It’s rare for an action-thriller to clean up at a major awards ceremony, especially as it’s set in a prison, but Daniel Monzon’s Cell 211 did just that at Spain’s prestigious Goya Awards. It picked up eight gongs, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor.
We caught up with Daniel to find out what he had to say about the movie, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on January 9th.
How and when did you come into contact with the novel [Cell 211 is based on a book by Francisco Pérez Gandul]?
One of the Producers gave me the book and I read it in a night. It was a page turner. Initially I was sceptical, but when I closed the book I had already decided that I wanted to do this movie. There were plenty of great ideas, for example the concept of a guard who goes to a jail the day before he starts work and because of an accident finds himself trapped in the middle of a riot and has to pretend he is a criminal in order to hide his true identity.
And there was a flavour of Greek Tragedy. A character that is at a shining moment in his life, when suddenly everything changes, in 30 hours in this case, and a life is ruined by a twist of destiny. This guy has to suffer in these 30 hours the worse things a human could suffer and he is going to change forever. This type of journey is very interesting for an audience to follow.
This was a challenge for me as a director. To put the audience in Juan’s position, to grab them by the neck at the outset and not let them go until the very end. I have seen the movie with a lot of audiences, in different countries and the audiences always react in the same way, they’re shocked at the end, silenced. The challenging thing was to put the audience in the same point of view as Juan and push them to understand him and justify his actions, which is disturbing.
How was adapting the novel for a cinema audience? Was it a great challenge?
We went to real jails to talk to the inmates and guards, to take all this reality and put it into the script and finally the movie. They were really open to our questions because they are starved of this type of conversation or contact, closed off in the cells. When there is someone who is interested in talking to them they are like open books. They really talk a lot and we learnt a lot about jails. The prison system is a kind of kingdom with its own rules, its own hierarchy. Geographically jails are very close to our cities but these jails are far, far away from public knowledge. We wanted to show a little bit of this universe, and take the audience through the locked keyhole straight into the cell. I realised that the story had to be told in a way that the audience felt is real, and this is reflected in the style of the movie. For example we used real inmates as extras in the scenes to give us the authenticity that you cannot get from professional extras or make up. We had to convince the real inmates and the authorities as well for them to be in the movie.
We also shot in a jail to be inspired by the real spaces. It was a great help for all of us; for the team, for the DoP for the professional actors, to be living in the real space, surrounded by the evidence of the people who had lived there, the desperate signs, the scratches and marks on the walls of the punishment cells. You enter the cells and there is a palpable presence. I showed the actors the cells on the first day of filming, and actors are very sensitive to this kind of thing, to the smell and feel of what happened in a space. Somehow it was like a ghost experience, I felt like the jail was whispering in my ear how to frame our scene, how to choreograph the actors. I told my DoP, to forget that we are making a fiction and to think about how we’d shoot it as a documentary. Every day I went on set with an open mind and I tried to each day to make the movie as believable and authentic as possible. I had some shots in my mind but I never used them. I found the reality of the every day situations more interesting.
The Opening of the film is brutally graphic. What challenges did you face to depict the harsh reality of prison life?
Everything comes from reality. The brutal, graphic violence in the movie came from our research. The suicide at the opening of the movie is not in the novel, but when we were talking to real inmates and guards at the jail they told us the story about an inmate who was complaining he had a headache all the time. The doctor diagnosed him through the bars of the cell and told him it was diarrhoea. Finally the guy committed suicide and the results of the autopsy showed that he had a tumour the size of a kiwi fruit. This was reality. When we were writing the script we thought that it was a very hard, direct way to open the movie. This is what the film is, if you can stand it, suffer it, then okay otherwise you still have time to leave. But to my surprise and my happiness the movie affects every type of audience. Even old ladies have come to me and said this is a very beautiful movie, they say it’s violent but it is not gratuitous.
Can you tell us something about the casting?
This is an ensemble movie, so for me it was absolutely important to get the best actor for each character role. It was Kubrick who said that the best a director can do with his actors is to choose them well. It’s so true, I spent eight months auditioning and trying to get to know the actors in preparation for their roles. The most difficult part to cast was Juan. We made hundreds of auditions and I could not find an actor to play Juan because it is a really difficult role. He’s a normal, friendly guy at first who is going to change totally, who transforms into a dark and haunted soul by the end of the film.
I realised in order to find one guy who would be believable with this transformation I needed to cast an unknown actor. But it was very difficult because he had to be able to confront an actor like Luis Tosar who plays Malamadre, and convince him of his disguise. Finally my casting director remembered “that one guy, who won an acting prize in a contest of fighting, take a look. When I saw Alberto Ammann I felt something about his size, the strength of his look, everything. His image was a really great contrast with Luis. With his clean cut features so pure, so innocent, Alberto made Luis seem even more brutal. So we made an audition between them and it was great, They listened to each other, they looked at each other, they were alive, feeding off each other and I was convinced that this was the correct guy to take on Luis’s Malamadre.
Thank you Daniel.
Cell 211 is released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 9th. If you’d like to try and win a copy in our comp, click here.