Making The Salt of the Earth was a labor of love for co-director Juliano Salgado. If you've seen the film, then you know the subject, Sebastião Salgado, is his father.
Interviewing Juliano was one of the most surreal experiences I've had as a journalist -- you could, at moments, see the pain in his eyes and how much he wears his heart on his sleeve when talking about his father -- who's known for his amazing work as a humanitarian photographer -- and the struggles of making the film.
This is a very long interview, but folks who've seen this film will surely finish to the last word. There's a lot discussed here: from the difficulties of working with his estranged father, to bringing acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders on board, to their clashing and finally figuring out how to make this film work. The Salt of the Earth is a tough movie to watch but well worth the jolting moments once it's over.
Here's what Juliano had to say about the The Salt of the Earth.
TwitchFilm: First of all, I want to say thanks for making me cry during an entire movie, I don't think I have cried that much during a movie. It was great. The hard-to-watch parts, those were tears of sadness but there was so much joy and inspiration in the movie as well. I can talk to you the entire day about the film but I don't have enough time, so I'm going to go ahead and start with my questions. I also want to say, you're a brave, brave man making this because of your history with your father and his legacy -- I can't imagine how difficult it was.
Juliano Salgado: Thank you, Chase.
Okay, so to start off, the film is really well-structured, most notably, the photographs as they appear with your father's story telling about that time during his life. What was the process of going through the photos, because I'm sure there was hundreds and narrowing them down, picking the most important as well as figuring out how to piece it together with his story as he was talking about it wasn't easy to do.
When we set out to make this film with him, we realized what we had. Wim was friend of Sebastião that I had met a few times and Sebastião was with him. They shared a common passion for soccer. Two great artists, what do they do when they meet each other? They speak about soccer, actually.
What happened is that at some point, I realized that it was going to be possible to make a theme about Sebastião. I always ran away from the idea. I have been doing documentary for ages but at some point, we traveled together to Amazonia filming there and when he saw the pictures that I had taken of him, we had a very difficult relationship, Sebastião and I.
Before travelling there, I felt, "Oh my God. We are going to be amongst people that barely speak Portuguese. It was just the two of us. When I came back from this trip, I edited those images and I sold them to Sebastião, and actually, as you know, when you film someone, what you do, the film says a lot more about you than about the person that you film.
Of course, that's for a person that can read an image and Sebastião can read images. When he saw that, he was very, very touched by those pictures and somehow it was the first time he was saying that. We had a very intense family moment but that opened the door for a film to happen. From there, I started thinking what could be a film about Sebastião.
Sebastião was doing his last great project, Genesis. It was a good moment to make a film about him but my intuition was that the film couldn't be about the photos. It couldn't be about the trip. It had to be about something else and that something was the amazing experiences, the unique experiences Sebastião has had in the world. For the last four years, he's been travelling all around the world, photographing places and moments.
I mean, people leaving things that were going to become historical things, very important moments, but in a way that he is the only one doing it. He has learned so much about humanity, how to grow up so much, there is so much there that we had to share, so that was my intuition. Sebastião's unique experiences could be great film material, sorry for my English, and I opened up to Wim, with this guy. He was around, he was a friend of the family who could actually speak to Sebastião in a much more neutral way than I would.
At this point, we realized, Wim and I, we had the same intuition, the same idea and we set out to do this movie together. When we started, the one thing we knew was that we wanted to use Sebastião's experience as the core of what the movie had to be. The second theme is that we realized at some point, a year and half after we had started chatting, that Sebastião's life as an artist had a very strong dramatic shape.
We're saying how the young man becomes a photographer, how he learns how to travel, how his camera becomes this thing that mediates his relation with the people that he's meeting. People came to him as if it were a microphone and then he finds a role for his camera, for his photography, trying to create a lot of awareness.
Most of us have seen those photographs, if we don't know who it belongs to when we see them, a lot of those photos still enter the subconscious, the larger audience subconscious. At some point, he has to reinvent himself. His way of going too far is that he's confronted with what's really bad and hard about the work. What he learns from it is actually positive and carries a lot of hope. That's what we knew. We knew we had a dramatic arc, we had something we wanted to tell, we didn't know how to tell it, and that was very difficult.
