A serial killer, an isolated village in the Spanish backwoods, the discovery of a cave, feuding neighbours, speleologists, a murder and an old-fashioned policeman. These are the unusual ingredients of Jorge SÃ¡nchez-Cabezudo’s assured debut feature The Night of the Sunflowers, which relocates the crime thriller to the rugged outlines of rural Spain. The dying countryside provides an unexpectedly suitable background for the kind of moral dilemmas usually found in urban noirs while grounding the film in a sturdy realism that keeps clichés at bay. The tale is told over six interlocking chapters, each focusing on one of the protagonists, and each gradually uncovering more. This multi-stranded structure is no vacuous attempt at stylistic virtuosity but a skilful way of maintaining the suspense throughout while also creating the sense of a claustrophobic web of connections from which the characters cannot escape.
The Night of the Sunflowers was met with resounding acclaim in Spain and SÃ¡nchez-Cabezudo suddenly found himself the toast of this year’s Goya Awards, being nominated for best screenplay alongside such luminaries of Spanish-language cinema as Pedro AlmÃÂ³dovar and Guillermo del Toro. In the interview below he talks at length about serial killer films and the disappearance of rural Spain and he also explains why the last scene of The Night of the Sunflowers is not an homage to Luis BuÃ±uel.
Virginie Sélavy: The Night of the Sunflowers is your first feature. How did you get into film-making?
Jorge SÃ¡nchez-Cabezudo: I made two short films ten years ago. One was La Gotera, which starred Dominique Pinon, who was in Amelie and Delicatessen. It was a fantastic experience because he didn’t know anything about us and we wrote him a letter saying we could offer him sangria, free accommodation and a visit to the Prado Museum and he agreed to do the film! (laughs) Incredible! He remains a very good friend of mine. La Gotera was an absurd comedy and it had a certain amount of success. It received prizes in various festivals and was nominated at the Goyas. That same year I made another short film called Mustek, which was a bit more experimental. After that I spent ten years working on scripts for TV and trying to write the story that would convince a producer.
VS: Why is it called The Night of the Sunflowers?
JSC: Well, in France it will be called Angosto. It’s the name of the village where it takes place and it was the original title. In Spanish, Angosto means ‘narrow’, and it’s also ‘angustia’, ‘anguish’, and it evokes ‘Agosto’, which means ‘August’, heat, all that, which suited the film. But in Spain they didn’t like it. They thought it didn’t sound right. La Noche de los girasoles was the title of another script I’d written, and it had given me the idea for the first image of the film. So that’s what I picked when they told me to change the title. Also, the characters are a bit like sunflowers lost in the night. They have nice, organised lives, they think they’ll never leave their well-marked path, and then suddenly everything changes and they get lost.
VS: The title also refers to that crucial night when everything changes.
JSC Yes, there was also the idea of night and day. I wanted the light to be very strong, and to evoke intense heat. The terrible things happen at night and the light of day hides what happened.
VS: It’s a very interesting story because you approach the serial killer story from an original angle.
JSC: I thought about not just the serial killer genre but also current film noir and I thought, why not make a thriller with the type of Spanish characters that you meet in the street every day? In Spain there is a tendency to imitate American thrillers with clichéd characters so I wanted real people, ordinary people who would never imagine they could find themselves in such a situation. Of course the trigger of the whole story had to be someone who is really a killer – and a rapist. There are films that have approached this type of character differently from the classical American story, such as Citizen X, the story of a Russian serial killer, or It Happened in Broad Daylight by Ladislao Vajda, which has a realistic, psychological point of view. I wanted to start the film in a way that would make the audience think that it was a straightforward thriller and then they discover that it’s not that, that the story is different and the final aim is to give a meaning to violence. In some films violence is consumed in a playful way, like some kind of entertainment, but for me, violence is something that is transcendent and important. Killing someone is a serious thing, and it’s a serious thing for those who kill. It’s a bit like in Unforgiven, when Clint Eastwood says, ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.’
VS: There was a Spanish film about a serial killer a few years ago, called Las Horas del DÃÂa by Jaime Rosales, which had a similarly realistic approach. Do you feel close to that film?
JSC: I saw that film after I’d already written the script for mine and really liked it. I definitely feel close to the way Jaime Rosales focuses on daily life. And one of the actors, Vicente Romero, who plays the friend of the protagonist in Las Horas del DÃÂa, plays the young policeman in my film.
