Director Alberto Rodríguez discusses Spanish thriller ‘Marshland’

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Marshland is the critically acclaimed film noir and international hit thriller that won 10 Spanish Academy Goya Awards earlier this year including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. We spoke with director Alberto Rodriguez about Marshland ahead of the film’s UK release.

Alberto, tell us how you came to make Marshland.

Marshland began some years ago, in a photographic exhibition I attended with Alex Catalán, the film’s director of photography, who is also a good friend. Atín Aya, the photographer from Seville, had devoted himself to capturing the last vestiges of a style of life that existed in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir River for centuries. Many of the photographs were portraits of the locals and showed a mixture of resignation, mistrust and §hardness, which were part of those faces frozen in the past and that, with the mechanization of the labour, most likely wouldn’t have much of a future. The exhibition was a reflection of the end of an era, an epoch. That was my first contact with La Isla, the sunset for a landscape fit for a Western of the end of the century.

For some months during 2009, writer Rafael Cobos and I toyed with the possibility of writing a “noir” story, having as inspiration Chilean novelist Bolaño’s “2666” and films such as Vajda’s The Bait, and others like Mystery of Murders, Chinatown and Bad Day at Black Rock.  So that’s how it all came into being.

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So what’s the film about?

Marshland is set in Spain’s deep south in 1980. In a small Andalusian village frozen in time – close to the labyrinth of the marshlands and rice paddies – a serial killer takes residence and causes the disappearance of several adolescents that no one seems to miss.  But, when two young sisters disappear during the annual festivities, their mother forces an investigation that brings two homicide detectives from Madrid to try and solve the mystery.

Pedro (Raul Arevalo) and Juan (Javier Gutierrez) both have extensive experience in homicides yet are very different in methods and style. They face obstacles for which they were not prepared. A strike by local labourers jeopardises the rice crop and distracts the detectives who are soon under pressure to solve the case quickly. To their surprise, on-going enquiries uncover another source of wealth for the village: illegal drug trafficking.

Pedro and Juan are then caught in a web of intrigue fed by the apathy and introverted nature of the locals. Nothing is what it seems in this isolated and opaque region and the investigation encounters unexpected difficulties.  Both men realise they must put aside their professional differences if they are to stop the person responsible for the disappearance of the sisters before more young girls go missing.

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Tell us a bit more about the two lead detectives, Pedro and Juan. They couldn’t be more different…

Pedro is astute, idealistic and opinionated. He rebels against authority, against injustice, he is terribly fair. He is an ideologue, a politician, a maniacal and rigorous theorist. He is a “closet Che Guevara” who, deep inside and regardless of his best intentions, will have no qualms in transforming himself in order to quench his vanity, that impulse which at every moment urges him on towards the ultimate and urgent objective:  to become a hero with political aspirations. He is a promising figure within the police force: progressive, tolerant and modern, which is opposed to the violent and archaic methods of the old school and the old political regime.  He has been punished and exiled to a village in the marshlands for criticizing the anti-democratic comments of a high-ranking officer. In this story begins he is fighting his personal crusade.

Which couldn’t be more different from Juan, played by Javier Gutierrez, who won a Goya for Best Actor and the Silver Shell at the San Sebastian International Film Festival for his performance…

Yes, Juan worked in the Social and Political Brigade and is an expert in torture. Trained as a spy, he knows and applies the methods and work habits he acquired many years ago. He is cunning and secretive. He represents the darkness of Spain’s past. Yet he is also charming and a bon vivant.

The geography of the Marshlands play an important part in creating the film’s atmosphere…

As a source of inspiration, we had everything the marshlands evoked in us. It’s a magical and mysterious place where wealth and power live shoulder to shoulder with the pain and misery of characters resulting from a social and political past. With all that information we began to write the story. We set the film in 1980, a year of great political tension in Spain, and a tension, which is perceived in the background, as one perceives the gnawing of teeth. The marshlands are tough, magnetic and cruel and this is heightened by the underlying political conflict. 

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Was the film a challenge to make?

It was a difficult movie to make – very physical for each and every one of the members of the crew. The rice crop forced us to start filming early. The weather showed all its extremes with maximum temperatures of 42ºC. in late summer and lows of -2ºC. towards the end of November.  Every step we took, because of the vastness of the territory involved, and became a logistical nightmare!

Yet, it is a classic detective story…

Yes, Marshland is a film with a classical touch, as far as the investigation and the development of the characters but with a background that is murky, muddy, dense and impenetrable… as the very marshlands where it takes place is. Marshland is where I’ve come closest to making a genre film but at the same time it has its own identity, which makes it unique.

Who are your favourite genre directors?

I am a big fan of genre and therefore admire many directors.  John Houston, John Ford, Billy Wilder: I like most of the classics.  I also like very much the Coen Brothers, David Fincher and Bong Joon-ho, the director of Memories of Murder.  I think that they have, in some way, revitalized genre.

Marshland has been described as “Deep-South Spanish Noir” and has drawn comparisons to True Detective, Se7en and The Secret in Their Eyes. Did both the US TV show and David Fincher films also inspire you?

My inspiration came, as I said earlier, from other authors and films. I am a big fan of genre and I’m sure that I have been unconsciously influenced by many other movies and directors.  I do realize that many viewers and journalists have mentioned that Marshland reminds them of the movies you mention.  As for True Detective, I had never heard of the TV series and while editing the movie, Raul Arevalo (the actor playing Pedro) sent me a phone message with the teaser trailer for the series and said: “Alberto, someone has copied your idea and decided to make a TV series.” This Easter I had some time and watched True Detective.  I really enjoyed it.

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Although the film is fiction did you do much research into the Spanish police force in the 1980s?

Yes, Marshland is fiction from beginning to end. But the idea was to create the events in the film based on the day-to-day routine of cops nearly forty years ago. And thanks to the advice of two policemen still in service, we managed lots of research on a first hand basis. That’s how we came to know that police methods have changed enormously with the years; before, investigations were far less scientific, there were far less available means, in some cases, no means at all (several policemen told us – after reading the script – that it was strange that each cop would have his own room in a motel, that it was considered a waste of resources.)

In the end, we had a strong plot that carried the story with strength and we needed to integrate the characters more, so we decided to draw from real events that took place in those years. In the case of Pedro’s character, we used the real story of a policeman who was admonished and retired from his post just because he expressed his repulsion towards some of the military that were in favor of an overthrow of the government. We must not forget the story takes place in 1980.

Following the film’s huge success in Spain at the Goyas, I imagine you are in huge demand. What projects do you have on the horizon?

I am about to start Principal Photography for my next project.  It is a film about a Spanish ex-secret agent turned bad after the government, and his revenge betrays him by keeping the money that a corrupt Director General of the Civil Guard stole from the public treasury.  The story takes place in Madrid, Paris, Singapore, Bangkok and Switzerland. 

Marshland (Cert 15) is released on 7 August 2015.