Most politically-charged films arise out of a desire to comment on a prevalent issue. In rare instances, however, they can actually foreshadow the zeitgeist. With their animated Oscar contender “Tito and the Birds“, director Gustavo Steinberg and co-producer Daniel Greco have accomplished just that, crafting a tale about a pandemic of fear which is all too relevant to today’s world. I recently caught up with this filmmaking duo, as we engaged in a fascinating discussion about the film’s unexpected prescience regarding the rise of Donald Trump, as well as the sensitivity of exploring fear in the context of a children’s film. Read below for an edited version of our interview.
Shane Slater/Awards Circuit: What was the inspiration behind the film?
Gustavo Steinberg: First of all, it was the story. We wanted to talk to kids about this scary new world that we have, where fear is brought on by the media and social networks. And we really wanted to make something that could connect to the kids. A beautiful film that is artistically sophisticated, but with a fun and engaging story to connect with kids. Then there are of course, personal reasons. I myself have two kids now, so I wanted to make a movie that they could watch. It’s my first animation and also my first movie for kids. I really thought the story would work well with animation. And coming from Brazil and having produced a few films, I know the limits of a live action foreign language film. So from a production point of view, I thought it was also a good idea to see how far we could go with an animation. So far, it’s a good experience.
SS: What were the children’s perspectives on fear and their interpretation of the film’s concepts?
GS: Yes, we did a few things for that. During development, we did a focus group with kids and their parents and we read the script and got a lot of feedback. We knew that we had to be very careful because we needed to bring a lot of fear to the movie, so that the kids would actually feel it. But it couldn’t be too much, otherwise they would just walk out of the movie theater. So we were careful with that, to see how much fear we could bring into the story.
It was very interesting, because during the focus groups we actually learned that the kids wanted more fear. So we were able to add a little bit of fear to the original script. It’s a very thin line that we couldn’t cross. So we brought a lot of atmosphere to the film with the music. We started the development of the soundtrack very early on. We never worked with external references in terms of songs, we only worked with our own soundtrack. It was very important for the film because the whole atmosphere was created with the original sound that we had developed.
Another thing that was very important during development was what look the film would have. And when we came across expressionism, we realized that’s what we had to do. If it’s a film about fear, expressionism is really a great way to show that. So you see that in the backgrounds and in the whole visual style of the film. And it was also something that worked very well in terms of the actual production. We managed to develop a very different look for the film with a very small budget. We developed a few techniques, our own library with textures from oil paints and then we developed a process for the strokes with Photoshop. And finally in post-production, we added real oil paint. So everything that you see in terms of special effects – smoke, water, light – is oil painted to give a final expressionist look.
SS: You mentioned some of the changes you made in terms of increasing the fear factor. The film also juggles several different genres. Were you always clear about the genre that you working with?
GS: Yes and no. [Laughs]. We had a clear vision that it should be an adventure. The storyline is very traditional in a way. But there was a lot of development for the script. At a certain point we abandoned the script. It evolved a lot during the whole process.
Daniel Greco: The drama side of it became more apparent and we invested more in that. It’s what brought more depth and truth to the story. To go deep into the character’s fears and the situation they face in the story.
SS: How have audiences responded to the film, especially considering its political relevance?
GS: We could not foresee that. We managed to catch an idea in the air. The villain was inspired by Donald Trump and when he decided that, he wasn’t even a candidate. When he became a candidate and then eventually became president of the United States, we wondered what does this mean? I think we somehow managed to get a thread of what this cultural fear means. But it evolved so fast, because it took us 8 years to develop the film. In 2010, the situation wasn’t that clear. It became really timely.
So I don’t think it’s a specifically Brazilian story. In different places, people connect it to different things. In Europe, it’s the fear of immigrants. In Brazil, it’s the fear of the economic crisis and violence. And in the US, it’s also a bit of economic crisis but also immigrants and the president. Toronto was the festival with the biggest audience of children and it was really interesting. They were really engaged in the story and they had a very warm response to it, even though it’s not dubbed. It’s in Portuguese with subtitles. So I could see parents helping little kids to follow the story.
The reactions also vary in terms of age groups. The festival poster in Denmark classified the film as 11+ and in Toronto it was 5+. So you have these different responses to the film. But I think the story is very universal because we’re all living in a world where this whole fear thing is becoming really evident.
SS: Do you plan to continue this Brazilian focus in your future work?
GS: We are always going to have a local flavor. I need Brazil. I know how things work there, so it’s very difficult to do it abroad. So there’s always going to be a connection to Brazil. But I really want to invest in universal stories. And I really liked the experience with animation.
DG: We always aim to have a universal story but it’s good when we have the imagery of Brazil. We grew up with a lot of influence from movies from the US especially and some from Europe. As kids, we didn’t see a lot of the Brazilian environment, imagery or culture portrayed in those films. So we rather have a film that tells a universal story but is situated in a Brazilian environment. I think we can contribute a lot to our country if we do that.