Yesterday's announcement that Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes / El Secreto de sus ojos (2009) has been chosen as Argentina's Oscar® submission for the 82nd Academy Awards® toggled me to transcribe my conversation with director Campanella from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Secret in Their Eyes received critical acclaim and sold-out audiences to its international premiere, following suit with a similar response at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Trade reviews on the film have been strong. At Variety, Jonathan Holland hailed the film as "mesmerizing"; at The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young called it "riveting"; at Screen International, Mike Goodridge cited that the film "packs an emotional punch"; and Twitch teammate Todd Brown characterized Campanella's direction as "remarkably steady and assured."
The Secret in Their Eyes is also making history in Argentina, as the number one box office hit film for the past five weeks. Audiences have been raving and discussing the film in the media and in cafés and restaurants throughout Argentina.
Campanella--who was previously nominated for an Oscar® in 2001 for his film Son of the Bride--responded to the news: "I am very proud of my film, and the response it is getting from audiences around the world and in Argentina is tremendous. I am excited to represent Argentina in this year's Oscar® competition."
Campanella works in both Argentina and the United States. In the U.S., he continues to be a favorite director amongst TV shows including House, MD, Law and Order: SVU, and 30 Rock.
The Secret in Their Eyes concerns Benjamín Espósito, a secretary of a court in Buenos Aires, who is about to retire. He decides to write a novel based on a case that deeply affected him 30 years past. Espósito's tale crosses Argentina's turbulent years during the 1970s, when nothing was necessarily what it seemed to be. As Diana Sanchez writes in her TIFF program capsule: "Campanella's tightly paced feature pairs smart dialogue with powerful, moving performances. Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil, two of Argentina's best actors, bring an electric sense of unspoken longing to their scenes together, an intimacy of mutual suppression." Campanella and I tucked away into the bar at Sutton Place to discuss his film where--above the frenetic din--he held me captivated with his enthusiasm and affable sense of humor. My thanks to David Magdael for arranging same. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
Michael Guillén: Juan José, the script to El Secreto de sus ojos is attractive for being complex. Can you speak to its structure? Did you write the script? Was it based on a novel?
Juan José Campanella: It's based on a novel La Pregunta and I co-wrote the script with the novelist Eduardo Sacheri.
Guillén: I presume the novel was popular in Argentina?
Campanella: In terms of popularity, Sacheri is a popular writer of short stories. This was his first novel and I don't think it did as well as his short stories, though of course now it is selling more than it sold in the last four years.
Guillén: My understanding is that an image in the novel of an old man eating by himself provoked your adapting it into a film?
Campanella: No, that's not completely true. I'm a fan of Sacheri's so--when I was reading the novel--I wasn't reading it with the idea of making a movie. The novel started with a writer starting a novel in several ways--which we kept in the movie--and I thought, "Wow. It's more cinematic than I thought it was going to be." But then I got lost in the story and I really liked it. For a while I fiddled with the idea of making the novel into a movie. I worked with Fernando Castets, my writing partner for my previous movies, including Son of the Bride (2001); but, we abandoned it. As a filmmaker, I couldn't find what resonated with me so we dropped it. But for a year, that image of the old man having dinner by himself--an image that didn't end up in the movie, by the way--made me sad.
For some reason when women become widows, they start living. In restaurants all over the world you always see four old ladies having the time of their lives, chattering and laughing. That doesn't seem to happen with guys. When guys are alone in their old age, they become sad for some reason. That image kept coming back to me and the fact that it could trigger a police story, a thriller, with a great mix of genre and humanity, a human drama.
The novel also gave a strong personal motivation rather than just finding the criminal. The story was not just about a detective trying to solve a case; he's trying to solve his life, which is what I liked the most about the novel. The main change from the novel was to make the character of Irene (Soledad Villamil) bigger. In the novel she's just a sort of Dulcinea. She's a woman who's worked at the court all of these years that Espósito (Ricardo Darín) has been in love with; but, she has no involvement in this case from the past, none whatsoever. She's just an image he sees all through these years. When I thought of bringing her story forward and making it as strong as the procedural aspect of the story, that's when it clicked in me. It took over a year for that to happen.
