The Cell 211 director reveals his thoughts on his prison drama being pouncing on for a Hollywood remake.
Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211 proved a massive audience and critical hit on its release in Spain. Picking up eight Goya Awards, the premise could derive from a high concept Hollywood thriller. Based on Francisco Pérez Gandu's novel, a newly employed prison guard, Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), is on an induction tour of the work place when he’s left behind during a riot and quickly re-invents himself as a prisoner. He develops an uneasy alliance with lead rioter Malamadre (Luis Tosar) but suspicions and tension abound.
Paul Haggis is said to be re-writing the material for a Hollywood adaptation, with Russell Crowe being touted for a lead role. LWLies sat down to chat with the engaging and lively Monzón about the film and what he thinks of Hollywood pouncing on it for a remake.
LWLies: What did you see in Francisco Pérez Gandu’s novel which appealed to you?
Monzón: Something happened that isn’t usual. The producer gave me interesting material. He gave me a book called 'Cell 211' and I read it in one night. It was a challenge for me as a filmmaker and I needed this kind of film. I’ve done four films and there were lots of special effects and locations but this one, I wanted to tell a story in the purest way.
How did the author respond to you adapting his novel for the screen?
He never said a word and never tried to put himself in the middle of our work. He gave us freedom and when we sent him the script he e-mailed back. The first line was 'I am absolutely upset with you', and the second line was 'you cannot do it better than me!' He was supportive and that’s not usual in a writer. He said the book and the movie share the same spirit but are different and complex. If you read the book and see the film you’ll get differing aspects of the story.
What research did you do into the Spanish prison system?
My co-writer [Jorge Guerricaechevarría] and I went to real jails and met inmates and guards. We wanted to get into the reality and take it into the movie. The dialogue touched on reality and every single character in the movie we knew in reality. We’d have meetings with them because it was important for me the actors knew these people. I also decided to shoot in a real jail. I thought I couldn’t get those faces from actors and make up. I decided to get real inmates and put them in the film. It was a mix of professional actors and real people. The atmosphere in the jail helped our actors, and me, and my cinematographer. We wanted a realistic flavour.
Are prison-set dramas an established genre or rare in Spanish cinema?
Not at all. In Spain there are parts of films that happen in prisons, but Cell 211 was something very strange. We didn’t know it would be the huge success it was. I was proud but never suspected it would be a success. The audience was so attracted to it but there’s no tradition.
Was there an overt social and political message regarding the treatment of prisoners in Spain and or did it arise from your attention to realism?
The film is about an interesting and complicating friendship that grows between Juan and Malamadre. In the background there is a social and political idea. It is true that this affected a lot of the audience. It was a very controversial film because the movie is showing what is happening in our jails. It’s like you’re outside a cell and looking through the keyhole. Movies reflect reality. Most jails are different from the one that we used in the movie. Inmates that have seen the film see their world reflected. It is true to the audience. Some of the audience didn’t know. Jails are close to our cities but they are very far away. They are like kingdoms with their kings and everything.
Hollywood has already jumped on Cell 211 for a remake. What’s your opinion on that because there’s no way they’ll film your ending?
I’m curious, but it’s out of my hands. Paul Haggis is writing it and might direct the movie. He loved it and he’s a guy that I admire. I’ve promised to buy a ticket, go to the theatre and see the movie. I’m as curious as you about how they’ll reflect a very dark and very harsh story. It’s interesting. My movie in Hollywood would have been impossible to do. I’m sure Paul Haggis is trying to do something as similar as the original. I don’t know if the Juan character is going to die but the strength of the movie is this tragic sense. Sometimes it’s like a Greek tragedy. This man is in a great moment of his life. He’s starting a job, his wife is beautiful and they’re going to have a baby, he’s handsome. He’s at the top and because of a twist of destiny he crashes. Everything is set up to make him suffer. Greek tragedy is sadistic.
It’s a brutal, rather sad film and the bad guys survive. Hollywood very rarely does that.
Yes, it is. It’s brutal. The ending is very hard. The last cut of the movie is like a slap in the face.