Considered the ‘Queen of Brazilian television’, the late Hebe Camargo (1929-2012) was a television host, singer and actress, and became a hugely influential political icon opposing censorship in Brazil during an oppressive, military dictatorship in the 1980s.
It was 2018 when director Mauricio Farías telephoned cinematographer Inti Briones ACC DFP (Too Late to Die Young, The Loneliest Planet) proposing that he might shoot a biopic of Camargo that the director was preparing. “It was a great surprise because we did not know each other,” says Briones.
“Reading the script was a great opportunity to get to know a more everyday side of Brazil,” explains the cinematographer. “It was an opportunity to enter people’s living rooms. In those days, that’s where television was; shared amongst families. Meeting such a characteristic and emblematic character gave me the opportunity to get closer to a country that I admire very much for its richness and cultural diversity.”
Briones had worked with producer Clara Ramos and her team from Loma Films, shooting sequences for the film Guerrero (2018), which mainly filmed in Peru but also had essential parts of the story set in Rio de Janeiro. The cinematographer also knew Andrea Beltrão, the actress set to play Camargo, whilst filming in Uruguay.
A period specific film set in the 1980s, the first step was to find – in a very short time – a common language with production designer Luciane Niccolino. Briones named the George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck (2005, cinematography by Robert Elswit ASC) as a cinematic reference mainly because of the television studio sequences.
“It is worth mentioning that Farías knew these old television sets like the back of his hand from his experience working in Brazilian television,” he says. “This was fundamental to design our camera movements and points-of-view. We also referenced stage sequences in the film La Vie en Rose (2007, cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata), in which backlight was very predominant.”
Briones watched emblematic films from what he calls the ‘colourful cinematographic years’, to better remember the visual flavour of the emulsions of Kodak, Agfa and Fuji. Films like The Shinning (1980, cinematography by John Alcott BSC), The Karate Kid (1984, cinematography by James Crabe ASC), Betty Blue (1986, cinematography by Jean-François Robin AFC), Blue Velvet (1986, cinematography by Frederick Elmes ASC) and The Big Blue (1988, cinematography by Carlo Varini AFC).
“I saw several times, due to its camera movements, frames, colours and atmosphere, the Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, cinematography by Brian Breheny ACS) which isn’t from the 1980s, but which was highly inspiring,” he says.
For such a ‘period specific’ film it was important for Briones to find a common language with production designer Luciane Niccolino. “She has a great knowledge of Brazilian history and architecture, and listening to her helped me a lot to understand better the city of São Paulo,” says Briones. “For reasons of time, we had to visit locations during pre-production and solve a lot of issues. We were finding our way on the road and I had to be the new boy in town who brought and contributed with a different look.”
Briones didn’t create a lookbook, but instead used a video that the director had filmed in Camargo’s original home. This became as important as any visual reference. “In this video,” he explains, “there was a spirit of Super 8 which captured the imprint of the famous star with an intimacy, and where glitter and sequins were not lost.” The crew were lucky enough to be allowed to film many scenes in Carmargo’s home, which lends a sense of authenticity to the film.
Inspired by Farías’ video, Briones sought to further blur the border between reality and fiction. “We talked about how difficult it was for Carmago to separate her personal and public life, and how in certain ways they merged,” he says. “That point was essential to find our look.”
“We wanted an image which didn’t look vintage, because the intention was not about illustrating a bygone era,” says Briones. “We imagined that the atmosphere of the film should be complemented by a certain realism or naturalism, which insists on appearing like the memory of a childhood.”
Briones imagined an onscreen Carmargo who was constantly looking for a spectacular life, but who on the other hand felt seduced by a family life that collided with a very masculine and patriarchal environment. For this he chose Cooke Panchro lenses, which Alexandre Fuchigami from Monstercam immediately offered to the film when he heard about the project.
“The Panchro lenses are robust lenses that, from our point-of-view, were on a good border between defined and uncoated lenses,” says Briones. “When used with the Gemini sensor of the RED Dragon W, they combined very well, creating a smooth and leaning curve but with enough clipping that kept us at a safe distance from the vintage image.”
