Coffin Joe—a.k.a. Zé do Caixão—is one of those villains that you’ve gotta know. Created in 1963 by the Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins, an independent artist who has made more than 38 films, the character is best known for the trilogy At Midnight I will Take Your Soul (1963), This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) and Awakening of the Beast (1970). Beyond the black suit, the cape and the top hat, Coffin Joe has a unique trademark: long and disgusting finger nails. Add to this a mix of sense of humor and style described by Mojica (the name he is referred to in Brazil) as 100% Brazilian or—in his own words—tupiniquim. Raised in a movie theater, his knowledge of filmaking was raw and innocent, testing and failing with no money and a lot of confidence and weird ideas. Welcome to the strange world of Coffin Joe and Mojica, the damned Brazilian filmaker that scared the dictactorial government on the ‘70s who is being honoured this month with a program at the Cinefamily. This interview by Carol Ramos.
First of all—I have to admit that I had a crush on you when I first saw your movies. I always thought: ‘Look at those eyebrows!’
José Mojica Marins: Yeah, the girls really liked me. It’s probably because I had a lot of hair, a pompadour and those huge dark eyebrows.
What kind of kid were you?
José Mojica Marins: I was one of the most outgoing kids on the planet. My dad was a bullfighter, my mom was a tango dancer and I was their only child. We used to travel a lot until I was three years old, which is when my mom decided to quit and my dad started managing his cousin’s movie theater. I got to know the greatest names of terror like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I had a blast because only a few people had a TV and I spent all day watching great movies. I took advantage of it. Everybody wanted to be my friend and the girls wanted to hang out with me just to get free tickets.
When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
José Mojica Marins: When I was nine, we had a play at school. I was a hunter and I had to make this girl—who played Snow White—scream on scene, which she didn’t. I found out she was scared of lizards and I dropped one in the middle of her breasts. She freaked out, took all of her clothes off and the audience went wild. The priest punished me and I decided to make a movie to impress him. I was a huge fan of flying saucers and comics like Flash Gordon, and when I turned 10, instead of a bike I asked my dad for a Ciclope 16 mm manual camera. With it I made ‘Final Judgement,’ my first weird movie.
You called all of your friends to help you out with that, right?
José Mojica Marins: Yeah—I offered a movie ticket for each kilo of guava worm they brought to me. Then I glued the worms on their body with the same glue used to hang the movie posters. I learned how to make double exposures rolling the film backwards and shooting again over it so I made them look buried with worms all over. During the screening, I thought I would have my 15 minutes of fame. The theater was packed with choir boys and all of the church members. When the film ended, the priest stood up and I put my head down. He laid his hand on my little head, and while I was thinking ‘Fame time!’ he stared at my dad and said: ‘Mr Antonio, your son is a retarded.’ Thus, I started my weird career. I knew that things like that would call people’s attention.
I read an interview where you said you were so scared of flying on airplanes that you drank 52 bottles of wine on a single flight. What happened?
José Mojica Marins: When I was 10, I flew in a very small airplane—a teco-teco—and when it landed one of the wings broke. I was traumatized and during the ‘70s I had to travel a lot to countries that held tributes for me. This one time I went to France, and I was really scared, so during the flight I drank 52 small bottles of wine. I was still sober and I had to drink some whiskey and vodka to control my fear.
Are you still afraid of airplanes?
José Mojica Marins: Yes. We just got back from a trip and even my wife—who is young and doesn’t mind about airplanes—got scared because we had 30 minutes of violent turbulence. Everybody was praying and the flight attendants were curled up in their seats. It was the first time I saw my wife screaming. The pilot said it was the worst flight of his life.
What else scares you?
José Mojica Marins: My biggest fear is to live the present and the next day. The world is a violent place to be. Brasil in particular. You never know what is gonna happen next. I’ve been married several times and I have a big family with seven kids. It scares me to have so much to lose.
How do you face the violence in Brasil?
José Mojica Marins: On my last movie, Embodiment of Evil (2008), I show downtown São Paulo for the first time. It’s violent and it’s been increased. A lot of drug dealers. Kids sniffing glue. It’s terrible. I try to bring a message in my movie towards fighting against this violence.
There’s a scene in Embodiment of Evil where you use 3,000 cockroaches. Was it hard for your crew shoot a scene like this?
