Raindance Winner on Creating a Modern-Day David and Goliath Story

Jonathan Cenzual Burley discusses ‘The Shepherd’

LONDON — Spanish-born, U.K.-based director Jonathan Cenzual Burley was surprised enough to win one award, let alone three, for film, director and actor, and, as a result, didn’t have a speech prepared.

“I feel really bad,” he told Variety at the awards ceremony, “because I wanted to thank so many people but it caught me completely unawares. It’s amazing. I’ve never won an award before. My previous films have been at Karlovy Vary, Warsaw, places like that, but they were very, very small films. My first film cost a grand [a thousand pounds]! So to win an award… Well, that’s what you dream of. As well as being an ego boost, it’s vindication. It’s not just you and your mum who thinks your film is good!”

Starring Miguel Martin, the film concerns a shepherd in a remote area who is offered money by a construction firm to leave his home and his land.

Where did you get the inspiration to make “The Shepherd”?
I basically went back to Spain after I’d been travelling through India and Nepal. I’ve always found the transmigration of cattle very fascinating — I wanted to do a documentary about it. But when I got back to Spain, all I saw every day on the news were stories of corruption and greed. So I thought of combining the two in a kind of David and Goliath story. Which I know has been done a thousand times, but people need to be reminded otherwise they forget. I wanted to bring it to the front, because sometimes the news glosses over this stuff. I wanted you to get to know the character so that you would get to feel his sorrow for what was happening to him.

Was it an original script?
Yes, I wrote it myself. One of my friends is an amazing writer, so I sent it to him and he gave me some feedback. Then I found a local shepherd, so what I did, before we started shooting, was I filmed with him and the main actor, while he was traveling with his livestock. So the actor was walking alongside him, copying him. We kept the real shepherd out of frame while the actor was mimicking him.

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But aside from that, there wasn’t much research to do, in the sense that it’s quite a simple story. It’s about a man who lives in a tiny village, and I live in a small village. I live between London and Spain, but when I go back to Spain I live in a tiny village, so that village mentality was quite easy to recreate.

I’ve never been in the same situation, so I had to guess how people would behave. I basically thought, ‘What would happen if you started pressing these people?’ Some would crack one way, some would crack another way and show their true colors.

Where did you shoot?
We shot in Salamanca, in Castile. It’s basically where all the plains are, and it’s about a kilometre from my house — which made life a lot easier, because I could see the location from home. The shepherd’s hut has been there since I was a little kid. I shot my first film in the same area – there’s something incredibly beautiful about the emptiness of it.

In my first film it was all about how pretty that is, but with this the massiveness actually makes you feel claustrophobic, because there’s nowhere for this character to escape. It’s like a sea of earth has taken him.

How detailed was the script?
Even though I knew I was directing it, I wrote a very detailed script, so half of the script is almost like a [novel] in its descriptions of scenes. But there’s not much dialogue, so it was about 70 pages. Not long by any means.

All the scenes with the sheep were improvised, obviously, because I didn’t know where they were going to go! But of all my films so far, this is the one that followed the script the most. I added an extra scene and got rid of a few scenes, because I often find that when you first write a script, you repeat yourself without realizing — and when you start making the film you begin to see that.

Was there much improvization?
Yes and no. I like to give actors the script and say, “You don’t have to follow the lines — just have a conversation about this subject.” Because I prefer that kind of acting, where people say “um” and “er”… I mean, it’s digital, so I’m not wasting film. If it was 35mm I’d be a little more worried! But it gives them more freedom — an actor is not a puppet. They take the character and make it their own.

Is it hard to make a film with a topical theme — did you ever feel self-conscious about it?
It’s difficult, in the sense that everyone has a view of what’s going on right now. This is my film, so obviously this is my point of view, and if anyone disagrees, they can go and make their own film! But what I realized is, you can’t take it too far.

When you’re writing it, there’s a tendency to be too idealistic about things. But I didn’t want it to be about the [property] business. It’s just about the concept of a man who’s happy with what he’s got. Why can’t they let him be? For me to profit, I shouldn’t have to ruin someone else’s life.

How has the audience reaction been?
Good. It’s a hard film, and when it finishes, people are taken aback by what happens. What I’m finding is that there’s a complete divide about that. Everyone likes the end, but they don’t all agree with the actions of the character. It’s like the divide between people who think that people are good by nature and the environment makes them bad, and those that think people are actually bad and are just trying to be good. I like that! As long as nobody comes and says the ending is crap. At least it’s making people think.

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