My Last Interview With José Mojica Marins (Part 1 of 3)
On February 19 this year, José Mojica Marins died in São Paulo at the age of 82. He was one of the great Brazilian filmmakers and the pioneer in the production of Horror Cinema in the country. He was also the creator of Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe, in English), a sadistic undertaker who, for now, is the first and only 100% Brazilian horror character — who doesn’t borrow elements or characteristics from international creatures.
Mojica had a sui generis life. Although he is remembered for directing horror films, he made a little bit of everything: erotic comedies, melodramas, westerns, musicals, and even X-Rated films. His private life, on the other hand, was too complicated to be summarized here, with multiple relationships with several women, sometimes at the same time.
Very popular in the 1960s-70s, Mojica was celebrated by great intellectuals of Brazilian cinema, such as Glauber Rocha, Rogério Sganzerla, and Júlio Bressane. From the 1980s onwards, he fell into ostracism, then into oblivion, and finally had a comeback as a personality sometimes comic, sometimes caricatural.
He died practically forgotten in his country at the same time that he was celebrated as a genius and a cult filmmaker in the rest of the world; the last feature film he directed, “Encarnação do Demônio” (Embodiment of Evil, 2008), was a big box office failure in Brazil.
In 2012, when I was still living in São Paulo, I was invited to take part in an incredible project called Memória do Cinema (Memory of Cinema), created by Heco Produções and carried out in partnership with the Museum of Image of Sound (MIS) and the Government of the State of São Paulo. The objective was to conduct video interviews with great directors, actors, and actresses from the Golden Age of Brazilian cinema.
Unfortunately, the project was short-lived. Even so, it allowed me to interview the great José Mojica Marins. Our conversation lasted for almost 2h30 and was filmed on September 11, 2012, at MIS.
The director was 76 years old at the time and still very lucid. Shortly thereafter, he would suffer a heart attack that left him very weak and reclusive, until his death at the beginning of 2020. This must be, therefore, one of his last interviews, especially with such a long duration.
There are few interviews with Mojica translated into English, and I thought it was worth translating this one because he talks about aspects that are generally ignored in other interviews, such as the first films he made as a teenager and his time making porn cinema.
I divided our conversation into three large chronological blocks. The video with the original interview, for those who want to test their Portuguese, can be found at the end.
José Mojica Marins was born on a Friday the 13th, in March 1936, in São Paulo. His interest in filmmaking started at a very young age because his father, Antônio, ran a movie theater in Vila Anastácio (one of São Paulo’s neighborhoods), and the family lived in an apartment above it. During his childhood and adolescence, Mojica made short films with a camera that his parents gave him. These first movies are now lost. His first “studio” was inside a chicken coop, and his first productions had as actors neighbors and friends who worked for free.
FMG: What are your most vivid memories of your first films and first exhibitions at Vila Anastácio?
JMM: We were really the attraction at Vila Anastácio. Instead of a bicycle, I wanted a camera as a gift. My dad gave me the camera and I started shooting short films. A Portuguese from the neighborhood had a chicken coop and we poisoned all the chickens, so he gave us the chicken coop to use as a studio. It was my first studio, a chicken coop! And in this place, we made short films so different, so strange… Just now, yesterday or the day before, I was watching one of my first movies on YouTube, “Reino Sangrento” (Bloody Kingdom). It was a film I made in the 1950s, and it had Egyptians, sword fights… The film has everything, holy shit! I think it’s really cool! A few days ago I spoke with a friend to see if we can recover this material. I don’t know, maybe we could combine this one with other short films that I made, and other unfinished films. A great artist and screenwriter I met, Jayme Cortez [note: One of the greatest Brazilian comic artists, who died in 1987], once said to me: “Mojica, you need to put all this stuff together, and then you’ll have something that nobody has ever been able to do. Take scenes from ‘Sentença de Deus’, take scenes from ‘A Sina do Aventureiro’, scenes from movies you started and didn’t finish, all those crazy things you made. All the ‘Tests of Courage’ you filmed”. [note: The Tests of Courage were bizarre tests that the filmmaker performed in the 1960s to choose the cast of his films, forcing aspiring actors and actresses to eat earthworms, touch spiders, and even hold bare electrical wires!]
FMG: These first films, from the chicken coop days, where and how were they shown?
