place at night. And you have this fascination with nocturnal life. Where does that come from? And what were some of the more technical preparations you did in order to shoot throughout the night landscape in Lisbon?
Rodrigues: There’s a very practical reason, also. I don’t know how it is in the U.S., but here, almost all trash collectors work at night, so trash is collected at night. This character is someone who sleeps during the day and works at night. It’s the opposite of most of the people that live in the city, who work during the day—and not just in Lisbon, but everywhere else in the world. That already adds a kind of mysteriousness, because everything is empty. They work while other people are asleep. By talking to these people, they almost know the habits of the people that live inside the houses. They go by the houses, they see people going in, they know more or less, “That person there goes to bed at this time because the window—” They pay attention sometimes to those details. They see lights that are on in that house at this hour. So in a way they have a kind of like extra power or extra knowledge of the areas that they work with. Because they also don’t do all of Lisbon. There are several teams of garbage collectors that do part of it. Here in my area, there’s one team—but in the next area, there’s another team.
So they are very familiar with this kind of landscape that is, by itself, a lonely landscape. Because it’s not populated; people are asleep. There’s cars parked, or silent houses, or dogs, sometimes the trash car goes by the houses… There’s not just buildings; there’s a lot of small houses in this area, like cottages. So there are a lot of gardens and a lot of dogs. A lot of people have dogs. So they even know which dogs are there. Each team departs from these depots and generally in these depots there are dogs. And there was a dog when I first when there. We even worked with the real dog of that depot, so there is a strong connection [between] the people [in that depot and] the dog. I was interested also in this idea of human versus animal, because [Sérgio is] a character that acts a lot by instinct. So, this borderline between humanity and animality, and rationality and irrationality, was something I was very interested in exploring. The bond he has with the dog was something that was established from the start of writing the script.
Paste: And there’s something very spiritual about that as well. I mean, the dog’s name is Lorde.
Rodrigues: Yeah, that’s true. But, you know, he’s called “Lorde” because the dog was called “Lorde.” It was totally by chance, because as we worked with the real dog, it was not possible to change the dog’s name. That dog was trained. At first we tried to train another dog, but he was not used to the trash trucks; he was afraid. So this dog was already working with these people, was used to all these people. It was a long process, but they trained him and he was already called “Lorde.” That was kind of by chance. (laughs)
Paste: There’s also this dreamlike quality to your cinema that influences a surreal approach to gender and sexuality, but also has this potential to unearth truth about the self. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Rodrigues: I think perhaps my films are all about intimacy, and how you live with your own self. Most of my characters are kind of lonely. And the purpose or the story of the films is kind of how they get in touch—or not—with other people. How do they connect with other people? Also how it’s difficult to connect with other people. Perhaps that comes from something personal in myself, that I was also always kind of lonely. So I think my films also reflect myself in a way—although I don’t see them as autobiographical.
I think it also comes from the actor. When I found Ricardo Meneses, who played Sérgio, the main character of the film, there’s a lot of animality in him. He was also a kid; we found him when he was 17. We had to wait until he reached 18 to be able to shoot the film because he could not be underage. But he was happier for doing the film. He was not born in Lisbon. He was born in the north of Portugal. So he also came to the city to make a life [for] himself, in a way. Like in that dream, you know? As a kid, he more or less ran away from home, in order to try and achieve something of his life. So there’s a lot of that in the character, I think, someone that is determined to reach something, but has to deal with tough things, especially at that young age. He came to Lisbon when he was 16, by himself, alone. He had a pretty tough life until the film. So I think that also kind of formed the character. Ricardo in the end became the character of the film.
Paste: There’s such an intensity in that performance. There are two shower scenes, in particular, where Sérgio’s yearning and loneliness and desire is just so strong that it’s like he’s going to put his head through the wall. The part where he’s kind of asphyxiating himself and the part where he’s licking the wall—I think it’s a really interesting scene.
What I also think is interesting about your films is you could almost argue that they are geographies of queer loneliness. And The Ornithologist was my favorite film from last year. Can you talk about a little the relationship you have with the geography of queer desire and loneliness and how it’s evolved since O Fantasma?
Rodrigues: For me, it’s a little bit hard to develop in a theoretical point of view, because it’s all very natural to me. There’s a lot of it that is based on my own experience, so it’s close to me. At the same time, perhaps inventing these characters is a way of getting away from myself. I think it’s also, perhaps, that idea of trying to look at my own world from the outside, inventing these characters that are not me, or course. So, I don’t know if I can tell you more about that.
In The Ornithologist, I also wanted to get out of the city, because my first three films—O Fantasma, Two Drifters and To Die Like a Man—were all in Lisbon. I was comfortable with shooting the films in Lisbon. But when my partner and I did The Last Time I Saw a Macao—when he was a child he lived in Macao, in China, which at the time was a Portuguese colony—I wanted to go out of the city, even going out of Portugal. So we went really far, to somewhere else that has a connection with Portugal because it was Portuguese also. There’s a mixing of cultures there. But it helped me, getting out of the city, like going very far.
