Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Juan José Campanella, Oscar-winning director of "The Secret In Their Eyes"
No Secret For Juan José Campanella: He Loves Film

The director Juan José Campanella in San Francisco earlier this month.  
Omar P.L. Moore/

By Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW 
Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Juan José Campanella won the Oscar six Sundays ago. 

The feeling hasn't necessarily worn off -- if only because the color of Oscar night's formal wear remains visible.  Dressed from head to toe in black, the director greets his interviewer with a smile and an enthusiastic handshake on a sunny midday at a local hotel suite.

Mr. Campanella's new film "The Secret In Their Eyes" won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar on March 7 and although Mr. Campanella was thrilled at the Academy's gesture, he revealed that he didn't stick around for too long after the interviews, congratulations and thank-yous.

"I don't like big crowds, I don't like parties," he said.  "I had the greatest exit line, which was my son, who was three years old, didn't understand what the hell was going on.  And he was getting pissy and sleepy and all that, so we went home very early."

Of winning the Oscar, the director added: "It's a huge honor.  It makes you think, well, I must be doing something well."

What is done well is Mr. Campanella's film (aka El Secreto De Sus Ojos), a dramatic thriller from his native Argentina.  The story, written by the director, centers on a murder case that has remained unsolved for 25 years and taken its toll on the Buenos Aires prosecutorial office.  Ricardo Darin stars as Benjamin Esposito, a prosecutor working under the aegis of Chief Prosecutor Irene Menéndez Hastings (played by Soledad Villamil).  The film also stars Pablo Rago as Ricardo Morales, whose wife has been murdered.

"It's based on the novel (by the film's co-writer Eduardo Sacheri) but we added more even than the novel had to begin with," said the director.  "Because we brought the female character to the foreground.  She took no part of the case in the novel."

"The Secret In Their Eyes" was viewed by some as an upset Oscar winner.  The films "A Prophet" and "The White Ribbon" were heavily touted as favorites to win the Best Foreign Language Film prize.  Few had seen any of the three films. 

Mr. Campanella's film is about passion and how it both prevails and destroys over time.  And in "The Secret In Their Eyes" passion is bound by lines of love and hate, emotions ascribed to those who grapple to control the very passion that keeps them going in their lives.

The Oscar-winning director is passionate about his job.  He's directed several films and numerous television episodes of "House M.D." and "Law And Order: Special Victims Unit".  When asked if passion informed the environment in which he directed "The Secret In Their Eyes", Mr. Campanella became passionate about some of the things that irk him about the industry to which he belongs.

"I should say even stronger than dislike -- I hate many aspects of the profession that I'm in.  I hate the environment, I hate the phoniness.  I hate the backstabbing.  I hate so much -- I hate -- I don't have a good time when I have to show what I've done.  It's very nerve-wracking.  That I hate because of nervousness.  But of course, it's the reason why I do it.  So you can't get away from it.  So many times I say, 'you know, I just can't deal with this anymore, I don't like it.'  And then, it's never more than ten days that I'm thinking of another story and all that.  So really, I think that if I had to disappear like one of the characters does in the movie, that they should look for me in some place where writers exist."

Reflecting some more on the subject, Mr. Campanella adds: "I think that's the truth.  You know, there are certain things that you can't get away (from).  You can change everything in your life but your passions."

He quotes a line from one of his favorite songs, Frank Sinatra's version of "That's Life", as a metaphor to underscore his feelings: "Many times I thought of quitting but my heart won't buy it."

The director on the set of his film directing Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villemil for a scene in "The Secret In Their Eyes".       Sony Pictures Classics

When the director talks of despising the profession and its transactional aspects, using the word 'hate' often, there's not a trace of venom in his voice.  To the contrary, Mr. Campanella is relaxed and easy-going.  A quick, kind smile often punctuates many of his remarks.  He is more or less an open book: forthcoming, relaxed, a casual conversationalist.  (When asked, he recommends what he simply termed "The Falls" as a place to see for any first-time visitor to Argentina.)

