Q & A with Oscar-Winning Director Juan Jose Campanella

We sat down with acclaimed director Juan Jose Campanella to talk about his movie El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign film this year, bringing home the prize for Argentina. Secreto recently screened at the 2010 Miami International Film Festival and opens today, April 16 in select theatres across the United States.

Juan Jose spoke to us about his amazing collaborations with legendary actor Ricardo Darín and how he managed to combine a love story with a thriller based in the dawn of the Dirty War to such great effect. Run, don’t walk, to the theatre catch this film. It’s easily one of the best movies we’ve seen in years.

Congrats! How did it feel to win an Oscar?

It’s an incredible honor, I’m very happy. It’s something that will stay with me… a special title and I feel very honored. 

You’ve worked with Ricardo Darín on a number of very popular films. While making El Secreto de Sus Ojos, did you have a feeling it was going to get this incredible reception?

No, on the contrary we thought it was going to be the least successful of them all! It was a hard story; we didn’t know how the audience would take it. It’s not what the audience was used to seeing. The actor Guillermo Francella is a comic, we didn’t know if the audience was going to laugh at him or not, so there were a few gambles that paid off—thank God—but we were not sure about it!

In order for a movie to be that successful a lot of people have to see it more than once. I thought, “Once you know the ending why are you going to go see it again?” But people have seen it three or four times, so it’s really quite amazing.

What do you think makes the collaboration between you and Darín so successful?

We have a very similar sense of humor and sense of drama. I think that he has an instinct that is very similar and that helps a lot because there’s nuances that you can’t direct if the actor doesn’t understand, so we share that.  Now in terms of him and not related to me, because he has done the same for many other directors, he’s an amazing presence on screen. He has a power of empathy with the audience that is incredible. He transmits something… that je ne sais quoi that big stars have. You root for him. Even if he is the worst, most unredeemable character, you still care about him.

Underneath it all, Secreto is really a love story. What do you think kept Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) characters from telling Irene (Soledad Villamil) how he felt for so long?

In real life, I have seen this and it has happened to me! That you feel inferior, like Benjamin does. He’s an inferior class and inferior rank. He’s old. I mean Romano tells him exactly that: “You’re old, she’s young. She’s rich, you’re poor. She comes from a patrician family, you are nothing, an Esposito.” Esposito is the last name they give kids that were abandoned in orphanages. Very few people know that, it’s almost a subliminal thing. So I can see him misreading the signs or thinking, “Of course she’s going to say no.”

The Dirty War is the subtext for this film, but Secreto is not overtly political. What about this time period in Argentina’s history was important for the story?

Well, we wanted to give it context, we wanted to see how the history invades a person’s life and you can’t really be isolated from it. But we wanted a person from another country, even a person in Argentina who didn’t live through those years, a younger person, to not be alienated or have to go to the history books to see what was going on. It’s a bit like WWII in Casablanca. You know it’s there but you don’t need to know the details. You can still enjoy the movie and never think that it’s a war movie.

Secreto is a thriller and a love story all at once, sprinkled with moments of genuine hilarity. How do you balance these different tones in your films?

That mix is present in all my movies and I think that, really, there is no formula. It’s instinctive. That’s where every director is different. You just feel when we’re going too far and the humor is ruining the drama or you just feel when you can be humorous, but the main thing is for the actors to always act within the reality of the situation when we’re there.

El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) opens today, April 16, 2010 in select theatres across the United States. Read Latina.com contributor Damarys Ocana’s review of the film here.