April 20, 2018

‘Neurotic Quest for Serenity’: Creating a Comedy that Drops Apatow Off in OCD Hell

What do three friends in the entertainment industry do when one of them becomes insanely famous? Create a meta-comedy that takes global celebrity culture head-on. 

Paulinho Caruso and Teodoro Poppovic knew each other from shared interests while studying filmmaking in São Paulo, Brazil. After graduating, Poppovic got a job directing comedy skits on Brazilian MTV. There he collaborated with Tatá Werneck, an actress with OCD and a knack for comedic improv.

In a stroke of chance, Tatá got cast in a soap opera and became a national celebrity overnight. Poppovic, Caruso, and Werneck then teamed up to make an unusual, genre-bending comedy that plays with the persona of Tatá, while taking a satirical look at entertainment, celebrity, and the pursuit of happiness.

After their SXSW premiere, Caruso and Poppovic sat down with No Film School to talk about shooting their comedy like a more chaotic Apatow-esque indie, balancing two-camera improv setups with stylized singles, and why the only thing you need is to have when you get started is a good script.

NFS: The main character of the film, Kika, a soap opera celebrity with OCD, is based loosely on the real personality of Brazilian actress Tatá Werneck. What was your process to take the concept and write the final script?

Poppovic: I called Paulinho and asked him if he wanted to direct this feature with me. He said, "Okay, but let's write [the script] again." And I said, "of course, please yes, let’s do it.”  When he entered, it became what it is. Then, overnight, Tatá became a huge soap opera star. She was contracted by Global, which is a huge media group. Before she had been joking about soap operas and now she was in soap operas. Right now, she has 21 million people on Instagram. She's doing magazine covers, has this Robert Pattinson boyfriend, but she's still this neurotic kid. So we wanted to play with her real life. 

Caruso: I think we had a hard time choosing to co-direct and co-write stuff, because all the time, we’re coming up with ideas. The way we work, it's more like a brainstorm. He puts a lot of ideas on the paper. I try to work laterally off his ideas. I try to pick the good ones, the best ones.

Poppovic: Paulinho is really good with structure. He's really good at creating rhythm.

"We can't lose the idea of the concept of why this scene exists in the script."

NFS: I got the impression that there must have been a fair amount of improvisation on set for this film. Did that sense of rhythm help? What was the strategy to allow for that on set once you started filming?

Caruso: Well, we shot like the whole film in four weeks.

NFS: Even the apocalypse at the beginning?

Caruso: The whole thing.

Poppovic: Tatá was between soap operas.

Caruso: We had the budget for five weeks, but only shot four because of her schedule. In order to prepare the movie, we tried to make a shooting plan that allowed us to have some time for improvisation. For anything where we thought there would be strong improv, we were shooting with two cameras, and trying to plan the time we needed.

Caruso: We spent half-an-hour shooting the script, and after that it was spent on one hour just doing improvs and all that.

Poppovic: Tatá has a writing credit on the film. We wanted her to be an actual writer, but she was so busy. She's a collaborative writer, as someone who came up with the ideas and improvised a lot of the material. She's also a producer on the film. She called shots as well.

In a way, it was a three-way creation. Sometimes we’d say, "Tatá, we have to turn the camera to Vera, and do her take.” She’d be like, "No it's not good, it's not good." We were like, " Tatá, it's good, it's good, come on we have it." It was like, "no, I don't believe you, we don't have it." I was like, man god damn it. I had to negotiate with the assistant director, "Can we do this?" And then okay, okay let's do them one more take. So we shot Vera, came back to her shot, and then she improvised and came up with something that was so good that it's in the film. Sometimes you have to take a risk, which could mean okay, we'll be a little bit pressed in schedule, but it's worth it.

Caruso: I think, for me, I was the bad cop. We have two good cops, because Teo and her were creative all the time, and I was like the guy saying, "Okay, again this scene needs to go from here to here." We can't lose the idea of the concept of why this scene exists in the script, so let's try to put all the fun we can get here, but without losing focus.

NFS: That’s important to have.

Caruso: We lost a lot of good jokes because they didn't make sense.

Poppovic: It's a hard choice, but you have to make it.

Tatá Werneck and Daniel Furlan improvise dialogue in a scene from "Neurotic Quest for Serenity" directed by Teodoro Poppovic and Paulinho Caruso. Credit: Biônica Filmes

NFS: So sometimes you used two cameras to accommodate improvisation. What was your conversation with your DP on the overall style and how you wanted to accomplish it?

Poppovic: We saw lot of indie-comedy, Apatow-esque references that things more looked like drama, and I think we took it one step further and created a look that was even rawer. If you shoot this film in California, even though it looks realistic, it's going to look good because it's in California.

