House of Sand: Brazilian Andrucha (Me You Them) Waddington

“The House of Sand” is Brazilian Andrucha Waddington’s first feature since his 2000 award-winning “Me You Them.” Visually stunning, it recalls in many ways the 1966 international hit “Woman on the Dunes.”

Shot entirely in the Lenis Maranhenses region, a conservation area in the north Brazilian State of Maranho, it stars Fernanda Montenegro (Oscar-nominated for “Central Station”) and Fernanda Torres (Best Actress, Cannes Film Festival 1986 for “Parle-moi dAmour”), two of Brazil’s most renowned actresses and real-life mother and daughter, brought together for the first time in the film’s leading roles. Throughout the story, which unfolds from 1910 to 1969, they share the roles of the main characters, urea and Maria.

ureas saga starts in 1910, when, in pursuing a dream she never shared, she arrives in a caravan at a labyrinth of sand in Maranho, northern
Brazil. Her husband Vasco believes this land to be prosperous and she is condemned to a life in this barren place, her only female company being
her mother, Dona Maria. Pregnant and dissatisfied with her destiny, she tries everything to find a way out.

She spends 59 years living with an imminent departure. At first urea is hindered by Vasco and is forced to live in a house on the top of a dune, until one day, alongside her mother, she witnesses the death of her husband, buried by his own insanity. With a mixture of pain and relief, she believes herself to be free. But her fate is in the hands of destiny.

“House of Sand” also unites three generations of Brazilian cinema. Based on original idea by Luiz Carlos Barreto, ureas saga is the work of one of the most talented directors of the new generation, and has Walter Salles as a co-producer. In this film, Waddington is joined by some colleagues from Me You Them (Eu Tu Eles) (producers Leonardo Monteiro de Barros and Pedro Buarque de Hollanda, scriptwriter Elena Sorez, costume designer Claudia Kopke, and 4-time Oscar winning re-recording mixer Mark Berger, as well as by new collaborators such as director of photography Ricardo della Rosa (“Olga”), production designer Tul Peake (“City of God”) and producer Pedro Guimares.

The film was released to critical acclaim and popular success in Brazil in May 2005, and played the Toronto Film Fest later that year.

The Story

The story was developed from a photograph of an abandoned house buried in the dunes of the sandy plains of northeastern Brazil. Luiz Carlos Barreto, one of the co-producers, thought up the story and encouraged Waddington to do the project.

The truth is, I never saw the photo. Barreto told me the story behind the photograph and invited me to make a fictional film about a woman who lived in this house and had to fight against the sand her whole life. That same night I dreamed about the image,” recalls the director.

The next step was to invite Elena Sorez to develop the story. It took two years of collaboration between Elena, Andrucha, Barreto, his wife Lucy and producer Leonardo Monteiro de Barros for the final version was completed. All we had to go on was the photograph and the confirmation of the `Fernandas in the main roles. Thanks to the participation of these two actresses, we thought of telling a story that spanned a century. The script was written for them, he explains.

Three generations of women are forced by destiny to live for years in the remote sandy plains of the north of Maranho. To mark the changes in the film’s phases, we decided to resort to important events of the century. The problem lay in how to reveal such occurrences, considering the inaccessibility of the inhospitable desert. I asked myself: how would information reach a place which is practically impenetrable and arrived at the conclusion that the news would come from the sky.

We conducted extensive research about principal facts of the 20th century, which had some connection to the sky. We discovered, for example, that in 1919, an English scientific expedition went to the northeast of Brazil to photograph a group of stars during a solar eclipse, thereby proving Albert Einsteins relativity theory. In the film, the sequence surrounding ureas meeting with the astronomers becomes an essential part of the narrative.

We wanted three significant visits that would portray the century. The beginning has the impetus of science; in the middle the misery of war, and finally, the hippies as the means to represent the arrival of man on the moon, clarifies the writer.

Fernanda Montenegro says Elena Sorez brought a metaphysical plane to the script. She measured the story of these two women by placing the theory of relativity within the problems in their lives. Something very pure and qualified exists in the writers vision, that not only makes a story but contributes to a non-realist structure, not humdrum, not simply the chronicle of a story. This metalanguage in the script is what makes House of Sand a saga. More than just a drama of manners, it is an epic story connected to this wheel, this universe, which in the end describes the story of all of us on planet earth.

According to Elena, one difficulty was to maintain the story engaging, due to the narrative structure. It is difficult to create a drama when one has a long time span. When one extends the period for too long, one looses the tension. The ideal thing is to have something fundamental happens in the story every half an hour. When you open it up to a century, all urgency disappears. The film is divided into three phases. For each new stage, a new story. I kept asking myself whether, at each beginning, the audience would be willing to start over.

The partnership between Elena Sorez and Andrucha is long and fruitful. For his first film Gmeas, in 1999, based on the story by Nelson Rodrigues, she wrote her first script for him. However, during he same period, she was working on the Eu Tu Eles script for three years, another feature film directed by Andrucha, released the following year.

My relationship with Andrucha is very good. He has a virtue not very common among directors, he allows you the freedom to work, besides helping a lot with ideas. At the same time, he knows exactly what he wants. He is objective and determined. He makes things happen and will turn the world upside-down, if necessary, compliments Elena, who also enjoyed the cooperation of the Fernandas in the construction of the script. They helped me a lot in the beginning when the story was still very abstract. They contributed both in the dramaturgy and in giving life and personality to the characters.

