Q & A with Writer-Director Juan Jose Campanella

“The Secret in Their Eyes” stars (left to right) Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin

“The Secret in Their Eyes” stars (left to right) Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Juan José Campanella about his thriller “The Secret in Their Eyes,” winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, opening Apr. 16 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics.

Directed by Juan José Campanella, it was produced by Geraldo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky and Campanella. Its screenplay by Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri is based on the novel “La Pregunta de Sus Ojos” by Sacheri. The film is a production of Tornasol Films, Haddock Films and 100 Bares Producciones with associated producer Telefe and the participation of TVE and Canal+, the support of ICAA and INCAA and the financial support of ICO.

“The Secret in Their Eyes” played at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and was an Official Selection of the 2009 San Sebastian Film Festival.

Key production credits include: Felix Monti (Director of Photography), Marcelo Pont (Art Director), Campanella (Editor) and Federico Jusid (Music). Starring are: Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino and Guillermo Francella.

The story (spoiler alert): Benjamín Espósito (popular Argentine actor Ricardo Darin) has spent his entire working life as a criminal court investigator in Argentina. Recently retired and with time on his hands, he decides to write a novel. He does not have to make up a story because he can draw on his own past as a civil servant for a true, moving and tragic story in which he was once very directly involved.

In 1974 his court was assigned an investigation into the rape and murder of a beautiful young woman. At the scene of the crime, Espósito sees the result of the young woman’s rape and murder first hand. He meets Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), who had married the girl a short time before and worshipped her body and soul. Moved by Ricardo’s grief, Espósito tries to help him find the culprit despite having to contend with the apathy and ineptitude of the police and legal system. He knows that for help he can count on Sandoval (well known Argentine comic Guillermo Francella), an underling at the office yet a close friend, who occasionally seeks release from the routine of his existence by drinking himself unconscious.

He can also turn to Irene (Soledad Villamil), his immediate superior and secretary of the court, with whom he is secretly deeply in love, although there is no hope that she will ever love him. The search for the murderer is anything but simple. No clues remain at the scene of the crime and Espósito must rely on guesswork and his own instincts to make any progress. Furthermore, Argentina in 1974 is not a peaceful place. It is a perfect backdrop for the violence, hate, revenge and death that rule people’s lives and fates.

To this ever more hostile and dark setting, Espósito’s investigation takes him deep into a world of terrible violence. No longer an observer, he becomes an unwilling central character in a drama in which he is exposed to ever-greater danger. But it is not only the young Espósito of 1974 who is swept along by the storm of events, for that storm also envelops the present-day Espósito, the old would-be writer, and sets him adrift.

By deciding to revive and relive his memories, he has set in motion the wheels of the terrible mechanism of memory. And those memories are neither innocent, neutral nor aseptic. Espósito writes, and as he does so, relives a past that rises up before his eyes and awakens all his demons: particularly those involving his past decisions, uncertainties and irreparable mistakes.

As he moves forward, Espósito begins to see that it is now too late to stop. Telling a story from the past is no longer just a pastime to fill his empty hours. It becomes a narrow, winding path he must take if he is to understand and find justification for his own life, if he is to give any meaning to the years remaining to him, and if once and for all he is to face up to the woman who, 30 years later, he is still in love with.

Juan José Campanella is one of Argentina’s best known and most successful directors. The Buenos Aires born Campanella’s feature films include: 2009’s “The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos),” 2004’s “Moon of Avellaneda (Luna de Avellaneda),” 2001’s “Son of the Bride (El hijo de la novia),” 1999’s “Same Love, Same Rain (El mismo amor, la misma lluvia),” 1997’s “Love Walked In (Y llegó el amor)” and 1991’s “The Boy Who Cried Bitch (El niño que gritó puta)”

His 2009 thriller “The Secret in Their Eyes” played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the San Sebastian Film Festival and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2001 his film "Son of The Bride" was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Campanella’s prolific directing career has brought him several Emmy Awards as well as directing assignments on such hit TV series as “Law & Order: SVU,” “House M.D.” and “30 Rock.”

Q: “The Secret in Their Eyes” won the Oscar, but what has that meant for you
A: It’s hugely helpful for the movie. If you win every other award in the world from every major festival, it’s not as visible as the Oscar. For many people the movie suddenly becomes a movie they want to see. So it’s a huge difference for the movie.

