Interview: Daniel Ribeiro (The Way He Looks)
Matthew Turner | On 09, Feb 2015
Daniel Ribeiro’s The Way He Looks, based on his 2010 short film, is a coming-of-age story that follows a blind high school student in Brazil, who is taking his first steps towards both independence and sexuality.
We sit down with Ribeiro to talk blindness, autobiography and working with his young cast.
Where did the idea come from and how did the project come about?
The idea came from me wanting to talk about the discovery of sexuality, where our sexuality comes from, and I thought about this character that was blind, so he had never seen a guy or a girl before and he still falls in love with another guy. I thought that was an important way to talk about how our sexuality comes to us. I would need a young actor playing a blind character. I thought that was going to be something hard to do, you know, to find this actor and to work with him. So I decided to do a short film before [2010’s I Don’t Want to Go Black Alone] just to experiment and then I used that to get some funding to do the feature later.
What kind of preparation did you do before writing the script?
There was no preparation, actually. I just started writing the story I thought about. Because I wanted to focus not on the blindness or the homosexuality part of the character – I wanted to create this character who had these specific characteristics about him, but to focus on the story that’s very universal, because that’s what was important to me, to show how when we’re falling in love and discovering our sexuality, it’s usually the same for everyone, you know? Even though it’s a different sexual orientation, it’s about falling in love with someone and feeling attracted to that person and wondering if that person likes you back or not. It’s usually those things that are the most important thing about sexuality. So I wrote based on that, based on the universal aspect of falling in love for the first time. So I guess I used my own experience for that and then some of the specifics of the character, I wrote into the story.
You mentioned using your own experience – how autobiographical is the film and how much of yourself did you put into the character?
After I did the movie, I realised that it had more to do with me than I had realised when I was writing it. So it wasn’t conscious when I was writing. But I had a best friend when I was in high school and then there was this new kid who came to my school and we started dating, so I guess there’s that part of me in the movie, although it was in the ’90s, so it wasn’t as easy as it is today. We weren’t out to everyone, we didn’t tell everyone. But on the other side, I think it’s just a story that’s very universal.
What was the casting process like?
We had the same cast for the short and the feature. I first found Ghilherme Lobo, who plays Leo. It was just a regular audition we did, so he came in and he was really good. He was 14 at the time, when he read. And he was really good – all my worries about finding a young actor that could play a blind kid were gone when he came in, because he was really talented, he was very natural. He did the blindness of the character naturally in the audition, so it was actually very easy to find him. And he came in in the first or second week that we were casting, so we found him very early in the process and then we did a callback and he read with [Tess Amorim], who plays the girl, and they had the greatest chemistry, so I found this duo really early.
Then I had a problem, actually, finding the third character, because he was 14 and she was 15, so they were really young and it was very hard to find a third actor who was as good as they were and as young as they were. Everyone who was really good, they seemed older – it was weird when we put the three of them together. Then about a month later, [Fabio Audi] came in and he read with them and he was perfect. He was older – Fabio was 21 at the time, so they had a large age gap – but he seemed really young. So we found the three of them in 2010 and then we kept talking with them and then when we decided to do the feature, when we had the money to do it, we talked to them and we said, ‘Okay, we think you guys still look young, you can still play the characters’, so it was like that. So Leo was 18 at the time when we shot, Tess was 19, 20 and Fabio was 24.
How closely did you work on the blindness with Ghilherme? What kind of direction did you give him?
He was very natural about a lot of things. He brought a lot of things just by – I don’t know, it was natural to him, because he observes a lot, he’s very talented. We did a little bit of workshop work at the time of the short. We went to a few Blind Institutes, we went to the Braille Library here in São Paolo, where he learned how to type on the typewriter. The three of them went there and they learned how to guide and he learned how to be guided, very specific things that we needed for the short. And then it was natural, we just talked about things – when there was something specific in the script, then we would talk about it, like, ‘How would a blind person do this specific thing?’ And then, it’s a movie, it’s all about the camera, so it’s all about how it looks on the screen. At some point, he was doing something and I would look at the screen and I was like, ‘Okay, Gee, you can not do this because it seems like you are looking at him, so just look down a little bit.’ So we just did a few specific things just for the camera, but it was very natural, we didn’t work on it that much.
If you had asked me, I would have said he was really blind, because he was so convincing…
Yeah, he found this way of portraying the way he looks at nothing, to make it seem as if he’s blind. So he found that and that was the main thing about the character. And it was all about him – he discovered that and he was always doing that. And mostly, I think that’s what convinces everyone.
Do you know if he looked at any other films to get an idea of how to play blindy?
