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The Ballad of a Portuguese Artist: An Interview with Filipe Melo

Filipe Melo is a successful & multi-talented Portuguese artist in film, music, and street art. Photo provided by London Flair P.R.
Filipe Melo is a successful & multi-talented Portuguese artist in film, music, and street art. Photo provided by London Flair P.R.

In the bustling cities of Portugal, street art remains a blending variety of the traditional and the modern. According to the official street art website, the modes are “derelict and cutting-edge. The artists who claim the walls seem to capture this in their work and often bring together unique mediums and techniques.” Some of these projects have been deemed “Underdog” and “The Crono Project.” While sauntering along the city blocks of Lisbon, one will easily be inspired by its vast array of vibrant murals, sculptures, and artistic messages discovered on the various building facades, billboards, and large walls.

This is an example of Lisbon, Portugal’s unique street art. Photo provided by Maksym Bilousov.

It is not a stretch to suggest that Lisbon native Filipe Melo is an artistic product of his environment.  As an expert in various aesthetic genres, which are sure to make his budding filmmakers envious, the 45-year-old has seen success as a graphic novelist — over twelve books to his credit — who has won many literary awards. He is the author of The Adventures of Dog Mendonca & Pizzaboy, a series of three graphic novels. His books have been published in the U.S., Brazil, France, Poland, Turkey, Spain, and Portugal. His graphic novel Ballad for Sophie was also nominated for 4 Eisner Awards, including for Best Writer. The book is also being developed as a TV series by Universal International Studios. Having studied at the coveted Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, Melo is an accomplished pianist.

This brings us to Melo’s career in cinema, which is not just burgeoning but already flourishing. His first short film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, led him to direct Um Mundo Catita with Manuel João Vieira. This was a six-episode TV show that was played in his home country. Before writing and directing O Lobo Solitário (The Lone Wolf), the centerpiece of my interview with him, Melo directed the short, Sleepwalk in 2018. Both movies won the Sophia Award for Best Short from the Portuguese Film Academy.

In O Lobo Solitário, Melo depicts a late-night radio show host named Vitor Lobo, played by Adriano Luz, who receives a call while on the air from “an old friend. [It is] a call that could change everything,” as IMDB describes it. Strange adult themes permeate throughout this ominous though compelling narrative that is filled with regret, guilt, and moral ambiguity. This film was produced by Sandra Faria who also has served as Melo’s music producer. Faria has also directed more than a hundred projects, and in 2015, founded Força de Produção, a Lisbon-based theatre, TV, and film production company. O Lobo Solitário has already garnered considerable acclaim, having won in major categories at the Badajoz Short Film Festival, Coimbra Caminhos do Cinema, Leiria Film Fest, (aforementioned) Sophia Awards, and Vila de Conde International Short Film Festival. The film also played at the Thessaloniki International Short Film Festival as well as international film fests in Vancouver, San Diego, and at the Aesthetica International Film Festival in the UK. It may soon be eligible for the Oscars’ Shortlist.

Adriano Luz stars as Vitor Lobo in Filipe Melo’s haunting short, O Lobo Solitário (The Lone Wolf). Photo provided by London Flair PR.

I caught up with Filipe Melo to learn more about his relentlessly creative drive as a multi-faceted artist.

Jared Feldschreiber:  How did you grow into the role of a graphic novelist? Who were your greatest influences?

Filipe Melo: I started authoring graphic novels because I wanted to write for a film, so the first books I did were films that did not happen. Only later I started writing specifically [designed to be] books. I would say that most of my influences are from cinema or literature, but I love some comic book writers, such as Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Marjane Satrapi.

JF: To those that do not fully appreciate graphic novels, what can you impart as to why it is such an effective mode of storytelling?

FM: That is a good question. I can honestly say that I did not know a lot about graphic novels until I started doing them. After I did, though, I could not stop. I would say that it’s a very creative and free mode of storytelling. Since it is not as difficult to produce as a film, it allows infinite creativity for the writers — without production concerns — so any story could be an indie or a gigantic [budget film].

JF: Why did you choose writing graphic novels as opposed to regular fiction or other forms of creative writing?

FM: It was all an accident! I always wanted to write for a film. My whole career writing graphic novels started because I love film. So, whenever I go to conventions or comic book events, I always feel like an intruder — just like an alien.

JF: How did you begin your film career, and what are some of the harshest lessons you learned?

FM: It is a cliché, but it started with me as a child and a giant, super VHS camera in the Portuguese countryside, making horror movies with my cousins. It got more serious when I went to study music in the U.S., and I went to Tower Records to rent two movies each evening over many years. I would watch anything — from RKO musicals to Troma. That was my film school. The harshest lesson is always to be sure to be surrounded by kind, egoless people, or else the film will feel bitter when you see it.

