Diamantino co-director Daniel Schmidt on mixing genres, celebrity culture and giant puppies: TIFF 2018

We talk to the co-director of TIFF fantasy hit Diamantino about blending pop culture, politics and puppies in his genre hybrid

The delightfully bizarre Diamantino tells the story of a football star who, after crashing out of the World Cup in disgrace, goes on a journey to get his mojo back, encountering genetic modification, the refugee crisis, and neo-fascism along the way. We spoke to director Daniel Schmidt about working with his co-director Gabriel Abrantes, the influence of celebrity culture on cinema, and the trials of getting Pekingese puppies to work it for the camera.

Diamantino is such a mixture of genres – it’s a sci-fi, comedy, fantasy and more. Where did the seed of the idea begin for this film?

We’re pretty fascinated in popular culture in general – that’s what drew us to cinema, the sort of language that we’re all almost born into. We kind of were like, “You know what, let’s look at the present, the present is really crazy right now.” The film has got all these different types of imagery like drone imagery, cell phone imagery, surveillance imagery, but also pop imagery, almost like Lisa Frank imagery, you know? So as we were thinking of that, we were thinking what would be the sort of character that could investigate the multifarious topics that are on the front page today. And we became interested in celebrity culture and how that becomes the sort of intersection of all these different things. Like, if you’re Kim Kardashian, you’re somehow in the Oval Office with Trump and you’re also speaking on refugees. We were really interested in how strange and distortive that role of celebrity can be, and also the behind the scenes life.

Diamantino himself seems sweet and genuine in his actions. But it seems like he’s also a blank canvas for those around him to use for their own personal gain.

Yeah, we see a lot of that. I don’t know the reality behind those people but whether it’s a [figure like] Michael Jackson or Lindsay Lohan, what we’re told is that these people have never had an actual childhood or a moment to be themselves – they’re constantly being the canvas for some other person’s agenda. Diamantino’s character implies that he’s born into playing soccer, that’s all he knows, and he’s just naïve to the rest of the world. So when he sees refugees for the first time, it’s not just someone having a moral crisis of like, “Oh my God, I lived such a life of luxury without knowing about anything else,” he’s just beyond ignorant to these things.

The film is quite effects heavy. Was that all planned out or did you get to play around with the effects in post-production?

There was a lot of playing around. We had dabbled a little bit in working with the green screen and with effects before, and we had a few people advising us. The shoot was actually kind of a fiasco and when we finished it, we were like, “Fuck, this is awful, this is unwatchable,” we were so disappointed. But then when we started looking at the green screen footage that we had shot, and some of these other elements that still needed to be constructed in post, it gave us a new idea to do even more post and re-use some of the green screen footage. For instance, we generated the end of the film all in post-production, so it can be quite liberating in that way.  

Any favourite moments to shoot?

Shooting the dogs was very funny. There were about 15 of these dogs, and they were all owned by one person, he had a private collection of these Pekingese dogs. And they were just the dumbest creatures I have ever seen, like, couldn’t follow even the slightest sort of command. We were trying to get them to play, because they’re supposed to be on the field as his competitors, and we just wanted them just to run or jump up or whatever, and they were beyond lazy. Like, holding meat in front of their face we could barely get them to move.

Why Pekingese dogs, out of interest?

 Well I wanted piglets. Pekingese dogs – there’s something almost magical, magically stupid about them.

Were there any films that you watched that influenced this one?

Films that have inspired us for years are anything from these various inventive political satires, like Ernst Lubistch’s To Be Or Not To Be, or Emir Kusturica‘s Underground that deal with very serious topics but in very absurd playful ways. To Be Or Not To Be was filmed while Nazi Germany was at the height of its powers, so I think we’re interested in doing a film that takes an unconventional tone and an unconventional perspective towards serious issues. But something sort of more populist like Forrest Gump is in there. But then the biggest influences for the film were a couple of texts in particular by David Foster Wallace which were both about athletes. One was called ‘Roger Federer As Religious Experience’, which is about the almost transcendental quality that mastery in sports can have to the audience. And the second one is called ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’, which is a thesis that the source behind that athletic genius might be a sort of emptiness of the mind.

How do you find working as co-directors?

We’re friends so it’s a pleasure to be together and work together, and we’ve worked together before. It helps us feel more confident to take risks. So the film was a lot of risks – maybe too many – but you’re able to turn to someone else who shares that responsibility and say, “Hey, what do you think about giant puppies?” So that’s been really good, we sort of edit one another and encourage one another. It almost feels like a very natural way to work.

Diamantino played at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it is playing at the London Film Festival on 19 and 20 October. You can buy tickets here.