Interview with Film Director and Cinematographer César Charlone

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Each image of César Charlone is a new point for thought and meditation.

César Charlone is an Uruguayan film director, cinematographer, and screenwriter, that lives in Brazil. In 2003, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on the highly acclaimed film City of God. In 2006 he was nominated for Best Photography at BAFTA Awards and Best Technical Achievement at British Independent Film Awards for his work on The Constant Gardener. In 2006 he was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2007, he directed his first feature film, The Pope’s Toilet, which was selected by Uruguay as its official submission for the 80th Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. With his harmonious and respectful cinematography of human beings, César Charlone makes viewers travel through space and time. His images immerse watchers in an atmosphere that he creates specifically to convey an intimate and human connection with the protagonists of the story. César capturing the corners of the narrative highlights the human being and his deepest condition in all the smallest aspects, to transport viewers into the historical and emotional reality. Photography in every single frame takes on and underlines intensity and meaning, in such a way as to lead watchers to ask themselves crucial questions. Through daily thoughts, choices, and gestures, significant changes for an inner revolution can be gradually seen. In this interview, César shares with us his beginnings, some significant memories of his career, his motivations, and the passion that led him to excel in his profession.

Original Interview with César Charlone in Spanish

I read that you started studying veterinary medicine in Uruguay before starting your adventure in the world of cinema. What motivated you?

I attended a traditional school, where all my classmates came from traditional families, and then art was seen as a secondary thing as an alternative thing, especially in a country like Uruguay, where art was consumed, but it was seen as a parallel thing. To give an example, my father ran a theatre, but had a job in the tax area, as a public employee. His passion was theatre! But he lived off his salary as a prosecutor. So, I never thought that cinema could be considered a job. In that traditional school, all my friends and fellow students had chosen careers such as law, economics, architecture, and agronomy. Agronomy, mainly because Uruguay is a rural country and in the school, I went to, most were children of landowners, breeders, wealthy people. So I followed the current. But I had this passion for photography. Obviously, I considered it a hobby, a minor thing. And at a certain moment, it was the time of the hippies and all that. And I stopped studying for a half hippy trip to Brazil for two months, taking pictures and having fun, etc. In one of those places where I arrived there was a boy photographer, like me, who was studying cinema. And I said “How amazing to study cinema! To do what next? ” “Well, to work, to direct the films!” How wonderful and beautiful! And my head opened there, and obviously yes, it could be a profession. I was very young, very naive, very childish, so I got interested and I wanted to try. A director of a school in which this guy was going to offered me a 3 month introductory film course.

It was during the summer and at that time I had no lessons at the faculty. So I did the 3-month course: I loved it. “This is what I want to do!” So I went back to Uruguay, I closed with the veterinary school and I did all the bureaucratic part of the revalidation of exams and everything and then I moved to Brazil to study cinema, a 4-year training that I imagined, would have brought me, finished the school, to return to Uruguay and make films in Uruguay. I wanted to make a revolutionary cinema that can make people aware of a better society. But during the film study process, the dictatorship came to Uruguay. My friends started going to prison or disappearing or leaving the country and then when I finished the film school, 4 years later, Uruguay was in a full dictatorship, 1974, there was no reason to go back to Uruguay. So I started working in Brazil, I started to stay in Brazil and I got engaged and I started having friends and I got passionate about Brazil and from there I stayed and stayed there, and there it ended up not going back to Uruguay to do the revolution.

Two Popes Cesar Charlone
César Charlone during filming ‘The Two Popes”

Who were the authors and artists who impressed you the most?

As I said, I thought of cinema as a weapon of awareness. So I was fascinated by documentaries and before coming to Brazil, I attended a film club that broadcast many political documentaries, including George Stevens, which I loved. Fernando Solanas, Santiago Álvarez, all documentary directors and people involved in political cinema. And all independent Latin American cinema.

Those were my idols at that time.

You are a filmmaker and you also work as a director and screenwriter. What were the greatest satisfactions and challenges in these roles?