JF: Now that you are a respected film director who has garnered many awards, and is on the cusp of having your latest Short in the running for an Oscar nomination, would you take a few moments to describe your latest artistic journey?

FM: Ooh, I do not know about me being respected. As for the Oscars, I stayed up every night since I was a child to watch the event as the live broadcast is always on so late in Portugal. Of course, you dream about being in person there one day. It is life-changing. The journey has been unpredictable, beautiful, and rewarding. Also, being a little older than most directors making their second Short, I feel like I know how to manage expectations, which I believe are like the enemies of happiness.

JF:  Tell me about the transition of writing graphic novels like Balade for Sophie, and what led you to the making of O Lobo Solitário.

FM: Whoa, you know about Ballad for Sophie?! The two were written at the same time, and they are connected weirdly: one of the protagonists is looking for redemption, and eventually finds it, while in the other one, the main character is not. 

JF: Without giving away the secrets of the plot and style of the film, what can you say served as the artistic and thematic motivations behind O Lobo Solitário?

FM: Well, there are three different answers. One refers to the technical aspect. I wanted to write something that I could eventually shoot with one actor: in one location and with one shot. I was not planning to use any post-production whatsoever. I was not sure if I would get anybody to invest [in it], so I tried to write something I could film with a phone if I had to. Thematically, I wanted to pay tribute to local late-night Portuguese radio, so the phone calls in the films (except for one) are transcripts from real [ones] that I recorded. I travel a lot when I have concerts, and sometimes on the road, my band would listen to these shows. They are usually hilarious and [even] sometimes moving. Finally, as for the theme – it is about a harsh and delicate subject, so I had to handle everything with care. I wanted to have a dubious main character — someone we cannot read [so easily]. I have met people like this, and they have always scared me so much.

JF: Stepping back to an examination of European cinema, what are your thoughts about the state of the film industry, and how does it compare to your successes in publishing? Going just a bit deeper, what do you feel is the role of the artist in contemporary cinema, and how can one measure success?

FM: I live in Lisbon and our industry is small, but we have a few strong voices doing films. We do not have many commercial successes, but we also have some extraordinary films that do well on the festival circuit. Also, as everyone knows, Shorts have a small market. Usually, you cannot profit from them, so they are usually done as a ”labor of love.”

European cinema has such a strong tradition; it is so rich. I also think that the new generation [with] unprecedented access to cameras and materials has been doing amazing work in the independent-arthouse circuit in Portugal. It is inspiring.

The role of the artist is an individual expression, so whenever a film is corporate or a completely commercial effort, it is empty and forgettable. Success comes in many ways whether it’s commercial or artistic. It is subjective, and it depends on who is doing the work.

As for me, success is being able to communicate or express a vision to an audience and hopefully make them feel or think about something. But even that is a mystery because, in art, the good kinds, at least, each person can connect with each work differently.

JFSo, tell me all that the public needs to know about O Lobo Solitário.

FM: Oh my, where do I begin? It is a thriller, it is a love letter to late-night radio, and it’s a study of human character. I hope you bite a nail, also, while watching it. I hope that after you leave the theater, the film will follow you for a while.

JF: How did you find your film talents for it? 

FM: Its producer, Sandra Faria, is my music manager and she has [long] believed that I can make it as a director. With her help – she is also a theatre producer – I called some of my favorite actors and actresses. These are people I have seen on stage many times. Since I work mostly with music, it was the first time I collaborated with an entire technical crew who were all so nice and friendly. It felt like [great] choreography to pull this one off.

JF: Why did you explore the dark recesses of the human soul in O Lobo Solitário?

FM: I realized that all the work I had done as a writer had been dealing with the theme of people looking for redemption. In this short, I wanted to get away from that [motif]. I wanted to give the audience a challenging time [so that they would be] judging what to think about these two antagonists. I wanted everyone to feel conflicted about their actions and reactions, and what darkness they may (or may not) have within. I had a session at a congress of psychotherapists, and during a question-and-answer session, they were arguing with one another about who the villain was.

JF: Do you feel that every type of art has shaped who you are as an artist?

FM: Absolutely. In the end, art is about human expression, and I have found such inspiration in movies, books, music, theatre, and within the visual arts. The more exposed I am to each, the more energy I get to make my things. It is like fuel; it is energy to create one’s path and to see what moves us and what defines us.

JF: What gives you the most satisfaction as an artist?

FM: The most obvious thing is seeing an idea and noticing how an abstract concept can become a reality. Whenever I have a promising idea, musical or otherwise, I feel an inner joy, a sense of purpose, and a desire to live.

Street art in Lisbon remains a potent reminder of the power of human potential. Photo of this street art piece provided by Maksym Bilousov.
About the Author
My experience is writing, reporting, and documenting personal narrative pieces through articles and the creative arts. I continue to interview dissidents, filmmakers, ambassadors, poets, and self-censored journalists, oft-times in regimented societies.
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