MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

Interview with Juan Jose Campanella: The Eyes Have It

This year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to an Argentine romantic crime thriller that few people beyond Academy voters and film festival goers were lucky enough to have seen: The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de sus ojos), directed by Juan Jose Campanella, a filmmaker who calls both New York and Argentina home.

In America, he works a lot directing hit TV shows like House, 30 Rock, and the Law & Order franchise. In Argentina he directs movies: his previous film, 2001’s Son of the Bride (El hijo de la novia) earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

In his new movie, the director reunites with acclaimed actor Ricardo Darin, who plays Benjamin Esposito, a court investigator in Buenos Aires who in 1974 lands a case—the rape-murder of a beautiful young woman—that will haunt him for some 30 years. The film co-stars Soledad Villamil as Irene, his gorgeous upper-class boss with whom he is secretly in love, and Guillermo Francella, Argentina’s #1 box office star, as Sandoval, his hapless co-worker and best friend. I caught up with the director when he stopped briefly in Chicago en route back to Argentina, where he’s beginning work on his first animated film.

AG:  Congratulations on your Oscar. To win on only your second nomination, and so soon after your first—that had to be gratifying.

JJC:  Thank you very much. Sometimes I don’t register it, how rare it is that I only made four movies in Argentina, and two of those had been nominated for an Oscar. It’s very gratifying, yes, yes! I love the Academy!

AG: Did you expect to win?

JJC:  When we got nominated, I read the list of nominated movies, and I said, “Okay, I can sleep easily. There’s no way that we’ll win this. The White Ribbon has an enormous pedigree, The Prophet, too. The Milk of Sorrow won Berlin.” That was very relaxing, actually. I could concentrate on work—I was doing an episode of House at the moment. Then all the online people started saying to watch out for The Secret in Their Eyes, that [members] were liking it a lot in the Academy screenings, and there’s a big chance that there might be an upset–and they kept talking. And I became a nervous wreck, and I couldn’t sleep; I went, “No, oh my God, I wish I hadn’t heard that.” When you have no expectations, you overcome losing much faster. With Son of the Bride, it was only five minutes of sadness, and then we all looked at each other and said, “Guys, we’re all here, let’s have fun, it was great just getting here.” You never think that moment will finally happen after dreaming about it for many years, but we knew that we had chances.

AG:  You co-wrote the screenplay with Eduardo Sacheri, based on his novel, La Pregunta de sus ojos (The Question in Their Eyes). Why did you change the title?

JJC: One of the visual keys of the movie that I worked with was that the characters would never say what they were meaning, but their eyes would. It’s like two different movies going on:  what they say, and what their eyes say. It’s a love story, but it’s also about murder and memory, and it has some humorous moments. We thought that the original title didn’t convey all that the movie was about.

AG:  You certainly paid a lot of attention to details of the eyes:  glances, pauses, quicksilver changes.

JJC:  There are many shots where I had to find a way to frame the eyes so that you wouldn’t see anything else of the face. I really think that something very powerful happens when you don’t see the rest of the face.

AG:  That can be tricky for a director, because a lot of bad screen actors rely on acting mostly with their eyes.

JJC:  There is no trick. Actors just have to be thinking what their characters are thinking. They can’t be thinking what’s my next line, where do I have to stand, where’s my mark, or did he say “cut” yet, or not. They really have to be in the scene, like the characters are, and it just comes out through the eyes.

AG:  Let’s talk about the bravura set pieces in your film. Do you storyboard? Because that soccer sequence where the investigators chase their suspect through the stadium–

JJC:  We planned the hell out of that scene, because we had to make it for $50,000. It wasn’t really storyboarded by me; I went to the actual soccer stadium and took photos of what we would be seeing [on screen] every step along the shot. From there they made the animatics at the effects house in Argentina. I’m a geek myself and I’m surrounded by geeks—it’s geek world there. I think that we over-prepared; we knew we would have the helicopter for only one hour, so we had to make sure that we were coming from the right side. So we were almost like imagining with a compass, and creating in 3D the real stadium to show the helicopter pilot where he had to go. Then it was shot in three days, and we had only 200 extras there.

AG:  Wow! That’s very difficult to tell.

