Young Portuguese director Pedro Cabeleira is introducing his first feature-length outing, Damned Summer [+], in the Filmmakers of the Present competition of the Locarno Film Festival. He graduated from the Lisbon Theatre and Film School in 2013 and founded the production company Videolotion. Cineuropa talked to him about making the film under severe budgetary limitations.
Cineuropa: Could you describe the process of making Damned Summer?
Pedro Cabeleira: I started planning the film in February 2014. I finished at the school in 2013, and I knew I wanted to make a feature film. I was planning one with my friend, but the idea for the story became really difficult to produce without any money, so I had to find another one that would not require money. That’s when I thought of Damned Summer, a project that was more about directing challenges than scriptwriting ones. I started to think about the journey of the protagonist, Chico, and that journey was made up of parts, akin to a musical composition. For me, constructing a film is similar to composing music; it needs to have modulation. After I had the five bits I needed, I started meeting with actors, and most of them were my peers from my school in Lisbon. I modelled the characters on the actors, since I wanted the actors to be as comfortable as possible in their roles. They are doing the work of professional and non-professional actors at the same time.
After that, I started production on the film; I asked a friend of mine who had studied with me to lend me a camera, and I asked the school to lend me lighting equipment. I did the location scouting and arranged the sets, which were basically my friends’ houses or discos where they let me shoot for free. I started to shoot chronologically because I knew every event could potentially change the progression of the film thanks to the particular energy created in the moment. It took me seven months to shoot the main footage in Lisbon. Naturally, I changed some things in the process; working on the film was quite an uninhibited process, and I did not stick to just one method of shooting.
What methods did you use?
There are scenes in the film that are rigorously scripted, and even in the editing room, I did not make many changes to those scenes compared to the script. On the other hand, the party scenes were not scripted. For example, for the MDMA party, I had a vision for the first day of shooting; however, over the following days, we worked more loosely. And the last sequence, the final party, was made to be even more unrestrained and improvised. The actors only had four lines, and they created eight hours of footage just by ad libbing. We would shoot for eight hours a day, and it was like living in a club. The last scene, after the party, was shot more like a documentary. They were free to do whatever they wanted, except the lead actor, as his lines were pretty clear from the outset.
You have maintained a documentary feel throughout the film, even avoiding special effects during the more psychedelic moments.
When I see stoner or psychedelic movies, there is usually something I don’t like. When they start using visual effects, those effects do not correspond to the actual experience of a trip. They just take me right out of the film, and I cannot be immersed in the movie and its universe, because of this artificiality. I preferred to make this film based on audio perception. In a theatre, you get a richer experience of the movie because of the sound system, but the visual experience should not be mistaken for special effects. Unless you do LSD, your visual perception does not change much on cannabis or MDMA. In Damned Summer, I was more interested in creating a psychedelic situation with the lights and the characters, but the camera had to be as realistic as possible to provide those kinds of sensations.
How did you manage to cram 150 actors into your project despite the severe budgetary limitations?
The production crew was no bigger than seven people; apart from me and the DoP, Leonor Teles, everybody else rotated depending on their other work commitments. As I mentioned, I knew the actors from school…
That’s the thing. When I started shooting, I worked with those closest to me, because in the beginning I only needed a few actors, although as the film progressed, the cast had to expand. So the actors from the beginning of the film basically spread the word about our project and production, waxing lyrical about how they enjoyed working on Damned Summer, which eventually attracted more actors willing to take part in the movie. By the time I needed to shoot scenes with lots of characters, it was pretty easy to secure people, since they had already heard about the project and wanted to take part.