I think it came naturally, I don’t think we ever talked about that. I think he probably watched [something], but that’s an interesting question. We never talked about that. Because it was impressive that he did the blindness in his eyes when we were casting the short. He was just so natural, what we see today in the movie is basically what he did in the casting. So there was very little that we could say, ‘Okay, let’s try to work on this’, because it was already there from the beginning.
Did you look at any other coming-of-age films in preparation for this?
There was one movie that was sort of an inspiration, which was Blue Gate Crossing, a film from Taiwan, which is very similar, because it’s about this girl who likes this other girl and the other girl likes the boy and the boy likes the lesbian girl, so it’s a triangle there and they’re the same age and it has the same mood. I think it’s about 10 years old, the movie – when I watched it, it was a film that stuck with me and it was something that I really liked. And I also liked Beautiful Thing a lot, which I watched when I was a teenager. I think that was an important movie for me when I was a teenager and I think it inspired me. But I haven’t watched it since.
I wondered if you had seen Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love?
Oh, I did. I did, but when it premiered. Like, 10, 15 years ago. Yeah, I’ve watched that movie. I think it’s movies that I watched and they were important when I watched them, but I haven’t watched them since. But, yeah, Show Me Love [known as Fucking Amal worldwide] that was very strong and was also with me a lot when I watched it. I talked to my friends about it, it was an important movie for me.
The ending of your movie really reminded me of the ending of Show Me Love. I thought it might have been a tribute…
Not consciously! Maybe unconsciously! I’ll have to watch it again.
Which other filmmakers do you admire?
There are so many, it’s so hard to answer that. I love Wong Kar-wai. Happy Together is one of my top five movies of all time. I think it’s a great movie. I don’t know, it’s hard. For example, I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it was a movie that was with me for a long time. It’s a reference point. Blue Gate Crossing is a movie that was also very strong with me. I love Miranda July, her characters, the way she portrays these weird characters in her movies. John Cameron Mitchell – Hedwig and Shortbus were both very important movies for me. These are the ones that I remember right now, but it’s always a very hard question because there are so many films.
Do you have a favourite scene in your film?
I like the last scene – I think it’s a strong scene. I like the eclipse scene when they go outside at night. I like the masturbation scene also. Because that was a scene that I was very scared about and everyone was scared about it. Everyone who read the script, they would say, ‘No, this scene’s not going to work’, and I was worried about it. And I’m happy that it worked out the way I wanted, because it is a masturbation scene, but it’s also a very delicate and very sweet scene and I think that was important, because it’s this kid discovering his homosexuality and it’s a very sexual scene but it’s also very tender. And I think that’s what I wanted to connect, because sometimes when we talk about sexuality, people who don’t understand what homosexuality is about, that scene is an interesting way to show that, because it is sexual, but it’s sweet and it’s something that shouldn’t be seen as a wrong thing, because it’s very natural and I think that scene sums that up.
What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
I think the tone. Because it’s like I said about the masturbation scene – you never know how it’s going to be. Not to be too clichéd. I think not going to the cliché was always my biggest worry, I guess. It was easy to be very clichéd, because it’s a coming-of-age movie, so we have a lot of references and there are a lot of movies that are like that. So just trying to bring something different to a genre that’s very well known.
Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to lose?
Yes, we did. We cut a lot of the grandmother’s scenes. She had a lot of scenes, but it didn’t work in the rhythm of the film. Sometimes they were very long scenes and we would be more interested in the relationship and the romance part and the grandmother would have [a long scene]. I liked the scenes, but they didn’t work. We had that and we had a scene that in the script was very interesting, but when we came to edit the film, it didn’t work. After they come from the lunar eclipse, when Leo goes into the house, his mother was sitting there in the dark, just waiting for him. And she doesn’t say anything, so he comes into the house, he walks by her, he doesn’t realise she’s there and he goes into his bedroom and then there’s the masturbation scene. So we cut that scene out because it was very weird, because we were so involved in the romance and then there was this weird scene about the mother waiting for him and then he would masturbate and we would know the mother was out there. I think there’s a few other scenes that we cut out. They’re going to be on the DVD.
Is the short film going to be on the DVD as well?
Yeah. We have the deleted scenes, the short movie and the Making Of – some scenes of them just goofing around on the set.
It would be interesting to have a scene of him going in and out of the blindness, so to speak…
Yeah! We don’t have that, but when you watch him in the Making Of, you will see how natural it is, you’ll see him when he’s not blind.
What’s your next project?
Right now, I’m just starting to work on new projects, I don’t know which one’s going to be my next project. I don’t have one specific one, but I’m working on projects mostly with gay characters, so probably that, but I don’t know which one exactly…
The Way He Looks is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.