Soon Sandro learns the rules of survival in the streets, meets his first girlfriend and—although he hasn’t learned how to read and write—he dreams of becoming a famous rapper. Marisa, returns to her community to look for her son when she hears about the death of the drug lord. There, she learns that everybody was killed except for her son, who’s escaped. Soon, Sandro and Alessandro meet, first on the streets and later in an institution for juvenile delinquents. By chance, Marisa finds Sandro and believes he’s the lost son she’s searched for. A moving and strong relationship begins between these two orphans—she of a son, and he of a mother—culminating in a tragic outcome in June of 2000 that was broadcasted live for 6 hours, stopping the whole country of Brazil.
With 18 feature films, Bruno Barreto is one of the Brazil’s most successful directors. He directed his first film, Tati, in 1972 at the age of 17, followed by A Estrela Sobe (A Star Rises) and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the biggest box office hit of all time in Brazilian cinema, with more than 12 million tickets sold. Since 1990, Bruno Barreto has divided his career between Brazil and the United States, where he did 6 feature lengths with such major movie stars as Robert Duvall, Andy Garcia, Kevin Spacey and Amy Irving in A Show of Force; Dennis Hopper and Amy Irving in Carried Away; and Gwyneth Paltrow and Mike Myers in View from the Top . In 2006, Bruno Barreto directed the Brazilian production of the 2005 Pulitzer and Tony winner play “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you come up with the idea of making this film?
Bruno Barreto: Well, when I saw Jose Padilha’s documentary, “Bus 174”, I was very intrigued by a woman who adopted Sandro, the boy on the bus, as her child. Why would she want a juvenile delinquent to be her son? The way she treated him, it seemed like she thought he was her true son. The documentary does not say more than what I just said, it just focuses on him. I thought, ‘God, this does not stand up, if this was a fictional story, this would be a flaw.’ I went to speak with Jose Padilha, and he told me that the story of this woman could be another documentary in itself. So, when he told me her story, which is very similar to the story in the film—although she did not lose her son that way—she was never really sure who the father was, she was a drug addict. But to lose her son was the best and worst thing that could happen to her. The worst because of course it is awful for a mother to lose her son, but the best because it made her clean up her act. Her son then became her reason to live. I thought that there is a great story here; a mother who loses a son, a son who loses a mother, and then their lives cross. She thinks he is her real son, and he ends up adopting her as a mother. It is not she who adopts him as a son, but rather he who adopts her as a mother. Using the bus as a catalyst was also very interesting. The bus is not the essence, but the climax, and the catalyst for the story. I used the bus for more of a metaphor. All of those elements got into my head, and I realized that there was a great story here. So that was when I got in touch with Braulio Montavani, who wrote “City of God”. Initially, when I got him on the phone he said, ‘What!? It is a documentary sensation, how would this work?’ But I said no, it will be a fictional version of the documentary. We had lunch, and when I told him what I just told you, he said ‘Wow this is great, yes, I get it. Let’s do it.’’
Bijan: To me, “Last Stop 174” is like a tale of Greek mythology with street kids.
Bruno: Yes. That was exactly my goal. I love “City of God”, and I think it is a great film, and for exactly this reason I did not want to make another film in the vein of “City of God”. I wanted to make a Charles Dickens film in the streets of Rio. Street kids were not specific to Rio. There were street kids in Victorian London. The social background is there, but it is simply the background, not the main focus of the narrative.
Bijan: This film shows such a very strange picture of Rio. It is dark but also beautiful.
Bruno: It is the tragic beauty of Rio.
Bijan: Exactly. I believe that this is one of the first films you have made that deals with kids. Is this true?
Bruno: Yes, it is the first.
Bijan: It is amazing how well it is done. I could not believe my eyes watching this film. How was it possible to get these performances out of the children?
