Spanish screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez is likely well known to many ScreenAnarchy readers; if not by his name, than by his screenplays, such as The Orphanage and The Impossible. He makes his feature film debut this month with Marrowbone, a gothic tale of siblings trying to stay together, while both legal and possibly supernatural forces try to separate them.
Even with impressive credentials, making a feature as a writer/director is no small challenge. ScreenAnarchy talked to Sánchez about the inpirations for the film, his development as a director, and the pros and cons of the fantastic genre film.
ScreenAnarchy: You've been a well-known and successful screenwriter for many years. What made you decide that this was the screenplay that you wanted to direct yourself?
Sergio G. Sánchez: Well actually, every screenplay that I've written, I wanted to direct myself. I never wanted to be a screenwriter. I wrote the screenplay for The Orphanage right before I shot my first short film, 7337. That film went to a lot of festival, and I met Juan Antonio Bayona at one of them. He was looking for a project, and the script ended up in his hands. That became very successful, so producers started calling me just to write, although what I always wanted to do was direct. It wasn't so much that this was the one that I wanted to direct, it was just that after three very successful films in Spain, I was able to attach myself to it.
SA: What has drawn you to writing so many of your films in the fantastic genre?
SS: The fantastic works well in the cinematic medium, and I'm always interested in the threshold of reality, of fantasy, childhood, adulthood, life and death. And I've been exploring that in all of my films. Very early on in Marrowbone, there's a scene where they go through this ritual, drawing a line in the floor to leave the past behind. And there's all these symbolic elements that somehow that level of threshold, of crossing that line, brings these elements in. I don't know why, but that fascinates me, and keeps popping up in my films.
SA: Certainly in Marrowbone, as in The Orphanage, it's about children, and how they are caught in the fantastic. Do you find you channel the fantastic more with children?
SS: I was thinking about the moment when a child becomes an adult. I think that happens when you become aware of death on the horizon. I think it's very present in many works of children's literature, like Peter Pan, like that story told from the point of view of the mother who is waiting for the children to come back home. And there's also something of a children's story in Marrowbone, almost like a boy's adventure story like The Famous Five.
SA: Where did the idea for Marrowbone come from?
SS: I'm never sure exactly. Working with my producer, Belén Atienza, we like to pitch ideas to each other a lot. And I was coming back from a journey to Barcelona, I was actually thinking about another story, possibly for Bayona, and then I pictured the idea for Marrowbone. So I told her about it, she loved it, and she asked me to start on it right away. So I knew what the story was about, I sent her three pages a day, so it was almost like writing a serialized novel. And so there was this strange pressure, I almost felt compelled to end each of those three pages with a little twist.
I feel like the movie resembles a Russian doll, it changes identity every 10 minutes. There's more than one surprise or twist. It begins as a family drama, and then something strange happens, which turns it into something of a mystery, then it goes into horror, then it's more of a thriller, so it keeps advancing until it gets to the core of the story, which is a love story. Not only a romantic love story, but also fraternal love, the love between siblings that cannot be broken.
SA: What were some of the challenges in directing your own script?
SS: For me, a screenplay is a story told in images, and while some people see the script as just a structure or just dialogue, I always try to get those images on the page. But finally being the one to direct one of my screenplays, there were times when I really hated my writer half, because I thought the script was so structurally complicated. It didn't allow for any improvisation, every scene affected every other scene, because I was very careful to make sure that the film would be different on a first and a second viewing. The first time you watch it, you can follow the mystery, and then once all the revelations are on the table, you can watch the film again and put the puzzle together. It almost becomes a psychological portrait, it's almost a different movie. So there wasn't much room for improvising, I wish I could have played around more when I was shooting.
But on the other hand, I had great fun working with the actors. I was incredibly lucky to assemble this cast, and I'm sure that 10 years from now when they're all big stars, I will look back and I won't believe that I was able to get them all together. They were all really committed and enthusiastic, and it was great working with them.
SA: There is something in Spanish genre cinema about children and the fantastic. You can see it in Marrowbone, The Orphanage, The Others, The Devil's Backbone. They each have so many layers, and you can watch these film multiple times. Do you think this is something particular to the Spanish sensibility?
SS: Probably. It's not something we're aware of here, but whenever I travel outside, I do sense that Spaniards are a little more emotional. That emotion manages to seep into our films. It seems to be a way of looking at things. If you look at the more preeminent filmmakers like Luin Buñuel or Carlos Saura or Pedro Almodóvar, you wouldn't say they make films that are fantasy films per se, but the way they look at society, it's always edging on fantasy. Maybe that's it. And also many filmmakers from my generation, we were the first generation that was able to go to film school, and we were exposed to all these films from the late 60s and 70s, that had so much trouble trying to find a way to say what they wanted to say, because of censorship and the Franco dictatorship. So a lot of these films seeped into horror, because that was the best way to say what they wanted to say. So a lot of the horror films that come out of Spain are grounded in reality, maybe because of that heritage.
SA: Why did you decide to make it a British family that moved to America, was there any special about that geography?
SS: Not really, to be honest, I think the story is universal. It's a story that could almost be out of an Edgar Allen Poe book, or even a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. The only key thing was it had to be about the family trying to find a new home, I just needed them to have come from a very far away place. And also, to qualify for funding, we needed to emply actors from the European Union, so it worked out that the family would be British.
It was filmed in Asturias, where I'm from. I lived for several years in the Unted States, which might have changed my personality a bit, I feel like I have one foot in the US and one foot in Spain. My memories, which aren't always real, are a mixture of both places.
SA: That comes out a lot in the character of Jack (played by George MacKay), this displacement and unreliable memory.
SS: That's something else that fascinates me. I think my next film is going to be about that, how sometimes your memories are not always real. There's an experiment that's been conducted in many countries, talking to people from different cultures, and asking them where they had been during important events, for example do you remember where you were during 9/11. They asked people in Spain if they remember where they were during the [attempted] coup d'etat in 1982, and everyone said they were watching it live on television. But the truth is, it wasn't broadcast live; the images came out two days after, but the images were so vivid and violent, and people were so afraid, they thought that they were watching the television the moment that it happened. So I'm fascinated by the concept of being able to have memories of things that never happened.