Sao Paulo is not exactly a good-looking city. It's really dirty, and sometimes, there's no urban landscape. There is chaos. We wanted to bring that into the mind of the character that has OCD, that she wants to look for some kind of order and some kind of harmony. But it's chaotic, so we pushed to make it look even a little more raw, a little more disgusting. That was our conversation with our DP.

"It wasn't hard to make the film happen, but it was hard to make the film, especially to make something that we would be proud of."

Caruso: It's funny because we shot this film with some money, or at least it's a good budget for Brazil, but we wanted to look like an indie-American film. So the DP had this concept of not doing perfect design, like the traditional backlight. It's more of a realistic light, like a natural light. We use it a lot. If it's not natural light, we wanted it to look like natural light.

Poppovic: It was one of the statements, we didn't want to shoot it like television, like bad Brazilian television, which every comedy did. It was a big thing that Paulinho brought. We decided to take a risk and film this differently. Sometimes that meant not having a second shot and not be able to make a choice in editing. Let's go through, make some choices because it's bad to shoot every single shot and just decide whatever in editing. That doesn't feel like the film has a point of view.

A scene in a Karaoke bar from "Neurotic Quest for Serenity" directed by Paulinho Caruso and Teodoro Poppovic.Credit: Biônica Filmes

Caruso: We always tried to resolve the blocking in the scene with one camera, in one shot, in one take. If it didn't work,  we tried three times, and then we'd go to two cameras so that we could have the material. Sometimes, it worked with only one shot.

Poppovic: That's a crazy thing. Sometimes just by reading the material, you can tell that a sentence is not working. So you have to be open to improvise. You have to make choices, change, and just take jokes off and go with the plot. Sometimes you have to adapt to those things. It was really intense to find that out.

"We were renting the Alexa and we shot it with Marvel Lenses. That was something that made us stand out from the comedies people are doing in Brazil. We wanted to look more like good cinema."

Poppovic: I think even if we preferred to do single camera the whole time, as soon as we saw how improvisation was working, we saw that two cameras was the best way to capture that, and all the reactions and the responses.

Caruso: We had a steady cam rig, and our DP was operating the second camera whenever we needed it.  

Poppovic: We didn't use that all the time, but we had the steady guy available for whenever we wanted.

Caruso: We had two cameras on set. Maybe it would have been better to have the same two cameras, but we had one RED camera, and one Alexam because the RED belonged to the DP.

Poppovic: He's also a great friend of ours.

Caruso: We were renting the Alexa and we shot it with Marvel Lenses. That was something that made us stand out from the comedies people are doing in Brazil. We wanted to look more like good cinema.

Caruso: The thing with working with two different cameras, like the Alex and RED, is that each camera has a different look. It was hard to calibrate the two different looks. I use RED a lot to shoot when I need more resolution, but I prefer the Alexa. It's more close to the end look that you want in a film.

Tatá Werneck stars as a satirical version of a famous Brazilian soap opera star in "Neurotic Quest for Serenity" directed by Teodoro Poppovic and Paulinho Caruso. Credit: Biônica Filmes

NFS: What’s your advice for filmmakers based on the process of making this film?

Poppovic: I think you're going to be put into moments of testing where you're out of time and you're out of resources and you're being pressured into making decisions, into making cuts, and you're going to be pressured to do things just to relieve you and make what people are telling you. Sometimes you have to stick to your instincts. It pays off.

I think we could have made an easier film and we could have followed some easier paths, but since we followed what our premise was, we knew that it was going to pay off. Sometimes we felt like it was not going to pay off.

Caruso: I think I remember when I went to film academy, and I remember having classes with, I think. the was the producer of The Blair Witch Project. He said, "if you came to all of my classes, in the end I'm going to tell you how to get money to make your first film." I went to all the film classes and in the final class he said, "Okay, so the thing is first, you're going to write down the script. Write down your ideas and do whatever you can. Once you have the script, you can invite people that you believe, like actors, people that you want on the crew to make this film. You don't need money to do that.

You can try to reach people and be persistent and make them read, and if it's a good thing, they're going to make it. Once you admit you had made all that you can, believe me, the money will appear from somewhere.” I think that happened. We had the idea, we developed it, and the money was there.

Poppovic: It wasn't hard to make the film happen, but it was hard to make the film, especially to make something that we would be proud of.

Caruso: Basically all you need to do to start is to have a good script. Work on the script, because if you have one, you're going to have good actors, you're going to get money, and you're going to have a good crew.

Poppovic: People are looking for that.

Caruso: Of course, it would be good to have money to write, but it's something that you can do, you can work in a coffee shop and write your ideas.      

For more information on 'Neurotic Quest for Serenity,' click here.

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