Bruno: Well, I have to tell you, I was scared shitless. I had never done it, and I had never done a film in which I had to improvise so much, in which I had to give up control. But that is the only way that I would be able to achieve the realism that I ended up getting. It was a big risk. There was a lot of preparation, like three months training the kids, and it took me a year and a half to find these kids. There was a lot of work to achieve what I did. I shot with two cameras all the time, handheld. So there was never a mark. It was very loose. There was never one take like the other takes. But I think the workshop, the period that the acting coaches spent training the actors—and I would go every day for six months and give my two cents—really helped. By the time we were ready to shoot, I did not have to do much with them because they had become their characters. I am glad that I made this film after making seventeen feature films, because having the experience that I have, you can allow yourself to give up control. I repeat, during the shoot I thought that less-is-more. Many times, the director can get in the way of the actors work. A lot of times, the best direction is to keep your mouth shut, and I did that a lot during the shooting of this film. Most of the work had been done before, by the acting coaches and myself. One of the things I like best is to direct actors. I started up with the same acting coach who did “City of God” and I had to stop work with her because she leaves very little room for the director to work during the rehearsal period. I couldn’t work like that because I love to direct actors. So I got some other acting coaches that allowed me to have more room during the rehearsal.
Bijan: How challenging was it to shoot the film?
Bruno: Well, it was challenging, but no more than the other films that I have made. It was a pretty uneventful shoot. The hardest part logistically was the bus. But as you might have noticed, all of the wide shots were from the real event. I guess that is one of the advantages of making a few films; you end up not spending money and time on things that will end up on the cutting room floor. And we had very little money. I didn’t have a dolly in the truck, all I had was a very light platform that you use to do tracking shots. The days that I used a dolly were numbered.
Bijan: How much of the dialogue was written before the shoot, and how much was improvised?
Bruno: The screenplay was very solid to start with. The way we trained these actors was that we gave them the script without the dialogue. You leave the blanks with the names of the characters on the script. I went a little further, and I took the characters names out of the script. So what happened was the actors would decide how to create the scene. Most of the time, their improvisation would be very close to what was in the script.
Bijan: How was the editing process?
Bruno: There was a lot of work. I like to edit while I’m shooting. I got this amazing editor, and this was the first film that she cut other than a feature documentary. She is an NYU graduate, thirty two years old, and Brazilian. She worked a lot in New York and came back to Brazil. She had an amazing understanding of drama. Every day, and the end of the day, I would see what I had shot forty-eight hours before. I would give her notes, and would pick the takes I liked right away. I don’t like to over-analyze the performances, I like to pick them by instinct. I have a script supervisor that I have worked with for a few years, and she is very fast. So as I am watching it on the monitor I am telling her ‘this line here, there, etc etc.’ and she would send it to the editor with notes, telling her what I liked. It was all very loose. I would see things edited everyday, and that helped me a great deal to fine tune performances. We locked the picture in ten weeks after we wrapped the shoot.
Bijan: Have the street kids of Rio had a chance to see this film yet?
Bruno: Oh yeah. I showed this film actually two months ago to some kids in a slum community. It was amazing. The problem is that all of these populist governments speak about education, education, education. But these kids who live under these circumstances in the slum cannot learn because they don’t have the emotional condition to learn. Before you send them to school you have to get their brains de-blocked emotionally, because they are completely blocked. They have seen either a brother or a friend shot. They have witnessed too much violence and are traumatized. The place where I showed the film was a center that prepared the kids to go to school. It is emotional work to give them the minimum emotional base for them to learn. 87% of the 500 children at the center had witnessed some kind of death.
Bijan: That is amazing. This film is an explosion of life on screen. It is truly like you are there in Rio witnessing what is happening. How much do you think this film will help in making people aware of what is happening to these kids?
Bruno: It does grab people’s attention. Unfortunately, films do not have that much power, but it has started. The woman that the character Walquiria is inspired by has gotten a lot of attention all over the world. Her project is the one I was telling you about, that prepared the kids emotionally to be prepared for school. The Brazilian society really began to pay attention to the work that she is doing, and realized how important and unique her work is. It is the kind of work that doesn’t attract votes. The politicians love to build schools because that is very visible and gives them votes. This is the downside of democracy, because the vote becomes like a currency. Finally, after this film, the Brazilian society is recognizing her work, and it has made a little bit of a difference.