Aug. 8, 2008: Altas Horas
|It was Friday, the final full day of my week-long trip to Sáo
Paulo. I already had an out-of-body experience attending the premiere
Tuesday. I didn’t think anything could top that night. But
I was wrong.
“Altas Horas” is one of the biggest shows on Brazilian television. It combines the network talk show format (Tonight Show/David Letterman) with audience participation and impromptu sketches, similar in style to the Graham Norton Show. But it also has a Saturday Night Live/variety show feel, with musical guests and performance artists, all staged on an imposing circular set that reminded me of a circus ring.
The ringmaster is Serginho Groisman, an affable host whose casual attire matches his laid-back demeanor. He never wears a suit or tie. He looks more like your favorite high school teacher than a TV host.
The set is designed like an arena, with steep, stadium seats surrounding the stage. As a guest, surrounded by all those people in those high seats, I felt a Thunderdome or Gladiator-like vibe.
Groisman always stands, microphone in hand, moving around like Oprah or Donahue. The guests alternate between sitting and standing. The show is only an hour, but taping it took three or four hours.
I caught an episode on TV in my hotel room, so I had at least some idea of what to expect.
A male translator working for the film’s production company arrived at my hotel Friday afternoon to take me to Mojica’s apartment, where everyone would meet before piling in a van and going to the TV studio.
He was a nice guy, 20-something, unassuming. His English was good, certainly better than my Portuguese.
We were among the first to arrive at Mojica’s place. He lives above a street café. Like a lot of little shops and restaurants in Sáo Paulo, the café has an open storefront. There is no door or front wall. You just step off the sidewalk and into the café. Apparently, this is where Mojica holds court. If you were going to “do lunch” with him, it would probably be at this café.
I waited in the café, sitting next to Mojica’s lifelong friend, Mario Lima. Mario produced seven of Mojica’s films and played supporting screen roles in most of them. Mojica never does anything without Mario by his side.
The entourage would include Mojica, his wife, his personal assistant, me, the translator, and the seven actresses that play Coffin Joe’s “brides” in Encarnação do Demônio.
One by one, the actresses arrived. It took about an hour to assemble the whole gang. Then we loaded into the van, Mojica sitting in front.
It took about 45 minutes to reach the Globo network studios where Altas Horas is taped. It’s a pretty big complex. Once there, we split into two groups. Mojica, his wife and assistant went into one dressing room. The seven actresses, the translator and I went into another dressing room.
I went into a restroom to change into my Coffin Joe costume. Then I returned to the dressing room and opened the door. The actresses were still changing into their goth movie outfits.
I said, “Sorry,” and started to close the door. “No no, come in!” they said. So I sat there in my Coffin Joe outfit, watching seven beautiful women in their underwear, dressing in front of me. I think they found my naive shyness kind of endearing.
Once we were all in costume, we waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, a stage manager ushered us out of the dressing room and escorted us backstage. We were starting to get giddy with excitement. Groisman came backstage and introduced himself. Everyone seemed thrilled to meet him.
Altas Horas is a two-hour show (I think), but it took several hours to tape the program.
Mojica was the first guest, remaining on stage for the entire show. The actress Alessandra Negrini followed him. Negrini was not part of the Encarnação entourage. She was there to promote another film, a romantic comedy. (Google her name and you will get an eyeful. A very pleasant eyeful.)
Two bands performed – Capital Inicial and Velha Guarda da Portela with Diogo Nogueira. There was also an acrobatic act, Les 7 doigts de la main (The 7 Fingers), similar to Cirque du Soleil.
The “brides” came out later and sat in the front row of the bleachers while Groisman asked them a few questions. I remained backstage with the crew, watching the show on a monitor.
Mojica, in his Coffin Joe costume, put on a charismatic display. The audience seemed to love him. He and his wife opened with a bizarre skit where he pretended a stunt went wrong and accidentally killed her. Mojica yelled (in Portuguese) “Don’t film this” and “No cameras!” I think the audience knew it was a put-on. Finally, his wife got up and hugged him. Then Mojica proceeded with the interview.
Mojica later "directed" another skit with Negrini, a male band member, and a male audience member. The scenario was a love triangle, ending with the two men killing each other over the woman. It sounds grim, but it was funny.
My segment was drawing near.
Backstage, Mojica’s assistant informed me that the translator would not accompany me on stage as originally planned. The show producers had put it firmly – he was not allowed to set foot on the stage! This came as a surprise to everyone. We just looked at each other and shook our heads. How was I going to get through the interview without a translator?
We were told Groisman could speak English, but we were skeptical. The only English word we had heard him say was, “Hello.”
I had been studying Portuguese and understood it well enough to memorize written dialogue. But I could not carry on a conversation in real time.
Then I found out that I would be doing a skit with Mojica, and that he would be giving me directions in Portuguese. I would lie on the floor with the seven brides, then Mojica would “resurrect” us and we would attack him.
So there I am, about five minutes before going on stage, finding out that I’m going to do an interview and a sketch in a language I don’t understand, and my translator would not be allowed to accompany me! It sounded like a recipe for disaster – in front of a national audience of millions of people! Talk about getting your adrenaline pumping!
I heard Groisman tell the audience something about a “fanatico americano.” I knew he had to be introducing me. The stage hands turned to me and waved toward the stage entrance. The audience burst into applause. I knew that was my cue. It was show time.
I walked onto the stage.