Mr. Campanella likes to read in his spare time and loves cooking, although he quickly modifies his response:

"I don't love cooking as much as I love eating, actually.  If someone else cooks and is a good cook I'll defer."

"I love music.  I love getting together with a few friends in a café or something and talk for a long time."

Music and cafés have their place in "The Secret In Their Eyes", which has a 1970s feel to it, and the director acknowledged as much about the period during the conversation.  Other movies are mentioned, ones that the film clearly pays homage to. 

Before too long, the director's modesty becomes clear.  "I'm not claiming that I invented any shot because it's really -- I am a piece of dough off of the thousands of shots that I've seen in my life.  They all get mixed up in my head," said the director, who laughs.

Shot over seven weeks, rehearsal for "The Secret In Their Eyes" lasted two.  Some of the actors had worked with Mr. Campanella before, so things were naturally that much easier.

"I really didn't have to extract a performance from them.  We talked about it, we read the script.  It was a very relaxed rehearsal process." 

One of the film's stars, Guillermo Francella, is a huge box-office sensation in Argentina.  He plays Sandoval, a detective on the murder case who likes alcohol as much as he does solving crime. 

Keeping true to the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mr. Campanella has no objection to a remake of "The Secret In Their Eyes" as a Hollywood incarnation. 

"In the same way that [my] movie was made from the novel and it has a mind of its own, I don't mind if they make a remake . . . as long as the remake has a character of its own.  It's actually interesting to see what other person could make with the same story.  I would hate it to be the same movie just in English.  I think that everyone doing it would hate it.  But it's interesting, it's like when they do -- there's a thousand versions of "Hamlet".  I actually would be very curious to see in what direction the same idea can take them."

Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villemil in "The Secret In Their Eyes".  Sony Pictures Classics

Speaking of direction, the path to filmmaking for Mr. Campanella was a somewhat convoluted, though not entirely unexpected one.  He began by studying engineering for four years. 

"But not because I liked it."

The director described his developing admiration for film this way:

"I was born in 1959 (in Buenos Aires).  Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in Argentina, working on film wasn't an option.  It wasn't even that my parents had to work to deny it from me, you know?  It wasn't even in my mental scheme.  I was one of those kids who went to the movies everyday.  Because in the time of pre-video there were a lot of suburban houses . . . that had a double bill everyday -- a different one, with old movies, you know.  We could have a Jerry Lewis movie with a Hammer, you know, Peter Cushing Dracula movie.  A double bill.  It was basically the two movies that they could get.  There was no rhyme or reason behind the programming in some of these theaters.  I mean, such an eclectic upbringing!  I just love movies of all kinds.  And I was lucky enough to see them in a theater."

At 19 or 20, Mr. Campanella studied engineering during the day and studied film at night.  It wouldn't last too long though.  "It was a point of no return."

"Two years later I quit engineering and I devoted myself to film."  He studied film for eight years, including several at New York University's graduate film school.

Was there one film that sparked Mr. Campanella's decision to immerse himself in moviemaking?

"It's A Wonderful Life". 

Mr. Campanella said of Frank Capra's classic film: "It was not a popular movie in Argentina at all.  They have never shown it on TV.  I don't think they ever did, still, to this day.  And I remember the day: February 23 of 1980.  And they were doing a series on classic American comedy.  And I go to see "It's A Wonderful Life" because one of the teachers (in a film school in Argentina) had told me I had to see some Capra film at some point in my life.  And I go in there and I read what it's about in this playbill they gave us.  It's about a guardian angel.  And I go, 'what the hell is this stupidity?'

"I was 20.  You know, I was way beyond that -- angel -- that guardian angel bullshit.  And when the movie ended I was a different person.  I was -- you know, I had to wait until it started again to leave the theater because I was crying so much that I was embarrassed.  And I never knew that a movie could move you so much.  Since then I've seen it exactly 93 times, and it's my favorite film of all time.  That day I said, 'this is it, this is what I'm making.  I'm going to do this.'"

"The Secret In Their Eyes" (El Secreto De Sus Ojos) is now playing in New York City and Los Angeles.  The film opens on Friday in San Francisco and other additional U.S. cities.

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