Gabriel Martins on Shooting for the Stars in “Mars One”

"Mars One"
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When Gabriel Martins wanted to see the Brazil he knew and loves on screen in “Mars One,” he didn’t need to go to any extra effort to find extras for the crowd scenes in the film, knowing that the energy he needed was right in the neighborhood he grew up in.

“I felt we could represent the diversity and the atmosphere of the country in many ways, and that comes together with the question of the film having a certain type of atmosphere, so when we’re thinking about the people in those scenes and the inspiration to make this film, there are people from my family there, friends from the surroundings just participating in this event of making a film there,” says Martins, who makes an accomplished debut that can often times feel like a party as much as a film with how inviting it is.

Still, “Mars One” is deceptively complex, at once celebrating the spirit of the country while capturing a national identity crisis through the prism of one working class family, whose youngest Deivinho (Cicero Lucas) sets his sights on the stars, a distance that somehow seems less far away than downtown Sao Paulo does from his humble home in the suburbs. His parents Wellington (Carlos Francisco) and Tercia (Rejane Faria) both make that arduous trek daily as domestic workers tending to residents of high-rises in the city with the aim of giving their children what they weren’t afforded, with their work already financing the higher education of Devinho’s sister Eunice (Camilla Damião). However, their dreams don’t necessarily align with the ones their kids begin to have for themselves when going to college broadens Eunice’s horizons beyond what career she could pursue as she finds a girlfriend Joana (Ana Hilario) and Deivinho’s burgeoning interest in astronomy is a less desirable use of his time for his father than playing soccer, which he’s long believed could lift the family out of their hardscrabble existence if only Deivinho could turn professional.

The nationally beloved sport is just one of many totems of Brazilian life that Martins provocatively questions in the film when exposing a generational divide where conservative values can prevent those who are older from seeing anything better than the routines they currently lead, yet the family is pushed to find new ways to support one another when their love goes without question, no matter how much it’s tested by shifting cultural tides. Although the country continues to change – Martins made the film after the election of the hard-right Jair Bolsonaro as president and released it domestically on the eve of the country reelecting Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Workers’ party candidate that Bolsonaro had once displaced, the writer/director has made a warm drama that looks like it’ll surely stand the test of time, reflecting the timeless conflict of children who can see the world differently than their parents and in the process Martins establishes himself as an exciting new voice in global cinema.

Recently, we were fortunate to catch up with him after “Mars One” was selected as Brazil’s official entry to the Oscars and was recently picked up by ARRAY Releasing and he spoke about how the physical geography of Brazil informed how he structured the story, the personal experiences that influenced the film and having to hold onto the film through the pandemic to find the right moment to release it.

From what I understand, this grew out of a generational divide you were seeing in Brazil. How did this take shape as the story of this family?

When I started thinking about the story, it was 2014 and we just recently had a World Cup in Brazil. Brazil took a very huge beatdown in soccer because we lost to Germany 7-1 and at the same time, we were having an identity crisis because [there was] a lot of political turmoil and that generational difference you’re talking about was pretty much on the surface for me. I was trying to understand that the country was starting to become something new and this idea came about of following a family of four for a few months when each one of them were having specific changes in their lives and then try to see how a family would respond to those changes.

This idea of generation gap was also to talk about how we have new ways of perceiving the world and how Deivinho’s dream, this little kid’s dream would come [in conflict] with his father’s dream. His father has the right to dream that he will become a soccer star because that’s what he’s has been building [towards], like a lottery ticket for the family, but Deivinho sees something more broad.

You find novel ways to present this upheaval in Brazil beyond the family, whether it’s attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or bringing in this prank TV show where people are scared. How did those find their way into the story?

A few of the things are personally based. My father is a recovering alcoholic, so I have experience of that and it was always an environment I was interested in because of how people exchange ideas, especially this model of AA where people have 24 hours at a time, so every new day you have to become someone else and start over again. That was a very powerful thing for me to think when I was dealing with a narrative about loss and that everyone would lose something and try to become something else. This started to relate to this idea of time, and of planets and space and sun and astrophysics, so I could connect a personal theme to something very broad – space. Every day we wake up and go to work and we come back, we deal with our families, we meet someone new and then our lives start to change every day, so this is how everything came together. But [it also connected to] the state of mind that Brazil at that time with Bolsonaro’s election, this idea of the father that can’t listen to their children and at the same time, give a response to that with affection and [I wanted] this idea of having an optimistic look at the world.

