Spanish Oscar-winning director, Fernando Trueba was the subject of the Binger/Screen International Interview at the Holland Film Meeting in Utrecht this weekend.
The 59-year-old Trueba, who won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Belle Epoque (1992), has picked up Spain’s Goya Award as Best Director three times as well as a Silver Bear for Year Of Enlightenment at the Berlin Festival.
With Miracle of Candeal, he won the Goya for Best Documentary. His animated feature Chico And Rita won the European Film Award for Best Animated Film, the Goya for Best Feature Animation and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film in 2012.
A former film critic for El Pais, he is an author and book editor, and has a parallel career as a Grammy Award-winning music producer.
Screen International: When you won your Oscar, you didn’t thank God, you thanked Billy Wilder. Why did Wilder mean so much to you?
Trueba: I can say that’s he’s my favourite director - the one I really revere even if he has made a few movies I don’t like. You can’t say of someone that he’s the best director ever. That would be a stupid thing. But I can take the risk and say he’s the best screenwriter ever. I think he too the art of the screenwriter to a level that hasn’t been surpassed. There is a lot to learn from him. As a director, he was very modest in the way he didn’t want to have a visible style. He just wanted to be a storyteller in a classical way.
You knew him well. How did your friendship begin?
Maybe to call it a friendship is a bit pretentious. I didn’t know him as well I would like to but every time I was in Los Angeles, I would always visit him. I’d go to his office, sometimes to his home. We’d have lunch together. From 1988 to 2001, when he died, I met him a lot of times. I keep these meetings and conversations as a treasure of my life, a special part of my life. I met him on my second trip to Los Angeles. Since then, every time I was in town, the first thing I did, every time I arrived in Los Angeles, before I opened the bar or go to the bathroom after 12 hours of flying, the first thing I did was call Billy Wilder.
Did Wilder give you advice about life or filmmaking?
He liked you to talk about yourself. He was not interested in talking about his movies. To make him talk about his movies or his life, you had to use a subtle technique…there was one piece of advice he gave me several times. The advice was always ‘spend the most possible time with your son.’ I was quite surprised. He was telling me that in the United States when they (your children) go to university, you don’t see them any more. If you’re lucky, once (a year) at Thanksgiving…this man was supposed to be so cynical. He was not cynical. He was very tough when he detected someone he considered a son of a bitch. If not, he was the funniest, most tender (man) in the world.
Is it true that you wrote the screenplay for Belle Epoque with the legendary screenwriter Rafael Azcona over a series of lunches?
You have to be familiar with eating in Spain which is maybe different from eating somewhere else. In this restaurant, we did the screenplay over one year and a half. This is a restaurant where, if you arrive at 5.30pm or 6pm, people are still there from lunch. We used to spend four hours or five hours in this restaurant every day. I wrote four or five screenplays with Azcona. Always, if it was not in restaurants, it would be in cafes. He didn’t like to work in offices and he didn’t like to work at home. We’d be working on a story for sometimes more than one month before putting anything on the page. If he felt it was a good idea, a movie he wanted to make, we started to take notes and we started to build the script scene by scene from beginning to end. You were not writing a first draft and then a second draft. With Azcona, you were rewriting all the time, and reconsidering and analysing all the time. It was a very serious way of working - and at the same time, it was very fun!
You come from a very artistic family. Your brother and son are filmmakers. Another brother was a sculptor. Could you say something about your parents. Were they artists?
No. My father when I was born was a cop. When I was very young, he quit being a cop because the salary was very small and he became a salesman, door to door. My mother was a housewife. We didn’t have any money at all. Even the poorest guy in my school had bikes and some stuff. We didn’t have anything. Everything was made by my mother. I was born in a house with no books, only a bible. They (my parents) had a romantic, idealised idea of culture. They didn’t give us one peseta so we couldn’t buy anything. The only way they give you money was if you ask for money for a book. If I say I wanted to buy a book, they asked how much it cost and gave me exactly the cost of the book.
What was your family’s experience of the Spanish Civil War, a period you’ve dealt with several times in your work?
My father fought in the Civil War on Franco’s side. When the Spanish Civil War started, they recruited young people. They didn’t ask what they thought. That was a very traumatising thing for my father. My mother’s father was killed when she was four years old only. I think the Spanish Civil War was the most traumatising thing for the country that exists. I was the clown of the family. I was the clown at school. I always liked humour. I perfectly remember the day that I said I would like to be a filmmaker when I grow up. They thought it was a joke. When I did my first movie, Opera Primer, it was a big hit. My father told me ‘look, you did you movie. Now are you looking for a normal job?’ I was so shocked. I thought what if the movie was a flop if he is saying this after a success.
In your early 20s, you had been a film critic at El Pais. How did that come about?
I had started working on a kind of Time Out magazine. They (El Pais) liked what I was writing and they called me. I was shocked and surprised. I don’t know if I was a great critic but I was very sincere and very passionate.
Even when you were a critic, were you thinking about becoming a director?
For people like myself, people like Truffaut or Bogdanovich (former critics) were a model. Becoming an assistant and second assistant director was not the way. I realised that every assistant director who turns into a director, usually, 95% of the time, did it badly. People like Truffaut who were critics or people I admired very much like Preston Sturges or Wilder were screenwriters and then jumped to (become) directors. I think that’s more natural. Writing screenplays is I think the best way…better than being a film critic.
How adept were you as a young filmmaker at the hustling side - at working with producers and securing finance for your films?
I hate money. From since I was very young, I haven’t had a good relationship with money. If I get some money, I spend it as soon as possible. So I am not a businessman. It is very difficult working in cinema if you are not. Especially when I was young, I was so sure of myself, so Taliban, that if I was discussing with a producer or distributor and they said ‘why don’t you do that,’ I would say ‘OK, I am not interested in speaking one more second with you. I am leaving. Goodbye’. I very soon discovered that it worked. They panicked. Sometimes, they asked me to be in meetings because I had this attitude.
You have a parallel career as a music producer. How did that come about?
I’ve produced some jazz records. I love American jazz, especially from the 50s and 60s. I’ve been absolutely happy working with Cuban musician Bebo Valdes or with Flamenco guitar player Niño Josele. Making this music is a wonderful part of my life which I like. In the last years, I’ve liked between one movie and another to produce one record or another. It makes me fresh and makes me go out of the routine of cinema. There is too much routine in cinema. Only if you have a story and you have something you really can’t avoid making should you do a movie.