What do you think it was that attracted you to João Guimarães Rosa's novel?

I read this book many years ago and I've always felt like adapting it for the screen. But then again I realized it may be way too challenging to adapt such a landmark of Brazilian literature for my first feature film. Years went by but the story stayed with me. In the end I thought you had to be brave enough to give it a try. You put so much of yourself in the making of a film… you need to be haunted by the story, and so I was with this book. I wasn't less familiar with the material because it was a "western." I'm under the impression that I relate deeply to the feelings of childhood this book is about.

Tell me about the writing process.

I initially began working on what I remembered from the book, without reading it again. I guessed I had to protect the deep relationship that I'd had with the novel and that had stayed with me. We referred back to the book only later – I cowrote the script with Ana Luiza Martins Costa – after we had gotten started. More than an adaptation, the film engages in a conversation with the book. Incidentally all through the preparatory work, I never told anyone I was working on an adaptation so that the book – really famous in Brazil – wouldn't overshadow the film project. I was afraid people may be intimidated by the writer's name and feel distant to the material. The thing is, I gradually realized that I had taken a rather similar approach to Guimarães Rosa's when he came to the region – he had long talks with the locals, went on transhumance with them – and this specific information is significant in that it helps to tell what the characters feel. My guess is we were particularly true to his writing by our approach to the locations and the people. I wasn't interested in the narrative aspect of the book but in the inner world of the characters. The book's – and the film's – landscapes are inner landscapes to me.

The book was written in the 50s but there's a timeless feel to the film – which could have taken place 50 years ago or could be taking place today…

Bringing up childhood often leaves you with a strong, wistful longing for a lost world… It's as tricky to shoot a film in a rural setting because it is a rapidly changing world. Besides, Brazilian films have often taken place in the "sertão" region since the days of Cinema Novo. So it's not too easy to shoot a movie in such a symbolically charged location. It was most important for me that the film took place today. This is even how it all began – I wanted to find out if this story could still take place today, if you can still today live so cut off from the rest of the world. That's why my approach was so documentary-like in nature – because the local people related to this story. If you look closely, you'll find plenty of evidence that it takes place today: the characters wear T-shirts, they use plastic utensils, they eat chewing-gum. The truth is, they are on the fringe of modern society, like a vast majority of people. This is the tragic part – all they got are the leftovers of modern society, including promotional tattered T-shirts and cheap plastic glasses. But they have no schools or hospitals, as you can see from the film.

The characters – and the children more particularly – struggle a lot with the issues of good and evil.

True. Religious upbringing plays a significant part in this region. It made it all the more difficult to get in touch with the locals – it took me quite a while to get to know them intimately. But it also has to do with the fact that we deal with childhood. When you're a child, you often have no use for rules. It's very difficult to tell between what's "good" and what's "bad", and at any rate you spend a lot of time struggling with these issues. Plus you often get the feeling that rules apply differently for adults and children, and when you're a kid, it all may seem very difficult to understand, or even unfair.

The whole film is seen through the eyes of the child – who's short-sighted at that.

Short-sightedness points to a child's particular relationship to the world. When you're Thiago's age, the world of adults seems hazy – you feel emotions but can't put a name to them. Now short-sightedness doesn't account for everything – Thiago cannot see the cornfield in the distance nor the monkeys in the trees because he is much more sensitive than most kids his age. For me, what really mattered was his subjective take on the landscapes and his close relatives. Besides, I loved the idea that Thiago only actually saw the place he'd lived in when he left it. All of a sudden, everything falls into place. That what's the film is all about.

Although you don't judge the characters, the father is very violent in the film…

He's a rough man. He believes that sensitivity is a luxury he can't afford. That's why he shouts at his son and tells him he has no right to feel superior to the rest of them. The real point here is their misunderstanding. They both have their reasons, but they live in two separate worlds. You also need to bear in mind that the film is seen through Thiago's eyes and that you follow the story through him: the father's violence is dramatically increased by what his son makes of it.

You're obviously quite inspired by documentary filmmaking – you use no artificial lighting, no music, and the acting is definitely naturalistic.

True, but I'm not a purist. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, it's still about filmmaking. The only reality that matters is the film's inner reality. In this case I thought the film's look should be grainy and raw because it'd help the audience to feel closer to the characters, and this was the way I felt like telling this particular story. I come from a documentary background myself and I thought that it was key to develop the relationships between people to create dramatic issues that didn't seem too contrived. This is why the actors first lived on the farm where the story takes place in order to get to know one another. Later on, during the shoot, the actors would always be on the set even when they didn't appear in a particular scene – for instance the mother would comfort Thiago off-screen even though I wasn't filming her at that point. We put a lot of energy in keeping their relationships on the right track. It would help the actors not to feel overwhelmed by the whole shooting crew – and to bear in mind they were participating in a film all the while.

You're very respectful of the characters' particular relationship to time…

Most of the time, movies are action-packed tales with amazing effects and outstanding characters. When you hear that a scene is "cinematic" it often means "spectacular." I'm usually not interested in these increasingly spectacular movies. I like films that are close to life – and in life many things are not spectacular at all. What was helpful was that life was going on on the farm all through the shoot – meals were held on a daily basis, the farmers took care of the cattle and so on – so that the film got influenced by this reality. There was no way I could let anything get between me and the pulsing life of the farm. Nature was not a landscape to be admired but a workplace of hard labour.

How did you cast Thiago?

I thought it was key that I established the first contact with the people who appeared in the film and that I had close relationships with them. In my view, when an actor is signed on, you sign a "trust agreement" with him the minute you meet him. This is especially true with kids. I wanted to make the first contact with them with no adults around. This was key to developing the relationship that was built afterwards. So I took care of the casting myself with the help of Ana Luiza (the co-screenwriter) and I made several trips to the region to this end. I visited a great many schools and when I saw Thiago for the first time, I was struck by his introspective gaze on the world. I had the feeling that everything amazed him – his eyes were so intense. I immediately felt like working with him but I also wondered if he'd live through the shoot because he'd have to carry the film on his shoulders. Then I visited him at his home: he lived in the middle of nowhere – much like the film's setting. When I met Thiago I thought the film could come true.

Tell me about the shoot.

We'd rewrite the script everyday on the set: the minute we'd shoot a scene, it all became so real that we had to reconsider the rest of the script. It was really fascinating – I had the impression of dealing with something organic. Obviously it didn't make it easy to manage on the set where you had to face up to many challenges. But the tension between challenges and dangers proved highly beneficial to the film. Nothing was exactly under control on the set, and I believe the risk factor actually helped the film tremendously.