Interview with Daniel Monzón

  • Your career started talking about movies: how were those early days? What did you learn from the different media in which you worked?
It actually started long before; I was seven or eight years old when I fell in love with cinema. Once of my grandmothers took me to see “King Kong” in a film club. I remember it as if it was yesterday, like an epiphany, I fell completely in love with that film; I could not think of anything else. My father had a lot of cinema books at home, where I discovered other movies like “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man” and I created my own stories from the pictures I saw in those books. When they were released in cinemas or the film library I insisted my father to take me to watch them and I contrasted them with the films that I had imagined. When I was 13 and 14 years old I had already seen the entire German expressionism, Bergman, Ford, Hawkes, Hitchcock, Welles, Murnau... The thing is that back then there wasn’t the media there is today to shoot short films, there were only Super 8; my father had one and I used to shoot short films of two and a half minutes, but it was a fleeting experiment. My way of expressing that desire to shoot movies was through writing. In fact, I wrote a book about John Carpenter and I tried to get it published. Thanks to all those writings I was hired in the magazine Fotogramas; I was called by the radio and by the TV program Dias de cine. That was a wonderful school, because I could watch a lot of movies and analyze them. I could go to shootings and interview the directors who I adored: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg... and I asked them questions from the perspective of a person who wanted to make movies.I became a friend of directors such as Enrique Urbizu or Álex de la Iglesia, who had previously directed, and I started writing screenplays: I wrote the first one when I was 21 years old, “Shortcut to Paradise”, directed by Gerardo Herrero, who allowed me to go to the shooting to see how something I had written was taking shape. Television was also very important, because as deputy director of Dias de cine, I could choose a weekly report on the topic I would like; I did interviews and choose film clips, and with all that I made a reports of 10 or 15 minutes. This allowed me to get in touch with editing in a very direct way.
  • What is more difficult: judging or being judged?
Well, when speaking about cinema I was never destructive, and I tried to always speak of what excited me. My intention was to provide some clues for the reader so he liked the movie as much as I’d liked it, and is the same process that I follow when I make my movies. Many people think that a critic is a frustrated director, but I considered myself more a budding director. Any film critic and film journalist is a potential director; another thing is that he finally becomes one or not.
  • How did you become a cinema director?
At one point, when I was 26 or 27 years old, I realized that, either I left everything and started doing what I had wanted since my I was a child, or was never going to make it. Therefore, when I was around 30 years old, I gave up all my work, I just had all the money I had saved, and I decided to make my first film.
  • And that first film was “The Heart of the Warrior”, an adventure movie quite unusual at the time. Why did you start with such a risky project and how did you get it through?
When I decided to make this film I already had a background and I had met many people such as the cinematographer with whom I usually work -Carles Gusi-; my art director, who had worked in movies of Álex de la Iglesia movies; or the composer Roque Baños. I also knew Gerardo Herrero, who had directed my first screenplay; he was a producer and trusted me to do this first film. I handed him the script and he did not understand it (laughs), but since he wanted to make a movie more aimed at young audiences, he agreed to do it. At first it started with a limited budget, but once inside, I started scratching the surface. It started as a small production and eventually reached a major one. Once you have a team and money spent, you keep convincing the producer, you have to be consistent and fight for what you want and influence everyone around you with your enthusiasm. It was a very complex process; in fact, during the wrap party, my cinematographer approached me and said: When did you realize that it was impossible for us to do this movie? (Laughs)
  • A great part of a movie’s success is found in the script. Do you think it is the most important aspect?
With a good script you can make a good movie; but with a bad one, it is impossible to make a good movie. It may be curious and apparent, but not a good movie. The script is the treasure map, especially in the cinema that I practice, the narrative one.
  • And, in your opinion, what does a good script need?
A good script is the one that reproduces the rhythm that the film should have and is the one that, as soon as you open it, it grabs you attention and does not let you go until you finish it. It needs to have an interesting plot, but above all, soulful characters who take you by the hand; because the spectator is willing to overlook many things in a movie: a dirty cinematography or crappy special effects, but if the characters touch him, he will like the movie. Of course, the more layers and more carefully the formal aspect is, the better; I am very careful and try to take care about all the details.
  • Do you often have very clear ideas about planning the shooting or do you improvise?
It depends. In my first film, as I was terrified, I planned everything quite consciously. In “El Robo Más Grande Jamás Contado”, as I had more confidence, I left more space for the actors, locations and timing to contribute to the movie; “The Kovak Box” was very well planned as well because it was a very complicated and very expensive movie; the actors also came right at the end and I almost could not rehearse with them. In “Cell 211”, although I had a preliminary planning on my head, I gave great importance to working with the actors because it was a film about characters; almost all happened in a single location, so I practically didn’t draw anything. “El Niño” was a mixture of both: there were many locations and mostly outdoors, exposed to weather changes; I kept a pretty closed planning but counted on the work with actors. There must be a combination of both: have clear ideas but be flexible and let yourself contaminate by the moment and anything both cast and crew offer you.
  •  What is the difference between working with young promises like Jesús Castro or Alberto Amman, and well-established actors such as Antonio Resines and Luis Tosar?
The difference is not primarily on the age but on the kind of actor you are working with. You should try to know the person, establish a close relationship and understand what he needs; using humor is generally very useful. Once the performer feels comfortable, he dares to go as far you as you want him to go. For example, Antonio Resines does not like to rehearse a lot, because if he gets round the character too much, he feels he loses authenticity. I give him the main clues and, once on set, he gives it his all: usually his first shot is ok, but there is suddenly one that is outstanding. On the other hand, Luis Tosar demands nothing, but I feed him a lot; in “Cell 211”, I gave him prisoners’ manuscripts, we interviewed a prisoner murderer, we exchanged views on the characterization of the character... Speaking about the newcomers, Alberto Amman is an actor who constantly needed his questions about the character to be answered. He told me that he felt like a fraud next to someone like Luis Tosar and Antonio Resines, and I insisted that he applied all that insecurity to his character. In the case of Jesús Castro I tried to use what he gave me as a person and apply it to the character; because if I ordered him to do everything just like it was written, I was probably going to "castrate" him (laughs); I looked  for, above all, freshness and truth. Every actor and every person is different and you have to understand that and give him what he needs.
  •  Whenever a film is released there is debate about its content: whether it is more or less conventional, whether it is art or not… Normally, there is a certain contemptuous tone towards the word "commercial". What do you think about this?
Movies, at the time of their release, have a perception by the audience and by the critics that varies with time. For example, when Fernando Fernán Gómez released “Strange Voyage”, he was told it was a mess and a poorly made movie; it was a commercial failure, and today is considered a masterpiece of Spanish cinema. A story, if not heard, is not a story, it's nothing. “Cell 211” to my surprise was a terribly commercial movie and “El Niño” it is being very commercial as well; the public wants to watch it and enjoys it. To me that is the greatest pleasure. Besides, doing a commercial movie is quite complicated, especially if it is a quality one. There are uncouth commercial movies, but if they fulfill the purpose for which they were created and their target audience watches and enjoys them, then they are successful. The useless movie is the one which leaves the spectator completely indifferent. I think we should take everything with relatedness and foremost be proud of what we do.
  • Lately it seems some movies and many of the Spanish series strive to include plots that satisfy all sectors of the public. Do you think it is the case?
I do not watch much television and I do wrong, but I almost have no free time; my job is very demanding and most of my free time I spent it with my family. The series in Spain do not call enough my attention to make me want to do television; although if I had the chance to make something more like “Breaking Bad” I would, because you can develop characters in greater depth. Anyway, I imagine that these last two questions are related to some reviews I've recently read saying “El Niño” is a movie that has tried to please everyone, as if it was something prefabricated for everyone to be satisfied. I also heard that the love story was made to please the teenage audience. It was not my intention. Jorge and I realized we were telling the story of a young man who somehow is going to get more mature during the movie; we felt it made ​​sense in the evolution of the character. He is a racist guy who hasn’t ever fallen in love, and suddenly finds his match: he falls in love with the last girl he had ever thought.  We never propose, "Well, now let's get a dose of love to please this audience" because if you approach things to please others, you will probably fail. What happens is that as this movie has had a big promotional campaign in Mediaset (Telecinco), who had previously released the TV series “The Prince”, although it was written long after this movie, people have begun to compare and create theories that are not real. When you let time go by and clean your look from everything that contaminates the movie, you see the movie itself, not what surrounds it. I have not betrayed myself; the film is what I wanted it to be, with its wrongs and rights.
  • Has cinema exceeded your expectations? Is there something that disappointed you and what has most surprised you?
Rather than exceeding them, it has met my expectations. The biggest fear I had when making my first movie was discovering that it was all a sham; suddenly I start to direct and don’t like it. However, the first day of shooting I could feel the adrenaline flowing through my veins and could not sleep because of the excitement. What I like the most is the feeling of camaraderie with your team, you start building something every day that has emerged from an ethereal terrain, the dedication of everybody... What I like the least are the tensions, which are often  given in the financial field; all those characters who also work in cinema for the wrong reasons and they aren’t moved so much for the passion of telling a story, as by the money.
  • What is your personal advice for future directors?

