Although he began his career by filming Concursante (The Contestant) in Spanish with Leonardo Sbaraglia, Rodrigo Cortés changed the rules of the game when he convinced Ryan Reynolds to travel to Barcelona to film Buried in English. The film became a sensation at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
He then repeated the formula with Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver in Red Lights and Uma Thurman in Down a Dark Hall. Although his fifth film, El amor en su lugar, premiered in Spain in December 2021 and received numerous awards, it will now be seen in the United States as Love Gets a Room.
The film brings back a theatrical work by Jerzy Jurandot that was performed in the Warsaw Ghetto and depicts in real time what happens during one of its performances in 1943, with an international cast that includes Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Clara Rugaard and Mark Ryder, among many others.
We spoke with Cortés via Zoom shortly before he started filming Escape, starring Mario Casas, which marks his return to Spanish-language filmmaking.
How do you feel now that your film will finally be seen in the United States?
It’s a joy because when you create something, you’re never sure if there will be someone on the other side. Even though it’s a story designed from the beginning to cross borders and appeal to very different people, when it finally achieves that, one always feels a sense of gratitude, joy and simple relief.
This film was very successful in Spain and received many awards there but it had a very limited international release, which is unusual because it tells a universal story.
Yes, there are things that one has control over and things that one doesn’t and one of them is external circumstances. This is a story that should never be used to delve into any kind of sadness or self-pity but like millions of human beings, it was affected by the pandemic.
It emerged at the height of the lockdown when festivals were severely limited, not only in their existence but also in their selections, which happened mostly online. That’s what happened and one has to accept reality without questioning it but our confidence in the film remains intact.
When we talked for Red Lights, you mentioned that you needed to become obsessed with a story to get into it. How did you become obsessed with this particular journey to the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation?
The original idea didn’t come from me but from another writer, David Safier, a German novelist who, while researching for one of his novels, discovered that in 1942, there was a cultural life in the Ghetto. I dare not say it was flourishing but it was quite active.
There was a symphony orchestra where musicians tried to play in cafés and there were theatrical performances. One of them was “Love Gets a Room,” which would probably have a more literal translation from Polish as “Love seeks for an apartment.”
David thought it was a good idea to imagine the story of a group of actors who, like those who actually did it in reality, had to perform this play in the harshest winter of ’42 while facing a life-or-death situation.
When I read this first draft, I started researching the period and decided not to read anything that hadn’t been written within the Ghetto itself between ’39 and ’43. Among other reasons, the Second World War has been so extensively covered, so much has been written about it that it has largely become a story with a clear and clean narrative.
But history is never like that. At that time, there was enormous confusion. There were Jews who even defended the Ghetto itself because they believed that being together was their best option.
Initially, there were people in favor of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) while others considered it a den of thieves. For some, the council president, Adam Czerniaków, was a hero; for others, a weak man; for some, a saint; for others, a traitor.
In the end, this is what happens in real life, especially in a world and circumstances where people just want to live another half hour and that is something you cannot judge from the outside, much less from a distance.
So, when I read all those stories that mainly came from the Ringelblum Archive, collected by a group led by a historian (Emanuel Ringelblum) who collected information and buried it in three different locations within the Ghetto for future recovery (two have been found and the third one hasn’t been found), I started to form a more precise idea of what that world was like. That’s when the process of obsession began and there was no way to stop it.
Immersing yourself in the reality of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 was already complicated enough. Telling the story in real time multiplied that complexity. Why did you choose to narrate it that way?
It was because I felt it should be an emotional experience, undoubtedly, but also a physical one. I wanted the film to be almost like Buried, not just meant to be watched but to be experienced.
For example, the film begins with an 11-minute long take, entering the theater, exploring its insides and finally reaching the stage where the curtain rises and the film’s title appears. The intention behind this was not to showcase technical virtuosity but rather to allow people to somehow live a day in the Ghetto.
The entire film takes place in a theater but that theater is not anywhere else; it is in the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. This is not something that needs to be informed but something that needs to be lived, present at all times.
If you experience it firsthand and see that market, witness the hunts, pass through a checkpoint, be careful not to be betrayed, or traverse the ruins where the most forgotten live, when you enter that theater, you will experience the play as a kind of impossible miracle, as a tremendous improbability in the midst of darkness.
And in a way, that’s what the play is about, without ever becoming melodramatic or cheesy. It’s about a tiny, flickering, trembling flame in the middle of an immense ocean of darkness.
On a practical level, how was it to film the actors entering at the moment they had to deliver their lines and then exiting and moving on to something different?
In practical, technical, and narrative terms, it was madness. The film is like a puzzle because we can have an actor singing in a popular and cheerful language and when he finishes his line, he goes backstage and completely changes his performance without cutting the shot to engage in a discussion, for example.
But the song continues and when the discussion ends, he comes out and seamlessly joins the song in the exact spot. So, you have to synchronize and almost choreograph the duration of the conversation, the song, and the audience’s reactions, sometimes in six-minute shots where we enter and exit the scene continuously.
Many times, no one really knew what they were doing, including the actors. For instance, we could shoot the same passage of the play from different perspectives and emotional tones. When we pulled back and viewed it from the audience’s perspective, they delivered their lines in an expansive manner, typical of farce and popular theater.
But when I placed the camera inside the scene for those internal shots where we could see their relationship, the instructions I gave them were radically different, even if they were the same lines they had just performed. In those instances, we emphasized their subtext, their relationship, whether they distrusted, loved, feared or threatened each other.
Suddenly, the same text sounded very different and we had to achieve that while continuously blending the real story and the play until a moment when the characters started communicating with each other through the lines of the play. It’s a real headache that leaves little room for improvisation.
If you were to see my final script, it’s filled with precise notes indicating the angles of each line, from where it should be seen, what the actors should do or when their emotional tone changes or their voice joins in. You have to do your homework because you have to prepare the songs in advance, rehearse them, and they will be sung live, without playback.
Therefore, you have to be very clear that you’re working on a puzzle, even if most of the team doesn’t fully understand what pieces you’re working with each time.
The play being performed in the theater is not modified. Were you tempted to change things in that theatrical piece to make it more dramatic?
I made some small changes but not to make it more dramatic or modify its emphasis or tone. Instead, I wanted certain aspects to resonate more powerfully with the plot because we don’t see the entire play; we have to understand it based on the different passages we manage to incorporate into our story.
Sometimes, we are outside in the courtyard or the dressing rooms and then we return ten minutes later. So, on occasion, I changed certain lines of dialogue to make that possible or, above all, to make both stories converge more powerfully in a technical or structural way.
However, I never changed the essence that Jerzy Jurandot gave to his story. Among other things, because it was already very risky at that time to be performing in the middle of the Warsaw Ghetto, making jokes about the Jewish Council, the Jewish police and their violence, or the conditions of corruption, death, and hunger without ceasing to laugh about it. That’s what is truly admirable and powerful.
Translated by Mario Amaya