SSIFF interview: Gonçalo Waddington (Patrick)

Actor, playwright, screenwriter, producer, and now feature film director. Gonçalo Waddington does it all. His feature debut Patrick, a deeply moving film about the fine line between victim and monster, and the meaning of identity in a life torn in two, had its world premiere at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. Before walking the red carpet, Waddington spoke to Cédric Succivalli about the inspiration for the film, his collaboration with lead actor Hugo Fernandes, and his view on his protagonist.

CS: First of all congratulations on your birthday, on the day of your red carpet no less. Do you think the festival knew and planned it on your birthday on purpose?

GW: Thank you, I feel like I’m in Disneyland. I don’t know if it was on purpose, I should ask Rebordinos (editor: José Luis Rebordinos, the festival director). Maybe they thought, “Let’s give him a present.” To be here on my birthday, and with a red carpet at night, it’s incredible. Living the life.

CS: Patrick is a film that deals with a very heavy subject, but the story within that subject is also very specific. What was your inspiration for this story? A real life case perhaps?

GW: The first time I thought about this was when I read a story in 1995 or ’96. It was a very powerful image: somewhere in the north of Spain there were these motels with a lot of prostitutes, and one girl escaped through a tiny window. She was 17, underaged, and she had to run a long way to her safety without any shoes on. What stuck with me was somebody running without shoes, escaping incarceration. I always liked this idea but I wanted to know what happened there, otherwise it’s too much of a thriller. Curiously, I later saw this French horror movie, Martyrs by Pascal Laugier, which starts with just such a girl. Such a great shot! Then in 1998 there was a kidnapping of a young boy in Portugal, the only such case ever. There were a lot of movies from a point of view of the parents, but I always wondered what was happening to the boy. You wonder what would happen if it was you. I read about a lot of cases, and most of the time the children are taken abroad. Then when I read Orestes, the play, where he goes under the guise of a different name, that led to the question of identity. And I thought that that was exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to show the direct implications on the parents of somebody who disappeared, or even on himself. I wanted to show the implications on him later in life. The background of the film is the kidnapping, but what you really see is somebody living in Paris like a fish in the water. He picks his own habitat, which feels really good to him. But when you then find out who he really is and what he has done, he is completely destroyed, because if you take the mask off it can be quite painful. He doesn’t even need to be locked up, because he is not going to run. So there is essentially another kidnapping, which is when the Portuguese policeman takes him away from Paris and back to Portugal. It’s what the French call a mise en abyme, there is a kidnapping within a kidnapping.

The worst thing you can do to a mother who has lost a child is to bring back the child that is no longer her child. There is no closure for her, when the boy is missing she might not have buried him, but in some ways she had a life, even if kind of robotic. I dress like this all the time, I eat the same thing all the time, I cut my flowers all the time. When you bring back that boy, a man now, he reminds her of someone who she has pictures of, but he is not that same boy. And he lives in a sort of statelessness. He has no country, no mother language, no real love, no sexuality. At his age, even if you have not lived through such trauma, it is easy to be kind of stateless. You’re just finding out about your sexuality, you’re finding out who you are. And in his case I think he ran away from Mark’s house just to prove that he could be whoever he wanted to be, but he remained close because he loved him and had this dependency. Whether you like it or not, Mark loved him. I’m not interested in the whole pedophile thing, I don’t want to discuss whether it’s good or bad. In his own way he loved that boy, and the boy loved that man. It’s his father, his best friend, his lover, he’s everything to him. He gave and taught him everything. So when he comes back to Portugal, the noises and smells bring back memories that took him a long time to erase. If you think about the memory issue and dealing with identity, at some point in his life I think he took a conscious decision to erase those good memories, because sometimes those memories can be painful: the memory of the smell of his mother, the food, his father, the house. These beautiful memories are painful to him, so he erased them. And now they are bringing him back. So he is forced to deal with it, and to me it’s kind of like opening Pandora’s Box, opening a door. I had a hole in my room, I filled it with concrete, I covered it, and then it comes back, that idea.

CS: The film is marked by an extraordinary performance by Hugo Fernandes as the title character. How did you prepare him for the role, or did it mainly come from himself? Especially since you also have an acting background yourself.

