After co-directing such piercingly biting and acclaimed movies as The Man Next Door and The Distinguished Citizen, Argentine duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn are back with Official Competition, which opens in theaters after screening at the Venice Film Festival. On this occasion, the filmmakers set their sights on the world of cinema through the medium of an extravagant filmmaker, played by Penélope Cruz, and the two actors appearing in her latest film, embodied by Antonio Banderas and Óscar Martínez. The former gives life to an arrogant movie star, while the latter steps into the shoes of a much more methodical and intellectual performer. We spoke to Duprat and Cohn about this comedy of egos produced by THE MEDIAPRO STUDIO, and of creativity, cheating, lies, insecurity, and rivalry.

I have read several descriptions of Official Competition that range in everything from the modest, ‘it’s a tongue-in-cheek comedy’ to the much harsher and grisly definition of ‘wild satire’. How do you see it?

Gaston Duprat: I see it like one of those little ankle-biting dogs nipping at your heels, (laughing). That’s it.

Anything else?

G.D.: The definition ends there.

Mariano Cohn: It’s a comedy that plays out like a drama. And it is intricately connected to all our previous films. In this case, we look at the universe to which we belong, the world of cinema, and the world of art. In the other films we were attacking different universes.

G.D.: It’s a film that also talks about projection, of what we believe others think of us, as opposed to what they really think of us. And it’s an icy, cold film, a bit Nordic and sophisticated in its visual approach, while at the same time, extremely hot, very Latin.

Would it be fair to say that you take aim at your three protagonists, but you never actually open fire?

G.D.: Well, because, in reality, the characters end up becoming almost lovable. And there’s a reason for all their seemingly eccentric and absurd traits because actors are very fragile during filming, at the mercy of a director who, quite often, might actually be a complete idiot or could be very misguided. Or maybe not. But they don’t know that. They are relatively clueless until the movie is released, but then it’s no walk in the park being a director either, and there’s also a fragility in our craft.

M.C.: Getting back to your question, there’s one difference here compared with our previous work, because in this movie, the characters shoot each other. Some critics have said we’re ruthless with the characters in Official Competition, and that the characters themselves are ruthless to each other. We were interested in making a film that talked about cinema, especially the problems of the world of acting and actors’ creative process, but not from a romantic perspective, but instead from a starker outlook that’s  a little rougher than normal.

G.D.: There’s an unsentimental concept of cinema here. We didn’t want to make yet another movie within a movie, because that’s already been done to death! However, there aren’t any movies about the creative process behind acting itself, about how actors actually come to build the emotion. As a director, I’m fascinated by their process, the various strategies, and methods. Luckily, both Mariano and I have worked with many great actors, and we always reveled in observing this process. The idea here was to provide audiences with a window through which they too could observe the process because, normally, cinemagoers only get to enjoy the finished product of their work, after everything has been prepped, cooked, and plated up.

Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn during the filming of Official Competition. © The Mediapro Studio / Manolo Pavón

We’ve already seen and enjoyed Óscar Martínez in similarly risqué and delirious roles as the one he plays here in Official Competition, much less so in the case of Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and, bearing in mind that they’ve both become major Hollywood stars in recent years, what was Penelope and Banderas’ take on the project? Was it a case of “right, it’s time to do something wild, something crazy”?

G.D.: The project was born from a mutual desire to work together. They had seen our movies and our first choice was for Penelope to play this eccentric director, while we were still undecided about the two male roles. We thought the most logical thing was for Oscar to play the character that Banderas ended up playing, and for Banderas to play Oscar’s character, maybe because we saw it as more challenging than what we usually see them do. However, they both chose the characters they ended up playing here, fully accepting the exposure it means for an actor to play an actor, but then here are two actors with the authority to discuss this issue.

M.C.: We couldn’t have made this film with an inexperienced actor…

G.D.: Regardless of how good they might have been. The trajectories of both Banderas and Martínez make them ideal for these parts laced with criticism and sarcasm.

I’m intrigued by the appearance of Penélope Cruz as the fictional Lola Cuevas here, especially that hair. Was it a case of her having to be so characterized to distance herself from the Penelope we’re used to seeing?

G.D.: Do you want the wig?

Not right now, thanks. I’ll get back to you on that later though.

G.D.: There’s more than just one, okay? And they represent an additional character. They came all the way from Italy for the film. We were striving for Lola Cuevas to look more like a conceptual artist than a conventional film director, like someone who might be capable of either making a great movie, or a piece of crap. Based on this premise, we began constructing Lola Cuevas, selecting a certain wardrobe, with an extremely specific hairstyle. Getting Lola’s hair right was crucial! There were other, more conventional options, more similar to Penelope’s real hair, and then this one, which Penelope herself picked. The moment we saw it, we said, “That’s the one!”