Guillén: So when you decided to serve this story--as you phrased it--"like a piece of meat on a plate of genre", and approached the novelist, was he willing to work with you?
Campanella: I had told him, "I would love to work with you." He had worked in the justice system in that building for many years and knew the legal language well. Also, I wanted the experience of working with another writer; but I told him, "You have to pretend that this is a game. We're going to toy around and deconstruct and make a different version out of your novel." It's as if I were working with Shakespeare and making Hamlet in space with Chinese actors. I told him, "If you have fun with that, then it will be great. If you start defending every word from the novel, then it's not going to work out."
Guillén: It's wonderful that Sacheri was willing to cooperate with you.
Campanella: Totally! But believe me, at some points I had to stop him.
Guillén: I imagine one of the reasons the story spoke to me is because I am retired from the judiciary where I worked for an Associate Justice. I grew tired of the judiciary for many of the selfsame reasons Espósito grew tired: bureaucratic delays, internal corruption, and court politics. My editor at Twitch commented that there are three narratives going on at once in your film--a crime thriller, a political editorial reflecting Argentina's past, and a love story--but, truthfully, I felt the real story was the love story.
Campanella: I think so. It starts and ends with that.
Guillén: It starts and ends many times. [Laughter.] Can you speak to that provocative narrative device? I'll be honest with you, when I caught the film at its press screening, it came towards what we thought was the end of the film, it faded to black, and we started to get up to leave when suddenly the next scene came on. So we sat back down, the scene unfolded to what we thought was the end, it faded to black and we got up to leave and, once again, the next scene started. This happened about five times!
Campanella: That physical confusion only happens at press screenings in a film festival because critics are already anticipating when they're going to leave to get to their next screening, so they're often leaving five minutes before the film is finished--it's maddening!--but, I can explain.
Guillén: Please do.
Campanella: Returning to the structure of the film, there are two strong themes. I was very much into Beethoven at the time three years ago. By chance, just before we started shooting the film, I had started listening to one of those audio courses offered through The Teaching Company about Beethoven's sonatas. I started thinking, "Wow, these sonatas are like the perfect structure for a script." This solid structure of the sonata played perfectly with two themes: the tonic and the dominant with the modulating bridges. In going from one story to another, I tried to make sure that we wouldn't be changing tempo and theme at the same time. When we switched from one narrative to another, we were still in the same energy. We would only change the energy within one theme. We had to find all these bridges to modulate from one narrative to the other easily, to flow in and out of all the themes: starting with theme one, theme two, then back again to theme one, theme two, and then the development of the coda; the end where everything gets mixed up. We worked with that sonata structure in mind. I became obsessed. All I could hear for a year was Beethoven sonatas, just to incorporate them into the film instinctively. This script in particular is patterned on Beethoven's piano sonata no. 14, the "Moonlight" sonata. As one theme would start to end, the other would start one bar before so that you never felt a fall. For me, the end of the movie, the end of the dramatic piece, is the scene with the cage.
Guillén: Interesting. When I was speaking to my editor about this, he felt the scene with the cage was the film's true ending and I agreed to a certain extent, except at the same time I understood the next scenes: the visit to the graveyard and the eventual commitment of Irene and Espósito to each other.
Campanella: To continue speaking musically, it's returning to the home key. That's the love story, which is the one that starts Espósito's fate. But that scene is more of an epilogue. The dramatic climax is the scene with the cage. I had two challenges there. In order for the scene with the cage to be surprising, for it to totally work, it had to be based on Morales (Pablo Rago) and his stated assertion that he did not believe in the death penalty. When he tells Espósito the story about how he killed Gómez (Javier Godino) in the trunk of the car, that had to play as the climax of the movie. If it wasn't played as the climax with the swelling music and the whole thing, then as an audience you would have an inner feeling that something was missing, like there's one more beat, and you're going to start looking for that beat. So that scene has to play like it's the end of the movie. A lousy end, a very obvious end, but I don't mind if for a second you think that it's a bad ending; it has to feel like the ending. So that comes at the price of already having one ending that is not the real ending, you know? But I feel that was an appropriate price to pay for the surprise of the dramatic ending of the scene with the cage.