I came back with The Ornithologist, but I didn’t come back to the city. I came back to a place that is perhaps the most remote place in Portugal, by this river in the north interior of Portugal, northeast part of Portugal, where I found a landscape. I was looking for a place that was not changed by man. And I could find a place that already existed like this, before man started changing and fucking up this planet. In a way, it’s almost like a utopian place. There are less and less places that are not changed by man in this world, as you well know. And we are living day by day with how climate is changing, how everything is changing. And we are guilty of it. It’s our responsibility and we are living in the [consequences].
So, I wanted to go to this place where everything could happen, in a way. Because [Fernando] character goes really far away, [to] the middle of nowhere, but then there’s a lot of weird things happening. It’s also kind of like a fairytale. It has this fairytale quality, if you think about forest fairytales, and the spoiled nature of old fairytales, where all these fantastic things can happen.
Paste: If the landscape of The Ornithologist is more utopian in a literal way, do you think that the trash, the dump is utopian for Sérgio?
Rodrigues: I tried not to make the film symbolic, because I have a lot of problems with symbolism. Of course, it’s a dump—but it’s also a place that, when I first discovered it, I was inside of a trash truck. I was with them. So they were going to dump the trash in the dump. For me, there was this kind of surreal quality to this landscape. Everything is either covered with trash or with plastic, because there’s all these techniques of protecting the soil and trying not to make it very polluted. But of course they are trashing trash, so all sorts of pollution goes into that place. So it’s almost a place that is inorganic because there’s no life there. It’s like another planet. It has like a science-fiction quality. That was what struck me when I looked at this place for the first time; I thought I had arrived on a different planet. I was not on Earth anymore. I was in this weird, almost like an inner landscape, as if you went inside your own mind. I think it has this kind of fantasy quality. And at the same time, it’s this place where all the trash from Lisbon is dumped. …because this guy that he’s obsessed with dumped him.
Paste: That’s really interesting.
Rodrigues: Yeah, so he ends up in the dump of all dumps. (laughs)
Paste: Can you talk a little bit about the underwear Sérgio wears? They’re kind of like trash and torn. Where did that idea come from?
Rodrigues: The thing that he wears, that he finds in the trash, it’s not really underwear. It’s a swimsuit. The black one?
Paste: Yeah, yeah.
Rodrigues: It’s the swimsuit that he finds in the trash of the guy’s he’s obsessed with, because it’s torn. It’s kind of like his fantasy of wearing dirty underwear of people that you love—or that you’re obsessed with. Because I think the film also plays with porn film situations. I was interested in developing that. Like, how can you use this kind of porn film narrative, that people meet and immediately start having sex, in a film that is not a porn film? I used some of this. Also like about these fetishes, like the cop, the policeman, the latex. So I used a lot of this fetishistic imagery, but I tried to integrate that into a more classical narrative, into the storyline of the film.
Paste: One of my favorite scenes is not only the opening, where you have the shot on the dog and then it cuts to Sérgio having sex in the latex suit, but also the scene in The Ornithologist where he gets urinated on, which I thought was very clever. Are you excited—O Fantasma has been out of print for a really long time in the United States, as far as DVD or being able to access it. Are you excited that it’s back on DVD and now people can watch it again?
Rodrigues: Of course I am, of course I am. I’m also excited that it’s going to be restored.
There’s this idea to restore all my films that were shot on 35 mm film. So I’m very excited about that. One of the problems with showing O Fantasma, even if there are prints and sometimes it screens, is that there are fewer and fewer places that can play it on 35; there’s no more film projectors. So, having good quality digital transfers is something that is crucial for people to be able to see and access my films. So I’m very excited with this idea of restoring them and making good digital transfers, because there are none.
Paste: Could you talk a little bit about the sound and music of O Fantasma?
Rodrigues: There’s almost no music in the film. There’s just this song by Alan Vega, called “Dream Baby Revisited.” There’s something dark and melancholic about Alan Vega that I was interested in and listening to Suicide and also to [his solo work], and I think there was a mood that was very right for that particular film. I also wanted to create with my sound designer a soundscape that almost replaced the absence of music, because I didn’t want to stress feelings or something with music. So what we used were the real sounds that you can hear in this area. Because we are near the airport, there’s a lot of planes. There’s a lot of dogs—and also, this character’s double is a dog, in a way, so it all makes sense towards the animality of the character. So we used these sounds. We departed from the direct sound, and then we added and worked the sound design, working with noises and sounds as if it were music.
Paste: What are you excited about in terms of your career in the future?
Rodrigues: Now I’m excited with my next film. In The Ornithologist, I worked with a French actor [Paul Hamy], and I would love to work with an American actor, for instance. I’ve always loved American films, especially the classics. I think there is something with American actors—they are natural. There is something that is very instinctive. It’s not like a theatrical way of acting. I think it will also add something for my own world, to bring in this other world. I am very interested in crisscrossing influences. Even if I’m doing something that I think is quite personal, I’m very open to discussing things with people that I trust and also admire. It perhaps makes the films go in another direction. Because it’s always a little bit frustrating when you’re doing films that, I wanted everybody to see my films, and I know it’s not true.
But I don’t know. Not that I’m trying to do films in another way. It’s that I’m trying to coax other people that I admire into my own world, in order to make something that will be easier to travel. My films travel a lot but, yeah, now I’m especially interested in the acting, working with an American or British actor. That would be great.