Interview with Liliana Gonçalves – Writer, Producer and Director of “TURP”
We talked about the past, the present, and the future, her career in cinema and her ambitions, of the state of filmmaking in Portugal.
Her bright and light personality makes you believe that everything and anything is possible once you put your mind and hard work into it. A cinematographer by vocation and a director by accident, Liliana always watches the same movie twice. The first time, to analyze the cinematography technique, and the second time to pay attention to the story.
The 29-year-old from Peniche (a small seaside city 60 miles from Lisbon) is ready to take the film industry by storm, as long as the opportunities keep coming for her to seize them. Although I don’t think she’s afraid to carve her own path either.
How do you start to grow an interest in cinema and filmmaking?
“My parents tell me that ever since I was a little girl that I told them I wanted to work in filmmaking when I grew up. My mother used to tease me and tell me I was very good at acting up! [laughs]. My parents are very supportive of what I’m doing and extremely proud.”
So when do you decide to move from Peniche to Lisbon to pursue that dream?
“I was in High School when I decided to move here in 2008, to enroll in a three-year course in audiovisual techniques. Most people advised me against it, saying it was a step back because I had to start 10th grade again. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as a learning experience in the field I wanted to work in in the future. By the end of those three years, I had learned so much about the industry while working on my final project, from filming to marketing my film and to even designing my own website to promote my work.”
And what was your final project?
“[Smiles] I chose to film a promotional video for the Portuguese Armed Forces. Most of my family and friends are in the military, so I felt comfortable in that environment. I spent six months with the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force, and they were very pleased with the outcome. Once the work was done, I had to do a 480-hour internship, and I chose to stay with the Navy for three months. One of my assignments was to film a 12-day international military exercise aboard a warship. The first days were really tough, I was seasick all the time, and I even begged my father to send a helicopter to pick me up because I thought I wouldn’t make it. My father, who is in the Navy, told me I’d pull through, and I did. At first, I cried for staying there and, in the end, I cried because I had to leave [laughs].”
That was intense!
“It was! But turns out I wasn’t done with the military! After I finished this internship, the Army invited me to do an internship with them, but not related to the school anymore. They liked my previous work [the final project] and wanted me to do some more promotional films. I hated it at first! I worked like a robot, without any room for being creative, filming official ceremonies, and following orders of what angle they wanted me to shoot from. They realized I wasn’t having fun with it, so they invited me to do another assignment with the Special Ops instead. I’m still working with them today, spending time on the field, filming their exercises buried in mud up to my knees. And I couldn’t be happier! If I hadn’t chosen the film career and enjoyed Math, I would definitely enroll in the Military Academy. So now I have the best of both worlds.”
And then you enroll in the Film School at Lusófona?
“No, not immediately. I finished the other course in 2011 and took a gap year while working with the Army. But I knew I wanted to pursue cinema, especially cinematography.”
But you directed “TURP”? How do you go from cinematography to directing?
“That was a fortunate coincidence. All the projects I worked at in school were all linked to cinematography. But for the final year project, you have to direct your own short-film in five days, and I had already directed my own five-minute mini-short in the first year. One of the assignments in the first year was to write a short story that got good grades and reviews and was even published by the school. In the second semester, for the mini-short assignment, I decided to work on that story and bring it to film [it was like version 0 of “TURP”]. Unfortunately, I flunked that class. When I asked my teachers for feedback, one of them, Gonçalo Galvão Teles, told me the story was too good for a five-minute short film and that I should develop it further for my final year assignment.”
That is a great compliment! To have a big name in the Portuguese film industry to give you such credit!
“It was, although at that time I was so disappointed for flunking that I wanted to quit film school altogether, thinking that maybe it wasn’t for me after all. But he has been very supportive of my work as a student and saw the potential I couldn’t see at the time.”
So “TURP,” as we know it now, was slowly taking shape…
“Yes, I used the last two years to learn more and to tweak and develop the story. For the first time, the teachers had a final project built upon an idea that matured for three years. Usually, the students come up with ideas a few weeks before pitching. Sometimes they come up with ideas the night before! The teachers knew this story, and they would recognize it from that first attempt as a five-minute short film.”
But why is the story set up in Kosovo during the war? Has it anything to do with your military connection?
“I could make a film based on how the story became a story! [laughs] When I wrote the short story, a close friend of mine, who is in the military, was stationed in Afghanistan on a six-month mission. Despite the different time zones, we talked every day. I had a rough idea of how I wanted to write the story, but I needed Alexandre’s help to develop it. That is why the main character is called Aleksander. So, during those six months, we sort of co-wrote the story, and he was the one who came up with the idea that the setting should be the war in Kosovo.”
So, in a way, the war in Kosovo was recent enough to be remembered by everyone, but an event old enough to make sure most “wounds” were healed in a way…
“Yeah. Kosovo made sense for both of us. Although the character’s struggle has nothing to do with war. Aleksander’s story is my story. When I was 18, I had a breakdown, and I really hit rock bottom. What Aleksander goes through is what I went through during that time. Him losing his family is a metaphor for when I shut down and isolated myself from my own family. His pain is almost autobiographical.”
