In the final, specially extended part of this in-depth case study, Brionne Davis, star of Embrace of the Serpent, shares the ups and downs of working on set abroad, with the jungle as his location. Through it all, flexibility, trust and an appreciation of your team always win the day.
Embrace of the Serpent went on to win the prestigious Cannes Director’s Fortnight Art Cinema Award, several international film festival awards, and a 2015 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Josh: What was the shoot like?
Brionne: When I first got to Colombia, they took me on their plane from Bogota to Mitu. Then they take me on in this little jeep with a gas tank in between my legs.
Josh: This sounds wonderful and terrifying.
Brionne: It was. The set still photographer is driving with us and he’s crazy. I love him. But he’s just crazy. He speaks fluent English and Spanish and French.
The driver, who’s never left Mitu in his life, he’s like the taxi driver of town in this little jeep with the gas tank in between my legs. He’s smoking a cigarette right outside the window and the windows are down so we can air out the gas smell.
Then it starts to rain so we have to close everything up so I’m breathing these insane fumes. “Yeah. We’re going to go a two-hour drive into the jungle.” So not only are we in the middle of the jungle, we’re going two hours deeper into the jungle to where I’m going to be staying for a week.
The producer in Bogota gave me a package to take into Mitu. And I would be concerned if I was going out of Mitu. They flew me down in first class which is wonderful. But I knew this was either going to be the worst mistake I ever made in my life, or it was going to be the most amazing experience.
Either way, it was worth doing. I could die walking across the street or I could die in the middle of the jungle shooting a film where I really care about this character.
I’m telling the story of these people and I’m getting to have this experience of my life. That’s how you want to go in life. If you’re going to go, you go doing what it is you love to do.
Josh: You’re an adventurer. So many successful actors are adventurers.
Brionne: No matter what you do in life and no matter who you are, you have to take that risk if you want to be happy.
If you want to be happy, it means risk. It means living your life and doing the things that you want to do. If that means having a spouse and a family, there’s an element of risk to that. So you have to take those.
So when we drove into the jungle, we stayed at an electric power plant for the first week. This power plant was built by the Russians. It’s right on the river and the big rapids are right there. I think that there were times I should have been scared. But I think I gave myself over to it.
So there were actually Russian people coming in and out. Kind of like a hospital, but no A/C, just cold water. I didn’t have a warm shower for eight weeks.
Josh: Did you care?
Brionne: I didn’t care. At first, I did. But then I forgot that they existed. And when I remembered, I was very excited. In fact, I remember taking a shower one time and I thought, “You know, somebody should invent hot showers.” And I was like, “Oh, they exist but not in this world.”
I felt like I was in a concentration camp. It was kind of crazy.
And I never knew from moment to moment what was going on. Spanish was everywhere. My Spanish got really good toward the end.
But most of my time we spent learning the indigenous Witoto language. Ten hours a day, repetition, repetition, repetition to sort of be in my mouth so I didn’t have to think about the line, because my thoughts were in English. My objective, my intention, was in English.
Josh: As the character?
Brionne: As the character, yeah. I just had to go over them so many times that they just came out. The words just rolled out of my tongue. And it would just have to come out like that and I couldn’t pause because I had to think in my intention what I want from this other person. So literally, I would spend three hours on one sentence just to get it into my mouth.
Josh: But the character knew this language for how long?
Brionne: Well I had been in the Amazon for a year, maybe three years back and forth [as the character]. And it wasn’t like I was learning the language. There was no time and that wasn’t part of the story.
So on the first day when we get to this concentration camp, a moth landed on my shoulder.
These moths were like this big, softball sized, and they are beautiful, all these different colors like crazy. It landed on my shoulder and Andre, my dialect coach who became one of my best friends in the world now, he said, “When a butterfly or a moth lands on you, it means you’re going through a metamorphosis or change.”
So the butterfly went around and he landed on my foot. So I walked a hundred yards with it on my foot while we were talking.
Josh: He just stayed there?
Brionne: He just stayed there the whole time.
Brionne: When I got home and I’m thinking about this whole butterfly/moth experience and I remember thinking in that moment, “I’m ready and open for whatever change in my life. I’m ready. Bring it. I’m ready.”
I knew it wasn’t going to happen like that. But I knew this experience was going to be a change for me, definitely a perspective change. I didn’t know what it was going to be but I knew that it was going to present itself to me.
Every single moment I was there in the middle of the canoe with the mountains and the rain storms coming back at night. We would come back on these boats in the middle of Amazon, and it’s pitch black. You can’t see in the rain storms. So we’re all covered up.
And then sometimes, it would be just moon was like right here. You can just grab it. Right here.
So in moments like that with the rain storm, we couldn’t see, the drivers couldn’t see. And I would get scared. But I’m here. There’s nothing I can do. It’s like being on a plane. What are you going to do? Spend the whole flight being afraid? You can’t do anything about it so just be and just be a part of this experience.
Josh: I have not known anybody that’s going far into the jungle. Amazing.
