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Chema de la Peña & Gabriel Velázquez • Directors

"Sud Express was an amazing world of emotions"


- Two directors for a long journey. From Lisbon to Paris shooting the stories of the Sud Express passengers, they created a visceral film about hope and loneliness

Chema de la Peña & Gabriel Velázquez • Directors

Born in the same city, Salamanca, Chema de la Peña and Gabriel Velázquez began their collaboration in the mid 90's, when Gabriel worked on the production of Chema's second short film Lourdes de segunda mano (Second hand Lourdes). Chema's career includes two short films and four features, as well as a Goya nomination in 2002 for the documentary De Salamanca a ninguna parte (From Salamanca to Nowhere). Gabriel's directory debut, En Madison siempre es lunes (In Madison it is always Monday) won the 1997 Luís Buñuel Award and was followed by four other short films. Two years ago, the two directors decided to shoot a documentary on the Sud Express, which turned into a peculiar film based on real stories, performed by real people. Cineuropa met them at the San Sebastián Film Festival, where Sud Express [+see also:
film review
interview: Carmen Jimenez & Alina Siga…
interview: Chema de la Peña & Gabriel …
interview: José Luís Carvalhosa
film profile
became was one of the most praised titles in competition.

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Cineuropa: Sud Express is a mythical train linking Paris and Lisbon. What led you to make a film about it?
Chema de la Peña: When I was a teenager, I had a friend who worked on the Sud Express line, which passes via Salamanca. He always told me these fascinating stories about its travellers: suicide attempts, Bordeaux grape harvesters who got drunk, prostitutes who tried to work on the trains... All that seemed to me an amazing world of emotions. At the same time, the train is the only means of transport that keeps a certain epical mystery, associated to feelings and to the world of cinema. I wanted to make a film about all that!

At the start, Sud Express was a documentary project. Why did you switch it to a fiction film afterwards?
Gabriel Velázquez: Indeed, the starting point was a documentary, but we changed it almost naturally as we visited the sets and as we were interviewing people. We realised that we had a lot of – very rich – material that could be used to make a film. We wanted to provoke the stories, not letting them happen as if they were a coincidence. We finally did a mix of documentary and fiction.

Did the people you interviewed participate in the film or did you organise castings?
Gabriel Velázquez: It depends. The Portuguese and Spanish drivers in the scenes shot in Paris are real drivers. We talked to them and we decided to use them as colleagues of Gerald Morales' character. The old Spanish ladies fighting because of the petition did pass a casting. We invited some people; others passed a casting, but we didn't hire many professional actors...

A mix of documentary and fiction with non-professional actors makes me think of Italian neorealism. Do you feel influenced by that trend?
Chema de la Peña: I don't think so, though it is true that we have those points in common. Gabriel and I share a common language. We felt like focusing on certain issues such as loneliness, non-communication and, of course, emigration! And we wanted to do it in a way that could reproduce the authenticity of the people that we had met, the people whose stories had touched us. That is the reason we chose non-professional actors. We were seeking the freshness and the spontaneity that characterises the film.

How was the scriptwriting process and the direction of actors?
Chema de la Peña: We wrote the script in Spanish and then we had it translated into Portuguese, French, Basque and Arabic. When we were shooting, we had to direct people of different nationalities. We did a lot of rehearsals with the actors and once the shooting started there was hardly any space for improvisation.

Directing and producing at the same time a project like this was probably the best option, wasn't it?
Gabriel Velázquez: It seemed fundamental to me. If one decides to do a documentary and then changes one's mind… Well, the producer is not going to be happy (laughs). Chema had directed before, but for me, it was my first feature film, so it was hard to find somebody who would trust me completely. We then contacted several production companies in Portugal and we met José Luís Carvalhosa from Fábrica de Imagens. As he was fond of the project he looked for Portuguese support till he finally got it!

How was the experience of co-directing a film? Any plans for directing together again?
Gabriel Velázquez: It was a tough project, shot in different countries and in different languages. It was amazing working with Chema because we were constantly supporting each other!
Chema de la Peña: We will keep on working in Artimaña Producciones but we still don't know if we will keep on co-directing. For the time being we are busy, promoting Sud Express, with festivals, its national premiere and international sales, which are managed by Sogepaq.

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