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An Interview with Salvador Simo, Director of Bunuel In The Labyrinth Of Turtles

Bunuel In The Labyrinth Of Turtles arrives in American cinemas this August thanks to GKIDS Films. The film is inspired by the true story behind the making of legendary filmmaker Luis Bunuel's film The Land Without Bread in the Las Hurdes region of Spain.

It's the solo feature directorial debut of Salvador Simo, a Spanish filmmaker with more than 20 years in the industry, including producing VFX work for some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, and working in LA, Paris and London.

AFA's Yvonne Grzenkowicz was lucky enough to get to chat to Salvador about his new film, his career, the influence on Bunuel on the film and more during a fascinating conversation.

AFA: First of all how did you choose the project- or would you say it chose you?

Salvador Simo:  Yeah I think it went a little like that, it chose me in some ways. Because I knew Manuel Cristobal, the producer [for] a long time and we always wanted to work together, we kind of developed some projects together. And he knew that I was always a big fan of Bunuel, and he called me one day, and he told me "can you read this graphic novel, maybe we can do a film?" And then when I read it actually I thought "wow, OK I don't agree with certain things" but actually that's what made me do the movie! Because I think in some ways.. initially what motivated me to do this film, is [to] try to explain why Bunuel was doing the things he was doing. It's like you can't judge a person by just their actions without knowing where they come from- as an artist I'm saying. Bunuel was a very complicated person, and he did things we might agree [with or might not agree with], but by understanding what was going on in his head, and by understanding overall what was happening in the 1930's, we might understand a little bit better why he was doing what he was doing.

I mean I'm talking about of course in that time, the 1930's in Spain, it was a society was extremely sexist, extremely [patriarchal] and also about animal rights... you talk about animal rights in the 1930's it's like you are talking about science fiction, it didn't exist. So saying that, that was something he was using to provoke people, to kind of make people jump out of their seats. Cinema at that time it was stories.. it was the comic, the fun of the cinema, but people who were going to the cinema, it was people who could afford to pay the tickets, and the stories they were shown were about wealthy people, but actually Bunuel put something on the screen that they didn't want to see.. they were not used to seeing. So he would always make a big scandal of his movies!

It leads me to my next question... the contrast between the footage that you incorporate which is a really fascinating idea, it speaks to all of what you're saying. Because you start off with realistic animation, fairly realistic character designs (all-in-all, within the scope of animation), and then there are elements of exaggeration, that give you this suspension of disbelief, and then in contrast you have this footage that almost pushes you into a whole other realm, and you really start to consider the intent of the artist. So I think you've done an incredible job of that. I wonder if you could talk about what you chose to dramatise, and what you chose to report? You spoke of the controversy, with some of the footage with regard to the treatment of animals, but you have to make certain decisions in order to tell this story, I know that must have been difficult. I know you were given this tome of knowledge, containing interviews with the director Bunuel. I wonder if you could talk about your choices, what you chose to dramatise and what you chose to report, considering all of that.

Well the fact that it was almost nothing of what really happened in Las Hurdes, even with his biography that he wrote about his career, I think it's one page or something that he talks about Las Hudres, and even his son Juan Luis he didn't have too much information about what really happened. It forced us a little bit to deconstruct the footage of the film and analyse what happened, and try to think back to how they had to technically shoot the film. But also we didn't know what happened between them, at that time. There were no anecdotes. And also one thing that was worrying me, what changed Bunuel there? Because it was evident, we don't what happened there, but his way to make films it changed in Las Hudres. If you see, his previous films are L'Age d'Or and Un Chien Andalou, they were basically very influenced by [Salvador] Dali- the way that he was working on the surrealism, it was very with the images, and these things that had on explanation that was constantly a way to provoke and impress the audience, but after Las Hurdes, the first film he did as an author was Los Olvidados, and that is a direct consequence of Las Hurdes.

And later on, all his surrealism- and I'm quoting that- it's based on the human soul and the way we behave. And I say that about the surrealism as he always- at least after Las Hurdes- because he always says that he was not surrealist. He never signed the book of surrealism, even [if] he was extremely influenced by them. But he had his own way to see the things. And I think that it was something that actually impressed me a lot, that he had his own way to explain the stories. He had his way, and he didn't try to please anyone. You might like him, or you may like his way to make stories, or you might not, and he was aware of that- and that's being truthful, you can't make a film to please everyone. You have to be honest with yourself, and he was an honest artist.

And I think that's what we tried to do overall on the film, the way to tell the story, trying to be honest. At the end this is somehow a road that he did- Bunuel was trying to find his own voice in Las Hurdes, so it was a little bit my own passage also, with a difference. When I was also trying to find my own way to tell a story, I was never trying to copy Bunuel but I'm being terribly influenced by him because I admire him, and I learn a lot from him. So I think that's what we tried to do in Las Hurdes. All this part of going back to your question of what happened there, it was something we had to bring from ourselves, our own experience, our own conflicts with our producers, and our conflict with the shooting, all these kind of things we had from our own lives we tried to bring there in Las Hurdes, and I think that we use a lot of personal experience in that part, and I think trying to be honest, respectful and loving with the characters

It shines through, it really does. It's fascinating to see him in the film try to emerge from the shadow of his father. it's a very human experience, and the complicated nature of Bunuel really shows.

