Before the opening of his next film Alatriste, the director Agustín Díaz Yanes welcomed us to his house in Madrid for an exclusive interview.
Comunicación Cultural: The script is based on five books. What criterion have you followed to synthesize them and give sense to the film?
Agustín Díaz Yanes: Pérez-Reverte has written five books, and every one of them is an adventure, therefore they are like ninety or one hundred pages that have a beginning and an end. When I read all five for the script, I told him: "Hey, this is not feasible to turn it into a film because every one of them is an adventure, it's almost more suitable for a TV series, chapter by chapter." And he told me: "Well, look for an idea."
The idea I came up with was telling Alatriste's life from the time when he's thirty years old until he's in his fifties, twenty something years pass, and then when telling his life I could use the adventures that appear in the novels but as part of his life, not as closed adventures, but they overlap one another. Arturo thought it was a very good idea, he told me it was okay, that as long as the spirit of Alatriste wasn't betrayed I could do as I pleased. So it turned out to be very easy, because I had a lot of material, what's more, I had to take away a lot of Arturo's novels material, but I already had the conducting thread, that is, they didn't begin and end, which was the problem.
If you have read Arturo's novels, every now and then he goes ahead to the novels he is going to write; he says, for example: "Twenty years later, Alatriste's girlfriend left him", but just in a sentence, nothing more, so that gave me occasion for going on. It was easier than I thought.
CC: What have you left out?
ADY: You have to leave out certain things, notice that this script has exactly one hundred and five pages, you have to leave some things out. In cinema you always have to be very concise because later the image gives you more amplitude, you tell a lot of things with the actors. But I had to leave several things out. For example, from the second book, which is mostly about the Inquisition, I took a little, and I took a lot from the first one, especially at the beginning of the film, and I took a lot from the third and fourth ones.
CC: What does the later reading of Pérez-Reverte's books bring to the viewers of your film who haven't read them before?
ADY: It's happened to me, and also to you I assume, that you see a movie and later on you buy the novel. I think that the only thing you can bring them is seeing the difference between the novels and the cinema. If you have read the novel before seeing the film you have more references; if you read it afterwards, you immediately notice why the film has been done, but you are less surprised. I think it's better to read it before.
CC: There is usually a controversy about whether a director should respect most of the spirit of a novel when turning it into a film or he can take the liberty of making changes to the text or giving his own interpretation. What is your opinion?
ADY: The way you ask it seems a trick question, because it's very difficult to answer. Let's see, I think that it's stupid to buy or be given (the rights of ) a novel and then change it completely, because one says "then I'm not doing the novel." I think that you inevitably have to change things from the novels because of thousands of reasons, amongst other things because the novel always has a problem, every one of us who read it has a view.
For example, every one of us imagines Madame Bovary in a certain way; then Jennifer Jones plays it and one says " but I didn't think that...." That is a problem. You always have to make changes, what I think you always have to keep is the central, total and absolute spirit of the novel.
For example, the most famous: The Godfather. I think that the films are better than the novel, and they keep the spirit of The Godfather; there are characters that don't appear, there are other characters that are invented, but you don't notice the difference: it's the same as in the novel.
Another example: The Day of the Jackal, also made from a novel. In Zinnemann's Jackal you don't notice any difference. It happened to me that I had read The Jackal twice or three times, I saw the film and said: "they nailed it." I read the novel later on, as you say, and yes, they made quite a lot of changes, but it doesn't change the real structure of the novel.
Because there is a tendency now, which is done a lot in Spain and I think it's pathetic, and it's about saying, for example: "Let's do The Jackal; ok, but in the novel who is he?, an English assassin hired by...? Well, let's make the character to be a girl, and not an assassin but a ballerina..." And then you say: what did you buy The Jackal for?. That's what I don't agree with, when they take novels and change them so much. But they always must be changed, note that, even with Alatriste. I thought that I had not changed too many things, and then when you read the novel again you realize that indeed you have done it, but (the changes) are minimal, nobody notices them.
CC: During the making of the film, what gave you the biggest headaches, the casting, the adaptation, the photography...?
ADY: Scripts always cause you headaches because they are the beginning of everything, but this wasn't a tortuous script, one of those you struggle with. The script came out after the basic and typical struggle of a script, but with no bigger problems. I didn't have big problems with the casting either.