I was part of the decade of the generation of ’68, at that time we were all filmmakers for the cinema. The separation of the cinematographer was not so great: we all made cinema, in fact, the school where I studied, I received the qualification as director. I became a director of photography for survival because I had to work to pay for my life, as a newly arrived 24-year-old foreigner would not have gotten and they wouldn’t have given me a job as a director. So I started out in commercial cinema as an assistant camera, and later became director of photography for survival. In parallel, I carried out my directing projects, I worked to earn money, doing commercial jobs, and with the money I earned, I made political cinema. For example, I made a film in 1979 when I went to Europe. After film school, I visited Europe to try to specialize and learn a little more, and everything. Well, I lived in Europe as the typical Latin American student who works in the black, does the dishes, does things and in parallel, I attended the cinematographic circles and I tried to enrich my cinematographic culture with the dictatorship in Latin America been very limited.

So I made my first film “Y Cuando Sea Grande” and it was a film that I made “clandestinely” because there was the dictatorship and its purpose was to denounce the crimes of the dictatorship. So I didn’t sign it, the film has no credit because it was very dangerous at the time. It was a widely used film. I made it as a director and as a producer, practically alone. As I said I was working in the big commercial cinema, so I said to the owners of the production house “Don’t pay me the cache, develop the negative of this film that I’m filming or pay me the cost of rent for the camera” And so I did the films with this policy. And this film titled “Y Cuando Sea Grande”, which denounces the kidnappings of missing children in the southern cone was the typical material that was used in Europe at that time with Amnesty International and with all agencies to report the crimes of the Latin American dictatorship. I continued to work, for example, also as a photographer, as a co-producer, as a director in the films of trade union movements and all political affairs, and in parallel, I was doing this commercial work, which paid me very well. He led this double life: the life of a militant and the life of a “prostitute” soap seller.

Can you tell us about your experience in the film Ciudad de Dios? Was everything planned in advance or did some things change during filming? Did you have unexpected moments or difficulties during the making of this film that has become a new point of view?

Attention one thing: always, always improvise. Always prepare a lot. You prepare a lot. Basically, I worked a lot with Fernando, the director, on how the film would have been, and we worked with the team, we worked months before analyzing the script, understanding the characters, understanding the locations during the meetings with the artistic director and looking for many months before. In a meeting with Fernando casually here at my house, Fernando told me “César, I’m worried that the viewer can follow this screenplay “in the chaotic common sense” that goes back and forth. I am worried that the viewer is aware of what time and moment we speak. If we are talking about the past or the present. So it’s important that you help me” Fernando told me “creating 3 very different photographic styles. A style for the 60s from when everything starts” what Fernando called naive crime and that he said he thought it might be like a very naive Spaghetti Western, so we used this reference. For example, in Ciudad de Dios the assault, which appears at the beginning, on the gas truck, the way we filmed, seems to be the persecution by the cowboys of the wagons as in the FarWest films.

Well, naive and innocent. And the photographic tone is the earth tone of something that is beginning, of something uterine, almost sanguine. After the second era, the 70s, are the hippy and psychedelic era and therefore the colors were psychedelic they were all exaggerated, very colorful. Then comes the third epoch, which is that of the 1980s. When the heavy drug years come, there is a photograph that becomes heavy, becomes almost black and white, bluish, it is much more dramatic with a much more nervous camera. In short, all these are ideas that we came up with by discussing with Fernando in a continuous conversation and I proposed, he asked me, he suggested to me.

city-of-god poster
César Charlone began his long collaborative career with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles in 2002 with the City of God.

I’ll tell you a very funny anecdote. I often work with Fernando. Suddenly we are seeing something and I say “That idea that you had to make the film like that!” Fernando told me “But the idea was yours!” Because they are collective, you don’t know who belongs. One goes in search and the other continues, and the other continues and suddenly you have come to something that is the product of this collective thinking. In this process, I am very, very obsessive in preparing myself, taking pictures, and trying out shots and seeing how it looks projected on the screen and showing it to Fernando. I try to go on set with the thing, as controlled and chewed as possible.

