Working in the documentary field and as an actress at the beginning of her career, Spanish filmmaker Gracia Querejeta has solidified herself as one of the most promising creators working in her country today. Her latest work 15 Years +1 Day tells the story of a teenager trying to find himself while sorting out his relationship with his strict grandfather. The film is simultaneously a mystery, as the small town, to which the protagonist is sent as punishment for his bad behavior, is troubled with the unsolved death of another young man. Comedic, endearing, and superbly acted her film comments on the nature of parents-children relationships, and the expectations they both have of each other. Acclaimed actress Maribel Verdu stars in the film which was selected to represent Spain at the 86th Academy Awards. The director talked to us days before the shortlist announcement, and delved into her inspiration, working with the actors, and the how adults can learn from the youth.
Carlos Aguilar: Your film blends elements of a mystery into a family drama. How difficult was it to include both of these themes into a cohesive narrative?
Gracia Querejeta: Well, what we wanted to do was to portray sort of a “train crash” between two people from two different generations, who are also united by a family bond, like a grandfather and a grandson. Therefore, from this “train crash” everything else was born. Both the emotional part and the crime part of the movie were born from it.
Aguilar: Why did you decide to make a film about a boy and his mother, rather than a mother and her daughter?
Querejeta: Perhaps it is because of that old saying which explains that sons are for mothers and daughters for fathers I’m not sure [Laughs]. I thought that a woman with the characteristics that Maribel Verdu’s character has, with that certain emotional fragility, could show a different closeness towards her son from what a father cold have. Maybe it is also because I am the mother of a boy.
Aguilar: Given that she is such a respected actress both in Spain and internationally, how was your experience working with Maribel Verdu? Did you consider her for the role from the beginning of the writing process?
Querejeta: I had already worked with Maribel in the film Seven Billiard Tables, for which she won her first Goya as Best Leading Actress. I feel like my relationship with her has transcended from one between an actress and a director, we are basically friends now. It was guaranteed that she was going to interpret the role extraordinarily. On the other hand, it was going to be really pleasant to work with her. In this case I did think of her from the moment I started writing the film.
Aguilar: I feel like your film is trying to say something about children, and the moment we all realize our parents are flawed individuals. Is this correct?
Querejeta: What attracted me to a story like this was that idea that even if we as adults are not always perfect, we think that teenagers are the ones who need to learn from the adults. This movie doesn’t try to prove it, but to show that they are not always the only ones who need to learn, but that adults can learn a lot form younger people.
Aguilar: Besides working with someone as experienced as Verdu, how was it to work with the fresh young actors and the rest of the cast?
Querejeta: It was easier than what it looks like because the casting process was extremely long. We were lucky to choose right in that sense. We also rehearsed a lot, so by the time we started shooting they had the entire film ready. Sincerely it has been a pleasure to work with all of them.
Aguilar: Is there any type of pressure or expectations since your film was chosen to represent Spain at the Academy Awards over many other films?
Querejeta: Not from my part. I take these things with a lot of tranquility. We are going to try to get as far as we can get, and this is a long race and a very complex one. We are already content and proud of having been chosen by the Spanish Academy to represent Spain. We will see where we can get.
Aguilar: What kinds of experiences inspire to write your stories? Are these things that have happened to you or someone you know? Or simply issues you like to explore?
Querejeta: I think I mentioned it to someone recently, although this is not at all an autobiographical work, all the stories in the film are stories I know from close people around me or people who have been in my life. In the end, family, friendships, and everything else that happens to us and moves us, many times ends up becoming a source of inspiration.
Aguilar: What or who inspired you to write a character like Jon? This is a boy that is conflicted, yet very loyal.
Querejeta: Probably from my own son [Laughs], even though my son never did anything close to the things shown in the film, thanks God. My inspiration also came from the relationship him and me had when he was younger, and also perhaps from some of my fears at the time.
Aguilar: Can you talk about the link between the main characters? Is the generational divide something you think affects the way they interact with one another?
Querejeta: I think this has to do with trying to create adult characters, and that throughout the movie we discover that they are as troubled as the teenager “like father, like son.” We have an adult male character who is a man completely closed to life incapable of showing his feelings to others. A man who at a certain point decided to accept loneliness instead of living with his wife, and isolates himself from the world. We also have a daughter who has suffered from her father’s decisions, and who also has her own issues, like her husband’s suicide, which she ends up explaining in the film. I was interested in showing that the link between father and daughter had to with not having emotional closure.
Aguilar: On that note, do you believe Jon, who represents the youngest generation, can teach a lesson to his older counterparts?
Querejeta: Definitely. He is the character who creates the conflict that drives the film. However, in the end I think he is the sanest character [Laughs]
Aguilar: You make an effort to expose most of the characters’ relationships with their parents, including those of minor characters like Jon’s friends. What was your intention?
Yes. In a sense this theme unites all these kids’ lives despite being so distinct, and economically and culturally different. There is a sequence at the beach in which Jon talks to the Ecuadorian boy about their lives, about their parents. Then he talks to the other kid who tells him “My father killed himself and mother doesn’t know it” or “My mother died of cancer” These are kids who haven’t had easy lives and that unites them.