What worried me the most is that this is a kind of film we don't have too much experience with in Spain, the comparison is with films that are complicated for the Spanish. When it's released, the film buffs are going to compare it to Il Gattopardo or The Age of Innocence, but other people are going to compare it to Braveheart or.... that's what scared me the most, we don't have any experience in doing those kind of films, they are very complicated films with regard to the staging, that is, wardrobe, hairdressing, make-up, furniture...
When you are going to do a contemporary film you don't have that fear, because if you don't like the armchair I'll take the one from your home, if you don't like the actress' dress you tell the costume designer to visit more shops or to go to London and get another dress, but at the time of this film it's different.. The comparison with that period is very complicated because everybody has an idea about that time which doesn't come from the Spanish cinema but the foreign cinema and, what is more, just from the very good films.
I can tell you that when the people of the neighbourhood (since I've been living here for thirty years, everybody knows me) heard that I was going to do Alatriste, an old lady asked me: "Son, are you going to do Alatriste?" I said: "Well, yes, I'm going to," and she answered : "I hope you do it like the English." Because that's the reference people have, that's what I was scared of the most, it was my biggest fear.
CC: Which part of the novel was the most difficult to turn into a film?
ADY: What I was most scared of, but then it wasn't difficult, were the swords and the action, but via Viggo we brought in Bob Anderson. He taught us how to do it and we weren't afraid anymore. Bob started with Errol Flynn, has shot one hundred and four films, he was Darth Vader in Star Wars, he is the greatest swordmaster.
I knew he was magnificent, but besides being the great world master he is a charming guy towards the director, he helped you with everything and taught you everything. So the action scenes, which we thought were going to be the most difficult to do, turned out to be the easiest. There is a moment that we indeed lived through with great terror, the last eight days of shooting and it's the battle of Rocroi between the French army and the Spanish Tercios, which meant the end of the Spanish supremacy in battle. We were afraid because we had never done a battle before and we suffered a little with a hundred horses and so on, but we made it successfully.
CC: Do you think that, when you launch the film in the international market, every kind of audience will be able to grasp its peculiarities?
ADY: This is the million dollar question, I'm telling you this because the film has already been seen by some French distributors, and Italian, Japanese... I have a theory about that. In Spain we are already afraid for Spain, because abroad they probably don't know who the Count-Duke of Olivares is, or Felipe IV, but the thing is that when you see a foreign film you don't know who many of the historical characters are either.
Everybody understands the films if they are well told. When you see the film you'll know, when Quevedo appears, that he is Quevedo, but if not, the foreign people who don't know it will think that he is an important Spanish poet and that's all. For example, I'm mad about the American White House, I know everything by heart because I've read every book about it, but if I'm watching JFK with other people and ask them, except for Kennedy they don't know who they are. And you show them Nixon, also by Oliver Stone, and they have no idea who those people are. But if you tell the film well, everybody understands what you want to tell. The fact that people know that the Count-Duke of Olivares was the most powerful prime minister in the world along with Richelieu, that's another thing.
CC: Your first film is set in the present, with current events; in the second one you escape from the earthly and you deal with other dimensions; Alatriste takes us into the past. As a director, in which time, present, past or future, do you feel more comfortable making a film?
ADY: As a cinema director, if you like the story and so on, you feel good everywhere. Almost every director has three things he would like to do in his life as a director (except Almodóvar who has said he wouldn't like to) and that the Americans can do: a period film, a war film and a sci-fi film. In Spain we don't have many chances of doing these genres because they are very expensive. Once you start (to do it) it doesn't matter whether it's the present, the past or the future, the problem is that the present is much cheaper than the past or the future and therefore nearly all films are set in the present.
CC: Before directing films, you wrote scripts for other directors; since you are a director, you have also written your own scripts. How would you take directing a film whose script has not been written by you?
ADY: If I like it, just fine. The thing is that there comes a time when that's very complicated, not because you don't want to do it, but because nobody gives you a script anymore. In my case people just assume that for my films I write my own scripts, and nobody comes up with the idea, which would be great, of calling and telling me they have a script they think I'm going to like. Therefore, although it isn't yours, if you feel good "inside" the script you make it yours, it may take you 15 or 20 days to rewrite some things you want, but there wouldn't be any problem. The thing is that nobody offers you the chance to do it.
