"...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 filmmaker in Europe who’s had their work dismissed by a cautious investor as ‘non-commercial’.” This is how John Mount described Portugese producer Paulo Branco in an extensive profile for Vertigo Magazine in 1998.
I didn't come from any school of cinema. I was a guy who got a chance and I took it.
The legendary producer is every bit deserving of this. His penchant for discovering new talent, complex narratives, charting out inventive financial roadmaps and staying blissfully independent despite all the pressures that come with Indie productions has put him on every producer's brains-to-chew list. He wears the tag of one of the greatest producers in Europe lightly. He is also one of the masters who will be mentoring projects at Qumra this year.
In his Masterclass, Branco regaled everyone with his priceless stories. One about actress Catherine Deneuve had everyone in splits. While working with director Raul Ruiz on a film Branco was producing, she came on set two hours late. Branco later told Catherine - if you want to come late then please come late, but Raul being who he is will not wait for anyone. He will keep shooting scenes without whoever is not there. After that day, Catherine was never late again.
I caught up with Paulo for a brief conversation just before his Masterclass yesterday. Excerpts:
Smriti Kiran: Paulo you have discovered and shaped the careers of so many auteurs. What has shaped your sensibility?
Paulo Branco: Maybe it was my curiosity. I was someone who did not know what I wanted to do. An opportunity to produce arrived at my doorstep and I took it. When I began working with filmmakers like Manoel de Oliveira, Wim Wenders, Raúl Ruiz, I did not know what producing was. I did not know anything. I was just learning. Just to watch these creators work everyday was a pleasure. I didn't come from any school of cinema. I was a guy who got a chance and I took it.
Two of the first few films that I produced were in the Venice competition and I didn't go. My focus was to establish relationships with already working directors and to discover new talent.
SK: Your roster of collaborators includes David Cronenberg, Olivier Assayas, Chantal Akerman, Cedric Kahn, Andrzej Zulawski. Over 60 of your films showed at Cannes Film Festival, 38 out of that were in the official selection. You have a distribution company, a chain of theatres, and even a cinema in France. Does this take away from the spontaneity of your choices - the pressure to make every project count as a discovery?
Paulo Branco: I do not think about where a film would go when I start working on it. Every film is a different adventure. At the time I started and even after that, I did not even know what is the importance of Cannes or Venice. Two of the first few films that I produced were in the Venice competition and I didn't go. My focus was to establish relationships with already working directors and to discover new talent. Everyday was an adventure and that is how I live. I try and be very aware of people's work and their creativity. These are the only things I focus on.
SK: Creative collaborations can be tricky. But you have managed to work consistently and successfully with a host of filmmakers, especially Manoel de Oliveira, Wim Wenders, Raúl Ruiz, amongst others. What is the one singular quality a producer must have to retain his voice and yet be the rock that gets the filmmaker's vision out there?
Paulo Branco: You have to be an actor. A chameleon who can adapt to completely different personalities. You cannot work in the same way with every person. You have to understand where each wants to go. Creators have a lot of doubt about themselves. You have to understand that and help them when they don't know exactly what to do. We are at their disposal but at the same time we can be their guide. That is what I do. Apply my intuition to understand. To bring something to each of the projects. What is important to me is that If I produce a project, then I should be able to bring something to it that no one else can. If there is a film that anyone can do does not interest me.
Paulo Branco at his masterclass at Qumra with moderator Richard Pena
SK: 35 years and over 300 projects later what is it that excites you?
Paulo Branco: In this moment I am aware that I have done so many films but after five minutes it is all gone. I am back in business and trying to solve problems of the films I am doing now and figuring out the projects that I would like to start. Today it is very different to produce. It is not the way it used to be. And I have to try to still bring something to the table. The day you start looking at the past, you are out of business.