The story definitely had to be told. So now, from pitching the movie to the teachers to making it happen…
“When I pitched the idea for the film, the teachers recognized the story immediately. “Liliana’s story,” they told me. It couldn’t be done by anyone else. It was the first time anyone pitched a war film, and they were surprised it came from a girl! They weren’t expecting a girl wanting to write, produce and direct a war film! The teachers approved the project because they knew it was my story and that it deserved to be told, despite the production costs…”
What was the challenge with a period film like this when I assume you don’t have much of a budget to work with?
“[The biggest challenge was] to get the right uniforms and to get the right actors for the main roles. They couldn’t be big names because the school wouldn’t be able to afford them. Nonetheless, I got Miguel Nunes to play Aleksander and José Fidalgo to play the general! Miguel stars in a Portuguese film [“Letters from War”] that premiered at the 2016 Berlinale. I had a lot of support from the Army, so the production costs ended up being lower than we anticipated. Oh, and they all speak Serbian in the film, although all the actors were Portuguese! Some of the “actors” were actually my brother and my friend, Alexandre, who are in the Military… [laughs]”
Wait, you made a low-budget short film seem like a big production? Very detailed-oriented!
“Yeah, I didn’t want my film to be ordinary. I wanted the characters to stay true to the Serbian background, so I found a native Serbian speaker to teach the actors. I wanted people to feel like they were in Kosovo. Turp means shame in Albanian, and shame is what Aleksander feels for abandoning his family. That shame weighs on him because, in his mind, although he couldn’t do anything, he didn’t protect his family from being killed. […] I didn’t want to talk about the war, exactly. I wanted to talk about the character’s story and his struggle, and he happened to be there, in the middle of that war, at that time. It made sense that everything was tied together.”
This is a very personal film for you. How do you feel about having a co-director?
“[Francisco Neves] only became part of the project when we were ready to start shooting. All short films must have two directors. It’s a school policy. I don’t know the reasoning behind it. It was challenging to have someone working on my story without having a personal connection to it as I did. It was hard for me, at times, to convey the message to him of how I needed things to be done and not changed. This wasn’t just a story written by me. I am in the story. In the end, it worked out, but it was really challenging.”
And then the recognition came for a job well done.
“Yes, “TURP” was one of the two short films to win the Best Short Film Award at “Over and Out,” the festival the school puts together with all the student’s works from that year. It’s a very important event because some of the industry’s big names attend the festival and can recruit us for future projects. Then we participated in Fantasporto, for the Best Film School competition. I’d like to send my application to show the film at Cannes, the Berlinale, and for other two film festivals, one in Kosovo and one in Iraq… Right now, we’re remastering the sound, enriching the film with Balkan music too. It’s like a whole new film now!”
Spreading the word about your work wherever you can! Is it easy to find the proper funding and support?
“[Some of the teachers] told me that “TURP” will do great abroad but not so much in Portugal. The Portuguese expect a different kind of cinema, with less action, more “poetic.” Funding is complicated. Sometimes it seems like the film institutions only pay attention to us when we start making a name for ourselves, when we start winning some important awards. Then they show up more to recognize our work and not as much to encourage us to do our work, you know? A big name in film or a film with known actors is easier to fund than independent cinema, made by someone they never heard about.”
So how do you build up your portfolio beyond “TURP”?
“Well, sometimes we only hear of the opportunities when the work is already in progress. I think people in this industry [in Portugal] are afraid to lose their spot. They’re petty and small. It’s a shame because I believe there’s room for everyone to be creative. I don’t mind showing people my work and my portfolio. I don’t think it’s bragging. I think it’s simply showing what you’ve done. I recently filmed the making of “O Grande Circo Mistico,” [a Brazilian film] directed by Carlos Diegues. So, for four months, I had the chance to learn and work with that crew, had the opportunity to meet the actors Antônio Fagundes and Vincent Cassel. It was very cool!”
What do you see yourself working on in the future?
“Right now, I’m working on a project that I have to ask you not to reveal just yet. And after this, maybe film the sequel to a 15-minute documentary called “Luna” that I worked on last year. Luna is a trained war dog who will never become a pet once she retires because it would be too dangerous for the people around her. When she retires in two years, I want to film her again, sort of like the story of the forgotten warrior. Until then, I really want to work in cinematography. That is what I love doing, after all. Anything but working on television and writing. Although I love writing, I prefer to tell my stories visually, through cinematography.”
Okay, let’s say someone in the film industry calls you tomorrow to say, “Liliana, come work with me.” Who would that person be?
“[Sighs] That’s a difficult question! But, on the spot, without hesitating? Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer for “The Revenant.” I would leave everything behind to work with him in a heartbeat. He’s worked in such different films, with different stories, but his signature is always there, unmistakeably. When I watched the film, I was constantly thinking, “he shot all this in natural light, and he pulled it off!” A good cinematographer is not the one who sets up ten projectors, but the one who can work with what conditions they have! Oh, and I wouldn’t mind working with Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson; I’d learn a lot from them.”