CC: How did you change from being a scriptwriter to being a director?
ADY: Unconsciously. I'd been at thousands of shootings with friends who were directors, but didn't think a lot about being a director myself. It was Victoria Abril who used to tell me: "You'll direct the next film". And when I wrote Nobody Will Speak of Us When We're Dead she read the script and told me: "Either you direct this film or I'm not doing it.' So, without thinking too much, I said, 'Okay, I've got some experience, I've seen a lot of shootings, I'm doing it.' But the day comes and you realize that all you have seen is useless because everything is completely different. In a shooting as a scriptwriter you are there with the director, looking, criticizing the director, you've done this badly, I would have done it that way...but you don't have to make, since four months ago, a series of decisions that have to be gospel, and you are in charge of everything, you cannot say "ask him.' If I had thought about it several times I probably would never have become a director, but when you get into these things you don't think at all, so profession and thoughtlessness make you to do it. It was a bit natural that I ended up becoming a director, everybody told me I should, until I said: "Let's do it", and during the process you're getting involved, but thoughtlessness played a little part.
CC: Which book would you like to turn into a film?
ADY: One that hasn't been done yet?. Some time ago I would have loved, also due to thoughtlessness, to turn Stendhal's The Red and The Black into a film, but I read it again two years ago and I actually realized that it was very complicated. But I don't have a great passion for any book in the way of getting hung on to it and thinking that it would come out a good film from there. It's true that, being so obsessed with work, sometimes you read novels, generally not the very good ones (because the very good ones are very complicated to turn into films), novels of average quality, especially American, but when you think that a good film could maybe come out of it, the Americans have already bought it. But actually, that thing of seeing a good film in a book just happened to me, and this is the first time I've said it so nobody is going to believe me, with Alatriste. While spending the summer in Rota El Capitán Alatriste fell into my hands, for it had been bought for my nephews and nieces. I read it (I'm talking about seven or eight years ago, when the book came out) and said: "This has a fantastic film in it, but it won't ever be done because it's very expensive". And then, surprise.... There indeed I saw there was a great film if you knew how to do it and you were lucky.
CC: Which film in the history of cinema would you like to direct again in order to give it your personal view?
ADY: Direct again in order to give them my view, none. The ones you don't like, because you don't like them, and the ones you love are already well done. However, I'm telling you the ones I would have loved to do: Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather; Scorsese's Goodfellas; Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and I would have liked Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown, by Tarantino. If I like a film and think it's fantastic I wouldn't add anything new to it. Besides, in the end you always like the ones everybody considers to be masterpieces, therefore, you are not very original either.
CC: While surfing the net we have found out that your fans have already created their personal websites devoted to Alatriste, with pictures of the filming, discussion forums, they want to launch a video game about the character...besides Pérez-Reverte's personal website, capitanalatriste.com. Do you think that the internet is useful to encourage people to read books or to promote a film?
ADY: Absolutely. The internet has changed everything. I'm not one of those people who think that the internet is going to put an end to reading books; I think that nowadays people read more and write more. I think that the chats, forums, blogs and digital magazines allow people to express themselves freely and that every one of them does what they feel like without being limited, as before, when you were either published or you didn't exist.
I think it's a fantastic invention for cultural matters, what I don't know is what this takes us to in the end if the dispersion is so big and people cannot be brought together, but what I see is that people concentrate on things they like, and I think it's great. Besides, the internet has freed us from the fear that has always existed towards culture. In the past people didn't write because nobody was going to read them; in the past a magazine wasn't created, with all the money that it costs, if nobody was going to buy it...
However, on the internet everybody can write, well, badly, so-so, everybody can create a magazine...it's been a great improvement. However much the archaic intellectuals say, people's quality of life is improved by all these inventions, and culturally I think it's a fantastic revolution.
And regarding cinema, in no time eighty per cent of people will watch it through the internet on their personal computers, with plasma screens the size of a wall, that's the future. It will be more and more difficult for someone to leave home and spend six or ten Euros going to the cinema, and before that you have to park the car and this and that... we are going to be internet fodder. Even now young people enjoy the possibility of making their own short films and uploading them to the Net so they can be seen by lots of people. I think it's an absolute advance.