Making films in New York, Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona, director and producer Leonel Vieira’s relationship with cinema matures, step by step. With the production company Stopline he wants achieve one of his most urgent: “consolidating cooperation with the world.”
“I’ve never been the type to suffer”, says this lover of life. Leonel Vieira works a lot and doesn’t mind sleeping less; this is what makes him happy. Sitting behind his desk and surrounded by the clapperboards of the last takes of all the films he’s made, this Mirandês, who feels no stress, contaminates us with his energy.
He spends much of his time out of the country and on aeroplanes. A busy three weeks was enough to take in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Los Angeles and Madrid, before returning to the initial place of departure: Lisbon, the home of the production company Stopline: as the saying goes: “those who like running never tire” and this director and producer seems anything but tired. You can feel the passion he has for the projects he’s currently involved in. A mature love that he has courted for over thirty years, when a film crew camped out in Miranda do Douro. “It was like something out of Cinema Paraíso”. The young Leonel was “fascinated with the things that were done to make the film”, including the dozens of National Guard horses, soldiers in period costume and the his first contact with set trailers. “I thought it was fantastic, building a nativity scene, I even skipped school until I was thrown of the set.” What remained was the attraction for the mechanics, the movement and physical construction of the elements that told a lie.
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Miranda – Madrid
To Leonel, he was lucky to have been born in Miranda do Douro. With 450 years of history, this “land of warriors” is the cultural base of the Portuguese director who, at the age of 29, mobilised 250 thousand Portuguese people to watch the film Zona J, in what turned out to be a national phenomenon. Much like his birthplace, Leonel is the product of geographical circumstance. “Having been born on the border, I absorb both Portuguese and Spanish culture without even realising it.” If reception of public national television was poor in Trás-os-Montes, the Spanish channel TVE was the foundation of his understanding of the world”. In addition to this, Spanish TV gave great weight to film. “There was a programme for major audiences, entitled Setimo de La Fila, which was my evening news.” “He got information about the Spanish and American film industries and I saw, and I saw major French and German productions through the programme.” The lad was a mere 50 minutes from the old university town of Salamanca, in Spain, but he went along with his parents wishes and went to study in Porto. “At the time there was little opportunity in cinema in Portugal and my parents weren’t going to pay for an expensive course for me to end up unemployed.” Because of the talent he’d showed for drawing at primary school, where he made a large painting on the Carnation Revolution of the 1970s, he plumped for design. “The course was great preparation, artistically speaking.” A good student, although less than diligent, in his fourth year he thought he was wasting his time and that he was going to study film. In Madrid, professor Julio Madurga would tell him: “You’ve got a natural instinct for framing things”. But the truth is that, as a child, a piece of A4 paper wasn’t enough for the drawings he had in mind. It was in Porto that he learned “lines, perspective and memory” from the great masters. He polished what he had to polished and set off for Madrid.
Way of life
“I arrived in 1989, when Spain was experiencing golden years.” Soon the world’s eyes would be turned upon Portugal’s neighbour. In 1992, Madrid was the European Capital of Culture; Seville would stage the Expo and Barcelona would host the Olympic Games. While, “the celebrated Madrid movida was being sold abroad by Pedro Almodôvar”, with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, nominated for the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in 1989. “All kept afloat by this bohemian and artistic movement”, reveals Leonel, who describes Madrid as the “European New York, with film and TV schools”. Even on the metro you could hear the creative buzz: “Some were shooting films, others doing plays, everybody seemed to be an artist”.
If, after leaving for Madrid, he had the feeling that Portuguese cinema wasn’t appreciated by audiences, when he returned, in the mid-‘90s, that view had been turned on its head. “I belonged to a generation that achieved visibility with three films: Adão e Eva, Adeus Pai and Tentação. When Zona J made its debut, the film was well received by both critics and audiences.” A blockbuster that not only introduced Leonel to the country, but also meant that his first film A Sombra dos Abrutes, which was also written and directed by him, got national distribution, “rare for a first film”. Despite not achieving the same level of success as Zona J, “14 thousand people went to see it and it was very well received at a number of film festivals, winning a few awards along the way”.
Another great adventure followed: directing A Selva, based on Ferreira de Castro’s novel of the same name. “I feel like a child of the Amazon. I experienced a lot with them. I had access to the local culture, the best friends and traditional food.” After shooting the film, he felt he had discovered an unknown country, Brazil, which I’ve been regularly visiting since 1999.
After a decade, Leonel Vieira confesses to having made those films possible, accepting the invitations to make films offered to him. The director took this route after realising that, on his own, it would be very difficult to get a project up and running. At this time, he wanted to make well-organised, well-structured films that were well-supported in terms of production. “I made one a year without worrying about the money.” At the same time, he gained more experience as a director. “I learnt at art school that you needed to know your environment inside out: cameras, lenses, cranes, emotions, development and correction of colour, plot structure, music and composition. Because the decision made today can be seen at the end.”
He started thinking about production when he started missing doing his own projects and had the financial conditions to do them. “I started producing, not to make money, but to have more freedom of choice. Was I successful? The objectives are not achieved within the space of a year. Cinema is for long-distance runners. Seven years after starting the production company, I still believe I’m on the right path.”
Geared towards the Portuguese-Brazilian and Spanish markets, the Stopline production company works with CCFBR Produções, a Brazilian company that Leonel Vieira is also a partner in, producing not only films but also TV series and adverts. The director underlines that advertising is very important because it funds film.
Nowadays, he only directs films with scripts that “move” him. At a time when Walter Carvalho’s Budapeste, which he co-produced, has its premiere, he has various other projects on the go. We talk about A Grande Jogada, a co-production with Brazil and Canada, and Mulheres, another partnership with Brazil. Another project he has on the back burner is a documentary in Amazonia which will be filmed using the system used in Avatar. He’s also producing the film of Portuguese son of immigrants in the USA because he loved the script. “It was enough to go looking for funding the world over.
It’s being filmed and is going to be co-produced by an Oscar-winning production company from New York.” He doesn’t normally talk about these details, he’s never overly seduced by thins type of thing. Not even when a critic from Variety (the American producers’ bible) paid him a compliment.
What really interests this producer and director are stories he feels passionate about. Dominating them, filming them the way he wants. Raw and urban stories about people like us.
by Maria João Veloso
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