Are the three main characters in Official Competition inspired by acquaintances, friends, or people you’ve met? Has anyone in the profession complained, like, “You’ve overdone it here. That dialogue in your script was a secret I told you in confidence”?

G.D.: They’re not inspired by any one single character, but by many. They are like Frankensteins pieced together from several different ideas, well-known people, things we’ve heard and  anecdotes the actors themselves shared about directors who had asked them to so some pretty weird stuff. Altogether, Banderas, Penelope and Oscar have appeared in around a hundred films, and they’ve had some pretty incredible experiences. The portrait of the characters is very extreme: the charismatic actor who doesn’t prepare, convinced that his mere presence is enough to bring the house down, compared with his hard-working and committed counterpart.

M.C.: And we’ve also reserved a special spot for the businessman here too.

Yeah, I have a question about that later.

G.D.: I think a lot of people are going to see themselves reflected watching this movie. No doubt.

They’ll be after you for copyright!

G.D.: Personally, I think that if you do feel yourself reflected here, you’d be better off staying quiet.

As directors, is there anything about Lola Cuevas’ working methods in what you both do? Or are you… ‘normal’?

G.D.: No. Zero. We’re aware of the tactics, but we never use them. Pitting actors against one another is one technique, something that has always been done in theater and cinema. We know people who, in order to maintain control over their actors, would prefer to have them at each other’s throats, meanwhile they can control them and rule exactly when and how they get to kill one another, first by blowing crap into one’s ear and then into the other’s. Banderas told us about cases of Hollywood directors doing just that, but the actors don’t realize what’s going on and fall into the trap. Then, by the time they actually get the picture, it’s too late. The film has wrapped. There’s also the issue of the howling that goes on, under the guise of voice-warming exercises, but which in reality is more like a dog taking a piss to mark its territory. It’s a kind of “I’m right here, this is me, and I scream.” That other moment when actors have to muster what it takes to make themselves cry is also completely real. There are those who need to take a walk around the block to load up on emotions, and then sit and cry, while others, like the character Banderas plays, take the easier, softer way by putting a few drops in their eyes.

There is a scene featuring a reference to awards, which we won’t spoil for anyone, because it’s hilarious. How do you handle the whole awards scenario?

M.C.: We have our own very peculiar relationship with them. We never reject them, but we do pass them around when we get them. I don’t have a showcase for awards at home, neither does Gaston, because I find them, unintentionally, to be somewhat funeral-esque. So, we give them away to producers, friends or business people who’ve had a hand in the award-winning film. They look better on a businessman’s desk than they do at home.

“Okay, so, what do people think of me?” This line from José Luis Gómez’s character, the businessman turned film producer, not for the love of art, but for love of himself, because he wants to be immortalized. Is it a critique of the relationship between art and the rest of society? Is it a critique of power in general?

G.D.: In Argentina we have similar cases to that of our character. Businessmen with money to burn, even with ties to corruption and really dark public images, who wake up one morning and decide they want something they don’t have, which is prestige. So, they ask where they can buy prestige, and generally, a movie is a good option, but it could be  a bridge, museum, or a work of art. But a film is much cheaper than the other options.

M.C.: And, while they’re at it, they have the possibility to approach the stars of their productions, to invite them to lunch or to their birthday parties.

Or to get their daughters a part in the film, like Irene Escolar’s character in your movie.

G.D.: Exactly.

M.C.: And it’s beautiful to see artists’ fragility, when you accept the conditions of businessmen turned producers. You can even make friends.

G.D.: Although, as is the case with Official Competition, the businessman lays it on the line by saying “Tell me about the book you’re going to adapt, because I’m not going to read it”.

Premiere of “Official Competition” in Madrid.

Aren’t you worried that younger excited members of the audience after watching the going on in Official Competition, might think, “Holy cow, there’s no way in hell I’m getting into cinema”, and decides to change profession or vocation?

G.D.: No, because this happens in every profession, not only in cinema. In the world of lawyers, politics… The difference is that in acting, everything is multiplied and the whole issue of egos, competition, and vanity is really under a microscope.

Pere Vall
Pere Vall. Journalist covering the world of cultural and entertainment in general, specialized in cinema. Pere is a regular contributor to Time Out, Ara, RNE and Catalunya Ràdio, and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Fotogramas in Barcelona for more than 20 years. A fan of Fellini, of good, regular and bad horror movies, and of humor and comedy in general. As a child, he wanted to look like Alain Delon, and has ended with a certain resemblance to Chicho Ibáñez Serrador. Not that he’s complaining though.