US audiences finally get the chance to see Coimbra’s disturbing Rio-set drama inspired by the shocking ‘Beast Of Penha’ abduction and murder case in Brazil more than half a century ago.

Sao Paolo resident Coimbra, now in his late 30s, talks to Jeremy Kay about how the crime’s universal nature and his care not to show the clichéd images of Rio.

Leandra Leal and Milhem Cortaz star in Wolf At The Door (O Lobo Atras da Porta), which premiered in Toronto 2013 and was released in Brazil via Imagem last year. Outsider Pictures distributes the film in the US on March 27.

At time of this interview in April 2014, Coimbra was preparing to write the darkly comical thriller The Hang-Up Men (Os Enforcados).

What sparked the idea for the story?
It’s inspired by a true story that happened in Rio in 1960. The film was just inspired – it’s not an adaptation of the real story. The way the crime happened and the kidnapping and the brutal way she killed the girl is the way it happened. The story shocked the whole country because of its brutality. The older generation remember the story but don’t remember exactly what happened – she was called the Beast Of Penha.

Do they still talk about the Beast?
It became kind of an urban legend. In Rio if you go to the suburb where it happened, people continue to talk about it. A friend of mine grew up in Rio and when he was a child his mother told him he had to behave otherwise the Beast would take him. The detective character mentions the Beast [to Rosa] and another crime in Rio that happened just before I shot the film where a boy was kidnapped. I mentioned it in the film because it’s always something that happens nowadays.

So when did you first hear about it?
I was 22 at film school and I read about the story in a magazine and I got intrigued because it was very strong and I started to research in the National Library and what intrigued me was that the press treated her as a monster and talked about her as if her behavior was not human. I didn’t agree with her crime but it’s a crime of passion — a very human story — and I wanted to understand her and do the opposite of the press. I wanted to understand how we could get closer to her behavior.

So are you saying there are universal elements to the crime?
This film is more about a crime of passion and could happen anywhere. It could happen in the US. It’s more about emotion and this relationship. It’s a very universal story. I had to put it in a specific place. The way they talk on the train and [the way Rosa] goes into Sylvia’s house – you’d see that in Rio because they’re very friendly.

How did you structure the story?
In the beginning when I started researching I read a lot of things in the press and the first draft was different. I was trying to adapt the story. Some years later I read the criminal records and read the interrogation records and saw the characters tell their different stories. The way the guy told the story was completely from the way the mistress told it. Then I decided to tell a more intimate story about the relationships and was able to free myself from the real story. It was impossible to tell the truth because we will never know, so the film became about these two [Rosa and Bernardo]. We start with the kidnapping and go quickly to the police station to present the characters to the audience so they don’t know who is telling the truth.

Tell us about the lead actors.
Most of them are famous in Brazil. Leandra [Leal, who plays Rosa] has been an actress since she was a child and she did a lot of soap operas in Brazil, so she’s very well known because the star system is more about TV. Milhem Cortaz [who plays Bernardo] is very well known because he did two Elite Squad films and Carandiru. When I shot the film, the actress who played the wife Sylvia [Fabiula Nascimento] and the actor who played the detective were known because they had done films but just after I shot the film they did a soap opera and they have become very famous.

Talk about Rosa.
The thing about Rosa is she has no limits. She’s fascinating and goes on and on and never stops but her emotions are the same as all of us. Usually Leandra [Leal] plays the nice, good girl so for Brazilian audiences they don’t believe she can do something so brutal. When we had the first screening people weren’t used to that.

Is it easy to buy a gun in Brazil?
In Brazil you cannot [legally] buy a gun but if you want you can find one on the black market.

You shot in a suburb in north Rio and were very specific about how you portrayed the city.
I shot at the end of 2011 and it premiered in Toronto 2013. It took a long time because it’s not so easy to make films in Brazil and we needed [finishing funds]. I didn’t want to show the Christ statue because the film was shot in a place where you cannot see it very well because it’s far away. I wanted to show other aspects of the city.