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Pablo Berger

Gives a Spanish Flavor to a Beloved Fairy Tale with Blancanieves

by Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 28, 2013.


Spanish director Pablo Berger took a leap with his second film, Blancanieves, in re-imagining of the Snow White fable with enough grit to validate the film. However to construct it as a silent film was a real jump into the abyss Ė both creatively and financially. Keep in mind this Spanish director had the idea to do a film this way nearly a decade before The Artist came out of the French wilderness and won hearts, minds and the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012.

Opening the 2012 Spanish Cinema Now Ė sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center Ė Blancanieves (Snow White), was Spain's 85th Academy Awards submission to Best Foreign Language category this year, but it didnít make the final shortlist.  Playing on the Brother Grimm's tale, it incorporates myth, archetypes and wry humor to tell a story set in a romantic vision of 1920s Andalusia. Intended as an homage to European silent films, this twist on the fairy tale is set in 1920s Seville and centered on a female bullfighter.


This film was a huge hit in Spain and won the Special Jury Prize and Best Actress "Silver Shell" Award for Macarena GarcŪa at the 2012 San SebastiŠn International Film Festival. It also won 10 Goyas, including one for Best Film at the 27th annual Spanish Awards.


Beautifully shot, with an ensemble cast notable for their quiet finesse, it entwines humor, betrayal, greed, deceit and sweet revenge as fundamental story elements. When Berger came to NYC in advance of its theatrical release he spoke lucidly about his film and his time working in this city.


What did you need to learn to make this movie Ė this isnít what people expect from a feature filmÖ.  

My favorite period of film history is the silent era Ė the 20s in particular Ė a time when most types of cinema was invented. Most of the great films from the silent era were made in the Ď20s. There are so many great ones that Iíve been trained to follow or think of films visually. Even when I went to film school, in the first year, I concentrated on doing silent short films. When I was teaching at the New York Academy my students did silent films. When you move to the commercial world to make a black and white silent film, itís expensive for Europeans, so itís like a cinematic terrorist attack. It truly is and should be because the director should always remember what makes film different from other media or art forms is the visual story telling. Different shot sizes, camera movement, lighting, the eye, even if you really think about it the moments in film history that stay with you theyíre are very few that are dialogue driven. They are these moments. I truly believe itís visually driven.


How did you cast Sofia [Oria]? How did you find her and how did you cast her? What did you ask the actors to do that would be different from normal?


In terms of Carmencita, I was looking for a child that had some kind of magical element. I was just looking for eyes. As a reference, I looked at one of the great movies in Spanish film history called The Spirit of the Beehive where the protagonist is this little girl who has amazing eyes. When I talked to the casting director I said I was looking for girls like that. We saw thousands of girls in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. There was a team searching in Spain to find the girl. We were only one month away from shooting and had all the famous actors but no Blancanieves. The two last people we cast in the film were the two Blancanieves. This girl came as her first audition, her first film audition. This is a girl who doesnít work in movies but in theaters. I was so desperate that I called a friend of mine, a theater teacher at school in Chile. Itís an activity not a profession of kids that want to do it extracurricularly once a week [there]. He told me ďI have one girl that I want you to see.Ē It was her. Once she did the audition, we couldnít believe it. She wouldnít blink, she was so centered and we were like, ďThatís her.Ē Casting is a difficult process, itís not scientific. You see it and thatís it. 


It had to be perfect because there the narrative wasnít driven by the dialogue.


Yeah it had to be someone magnetic and there had to be something about that person that makes them unique -- whether you call it charisma or magic. When you work with children, you donít direct them like professional actors because theyíre not professional actors, they donít even act, they just are and as a director, you have to be a facilitator. You have to create the right environment so they feel protected, comfortable and relaxed. Then the camera and me and the other actors are just playing with them.


And the other Blancanieves?


The other Blancanieves itís her first film too, she had worked on TV but this is her first role. Itís not even a small film, itís her first role and her first protagonist. I couldnít have a nine year old Blancanieves that was amazing and magical and then when she became 18 to be like ďHmm not.Ē I was lucky to find this actress who had the same qualities of the little girl Ė unique, charismatic, magical. Her eyes are so powerful. The eyes are both young and they talk to you. You get hypnotized. When I see them on the screen, the teenager Blancanieves I donít think sheís acting. I think sheís possessed by the character. 


