2018 is a World Cup year, so it is only to be expected that football-themed films will proliferate. None, however, are likely to be anywhere near as deliriously idiosyncratic as Diamantino, a film which, with its giant puppy dogs, clouds of pink dust, evil twin sisters, undercover spies dressed as refugee children, and a preening, vapid, media-hungry Portuguese striker with slicked back hair, diamond-stud earring and steely pecs (not to mention sublime footballing skill), was one of the most visually and narratively inventive films playing at this year’s Cannes film festival, duly picking up the Critics Week prize. Only 34 years of age, the filmmaking duo of Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt have already become a fixture on the festival circuit. After collaborating on a series of shorts, including A History of Mutual Respect (2010) and Palaces of Pity (2011), Diamantino is their first feature together. But from the very first images of the film, as the titular centre-forward, wearing his famous 00 shirt in the blue and white colours of Portugal (sic!), prepares to lead his country to World Cup glory, the viewer is primed for a spectacularly surreal journey into the heart of football, celebrity culture and far-right politics in the contemporary era.
DF: So you guys made a social-realist documentary about the day-to-day life of the modern day footballer.
DS: Yeah, we burrowed into the team. We were doing undercover research for a year.
DF: And there’s no real-life player that the character of Diamantino is based on, right? Let’s just exclude that idea right from the start.
DS: Absolutely not.
DF: So where did this idea come from? Are you football fans?
GA: I used to play when I was a kid, if you can call what I did playing, which was standing in the middle of the field with my hands on my hips, just looking. I’ve always loved football since I was a kid, but I’m not a fanatic. I don’t know which players are traded when. But I love watching the spectacle of it.
DS: Yeah, the spectacle is great, for sure. I also played a little bit, in high school, although I was terrible. But I love watching the game, and it’s very easy for me to start rooting for a team even though I have no credibility to do so, like “Go Costa Rica!” But no, we don’t follow it closely.
DF: You do get an amazing sense for the spectacle of the game in the film. How did you even shoot those stadium scenes, which look like they would have cost you 90% of the film’s budget?
GA: We shot a real game, and I shot it from certain angles. Some on the grass where I know we would put the actor, Carloto, in front a green screen, to use the background plates as the audience, and then from a certain angle with the top shots where all you have to do is replace the grass, so you cut out the grass from one stadium and you put in the other stadium where you put your players, and then the audience is from the real game that had real players (who we cut out). So it’s some sort of bricolage, like the poor man’s way of getting those images. But the film Zidane by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Pareno was a real inspiration for getting those images.
DF: Yeah, I felt that the opening sequence of the film was very redolent of Zidane. That said, with the possible exception of Zidane there are very few good films about football. So you guys have cracked the curse.
GA: It’s hard to make sports films. And we wish we did a little bit better at showing his genius on the field, not just in his mind, but the way he is actually an awesome player in reality. But it’s so hard to replicate that because so much of the excitement is seeing someone do something live. Whenever it’s choreographed, even in these big Hollywood sports movies…
DF: It looks fake.
GA: Even when it doesn’t look fake! Some of them have got pretty good at making it not look fake, but it’s just not exciting. You don’t have any drama.
DF: Can you tell us a little bit about the background of the actor?
GA: I’ve worked with Carloto on three or four shorts, and we know him from Miguel Gomes’s films, from Tabu, where he played the main love interest for Ana Moreira. He was also in 1001 Nights, as Paddleman, this blond guy who makes a few jokes. And then he’s also in The Face that you Deserve. So he’s done a bunch of Gomes films, and then some Eugene Green, and a lot of Portuguese films. He’s quite well-known in Portugal, on TV, etc., and I find him totally brilliant. In one of my films he plays a corpse, and even as a corpse he was the most inventive actor, out of a cast of twenty, which was insane. So that was the starting point. Once we knew we were shooting in Portugal, we were like, “Let’s make something for Carloto.” We wrote it for him.
DF: The resemblance he has to a certain player who will go unnamed is quite striking.
GA: Yeah, I mean he was eating almonds for two months, he got his ears pierced. He was working out with a personal trainer every day.
DS: I think doing that also changed his mind, because when you lose weight so fast and build muscles so fast (I don’t know, I’ve never done it), I think it really alters your daily psychology.
GA: And he is a method actor, which is funny for us, because in all of our earlier films we always had this Bressonian distance, where the actors are automatons or models as he called them. And with this one we really wanted to change course, and Carloto is really the reason why it happened. You joked that it was a social-realist film, and if there is any of that, then I think it’s in the politics, because our propaganda ad we copied a real Brexit ad, so there’s that, but then also Carloto really did try to become his character.
DF: There’s still a very parodic or burlesque element to his performance.
GA: For sure, I think he references Tati a lot, he loves Tati’s movements, or Buster Keaton.
DS: And he assumed a very, very exaggerated accent from the Azores.
DF: I didn’t pick up on that.
GA: Yeah, his personal trainer was from the Azores and he was like, “I’ve got an idea.” And so he puts on an Azorean accent, and he was like, “Is it too much?” But we were like, “It’s great!”
