In an era in which a more hopeful Spain was still exploring freedom and democracy in the aftermath of the long years under Franco’s dictatorship, a group of prisoners escaped from Barcelona’s Modelo prison. This is just one element of the story told by Alberto Rodríguez (Seville, 1971) in Modelo 77, a film now in cinemas and that opened the recent San Sebastian Film Festival. We spoke with the director of titles such as Marshland (2014) and Smoke & Mirrors (2016) about this story based on real events and starring Miguel Herrán and Javier Gutiérrez as two prisoners with very different personalities, but who, in fighting for their rights, end up helping each other and becoming friends. And accomplices?
Is it fair to describe Modelo 77 as a film that’s political, historical while also intimate, and one that takes place in the context of such a time and setting as pivotal as Spain’s transition to democracy and in Barcelona’s Modelo prison?
Hopefully it’s got all that in the mix. The relationship between the characters is the most important part of the film. It’s the story of people who, in the surroundings of the Modelo prison, talk and connect, and of the friendship that grows amid that forced proximity. And all this taking place in such a momentous time as the Transition and, more specifically, during the struggles by the prisoners. Wider society’s aspirations for liberty also trickled down to the prisoners. Finally, they also felt worthy.
I’m really interested in this definition of your characters – that they‘re not badasses but human beings. After all you already had some real badasses in Smoke & Mirrors, right?
That’s one example! In previous films I’ve reflected the dark side of human beings but that’s not the case here. Here, I was more interested in showing flesh and blood characters. Take the character of Miguel Herrán, it’s never claimed that he’s innocent. In fact, he’s guilty. What’s of dramatic interest is that he has to submit to fascist judges and courts and to laws that are remnants of the dictatorship.
What was it like shooting in such an emblematic yet brutal location as the Modelo prison?
The shooting of Modelo 77 was the product of a long saga. The project had been on the drawing board since 2005. We kept being told they were going to close the Modelo in a few years and then we could film in it, but that day never came. Meanwhile, I moved on to other projects. But for Catalans in particular, and for many Spanish people in general, the Modelo is very significant, it’s a part of their history. Among those who served time at the Modelo were key figures like Lluís Maria Xirinacs and members of the Joglars theater group, who we even got to consult in developing the screenplay.
After so many years waiting, in 2021 the opportunity finally came to take your cameras inside the Modelo. It must have been very exciting.
Exciting, yes, and brief. We had just three weeks to shoot inside it. Then we spent six weeks in Seville. Ultimately, the Modelo is like another character in the film. We are super grateful to the institutions and organizations that helped us before and during filming. The extras also did an exemplary job – we were so lucky to have them.
“It would be great if people left the cinema keen to know more about the origins of democracy in Spain and also about the legacy and lingering repercussions of the lengthy dictatorship.”
You kicked off your career with small films like El factor Pilgrim (The Pilgrim Factor) (2000) and El traje (The Suit) (2002), but, in 2021, Unit 7 arrived, marking a before and after in your career. Would you ever go back to making smaller films like those from earlier on in your career?
I’d love to. The only bad thing about the big projects is that you lose freedom, not creative freedom, which I always maintain, but to take your time and have room to improvise. Things have to be done faster. But each project I take on is a new adventure, and the next one may be a small movie like my earlier ones. Who knows?
Speaking of your spectacular adventures to date, we can’t overlook the series The Plague (Movistar+).
That was a very difficult series. When we committed to the adventure of making The Plague, we soon realized it was like nothing we had done before. For example, we had to consider things like how to recreate 16th century Seville. The series forced us to find a new way of working, to take a different approach. Furthermore, they say that The Plague was very expensive, but, compared to other well-known historical productions, it was shot for a ridiculously low sum.
What’s an adjective that would help describe Javier Gutiérrez?
I think the way Javi interpreted his role was exquisite and very nuanced. It was truly an amazing transformation, right down to the smallest of details. An acquaintance said: “No way, it really is Javier Gutiérrez! I didn’t recognize him.”
And how about Miguel Herrán? He showed great promise from the start but his development as an actor has been truly remarkable.
Miguel is a force of nature, a powerhouse with immense presence. Javi came and went during the shoot, but Miguel, who is the main character in Modelo 77, had to always be there. And he just never stops learning.
How did Fernando Tejero come to accept such a small yet critical role that’s so different to his past ones?
Fernando was very grateful and excited to be playing such a shady character. And he had a great time. There’s a certain conversation between Fernando and Javi in one scene that’s just incredible.
What do you hope to achieve with Modelo 77? Is it designed to be a moving story of friendship and team spirit while also a reminder that we still have unfinished business from our recent past?
The answer is a resounding yes. But I’m happy as long as I entertain viewers. I make movies for the public. And also so that, in the process, they ask themselves questions. I’d hope that after seeing Modelo 77, they look up information about the escape, or about the COPEL collective for prisoners in struggle. It would be great if people left the cinema keen to know more about the origins of democracy in Spain and also about the legacy and lingering repercussions of the lengthy dictatorship.