One of this year’s favorites to shine in the main competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival is Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss,” starring Javier Bardem.

“The Good Boss” takes place in and around the Blancos Básculas factory, where all things must be in balance at all times. There, the seemingly benevolent boss, Bardem’s Blanco, is preparing for an upcoming inspection by a group visiting local businesses to single out one for a prestigious prize. Tensions mount, however, when an unflappable recently fired employee makes camp across from the factory’s gates, protesting Blanco and his business practices. On top of everything, Blanco’s behavior behind closed doors threatens to create even more trouble for the boss at the worst possible time.

León de Aranoa and Bardem sat down with Variety in San Sebastian to discuss the film, its prospects abroad and what makes Spain such an attractive place to work for returning international stars.

One pleasure in covering Spanish cinema is that the biggest stars all come back. Just this week in San Sebastian we saw Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas with their film “Official Competition,” and your former director Alejandro Amenábar is here with his new series “La Fortuna.” What keeps you coming back?

Bardem: I think it’s different for everyone, but one of the pleasures is being able to work in your native language. When you film in your own language it sometimes gives you the opportunity to perform more delicate roles, characters with more nuance. Also, in my case, I live in Spain. My family and friends are in Spain. I am still very immersed in Spanish life when it comes to reading, staying informed, experiencing life on the street… So, in my case I think it’s only natural that I relate to Spanish stories, often more than I do those from other places where I don’t live.

And do you think you’re offered different types of roles here than you would be in the States, for example? In the States, your most famous roles are big, fantastic characters in films like “Spectre,” “Dune” and “No Country for Old Men.” But with Blanco, you play a much more subdued, real-world character.

Bardem: I imagine that the roles are different, yes, although I just did “Being the Ricardos” with Aaron Sorkin in which I play a very complex character. But it is true that here, especially with Fernando, that I have great access to very rich characters. Although conversely, I imagine occasionally in Spain I don’t get offers because perhaps smaller productions either don’t know how to get in touch with me, because they don’t want me or because they think it will be too much trouble to work with me.

Fernando, you often produce the films you direct, as you did with your last film with Javier, “Loving Pablo.” When you’re making a film like this, with a big international star, do you have to be of two minds, both producer and director?

León de Aranoa: It depends on the project. There are parts of filmmaking which have more to do with the commercial side of the process, and I participate in everything and am tuned in to each part of the process. Although, when I’m also directing, I do tend to delegate more. Typically, the process is done in stages. First, I worry about making the film. It’s not until that is finished that I start thinking about marketing. So, when I’m developing or shooting, it’s all about the characters and the story, and I think that’s the best way to keep things organic and interesting. From my very first solo film, I’ve always tried to make films which will endure, that will outlast us. So, my films need to still make sense in 20, 30 or 50 years. If you think about a film like Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” that film still works just as well today, 60 years after it came out.

Comedy cinema doesn’t always export well. It’s often very regional, and the biggest comedy movie stars in many countries are completely unknown in others. Yet in this film, you seem to have found a type of humor that could buck that trend.

León de Aranoa: I think there is a more universal type of humor though that is common in American and Italian cinema, like what you can see in “The Apartment,” which is born from drama, from pain. That type of humor everyone understands. We are all moved and made to cry by the same things. I think with our story we tap into that type of humor. It comes from the drama between the characters. José, the fired worker who camps out alone outside the factory is probably the best example. He’s a castaway, he’s desperate from the first minute, and I think audiences anywhere can relate to that.

Perhaps it’s because I’m American and we’ve got so many stories about bosses and executives who are genuine villains to their employees, but to me Blanco has some redeemable characteristics. He cares deeply for Miralles, after being sarcastic with Román he brings him headphones to help drown out the protest. How did you work with this role and prepare Blanco in such a way that he’s not just a totally unlikable piece of crap?

Bardem: I think it had a lot to do with the complexity of Fernando’s writing, the way he created a character of both light and shadow. He is selfish and driven by a need for recognition and consolidating and protecting his power no matter what, and no matter who gets in his way. Beyond that, there are more subtle nuances. He’s a very charismatic person, and he really has to be to influence people the way he does. I also think that’s a common denominator among the real examples like you’ve mentioned in the U.S., they’ve got charisma, and sometimes charismatic people are forgiven too much. I didn’t have any concrete examples like that in mind when playing Blanco, but I was thinking about those characteristics, especially in the context of this country.

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Fernando León de Aranoa Credit: Fernando Marrero