JMM: My father bought me a small projector and a screen. So we traveled around the state, [stopped in a city], placed the screen and projected our films. We charged groceries as tickets, people gave us groceries, and to be honest, afterward we sold these groceries at a very cheap price to earn a buck and be able to travel to another city.
FMG: Was the sound of the films dubbed live?
JMM: Yes, it was all done live. The actor and actress made their voices, sometimes changing the voice to dub other characters.
FMG: What was your reaction when you saw one of these films being shown in public for the first time?
JMM: There is the first film and there is the first scene. The first scene was really remarkable, for a year the whole neighborhood was talking about it. I was 12 years old and, with the help of Primo Carbonari [note: A very famous journalist, responsible for directing newscasts shown in theaters before the main attraction] and other people, I was able to enter a hospital that treated venereal diseases, where I filmed the close-up of a vagina! And when you projected it at 35mm, that vagina got really huge on the screen. Amazingly, I made a lot of money from it, because everyone in the neighborhood wanted to go to the theater to see a vagina purging on the big screen! The theater belonged to my father and was open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, so on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he let me use the place. I promoted my productions on the street, and at night the theater was always packed to see my footage. And I was collecting that money to be able to make my first films in Super 8 and 16mm. Some of these short films were lost and I’m still looking for them today. I was once told that on the internet you can find everything you look for, so I believe I will still find those first movies.
FMG: Was the cast of your early films always the same?
JMM: They were always friends. But that girl, that boy who starred in one of the films, in the next production I would ask them to help with the technical part, they would not appear in the scenes again.
FMG: Was there a lot of interest in being part of your films?
JMM: Holy Mother of God! I lived in a theater, and at that time — we are talking about the 1950s –, if you lived in a theater everyone wanted to be your friend. My father, I was his only child, so he supported me a lot. He let me put ads in front of the theater, which was the only one in the neighborhood, asking for people to appear in my films. Holy shit, there were always lots of guys and girls wanting to be in my movies. And I charged them a fee because that’s how I collected money to buy film to continue filming. That was how I produced my first movies.
FMG: Have any of your first actors been reused in your professional films afterward?
JMM: I think this group only appeared in the first films. The only one who has been with me since the beginning is Mário Lima.
In 1953, Mojica founded his own production company and spent years trying to film his first professional feature film, “Sentença de Deus” (God’s Sentence). The production was interrupted after the tragic death of one of the actresses. Finally, in 1958, the young filmmaker released a western called “A Sina do Aventureiro” (Adventurer’s Fate). In 1963, following the suggestion of his parish priest, Mojica produced a musical melodrama called “Meu Destino em Suas Mãos” (My Destiny in Your Hands), his first major box office failure, who lead to the creation of Coffin Joe.
FMG: You said you don’t like westerns, but your first film, “A Sina do Aventureiro”, was a western…
JMM: I was trying to show something different from everyone. Using a projector lens, we were able to do something very similar to CinemaScope, a filming system that didn’t exist in Brazil at the time. I always liked to do something different, and I used it to shoot “A Sina do Aventureiro”. I named the process GiganTela (GiantScreen), but it was just an improvised CinemaScope. They said it was not possible in Brazil, and I showed them that it was possible. All we did was take theater projector lenses and convert them to camera lenses. I think at that time we were much more astute, much more curious… I will not say more intelligent, but certainly, we were more audacious than young people today. Because today, when a group of film students arrives and says “Let’s try to do something different”, I always stay there looking to see what this “something different” is, but I never see anything really different. For me “different” is doing something really new.
FMG: But why a western?
JMM: I thought western was a good excuse for you to do a series of different action scenes, to show people on horses, lots of stunts, instead of doing something more traditional. So everything that could be done about good guys versus bad guys I tried to put together in one movie, which was “A Sina do Aventureiro”.
FMG: A few years later, you filmed additional scenes with naked girls and re-released the film, right?
JMM: That’s right. There was a Cuban who had a network of theaters, but he liked to show exploitation films. He asked me if I had something like that, and then I shot an additional 10 minutes with nudity to include in a new cut of the movie. These additional scenes are gone, the negatives are gone. They altered the original film, made it very strong, and when “A Sina do Aventureiro” was re-released in that way it made a lot more money than it did at the time of the original release. Unfortunately, this version no longer exists. I mean, someone must have this stuff, but I don’t know where it is.