Now for my career, of course it’s a nice thing. It’s a huge honor. It’s something that I will carry forever. But I don’t know if it makes a huge impact on my career.
Q: Was the phone ringing the next day with people saying they had projects they wanted you to direct?
A: No. It’s sort of a roundabout way. What the Oscar does is make a lot of producers and directors want to see the movie. And so they see the movie and then if they like it, something might happen -- but not just because of the Oscar, itself.
Q: When did you start to write the screenplay?
A: The novel was published in early 2005. I read it as soon as I saw it in a bookstore. We started working on the script in 2006, a year later. It was almost two years working on the adaptation. We started pre-production on the movie in August of 2008 and it opened in August of 2009.
Q: Had you written with Eduardo before?
A: No. I didn’t know him before we started on this movie. We have become very good friends and we’re working on another project now, but at that time I just called him out of the blue. I actually met him in a radio interview. We went to a radio station and they were talking about a TV series that I had produced and also about his new book that came out after the novel. That’s where we met. We went for a cup of coffee and started chatting and we decided to go ahead.
Q: How did you work together while you were writing? Did you write sitting together in the same room or by e-mail back and forth?
A: First we had conversations about the broad changes that I wanted to make from the novel to the adaptation. That was the first round of conversations. When we agreed on that then we would start structuring the movie.

What we would do is, say, structure the first 15 minutes of the movie or so. That we would do together in the same room. Then we would divide the scenes and each of us would work on his own and we would exchange them via e-mail and we would make comments. When we felt that we had a good first draft of those scenes, then we would sit together again and outline the next 15 or 20 minutes or half-hour. So for the structure that we did step by step, we would sit together, but the writing of the scenes we would do separately.
Q: How long did it take to write the screenplay?
A: For the first draft it was about five months -- not because we’re very slow writers, but because we had to work on (other projects for) our day jobs in the meantime. And then we let it sit for a while. We gave it to a few readers that I trust very much -- five or six people whose opinion I care for. We sat down with them and talked about the script. About a month and a half or two months later we went to another pass (at writing) the script. I usually do like 15 drafts of a script. The process was shortened because we were starting from a novel so we knew where we were going. It was not a completely blank page.

You know, the difference between a blank page and a draft is -- a lot! (Laughs.) It’s much easier to make comments on something that’s written even if you’re changing everything than it is to face a blank page. That second draft took us two or three months and that was about 75 to 80 percent of the movie that you see now. Then for the last 20 or 25 percent we were (working for) one more year with a lot of tinkering, fine tuning, adding little scenes, shortening others and moving things around.
Q: When you’re writing and you know you’re going to direct this screenplay, do you write thinking as a director about how you’re going to manage to shoot what you’re putting down on paper?
A: I have to say yes. This is the first time I did that. With my other movies I was very able to switch hats. They’ve always seemed to be more writing oriented, more dialogue oriented because of that. In this one, I started to think as a director even as I was writing. I had much more experience working with actors so I knew what an actor could give me.

