Argentine Director At Home In New York

Argentine filmmaker Juan Jose Campanella directed one of the most acclaimed Latin American films, The Secret in Their Eyes, which won best foreign film at this year's Oscars. Campanella calls New York home and when he's not busy writing and directing in Spanish, he's directing episodes of House, Law and Order and 30 Rock. NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Campanella.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film has turned into a World Cup of movies. Films that are already critical and commercial successes at home are pitted against one another. This year, Argentina took the prize for a film called "El Secreto de Sus Ojos," or "The Secret in Their Eyes."

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret in Their Eyes")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

SIEGEL: It's the story of Benjam´┐Żn Esposito, a retired investigator who tries to make peace with his past by revisiting a murder case that was never solved and a woman he had loved but never told. The director, Juan Jose Campanella, divides his time between Buenos Aires and New York City. When he returned to his native Argentina with only his country's second Oscar in hand, he was hailed as a hero.

Mr. JUAN JOSE CAMPANELLA (Director, "The Secret in Their Eyes"): It was a big deal, which you know, I don't know if it tells you that much about the greatness of the award or about the smallness of my country.

SIEGEL: "The Secret in Their Eyes" is about a murder investigation or a man who reinvestigates an old case that he's convinced was wrongly done the first time, and I want to ask you about the period that you are re-creating when this original case took place. If we were Argentines, how would react to the time in which this original crime took place? They didn't get the killer and they found two guys and picked them up for it instead.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Well, I was very afraid of what was going to happen with the movie because the movie takes place, the past portion of it takes place in 1974 and '75. And in Argentina, it was before the dictatorship. We had a democratic government and it was actually the government that started state terrorism, and that's the time that we talk about in the movie.

Now, having said all this, I just want to say that in the movie, it's just a context, you don't need to read a history book, and it's really not about that.

SIEGEL: Right, right.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: It's more or less like World War II is in "Casablanca." You know, you know the basics. You don't need to know what Vichy is or Vichy was in order to understand the movie.

SIEGEL: I realized when I watched the film that I'm primed and looking at an Argentine movie that looks back 25 years. What's the political angle here? Is it about the dirty war? Is it about the people being - disappeared, as they said? And really not, that's really not what this film is about.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: No, no, no, not at all, not at all. And besides, it takes place before what came to be called the dirty war. You know, that was really during the dictatorship. This is the beginning, the serpent's egg moment, so to speak.

SIEGEL: "The Secret in Their Eyes," in the film, you use people's eyes, and this is - it's a motif of the movie, yes?

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. What I wanted to - you know, I think that the - getting very close to the eyes is the thing that separates film from theater and every other narrative art. You can basically do everything in theater nowadays, and you can Broadway show and you can see, but you cannot get close to an actor's eyes.

And I wanted to make a movie that if you listen to the movie without looking at their faces, you will get one story. If you look at their faces without listening to what they say, you will get another story. And the combination of the two, you get a third story, which is what the movie is about. And I think that these actors pulled it off.

SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you about your own trajectory as a filmmaker, from engineering student to graduate of NYU Film School.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Yes.

SIEGEL: And here's the danger of doing too much research. I've been reading past interviews with you.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Okay.

SIEGEL: And one of them says that you originally studied engineering but switched to film after having your mind blown by Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz." Another says: He was an engineering student when he saw Frank Capra's classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," experience that he said literally changed his life. And another says that you tout 1970s Hollywood classics like "Dog Day Afternoon," a seminal influence.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Okay.

SIEGEL: Which one is it? Was it Bob Fosse or "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Dog Day Afternoon"?

Mr. CAMPANELLA: The three things have a portion of the truth because I started studying film during the night. In effect, I was an engineering student. I was very influenced at that time - this is 1979 - by the American movies of the '70s. "Dog Day Afternoon" was one of my favorites at the time. But "Taxi Driver," "The Deer Hunter," I mean, even "Fame" was a very important movie. "Rocky" was great.

One day in February of 1980, I remember the day, I saw "It's a Wonderful Life," which is a movie that changed my life, as you said. And that day, I decided that after I finished engineering, I was actually going to be a filmmaker. And then the next July, I saw "All That Jazz," and I said forget about finishing the engineering school. I'm starting my career today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I see.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: So it was a sort of a one-two punch of "It's a Wonderful Life" in February and "All That Jazz" in July.

SIEGEL: Now, I want you to tell me about the other side of your directorial life now, which is not just directing films back home in Argentina but directing American TV shows: "House," "Law & Order: SVU."

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes, it's - what's not to like? I mean, they're great shows, excellent scripts. It's all training. You're telling stories. You're working with great actors. So I really like that.

SIEGEL: But I would imagine, and I'm saying this as somebody who's watched plenty of the shows that you're talking about, that in directing a "House," there's something formulaic about it. That is, you know, "House" will be wrong for the first 40 minutes of the program, at least, and he'll do something terrible to a colleague, and by the end, after an enormous medical bill has been rung up testing the patient, they'll figure out what it is, and there'll be a, you know, kind of a half-satisfying conclusion to the program. Now, it isn't formulaic to you?

Mr. CAMPANELLA: That's very good.

SIEGEL: You think I did it?

Mr. CAMPANELLA: That's a very good assessment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMPANELLA: But it's incredible how within that framework - well, but it's - you know, it is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMPANELLA: That's very good. That was very good, Robert.

SIEGEL: You think I've deconstructed "House."

Mr. CAMPANELLA: But, you know, it's like saying that a human being is 208 bones and, you know, and sometimes a bunch of hair at the top, not in my case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMPANELLA: You know, so within that, you can still create a lot of humanity.

SIEGEL: You're now doing American TV shows, directing them, between Argentine films.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Does there come a moment when you start doing American films and sort of merge your two lives together?

Mr. CAMPANELLA: You know, I - don't know. It does depend on the project. I would love to do it, and I feel very comfortable here, you know, as I have many friends here. But it has to be a project we all agree on what movie has to be done.

I already made an American movie 15 years ago that the studio wanted a different movie than I wanted it, and I was pretentious enough and arrogant enough at that time that I thought that I could convince them to see things my way. And you learn from those experiences. You know, Hollywood has embraced a certain kind of entertainment.

The movies of the '70s that we were mentioning at the beginning of the interview, they don't make them anymore. So I would - if I want to make something like "Dog Day," like those great '70s political thrillers, I go to Argentina and I do what I want there. Here, it should have to be a very entertaining movie that I like and that they like. To find that common ground, it's not an easy task.

SIEGEL: Juan Jose Campanella, director of "The Secret In Their Eyes." Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CAMPANELLA: Thank you very much, Robert.

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