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For a director more interested in following his creative intuition than calculating his career, Walter Salles won several awards and international acclaim which helped him earn a reputation as one of Brazil's leading filmmakers. After starting his career directing documentaries in the 1980s, Salles transitioned to narrative filmmaking with "A Grande Arte" (1991) and earned international attention for the socially conscious "Terra Estrangeira" (1995). In collaboration with Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, he received Oscar consideration with "Central Station" (1998) and enhanced his reputation as a striking filmmaker with "Behind the Sun" (2001). But it was the widely hailed road movie, "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004) that allowed Salles to gain a foothold in Hollywood proper, leading to directing the remake of the Japanese horror thriller "Dark Water" (2005) and the long-developed adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (2012). As he continued making films in his native Brazil, Salles had broken through in the States, where he continued rising in prominence while making creatively challenging films.
Born on April 12, 1956 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil into a well-to-do family, Salles was raised by his father, Walther, a banker and diplomat who served as Brazil's ambassador to France and the United States, and his mother, Elizinha. With his family wealthy from its ownership of Brazil's Unibanco, Salles was free to pursue any course he chose. He decided on directing movies, which lead to spending a year at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles before striking out on his own as a documentary filmmaker in the early 1980s. In the following decade, however, Salles switched to narrative filmmaking with his first feature, "A Grande Arte" (1991), a thriller about an American photographer (Peter Coyote) avenging the death of a Brazilian prostitute. Though he continued to make documentaries - mainly for European television - Salles began to thrive in the feature world, starting with his second effort, " Terra Estrangeira" (1995), a beautifully filmed drama set in Brazil during the economic crisis of 1990. The film toured the international festival circuit, including Rotterdam, Vancouver and Sundance, and furthered the novice director's desire to tell stories about Brazil's history of economic hardship.
Salles' next film, "Central Station" (1998), earned the director a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and a nomination for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Made with grants from the Sundance Institute and other sources, "Central Station" - a road movie about an older woman (Fernanda Montenegro) who helps a young boy (Vinícius de Oliveira) find his father - helped establish Salles as prominent member of a new wave of filmmakers emerging from Latin America that included Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. Teaming up with fellow Brazilian Daniela Thomas, with whom he worked on "Foreign Land," Salles co-directed "O Primeiro Dia" (1998), their native country's entry into a series of millennium-themed films commissioned by French television. With "Behind the Sun" (2001), Salles enhanced his reputation as a prominent foreign director with this absorbing drama set in a remote Brazilian farming community in 1910 about a young man caught in the middle of an age-old family feud. The film earned Best Foreign Language Film nominations at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
After serving as producer on "Madame Satã" (2002) and the widely hailed "City of God" (2002), Salles directed his most poignant film to date, "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), a coming of age road film about a young medical student, Ernesto Guevera (Gael García Bernal) - who later became notorious revolutionary Che Guevera - and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) who go on a journey of discovery across real South America. Five years in the making, Salles credited the Sundance Institute and executive producer Robert Redford for being crucial in getting the film made since studios were disinterested in a foreign film with a loose narrative structure and a lack of external conflict. But the struggle to make "The Motorcycle Diaries" paid off when the director earned another Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. Meanwhile, Salles made his first foray into the Hollywood system with "Dark Water" (2005), a remake of the Japanese horror thriller by Hideo Nakata, starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and Tim Roth. That same year, Salles produced "The House of Sand" (2005) and "Lower City" (2005), and went on to direct segments for the French anthologies films "Paris, je t'aime" (2006) and "To Each His Own Cinema" (2007).
Back to feature filmmaking, he collaborated with Thomas again to co-direct "Linha de Passe" (2008), a thought-provoking drama about a band of brothers struggling to escape the Brazilian ghettos. The film earned him a nomination for the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Returning to Hollywood, Salles was hired by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola to direct his long-developed adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (2012), starring Sam Riley as Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as the Neal Cassady-like Dean Moriarty and Kristen Stewart as the free-spirited Marylou. Coppola had purchased the rights to Kerouac's generation-defining novel back in 1979 and spent the ensuing decades struggling to write a script with various other writers. But after seeing "The Motorcycle Diaries," Coppola hired Salles and the pieces finally came together. While critics were decidedly mixed over the final product, "On the Road" did generate end-of-the-year awards buzz, particularly for Hedlund's fiery performance.
By Shawn Dwyer
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