Usually, a script sent to me is a bit overwritten and in the shoot you start cutting things out. In this one, we didn’t have to do much of that because I was already thinking as a director when we were writing it and there was a lot of visual stuff that was already built into the script.
Q: After you finished the screenplay, how did you turn it into a movie in terms of getting the financing?
A: Well, the good thing about Argentina and the fact that my two previous movies have been very successful is that I didn’t have to wait for that. I had the financing. While we were writing the script we knew it was going to get made. That’s a very privileged situation. On the other hand, it has a downside -- the movies are so cheap that you don’t make a living out of it. (Laughs.) It’s really for pleasure. But we knew that we could get the $2 million or $2.5 million that we needed to make the movie.
Q: I wasn’t familiar with the actors you cast in the movie, but I thought they were all terrific. Are they well known in Argentina?
A: The four main actors are well known. Two of them (Ricardo Darin and Guillermo Francella) are the number one actors in Argentina. They’re big, big stars.
Q: I’ve read that Guillermo Francella is well known in Argentina as a comedian.
A: Exactly. He’s a very funny man. His comedies are usually very broad. His persona as a comedian is completely different. Audiences looking at this movie couldn’t believe his transformation. He’s (usually) a guy with a goatee, very outgoing, a little bit of a conman, a wise guy, very energetic, very fast spoken, completely different from this character.
Q: Was it a challenge for you as a director to get a dramatic performance from him?
A: No. The truth is I wish I could brag about that. He’s an amazing actor. It wasn’t difficult at all for him. He’s a trained actor. He doesn’t come from stand-up or from comedy. He was in theater doing Shakespearian plays in his early 20s and then one day he got a TV job in an Argentine sitcom and was such a hit that it took him in that direction. Here we are like 25 years later and he’s back doing (drama). I did guide him through it, but I didn’t have to extract the performance from him. He was very great to work with.
Q: How about Ricardo Darin?
A: Ricardo in his younger years was a telenovela heartthrob. Then about 15 years ago when he was in his mid-30s he didn’t take any more of those jobs and he started doing theater on his own, which he produced, himself. I gave him a part in a movie we made 10 years ago and that started changing his career. After that other directors called him to do more dramatic parts and now he’s like the Laurence Olivier of Argentina.
Q: How did you work with the actors? Did you rehearse?
A: We talked. First I have a conversation with each of them to talk about their character. Those are the lengthier conversations. Of course, you have more conversations the bigger the character is. We do that very early on. We do that even before starting pre-production so they have a few weeks to start thinking about it and inhabiting it. Then in the last two weeks of pre-production, right before we start shooting, what I do in the afternoon -- in the morning I have to deal with all the other aspects of location scouting and other stuff -- is get together by groups and we go through every scene. We read them.

We do not heavy duty acting -- you know, they don’t have to cry -- but we talk about every scene. We try to find where the humor is and whether it’s real. I tend to write in the script more humor than I end up with. I prefer to have it all on the page and then we are free to cut it out. We talk about everything.
Q: What were the major challenges you faced shooting the film?
A: We had the real Justice Palace to shoot in with the real offices and everything. We had to shoot between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the hallways and from 6 p.m. to 1 in the morning we shot in the offices. It’s the main building where all the justice system in Argentina is located. They take care of people in the morning. At 1:00 they close to the public and from 1:00 to 6:00 they do their own office work.

So at time when there was no public in the Palace we would go in and we shot all the hallway scenes. And then at 6:00 when everyone left the office we would go in the offices. We had only six days to shoot that and we had 45 pages to shoot. Sometimes we had to stop shooting in the middle of a take when the cops passed by with a prisoner with handcuffs. Everybody stopped.

The rest was much simpler. We had other challenges -- like a train station that we had for only two days and we had a lot of stuff to do. So there were other little challenges, but because we had to shoot that much in those days the rest of the days were very generous.
Q: Because your story takes place over a period of 25 or 30 years, you have your actors appearing younger in some scenes and older in others taking place today. Which did you shoot first?
A: We shot the past first for five weeks. Then we had a long weekend of three days. We didn’t shoot on Monday so we had that three day weekend -- especially to do the guys’ hair. To cut it. We had to re-color Ricardo’s hair. He’s one of these lucky guys -- I’m bald -- who has very strong resilient hair and we had to put so much bleach on him that they were almost burning his scalp. We did that over that three day period and the next Tuesday for the last two weeks we shot the present.
Q: So you had to make them look older rather than make them look younger.
A: Exactly. Both Soledad and Ricardo, the main couple, are right in the middle of the characters’ ages. Ricardo is 50 and he had to play 40 and 65. We were very lucky that a beard was almost a given in the ’70s for that kind of character. So that helped us a lot because the beard gave his head a younger shape.
Q: Did he grow this beard? It looked very real.
A: Yes, he grew the beard for about a month. There’s nothing worse than a fake beard. Even here in America, the only way to make a very good fake beard is when you put it in almost hair by hair. It’s something you can do for one day, but you cannot do it every day.
Q: Overall, how long did you shoot?
A: Seven weeks. Usually between 11 and 12 hour days, including lunch. It’s shorter than here (in Hollywood).
Q: What’s next for you? Do you have a new project yet?
A: I’m looking at things. I’m working on an animated movie, which is a completely different ballgame. But for live action, I’m just looking at things right now.