So when we go to the set I already know very well what I will do. But if suddenly something very interesting happened, swiftly improvise. When you are so aware of the story you want to tell, you improvise it. For example, during the filming of Ciudad de Dios, the chicken that passes under the truck and runs away is an improvised, unplanned thing. The idea was that the chicken would come towards the camera, that the chicken in the middle of the road, and the police truck that came would come towards the camera. But it didn’t happen, the chicken went under and ran away, we followed the chicken. You see, quite suddenly, unexpectedly a small accident arises, something that was not foreseen, and you think, “This is better than what I had planned for the story.” And we joke a lot, none of us are a Catholic believer or something like that, but we joke about God. Let’s say that God is more creative than we are. Because He always surprises you with things you haven’t thought about and unexpectedly are super creative.

If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.” – City of God

In fact, for example, when we shot the movie Blindness, we had a small budget for cameras and therefore I had a small ATOM minima camera. So we were two camera operators and we had two professional cameras. I used one, and the Canadian operator the other. So I put in the third camera a negative and I placed it somewhere pointing towards the scene without fixing the scene frame or anything. This is God’s point of view: whatever it is! And strange things always appeared, such as unexpectedly scenes with characters with their heads cut off a piece of the picture, and in many cases, the editor used the images because they were unusual. After all, they were different. So planning is very important, but it’s also very important, not to be closed in this planning and to accept the sudden, to accept the unexpected.

After the film Ciudad de Dios, there were documentaries following this project. What did this experience have left to you from a professional and human point of view?

I remember that when we were filming Ciudad de Dios, Walter Salles, who was the producer, in the beginning, visited us on the set. He said “That wonderful that you are shooting this movie. This film was to be shot!” That reality had to be told because people in Brazil live very isolated from that reality and without knowing it, not understanding that it exists behind the environments that hide the outdoors, there are the favelas in which live in this other Brazil. This is our own reality that you don’t have in Europe, but here we have two countries. There is a beautiful song by Aldir Blanc, who died recently of coronavirus. The text says that “Brazil does not know Brasil.” And the first one is written with the zeta as it is written in English, and it refers to the one where I live, the rich and privileged Brazil. But there is the other Brasil, where the vast majority of people live in poverty and in ignorance. And this must be fought to end this prejudice and this distance. For example, if you see a photo of Brazilian people participating in the Cannes festival, you will see that they are all white with faces of Italian, Spanish, Latin American, and Portuguese origin. But if you see the Brazilians on the football team, pass me that they are most of the mulattoes. And why are they two different races? Because they are two different Brazil! So this was the idea, to tell to Brazil, where I live, that there is another Brasil that we don’t know about.

I’ll tell you a personal anecdote. I never liked bringing my family to the set of the film, it doesn’t seem important to me, but when we shot Ciudad de Dios I wanted my children to be on the set, and not only that but that they would work. They were small, but they worked as runners, as beginners, assistants, in order to have that experience to know Brazil. Because obviously, they are my children, they go to a private school that I pay and study English and I offer them the opportunity to travel to Europe and I give them the best I can give them. But here is another Brazil that has nothing else. And therefore it is important to know him and work to improve this injustice. So this film contributed to this: helping to show Brazil this other Brazil.

In 3%, which you directed, the series explores human emotional possibilities concerning technology. The language of science fiction is now increasingly used to expose and understand the possible advantages or problems that society could face. What do you expect the audience to understand about this series?

There was a maxim that said, “Paint your village and you will paint the world”. That was a very Brazilian problem because in Brazil there is what is called the vestibular exam. This is something that marks Brazilian society a lot. When the youngster finishes school, they must take an exam to get a chance to enter college. Only a minimum number, like 3%, could enter the faculty. And anyone who enters the faculty and getting this into this progress can have access to everything. And the others don’t. So it’s a portrait of that reality, in which we have placed too many expectations, in who has a university degree and who we devalue, who has the ability to do something else. There is like a mystification of the person with a degree. Of course, it is important that people are qualified.

3% netflix brazil tv series
3% Brazilian tv series created by Pedro Aguilera for Netflix


Of course, it’s important for someone to have own profession and know everything about it and to excel in that profession. But sometimes we have to be more tolerant, and understand that society is made up of many areas: someone is needed to clean the road, someone is needed to cut trees, someone is needed to fix the tubes. So this is a small example of this mystification about this 3% who believe they are reaching the perfect world, which is not perfect at all. But very imperfect. And it also has a lot to do with the rite of passage of young individuals who, stimulated by the adult, to get into adulthood “Now you are ready to enter and you will be able to work, and you will be able to get married”.