Hundreds of people towered above me, all around me, screaming and clapping. The band was rocking out. Cameras were flying around on tall cranes. Groisman stood in the center of it all, smiling at me.
I walked up to him. He started to interview me.
Somehow…some way…I understood practically every word he said! Then I opened my mouth and answered him – in Portuguese!
It was sink or swim, and I swam.
Then he said something I didn’t understand. While I was trying to decode it, the audience suddenly fell silent. The lights changed. Scary music started playing. A camera rolled up in front of me. Then I realized. Groisman had just asked me to perform as Coffin Joe.
Luckily, I came prepared!
I looked into the camera and let loose a blood-thirsty Portuguese tirade, telling the whole nation that they would cower in fear before my supreme reign of violence! The weak and inferior will be cursed with eternal anguish and pain!
The audience went nuts! They applauded and cheered. I looked over at Mojica. He was beaming like a proud papa.
Now, you have to understand. Mojica is one of my heroes. Seeing him grinning ear to ear with approval was, in itself, a dream come true.
It was like a standup comic on the old Tonight Show, getting “the wink” from Johnny Carson.
Mojica stood up and talked a little, then we watched a clip from Encarnação do Demônio.
Afterward, Groisman started interviewing me – in English! Why that little trickster…he could speak English the whole time!
He asked me if I liked horror movies. I said yes, especially Mojica’s horror movies. He asked if I liked Coffin Joe. Yes, I said, I liked Coffin Joe very much.
“And now you are Coffin Joe,” Groisman said.
I was kind of taken aback by that.
“No,” I said, pointing to Mojica. “There is only one Coffin Joe, and that is Mojica. He is the genuine Coffin Joe.”
The audience applauded. Mojica smiled.
In the next segment, it was time for the skit.
The seven brides and I laid down on the stage floor, playing dead. Mojica talked to the audience, setting up the scenario. Then he said some incantations and “resurrected” us. The girls rose like zombies. I rose like Coffin Joe coming out of the coffin at the end of Awakening of the Beast.
I lead the assault on Mojica, creeping up on him, the “zombie” girls behind me. Mojica yelled “Noooo! Noooo!” as we surrounded him and pretended to claw him to pieces.
Afterward, I took my seat on the bleachers, the brides on either side of me. Mojica and Negrini remained center stage. The brides and I clapped and danced as the bands played at least two more numbers. The whole show was filled with music and dancing. It was like a big party.
After the show was over, the Altas Horas crew people were giving me the "thumbs up,” smiling and nodding. That impressed me a lot. To those guys, every show is just another day at the office. They’ve seen it all. But they seemed genuinely enthusiastic about my performance.
We drove back to the café beneath Mojica’s apartment. Mojica told everyone he loved my “curse.” He said he would take me to the movies at midnight Saturday. Through the translator, I told him I would have to catch my plane a few hours earlier.
I think Mojica felt bad about not being able to take me out somewhere. He got on his cell phone and called one of the producers, instructing him to have Dennison Ramalho (the film’s co-writer and a.d.) come immediately and take me out to dinner!
Sure enough, Dennison came promptly and took me to dinner.
When Dennison arrived at the café, the first thing he said was, “Ah, I see you have met the office.”
No, I said, I had not been to the office.
“THIS is the office!” Dennison said, holding out his arms as he stood in the café.
We went to Bráz, a well-known pizza parlor.
One of my newspaper coworkers in Missouri, reporter Eric Becker, told me I must go to Bráz. He is married to a Brazilian woman from São Paulo, so he has traveled to the city many times. It would be criminal to visit São Paulo and not eat at Bráz, Eric said.
As we ate dinner, Dennison said, “Now when you go home, you can tell your friend that you ate at Bráz.”
Dennison said Encarnação had been getting incredibly good reviews. He found it amusing that some of the same elitist critics that tried to discredit Mojica during the 1960s and 1970s were now proclaiming him a genius and hailing his film as a masterpiece. What a difference 40 years makes.
We talked about the Brazilian film industry. Almost all Brazilian feature films are made using government financing. And the government only finances “prestige” pictures. The kinds of high-brow films that when awards at international festivals. Brazil almost never produces “fun” movies. The government does not offer grants for science fiction, horror, action and other genre films. Encarnação do Demônio was an exception. It received a grant based on Mojica’s reputation as a legendary figure in Brazilian cinema.
The key was to break the industry’s dependence on government grants and move toward private financing, as in the American film industry. But to attract private money, Brazilian films must demonstrate they can be profitable.
If Encarnação do Demônio were successful, it could usher in a new era of Brazilian genre filmmaking. But if the movie failed, it might be years before anyone took a chance on another Brazilian horror film.
As the fate of Brazilian cinema teetered on a precipice, Dennison finished his pizza.
Then he took me to his apartment and showed me some memorabilia, including his prized Exorcismo Negro movie poster. Just laying eyes on that rare poster was quite a treat.
Dennison gave me a beautiful book printed last year for a retrospective on Mojica. It has tons of rare photos and synopsis of all of his films. What a cool gift.
Dennison drove me back to the Tulip Inn hotel. It was a sad goodbye. I wanted to stay in the strange world of Coffin Joe a little longer.
But it was time to go.
Forty-eight hours later, I was back in Missouri. Amazing.
The adventure that had begun nearly two years earlier had finally come to an end.
Was it all a dream?
Hallucinations of a deranged mind?