Campanella: Football is great drama

Following on from the success of films such as Son of the Bride and The Secret in their Eyes, for which he won an Oscar in 2010, Argentinian filmmaker Juan Jose Campanella’s latest project came as something of a surprise: an animated movie whose main protagonists are table football players who come alive to help a young fan of the game save the day.

FIFA.com caught up with Campanella on his most recent visit to Spain and chatted with the film director about his creative process, his own footballing ability, his passion for the sport and much more.

FIFA.com: The film is based on a story by Roberto Fontanarrosa. What attracted you to it and how did you develop it into a script?
Juan Jose Campanella:
I really liked the starting point of having table football players come to life, because I felt it was an interesting twist on the old genre of toys coming to life, like Pinocchio. I liked the idea of some characters whose only desire was to harm each other but who then develop, become more complex and end up being friends. It was the longest I’ve ever worked on a script - almost three years - because the original story is just one player’s monologue. I had to create other characters and a conflict, and at the end we realised that the main character was Amadeo, and so we based the film around him. The players’ roles in the story are like elves or like Jiminy Crickets, even though those aren’t their specific characters. In fact, the film isn’t really about football.

Did you play football and table football as a child and were you as skilful as the character in your film?
I did play but not very well. I played football more. A friend of mine had a table football table but we split our time between playing that and table tennis. When we were a bit older we would play pool and billiards. Pool was and still is what I enjoy most. I was terrible at football and compensated for it with humour. I’d mess around and do silly things on the pitch, but I really was a bad player. I was awful, every day was a nightmare. When it came to picking teams I would count and always know which side I’d be on, as I was always chosen last. And I was put in defence every single time.

You meet them and after two sentences they find a way of dropping into the conversation that they’re a Racing fan. They’ve got passion that supporters of other clubs simply don’t have.
Juan Jose Campanella

The film touches on a wide range of topics, not just football. Are there any similarities between the game and life in general?
You can apply many football metaphors to everyday life. I’ve got a lot of friends who only express themselves using football analogies, one of whom does it all the time. The good thing about it is that like any match with a time limit, you experience things that require a much longer process in real life. Nevertheless, you’ve got to play them out in an hour and a half, so in that sense it’s as a great source of drama.

Were any of the characters in your film based on real-life footballers?
Yes. You’ve always got certain players in the back of your mind but the interesting thing about the film was that three different generations of people worked on it. I’m among the oldest but there were twenty-somethings too. For example, for me Beto was a blonde version of [Alberto] Tarantini, while those in their thirties said he was [Carlos] El Pibe Valderrama and the youngest colleagues likened him to players I’ve never even heard of. I think the character Loco is like [Leopoldo] Luque from the 1978 Argentina side, but there are similar players to him nowadays. Above all we worked with archetypes because the subplot of the table football players is that they start out a certain way but gradually develop. At the end of the day, every generation has players with the same characteristics.

In your film The Secret in their Eyes, there is a line that says: “You can change your religion, your family and your face, but never your football team.” Do you believe that personally?
That film says that it’s impossible to change what you’re passionate about and that’s the truth. The Secret in their Eyes also offers a different take on how to look for people who disappear after running away. It’s difficult to find them and the first thing you do is to identify their vices and look for them accordingly. All I did was change the word vice for passion. The funny thing is that some people criticised us and said it’s impossible to find anyone in a stadium [in the film a runaway is sought in the Racing de Avellaneda stadium]. Six months after the movie’s premiere there were reports in the Argentinian media that a guy had been found at a football pitch after the film gave people the idea to look for him there. Life really does imitate art (laughs).

You have not officially declared yourself a supporter of a particular football team, which is unusual for an Argentinian. Yet you are a fan of the Racing Club fan base that appears in a scene of The Secret in their Eyes. Why is that?
I feel like a fan of the Racing fans, and that’s something that appears in all of my films: the most emotional person is always a Racing supporter. You have to meet them. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them as they’ve lost so much. It’s a great team, one of the biggest ones around, and they went 23 years without winning the championship. One thing Racing fans all have in common is that they have to tell you straight away. You meet them and after two sentences they find a way of dropping into the conversation that they’re a Racing fan. They’ve got passion that supporters of other clubs simply don’t have. I feel their character is perhaps shaped by defeat, but they are true fanatics.

What do you believe is behind football’s ability to generate that kind of passion?
I honestly don’t know. For example, I’ve tried to understand why Americans aren’t big football fans. Maybe they need sports where lots of points are scored and any game that has a chance of ending 0-0 is just incomprehensible to them, but I don’t know exactly.

There are ever-decreasing numbers of bars offering table football. Can you help stop the trend?
Did you know that they were in extremely high demand in Argentina during the holidays? It’s a great game. I learned how to play better recently because we had one in the production office. We brought it in to check our takes and angles and it was almost destroyed with 300 people playing on it. It’s great fun and you need a lot of hand-eye coordination. We’re so used to playing games by just moving our fingers and wrists now that it’s good to be forced to try more rapid movements. It’s really interesting.  

Did the film help you improve your table football skills?
Of course, the film was great for improving my ability. Not at football though. I’m still ordered to play in defence in football.