And the fact that we ritualize this passage a lot. When instead I tell you that it’s a much more natural thing, a much more continuous thing. Okay so! The young persons got married and started working. But you don’t have to create so many expectations. For example, I heard that in Korea there is such a thing, a city that stops when students undergo the exam because exams are very important for young who are getting to university. So there is a question to claim: Is this passage important and coherent with that world we are proposing to young people or should we reconsider it?

3% netflix brazil tv series
3% Brazilian tv series created by Pedro Aguilera for Netflix

I think all the messages are quite evident to us. I only participated in the first season of the series. My deal with Netflix was that I would create the first season, the direction of the first season, and then it would continue on its own. And when I made the first one, the second one wasn’t written yet. But I think people have understood this, especially in Latin America, where we have those two worlds: the world of the privileged, where there are those false assessments of meritocracy and which is an unjust meritocracy. What merit can have a young who studied in a private school, who traveled, compared to the merit of a young who had to go to work from an early age because his father was hungry and all the rest? So these meritocracies must be questioned, they must be analyzed in the light of reality in the light of history.

We are not all racing on equal terms. It’s not a race where we all start from the same spot. There must be a position as protection and social reconciliation. For example, I support Affirmative Action policy for black people. Because, for example, I think that we, as I said before, have been very unfair with the blacks here. From slaves, we have made them slaves again. So the corrections to that injustice must continue. So it seemed to me that 3% proposed it a little.

In the photography of the film The Two Popes we find the simplicity of portraying the two figures in their human dimension, but the refinement of the details, which also underlines a religious and sacred mission. Can you share significant stories or memories with us from the set?

I reconnect with what you said about very simple photography. One thing that was clear to us, and it was very clear to me, is that the two main characters are huge actors, and the text was very important, and they had to be more important than any photographic image. So it was really necessary, that everything was very natural, that I illuminated them fairly and so I didn’t look for any kind of artificial refinement, those classic things of the lighting of church films, where there are those rays of light that mark with chiaroscuro and all the rest. So a very linear photograph was needed. Plana as a synonym of the true, synonym of authenticity. That it had no apparent artifice. So in this way, I left everything much more exposed. Exposed in such a way that the viewer believed that is true and recognized it as true.

los directores de Arte Mark y Enzo ven la maqueta de la Capilla Sixtina
Art directors Mark and Enzo see the model of the Sistine Chapel. Netflix recreated Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in less than 10 weeks after the Vatican denied access to film the movie.

So I started working from there and in one of these meetings with Fernando I say “Fernando, I can’t add shadows, to these actors”. The typical light that is made from the side and that leaves the face shaded. “I can’t do it. Here it needs a flat light, a light where every little wrinkle of the face is clearly, seen in every detail, every little gesture. Because they are two monstrous actors that I want to see 100%. So if you see a contemporary film, many things are dark, the characters come out of the darkness. Not here. Here they must be seen clearly, because one is exposing himself to the other. He was opening his heart by telling his truth. So he had to be very bright, very linear, very evident on the face. This was the initial proposal, and then it was my happiness, when I visited the Sestina Chapel and carefully observing I saw that all the paintings of the Renaissance and that Michelangelo himself created a very level light. They didn’t create the typical dark light of Caravaggio or Rembrandt. The important thing was the shape and the colors. So I said “Now, Michelangelo will be my reference!” And I used Michelangelo as a reference to “copy” what I was doing. This was the idea of ​​that photography: as authentic as possible, as true as possible and not contemplative.

Two Popes 1
César Charlone during filming ‘The Two Popes”. Adapted from Anthony McCarten’s 2017 play The Pope, The Two Papes tells of a conservative between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and future successor Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce)

Do you wonder how the two popes have reacted to the creative choices? Do you know if they saw the film and what they think about it?

A curiosity, right! The desire to see the film with them and see what they say. We have no idea, if they have seen it, we have never received any comments or anything else. I am very curious. I don’t know if Netflix knows. No news has come to me. Fernando never said anything to me, I don’t know. But I’m very curious. I think Francisco, Bergoglio, can be quite satisfied and that Ratzinger may have questions.