JJC:  You won’t be able to tell, even if you go frame by frame when you have the DVD. There were nine months of post-production:  fifteen guys in our in-house facility, which is not huge. It’s not Industrial Light and Magic, that’s for sure.

AG:  The breaking and entering scene early in the movie–where Esposito and Sandoval travel to a small town where the suspect’s mother lives and start snooping around her house to find clues–is very strategically placed. It combines dread, and tension, and also comic relief, setting up what’s to come. But it’s not in the novel.

JJC:  In the novel, the investigators don’t catch the guy; he is caught by chance. He goes to jail because he has an argument with a guard in a train, and [that news] gets to their office, so that’s how they get to him. In the movie I wanted them to catch the guy, so we created the breaking in, the [paper trail of] letters leading to the soccer stadium, the whole thing. The scene also shows something that these characters never did before. They are office workers, not characters who are motivated by a higher code [like those] we are used to in film noir, or the literary version of noir—Chandler and Hammett, and all—where it’s not as much about the case as it is about finding justice in the world, or whatever. These guys just care about this case. They are becoming personally involved in this case, which is not just one of the thousand cases a day that they get through their office. And this is the moment where they first start breaking the law, really, for the case, and that was basically the objective in the movie’s dramatic curve.

AG:  And it was the beginning of them putting themselves at risk in so many other ways.

JJC:  Exactly.

AG:  It’s part of how you use foreshadowing, and relates to an earlier scene that questions how much of the movie is Esposito’s memory, and how much is his imagination—I’m talking about the scene where he’s struggling with his novel and there’s a segue to three thugs breaking into his home. The scary elevator scene where the villain plays a cat-and-mouse game with Esposito and Irene also uses foreshadowing. In little more than an instant it made me flash on the desaparecidos [the tens of thousands of “the disappeared” victims of Argentina’s dictatorship in the late 1970s through early ‘80s].

JJC:  Yeah, it’s short; it’s only 45 seconds.

AG:  But it feels like it’s so much longer.

JJC:  Yes. It’s pregnant—it’s a pregnant pause!

AG:  Please tell a little about your background.

JJC:  I was born in Buenos Aires in ‘59, studied film there between ’79 and ’83, then came to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in grad film, and I studied there from ’83 to ’88. And I started my career here [in the U.S.], as an editor first, for a couple of years, and in 1990 I directed my first movie. And it wasn’t until ’99 that I went back to Argentina.

AG:  Were your parents supportive of you wanting to be a filmmaker, and what film school did you go to in Argentina?

JJC:  The film school I went to in ’79 was during the dictatorship, and I had amazing professors that would not be professors if it weren’t for their being blacklisted. So they had to teach. I mean, my writing teacher was Aida Bortnik, who was later herself nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay of The Official Story [which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1986]. My parents were hugely supportive of me. Not at the beginning—it took them I think a few months to accept that I was not going to be an engineer, [after going] to engineering school for four years. The night that I dropped out of that, my father supported tried to mediate between me and my mother, who was really very pissed. Very pissed. But after a short while, they became my biggest supporters, and I wouldn’t have done anything without them.

AG:  You know, a lot of movie critics and fans are snobs about television, but I think it’s great that you move back and forth between making movies and directing for TV. I’m a long-time follower of Law & Order, so I’ve seen a number of the episodes you’ve directed of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I actually thought that Irene in The Secret of Their Eyes was having kind of an Olivia Benson good cop-bad cop moment when she was interrogating the perp.

JJC:  I’m telling you, and I don’t have any qualms saying it, I think that American TV right now is so much better than American movies. American movies have tended toward the glorification of visuals, and have disregarded scripts—[they] have no surprises, no twists, and almost no connection with real life. And in TV you can still see—you know, many episodes of SVU end unhappily, and there’s moral ambiguity among the characters. You can’t have a character even like Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House in movies nowadays. I really think that American TV is great. And every director does something between movies. Most choose to do commercials; I choose to do this. I choose to work with these great actors and great scripts.

Sony Pictures Classics opens The Secret in Their Eyes in New York and Los Angeles on April 16, after which it will begin a roll-out to other cities.

Andrea Gronvall
April 23, 2010

Andrea Gronvall is a regular contributor to the Chicago Reader, a frequent speaker for Harlan Jacobson’s Talk Cinema, and teaches film at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies.

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