Producer Eduardo Villanueva talks his Oscar-nominated short film Madre


Eduardo Villanueva, producer of the Oscar-nominated Madre, talks to Culturess about the nature of suspense and the validity of shorts.

Every parent’s worst nightmare is that their child will need them when they’re not around. Such is the story that unfolds in the 19-minute short feature, Madre.

Nominated for an Oscar and directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Madre follows a woman named Marta (Marta Nieto) who receives a call from her six-year-old son, Ivan. He tells her he’s alone on a beach and his father hasn’t been back in several minutes. What proceeds from there is Marta’s frantic attempt to help her child find safety as she grapples to figure out where he is. Once the little boy sees a lone man standing on the beach, the terror is kicked up to 100.

Madre is one of the most suspenseful 19-minutes you’ll watch this year. Watching Marta and her mother (played by Blanca Apilanez) try to find some information on where little Ivan is a masterstroke of acting talent. The two women anchor the audience in the nature of fear and what the short ends up with is a final shot you’ll be thinking about long after its over. Producer Eduardo Villanueva sat down with Culturess to discuss producing the short, finding the leads, and more.

What inspired you to come on-board to help tell Rodrigo’s story?

Rodrigo and I have been friends for a long time, the last twenty years. He wrote this story about nine or ten years ago and I just loved it from the beginning. We had started working together but we didn’t have our own company. So we knew about the business but not about making something happen, raising the funds for our short films. I was linked to the project from the beginning and two years ago Rodrigo found the time to shoot it in-between two feature films and we thought it was great timing [so] we went for it.

Madre is just two women, one location, and a phone. How did you and Rodrigo work to make that look so effortlessly filmed?

To be completely honest, it was very easy. The only thing I had to do was trust Rodrigo and I had trusted him for a long time. I knew the way he was planning to shoot it — long, wide-angle, continue shot. He’s the best director in Spain and Marta’s a great actress. When you shoot Rodrigo’s feature films you see actors that you’ve seen in other films that don’t look so good, and they’re great when Rodrigo directs them. So I knew he was going to be able to build that tension, that suspense. My only job was to make it happen, give him the possibilities, the ways of doing it, and trust in him.

Were there any specific challenges you saw on-set?

The challenges occurred before finding the location. At the same time we found the actress we found the location, and we knew it was the perfect place to shoot it. We knew we had to produce it with a small team. It was just eight or nine people on the set; just one guy for the sound, just one guy for the camera, and one for the assistant director. Not only because [we didn’t want] to disturb other people, but that kind of energy you create with a small team, everything is more fluid. Things become more intense. You create that ambiance and make it easier for the actresses to perform. But it wasn’t difficult to produce it with a small team, we knew it had to be produced that way. Once we made that decision we felt it was perfect for the film.

How did you find Marta and Blanca to play these roles?

Rodrigo knew Blanca. She’s a great theatrical actress in Spain, but she’s not very well-known for her features or television works. With Marta, we had a couple other actresses in mind. Marta did a casting that was great and Rodrigo felt like she had something to work with. It was a five-hour casting at the end. It was almost like a rehearsal because Rodrigo felt she could take something – he could get something from her. She’s a mother of a six-year-old kid [also] and he felt she was real connected to the story and, in fact, she was.

You can feel the anxiety even though you know the material from the beginning.

What was your reaction after reading the script for the first time?

Rodrigo first told me this story when a friend of his told [Rodrigo] the story. She received a call from her son who was alone on the beach and didn’t know where his father was and she panicked, of course. It lasted only thirty seconds and his father appeared, everything turned out well and nothing happened. But at that time Rodrigo knew he had something powerful to work with. He could extend that situation for a longer time and make it dramatic and tense. I agreed with him that it was great material and to tell you the truth I can’t remember what exactly I felt when I read it for the first time apart from liking it and knowing we had to produce it somehow.

I have a more powerful recall of the time when I watched the short film for the first time, even though I had been working on it and read the script several times; I had even seen shots of it. The first time I watched the complete film in a theater I went out of the room and called my wife to ask her “are the kids all right?” It’s so strong and hard to find the feeling. You can feel the anxiety even though you know the material from the beginning.

What was it like getting the call that the short was nominated for an Oscar?

It was a great moment for us. We recently shot the feature film, which continues the story of the short film. We’re in post-production. The day of the nominations was the day of the first producers screening of the feature film. There are more people in the feature; it’s a co-production with France, so we have two French co-producers and a Spanish co-producer. So there were a lot of people in the room and we were happy with the first cut of the feature film, giving notes. Then we all wrapped around the TV waiting for the nominations to come out. It was funny because we heard Marguerite and we thought we were out because it’s alphabetical order and Madre in Spanish comes before Marguerite. But mother in English comes after, so we all thought we were out and then they said Mother. It was a rollercoaster. We had a lot of food and drinks to celebrate and were [actually] able to open them.

What has it been like translating a short 19-minute-film into a feature-length story?

It’s not a translation. In fact, the short film itself is the same material. The feature film, the rest of it, picks up the story ten years later. It’s a completely different story. It even changes genre. It’s something that people don’t expect. We’re really happy with the result and it’s like the short film sets you in a mood that makes you receptive to what’s going next. It’s the same character and the same story, but not in the way people will expect.

What’s your response to those who believe short films are the easiest thing to cut from an Oscar ceremony?

The whole purpose of the awards is to let as many people as possible know the cinema industry. What are the greatest movies you’ve never seen in other categories? The greatest professionals? Taking four categories out of the broadcast didn’t make sense. That being said, we are not familiar with the pressures that they’re receiving from everywhere. They need the money to be able to produce the ceremony. We don’t have a very strong opinion on it. We don’t want to appear that we know more than they know. We felt it wasn’t fair and of course we’re really happy knowing they’ve changed their minds. We don’t aim for the awards [though] of course we love them. Let’s keep working and see what happens.

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You can watch the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday, February 24 on ABC at 5 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. CT.