Did you have her train to be a matador? How did you direct her in doing that? 


It was about one month of daily training, four or five hours a day. For both the little girl and the older one because the little girl also had to do learn how to bullfight. Itís not easy. Itís very difficult. You look ridiculous. Itís very hard. Both girls were with professionals and were training every day for a month. The father of Blancanieves too, he had to be training.


Did you worry about a backlash given the banning and restricting bullfighting happening now?


Writers/directors canít be concerned about that kind of thing. Nobody can be our censors of what stories we should tell or what background. Iím not even a bullfight aficionado. Itís not like I especially like bullfighting, I just thought it was the right backdrop for this story. The origin of the film is this photo that I saw in the early Ď90s about bullfighting. I put in the center of this photo Snow White as a bullfighter and that was the image that started it. So how could I make this film without a bullfighter background? I wanted to make it a bullfighter Blancanieves. I didnít want to make it the daughter of the king of Spain so at that time in the early 20th century the only people who were so rich as the kings were the bullfighters. In my case, heís the biggest bullfighter of all times. Kind of like a mythical character.


Thereís been a trend of re-imagining childrenís stories and you have done your own modernized version...


The source of filmmaking is storytelling. Thatís the most important part. Iím not a film director, Iím a storyteller. I use film to tell my stories. All these folk tales have passed the test of time because these storytellers have hundreds of years. So only the good ones have prevailed. Itís a great source and a great turning point and if you had something that was only a few pages long, you have complete freedom to create new characters, new plots, subplots until you make it 90 pages. You donít even have to respect the author because the author is not even the Grimms. The Grimms just tried to put it in book form but itís oral tradition. So it says the Grimms tale but the Grimms didnít write them. So Iím writing my version of this. From a production point of view, theyíre public domain. I think things happen like that. Sometimes comic books, some times superheroes and right now they are adapting folk tales. 


Was it a concept, a choice to use the Snow White element  to draw audiences in?


Itís true, I didnít want to make an adaptation of Snow White. I wanted to use the basic elements of the story for the key characters of my film but I think my Snow White is a tale of tales. Thereís Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. You have elements of Lewis Carrollís Alice in Wonderland. You can add the gothic novels. Thereís all these elements that Iíve put in because really itís not an adaptation, itís a story with all these elements. I wanted to surprise the audience and in the end that was my only goal. 


How was it being the Oscar pick for your country?


I was the Spanish entry which was super great. You canít win the best picture but you donít have to be for the Oscars. We were selected but we didnít make it to the final five. Iím fine doing the whole Oscar rules but it feels fantastic. I have this permanent smile. When I was up in the morning I smile and go Ė Pablo, you just woke up, you cannot be sleeping with a smile. Itís been great for eight years. Before this, I had eight years in a crisis because nobody wanted to make this film. This is my second feature film. My first one Torremonilos 73 was a success in Spain. I got four nominations, dozens of awards internationally, it got a Chinese remake and a release in America... 


A Chinese remake?


Iím very proud of that. I felt a little like the King of the world but only for five minutes because in 2005 when I brought the script for Blancanieves to the producers, when they saw first page and it said ďBlack & White, Silent, Big BudgetĒ they thought I was absolutely crazy. So it took me eight years to get this off the ground. 


Did The Artist have anything to do with that?


No because The Artist didnít get released eight years ago. By the time The Artist was released my movie was already shot. Blancanieves is not a reaction of a producer thinking, ďAhhh, The Artist was a big hit.Ē When you choose to make a film, itís like a marriage so you have to make those choices very carefully. Itís very important that every film you make could be your last one so you have to make that decision very carefully. 


So how do you follow this?


Iím traveling all over the world with my megaphone saying Ė come see Blancanieves. Since Toronto, Iíve been doing that and Iím happy to be doing that. Iím the writer, Iím the director and the producer of the film so Iím happy to. The life of success of an art house movie is one year so when Toronto comes I finish. It took me eight years, so I hope one of those projects turns out but I donít know which one itís going to be.

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
#3 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 28, 2013.

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Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 28, 2013.