Brionne: My first shot is me canoeing around the bend. So on the first day the crew said, “This is Diego. He’s going to show you how to canoe.” And I’m like, “Oh, I know how to canoe.” And I did know how to canoe, because I used to teach canoeing in Boy Scouts. Canoeing, rowing, swimming, all of it.
But there were moments in the rivers where I was in the middle of the river and a hundred yards away was a camera. And I’m in the middle of this with the mountains around me and huge, deep ass river.
And this little bitty canoe, and I’m like, “This is where I’m at.” Everything in my life just came and made sense right there in that little boat. And I was like, “Everything makes sense right now. Everything.”
Brionne: Toward the end of shooting, we’re doing the final shot. And we come upon all of these little yellow butterflies.
And it looks like there are about 40, and they’re feeding off these minerals. They’re right on the edge of the water. And the mountains are over there. The river is back here. So there’s a little grouping of butterflies, and they fly around every now and then. So, Ciro clears the set.
He puts the camera back here and he tells me, “This is me and this is my character having gone through his experience. He’s a changed man. A metamorphosis.” So he goes, “Start over there and walk. And when you get to the butterflies, stop. And then turn away from camera and look at … you know, look.” Okay.
And I know going into this, this is potentially the most amazing shot ever in the history of cinema. Because I see the butterflies and I see what I’m looking at. And I have no idea what they’re shooting but I just know that potentially this is going to be a really good shot.
So I start here and I walk and I walk and I walk and I get to the butterflies, and I stop. The butterflies fly up around me. What seemed like thousands and thousands of butterflies around me and I hear their fluttering. And they’re all around me.
I feel the breeze around me.
And I’m looking and I see the river and I see the mountains and goose bumps are taking over me. And I’m like, “Holy fuck. I’m in the middle and I can’t move.” As the character, I’m taking it in, as Brionne, I’m taking it in. It’s just my experience alone that I get to be right here. So I hear, “Okay. Walk.” Ciro says, “Okay. Brionne, walk.” And I can’t.
Josh: You’re transfixed.
Brionne: This is one of those moments in your life where you just don’t want them to end. This is definitely one of them. I just didn’t want this moment to end.
Josh: It’s like you’re in Harry Potter. It’s like magic is literally swirling around you.
Josh: From all these different types of reviews, it’s really hard to know what you’re going to see. So how do you describe the theme of the film?
Brionne: It’s a little bit like taking a drug. It delves into the human experience and humanity.
Because it takes place in the early 1900s and also in the 1940s, you see a 40-year gap of how the Amazon is affected in that 40 years.
The film pulls your soul out. You literally feel like your soul is being pulled from your body, it’s put up under a screen, and you’re forced to look at yourself. That to me is what this film does.
Josh: Wonderful. What was it like working with the director? Was he intense?
Brionne: No. Very calm. He was very thoughtful, wistful, very kind.
Because we were shooting on 35 mm, our time was very limited. I had to do everything on one or two takes.
And there’s a lot of frustrating moments like that where you’re dealing with the environment, the rain, the heat, the exhaustion, the time constraints, the fact that we shot this film in seven weeks.
Plus, they were editing while we were in Colombia in the Amazon. So they had a first cut done pretty much right after we had wrapped. Literally, we would shoot, and then the camera guy would role the tape – because it was filmed in 35 mm – in the jungle, they would put it in coolers and then send it back on a plane every three days. We were going through the jungle carrying coolers of film! Crazy.
Josh: Crazy and fantastic. How was the crew?
Brionne: They took such good care of me. They were working their asses off. The costume girl, Athena, was my assistant for anything I needed.
I would get home muddy, gross. I had two pairs of pants … two pressed pants and two shirts. That’s what I wore every day and they would just wash them every night and we’d get there at ten or eleven o’clock at night sometimes.
I would just go in my room and crash. Six o’clock in the morning was our call time, sometimes five. And I would wake up in the morning and my clothes are folded and put on the chair right outside my little room.
Josh: What was the character like? How did you craft him?
Brionne: I had a logical and linear understanding of who the character was.
He had this respectability about him, he was very knowledgeable, and he was a Harvard professor. I did all this research on him so I could understand who he was and why he was so passionate about the Amazon.
But for me to be able to, as an actor, wrap my head around what the Amazon is like, know what the people there are like, the indigenous people are like, I had no idea.
And luckily they brought me down two and a half weeks before I started shooting so I could have that experience and be an observer.
That’s really what my character was, this observer in the lens in which the audience saw the film in a lot of ways.But he wasn’t …
Going into my third day of shooting, we were discovering together, with Ciro. We were trying to find Evan through Brionne. And we were trying to discover him together. So at night, I would meditate. I would pray. I just want to give him justice. I just want to give this film justice and that kind of thing.
I just gave myself over to the experience.
Oh, in order for us to shoot there, the production had to get permission from the jungle.
In order to have that permission from that jungle, we’d have to do a prayer. So they had to go to a shaman. The shaman would spend 24 hours praying to the jungle for not only the permission but also our safety.
