During my second annual Academy Awards liveblog, my streak of correct predictions came to a screeching halt when Best Foreign Film was announced. I thought The White Ribbon was a lock, so it was a surprise when Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes took the prize. I was a little disappointed, for I had no idea what the Argentine movie was about, and my love of Michael Haneke knows no bounds. But minutes after I began The Secret in Their Eyes, my disappointment evaporated.
Set in 1970s and the present, the movie is an engrossing romantic thriller. Its twists are surprising yet inevitable, and it features a chase sequence that will enrapture cinephiles more than Children of Men did. Working from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, the movie was written, directed, and edited by Juan José Campanella, an Argentina native who also had plenty of experience with American television shows like House MD and 30 Rock. Recently we sat down to discuss his recent success, the challenges of bravura camerawork, and the joys of film nerdery.
BYT: How has excitement for the movie changes since you won the Oscar?
JJC: [Laughs] Quite a lot, actually. It’s a big difference, like day and night. The countries that wouldn’t buy it before now want to buy it. Countries that had a small release will now have a bigger one. And it’s going to be released theatrically in countries where it would have gone straight to DVD. This is huge, especially for an Argentine movie.
What about the novel appealed to you?
There was a great element in the novel I tried to keep in the movie, even after all the changes, which is how the story is embedded in the film noir tradition. At the same time, the characters are completely real, everyday characters. They are office workers, not the drunken detective, Philip Marlowe type. These people can love and feel something when they see a corpse. That’s what I liked the most – I could have an Italian comedy sensibility through a film noir.
Was it difficult combining comic scenes with dark ones?
It was a bet, so to speak, a risk. In my other movies I often worked with dramatic and comedic elements, but never with a murder or suspense. It’s what interested me – I wanted to mix more ingredients into this meal. We worked a lot with the script because when time came to shoot, all we could do was to ask the cast to act with truth. Our tough choices are made at the script level since the style of acting is the same throughout the movie – whether the scene is comedic, dramatic, or suspenseful.
What preparation went into the stadium sequence?
We tried blending takes in several ways in order to make it appear seamless. It was not shot in sequence, obviously. You can’t have anyone jump from a helicopter onto the roof of a stadium. So we tested how to blend the shots without having to go through somebody’s back [ed note: e.g. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope] or something similarly obvious. I wanted [the cuts] to be unnoticeable even if you had the DVD and went frame by frame.
I did that, actually. When the camera begins to follow a character on foot after zooming in from above the stadium, I rewound and asked myself, “How did they DO that?”
There’s a complicated transition there. [The camera] goes from a helicopter to a crane shot to a handheld sequence. There are seven shots in total. Don’t worry – there’ll be a whole explanation when we release the DVD.
Given the title and key plot points, there’s lots of attention paid to the eyes. Did you work with your cast to make sure they got it right?
When you have really good actors, you can trust them to really think about what’s going on, and to be their characters when we film. If they can successfully manage to stop worrying about their next line or whether they’ll hit their mark, they’ll begin to inhabit the characters. Most actors, however, cannot forget they’re making a movie.
There’s one scene, set in an elevator, that’s quite tense and completely silent. The eyes generate all the tension.
Funny you mention that, because we weren’t sure it would work when we were shooting. We shot it two weeks after the shot where [the characters] enter the elevator. We then had to reproduce the elevator on stage; otherwise, we couldn’t have the door closing with a camera inside. So when we shot the scene in the elevator, it just didn’t feel right. Still, when it all comes together in the editing room, the scene works wonderfully. And of course, Soledad Villamil did an incredible job of containing her character’s terror.
She also acted well in the interrogation scene.
It was challenging for her. Her character had to improvise her way through a complex, dangerous interrogation – all the while finding the inner strength to continue. She had a lot of beats to hit. The other two actors had a simpler job. One simply reacted, the other built himself up. We shot that scene over the course of one day. It was shot like a documentary (the cameras looked for the shots). After rehearsal, we shot it ten times from different angles.
Going back to your earlier mention of film noir, what were some of your other influences?
Mostly the movies I grew up with. The movies you watch until you’re twenty, especially if you’re the nerdy kind of guy who likes to go to the movies instead of watching football…
That’s totally me.
[Laughs] Well, me, too! I’m sure you’ll agree those movies are the most formative. My two big influences were from the 1970s: American movies of the 70s, which to me are the best decade of any filmography ever in the world, and Italian comedy of the 70s, which were hugely popular in Argentina. Movies like Un borghese piccolo piccolo with Alberto Sordi or Ettore Scola’s We all loved each other so much had humor in the darkest of situations. You can see both influences in my movie. From one side, the political thriller element is similar The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, whereas the character are similar to the comedies I mentioned.
You worked with Ricardo Darín before. What made you think he was right guy to play Esposito?
We made three movies before, so The Secret in Their Eyes is our fourth movie together. As I was reading the novel, without any thought of turning it into a movie, I was imagining him. Ricardo has a unique quality. He can be a leading man without being heroic at all. [Esposito] is a coward – he doesn’t do anything in the movie, he doesn’t even crack the case! For a passive character who commands attention, you need Ricardo. There’s something about him… I don’t know if you had the chance to see Nine Queens, but in that one he plays a completely irredeemable character, yet you root for him and buy that he’s frail. Even when he plays a loser, there’s something magnetic about him.
Given the crosscutting of time and mood, was the editing process challenging?
The biggest challenge editorially is the train scene when two characters who love each other say goodbye. It was difficult to find the right tone – I wanted it to be melodramatic, but the swell of music was too much. The tone was all wrong, so it came off as parody. I ended up re-cutting the scene sixty times. All the time I was working with the composers, asking them to give me less and less. At one point, I tried the scene without music at all, and it became a little too mundane. It was almost too real, but because I had to have [Soledad] laugh at Ricardo’s sentimentality, I needed some melodrama without losing the audience. That was a big challenge.
There’s a political element to your movie. How does its reception in Argentina compare to other countries?
In Argentina, The Secret in Their Eyes is the second most successful Argentine movie of all time. But I was a bit afraid because it shines a bad light on our current government. Even though I thought I was going to get a lot of flak, I didn’t at all. That was pleasantly surprising. People here are fascinated by our choice to set the movie before the dictatorship. Actually, many young people don’t even know something was happening before the military took over. Focus is often put onto the military government, not the democratic government, so the decision was well-taken.
Ok, great! Thanks for your time.
The Secret in Their Eyes opens at E Street this Friday. Trust me – you’ll want to check this one out!