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IFF Panama: Jose Antonio Felez on ‘Marshland’ Ranging From Light to Dark Grey

Spanish producer talks about one of San Sebastian's most anticipated titles, film financing, and the rise of a new creative generation in Spain

IFF Panama: Jose Antonio Felez on

Since the turn  of the century, Spanish producer Jose Antonio Felez has carved out a career hitting that sweet-spot between arthouse and popcorn – a spot which is incredibly hard to reach – making films, especially with Alberto Rodriguez (“7 Virgins,” “Unit 7”) and Daniel Sanchez Arevalo (“DarkBlueAlmostBlack,” “Cousins”), which command audiences at home, sales abroad and critical plaudits.  Rodriguez’s “Marshland,” also produced by Gervasio Iglesias and Antenatres Cine, world premiered at San Sebastián, swept 2015’s Spanish Academy Goya Awards, was a B.O. hit in Spai, has sold near worldwide. Felez talked to Variety just before San Sebastián:

Your latest production at Atipica Films, Alberto Rodriguez’s “Marshland,” world premieres in competition at the San Sebastian Festival. How did you finance “Marshland”?

Basically through TV pre-sales, distribution agreements, from Atresmedia Cine, the film arm of broadcaster Atresmedia,  Spanish pay TV Canal Plus and Canal Sur, the public broadcaster in Andalusia. Also via the normal financing mechanisms, bridging loans from state bank ICO and of course, through our own resources since the previously mentioned alone wouldn’t have been enough for meeting the full finance. P & A costs alone, for instance, amount to about €1 million, a million Euros – which brings total investment to nearly €4 million, which required us to gap finance the production.

One key to “Marshland’s” production would be your production partnership with Seville-based Gervasio Iglesias. 

Yes, that’s key in Andalusia. I’ve been working with Gervasio for ten years now. We’ve co-produced quite a few films, and have a good working relationship. Of course, the fact that Alberto is Andalusian, and having a co-producer like Gervasio in Andalusia and shooting the film in Andalusia, all of that was a boon. The film was sold to Canal Sur, we got a subsidy from the Andalusian regional government. All of that did help.

It may not be a simple coincidence that two of the four films in competition in San Sebastian are by directors who can be considered “top” in their respective regions – the Basque Country and Andalusia…

Yes, that’s certainly so. Even if I say so myself, I think Alberto is simply one of the best Spanish directors around today. He’s shown that over the years, with his many films, and the fact that he’s from a region that still has a system of support to film production, which is prepared to back films from and about that region… well, I think that’s key. Just look at other regions where that’s not the case: Madrid and now Valencia. Andalusia, the Basque Country, Galicia and, though diminished, Catalonia still have support systems that are functioning.

Could you have financed “Marshland” today, or financed it in the same way today? 

Every year there’s less money available for making films and a greater uncertainty. I’m lucky to be working with two directors like Alberto Rodriguez and Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, both of whom have a proven track record, and who are recognized and highly respected; which makes it easier for me than for many other producers. Even so, every year it’s more difficult to make films, the funds available for financing have dwindled.

One reaction to these financing challenges is that there are most probably only two films at San Sebastian, one of which is “Marshland,” with budgets clearly over €2 million ($2.6 million), although others will of course have used back-ends for financing.

Few Spanish films can really exceed €2 million budgets: You can’t find financing for films that cost much more than that out of Spain. From about €2.5 million upwards, you need international co-production and or foreign pre-sales.

The Ministry of Culture has just announced a €30 million top-up to 2014 funding to paying box-office-related subsidies for films released in 2012. Paying subsides so late in a film’s commercial cycle of course raises financial costs of making it. When will that system change?

We are, at present, waiting for new legislation to be passed, Let’s hope this situation is resolved.

“Marshland” could be said to represent a new kind of Spanish cinema. Scenes are briefs, shot set-ups vary, you don’t have the conventional establishing shot, medium-close up, then shot, counter-shot. That must have taken a lot of production planning.

Yes, it most certainly did! It took a lot of planning effort and elaboration. The camerawork is perfectly in synch with the story and with each and every sequence. Alberto and his d.p. paid very close attention to that. It’s a film with lots of sequences, 125 sequences, with lots and lots of shots, and I think there are sequences made up by one shot, which were very, very elaborate, other sequences with lots of shots. It has to do with creating the climate and atmospheres that each sequence demands. Alberto really is very careful with that.

The effect is that spectators are often disorientated rather like the protagonists. At the same time, the film abandons a black-and-white vision of Spain’s recent past.

Exactly. Everything ranges between light grey and dark grey. Everything is relative. There’s no one who is absolutely innocent, no one who is absolutely guilty. They can all change at any given moment. Their roles can change. They can be guilty or innocent, fair or unfair. This relativizing brings a large verisimilitude to the story and screenplay. And it’s very opportune at this time. It’s very much like what is happening in Spain now. Everything has to be acutely nuanced. I think we have a tendency to oversimplify things, and reality is full of nuances. Those nuances have to be grasped if one wishes to get anywhere near the truth.

There’s a younger generation that are adopting attitudes, pushing the envelope on issues, exploring themes that would have been unthinkable even five years ago

So true. And I think the great merit of the Spanish films being presented at San Sebastian is that the line-up is indeed an accurate profile-cum-panorama of the reality of Spanish film in recent times. There is a variety, a plurality…from comedy to intimate drama, stories that hinge upon the recent history of Spain…. That’s the greatest thing about the festival.  They’ve really selected very well in these last few years. They present a true image of contemporary Spanish cinema.