José Mojica Marins: It’s my wife on that scene, OK? She had the courage to do it. I had different types of cockroaches from several providers that sell them to laboratories. My crew put so much clothing on, it seemed they were going to Mars! Everybody was freaking out. On the scene, it was only me and my wife and one cockroach crawled on my legs. It disturbed me a lot! It’s inoffensive, but so gross. My wife had some protection on her ears but at one point it fell and a cockroach was inside of her ear! I had to take her to the hospital and she was so disturbed. We took a cab during rush hour and she didn’t stop saying: ‘It’s inside my brain!’ When we arrived at the hospital I was carrying her and she had the make-up on. Everybody thought I had beaten her and I had a hard time explaining we were making a movie. They took it out of her ear, but I always think that with an animal like that inside of it you, you hear terrible things—like a volcano about to explode inside your head.
Awakening of the Beast (1970) was forbidden by the government and was never shown in a regular commercial movie theater. How do you feel about it?
José Mojica Marins: It was released on DVD but it was screened only in film festivals and it’s an award-winning film. It showed how I felt during that time and it made the politicians upset. When I say, ‘My world is strange. This world, my friend, is made of strange people, but there are none as strange as you!’ [during the first scene] I was talking about them! It was worth it though. My insolence encouraged younger filmmakers and I had huge support, later, from Luiz Sergio Person, Glauber Rocha and Rogerio Sganzerla. [Three of the most innovative and brillant Brazilian filmmakers. Their main productions were released during the ‘60s and ‘70s.]
Were you ever threatened or arrested by the Brazilian government? What kind of risks did you take to make your films? How did you escape imprisonment or danger?
José Mojica Marins: I was arrested several times and they always said that they would burn my negatives. But I was more victim of psychological torture than physical. One time they said they arrested my mom and I could hear a woman screaming next door. They asked me to confess, otherwise they would kill her. I still don’t know what they were talking about but they believed my films had a political message and wanted me to tell them what it was. Also I became very famous at that time so I guess they were afraid that I was supporting some terrorist group. People saw me on the street and blessed themselves because they were scared. I was on the cover of a lot of magazines. When the dictator government came, they put a lot of pressure on me. So everytime I had a new film I went to military parties and recruited generals and politicians’ sons and daughters for my cast. It was an indirect way to gain their support. That’s how I survived on those times. Like some critics used to say, I was 40 years ahead of my time. A lot of people began to understand my films later. Like Finis Hominis, a film about this crazy guy who escapes from a mental hospital and dresses weird. Glauber Rocha wanted to make a film with me where Finis joined Coffin Joe, but he died and it never happened.
What ideas did you have that you never even filmed because you knew they would be censored? What ideas did you have to wait longest to actually film and why?
José Mojica Marins: I took it easy in Embodiment of Evil after an actress lost her mind on the pig scene. She was crying and got really scared, which made the crew apprehensive. The rat scene was supposed to be more scary, same with the cockroach scene. A lot of people were curious to shoot with me because they knew that I don’t fake. My business is reality. Still, some of them got scared and I had to take it easy.
What’s next? Any particular projects?
José Mojica Marins: I’m looking for new producers. In 2010 I want to make a movie called Devorador de Olhos (Devourer of Eyes) and I want to have total freedom to do something stronger, more scary. Eyes are the most sensitive thing and I want to work with them, especially women’s eyes. There’s this scene where I take off an eye with a corkscrew. Then I can consider my work complete. I also wanna put some unfinished films together in one movie, from the ‘40s until now.
Have you ever considered a final chapter in the Coffin Joe story?
José Mojica Marins: Yes—I wanna make the fourth film. It’s the final episode, when his son is born and continues in Coffin’s footsteps. I already have the screenplay—Sete Ventres para um Demônio. (Seven Bellies for a Devil.)
What is your own personal concept of hell? The Chinese have very specific hells – for instance, rich people who don’t help others are ground into fine powder. What do you think comes after death? What would Coffin Joe think?
José Mojica Marins: Hell does not exist in the way they say, with flames and so on. Man created hell. I made a hell with ice in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse because ice burns as well. I don’t think you are punished going to hell. I think you die and your energy stays or goes to a parallel universe—another planet or dimension. Coffin Joe is an atheist. The only thing he believes is immortality through your own blood. That’s why he searches for the superior woman, able to give him the perfect son. He will protect the kids and not be afraid of death, just like his father. In Embodiment of Evil he made a son in seven different ladies. Let’s wait for next episode to find out who is gonna give him the perfect son.