DF: So you undoubtedly get asked this question all the time, but I have to ask it. The idea for the giant puppies: what trippy haze did that image descend from?
GA: We were lying in the production office, there were a bunch of people working, Daniel was lying on the ground, and we were just discussing how to show this brilliant inner vision that this guy has, but that’s also loveable. And so we thought up this silly, stupid thing. And we also love shooting animals. In our other films we have a dog who’s a lawyer, and a little goat who’s a main character. We really love filming animals, so it made sense.
DS: Yeah, and when we don’t manage to put animals in a film, we really regret it. We look back and ask, “Why are there not more animals?”
GA: But Daniel wanted it to be piglets.
DF: Piglets? So were puppies easier to wrangle?
GA: Exactly, I think they were cheaper.
DS: They were just available. The owner who brought the dogs to set, to the green screen, he brought seven of them, but he had twenty more of them at home. And I think his livelihood is owning these Pekinese dogs, grooming them and preening them. And they all had distinct names.
GA: He was spritzing them in the green screen so they would smell good. And they were sneezing and peeing all over the place.
DF: Even though it’s a crazy image, there’s something about it that still rings true in some sense, because a lot of footballers say that when they’re on the field, they’re kind of in their own world, and they block everything else out. So they very well could be prancing around in a cloud of pink smoke filled with giant puppy dogs.
GA: A lot of athletes talk about the fugue state or the trance state of becoming one with nature, when they’re doing something. The guy who broke the 4-minute mile, Roger Bannister, talks about entering into a fugue state, where he lost track of where his legs separated from the ground, and he became one with nature. I always found that very memorable.
DF: A lot of footballers say that about the ball, that they feel like they merge with the ball, it just becomes an appendage of their own body.
GA: David Foster Wallace was a big inspiration for us, and there’s two texts that he wrote, “Roger Federer as religious experience” and “How Tracey Austin broke my heart” that have a lot of the ideas that inspired the film. And with Tracey Austin he talks a lot about the emptiness inside her head, and that’s what allowed her to play tennis so well. And that was one of the starting points for our film. And he also talks about Roger Federer, and how Rafael Nadal once came up to him and said, “Other players see a tennis ball, but with you it’s so clear, it’s like you’re playing with a beach ball.” You know, this very slow, flying thing. It’s like he has access to a different reality.
DF: That’s a good segue into something else I wanted to ask, which is that you have this parody of this footballer’s world, which is a very low-culture, pop-culture universe, but then you also have these constant references to Greek mythology and drama, particularly with the commentator exclaiming “This is like a Greek tragedy!”. And Gabriel, I know you made an earlier short film based on Aristophanes’ The Birds. So what was the intended effect of having these references to Daedalus, the Phoenix, Zeus, etc.?
GA: This is how we see soccer, or sports. Our interest in it is that it is the Dionysian stage of 2018. It’s where you have masses of people who enter into a communal trance state of catharsis, when their favourite player gets injured and can’t play anymore, or misses a penalty in the last minute, or when Zidane head-buts Matterazzi. They’re these epic, tragic moments. We’re omnivores, we like all sorts of culture, from pop culture to auteur cinema, to experimental or underground cinema, to fairytales, to Ancient Greek theatre. We enjoy a huge variety of cultural objects. I was very interested in Ancient Greece, with these very forward-thinking and experimental works that were popular. How can you have this festival, this Dionysian thing where people were gathered together, drinking wine, and seeing avant-garde work and crying or laughing en masse.
DF: In the modern era the two mass arts have been football and cinema. So is this a way of commenting on cinema as well? Certainly cinema in an earlier period of its existence.
GA: Yeah, now it would be Netflix. Or what do you think?
DS: I think our early interest in cinema comes from, well, watching Hollywood as children, but even as we started to get older, it was this fascination with the spectacle that was the early DNA of the cinema – the train coming into the station, or the waves on the shore. So I think we’ve always taken as an a priori, “Let’s show spectacle” – both questioning it but also revelling in the pleasure of it. And so all of our films try to have these elements where we’re both drawing on things that might be sublime and epic and beautiful, but also abject, and pop and low, and whatever, and trying to call this distinction into question and subvert it. I think that Hollywood unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) does a good job of re-orienting its own codes. Obviously it does a lot of damage as well, but it’s interesting how it sort of cannibalises itself. So we look at Hollywood a lot, and I think that sports operate in a different way. Again, the film really takes this on, not just cinema as pop culture, and its codes and mediums, nor sports, but all the major issues of the 21st century, or as many of them that we could fit into a 90-minute viewable film. I think we were interested in that collision, that overwhelming feeling of too many images, too much spectacle. We live in a world of non-stop, unending spectacle. The question is what do we propose in the face of all that, and our idea was this sort of naïve icon who has this openness and innocence and tenderness towards everything that’s swirling around him and through him.
DF: What I find really interesting in your work is that you introduce these pop culture elements, but they’re always given this highly aestheticised treatment. There were moments in this film, possibly because of the music, which reminded me of the ending of Beau Travail by Claire Denis, where Denis Lavant is dancing in the night club to “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona, and it’s such a trashy song, but the scene is so sublime.
