One of the first things we learn is that Santos Dumont, in the words of the school books, is the "father of aviation." In 1906, he flew across the skies of Paris aboard his invention, the 14-bis. Years earlier, he was the creator of the first gas-powered drivable balloons – which was the inventor's initial kick to fame.
For many, the story ends there. Little is known further about the Brazilian: his childhood, personality, relationships and the tragic death at 59 (Dumont committed suicide). Penetrating these areas of his life, as well as tracing the trajectory of hits and misses that led him to the famous flight in France, are the goals of Santos Dumont: Lighter than Air, HBO miniseries that opens next Sunday (10).
The production, divided into six episodes, was conceived by directors Estevão Ciavatta and Fernando Acquarone, creators of Pindorama Filmes. “The whole idea of the series came from Fernando, and in a meeting with HBO people about three years ago, they agreed to produce it,” explains Estevão, who also created Preamar, another series on the channel. The two said they were lucky with the character, as Dumont, despite his fame, had not yet been explored by other media.
For series, the search for the inventor's life took two years. “We read everything that has been published about him, talked to his family's descendants and visited the houses he lived in Ribeirão Preto, Paris and Petrópolis”, remembers Fernando.
The language challenge
Santos Dumont is a Brazilian series that runs away from the conventional: besides Portuguese, three other languages are spoken by the actors. In the first episode, for example, what you hear most is French. It makes perfect sense, after all, Dumont studied and spent much of his life there.
To this end, Fernando (who speaks French) and Stephen worked with part of the cast of French actors – there was even a continuist responsible only for dialogues in another language to avoid any grammatical errors. There was only one problem: João Pedro Zappa, the actor chosen to live Santos Dumont, did not speak a word of Napoleon's language.
Even so, the team met the challenge. “I did an intensive one month to learn as much French as possible, and I continued to study and train in the following months of rehearsal,” said John, who won the role in 2017.
This year, the actor was in theaters with the acclaimed Gabriel and the Mountain, about the history of São Paulo Gabriel Buchmann, adventurer who died trying to climb Mount Mulanje in 2009. “In filming this feature, I found that he had some ease with tongues” says John, who with a month of footage could speak Swahili, the African language.
Besides language, João immersed himself in biographies and, above all, in portraits of the Brazilian. "It was a work of masks," he said, referring to the technique that argues that an actor can only wear a mask when he can absorb his expression. “Looking at the photographs, I tried to capture a little of the essence of his personality.” Then, of course, just let the mustache grow.
The machinery of the series
But only the charming mustache would not hold a series about Dumont – it would, of course, have to be reproduced. Brazilian engineer Alan Calassa was responsible for the tough task of replicating the 14-bis. “You can tell she's 99% faithful to the original,” jokes Fernando.
The first episode of Santos Dumont impresses with its special effects and ambience. “We had to rebuild early 20th century Paris in Rio de Janeiro,” explains Estevão.
The whole series was recorded here in Brazil, and the coffee machine, which appears in a scene at the Dumont family farm in the interior of São Paulo, is the original (albeit restored) equipment of the time. In time: Although Santos had no business skills, his father, Henrique Dumont, came to be nicknamed the Coffee King.
Already the tricycle and combustion engine that appear in the series were rebuilt to original specifications with the aid of a 3D printer – after all, not any parts store that sells products over 100 years. All the machinery in the series will be donated to the Brazilian Aerospace Memorial, in São José dos Campos, and to the Santos Dumont House Museum, in Petrópolis.
In all, about 200 to 300 people worked on the production of the series, and the number of extras exceeds 1000. Filmed for some time, the production has not suffered from the recent cuts of Ancine, the National Film Agency. However, João says the change in Brazilian audiovisual is clear. “It's a sad situation because it was a market that was very hot. I, for one, haven't made any feature films this year. ”
The first episode fulfills its intended role: it manages to captivate the viewer to explore beyond the 14-bis. The stories of the failed projects, the sensitive relationship with his father and his life in Paris are really interesting. The only problem so far is the mismatched tones between adulthood and the scenes in which Dumont is still a child, a bit too childish.
The series will also show the years following the invention of the plane, and all the consequences of that fact. Dumont, after all, is one of the great characters in Brazilian history, but does not have the same recognition outside of here. “Santos was a vain person who cared about being recognized,” says Fernando. “But in France, for example, it has been overshadowed by other pilots over the years.”
Despite its tragic end of life, directors want to emphasize the importance of the inventor. Fernando sums it up: “He changed the way we live, and his way of being and working is full of Brazilianness.”