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Brazil’s Queen of Telenovelas, Gloria Perez, on ‘Edge of Desire’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Perez talks about what separates her telenovela from much U.S. fiction

In Episode 1 of “Edge of Desire,” Globo’s big new telenovela, launch at Natpe, Eugenio is on the cusp of leaving his family food sales company to establish his own law practice. Events, maybe fate, derails his dream. Cut to Episode 2, 15 years later, as Eugenio announces that for once and for all, as his son is getting married, he will set up as a lawyer. It is difficult “living one’s whole life thinking that you have a great future which is the one you’ve left behind,” he tells Joyce, his quietly aghast wife.

“The Edge of Desire” turns on characters which attempt to pursue their dreams: their love of for a humble waiter (Bibi), their mermaid-like freedom (Ritinha), their dream, though a woman, of becoming a man (Ivana) or a MMA fighter (women cop Jeiza). Yet, Bibi ends up sinking into a life of crime, and Ritinha into effective bigomy.

Packing 160 one-hour episodes, “Edge of Desire” is the latest telenovela from Glória Perez, Brazil’s most revered telenovela writer. In professional terms, she is a force of nature, writing her telenovelas, which can stretch to “Edge of Desire’s” 160 one-hour episodes. She is also the writer of some of its biggest international hits such as 2009’s “India – A Love Story” and 2010’s “The Clone.” Though telenovela’s are often regarded as escapist, Perez work shows their capacity to assimilate contemporary issues: Fast-paced, crosscutting between multiple character stories, “Edge of Desire” addresses contemporary concerns such as gender diversity, sense of entitlement; sexism; the economic pressures on lower-income families. Its final episode was watched by 65 million in Brazil, the largest audience for a telenovela since the finale of “Avenida Brasil” in 2012. Perez talked about her craft in the run-up to Natpe.

“The Edge of Desire” seems to take a more guarded approach to the idea of much U.S. fiction of “living your dream.” Could you comment? 

The intention was to use Bibi to show that our dreams are not always what’s best for us. Bibi realizes that she made the wrong choice and tries to change her course. This may be a point of divergence: American drama generally employs the principle that the desire, a person’s goal and the struggle to get there usually lead to a happy ending.

As for Ritinha, she is a mythical and purely instinctive character. She doesn’t understand or obey any rules. She has no clue of how much harm she can cause unintentionally. She follows her own desires whatever the cost may be. And when everything goes wrong, she doesn’t hesitate to use any means possible to get out of trouble. What is interesting about this character is that she does all this without any malice. There is no evil in Ritinha. She’s like a force of nature. Just like the sirens, who enchanted sailors. She wanted and had the freedom she sought.

The last decade or so has seen Europe import more the practice of a writer’s room. I believe you write your own telenovelas, or do you use other writers as well?

No, I’ve always worked alone.

What is your starting point to write a telenovela? Is it a theme, a character, a broad story?

Usually, something happens that gets me going: the birth of the sheep named Dolly gave rise to “The Clone.” Dolly’s cloning made me consider what a human clone would be like and the identity issues this person would face in living as a copy of someone else. I created the story around this thought. A medical article sparked the telenovela “Test Tube Mother” (1984), which said that it was theoretically possible for one woman’s child to be born from the womb of another. I did some research and found that this was already occurring in Brazil – under the table, of course. I realized that it was the ancient story of Solomon, with a modern twist. Up to that point, motherhood was obvious; it had never been questioned by any code and, for the women involved, this was something for which past generations could not have prepared them: Experiencing pregnancy and the birth of a child that isn’t yours; being the mother of a child that you didn’t carry yourself. A new drama, created by scientific advances. “India – A Love Story” was born at a Mipcom party, after I spent the day amazed by the technological knowledge displayed at India’s stand, only to see them once again in a celebration sporting gods and traditional attire. They managed to head into the future while maintaining their traditions, and we only managed to be modern by breaking with tradition: this impression gave rise to the telenovela.

I believe you have said that “The Edge of Desire” is different from most of your other telenovelas to date. Could you explain in what ways?

The DNA is the same, but this time I worked with several different stories, alternating the central theme between them. That might be the difference.

One notable shot set up in “The Edge of Desire” has the camera in liberated movement – an aerial shot over river water, a traveling shot over sand – and then pulling back, checking its movement to center on the scene’s source of action. That liberation, then check in momentum, seem symptomatic of the lives in the whole telenovela. I suspect you had long talks with the directors about what you were aiming to achieve in the novela….. 

The directors, team, actors and I constantly talk about all the aspects of the telenovela. It is important that everyone has the same vision of the story to be told.

I believe that “The Edge of Desire” vindicates trans-gender transition. As an artist who talks straight to the hearts of much of a whole nation, do you feel you have a responsibility to open up the borders of freedom and “normalcy”? Or is this engagement with contemporary issues just something which interests you personally?

I believe that writers always write about what interests them most, and contemporary issues are what interest me. I have a background in history. I saw a lot of misinformation, prejudice and curiosity surrounding transsexuals. The subject was out there, and we needed to address it. The telenovelas’ open work format allows us to dialogue extensively with the public. “Edge of Desire” kicked off that dialogue.

When I consider writing about a theme, I do extensive research using an anthropological method. I get to know people personally, living among them. This is essential for me to translate their feelings into characters. The entire team is involved in this research as well: Directors, actors, and producers. It is very important for each of them to do their part, making sure we are all deeply involved with the same emotions. We no longer see the subject merely from an intellectual point of view. We approach the individual dramas and become personally involved; and the sensibility that flourishes from each team member at that point makes all the difference.

The last two-to-three years has seen a revolution in TV dramas featuring the launch of successful short-form 1o or 12-episode series  – such as, in Brazil, “Jailers” and “Under Pressure” and indeed your own “Merciless.” Have these shorter formats or Netflix changed in any way the narrative patterns and production models of the telenovelas you create?

Today’s world is much faster than it was in the past, when we sat at home waiting for the telephone to ring or a letter to come. I think both the telenovelas and series became much more fast-paced as a result. Due to their long format, telenovelas require a more detailed plot than series. It is important to mention that series, starting with “Lost”, took many cues from the feuilleton, which are very common in telenovelas.

Given the changes in TV dramas – narrative, technological, in the subjects they treat – are there subjects or projects which you think you could take on now which just a few years ago would have been impossible?

It would have been impossible to talk about transsexuals before, at least in the way we approached the subject. We could have had transitioned characters – as we have had in past telenovelas –, but talking about their feelings and how they made the transition would have been impossible.

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