Yeah for many kids, we see the father as the figure of the hero. We want to have his admiration and his approval, and we want to feel that somehow our father is proud of us. But he never had that. Because in that time, in that society, a father is never going to tell you 'I love you', that's actually something really modern. I know people a little older than me, they tell me 'my father never told me I love you', and when you hear that, this is really hard, but society was like that, men didn't have to show their feelings. And the way he was educated, Luis Bunuel, it was a bit like that. But on the other side, he was an extremely sensible person. He was [obe of] these kind of people who love to be with friends, he loved to laugh, and to have this warmth with people. But he didn't have this in his home, so it was hard for him.

That's interesting- do you think that there's a relationship between that and the staging of his shots, that comes up a lot in the movies that he creates? Creating moments that might not be sincere for the sake of intensity. I know you've said in the past, you've mentioned how you think Bunuel would be working in animation today- I wonder if you could speak to that, and what about VR and Deep Fakes, are those things related? I'm just curious.

I don't know... going to the beginning of your question, I think in some way, of course, it had an influence on his way to do films and his way to tell the stories. That's something that's in your self and you can't run from it. You can fight, you evolve, you learn, you become influenced in the way you are. And of course, it influences you in the way you do art because he was an artist. And of course, that's connected.  And regarding animation, I think Bunuel, he was in some ways he was always a careers person. He tried many things. He tried theatre, he wrote poetry, he wrote many things.

There's this story, before Las Hurdes, when we was working around surrealism and all this intellectual boiling movement, this kind of society that they were all talking, having these cafe conversations, there was one moment that they had to have kind of like an exposition, kind of like a meeting with surrealists and artists, some place around the south of France, and everyone had to bring something, a part of art. And he was planning to do a giraffe- a like two or three meters giraffe of wood, and then within the holes of the giraffe- on the black spots of the giraffe- he was going to do holes,  big black holes. When you put your hand in the holes, you don't know what's going to be there. But he had planned to put spiders, like knives, inside of the place so when you put your hand in you would cut yourself. So it was really crazy things he had planned.

Thankfully [for] everyone, he didn't do it, but the intention was there. So he was always someone who played with things. So I think nowadays- I'm not sure if he would do VR or if he would do other things, but I'm sure he would play with it.

[Laughs] That's interesting. Now there's a moment in the beginning of the film where there's an exposition about the ability of art to change and transform society from the inside, and I know it's a big question. But what to do you think about that?

 I think it's there because somehow we believe that it's like that. Or they believed that at that time, there with surrealism. I think somehow it has a degree of truth. Because as soon as the art is something that makes you think, and makes you question things. And actually what most of the films of Bunuel do is make you question reality- and that's a way of changing the world. Just by making people not assume things that are just safe. They make you question reality, why do things have to be [a certain way]. And as soon as you start to do that, the world is going to change because people are going to question things, and why we can't have a better world. Everyone wants a better world, so I think that's why they were trying to do in some way.

It's not like they were driving the world to one direction or another. Sometimes there are parts of the world, that reminds me of the movie 1984, where everyone is walking in one direction and nobody is going to learn anything. So that's what they were trying to break in some ways. I always remember the quote- I think it was Julius Caesar who said to govern the people you just to have give them bread and [the] circus and that's it. That's old and sometimes it's a little bit like that. It seems a little bit like that. But I know that the people are not like that and everyone will just question things.

How did you get into animation? Did you draw as a Child? Was the 'Magic Lantern' scene inspired by something in your past?

I'm going to tell you a secret [laughs] I've never said before, but actually, the first animation I did was when I was very young. I've never been really good in maths but the book in maths was very thick... so I used to draw a small fly, flying around in the corner of the pages in the maths book, so I used to do a flick book with that. And that was the first thing I said "wow, this is moving! So let's try a thing in the other corner", so in the end all my books were ending with things moving in the corner of the pages, so that was my first thing in animation. Later on, I tried to do over things and all that, but when I was 18 or 19 animations came back into my life, and I thought "this is what I want to do"

Lovely. So if you could mention your upcoming second solo feature?

The film I'm working on now is something totally different. It's a family film, it's a great story and entertaining. It's called Dragonkeeper, it's a movie based on Chinese dragons and a small girl who is struggling with her confidence. It's based on the Dragonkeeper books of Carole Wilkinson, and it's a co-production between Spain and China. It's a great story and a great movie, and I'm really happy to be on board with that. So it's very different from Bunuel, so it's challenging because it's so different


Are you also working on a film about Gabriel Marcia Marquez?

Yeah, we're working on the script on that, it's actually still something that we are developing, because I'm not happy starting a production that doesn't have a script that is solid. I think that's why with Bunuel we spent one year with the script, and then when we were happy with that we started production because from that point, everything is just adding to the script and making the movie better and better. But if you are on a production, and you are solving problems in the script? I've had experience with that and it was really terrible! But with Marcia Marquez it's really scary because he was also a screenwriter! So I'm glad that Manuel and I are totally in sync on that, we don't want to move one foot until we have a solid script. And that's' what we are working on. it will take some time.

You can tell there was a terrific foundation with Labyrinth Of Turtles. It's so important, it's like what they say about Bunuel's filmmaking it's planning planning planning... and for animation!

In animation it's everything like that! It was nice also in this movie because there was magic in it, in certain moments, you can feel that there were many things that happened to be magical coincidences. So it was almost as if we had a guardian angel, on the top looking [after] the movie. But it was really nice on this one.

That's lovely, that's beautiful. Really wonderful film and thank-you for taking time to talk to us.

Thanks so much to Salvador for talking to us, and the fantastic folks at GKIDS and Brigade Marketing for helping set up the interview!

Bunuel In The Labyrinth Of Turtles opens in Los Angeles and New York on August 16, 2019. Full screening details here.