Paulo Branco: Profile

By John Mount

in-the-white-city-alain-tanner.jpgIn the White City, 1983

The list of directors that Portuguese producer Paulo Branco has worked with over the past twenty years makes remarkable reading: Olivier Assayas, João Botelho, Sophie Calle, Philippe Garrel, Eduardo de Gregorio, João César Monteiro, Manoel de Oliveira, Raoul Ruiz, Werner Schroeter, Alain Tanner and Wim Wenders to name but a few. It’s like discovering that a movie-mad alchemist in an obscure Lisbon laboratory has been secretly transforming bacalhau (Portugese cod) into gold in order to finance every maverick, visionary film maker in Europe who’s had their work dismissed by a cautious investor as “non-commercial”. And as if over 80 credits as a producer weren’t enough he also owns a chain of cinemas and a distribution company in Portugal and the Action Republique cinema in Paris.

Branco is one of the most prolific and imaginative independent producers working in Europe. He has production bases in Paris and Lisbon and now, with Spider Films, London. Despite severe financial problems in the late 80s he rebuilt his businesses and they continue to thrive. His success seems to be based on an eye for gifted directors, the confidence to take on and deliver high risk film projects, to work to the tightest budgets, and to doggedly retain control of each film. “He’s managed to make so many films he must be doing something right,” says Rosa Bosch of Road Movies. “He really is unusual... a one man show, who rarely co-produces and sells his own films.”

Despite a useful long-term relationship with French television channel Canal Plus and governmental subsidy for many of his Portuguese productions, Branco is pretty much unique in the way that he remains independent of the usual subsidised funding sources for art films. This also enables him to retain the sales rights to his films, rather than part with them in pre-production deals. Gemini Films, his Paris-based production company, sells his considerable catalogue of titles on the festival circuit, a small but profitable business and a useful source of cash-flow.

Branco’s buccaneering entrepreneurial bravado is matched by his skills at discovering and promoting new talents, an unwavering attraction for difficult subject matters and an ability to revive the careers of undervalued directors. His tastes show an eclectic and developed cinematic aesthetic and the experience gained from programming films for discerning cine-literate Parisian audiences. And if one remembers that, despite all the chafing constraints of commercial cinema, new talents such as Abbas Kiarostami and Sokhurov are still generally championed in Paris before Britain catches on, or that neglected directors of quality such as Britain’s Ken McMullen are revived to large enthusiastic audiences, then by comparison a world of possibility must still seem available to a bold independent low budget one-man studio.

state-of-things-wim-wenders.jpgThe State of Things, 1982

At the new Soho offices of Spider Films, there is no evidence of a philosopher’s stone except for the telephone, which Branco addresses intermittently in French, Portuguese and English throughout our meeting. In answer to what motivates him he explains: “It’s true that I like to be involved in films that would not exist without me. To do something that somebody else could do as well, I’m not interested enough... it’s dead, you know.”

This is almost certainly true of the projects he works on with Manoel de Oliveira and Raoul Ruiz – two master film-makers whose critical acclaim often seems to exist in inverse proportion to their commercial performance. A fact that troubles Branco not in the slightest. He has made around a dozen films with each of them and relishes their continuing collaboration: “When you work with people like Raoul Ruiz and de Oliveira you develop some kind of complicity and you want to go on working with them. With those directors things just kind of... happened. How it started, you know, it’s a long story but when I want to work with a director it’s usually, with one or two exceptions, that I admire what he’s doing and I want to share a kind of journey together not only on one film but over a longer distance.”

While the relationships with his key directors may be constant, Branco’s funding routes are often more byzantine and unpredictable. “Each film is different” he says. “It’s an adventure. There’s no kind of miracle or secret formula. What I try to do is to find some way to make the film even if I find the greatest difficulties in finding the finances. Always, I try to go on until a project is complete. And 90% of the projects I start, I finish.

“The most important point for me is to be independent even in making the most difficult of decisions, with no TV channel or some kind of commission making the decision for me. Instead I try to raise a lot of money on each film, sometimes taking a lot of risk which is compensated for by selling the films on at markets. After making films for over twenty years you already know more or less where to go and how to manage to make a film... it’s something that comes with experience. At the beginning it was much more adventurous than now.”

state-of-things-wim-wenders-2.jpgThe State of Things, 1982

Also from the beginning there has been a certain defining transnational complexity in Branco’s approach to production. “I was in Paris with a small cinema and someone from Portugal asked why didn’t I produce in Portugal because nobody else was and producers were needed. I thought about it and I accepted the challenge. I knew from the beginning that if I was to make the films I really wanted to I would have to produce in other countries as well as Portugal. I always liked to live in two different countries anyway so I started to make films in France and Portugal at the same time. The first was a short film by Marguerite Duras which I put some money into and after that I made a number of Portuguese films which included João Botelho’s first film Conversa Acabada and Silvestra by João César Monteiro, neither of them easy directors. One of the first directors in France I worked with was Raoul Ruiz who I knew and whose films I had opened at my cinema, the Action Republique.

Often Branco will co-produce between Gemini Films and his Portuguese company, Madragoa Filmes. A practice that could perhaps raise suspicions of international legerdemain but which, as Branco explained in a previous interview with Screen International is, as usual, all about independence from the TV channels. “First, the shareholders are not the same. Second, the prime purpose is not to access public money in more than one country. It is more to do with not being dependent on Arte-La Sept before I can go ahead with a film.” And his directors seem to accept a complex cash flow between projects, which Branco has also pointed out in the past is the exact same way that studios work.

