A version of this story about “Champions” first appeared in the Foreign Language Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Javier Fesser’s film “Champions,” a huge hit in Spain, finds a hotheaded professional basketball coach sentenced to community service working with a team of mentally disabled players, all of them played by nonprofessional actors.
The film is Spain’s entry in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, and this interview is one of a series of conversations TheWrap had with directors of the foreign contenders.
What led you to this story?
JAVIER FESSER: This is my fifth feature film, and the first time I have worked with a screenplay that was not my idea originally. Three years ago, I read the screenplay and fell in love with the characters. Not with the story, with the characters. I felt myself so close to this positive point of view. It was the first time that I felt, “I am the right person to tell this story.”
What was the casting process like?
It was more than a casting. We spent more than four months meeting people, with the amazing help of associations and basketball teams for the disabled. For me, the casting was the way to know deeply their lives, their families, their thoughts.
Usually in casting, you are looking for the perfect actors to play the roles that you already wrote. In this case, it was the opposite. After casting, the original author and I rewrote the entire screenplay using the personalities of the people, their experiences, their real lives. I was forgetting my imagination, and taking everything from them.
In the movie, the coach has to impose a discipline on his players that they’re not used to. In the shooting, did you have to do the same thing with your actors?
I felt a lot of times like the coach in the story, yeah. When you’re working with actors, you do a take and another take and another take. You can modify and change things. But in this case, in every take there is some brilliant thing that it is not possible to reproduce.
Did you do much rehearsal?
No, no. Because they are not actors. My job was not to teach them how to act, but to create a comfortable environment, an atmosphere that they feel comfortable to be themselves. So rehearsal was for me, not for them.
I had to put my level very, very high. The things that happen in front of the camera are often very touching, very beautiful things, and you have to be at that level to catch them.
To read more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue, click here.