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It’s not unusual for films to be remakes of some kind, but it’s another thing altogether for one movie to be inspired by another primarily on topographical grounds. However, that’s the link between Brazilian filmmaker Andrucha Waddington’s The House of Sand and the movie that preceded it, Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 The Woman in the Dunes.

Actually, that movie only partly sparked Waddington’s intergenerational saga. The 36-year-old director’s discovery of Teshigahara’s “magnificent film” came just weeks before co-producer Luiz Carlos Barreto spotted a photograph in a bar in an area of northern Brazil known for its shifting dunes. “It was a picture of a house, half covered by sand,” Waddington says. “So he asked the owner of bar, ‘Who was living in that house?’ And he said it was a woman who was fighting against the sand for her whole life.”

The next day, Barreto met Waddington in a doorway as the former was entering a party and the latter was leaving. “He grabbed my arm and said, ‘Andrucha, I was thinking of you in the last 24 hours, after I saw this picture yesterday. You should make a film about it.’”

“I didn’t take him too seriously,” the bearded, shaggy-haired director recalls. “But I went to sleep and I had a dream, and I mixed the image that Barreto told me with the images of Teshigahara’s movie. So when I woke up, I called Barreto and said, ‘We should make the film.’”

That’s a significantly compressed version of Waddington’s account. The filmmaker answers questions methodically, recounting motives and processes in multiple paragraphs with a husky, tobacco-ravaged voice that makes him sound a bit like a Brazilian Harvey Fierstein. Sitting near the fireplace in a hotel lobby that’s perfumed with smoke, Waddington never lights a cigarette. But he keeps a pack of Marlboros positioned talismanically before him on a coffee table.

First, Waddington says, he and Barreto sketched a scenario. Then they invited Elena Soárez to become the scriptwriter. “I’m not good at writing dialogue,” the director explains. “I like very much to create the story, but then comes something obsessive that takes sometimes six months, a year, and it’s a kind of work that makes me feel really desperate. I can’t do it.”

Waddington estimates that he, Barreto, and Soárez spent a year just working up the narrative. “Only the story, not dialogue or anything. And after this year, when we had the story, we called Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres,” the film’s mother-and-daughter stars, and explained the premise.

In 1910, Aurea enters into an arranged marriage and is taken by her husband to an inhospitable desert homestead, from which he soon vanishes. She’s trapped there for the rest of her life and has a daughter, Maria, who later also wants to leave. A local fisherman, Massu, helps the women and becomes Aurea’s lover, in defiance of the era’s taboo against interracial romance. Montenegro and Torres both play Aurea and Maria at different points in their lives.

“[The actresses] said, ‘Sounds great. We need to read the script,’” says Waddington. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll come back to you in two years.’”

The director speaks of Torres and Montenegro as if they’re cinematic associates, yet when asked, he admits to a personal connection: “Yes, it’s my wife and my mother-in-law. But we had a huge respect as professionals.”

A veteran music-video director, Waddington also cast musicians Seu Jorge and Luiz Melodia in the film but says it wasn’t by grand design. “Seu Jorge was in City of God; he’s very good in that film. I met him two years before the shooting, and we became very good friends. The first day we met, we talked and talked, and the next day I called him and said, ‘I want you to play Massu.’”

“Then I tried to find a guy to play Massu 23 years later. I was checking all the actors that could match him, and finally there was a picture in the paper of Luiz Melodia, a singer who had never acted before. It looked like Seu Jorge 25 years older. He went through a coaching process to learn a little bit about acting, but I think by being a singer, he was almost an actor, because he has to face the audience and interpret the music.”

While still crafting the script, Waddington, Soárez, and cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa traveled to the dune-filled Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, both to get a feel for the landscape and to interview local residents. These conversations also shaped the script. “We asked one old lady about her memories of the Second World War, and the only thing she remembered were these metallic birds that made a lot of noise. These were planes escaping the German U-boats that were patrolling the North Atlantic. They would fly across northern Brazil, and then across to Dakar, and then up. So we added this element to the film.”

The House of Sand was shot on the edge of the park, with the crew based in a small village without any facilities for visitors. The production built two small hotels, which remain, and adapted a local bar into a pizza parlor and Internet cafe, which departed when the crew did. Waddington says that working in the remote location was a bit like living the film’s story.

“The place was like a giant, exclusive studio. Once you get there, you are living inside your studio. This was very good for the actors, because they were really isolated. They had cut communication with their lives.”

That was also true of the director and his spouse. Because Waddington was serving as a co-producer as well as director, and working what he estimates were 20-hour days, he decided to live apart from Torres during the eight-week shoot. “It was like being a guy whose wife is not on the set. But she was there. I was meeting her as an actress. Sometimes, when everything was smooth, I went to her house, to stay there. It was not easy, but it was the only way to do it.”

Emulating another Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, Waddington often filmed scenes with multiple cameras. He says the technique cut more than two weeks off the schedule and allowed him to make more efficient use of the rapidly changing equatorial light. “We were not shooting with two cameras all the time,” he notes. “Half of the film, we needed to shoot with one camera. Because there was no space to put the other one inside.”

Also, he allows, sometimes he didn’t have more than one camera on hand. “We had two cameras on the set for six weeks, in the eight weeks of shooting. Four cameras had sand inside, and we had to replace them. We’d send the other camera to São Paulo and keep shooting. Then the camera was back, and another one was broken.”

Music is as important as image in The House of Sand, but mostly because of its absence. “The character that Aurea misses, her main loss of civilization, is music,” Waddington says. “I wanted the audience to have the same feeling that she has.”

Veteran remixer Mark Berger, whose credits include Apocalypse Now and Waddington’s previous film, Me You Them, assembled a nonmusical score from nature sounds. “The briefing was, the soundtrack must not sound like music,” even though some percussion instruments were used. “If you have Dolby surround sound, you can feel the three dimensions of the sound. You have the sense that there is no music, but there are things happening all the time. So you feel involved.”

One thing Waddington and his collaborators did not do during the nearly four-year process of making their movie was revisit Teshigahara’s. “I’ve never seen Woman in the Dunes again, because I said, ‘OK, this should be inspiration. I will not check the details of that film anymore, because I don’t want to be impregnated by it.’ It was a starting point.”

“I think the plot of Woman in the Dunes is this thing about a guy who is stuck there, and then he leaves and he understands that his life outside doesn’t make sense anymore, and he comes back. This idea was something that was inspiring—but only that.”

Gradually, Waddington realized he was making a film about destiny. “There is a line from Nietzsche, which says, ‘You should love your destiny.’ And I think this is something that happened to Aurea.”

“It was not a pre-concept,” he adds, “but a post-concept. Something that you start to see by creating all the arcs of the characters. They start to speak by themselves, and suddenly you start to understand what the film means. You don’t have everything conceived when you finish. The film keeps talking to you. It’s very pretentious for someone to say he knows everything about his own film before he’s made it. Because it’s not true.”

—Mark Jenkins