DS: I so disagree. it’s a beautiful song.
DF: It is a beautiful song, but what Denis does with that song is, in a way, transcendental. And without sounding too grandiose, there are moments in your film where you do the same kind of thing.
GA: We really want to elevate the low and denigrate the high, have that inversion and that difference of perspective. I think that’s an aspect that we’re attracted to instinctively, but also morally we buy into that ideology that high culture does function as low culture and low culture does function as high culture.
DF: I should ask about the political elements of the film: the presence of refugees, the far-right movement, the surveillance state that is monitoring Diamantino’s life. What does this all add up to?
DS: Well, we’re scared.
GA: We’re scared for sure. I think like everybody we are reacting very emotionally to what’s going on in the world right now. I do get freaked out when I read the news. And we’ve always wanted to make films that talk about what’s going on. We don’t want to make films that are removed or in some sort of bubble. But the politics of the film are quite light in a certain way, they’re playful and we’re not sticking it to the far-right movement. There’s a good parody of it, which might be funny. But I think it all adds on itself, and the moment that I find the most political in the film is the beach scene in the end, where you see Diamantino’s acceptance of his new body and basically this mentality which is almost an example where Diamantino, the fool, the guy who doesn’t even know what refugees are, he’s the one who has enough lack of stereotypes, enough openness to ambiguity and to new forms of being, new ways of having a body, new ways of loving, that he embraces his new body. So there’s all these swirling elements of political pressure: the refugees and his sensitivity to that, the far-right movement that’s manipulating him, the cloning, and he deals with that like Voltaire’s Candide, he’s always trying to see the positive side of things. And at the end he doesn’t learn the lesson of Candide, that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but he learns that ambiguity is the way forward.
DF: So there is a learning process for Diamantino.
GA: I think so, yeah. I think since the beginning of the film he knows it. We don’t know it as spectators, but at the end of the film we see an example of how he lives his life.
DF: Is this a lesson for the spectator too, that we should perhaps not be so scathing towards these icons of modern day celebrity culture (footballers, pop musicians, and so on), that appearances can deceive?
GA: I think for sure. They suffer a lot. I mean they’re rich, they might be assholes, they might be doing stupid stuff as we all do. But it was really important for us to have a mythological hero, not somebody that we were tearing down. We had no interest in tearing down a dumb soccer player, we wanted to elevate a dumb soccer player to the level of a Michelangeloesque sublime.
DF: One last question, how do you work together as two filmmakers rather than one? Obviously you’re make your own films, but is there a different dynamic when you come together?
DS: For sure, yeah.
GA: I’m much more scared when I’m alone, and I think I risk less. And all my scripts I send to Daniel, the ones I’m not doing with him, and he always gives me the best feedback. So even when we’re not working together we have input. But we do everything together.
DS: When I work with other people on other projects I feel like I’m more involved with the production side, and trying to encapsulate the big ideas to make sure that everything sticks together. With Gabriel the dynamic is little bit inverted: he’s often doing more of the production heavy work, and I can focus more on the details. But again it’s something that switches and ebbs and flows even over a single project.
GA: A good example is the way we edited A History of Mutual Respect. I think I did a first rough edit that was very bad, I sent it to Daniel and he edited it, and then he sent it back to me and I edited it a bit more. And we did this interview for Cahiers, where I gave him questions and he gave me questions, then we re-did our questions, and we re-did each other’s answers. In the end it should have had “Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes” for each response because it’s basically a formality, we put the text together and it was a just a structure to hold it in. But we have this back and forth that is really energising. And for me, what I can tell more and more, is that the riskiest, funniest things that I am willing to do is because Daniel suggests them and I say let’s go for it, and I give him the confidence, or I pitch him my idea and he gives me the confidence to do it. Whereas if I’m alone and he doesn’t respond to my script or whatever then maybe I’ll cut something because I find it too dumb and I’m scared to keep it in.
DF: So you guys embolden each other in your filmmaking.
GA: For sure.
DF: Do you look to other filmmaking duos as a model in any way, like Straub/Huillet or Godard/Gorin?
GA: I mean we love their films, like Straub/Huillet is amazing. And I heard that Frémaux did a one-year thing for the Lumière where he invited all the brother duos to come watch the Lumière films. But Daniel works with Alex Carver, and I’ve worked with Benjamin Crotty and a few other filmmakers. So I think we saw ourselves more as a collective of people who are working on things. And obviously that’s changed, since with Daniel it’s a deeper relationship: we’ve done one short, one longer film and now this feature. So it’s been a more extensive collaboration than I’ve had with anyone else. But it’s based on friendship. It’s not a brand.
DF: But you’re talking about a constellation of young filmmakers who are all coming into contact with each other.
DS: Yeah. There are others, like Ben Russell or Mati Diop, who are good friends of ours, and even if they make films that are different in some sort of complexion to ours, it ends up being a supportive and emboldening community where we’re able to exchange ideas. But I think it just happened somewhat organically. There’s not a recipe for it.