But that’s just my impression.

Preparando Para Filmar la Prison del Padre Yalics
Preparing To Film Father Yalics Prison

Analog and digital, from your beginnings until now, technology has changed a lot, but also the ways of communicating, dialoguing, and telling stories. What do you think are the biggest advantages and limitations?

What digital has come to do is democratize. It’s the most incredible democratization you can imagine. Every young person, who has a little money, what I had when I finished school, can buy a small digital camera or with a personal mobile phone, can make a movie and upload it to YouTube and be seen by a million people. This is wonderful. It’s the largest democratization ever seen. When I finished film school, it was very expensive to make a film. In fact, I finished it without having filmed anything important. I had had a little experience with a camera that had been lent me one day, as a big favor, but I couldn’t make a film because it needed a structure. It was very expensive to buy the film, to rent the camera. Well, I already told you that to make this political film I had to make many commercials and pay the film making advertising. So it was very difficult. Today in a day with a mobile phone you have a great definition of the image and you can upload it to YouTube or upload it to a website you want and many people can see your work. It’s democratization. And well there is the theme of YouTubers and everything they show and speak about us also as humanity. What we like, what we don’t like. We are not soo healthy, because I see that what we like is quite foolish, but it is what we are and will do.

city-of-god
When organizing the shooting of Ciudad de Dios, the film team had to ask for the collaboration of the head person of a favela to be able to film. He authorized the making of the film on the condition that most of the actors were hired among the living people of the favela. That makes the story acquires greater credibility and the film then becomes a great cinematographic work of Neorealism.

I am very happy with the digital. I think digital has opened up a lot in my profession. We have cameras that operate miracles. They work and film with such unfavorable and very difficult light conditions that it was necessary to illuminate so much and put so much light and measure so many things, in the past. Today with the digital camera, for example in Los dos Papas, which is a high-budget film, there are scenes that I shot with my personal camera that cost $ 700 and I ended up using them in the film. I showed them to Fernando and he said “Let’s use these! Yes, yes!” They used them, as Netflix has a policy that if you make the movie 90% in 4K, as they ask you, and you have to use some scenes that are not in 4K, if they accept them, perfect, go ahead. So I tell you and I confess that if I had to start my career again and have many years ahead, I would do more things because digital is very advantageous. And the price of the cameras! In the past, having two or more cameras was a sophistication that sometimes happened when you had an action scene. In Cities of God on some occasions, we used two cameras. Nowadays there are many digital cameras, you use three, four, five, the more cameras you want, the better. The more material you have, the more plentiful and rich the editing will be. So it’s wonderful. Welcome digital!

In recent years we have listened to opinions on the change in the world of the business of cinema that does not do justice to the art. What is your opinion about this theme?

My opinion is that I love the human being. I believe a lot in the human being, despite the fact that many of them know how to be a bit boring especially in the selections made on YouTube, but we are growing, learning and we know how to choose. So if there is a film that is in a cinema, I want to see it on the big screen, I will go to see it. In the cinema, the film is never boring. The creation and the art continues to exist, there are wonderful movies and I will see them and I’m not saying that I want to watch them at home on YouTube, no, I go because I love the theater, and everything else. So I believe, and I see it for my 24-year-old daughter. She the new generation and she sees many things and videos on YouTube on her computer, but many times she chooses “I want to see this in the cinema”. And she goes to the cinema to see it.

So I don’t believe in those apocalyptic predictions that “Here it’s over!” there will always be people who want to see movies on the big screen and who want to see them with many people. For example, now in the pandemic, it follows that we all enjoying movies. It’s wonderful! It’s the truth we are seeing. The important thing about cinema is not the size of the screen, it’s the content of the story being told, it’s what is shown, its content. Well, I tell you that who is speaking to you is a person who has spent his life watching movies in a viewfinder of the camera of about 3 square centimeters. And there I saw the movies while I was shooting them and I was thrilled and I felt them. So the size of the screen and the size of the place don’t matter … Obviously, they matter, it’s better to see it on a big screen, but if the story is good, and you see it on the mobile phone in the subway it will thrill and touch you and that’s what matters.

Photo courtesy of César Charlone

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