If you feel you were born to do this, stick to it. The road is long and hazardous and some people will say that you will not be able to, but now there are great means I did not have to make short films with almost no money. You can use a digital camera or even get help from your neighbor, and show short films on festivals such as Notodofilmfest, or you can send them to Youtube. Do not hold to the excuses others provide you or how difficult is the path to do it. If you do not do it is because you do not really want to. I was born in Palma de Mallorca, then I went to live to Valencia and knew nobody, I had no godfather, everything I have is because of my commitment to it. My learning has been self taught, so if I had done it being so silly, there are much smarter people who can do it. (Laughs)
  • Do you have any new project in mind?
I have several projects and ideas. In fact, I have a written script with Jorge Guerricaechevarría, we wrote it before “El Niño”. It is a black comedy to be shot in England, and is a possible project. What happens is that when you spend such a long time with a movie, on the one side you have to accompany it; I will shortly present it in London and later in France, Germany... and, on the other side, you have to start saying goodbye to it because I still have it in my thoughts and feelings. When approaching a new project, I have to be very sure of what I'm going to do, because it will be a long time I will dedicate to it, and a movie is like your partner:  you give it all for it.
  • Thank you for the interview and good luck with the Goya Awards; let’s see if there are any surprises!

We may win something, I do not know; I guess the movie will be quite nominated, especially in the technical aspect. But it seems to me that there are very good movies this year, like “Magical Girl”, which will be quite considered by the members of the Academy; and then “La Isla Mínima” as well, directed by Alberto Rodriguez, who is, in my opinion, a terrific director.

Diego Martín