GW: I can’t even say that it’s a bit of both, because when I said, “This is the guy,” I knew exactly what I came to discover later. I had a good feeling, super instinctively, and his eyes were exactly what I imagined the eyes of Patrick to be. When you look at those eyes you see the world not through his eyes, but the other way around. You see what’s happening around him, which is why we show the woods, the house. But how he reacts to that, that is the point. And I knew that he was already what I thought he should be. I think it was a matter of trust. He said to me at times, “I think it is very difficult what you are telling me.” And I told him that there will always be things that we cannot explain, because when we try to explain them we will always fall short. I would say, almost in an Oscar Wilde-ian way, if you look in the mirror to try to see yourself and who you are, you will see a lot of things and nothing, and you will disappear. Try to think about who you are, and you will disappear. The Portuguese poet Ruy Belo has a verse that says: if something is absent, the more present it is because we expect it to appear. And the movie lives on that, the absence of either showing a character or explaining something, or something that is said. Why doesn’t she ask this question? Because you know from the moment it is asked, it will not be answered. And it’s absent also because people will think about the questions that should be asked, and this movie is a lot about being a puppeteer. I hope the audience sees the strings, but who is pulling them? And then you realize, “I was holding some of the strings“, because some questions should have been asked but were not because they’re difficult. And for the actors it’s the same thing. If you feel that something is important it’s exactly the reason why we shouldn’t talk about it. The film is showing only tips of the iceberg, but we make sure that the audience know there is an iceberg. We cannot show it, then the mystery would be gone. And in the end that is why people will dwell on the moral issues, and that is great.

CS: The CinemaScope format gives you a large canvas that to me at times seemed to isolate Patrick in the frame, as if he was alone in the world, which in a way of course he is. Were there specific reasons for you to shoot in this format?

GW: One of the things that I wanted were the close-ups of his face. This is just a metaphor, but it’s like those shots of astronauts where you see what they are seeing in their visors. But it is more about how things relate to him, and how do we relate to those things. When he is looking at the house, his mother, his surroundings, I don’t show it that much but through him we already know what it is. For instance with Mark, we hear his voice, and it doesn’t make sense why his voice is so loud but through that voice Patrick goes to another place, to a wonderland. For me, the canvas and the space I have symbolizes everything around him, soundwise and also what I imagine to be around him. Of course you can work with everything else in the frame, but I had symbolized the exact space that I have to fill with everything else. It’s a bit of a triangle: this means something, he hears something, and that will reflect in his face, and we see how he reacts.

CS: What is your own position on Patrick / Mário after the credits roll? One can have sympathy for him, but also resentment. Where do you stand?

GW: Once again, the way how it’s shot in widescreen, when you see the boy at the end with Patrick, I think Patrick is looking at himself. I don’t think there is danger for him. When you show or hear the name Patrick in the beginning, there is the emptiness of words, it doesn’t mean a lot of things. But when you hear the name Patrick at the end, you realize that you were first shown the mold, and now it is completely filled by him. I don’t know what it is, but that has a lot of meaning and you put the whole weight of the movie there. And one of the names that is absent, is Mário. If you did it with ‘Mário’ it wouldn’t work. Because it makes you think, and it makes him think. “What is my name up to here, now that I finished my journey?” He realizes that he made this journey and now he has to take a decision, a decision he thought he had already made by the time the movie begins. Without being confronted with his real self, because he was still wearing his mask. But when he says “Patrick“, I don’t think he says he is bad, because you cannot say that Patrick is bad or Mário is good. It’s the simple fact that he cannot deny that the last decade of his life is closer to him. We all know it’s a bad thing to kill, but I think him killing that man is a good thing and for him it is closure, a solution, and for the boy in front of him as well. So I can argue that it’s something positive. That’s what I like about the movie, that when he says his name and you hear what I believe to be elegant music, you will dwell with certain issues of morality and the weight of the film.

CS: This is your first feature length film. What made you want to direct, and what did you learn from directors like Miguel Gomes, Marco Martins or others that you have worked with as an actor?

GW: With all of them I learned what I should and what I should not do. Not that I think they did anything wrong, but some things would not work for me as a director. Now I understand why. When I started to work as an actor in both theater and cinema, I was always observing what everyone did and I always put myself as an actor in a scene with the thought, “How do I make this scene work.” Always together with all the actors and the director, so this is something I knew I should do similar as a director, but with a wider perspective, and not just about my character. Sometimes even in theater, where I also direct and write plays, I am like a puppeteer but also the puppet. I want to be in all the story, even if I have only one line, I want to be there and give everything. When I discovered writing I realized that it was maybe a different job, but all those hours where I went into the darkness of my own mind looking for stuff were similar to the feeling I have when I’m acting, creating worlds and living them. Mostly I think retrospectively, about what is best for me, and in that sense I learned from all of them. That is my directing school.