Fermat's Room - Luis Piedrahita & Rodrigo Sopeña interview
Interview by Michael Edwards
LUIS Piedrahita Rodrigo Sopeña talk about some of the challenges of making thriller Fermat’s Room, overcoming budget restraints and why the puzzle element of the story, and the shrinking room, proved so appealing.
The Spanish filmmakers also reveal their admiration for Agatha Christie and Sidney Lumet.
Q. Mathematicians don’t seem like an obvious choice for a mystery/thriller, what made you decide on the mathematics theme?
Luis Piedrahita: Mathematicians can be cold, rational and analytical, but also passionate and temperamental. They are poets of science, the ideal main characters for a giant puzzle.
Q. The mathematicians in the film are all very interesting characters… What gave you this image of the celebrity professor and the playboy recluse, and did you ever feel people [like me] might hold maths prejudices that make it difficult to convince us with these characters?
Rodrigo Sopeña: People use to have the mistaken idea of rigid, glasses-wearing mathematicians, since our math teachers used to be like that. Nevertheless, many mathematicians entered history with fascinating lives and extravagant deaths. Evariste Galois fought a duel for a woman, Alan Touring committed suicide with a poisoned apple, Kurt Gödel stopped eating until starving to death, Pythagoras killed a man for mentioning the irrational numbers… My favorite is GH Hardy, who was said to be devoted to mathematics because he was not good enough for cricket.
Q. Did you do a lot of research to decide on the mathematician synonyms for the characters?
Rodrigo Sopeña: There is a correspondence between the movie characters and the mathematicians’ names they have as aliases. Our Galois is as rebellious and impulsive as the French mathematician. Pascal was not only a mathematician, but also inventor and philosopher. Hilbert was devoted to cataloguing the biggest enigmas, and Pierre de Fermat used the numbers to challenge other mathematicians. All these references go unnoticed by the general public, but make mathematicians happy… is there anything nicer than a mathematician’s smile?
Q. There are a lot of difficult problems facing the characters in your film, what is the hardest problem you have ever had to solve?
Luis Piedrahita: It was making a movie in 24 weeks. There were only six months since we shouted “action!” for the first time, until the public gave an ovation to the film at Sitges International Film Festival. That was the main problem. A six-month challenge composed of several mini-challenges like shooting in a mobile stage, directing a 16 people team with only 3 square metres to move…
Q. This was your feature film debut, was it a difficult transition?
Luis Piedrahita: It was really painful. On several occasions, Rodrigo and I said we would not repeat the experience. Nevertheless, we have just completed the next screenplay and we are about to set up the date to begin shooting.
Q. Spain has produced some excellent films (like Fermat’s Room) despite having a relatively small industry. Is there something particular about Spanish storytellers that makes them fight to have their story told, or are the great storytellers just lucky as well?
Luis Piedrahita: Just luck. One can have an excellent screenplay, amazing actors, a really skilful producer and an appealing visual proposal, but if you are not lucky enough for that film to hit the big screen, then nobody will watch it. Films are assembled with so many pieces. Luck is the cement that sticks all them together.
Q. Fermat’s Room has a great combination of wit, cleverness and intrigue. What films (or filmmakers) inspired you on the way to making this film?
Rodrigo Sopeña: We wanted to make a film with a few excellent actors, in a single room. Our references were Sleuth, Dial M for Murder, Rope, Clue… We were also influenced by Agatha Christie novels like After The Funeral or Crooked House. Our main obsession was to avoid the theatre stage feeling, so we decided to make an “indoor action” movie, arriving at the idea of the shrinking room. It’s a classic trap but when it appears in Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Murder by Death… even in Scooby-Doo… you’re always left with the wish that this scene lasted longer. We knew that a film which integrally happened in the shrinking room would be thrilling.
Q. Do you think writing for low-budget films forces you to innovate and be creative?
Rodrigo Sopeña: We usually watch low-budget movies that are neither innovative nor creative. The ideal is that each film has the budget it needs. We shot a small movie since we knew that, in our first film, we would not have the money to crash a helicopter against a rollercoaster. But in the next one…
Q. A lot of small European and Asian films are picked up by Hollywood studios for remakes: does that make you glad there’s a funding source for those who can get the attention or depressed that it’s assumed the American market can’t appreciate foreign language films?
Luis Piedrahita: At the beginning, I struggled to understand the concept of remake. If something is alright, why should you make it again? And, if something is wrong, why should you make it again? Leaving this debate aside, the idea of an American remake implies income, promotion and, probably, the opportunity to shoot another film.
Q. Finally, if you were stuck in a shrinking room and you had to choose a filmmaker from the past to help you find a way out: who would it be?
Rodrigo Sopeña: Sidney Lumet. He has made films in small spaces (12 Angry Men, Deathtrap, Dog Day Afternoon), he loves Agatha Christie (Murder on the Orient Express) and ingenuity always takes priority in his films (The Verdict, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead). In addition, he began working in TV.