You declared once that Rosemary’s Baby is the biggest horror movie of all time. What’s your opinion about Roman Polanski’s arrest?
José Mojica Marins: Yeah. I think it’s a great movie because it’s about real life. It’s not a fiction, like I make, which makes it even more scary. I send him my congratulations. Too bad he didn’t make something like that again. I heard he was arrested and I think he shouldn’t have molested that child, especially because he was famous and could have any woman he wanted. I support his arrest. Anyone who does that deserves jail time or even the death penalty.
Has anything ever happened to shake your confidence in your own ideas for Coffin Joe? And has anything happened to re-inspire you when you needed it?
José Mojica Marins: Never. Coffin Joe was created after a nightmare I had in October 11th, 1963. Someone dressed in black wanted to show me my birthdate and my death date, but I refused to see. Then I created the title At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul. I knew it would take some time for Coffin Joe be recognized as a great character. Last year I won 7 awards at Festival Paulinia de Cinema [a Brazilian film festival located in Paulinia, São Paulo]. This year I’m going to Colombia and next year they will be having a tribute to me in the U.S.
What advantages has being so independent given you? And what have you had to give up?
José Mojica Marins: The biggest advantage is no need to follow any rule. I have no rules on the set and if what I’m doing scares my crew and my technicians, it will scare the audience. I don’t like to tell lies. I’m writing my memoir to be released next year and it’s going to give you the chills. There are things the likes of which you’ve never heard, with witnesses to prove it. I never had to give up anything, but it bothers me, particularly being Catholic, that people think I am the devil. I can play Jesus in a movie—why not? I’m an actor.
Where do you feel Coffin Joe fits among the world’s great villains—Dr. Hyde, Dr. Frankenstein, and so on? Has he become a global figure yet?
José Mojica Marins: I think so. I don’t copy anybody. I created something authentic—tupiniquim. [Brazilian indigenous tribe, also means to be Brazilian]. Brazil is the biggest superstitious country, with the highest levels of folk culture. If I die tomorrow, I know everybody will be talking about Coffin Joe. In Bahia [Brazilian northeast state with a huge population of African descendants] there are religious places where Coffin Joe shows up, like a umbanda entity [Brazilian religion similar to santeria]. He’s a real entity.
At umbanda houses?
José Mojica Marins: Yes, but I’m against it. I have nothing to do with Pomba Gira [in umbanda religion, it’s the female version of the devil]. I have two girls that perform with me on stage and I call them guardians. Journalists called them Pomba Giras, but they are not. I explore the religious subject because the audience likes it, but I don’t belive in that.
Why is Brazilian culture so fascinating worldwide?
José Mojica Marins: It’s not only the folk culture but we also have the most beautiful beaches, the biggest forests in the world, fantastic stories of people from favelas [ghettos] who married politicians, rich ladies having affairs with bandits. We also have the most beautiful women in the world. Everywhere I go and find a beautiful woman, she’s a Brazilian student in Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal. It’s fascinating. We have the good stuff.
Is there any Brazilian filmmaker that could succeed you?
José Mojica Marins: I think that too much technology brings complacency to people. Dennison Ramalho, who made Love From Mother Only (2003) just finished a short. He has followed me for more than 15 years and can succeed me, but it can happen to be a female filmmaker, too. I have a daughter who makes terror, too—vampire stuff. I don’t like vampire movies, though—it’s gringo’s stuff. It’s not Brazilian. We have to do what is our culture. I would like it if she made movie about a macumbeira (someone who makes spells). There’s too many vampire movies already!
Have you ever received any human body part as a gift?
José Mojica Marins: I receive a lot of weird things. Once a doctor sent me a fetus on Christmas. Damn! This other time, someone had the patience to collect someone else’s poop, extract the worms in it and send it to me. Those people are nuts. I can play crazy, but I’m not at all!
If it’s 24 hours of EXPLICIT sex and 48 hours of HALLUCINATORY sex, what can we expect at 72 hours?
José Mojica Marins: If I make 72 hours for sure I will go beyond everything. Nothing about sex that you can imagine will be left. If in 24 hours you have a woman having sex with dogs, on 48 I will have woman with a donkey and on 72 way more horrible things. I’m the kind of person who keeps a lot of stories. It’s going to be scary and hardcore. The audience will not even need to buy energy drinks. They will get completely stoned.
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