When Daniel Ribeiro originally started writing his debut feature, the working title was “All the Simple Things” because as the Brazilian writer/director says now, “I think life is usually about the little things, the feelings, and all the big drama [that comes after].”
It would’ve been a fitting title for what became “The Way He Looks,” a delicately rendered snapshot of a young man named Leo’s pursuit of his first kiss, a seemingly benign task until you discover he is blind and he discovers he is gay. Yet the description could also apply to what happened to the film, which began life as the short “I Don’t Want to Go Back” that garnered over three-and-a-half million hits on YouTube when it premiered in 2010, then once turned into a feature became Brazil’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar this year after premiering at Berlinale where it won the Fipresci Critics Prize.
The attention might be overwhelming for most first-time filmmakers, but it doesn’t appear to be for Ribeiro, who exudes a calm that belies his soft touch as a director. For a film that begins by the side of a pool with longtime friends Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) and Giovana (Tess Amorim) musing about their level of laziness before the arrival of a new student named Gabriel (Fabio Audi) whom they both adore threatens to break their leisurely cycle, that could be mistaken early for ambivalence, but it isn’t long before Ribeiro and his young cast bring out the raw, uncertain emotions of teendom, leavened by a wry sense of humor and a deep well of empathy for both Leo and everyone in his life who wants to help take care of him when he insists on becoming his own man. On the eve of the film’s release in the States, Ribeiro, Lobo, Amorim and Audi took the time to talk about how they achieved such complexity while making it all look so easy, the benefit of returning to the same story three years later and what Ribeiro has learned from traveling the world in recent months.
Daniel Ribeiro: I wanted to talk about stories that I didn’t think they were being told, especially with gay characters. I was a teenager in the ’90s when homosexual characters started appearing in television and films more, but that was a moment where I thought I didn’t see myself reflected in films or in television in the way that I thought it should be, so I went into making movies because I thought that was the best way to express those characters that I thought were interesting and important to be portrayed.
Is it true this was always intended to be a feature, though you made a short first?
Daniel Ribeiro: The short was supposed to be a pilot for the film, so we could practice. One of my biggest fears was having this young teenager playing a blind person. I thought it was going to be very hard to find the actor, and then [for me] as a director to try to direct this actor, so we decided to do the short. Also, to help fund the movie, we would have something to show the [financiers] in Brazil.
Beyond financing, did you get something creatively from being able to do a test run?
Daniel Ribeiro: Yeah, because I wanted to create gay characters that weren’t dealing with their homosexuality as a problem. When I did the short “I Don’t Want To Go Back Home,” we had a very good response from teenagers, especially gay teenagers, saying how it was so good to see a gay movie, but it’s not about sex. It’s about love. That was something that made me feel secure about what I was doing. This [became] the way we have to go to do a film that’s very sweet and very tender about the discovery of sexuality.
Was it interesting for the actors to revisit these characters after a little bit of time away?
Tess Amorin: Definitely. From the short to the feature film, I started theater school, so I started to think about things like the way my character walks, the way she looks at [Leo] very differently.
Ghilherme Lobo: For the feature film, it was more than just a great character. I didn’t realize that the short could help people out to deal with their families and their own homosexuality, but for the feature film, I thought this vision was more than just my job.
Fabio Audi: Between the two movies, I [struck up] a good friendship with Daniel, then he and I would talk about the script and this three-year time [period] was really good for making it a deeper character. We would create these new scenes.
Daniel Ribeiro: [Fabio] was obsessed with the bike. There was never a bike in the movie, and [Fabio] would say, “He needs to have a bike.” I would write the scene, and then the bike becomes a bigger thing, so he was always thinking about his character.
Ghilherme Lobo: Now, it’s one of the most pretty scenes in the film.
Fabio Audi: I was excited to be a pain in the ass like, “Daniel, we should do bicycles,” or all these kind of things. In terms of preparation as an actor, I think I was more shy when we made the short. I felt more insecure in acting in front of the cameras.