VS: In Las Horas del DÃÂa the focus was very much on the killer whereas in The Night of the Sunflowers the killer is simply the trigger for the violence – his violence starts a whole cycle in a kind of chain reaction.
JSC: Yes, it’s a bit like dominoes. The intention was to show how other people’s lives can change ours. It’s like a mosquito that stings and then flies away but triggers the whole drama. It’s the story of lives whose paths cross but it’s not about fatality. The characters are not doomed to do what they do, they can make decisions. It’s just that they decide to go down the worst possible path. The dilemmas that they face are the most important thing in the film. It all came from watching the news and thinking, how can this happen, what happens in someone’s head to make them do those things? And in the news you don’t get the before or after of the story. So I was interested in the circumstances that lead people to do certain things and how they face those things, how they justify their own actions.
VS: Is this why the film is divided into six sections that each focus on a different character?
JSC: Yes, it’s about the subjectivity of each of the characters. And it allowed me to show what happened to them before and what conditioned them to react the way they do. That’s why each chapter has a small amount of flashback so that we know where they come from and why they do what they do when they get to the moral confrontation. It wasn’t about attempting a stylistic tour de force, it was just the best way to tell the story.
VS: The structure makes you feel that their lives are so interconnected that they can’t escape from the events. It creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere.
JSC: It’s interesting that you should say that because the landscape is very open, but at the same time it feels like it swallows the characters. And the claustrophobia is mostly in the relationships between the characters, for instance in the young policeman’s family. The dinner scenes are harrowing.
VS: Yes, and precisely because those scenes are so depressing, we can really understand him even when he makes some rather dubious decisions!
JSC: That was the intention, I didn’t want to judge the characters or give a kind of final moral because that’s not what reality is like. I wanted to let the audience think what they want and judge according to their own criteria.
VS: There is also a certain amount of black comedy in the film.
JSC: Yes, it is a comedy of the absurd in a way. In the scene of the murder there is something completely absurd because both sides believe they are defending themselves. Both feel that they are being attacked. And it’s exactly what happens in most conflicts: each side think that they are defending themselves against the other, just like in Israel and Palestine. Violence is justified through lack of communication and the inability to adopt a point of view different from one’s own.
VS:The thriller aspect is mixed with issues such as people abandoning the countryside and the decaying of the villages. Why did you choose to set your story against this kind of background?
JSC: It was very important to me because it’s something that’s happening in Spain and all over Europe. Rural areas are not a priority for the European Union but the countryside is a very big part of the Spanish identity because it was the basis of our culture and our economy. Since the second half of the twentieth century there has been an exodus and many villages have been completely abandoned. Rural cinema was a strong tradition in Spain, we had many films about country life. I wanted to talk about that Spain, but the way it is now. It was important to have a new perspective on what is happening because everything is changing and there is a whole way of life that is going to disappear completely. Again here I don’t have any answers because I know some villagers welcome the changes while others don’t, but I’m showing what’s happening. And it was perfect for a thriller because there’s an atmosphere of decadence. It’s also the decadence of the characters. I didn’t want to talk about it directly and make a social film. I like films like The Third Man, where the decadence of the background invades the characters and causes moral confrontations between them. It’s not in the foreground but it’s something that enters the characters and is dealt with obliquely through the crime story.
VS: The story shows urban characters coming to a village but it never falls into a clichéd opposition between city dwellers and villagers.
JSC: Yes, I really wanted to avoid that, and I also wanted to avoid clichés about the violence of country people. In Spain we have films like Pascal Duarte, part of what we call Tremendismo, that are about the violence of rural Spain and I didn’t want that either. In The Night of the Sunflowers the violence comes from the town, it’s the city people who bring it into the village. So there is a confrontation but it’s not all black and white.
VS: Why does the character watch a documentary on bees in the last scene?
JSC I wanted to adopt the perspective of an entomologist. We see the story from above, we see the way people’s paths cross. And in the documentary the commentator says, ‘bees don’t sting if you don’t bother them’, which I thought worked well with the killer’s story. But in the subtitles there is a mention of Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), the BuÃ±uel documentary, and I hadn’t seen that. So everybody said, ah, so it’s an homage to BuÃ±uel, but it wasn’t that at all, I just hadn’t seen it! (laughs)
Interview by Virginie Sélavy