Daniel Monzón CELL 211 Interview
A huge critical and commercial hit in its native Spain where it scooped eight Goya Awards, director Daniel Monzón’s blistering prison thriller, Cell 211, looks set to repeat it’s success here in the UK. Taking as it’s premise probably the worst first day in a new job imaginable, the film follows rookie prison guard Juan (newcomer Alberto Ammann) as he’s trapped in the middle of a prison riot and forced to pretend to be a convict in order to survive, befriending the fearsome riot leader Malamadre (Luis Tosar) in the process. It’s an idea that practically screams “HIGH CONCEPT!” and immediately attracted Monzón to the project.
“I read the book in one night. It was a page turner. And I felt like, here there’s a great movie. We took, my co-screenwriter (Jorge Guerricaechevarria) and me, we took the principal points of the novel but we felt like, to do something…singular…we had to go to the reality.
“The book is very interesting and has these great ideas, for example, the high concept of this guy that is in the middle of a riot and has to pretend he’s a criminal not to be killed. But it was kind of a homage to a lot of American prison movies. So, for us, it made no sense to do a homage to an American movie because they do their own movies pretty well. Better than us. We had to find our soul, our personality in this plot.
“In Spain, the jails are geographically very close to the city but they are far, far away from the knowledge of the people. A movie has to show people things…new things. So, we went there, made a long research…talking with a lot of real inmates…guards…visiting a lot of prisons. And we took from these conversations and this reality, the spirit of the movie. So the dialogue comes from these conversations. I really felt that the way to tell this story was to put the audience in the middle of a riot and push them to feel that everything was real. So I decided to put real inmates in as extras. I decided to go to a real jail. I decided to shoot it like a documentary. Going every day to the set, this real set with real inmates, with a free mind, and set up the action with these real people and saying to my DoP: ‘OK, you are doing a documentary. You have to run, catch the scene.’ We were creating the movie day by day.
“Somehow, when I read the book, I felt it, I was attracted by the book because it was a challenge for me as a filmmaker. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t have a lot of locations, you don’t have a lot of special effects…astounding music…you know, to hide. You have to be pure. You have characters, you have plot and you’re skills to make it believable.
“It has some flavour of Greek tragedy, you know? This kind of a story where a guy in a brilliant moment, a shining moment of his life…He’s at the highpoint of a wheel…and then suddenly this wheel turns and he crashes. And somehow this story has this flavour. When I was a student, years ago, I really loved Greek philosophy and history…I was very shocked with these kind of stories, you know? In reality, there is always someone is telling you a story like this, a poor guy like Juan who is going to suffer the worst things a human being can suffer…and this experience is going to change his life forever.”
Luis Tosar’s Malamadre is a tremendous creation, an antihero both sympathetic and terrifying, and Cell 211 stands or falls on the relationship between him and Alberto Ammann’s rookie prison officer. For Monzón, finding just the right actors was an exhaustive process.
“I knew from the beginning, the axis of the movie leans on this relationship between Juan and Malamadre. Kubrick said that the principal work for a director with the actors is to choose them well. So I spent 8 months auditioning. I wrote the Malamadre character for Luis Tosar, a well-known actor in Spain…great actor, a great actor. And I was confident in him to do the part and I used him in the auditions with other actors. I saw hundreds of actors, professionals and newcomers. And finally we found…almost, I was thinking: ‘It’s impossible, this guy doesn’t exist.’ And suddenly, Alberto came to us. It’s his first role in a movie. He only have experience, like…waiter. (Laughs) And he did some plays in the States. But he was real. And he pushed the relationship…Malamadre was even more brutal with this guy…so clean, so pure…And the communication between them through the eyes was great.
“The last thing that convinced me to give him the role was that Juan has to pretend that he’s one of them (the rioters). And he’s lying all the time. There’s a scene in which they are talking, he’s making up a story because Malamadre asks him: ‘Why are you here? What’s your crime?’ And he makes up this story: ‘It was because of my brother, because a dealer gave him some bad stuff..’ So, he got confused and instead of saying ‘a dealer’ he said ‘a cop gave my brother some bad stuff.’ And instead of being terrified with the confusion, he started to create a new line. Malamadre says in this audition: ‘A cop? A cop?’ Then he says ‘You have real balls.’ ‘Yes, yes, it was a cop who was dealing in the neighbourhood…’ And they create a new scene and I saw how they were feeding each other…as characters. They were alive. And I thought: ‘Ok, (claps hands) that’s great.’ After, Alberto told me: ‘When I said cop, I thought I’d ruined my whole audition.’ But the courage he showed, like Juan, convinced me for sure, he was the perfect actor to do it.
“I really tried to make them friends, which did happen. Luis, he’s a very experimental and generous guy, he took Alberto, like Malamadre takes Juan, you know, with generosity, with friendship, giving his hand in every scene. So it worked perfectly because the relationship of Juan and Malamadre somehow was the same in reality.”
With it’s huge European success and it’s cinematic premise, it’s almost inevitable that Hollywood would come a-calling and a remake is already in the works with Paul Haggis set to write and direct. But will Cell 211’s gritty vision and complex, quintessentially Spanish, subject matter (the rioters take incarcerated members of Basque terrorist group ETA hostage) translate for an American audience? Monzón is philosophical.
“Paul Haggis is a man I admire…I really like him as a writer…as a director…and he loved the movie. And he’s now writing it, adapting it…I don’t know how. But I’m curious how he’s going to reflect the atmosphere…the politics. This grittiness, this blackness, this tragedy…in Hollywood. The only thing I can say is, when the movie is in theatres, I will buy a ticket and see it. And I wish Paul the best of luck. (Laughs) I say Paul like I know him.”
Given the pig’s ear Haggis made of The Next Three Days, his American retread of Fred Cavayé’s Anything For Her, don’t wait for the dumbed-down Hollywood version of Cell 211 starring Russell Crowe and Ashton Kutcher, see the original. See it this weekend. What else are you gonna watch? Some movie about a boy wizard? You’re a grown-up. See a grown-up film.