FMG: Your next film was “Meu Destino em Suas Mãos”. It is known that the whole idea was a priest’s suggestion, and the final product was a box office failure. Was it because of that bad suggestion that you later created Coffin Joe as a guy who didn’t like religion or priests?
JMM: I was a very religious guy at the time. I was even an altar boy. So I thought I had an obligation to do something for the church. And this something is “Meu Destino em Suas Mãos”, which shows another face of José Mojica Marins. Maybe it’s the real face, and what I did in “Meu Destino em Suas Mãos” was what I really felt, that was the man I was. So I think this film has a huge contrast with the movies of Coffin Joe. If you see both, you’ll probably think: “The guy who made this one would never do the other one”.
FMG: But is it a movie that you like?
JMM: Yes I like it very much. I think it’s a human film, a very humanistic film. At the time he was not understood. And when it finally started to be understood by great artists, like Leon Cakoff and Jairo Ferreira [note: Respectively the founder of São Paulo Film Festival, and a journalist known for researching underground cinema], it was too late. In this film, I showed a very strong human side and emotions. It’s really slow, but when it reaches its final five minutes it becomes a very strong film. It is breathtaking, the final five minutes are very strong. You see, at that time I was considered crazy, and so I wanted to do something that they considered really crazy because that was the only way for people to see my films. So [in the final scene] I decided to hang from the ceiling of a church, more than 70 meters from the floor, and had all the protection underneath removed. Everyone was thinking that I would fall to death at any moment, and I just said: “If I fall it’s okay, I already made my will”.
In 1964, Mojica released the work for which he became known: the horror film “À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma” (At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul). It features Coffin Joe, a cruel undertaker with long nails who soon became an icon of Brazilian culture and an International cult horror figure. The film’s extreme violence places Mojica as one of the pioneers of gore in horror films, alongside Nobuo Nakagawa’s “Jigoku” (1960) and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ “Blood Feast” (1963). “À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma” was a huge box office hit and turned Mojica into a celebrity, but due to her naivete, he never managed to exploit the success of the film or the character. Three years later, in 1967, he reprised the role in “Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver” (This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse), a black-and-white film where he inserted a scene in hell filmed in color.
FMG: Has the success of “À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma” changed you as a person?
JMM: The film gave money to those who knew how to explore it, but I was never a salesman, I never knew how to capitalize. If I knew how to do that, if I were a commercial guy, I would certainly have become a millionaire with “À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma”. Because for years people only talked about that film, but I didn’t earn a cent from it.
FMG: Well, maybe it was not a financial success for you, but suddenly you became famous, a popular name.
JMM: Ah yes, the film changed my life for sure. Everyone started to respect me, but I kept my humility. I could have made a lot of money from the movie if I were a good salesman, and I would certainly be a billionaire today. With this film, I might have changed the whole history of Brazil. But I was not a salesman. Everyone made money from the movie except me. I continued to live my normal life, drinking my glass of wine, and watching others improve their lives, buying big houses thanks to my work. I was proud that so many people became millionaires thanks to me. But I remained poor. Do you think I don’t like money? Fuck, of course I like it! But it’s that kind of thing that I can’t explain, it just happens. I couldn’t get attached to make money, maybe it’s not my cup of tea.
FMG: At that point, were you already thinking about making other films with Coffin Joe? Because the character dies at the end of “À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma”…
JMM: Well, theoretically he dies at the end. I show him with wide eyes, but it’s an open ending. I thought: “If this one is a success, I already have other stories for sequels”.
FMG: And did you expect the success that the film made?
JMM: To be honest, I thought it was going to be a midnight movie, to be shown only in midnight exhibitions. I really made the film thinking that it would be shown only in those late-night exhibitions. I didn’t imagine that it would have a commercial release and that it would run all over the world. If I had known all that, I would have been prepared to make money and maybe produce the other Coffin Joe films soon after. But it took too long, it took 40 years to finish the trilogy [note: With “Encarnação do Demônio”, which was made and released only in 2008].
FMG: “Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver” has a famous scene in which you show hell in color, although the entire film is in black-and-white. Where did this idea come from?
