When Brazilian director Bruno Barreto was looking for an actress to portray the American Pulltzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop in his English-language movie Reaching for the Moon, he had initially been urged by financiers to cast a well-known British actress. “She almost did it, but two and a half months in Brazil was too much for her,” he recalls, failing to reveal her name.
It’s real Bette Davis stuff
In any case, he had wanted to cast Miranda Otto and the adventurous Australian actress welcomed the chance to take in a new culture and to tackle one of the meatiest roles of her career.
“Miranda was my secret dream, my trump card and she responded right away,” Barreto says. “There's this whole thing about coming to Brazil—it's known to be violent and it's just too far away.”
“I don't know why people wouldn't want to spend time in Rio,” Otto admits. “I guess it's hard when you've got kids and I knew when I made the commitment that my daughter Darcey [now eight] would have to go out of school for periods and that Pete [her actor husband Peter O'Brien] and Darcey would have to come across a number of times and that I would have to spend a reasonable chunk of my salary on airfares. But I really wanted to do it.”
Reaching for the Moon was inspired by the 1995 Brazilian bestseller Rare and Commonplace Flowers—which is not necessarily based on fact, according to the New York Times, and neither is Barreto's film. It follows the waspish, demure Boston-born Bishop as she travels to Rio de Janeiro in 1951 to visit a college friend, Mary, and her falling in love with Mary's dashing female partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares (the remarkable Brazilian superstar Gloria Pires), who would go on to design the city's Flamengo Park. Ultimately, the three women form an unusual family, with Mary very much on the outer raising their child (they actually had four children), though eventually reeking a bit of pay-back, withholding letters that leads to the relationship's demise.
“It's real Bette Davis stuff,” Barreto explains with relish. “It's a story about loss where Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares just happen to be the characters.” In the emotionally-charged story, Bishop evolves from a delicate introvert into a strong creative force over the course of her 15-year stay.
“Elizabeth Bishop was an intensely private person and I wondered how much of her I should show,” notes Otto. “It was a really hard line to make her accessible to the audience yet truthful to the person she was and also truthful to the way the two characters come up against each other. It's important that Lota is the flamboyant, confident, sassy one and that Elizabeth is slightly abrasive and cold, the stilted awkward one. It's hard playing that and getting the audience to come with you. How do you get people in and do the things in the story that are required, things like where I have to kind of piss Lota off in the beginning but without pissing off the audience?”
The daughter of Barry Otto, however, came up with the goods. “I sent my dad a rough cut and he was really moved by it.”
Does she discuss the tricks of acting with her dad? “We definitely talk about acting and performances we've enjoyed and about the ideas and inspirations we get from things. When I first started out he told me to be really disciplined, that it's important to be on time. Then I found out that my dad's the biggest practical joker and everyone told me he's so much fun. And he talks me about being disciplined!”
Otto likewise has a supporter in her husband, who she says “didn't even blink an eyelid” at her lesbian sex in the movie. “I don't think we even discussed it. It wasn't an issue. It's really funny because people ask me about the challenges of the film and somehow that wasn't one of them. I really just thought about it as a relationship between two people and not to underline any shock value in it. It's not like a terribly new thing. What interested me more was the way the women made their relationships work. It was 1951 at the beginning of the film and it shows how incredibly modern they were with way they lived their lives and solved problems. I was amazed by the way the three of them worked together. It was quite inspiring really.”
Rio-born Barreto came to the film adopting Bishop's outsider's view of his homeland after he moved back to Brazil five years ago following 20 years in the U.S. and Hollywood.
“I feel like a foreigner in Brazil,” he admits. “If you become an immigrant as I did it's irreversible. So my approach towards Brazil in the movie is very much a foreigner's point of view.”
He certainly captures the magic of the area where the women lived even if he filmed in a different house. “They lived one and a half hours from Rio where there were a lot of stately homes at the time. A lot of land has been spoiled now by development and this is one of the few that remains untouched. It was designed and built in 1954 by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who built Brasilia. He actually died not long ago at the age of 104. The real house where Lota lived with Bishop is still there but it's not as grand or as cinematic as Niemeyer's.”
Otto fell in love with the property and its landscaped gardens. “The aesthetic was incredible as was the eye that everyone had in re-creating the era, from the director of photography to the costume designer to the people doing makeup and hair. I've never worked on a film where every one of the extras just looked amazing.”
Barreto, who was born in 1955, has directed 18 feature films including Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the biggest box office hit in Brazil until 2011, and the Oscar-nominated Four Days in September.
“I've been very influenced by the classic American cinema and there is an element of that in Reaching for the Moon,” he explains. “I've always loved the dramas of Douglas Sirk. Like when Lota says, 'This is your home'. Then Mary says, 'Then send her away', Lota says, 'I can't!' and she almost starts to cry just before the storm starts to cry outside. So the world is crying for her. It's very melodramatic. I love that. For me, that is cinema. Melodrama is fake tragedy. I wanted to make a film that was classic for the actors. My favourite scene is where Elizabeth is reciting a poem she wrote for Lota in bed and there were no cuts. This film is far more restrained than other Brazilian films. It's not a plot-driven film; it's about what is between the lines. It's the first film I did where I asked the actors to take more pauses and not to say the lines too quickly.”
In her research Otto unearthed early recordings of Bishop in late '40s before she went to Brazil, as well as recordings in the late '60s and '70s.
Barreto: “Her voice had changed completely. She was a lot more assured. So Miranda's work was painstakingly difficult, but she managed to do that. Her voice gets stronger and stronger as the story evolves.”
Reaching for the Moon opens the 2014 Mardi Gras Film Festival on February 13. Click here for more information.