Life on the Dole: Fernando Leon de Aranoa Talks About “Mondays in the Sun”
by Ryan Mottesheard
For a soft-spoken 32-year-old filmmaker, Fernando Leon de Aranoa has proven to be a pretty worthy adversary for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Earlier this year, the filmmaker was instrumental in turning the Goya Awards (Spain’s version of the Oscars) into an anti-war rally, including support from Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Spanish producer’s lobby president (and P.M. Aznar crony) Eduardo Campoy called the ceremony “shameless” but the next day, the public chimed in with 82 percent opposition to military involvement in Iraq. Also to Aznar’s chagrin, I’m sure, was the fact that Aranoa’s “Mondays in the Sun” swept the awards, including best picture, best director, and best actor (Bardem).
In fact, “Mondays in the Sun” almost seems like a rebuttal to Aznar’s much heralded (and heckled) statement of a few years back: “Espana va bien” (Spain is fine). This in response to more than 20 percent unemployment and a currency that had devalued by almost half in trading with the dollar. Aznar’s assurances have done little to bolster the Spanish economy in the interim, especially in the “deindustrialized cities” that Aranoa found so intriguing for “Mondays.”
Stateside, “Mondays in the Sun” has been most notable for being the film chosen to represent Spain at the Academy Awards instead of Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her.” Yet unlike Almodovar’s film, inside Spain, “Mondays in the Sun” proved a major commercial AND critical hit. Nor did the lush male melodrama inspire the spate of op-eds and tapas bar discourses that Aranoa’s unemployment comedy has. The fact that he’s lucky enough to have Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) at the center of the film certainly helps. Hidden under a heavy beard and heavier girth, Bardem is eons away from the matinee idol beefcake he played in “Jamon Jamon.” In “Mondays,” as the proud, stubborn dockworker Santa, he continues to prove that he is among the top class of actors in the world. Ryan Mottesheard spoke to Aranoa about the film, which Lions Gate releases Friday.
indieWIRE: Why do you feel like you’re qualified to make a film about unemployment in Spain? Or do you even feel like the film is about unemployment?
Fernando Leon de Aranoa: Well, I think it is. Ultimately, the theme of the film is unemployment, as I’m telling a story about a group of people in that situation. But what I wanted to do to was tell the story from the characters’ point of view. I didn’t want to talk about the unions, or the politics of employment. I wanted to tell the story of the characters’ feelings. What happens when you find yourself unemployed and how it affects what happens at home, how you interact with your spouse, etc. I felt I was capable of doing that, telling the story from a more human perspective. I also wanted to explore how people in that situation suffer and all the drama that comes with that but also with all the humor and everything else. How people in those situations are still able to laugh.
iW: “Mondays in the Sun” is a very local film, but it seems to speak to a much larger populace.
Aranoa: I’m convinced of that. Especially now that it has played in other countries such as France and Italy. I think what’s very local about it is the skin of the film, the surface of it. The city is very concrete. The way the characters dress is very much in the style of Northern Spain. But I think the content of the film is universal. The characters’ fears, their insecurities, their pride, their dignity, the need to maintain self-respect even when everything seems so low — I think all that is universal.
iW: The film, while not a true story, certainly has true events behind it. How much of this figured into the story you were telling?
Aranoa: The movie isn’t based on one true story, it’s based on thousands of true stories. Little things in the movie came from different places. The title comes from an unemployed workers’ strike in France six or seven years ago. I also gathered information on many individual incidents, including the firing of dockworkers in Vigo (where we filmed). And what happened in Gijon when 90 workers were fired and the reaction of the 300 workers who weren’t. They refused to accept the layoffs of their coworkers. I went up to Gijon with a BetaCam and a friend and we spent a week with the workers in the docks. The entire ordeal lasted almost a month.
The footage we taped wound up in “Mondays in the Sun,” at the beginning. But more important was witnessing the work ethic of these guys. I think the trip to Gijon really shaped the film, really helped me understand their jobs, understand the idea of sticking together, and understand that work is something you have to defend from a group standpoint, not an individual one. It’s about treating your job not as work but as part of your essence, as part of the value of one’s self. I heard all this (in Gijon) and you can see it in the character of Santa (Javier Bardem) in “Mondays.” There is dialogue in the film that is taken exactly from the workers in Gijon.
iW: You chose to film in the region of Galicia in Northwest Spain. What was it about this region that you felt would serve the film better than, say, Madrid?