The camera crew composed of what Briones called his ‘circle of fire’; first assistant camera Betina Guimarães, second assistant camera Giovanna Giordano and video assist Bruna Duarte. The crew was composed, if not mostly, at least equally in number, by women.
“Guimarães was my assistant camera in previous projects we did together,” he says. “The experience with her on this film was fantastic because she added to the technical and artistic risks with a Mōvi that moved freely over a scene. Her camera movements were not completely blocked, and changed constantly according to the improvisation of the actors.”
Briones has operated the camera on most of his films, and this was no different. His ‘circle of fire’ became essential in the filming process because a percentage of the film was shot on a Mōvi rig. “With my team I knew that I could dedicate myself more to communication with the director and actors, in order to facilitate a staging that would release improvisation and freshness for each take, and without worrying a single moment about the best solutions in framing,” explains Briones. “At the end of the project, I could express my gratitude to them, explaining that they had been responsible for turning this process into a moment of deep joy and freedom.”
Most of the sets in the film are real locations adapted to the story, in which the original architecture of the time has been used very well. Those spaces, in their larger structure, belong to the times of the real Hebe Camargo in such a way that the intervention focused much more on the psychology of history.
“With Luciane Nicolino (art director) and his wonderful team, we worked collaboratively in the television studios sets.” he says. “The studios were mostly rebuilt, looking for a narrative similarity to the originals. Throughout the film we tried to create an atmosphere impregnated by the memory of someone who looks to the past, but due to its spectacle loses the border between the real and the imaginary… but which is not a ‘fantasy’.”
The production constantly sought a balance between naturalistic lights and that from the sequins. It became very important for Briones to preserve the contradictions of everyday living immersed in that artificial world. “That’s why we chose a camera that did not stop moving, like a silent spectator,” he says. “In this sense, what corresponded was to listen and maintain attention in the dialogue between the actors and the director, between the director and the story, between the story and the actors.”
Alongside costume designer Antonio Medeiros and makeup designer Simone Batata, the cinematographer enjoyed surprises every day, with actors constantly entering the set so wonderfully characterised. Marcos Ricca, who plays Camargo’s husband, constantly offered a subtlety to his body that constantly shifted between humour and drama. The actor’s dialogues would always be accompanied by gestures, often unique, that would not be repeated in the next shot. This forced Briones to maintain constant attention. “Every day was fascinating with them because we did not know how they would surprise us,” he says.
In one of the cinematographer’s favourite scenes, after fit of jealous rage, Camargo’s husband is separated from her by a glass door which is preventing the situation from escalating to physical violence. “It is something that the female gender has suffered throughout the history of humanity,” says the cinematographer. “It’s a sequence that seems both representative and subtle at the same time.”
“ When it’s not possible to be present during colour-grading, I feel as if I were with one arm tied. ”
During post-production, the cinematographer was heavily involved in the grade. “When it’s not possible to be present during colour-grading, I feel as if I were with one arm tied,” he says. “For me, colour-correction is an essential part of photography and cinematography.” Colourist Fabio Souza had worked with Briones many times before and the pair have reached great levels of creative communication.
“We felt it important to maintain areas with dynamic colour and density trends,” explains Briones. “Alongside subtle movements of the camera, with colour we contributed to the feeling of a constant state of transformation in Camargo’s life. A certain entropy imperceptible to the rational gaze of the viewer, but sensitive to their intuition.” The characteristic imbalance of the crazy and fluorescent colours of the 1980s within a surface that claimed stability and balance.
I hope to have another opportunity to put all my creative spirit into experiences like this one,” says Briones. “That is the great adventure of filmmaking!”
Hebe: A Estrela do Brasil was this year nominated for Best Picture at the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize.
Inti Briones ACC DFP is known for his work on the acclaimed international films ‘The Loneliest Planet’ (2011) and ‘Too Late to Die Young’ (2018).
James Cunningham is the editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.