In Cell 211, Daniel Monzón places us in the centre of a violent prison riot and leaves us there for 100 tense minutes. His gripping thriller tells the story of two men from opposite sides of the law who develop an unlikely bond when they find themselves trapped in the same explosive situation, and the director milks every ounce of excitement from this scenario. Daniel Monzón was in London recently to promote Cell 211, and I met him to talk about it.
Could you tell me how you first discovered Francisco Pérez Gandul's novel and what was it about the book that convinced you to adapt it?
Something very unusual happened – a producer sent me some good material. [laughs] I opened the book and from the beginning I thought, "yes, this is very interesting," but then I couldn't stop and it was a real page-turner. I really wanted to make a movie from this material so I sent the material to my co-screenwriter Jorge Guerricaechevarría and he agreed that it would make a great movie. First, we decided to go to real jails and take from reality as much as possible. We still took the great ideas that the book has, you know, the high concept of this guy trapped in a riot having to pretend to be a criminal, the idea of Malamadre to take terrorists as hostages, which makes it a national concern, and the last twist that we shouldn't say to the audience. We got these ideas and we collected conversations with real inmates and real guards from visiting penitentiaries, and I was deciding the style of the movie through these visits. I realised that the best way to tell this story was to put the audience in the middle of a riot. They had to feel as if they were in front of the news or a documentary; something very raw, harsh and gritty. So why did I decide to do this movie? Because it was a real challenge for me as a filmmaker. It was my fourth movie and I really wanted to do something pure. Here, you don't have many locations, special effects or symphonic music. You just have characters stuck in one place, you have a solid plot, and you have your skills as a filmmaker to trap the audience. I really liked those challenges and I had to just throw myself into the swimming pool and try to do it.
I guess one of the biggest challenges must have been to sustain the high level of tension to establish at the start. The riot starts almost immediately and then you've got to keep the audience gripped for the next 100 minutes.
Absolutely. There were two great concerns in the beginning. We had to make people believe in this universe, this jail, because even gathering great actors wouldn't be enough if they didn't believe in all of those extras, it would ruin the whole movie. I decided to go to real jails and get real inmates for the extras. My other concern was to make the audience share the tension that the main character is suffering. The audience had to be in the same place as Juan, surrounded by criminals in the middle of this riot, and suffering the same unbearable pain that he is enduring. It's true that I had to keep the tension high, and I think we succeeded, finally. It was very hard but every time I had to make a decision as a filmmaker, if I had to choose between convention and a risky choice, I always opted for the risky choice. "Are we going a bit too far over the line? Perfect, let's keep going." On every level, from the pre-production of choosing the set and shooting with real inmates, there were decisions that could have exploded in my face. When I chose the bad guy Utrillia, I chose Antonio Resines who is a very well-known actor in Spain, but he is always doing comedies. He's a very nice guy and everything, but I wanted to do the opposite to surprise the audience. When I spoke to the DP I told him he had to think it was a documentary and we had to run and catch the scene in a free way, like he is a lion hunting a deer, and every decision I made had to create a reality for the spectator. One guy from the audience told me that he suffered so much watching the movie he had a pain in his stomach. I told him, "Sorry, but that makes me happy!" [laughs]
You mentioned the mixing of actors and inmates and there was one particular character I was intrigued by. I was certain that Releches was one of the real inmates, but he's actually played by an actor, Luis Zahera. That's a remarkable performance.
It's funny you should ask me that. People who know the movie has a mixture of inmates and real actors always think the same. This guy is a professional actor, but he made such an incredible metamorphosis that even his partners and friends couldn't recognise him. I got some calls after the opening saying, "Daniel, I worked with Luis but I can't believe it's him." He visited a guy who I wanted to put in the movie, but he couldn't act because he was always like [imitates Releches' loud moan], so we decided to take a risk. I was a little frightened that it would be a caricature, so I didn't say a word about this actor and he just entered the scene doing that performance. After the scene, two of the toughest inmates we had came to me and asked, "Where did you find this guy?" Then I knew it was perfect.
I heard that Cell 211 has already been picked up for an American remake. How do you feel about that?
I'm curious. I really admire Paul Haggis as a writer and director. I love Million Dollar Baby and In The Valley of Elah is a great movie, so it's a great compliment to me that he loved my movie enough to write it and possibly direct it. I am interested to see what is going to happen, and how he will translate things for an American audience, so you can be sure that I will buy a ticket and go to the theatre to see it.
It will be interesting to see how he adapts the political element with the ETA prisoners.
I don't know how he's going to do that, for example, and it's a very important piece of the story. He will do something interesting, I hope. Anyway, it's very strange for me, because while we are talking here another guy is working with my material. It's great, but a little strange.