Guillén: That false ending of Morales confessing to Espósito that he had killed Gómez did strike me as formulaic; but, I didn't buy it really because of that one moment when Morales drew the curtains. You gave us that cue. I knew he was hiding something and what he was hiding had not yet been revealed.
Campanella: Ah, you picked that out?
Guillén: Yes. I took your hint that there was something still hidden despite Morales' confession.
Campanella: Many people suspect that Morales killed his own wife.
Guillén: That suspicion also crossed my mind. Did you intend that?
Campanella: Through a lot of the movie, yes. We had to have another suspect. I mean what kind of a thriller would it be without more than one suspect?
Guillén: I recall a specific montage where you implicate Morales in his wife's murder and cast suspicion upon him; but, it didn't stick with me because--as Espósito explained to Irene--Morales' eyes revealed just how much he loved his wife.
Campanella: It was one of the toughest parts of the movie. Not the toughest part to act but the toughest part to make the right acting choices. Because Morales is a guy where two contradictory personalities co-exist: one is a guy who is passionate enough about the wife he's lost that he's stuck for his entire life in the memory of her and the memory of their broken love. But at the same time he's a guy who's so cold and methodical that he can--step by step, without telling anyone--prepare the cage to imprison Gómez and keep him there, visiting him twice a day without speaking to him. He's a hot personality and a cold personality at the same time. Our choices--I don't know if they were the right ones or not--were to make Morales contained in his emotions when he first hears about the death of his wife. Because he didn't break down and start crying, some people suspect him of the murder.
We actually didn't intend that in the first draft; but, I have six or seven people I trust to read my draft scripts, and a few of them said, "You know, I thought the murderer was Morales." That was a great help because I needed another suspect. I needed more options. C'mon, we all love thrillers and we like to try to figure them out with the protagonists in the film. The more options, the more that can happen, the better. So from the second draft on we played in a subtle way with the idea that Morales could be the murderer, even though when you see the movie it's apparent he's not.
Guillén: I think a thriller works best on a first viewing. Later, when you've pieced together all the clues, a thriller can be appreciated for its mechanics, for all its questions and red herrings.
Campanella: But, at the same time, I didn't want to end everything with question marks, even though I wanted to leave it to the audience to decide whether Espósito tells on Morales or not. That's actually what audiences in Argentina are going crazy about. They argue, "Is Campanella supporting vigilante justice?" I knew that was an answer I didn't want to provide in the movie; but, I wanted to provide at least one answer and I wanted to end the last story, the love story, and come back to the home key. When we started writing the script, I knew we couldn't go from the scene with the cage--which, hopefully, if it worked, would be a strong dramatic scene--to the next scene where Espósito professes his love to Irene. I needed a little bit of time for the audience to make the transition and that's when we came up with the idea of Espósito taking flowers to the grave of his friend Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). It was related to the case because Sandoval was killed during the case; but, it was also related to the love story. Sandoval is associated with both stories. That scene served as a bridge and perhaps also contributed to the feeling of yet another ending. I can understand the criticism that the film has too many endings, but it was the best of the possibilities I had to work with.
Guillén: I admire the quality of the meta-narrative in this film, as if the story was being written and the film was being shot through Espósito's memory. As if memory was questioning itself and trying to get the story right through multiple drafts. That was especially pronounced in the scene where Irene has read Espósito's manuscript, which ends with the parting scene at the train station, and complains that--if that was really what happened--why didn't Espósito do anything about it? Why did he leave her behind? With a certain amount of vested resentment, she criticized, "This is a lousy ending." That's why the film's final love scene feels so satisfying because he actually does something about their love for each other, even if "it will be complicated." You got the sense it was going to finally work between them.
Campanella: [Laughs.] Yes.
Guillén: As the film's title suggests, this is definitely a movie about eyes, about clues in the eyes. The rhyme between the group photograph that reveals Gómez staring at his future victim, and the group photograph that reveals Espósito staring longingly at Irene, is an exquisite rhyme. Was that in the novel?