The film is very sensual and because Leo is blind, it opens up an intimacy physically because he needs to be helped by Giovana and Gabriel that ordinarily wouldn’t be there. Was that actually a nice byproduct of creating that character or was that an influence in its creation?
Daniel Ribeiro: When I decided to write the blind character, the physicality comes in with it, [though] I was never thinking about it from the blind perspective. It was always about this guy falling in love, then the fact that he’s blind, so that changes everything. I would write a scene and think, “Okay, he’s going to be walking along to his house with the other guys.” Then I would think, “He’s blind, so they have to be touching.” For example, the the dancing scene [where Gabriel is] teaching Leo how to dance, they have to touch, and they have to be very tactile about it. We were always just discovering things like that. A lot of things were in the script, but a lot of things we also discovered when we were rehearsing.
Also, it wasn’t just about touching, but looking. Since Leo doesn’t see, they say something, but their eyes can be saying something else. For example, the scene in the bed when [Giovana and Leo are] lying around talking about the exchange program, Giovana is trying to be positive about it, but you can see in her face that she’s not happy.
Ghilherme Lobo: The parents communicated a lot to each other with the eyes.
Fabio Audi: [I worried] I would be preparing myself too much, then it wouldn’t be what Gabriel should be because Gabriel doesn’t know how to react to a blind kid.
Tess Amorin: For [Fabio and I], it was the opposite, because [Giovana] had to be used to it [because she and Leo knew each other for so long], so during rehearsals, we used to practice a lot like “No, watch the step,” or the small things that Giovana would know how to react with him, to make it natural for us.
Ghilherme Lobo: In the short, we were worried about my eyebrows, because at the time, I was used acting with my eyebrows and a blind person wouldn’t do that. But in some moments, even at the feature film, we realized that the eyebrows could work in some reactions, so it was quite easy actually.
Daniel Ribeiro: Everything was very natural. We rehearsed a lot to make it very natural, to make nothing stand out or to be underplayed.
Fabio Audi: Daniel is the kind of director that brings the actor [in] and lets us choose the words. Even though the lines and the main ideas are written down, we can still pick the words that are more natural to us.
Tess Amorin: Daniel would never say how you would say the line. He would just say [in this scene], “Oh, you’re cute but jealous but mad but happy. [laughs] Try it, go for it.”
Daniel Ribeiro: The story is so universal — falling in love and having the first kiss. I had a best friend, and I had a boyfriend [who] came into the school. The story is a bit about what I lived, but at the same time, a lot of people have the same story and it’s funny, a lot of things I realized [were autobiographical] only after the movie was done, especially the short. That was exactly the same way that my first kiss was. My boyfriend pretended he forgot his hoodie in my place. But it wasn’t conscious, and I think because it’s very universal, those personal aspects came around the movie too.
Was there some detail that each of the actors might have had that unlocked their character?
Fabio Audi: I have this background in the countryside so that’s where I found Gabriel. It was me back when I was 17, 18, the countryside, small city, with a shy reaction to the world.
Tess Amorin: I’m very overprotective with my friends, so that matches a lot with Giovana.
Ghilherme Lobo: Leo and I have nothing to do with each other, but maybe [his interest in] classical music because I’ve been a ballet dancer since I was seven years old. I listened to Tchiakovsky and so many other composers. But how I prepared for Leo was always in rehearsals, conversations, and looking at other people going through situations similar as Leo’s situations.
What has it been like to travel with the film?
Daniel Ribeiro: It’s been fun because, again, it’s such a universal story, so if I’m in Japan or in Tel Aviv, people identify with that character [of Leo] because everyone was a teenager once and wondered how their first kiss was going to be. the most interesting thing about going all around is to see that audiences, even though we’re all from so many different cultures, the feelings are very natural to all of us. That’s what makes us unique as human beings.
“The Way He Looks” is now open in limited release, including in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and New York at the Village East Cinemas. A full list of theaters and dates is here.