Josh: This is all in advance?
Brionne: All in advance, yeah. So the jungle accepted us which meant we were going to be protected, which we were.
Nobody got hurt. One guy got hurt, but it was after hours and he was being an idiot on a motorcycle. But it wasn’t while filming.
After the second day of shooting, that night, I go into my hotel room. Now, I’ve had intuition experiences, and I’ve seen things happen before they happen, that kind of thing, when I was a kid. But in terms of physically seeing ghosts and things like that, not really!
So that night, I fall asleep in my room, and while I’m asleep, I hear this chant.
This hum, “An-na-na-ana-ana.” And I wake up and I open my eyes, and I see above me hunched over, this figure. And the figure continues to chant, it doesn’t look at me. And I see him like this and then he stops, and turns his head to me.
He looks at me. I freak out. I’m like in the back of my bed.
And he rises up very calmly. He rises up. He stops chanting. He rises up and looks at me. I get out of my bed. I’m at the corner staring at him. It’s like an amber figure, a silhouette of a man in his 30s, I’m gathering.
He looks at me, then moves toward the bed. Then he turns around, watches me, then walks away from me. So I follow him.
I see him move into the darkness, then he’s not there. I turn on the lights. I’m looking under the bed. I’m looking in the closet. I’m looking all over the place. Freaked the fuck out, I sit down on the edge of my bed and I’m like, “Did I dream that? Am I just now waking up? What just happened?”
The next day, this calmness is around me. There’s just this calmness. So the next morning, I tell all the people, and I tell Ciro [the director]. And he give me a half smile, and he goes, “I have a lot to say about that but I’m going to wait until we finish shooting.”
Wait until you finish shooting? So I talked to my travel companion Antonio, and because he doesn’t know any English, somebody is translating to him. And he says, “There are magic and there are spirits. And you’re very lucky you had one of these here.” Like, that’s the thing.
It’s just a given.
Later Ciro told me, “I just think it’s really interesting that he visited you. You out of everyone, he visited you.” Like, why me? Why the white American that’s coming to the Amazon? Well, it kind of makes sense because of my character, right?
Josh: So you’ve been immersed in it, your preparation means you’re ready for it?
Brionne: I’m ready. And also because I have an obligation to the jungle to tell the story. So he was protecting me, he was blessing me.
So it was literally that day, that I was shooting a scene, where a woman gets taken captive. We’re coming out of the canoe and we’re having this scene, it’s very intense. They’re about to take us away.
I turn around, with the guards standing before me. And then I turn, and I turn toward the camera. It’s a zoom moment, where everything goes zoom. And as I turn, it happens, and I deliver my lines. I stare at the guy. I stare him down. And then we have this scene, and all of a sudden I hear “Cut.”
And I see Ciro come down, and he has this grin on his face, and he hugs me and he goes, “That’s him. That’s Evan. That’s him.”
I don’t know what I did, but okay.
So what we discovered is that Evan is very scientific, very brooding.
So there’s this beautiful just observant person that’s got confidence, and his intellect is being questioned constantly because there’s no way to make sense of any of this. This is what showed in the film. But it was after that visitation and after magic. Magic.
And so the last week, we flew into Puerto Inirida which is another department in Colombia, to where the big rock formation is.
It is one of the oldest rock formations in the world. It was what helped prove the continental divide.
It was once a big part of Africa. And it’s all volcanic rock, black. When it rains, it’s really slippery, and very hard to climb up.
So we get there and everyone’s having these little chocolates.
And I limit my diet on this trip just because I don’t want to get sick.
My character needs to stay thin. And I’m not eating sweets. And it’s hot so you don’t really have much appetite anyway.
So they pass out these candies and sweets and stuff like that. And I’m like, “No, no, no.”
Ciro goes, “No, you take this one and everybody is going to get one. Just take it. Just hold on to it.”
I’m like, “All right. I’ll just hold on to it in case later I want to eat it.”
So we’re all standing around. We’re on our break, and I open it up. Inside it has descriptions of either animals in the Amazon, lizards, or plants.
They give you a description of what they are inside biology, or whatever.
So I open mine up, and I’m trying to read it. I know it’s a plant. But I’m used to speaking, not reading in Spanish, so I can’t really quite figure it out.
So I gave it Andres, and Andres looks at me deadpan. And he walks over to Ciro, and he shows Ciro, and he goes, “This is Brionne’s.” And I’m like, “What? What?” And Ciro just starts laughing.
Mine says “El Cacho” which is the rubber tree, the plant that my character is seeking in the film…
Josh: It’s so bizarre!
Brionne: It’s the description of the plant that I’m seeking in the film. And only I got that one. Out of everybody that received a candy, only I got that one. And I still have that wrapper. Moments like that that just kept validating this experience.
Josh: Brionne, your journey has been magical. Thanks for sharing it!! I can’t wait to see what you do next.
To check out the first Parts of this Case Study: