Alex de la Iglesia has built a reputation across Europe as a comedy director with a larger-than-life persona and spontaneous style of film-making. So it came as little surprise to find him painting the walls of St Edmund Hall in Oxford and bellowing at his crew to work faster when Screen visited the set of his latest film The Oxford Murders on a sunny day in mid-March.

"He is a great passionate bear of a man who is wonderful to work with, but does try to improvise sometimes, which takes the British crew by surprise. We are used to more military planning than the Mediterranean way," says Kevin Loader, the film's UK producer, as de la Iglesia removes a 'Keep off the grass' sign from the lawn where he is shooting.

A Spanish perspective

The Oxford Murders is de la Iglesia's second English-language film following 1997's Goya-winning Dance With The Devil. Based on a bestselling novel by Argentinian writer Guillermo Martinez, Murders tells the story of a graduate student, played by Elijah Wood, who travels to Oxford to study mathematics. On meeting a professor (John Hurt), he investigates murders linked by mathematical symbols.

"There are obvious similarities with The Da Vinci Code - a puzzle based on symbols and codes," says Loader. "But in plot terms it's a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery with some post-modern twists."

A Spaniard with a limited English vocabulary, de la Iglesia is unaware of such a reference, having never seen traditional British TV murder mysteries such as Inspector Morse or Christie's Poirot. Loader is thrilled by this, as it means de la Iglesia is bringing a "fresh perspective" to the genre.

"I'm not just interested in the murder mystery plot, but also the tangential story involving mathematical and philosophical theories," insists de la Iglesia, who co-wrote the script with his long-time collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarria. As an accomplished graphic artist, de la Iglesia also drew the original storyboard. "Some of John's (Hurt) character's expositions about past murders and mathematical theorems were illustrated by Alex in a very visual and post-Gothic sort of way," says Loader.

According to Loader, Hurt was one of the first to sign up to the project, intrigued by his character's obsession with breaking down mathematical codes and the script's theories about our ability to trust the evidence of our own eyes. Wood joined quite late, following lengthy discussions between the producers and director about who would play the role.

"We had a discussion with a German actor at one point, a French one, and there might have been an early discussion with Gael (Garcia Bernal) because Alex is friends with him," says Loader. "But in the end we agreed on Elijah, as the character's nationality proved inconsequential."

What did prove important was achieving the right mix of UK and Spanish crew to get the feel of the setting, but also for the director to be able to communicate his vision. "Our line producer Rosa Romero, who is Spanish but based in the UK, proved vital in uniting the two camps," says Loader.

In total about 80 crew members were used, including de la Iglesia's favoured camera department. "His grip is a fantastic old Basque character who built his own crane and tracks, which allowed Alex to get a fluidity and shooting style that would have taken a lot longer with a different crew," says Loader.

Murder by numbers

The team spent most of the nine-week shoot in locations around London, including the former naval base in Greenwich and Mills Studios, before external shooting in Oxford. "Internal shots in Oxford would be too expensive and require a lot of time and effort to get permission. They tend only to accommodate the likes of Harry Potter," says Loader.

Murders' budget is $10m (£5m) - split between Tornasol and its Spanish partner Estudios Picasso, which is funding 60%; France's La Fabrique Du Film (10%); Eurimages (almost 8%); and Loader's Free Range Films, which has taken advantage of the new UK tax credit, providing a further 16%. The remaining balance will come from pre-sales or a UK distribution deal.

"We haven't sold the UK distribution rights yet, partly because we haven't decided where it sits in the UK theatrical distribution market, and partly because some of the UK broadcasters we talked to didn't get it," says Loader, whose credits include Venus, The History Boys and Vicente Amorim's forthcoming Nazi film Good. "They're nervous of a Spanish director handling a UK-set movie.

The project is now in post-production in Madrid, and Loader and sales outfit ThinkFilm are determined to take the project to Cannes where "we'll show a trailer, get some sales done, and try to knock down our UK distribution deal".

Warner Bros has picked up theatrical rights for Spain and Italy, convinced of the director's appeal in those territories, and Telecinco and Canal+ Spain have taken TV rights for Spain. Outside Europe, "there's enormous interest in South America and from North American distributors, some of whom are surprisingly well-informed about Alex's previous work", says Loader, who hopes to have the film ready to be considered for a premiere at Venice.

Worldwide Title (year)Box office
Ferpect Crime (2004)$9m
Dying Of Laughter (1999)$7.4m
Common Wealth (2000)$7m
The Day Of The Beast (1995)$5.7m
Dance With The Devil (1997)$3.5m