Elena decided to cut down the dialogue, thus enhancing the images and scenes. Dialogue is something dangerous because it is almost the opposite of cinema. One can fall into a trap. One tends to resolve everything through
dialogue but cinema works with another peculiarity. It resolves itself with the image, she comments.

The Cast

Fernanda Montenegros and Fernanda Torress participation was guaranteed during development, before the characters even existed. The story was truly written for them, Andrucha reveals.

What fascinated me about the movie was the fact that it is a mysterious and feminine narrative about time acting as an agent on mother and daughter, besides acting with Nanda, and being directed by a great talent like Andrucha, says Montenegro.

Although nervous about accepting the part in the movie because of its location, Fernanda Torres states that the place contributed to the characters composition. I was really afraid to be a part of this movie because it was in a very distant and inaccessible place. I wasnt sure how it was going to be, so I thought: Im going there in the same situation as the character did. It is a physical movie, where the location helps build the part. Now Im really happy, it was a wonderful experience.

Montenegro plays three characters: ureas mother, Dona Maria, urea herself (at the ages of 60 and 87), the main character, and her daughter Maria (58); while Fernanda Torres plays urea (28-37) and Maria (31). Although the movie was filmed in chronological order, avoiding confusion among roles and time periods, acting so many characters was not an easy task. In just one movie I used up five old women of my life. I played women with an age range of 60 to 90 years of age. I used to tell Andrucha: I am making the effort of more than 20 years of old women. I emptied my trunk of old women in this movie, Montenegro jokes.

Arduous production

An arduous operation, it took one year of planning and three months of pre-production to transform the small precarious and bucolic Santo Amaro, a town bordering the Lenis Maranhenses National Park, into a base ready to receive a film crew. We visited Lenis in all the seasons of the year, a total of 11 trips, to understand the road conditions, the climate, how to deal with the sets in the sand and what were the norms in the national park, recalls the director.

Without the support and authorization of Ibama, Brazils Environmental Protection Agency, House of Sand never would have been filmed at Lenis. The agency permitted that filming take place only in the buffer zones of the park, not in the reserves under maximum protection. According to one of the producers, the site choice was correct.

We noticed that our efforts were worthwhile, in virtue of what the place offered. The film would not have been the same in another location. All the money and energy that we spent were compensated.”

Making the film had positive effects both for the city and for the park. The entire infrastructure that we put together remains there. We helped Ibama build local headquarters, we promoted lectures on education and hygiene, and the economy of the place became more active. Today, the region is better prepared for quality tourism, evaluates Buarque. Some of the production team even lived up to six months in Lenis.

Although a big budget film, the production in the desert site and the difficult access were major difficulties. But despite the location,
Conspirao has the production know-how for adverse situations, said producer Pedro Guimares. It was one of the most important films of my life. Many people thought we were crazy. But since we had an experienced and competent team, we were able to put together a well-organized structure and dodge the difficulties. It was not a film for lazy people, praises Zagallo.

The director, who started his movie career as a producer, participated actively in all the phases of the production of the feature film. He almost didnt sleep at all during principal photography. I really enjoy producing, its something which gives me pleasure. I end up getting involved with everything, from the screw at the machine shop to the problems of dramaturgy. So, when the day was over, I would return to the office to solve production problems. I slept just three hours a night, he confesses. I always want to be informed about everything. I like to change around the shooting schedule, the order of the day, to know how the food is on set, how people are being treated, he continues.

Fernando Zagallo emphasizes the importance of Andruchas involvement in the production. When a director participates in the production process, everything becomes easier because he knows where he wants to invest. In this way decisions are made quicker.

Production design

The art design in “House of Sand” is basically divided in two characteristics: the metropolitan objects of the time period, and the elements of regional culture of the Brazilian North.

It was important for us to understand the local architecture. We noticed that the buildings had little colonial influence and much indigenous and African influence. The houses are made from primary resources found in the region: Carnaba (wax drawn from the trees leaves), Buriti (palm tree) and clay, recalls art director Tul Peake. On the other hand, there is the cultural cargo represented by the objects that they (the characters) brought from Rio de Janeiro. These objects ended up becoming extremely precious things. They cling to their world through these objects, he adds.

The main concept behind the photography in “House of Sand” was to transmit a panorama that reflected the drama lived by urea and Maria. The purpose was not to portray a beautiful landscape but rather an arid, hot and uninhabitable place. We didnt want to show the location looking like paradise. The idea was to show a tough place, a place almost impossible to live in, says director of photography, Ricardo Della Rosa.

We were very concerned about the sun. We filmed from 4:30am to 9:00am and then from 14:00 to nightfall. This allowed time for the team
to rest and better lighting. The films two main characters are women, and working under the midday sun is arduous. The whole team worked in
unison in favor of the photography and the actresses, explains Andrucha.

According to Della Rosa, filming with celebrated actors like Fernanda Montenegro, Stnio Garcia and Fernanda Torres, made his job easier. Besides their exceptional acting, they have extraordinary positioning for the camera and lights, a privilege for any director of photography.