Campanella: No. The group photo of Gómez looking at his future victim is in the novel but I came up with the other one.
Guillén: A deft stroke! It made me concentrate on the faces of your actors and, of course, their eyes. All of your actors have amazing eyes. Which leads me to ask, once you developed the script and went to cast the film, can you speak to how you found the eyes you needed to reflect the titular secrets of your story?
Campanella: Luckily, I have known all of these actors from other films where we have worked together. Except for Guillermo Francella who plays Sandoval, I worked with all the others. This was my fourth movie working with Ricardo Darín. In fact, both Ricardo and Soledad were the couple in my first movie several years ago. I had made a mini-series with Pablo Rago, who plays Morales. I think Pablo is a little Pacino. He's great and he's going to age in an interesting way. He's only in his early thirties. Even though I'd never worked with Guillermo Francella, he's a number one star in Argentina. At the box office, he's bigger than Ricardo, but more as a comic. He's kind of like Jim Carrey, not so much in style, but in his popularity for his broad humor.
Guillén: He lends considerable humor to your film as well.
Campanella: Exactly; but, not anywhere near the wild antics you can see him do in his other movies. I needed a strong actor with less screen time who could be equally and emotionally heavy as the other actors. No other supporting character actor had that ability. I needed a leading man to play that mousey character. But you're right, they all have amazing eyes, which I think are the markings of a movie star. They tell you it's in the eyes. It's not because they're green or blue--because Pablo has black eyes and you still see a lot in them--but, it's their acting ability. Even Javier Godino who plays the murderer has ambrosian features. I knew they were all going to be right.
When I was reading the novel, I had three actors immediately in mind: Ricardo, Soledad and Pablo. I saw Pablo playing the accountant Morales even though in the novel he is described differently as tall, lanky and blonde, which has nothing to do with Pablo; but, for some reason I imagined Pablo because I had just worked with him and I realized his eyes would work. I had never done such extreme close-ups before. I even had to find excuses to isolate the eyes. I wanted to have key moments where the audience would only look at the eyes.
Guillén: You captured excellently the choreography of looking, how a glance happens, most effectively in the scene where Irene catches Gómez obsessively staring at her breasts, convincing her that Espósito might be correct in his suspicion that Gómez was the murderer. That interchange of glances, without any words, was excellently rendered.
Campanella: Thank you so much.
Guillén: Though I'm admittedly unfamiliar with the work of Soledad Villamil, you elicited a wonderful performance from her. There was so much humor and love expressed in her eyes; what Diana Sanchez described in the program notes as "unspoken longing" and "an intimacy of mutual suppression." They also expressed her complicity and the compromises she had made.
Campanella: And the repression! There's a scene that I love so much where's she's really good. Espósito is asking her to reopen the case. At first she thought he was going to propose to her and then it ends up that he wants her to reopen the case. We hear his voice saying about Morales, "You cannot imagine what this guy's eyes look like. It's like love." She looks at him with such longing in her eyes flecked with anger that she can't talk about it. Soledad is wonderful, yeah.
Guillén: For a police procedural with such a grim subject--the rape and murder of a young bride--I was surprised by the film's ongoing humor. The humor was pitched perfectly alongside these horrific events.
Campanella: Thank you.
Guillén: Was that humor in the novel?
Campanella: Some it was, yes. Sandoval's habit of answering the phone and always pretending that he's somewhere else, that's in the novel and is based on reality. That's based on a character that worked with the novelist who always used to do that. His joke was to come up with increasingly wilder places. But, of course, there are whole scenes that are not in the novel. For example, Espósito and Sandoval never go to Gómez's house to look for the letters. The soccer stadium scene is not in the novel. The fact that they catch Gómez because of his passion for soccer is not in the novel.
Guillén: That rhythm of pacing the humor with the film's more serious aspects, does that come for you in the editing process?