The main arc of the film was composed of those interviews that Wim was going to do. Wim has marked the history of cinema, of course, with Alice in the Cities, The American Friend, Wings of Desires and so on and so forth. He's a great filmmaker for documentaries as well, he had done Buena Vista Social Club and Pina, and so for our film, he invented something again. He is not only the guy who's part of film history, he's a guy who's actually one of the most creative directors of all time.
Absolutely, well respected, yes. How did you get Wim involved? PARIS, TEXAS is one of my favorite movies of all time.
I forgot to mention Paris, Texas absolutely, so beautiful.
That movie gets me every time. I'm glad you're talking about the interviews that you're doing, they are so visually striking when he's talking, and that goes into my next question. One of the many visually remarkable elements in the film is when he is telling the stories. There are shots of him staring at the photo that he's talking about and we're watching him as he looks at the photo and is talking about it. I'm just curious what was the process of getting that shot, the visuals for it?
Yeah, at first when we started filming those interviews that Wim was going to do about Sebastião, we were in the set up that was pretty similar to the one we are now. Two guys sitting around the table with photos between them and being filmed by three cameras, plus one over the shoulder to show the photos they were looking at, and Sebastião explaining those situations to me. At some point, we realized that those were pretty dull, actually. Sebastião, as a photographer, is really aware of what the camera is doing. Sometimes he could feel he wasn't natural at all and that it wasn't working, it wasn't very powerful.
Wim, and that's amazing, Wim invented something. He used a technique that is close to techniques that had been used twice before for a Picasso film and another film, I think it's the [Frederick] Wiseman film with the mirror technique. None of them had been used in such a powerful way as Wim used it. He brought Sebastião into the old studio. We let Sebastião be isolated with black wraps, he couldn't see lights or crew or on anyone. He went into this still dark room and in between two of those black wraps, the camera lens was filming, and in front of the camera lens, there was a stainless glass, that's what we call a teleprompter.
Usually, you use those tools to project text and that's what Obama uses when he's doing his speech, or the news television guy. In this case, that's the beauty of it, Sebastião wasn't looking at text, he was looking at his own pictures. Wim was just switching from picture to picture.
The crazy thing about it is that after two or three pictures, suddenly Sebastião was completely projected back into time and space. He was there, living those things again, and that's amazing how powerful those interviews got how emotional. Some of those interviews, we had to stop. Sebastião, he would break down, he couldn't go on any more.
Some of the stories there are the hardest stories, they are live. We couldn't edit them, they were too short. Sebastião couldn't cope with more than five minutes. It was a very, very, very intense interview but it also was utterly creative. No one has ever done it before and that is the greatness of working with such an artist as Wim Wenders. He will come up with ideas that will just be spot on.
Absolutely, keeping with the emotions and everything, the movie, like I said, wrecked me. I was just crying and sad. How did you keep your composure whenever you're shooting all of this, with your history? How do you, as the filmmaker, keep your composure when you're there shooting all of it?
It was very difficult for me. There were many, many difficulties, one of them was the fact that the photos are very hard, the stories are essential. Sometimes they are so touching that it's difficult to cope with it. Sometimes we had to stop editing and have a walk through the park to just be able to cope with them because it was too hard. The other difficulty was that this is a film about my father, about my family; my grandfather is in there, my mom is in there.
I appear there as a baby, as a boy. Pretty much I had to overcome a lot of my issues with my dad, which I did. Luckily, I've managed to do that. The other thing that was really difficult was to actually collaborate with such a, I'd say a mountain, a cliff as Wim,
There was a trick for that I used, the trick was considering Wim as a mate from film school nothing more. He's not used to that. It's been very difficult. When we got together in the editing room, it was a hard time. We were both very, very stubborn, believing that each of our gut feelings was the gut feeling and that we had to follow it.
Of course, we had different visions of what the film had to be, common intuition sometimes, but different visions. The first thing we did when we started editing was that each one of us edited his own footage. Then we had to put them together, because that's what it was meant to be, right?
I took over the material and started editing Wim's footage. Wim saw it. Wim is a great guy, is funny, is calm and is composed. When he saw those pictures, he started shouting in the editing room. It was ... I was so scared, really, really scared. Takes over the editing, comes back two months later and what he did was, I'd say not so good.
