Horse Masturbation and Pregnant Sex: Body Politics in Gabriel Mascaro's 'Neon Bull'
"I wasn't a well-known director, so I had to seduce the actors every day."
Five years ago, Gabriel Mascaro went to a Brazilian rodeo for the first time since childhood. He was shocked; he barely even recognized the experience. No longer was the rodeo the gritty mom-and-pop affair of his youth. It had morphed into an ostentatious spectacle.
"I realized how it had changed a lot," said Mascaro. "There was investment in genetic research of prized horses, and they were auctioning off artificial insemination. There was lots of business and money around this very traditional party that used to be almost a non-event, and [those changes] were in some ways reflecting a moment of transformation in the Brazilian economy."
He decided to make a movie. The result, Neon Bull, is far more than a spectacle itself, but it does inhabit the rodeo's carnal energy onscreen: every frame is alive with sexual tension and the raw viscosity of living with other people. The film follows an itinerant group of vaquejadas, or Brazilian cowboys, as they travel from rodeo to rodeo. Mascaro brings you up close and personal with his characters: a young girl, Cacá (Alyne Santana), her mother (Maeve Jinkings), a cowgirl and exotic dancer, and a cowboy (Juliano Cazarré) with a penchant for fashion design. With great intimacy, we watch them relieve themselves in the open air, masturbate a horse to extract prized semen, and engage in one of the most unflinching sex scenes in cinema to date—between a metrosexual man and a nine-months-pregnant young woman.
But make no mistake: Mascaro is not in it for the shock value. Working with mostly non-actors, he's created a cinematic experience that wades through artifice to find the organic matter of modern Brazil.
No Film School sat down with Mascaro during the New Directors/New Films festival to learn about his unorthodox rehearsal method, the process of shooting a five-minute static shot sex scene, and the lengths he was willing to go (cough, cough, horse masturbation) in order to get the perfect shot.
Five of Mascaro's films (including Neon Bull) will screen at the director's Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective from April 15 to 21. Purchase tickets here.
NFS: How did the real-life experience of the rodeo inform the writing process?
Mascaro: First, I thought I’d make [a movie] about the horse owners, but then I met a guy in the backstage of the event that used to work as a cowboy. He was cleaning the horse's tail. He had this dual life; he also worked in the fashion industry as a worker in a factory. It was very special to see how this guy had this braveness and sensitivity and [channeled it into] different jobs.
I decided to make a film about pleasure and violence inhabiting the same body and tried to think of a character that could expand [upon] these notions of duality. That guy I met in real life was a starting point for fictionalizing the story.
"During the two months of preparation, the actors didn’t get access to the script. The whole rehearsal was around the scenes."
NFS: The film felt very experiential. Is any of it improvised?
Mascaro: Yes, but I had a script. The actors, when I [auditioned] them, read it one or two times. Then we started [rehearsals]. During the two months of preparation, they didn’t get access to the script. The whole rehearsal was around the scenes.
NFS: How exactly did that work?
Mascaro: We were expanding possibilities around the scene. [The actors] started living on the farm. Just before the shoot, I would read the scene for them so they wouldn't strictly memorize the dialogue. They would bring their organic experience of living together—creating real relationships—into this moment, where the scene could breathe. Also, the animals could, by accident, change the scene to another direction.
We had lots of long scenes; some were seven minutes long. [This rehearsal process] makes those scenes even more magical because it creates unrepeatable moments. The actors are living the scene for real at that point, six minutes in. They can’t rationally think about the acting.
"In the direction process with the child actor, I said, 'Do not talk if you don't believe in what you are going to say. If you don't feel it will be real, just breathe until you do.'"
NFS: Before you showed the actors the script, when you were working on each scene thematically or emotionally, what would you say to get them in the right head space?
Mascaro: There is one scene where the little girl, Cacá, asks for a cuddle from another actor, Juliano. We created an opposite exercise during the rehearsal. I had Cazarré crouch against a wall, and he was getting tired. Cacá would control him and he had to say, “Give me a cuddle"; she only would allow him to relieve the suffering if she believed in what he was saying. He stayed there for half an hour. We were creating some kind of organic intention between them. Something truthful got built into her experience with Cazarré.
In the direction process with the child actor, I said, "Do not talk if you don't believe in what you are going to say. If you don't feel it will be real, just breathe until you do." For me, the best moments in the film are the breaths of this little girl. In some moments, she doesn't say anything because she’s just thinking and concentrating and waiting for the exact moment where she believes what she's about to say.
NFS: Were you trained in directing, or were these techniques ones that you devised for the film?