I loved the idea that both parents have jobs that take them into spaces that don’t actually belong to them – what was it like figuring that out?

This is actually something very common in Brazil that working class families like the one I portrayed in the film usually live far away from their jobs. You see the mother at the beginning has to take two buses to get to her job and the father [also works] in a place far away from where he lives, so the social differences that we have in Brazil are [part of] this geographic design. Usually, the working class has to live way far away from the downtown because it’s cheaper to live there and this is the story of my family and my intention was to communicate [how] the way that those places are designed creates a very different kind of relationship [to other people]. For example, Tessa has a party that has a lot of people [in the suburbs]. She can see her neighborhood through the fence and she’s connected to her neighborhood and with that big place where Wellington works, you can see that everything is far away and it’s a cold relationship. It’s a strange place. So [we could] show through the spaces and through the static of those places what that could mean about the society.

How did you find your cast for this?

Both Carlos [Francisco] and Rejane [Faria] [who play] the father and the mother, are actors I’ve been working with for a very long time. We did short films together, so it made sense that they portray those characters in this film and Rejane brought Camilla [Damião], [who plays] the daughter [to my attention] because they did something together and it was a very small part, but Camilla was very intense, very beautiful and very professional. And I found Cicero who plays Deivinho, playing samba because he’s a professional percussionist and his father is a very well-known composer in my city. They’ve played together since Cicero was very young, and when I saw him play with his father, he has this beautiful nerd face that looked like me when I was a kid, so that was something that caught my attention and two years later, we did the film. [laughs]

Was there anything they brought to the roles you might not have expected?

The main thing was the personal stories they could bring to the film. For example, Eunice is with Deivinho are looking for family photos [in one scene] and family objects and when the character is talking about Deivinho’s grandfather, [Camilla] is actually combining my grandfather with her father and her grandfather, so we were always trying to encourage them to bring personal ways to talk about things because even though everything was very well-scripted, there was a lot of places where their personal way of speaking would make it more natural. Having some kind of documentary things come across that experience was very special, and so many times I had the beginning and end of a scene and the middle one was kind of improvised, so things that could come within the time of the scene would bring some authenticity to the story.

There’s a real confidence in which scenes you’ll let play out in a single long take, particularly In the relationship between Eunice and Joanna. Was it much of a decision to let those scenes play out?

I think not because it’s something I’ve dealt with in other films I’ve made or produced through my company – we take a long time to work with the actors, so we have enough confidence that they can carry such long takes and they could carry something that inside the shot it could bring something unwritten that editing doesn’t have to interfere. I feel the interesting thing about that is to bring a different [rhythm] and perspective and invite the spectator to be part of that family or that environment, so you have to be a bit more patient to stay there and observe all the details. If you’re just cutting, cutting, cutting, there’s not enough time to just be in the environment and just care about those characters, and this is a film that when it ends, there is usually a very emotional response to it. A pretty big part of it is that you just spend a lot of time with those characters, and this idea that sometimes you just look at them with time to observe all the details about them and observe their faces. Each one of the characters has a very long take with a very big closeup on their faces, and it’s a very intentional choice that comes from the confidence of working with those actors and trying it before in other films.

With four storylines to balance out, was it a challenging edit?

Yeah, this is a film of actually four protagonists because even though we listen to Devinho’s dream a little bit more intensely, so to bring a little bit more of that balance and understand [where] the storylines could come together, it took one year of editing with a friend, who I gave it to and he gave it to me and I spent some time alone with it, and between those exchanges, that was pretty much a year. Then when the pandemic hit, we had to stop and usually, I’ll work with people from another city, but because I wasn’t able to travel, I had this wait and the film was in the fridge during the whole pandemic because we didn’t understand what [would happen with] film festivals and it was a mix of taking the time to edit and also taking the time to finish and understand when could we release the film, so it ended up being a long process because I started writing in 2014 and now we’re releasing pretty much eight years later.

What’s it like letting it go out into the world after all this time?

It’s the best feeling possible because since we shot the film in 2018, I spent those four years pretty much dealing with the film myself and the crew, so I had this feeling of wanting to share those stories and those characters with the world, and now it is a big relief because the film is done and it’s doing well. But most of all it’s just being able to share this with the world, so people see what I’ve been looking at for the past four years and thinking “Wow, those characters are so beautiful,” and I’m able to have a conversation like the one I’m having right now with you and listening to those people more than I’m having to talk with myself about the film. That exchange is the most magical thing about movies for me.

“Mars One” will be released in select theaters and start streaming on Netflix on January 5th.

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