Campanella: No, in the writing. I tend to write more humor than ends up in the movie. Ricardo and Guillermo are accomplished comedians--Guillermo, as I told you, is a comic--and we share a similar sensibility so that during read through and rehearsal, several weeks before we start shooting, we start choosing the humor that helps a scene and crossing out the humor that stops a scene or makes the scene too self-conscious. Basically in two afternoons we pared down the script. After working with that kind of style through a few movies, the writing becomes more intuitive so that there's less to correct when we get to rehearsal. I remember in Son of the Bride we did a lot of trimming.
Guillén: I'm intrigued by villainous portrayals. In El Secreto de sus ojos there are bad guys who I would characterize as cut from dark broadcloth. They're obviously bad and corrupt and you don't like their characters from the moment they're introduced and they never redeem themselves throughout the narrative. However, the villainry that affected me the most in your film was all the complicity with governmental corruption; the willingness to look away to further personal ambition, which--as an audience member--forces me to question my own capacity for complicity, my own lapses in integrity. Would I make similar choices? Would my job be more important than love or securing justice?
Campanella: You're observing all the mysteries in the main characters, the good guys. That's actually part of the debate in Argentina about the movie. Everyone understands in Argentina the choices they made in the past. As a society, we made choices. Evil crept up on us. It's a little bit like what happened to Americans after 9/11. Many liberties were taken away and people accepted that because they were afraid. In this story, when these corruptions begin happening in the government, guerillas were killing people, bombing, there was terrorism, and the Argentine people started looking the other way. Not with regard to saying, "Come kill them all", no, no, they would never do that; but, just looking the other way.
The scene that plays powerfully in Argentina is the elevator scene where Gómez has evaded punishment and threatens Irene and Espósito. Thank God it works because--when I was editing it--I was doubtful: "Does this work?" But it did work because it represents a society that has shut up and shut down; a society that has accepted fear. That's why I chose to set the movie in the pre-dictatorship days rather than during the dictatorship because everyone in those pre-dictatorship days were already succumbing to fear by refusing to talk about it. I wanted to show that moment where they make the choice of shutting up, looking away, and running away.
Guillén: For me that scene was important because it revealed Gómez for the unbridled monster that he was and, thus, later when I discovered Morales had kept him caged for years and had punished him further by never speaking to him, I didn't feel pity for Gómez, his punishment seemed justified, and--if anything--I felt for the darkness in Morales.
Campanella: You know, these kinds of things happened at that time. The military and government would have meetings with union leaders and start off negotiations by placing their gun on the desk. It was an intimidating act. It was a definite phallic symbol, even though these thugs knew nothing about psychology or phallic symbols.
Guillén: But they understood intimidation and power.
Campanella: Exactly. Still, there's a distinction in the movie that Gómez has not been freed by justice. He confessed and was convicted by the justice system. Morales hasn't taken justice into his own hands; but, he has taken over the execution of the justice that had been meted out by the court.
Guillén: By indirectly referencing the political shadows of Argentina's past, do you mean to suggest that the love story in El Secreto reflects a healing for Argentina?
Campanella: I think so. There are certain questions in the night that one might choose at a certain moment for whatever reason to not answer; to just let go. But those questions will always come back to haunt you. Argentina as a country is revisiting the '70s and those questions that have been haunting us. Unfortunately, in the '90s we sought to cover them up and ignore them; but, the truth remains that those questions will always come back to haunt you. These are questions that have to be dealt with in order for Argentina to move on. There are several things in Espósito that help him finally talk to Irene. He acknowledges that, in a way, though it seems he is stuck in the cage with Gómez and Morales, he's likewise been stuck in the cage of his impossible love for a woman who he has lost because of the impossibility of his love for her. There was a brief mention that he had married but was unable to love his wife. He shut himself off to love. In that scene with the cage where we see the three men through bars, Espósito is the one who can truly get away. Knowing what has happened, he heads for his love.
Guillén: Well, Juan José, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I wish you the best of luck with this project. I predict it will be Argentina's submission to the Academy Awards®.
Campanella: Well, there has been no other film that's won any festival awards.
Guillén: You're being far too modest. The film is enormously entertaining and ambitious. I believe audiences are going to be attracted to the film.
Campanella: It's the third movement of Beethoven's 14th sonata.
Guillén: Enjoy it!
Campanella: I will. Thank you so much.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.