He edited nice pictures and things started changing. We had to accept each other. We are touching each other's material in a film way and that wasn't working, actually. We never managed to get to a result there. After a year of working ,we realized that we have to change, there are only two solutions. One, we can go our separate ways. That was a solution but it was, I think, a bad solution.
The other solution was that we try to do this film together but differently. This time we're going to sit in the editing room together. Believe it or not, in two months, we finished the film and I am so happy because what we did is much better than the individual editions of our two movies. We managed to get to the core of Sebastião's story, to get the best out of it, to find a way of telling the story that is so complex, so rich but you don't feel it's rich and it's complex, it's just that the film flows.
There is so much to learn from Sebastião's experiences. There is so much to learn from the way that he managed to balance out of all those pessimistic things that he saw. There is so much hope to share. It's such a hopeful film. We really managed to get to the core of it together. It's a great thing when you have two filmmakers to actually manage to do a film together. Usually you have to be brothers or wife and husband. We barely knew each other when we started off and now we're friends.
How did you get paired together? How did he even just come into the picture at all?
Wim knew about Sebastião's photography, he wanted to meet with Sebastião for a long time. They happened to meet. They realized they both love soccer. In their first meeting, Sebastião at some point looked really, really nervous and he had something else to do. He wanted Wim to cut it short and Wim too wanted to leave. You know how it is in soccer, when you really want to part, at this point, that's when you know you can't really manage to.
Then they realized they both wanted to finish the appointment because they have to watch Chelsea versus Barcelona on the TV, the champions' league game. They're so happy, they come watch it together and they realize that they are two massive soccer fans, they know everything about football, and they start having this friendship happening.
When I realized that I could do a film about my father and that this thing that was so important to share, those stories they have to be told to somebody else because of the very nature of our relationship, the first person I thought I had to share this with was Wim, who knows, and luckily Wim liked the idea. He believed the same as I did that we had to share the stories, and that is how we started, this intuition.
Am I being too long with my answers?
No, no, no, only whenever they come in and kick me out. No, this is great. You are the best kind of subject because sometimes people will answer a question in 30 seconds.
To wrap this up before I get the boot: this won at Cannes, the César Awards, it was an Oscar nominee...
The most amazing award we won actually was the Public Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, one of the most important in Europe. We were there competing with the best feature length dramas and documentaries and actually they picked us as best film, the audience, that's great.
That is amazing. Where I'm getting at is like you've, this film has won all these prestigious awards, has been nominated for a high honor award. This film was a labor of love and obviously, but do you feel pressured or, even better do you feel that with moving forward with your career, that your next film is going to need to be bigger and better than this one, just because of all praise that it's gotten?
I ask that because I watched the documentary on Nicolas Winding Refn and it was all about him making his next film after DRIVE, he was just ... the pressure and the anxiety of him feeling like he needed to make a bigger and better movie, that's what completely ruined him. I'm just curious if you feel the same way. Do you feel that, moving forward, you need to top what you've done or how do you feel about it?
No. I feel really relaxed about it, I think, when you're sitting in my ... I forgot the expression. As a young filmmaker, when this happens to you, first it's an amazing light that's shining on a film that has a message, a very powerful message. It's great that this film is turning out and that people might actually get to see it because of all those recognition things.
As a filmmaker, it puts you in a very comfortable situation where you actually are going to be able to do your next project.... Your next shot is pretty much, it's not free, of course, but it's going to be easier to put the next film together.
It's a real struggle normally but it's great, I don't feel pressure at all. The real thing is I want to do a film that touches me, at least a subject. I want to have pleasure doing this. Listen, if it's a great film, then great. If it's not a great film, then whatever. The important thing is to be doing something that matters for you...
... that brings you satisfaction. We're lucky enough to do jobs and I think you do a job as well like that. We're doing jobs that brings us that, that's enough. Success comes or doesn't come, it doesn't matter.
Awesome, man, that's great, great answers for everything.
Thank you, Chase, this is really cool, man.
[Note: This interview was originally conducted for and posted on TwitchFilm.]