As one would expect, Branco also has a very fluid approach to the level of involvement he has in each film: “Each film is completely different. It’s true that all the decisions on the films I make are mine because I don’t co-produce. There are films that I am involved with from before the script is written right up to the final edit decision. On some the script is already written. There are even films that I didn’t read the script... not many. In those cases I’ve known what the director can do and the script is not important. Things will develop during the shooting.”

in-the-white-city-alain-tanner-2.jpgIn the White City, 1983

A quick straw poll of colleagues in international production confirmed the general view that Branco is, to say the least, relaxed about script development, but of course this helps if you’re going to make films with directors with the calibre and improvisatory skills of Wim Wenders.

As for his presence on the film set Branco says: “Now I’m generally much less present at the shooting stage because I’m making so many more films at the same time. It’s not a problem because I know the crews on the films very well and have worked with them before. From them I know exactly what’s going on and I just go when it’s completely necessary. But I’m much more involved in the postproduction than I was once was.”

Not one to be easily drawn, Branco’s maverick streak is apparent when questioned about the current state of European independent cinema, the domination of US product and whether producers like himself are an endangered species: “I am a man of action and I know well the problems facing independent producers, but I prefer not to think of them as it takes away my courage. Instead I prefer to just get on and do it. In a way what’s going on in Europe doesn’t concern me. I have to find my own way within the rules that exist. I would like to be more involved in all the questions that face independent producers in Europe but I’d make fewer films. So I try to prove with my films that there is always a way to go on and to make my kind of films.

journey-to-the-beginning-of-the-world-manoel-de-oliveira.jpgJourney to the Beginning of the World, 1997

“It’s not only the presence of American films in Europe that’s the problem. That’s something we have had for a long time. It’s the mentality about what cinema is that is more dangerous. The theory that the film is much more than pure entertainment that existed twenty years ago is kind of disappearing, and now it’s seen as entertainment that is bought and sold. The cinema is one of the expressions of our identity, of each of our countries and of Europe, and if we lose that we lose a lot.

“At the same time the power to make decisions that the television channels now have in the making of films generates a kind of standard model for the kinds of films that get made. There’s a kind of imitation of what the States has made that’s frustrating. There are still people who believe that cinema is more than that, an artistic phenomenon that is a mirror of our identity, of our culture, and this is something that is present every day in my work. The only way to challenge this trend is to make the films that I make and, in Portugal, to distribute odd independent films that would never be seen any other way there.”

How Branco’s style of independence will translate to British production makes for fascinating speculation. Producer Keith Griffiths who, in many respects, is the closest British equivalent to Branco, albeit with a much more conservative approach to finances, is an admirer but has his doubts. “Branco is one of the three great European independent producers of the past twenty years along with the late Anatole Dauman and Karl Baumgartner of Pandora Films who were pretty much the prototypes of the kind of producer I set out to be. He’s a wheeler dealer who has produced an astonishing number of films. But I have doubts that Spider Films will work because Branco is not sufficiently familiar with the production system here, and it’s not clear where he will find his financing. He’ll also need to find the British equivalents of Ruiz and de Oliveira to produce.”

Characteristically, Branco is relaxed on the subject and enthusiastic about Comic Act, the first film he has produced with Saskia Spender for Spider Films, which was directed by Jack Hazan, who is best known for A Bigger Splash: “I can’t give you a quote. It was more a new challenge for me. I know more or less how things work in France and Portugal and all over Europe but I would like to be capable of making a film in any country. I know that in England the industry is completely different, but I would like to work with British directors. After I met Jack Hazan I wanted to work with him. It was a nice experience for us both working on Comic Act and we are planning to work again. Comic Act was a very special project, it was produced by finance from the continent, not England. But we hope to get more financial involvement from English sources in future.”

Two more films are in preparation, including the debut feature of Miranda Robinson and an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story. “These two films are our priority,” says Branco “We are open to other projects but I really want to concentrate on getting these films made.”

journey-to-the-beginning-of-the-world-manoel-de-oliveira-2.jpgJourney to the Beginning of the World, 1997

As for Lottery money, Branco denies it had any influence on his decision to set up in Britain: “Any time that something new happens I try to find my way to it. I remember very well when Channel Four started to put money into films, I was one of the first to approach them for money for two or three of my films, and afterwards when Arte-La Sept appeared I did the same. The lottery is just the latest opportunity.” As for other financial opportunities Branco says it is very early days and that he has a lot to learn about British production.

Meanwhile Branco’s French and Portuguese commitments continue apace: “I just finished shooting two films and editing one in France now. I’m editing the new João Botelho film called Traffico and another film by João-Maria Grilo. I start shooting God’s Marriage with João César Monteiro in mid May, the third part of his trilogy (after God's Comedy) and I’m preparing new films with Bartas, Oliveira, a version of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu with Raoul Ruiz and the new film of Laurence Ferreira Barbosa. And I have a number of films at Cannes including the new Oliveira and the latest from Tanner.”

Whatever happens there are a number of important reasons for expecting Branco to succeed with Spider Films. His talent for finding exciting new young directors such as Sharunas Bartas and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, his imaginative backing of veteran talents such as French actor Michel Piccoli’s recent directorial debut, and not least his ability seemingly to twist his cash flow like bubble gum into a financial Möbius strip. Most important, though, is Branco’s single-minded independence and his ability to recognise and champion the work of the most adventurous and talented European directors, irrespective of their fashionability.