JMM: This scene caused a lot of confusion at the time, a lot of arguments. Filming was delayed because of that. I decided that I wanted to film hell in color, but I didn’t know that I was dealing with very religious people within the production. And these people thought that I couldn’t do that, that hell couldn’t be shown in color. They asked me: “Why don’t you make all the film in color and show hell in black-and-white?”. And I said: “Because I have a different point of view. I have always seen my hell colored”. It wouldn’t be fun to show all that blood if it appeared black on the screen, not red. And I believe that hell has to be a place where you see beautiful things being destroyed. I always fought for my vision.
Filming in Times of Dictatorship
Ironically, along with Coffin Joe came the 1964 Military Coup, which would put Brazil under a dictatorship until the mid-1980s. Several Brazilian artists were persecuted, and for the content of his movies Mojica was always a very easy target. Censorship mutilated his films and even demanded the shooting of new, happy endings for some of them. His masterpiece “O Despertar da Besta” (The Awakening of the Beast), filmed in the late 1960s, was confiscated by censorship and had its exhibition banned for mixing Coffin Joe with psychotropic drugs and counterculture (the film would only be released in 1986). At the same time, Mojica made what he considers his favorite movie, “Finis Hominis” (1971), a critical view of Brazil under dictatorship, this time hidden behind allegories to deceive the censors.
FMG: “O Despertar da Besta” was censored for two decades. What do you think would happen if it came out in the 1960s?
JMM: I would be the richest man in Brazil. Wow, that movie would blow everything up! I think it would end all the perversion that existed at the time. The film was produced as a cry of revolt against our politicians at that time, against things that I didn’t accept. The whole story was born when I talked to a very beautiful prostitute that I wanted to put in a movie. Suddenly a group of policemen appeared and took her prisoner. So far, so good. I waited for days until she was released. That girl was 22 years old, and when she was released from prison she looked 80 years old! She was slaughtered, suffered all kinds of torture, and that image left a deep impression on me. Seeing that beautiful girl entering the prison and leaving like a mummy, a horrible thing. This is still inside me. (…) It was a crazy time. I don’t know, I should have been arrested at that time too, but the guys from Death Squad [note: A paramilitary organization that emerged in the late 1960s, with the consent of the military government, to persecute, torture, and kill suspected criminals] became my friends. The guys even slept in my studio. Early in the morning they would left, arrest half a dozen guys who were on the street with no papers, and took them to the headquarters, just to say they had completed their mission. But they came to my studio every night to watch while I shot my films. And the Death Squad even appears in “O Despertar da Besta”, I put these guys as extras during the scene that shows a police raid. (…) I always tried to fight it [the dictatorship], but I felt alone. Who was next to me, Jairo Ferreira? Jairo once said to me: “Mojica, I will write a piece about you, but my name cannot appear because you are being targeted”. (…) It was a time when if you were seen on the street with three other guys, the Dictatorship would have you arrested, they said you were trying to practice God knows what, that you were subversive. (…) So it seemed that it would be the end of me, and everyone said that I was going to be arrested or killed. But thank God I was born with a little more IQ. (…) A guy once said to me: “Look, just the military can help you now”. So I dressed up as best I could, called two good-looking guys, and went to one of those military places. There I looked for the daughter of a general, and when I found her I introduced myself and said: “You will be my actress, you will appear in movie theaters all over the world!”. She became convinced and I ended up dating her. That’s how I survived that period. Every time they tried to come and get me, this girl called her father, who was a general, and then nobody touched me. (…) This girl helped me a lot and her death left me a little helpless. But for the time she lived, she was one of the reasons why I survived, why I didn’t leave the country like Júlio Bressane, Glauber, or Rogério Sganzerla.
FMG: I read an interview in which you said “Finis Hominis” was your favorite movie. Why?
JMM: I think Finis is a completely different character, and I think he better represents the man I am in my current life. I’m more Finis than Coffin Joe.
FMG: Would you like to have made other films with the character? [note: There is a single cheap and unsuccessful sequel, “Quando os Deuses Adormecem”, from 1972]
JMM: The idea was to make a final chapter: Finis against Coffin Joe! It was an idea that I discussed with Glauber, Rogério, and Júlio, where Finis would face Joe’s beliefs, and Joe would face Finis’s beliefs.
FMG: And who would win this fight?
JMM: I would like to know too. If I’m more Finis, Finis will win. If I’m more Coffin Joe, Joe wins.
To read this interview in full:
Part 1: The first films and the creation of Coffin Joe
Part 2: Filming in Boca do Lixo, the 1970s, and censorship
Part 3: Porn cinema and the return in the 2000s