Aranoa: The idea of these guys taking a ferry hostage came from Vigo (Galicia). That was one of the first things that we started working from, this newspaper clipping about five laid-off dockworkers that kidnapped this ferry and stopped it in the middle of the river and demanded a meeting. However, it could’ve been any industrial city in Northern Spain, or Northern Europe for that matter. For example, Asturias is another area where there was a lot of faith put into industrialization and the subsequent deindustrialization really hurt these regions. I looked for a city that was like that, but also a city that was sort of like the characters themselves. That’s to say, an industrial city, a city that might seem slightly unattractive (though I find it enormously attractive) but also a very strong city; tough, austere, and full of character. Like the guys in the film. I looked for a city that grew disproportionately in the 1970s because of the industry there. Many workers came from the country but later, the industries closed and left many people unemployed. Besides the disorder that brought to the city, these people who moved to the city to work not only were out of a job, but they were also without their roots as well. They didn’t have the protection of family, of neighbors, of their friends.
iW: Did you have a certain idea in your head before researching? And were there moments along the way where your research changed the course of the film?
Aranoa: It was a very long process and Ignacio (de Moral) and I changed the story many times. The story began with the newspaper clipping of the boat kidnapping. We wanted to tell that story and were going to have 80 percent of the film take place on the boat. But we realized that if everything but the first 20 minutes were going to take place on the boat, we couldn’t expand the characters as much as we wanted. Ultimately, what we thought would be the first act became the entire film. And from there, we just started incorporating other characters and other stories.
iW: Javier Bardem’s performance is so central to the film that it seems impossible to imagine the film without him. At what point did he enter the filmmaking process?
Aranoa: He was the first actor to come on board. I’d already written the script but I hadn’t thought of a specific actor. But when I saw “Before Night Falls” at the San Sebastian Film Festival, I thought Javier could do whatever he wants. He’s incredible. So at the festival, I proposed the idea to him and he liked how it sounded. We started working together a few months before filming, going over the script with him. He worked very hard. He’s an actor who, aside from having great talent, doesn’t rest on his laurels. He wanted to know everything about the character Santa. He worked at the docks. He wanted to know the entire shipmaking process. We decided his character was a welder, so he learned how to weld. It’s such a luxury to work with him.
iW: I know a lot of people have compared the film to Ken Loach’s or Mike Leigh’s films. Do you feel that kinship?
Aranoa: That’s quite a compliment as they’re great directors to me. But I don’t know, I’m not really a cinephile. I mean, I like cinema but I don’t look for references in other films, nor do I like the idea of homage in films. I think you must look for references in reality, not in other films. I really like films that are told from the characters’ perspective, like Italian Neorealism. They explore social themes, real relationships. They also introduce humor into their scenarios and treat the characters with a certain mischevious elegance. I like that a lot in Italian movies from the ’50s, especially Ettore Scola. I feel more kinship to them, with all respect to the Italian masters of course!
iW: You’re obviously very politically minded. How are you able to take these political ideas and weave them into a story without resorting to preaching?
Aranoa: I don’t like to think in terms of ideology, or of political discourse, nor do I think my films are that political. What I think they are, are films that talk about relationships. I think using film as political discourse is a huge mistake. I think film’s first obligation is to be emotional and whatever you want to say about the world should be secondary. When I watch a film that is trying to indoctrinate me, I’m offended. The spectator is very intelligent already; they don’t need to be condescended to. I think any of these political ideas should really be toned down. For example, in “Mondays in the Sun,” for me, one of the best discussions of ethics or politics comes in the form of Santa, when he’s in the bar and Reina says, “I come to this bar now, but if the one in front sells me cheaper drinks, then I’ll go there.” And Santa says, “I’ll continue to come here even if they give away drinks over there.” That is a political discussion to me and it’s expressed in words of the character, not as a sermon.
(Special thanks to Maria Covelo for translating assistance.)