Mascaro: I had the assistance of a great acting coach who worked on City of God, Fátima Toledo. She’s very special. She works with lots of interesting processes and methodology, especially blending actors and non-professional actors to create a real integration. The characters of the driver, Galega, and Cazarré , the lead, are actors. The others are non-actors. Watching Neon Bull in the cinema was their first experience watching film in the theater.
"I’m much more interested in the minimal conflicts of day-to-day life. These conflicts come from the gestures, from the silence, from the breathing."
NFS: One very unique aspect of this film is how it encompasses the experience of the body. How did you approach that?
Mascaro: When I talk about bodies, I’m talking also the a bio-political concept of body—the notion that the body doesn't always have to be a subject.
The film doesn't use the psycho-dramatic exchange of the information of the characters as a main tool. The film is based on the day-to-day life of this group of people. I’m much more interested in the minimal conflicts of day-to-day life. These conflicts come from the gestures, from the silence, from the breathing. They come from these ordinary organic bodily experiences of our lives, like going to the bathroom, having sex, etc.
NFS: And the landscape is a character in and of itself.
Mascaro: Yes. For me, the film is really about this transformation of Brazilian society and how these new landscapes are affecting the body’s experience.
NFS: How did you work with the cinematographer, Diego Garcia, to make sure that that came across?
Mascaro: It was a quite special collaboration. He’s Mexican and he had done some films before. When I watched his previous films, I became very impressed with the way he approached filming bodies. The way he lit bodies was so respectful, so honest, so sensitive, and that was something I was really looking for. This film could have been a disaster if we didn't have that.
He was perfect for the project. We spent one month together, living in the same house, talking about the film. He participated in some moments of the preparation of the characters. He was very involved since the beginning.
"The actor was so nervous about the sex scene with the pregnant actress that he forgot to ask me about the horse masturbation scene."
NFS: How did you approach that final sex scene with your actors (which, by the way, goes down in history as one of the best)?
Mascaro: It was very difficult, even though it was only two takes. The first one was just to study camera movement. Then, when we were ready to shoot, I just said, "Let’s go and let’s record." It was the last scene of the film that we shot. Of course, the actor and actress were nervous. The actor argued with me, “Please, put this scene last." But in the end, the actress was totally fine. You can easily see that she is so comfortable with this situation, so much more than him. It really helps and it was very important to the film to show her in this position where she’s taking control of her body—taking control of their pleasure—and enjoys doing so. This lack of embarrassment makes the scene even more intriguing.
NFS: And what about that horse masturbation scene?
Mascaro: The actor was so nervous about the sex scene with the pregnant actress that he forgot to ask me about this scene. When we were there, the horse came and he said, “Let’s go.” I say, “Camera, action.” He says, “Wait, stop, stop! Where’s the prosthetic?" I said, "No, no. No prosthetic.” He goes, "No way. No, no! Not touching that.” He left. I spent lots of time trying to convince him. I tried to [explain how it was important] conceptually. He goes, “No, fuck your concept! This is my life!" Finally, he said, “I will only do this if you do it first.” And, well, I couldn't lose the scene.
NFS: Your film deftly navigates the difference between sexuality and gender. Was this something that was important for you to communicate?
A lot of my characters are atypical. We weren’t really forcing stereotypes. As much as we were following the actors [with the camera], we were giving them empowerment, showing their intimacy in a much more sophisticated and respectful way.
"I tried to create characters that would expand our notions of gender and identity."
Thinking about Brazil, I wanted to break some kind of stereotypes about the representation of macho culture and sexist culture in the cowboy countryside. I tried to create characters that would expand our notions of gender and identity. They are not fitting these very strict ideas; they are experiencing a new process. I tried to create a language of transformation. I tried to expand the characters into a non-heteronormative perspective.
NFS: What was the most challenging aspect of production?
Mascaro: I think it was to create an atmosphere where the actors could really feel part of [the movie]. It’s not easy to do what they did. I wasn’t a well-known director, so I had to seduce the actors every day. It was a step by step, brick by brick process in terms of bringing them into the mood of the film.
They were quite nervous about the way that I would show their bodies. I remember the first uncomfortable scene was when the men are showering together. Really, the actors were not very happy. They seemed very like, “Uh, why [is this necessary]?"
But then I shot it and showed them the footage. After that, all of them were so confident about the process, because they understood the [camera's] distance, the level of intimacy, the respectful point of view the camera was taking. They were aware of the presentation. It wasn’t a sexual exploitation, even if there are a lot of naked bodies in the film. The actors understood that there was something special connected to the idea of reflecting the body’s intimate context.
It’s funny; sometimes, you don’t know how to bring the actors into the project, and just one scene can make them so invested in it.