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João Pedro Rodrigues • Director of Will-o’-the-Wisp

“I wanted to make a fun and short feature film, because I think a lot of arthouse cinema nowadays is very long and very boring”


- The Portuguese director told us about his ambitious, entertaining and short feature film

João Pedro Rodrigues • Director of Will-o’-the-Wisp
(© Lolo Vasco)

At the Seville Film Festival, we talked to Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues about his musical fantasy Will-o’-the-Wisp [+see also:
film review
interview: João Pedro Rodrigues
film profile
, in which a Portuguese prince decides to become a fireman. The film, world-premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, has now received the Grand Jury Prize (ex-aequo) at the Spanish festival.

Cineuropa: What was the genesis of the project? Was it forest fires, dancing, or both?
João Pedro Rodrigues:
I was at the dentist, and it was somehow all of that. There were those celebrity magazines there, that I never usually read. One had an article about our "royal family" — we don't really have a royal family anymore, we've been living in a Republic since 1910. But the descendants of the former King still appear in celebrity magazines. I wondered why that is. They don't have any importance, why do people still fantasize about them? But with that, I was also interested in the question of how you portray yourself to others, because the article was about them showing their house. They live in a kind of palace, and they show it to the common people, even though we live in a Republic. They still live the same old stereotypes.

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The film is a lot about this idea: how do you represent yourself to others, and what are you, really? The prince in the film is brought up in a rigid education, and he discovers the firemen's world, which is more crazy and free — sort of the opposite of his own. And then climate change, the forest fires that ravage Portugal and the rest of the world every summer — this magazine article actually also mentioned that "our prince" wanted to be a fireman.

I thought it was an interesting story, but how could I tell it other than as a comedy? It's so unbelievable. I always wanted to make a comedy, and I think this was the right time. The film was written before COVID, so it was something that I rewrote into the script during the pandemic. We were supposed to shoot in 2020, but we finally shot in November 2021.

The film doesn't progress in a classical way at all. It is constantly surprising, it jumps forward in time. How did you work on the writing before and after the pandemic, and during filming?
The idea for this film was always to tell a very long story in a very short time. I wanted to make a fun and short feature film, because I think a lot of arthouse cinema nowadays is very long and very boring. I also always try, with each film that I make, to do something different. I wrote the film with my partner, João Rui Guerra da Mata — who is also the art director and production designer on my films, and we also co-write many films — and with Paulo Lopes Graça, a friend of ours who's a diplomat and has an amazing sense of humour. It was entirely written before the pandemic.

But for me, during lockdown, when we were at home and unable to get out, I knew that when I shot the film, it wouldn’t be like before the pandemic. Because we're still not out of the pandemic, even now. For me, it was hard to make a film about the present time — some of the film takes place in the present — without talking about the pandemic. I don’t understand how people can shoot films nowadays and not think about it, and pretend that the world didn't change, because for me, the world did change. It was a tragic thing, but there also was a moment when we thought that leaders might finally understand that things need to be different. What you see now is that the way we relate to each other has changed, I think we are more distant with one another. And in the end, the world has gone back to... politically, it's a mess. It's sad. But for me, it was important for that specific moment to exist in the film.

I wanted to make a film that plays with a lot of ellipses, but also, what I always try in storytelling is to choose the moments of the story that make it go forward. And here I liked this idea: I had never made a film that goes back and forth. So I used this very classical device of the flashback, and also of someone approaching death who remembers his life and his first love.

Because I think what is also important in the film is the love story. For me, it was important that it would be believable. I think the actors that I found have an energy between them that makes it real. It's a story about a prince who wants to become a fireman and falls in love with a fireman — sort of a fairy tale. But what I try is to make a fairy tale, real. I always try to make the unbelievable, believable.

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