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Jesús Olmo: writing with your eyes

Yesterday, the FICL got underway with a very special vibe and a movie theatre that got off to a good start. When the credits of Cold Skin finished, another movie started, as interesting as Xavier Gens’: the vision of scriptwriter, Jesús Olmo.

This is the first film adaptation done by the writer from Madrid, who has been behind titles as popular as “Esposados”, “28 semanas después” and “Ruleta”. In Sánchez Piñol’s bestseller, he saw traces of Conrad, Verne, Stevenson and Lovecraft.

“An adaptation is a very delicate thing, it means having to work on a tight rope; especially when we talk about a novel that is as popular as The Cold Skin; it’s been a huge responsibility”, said Jesús Olmo to the audience yesterday in Teatro El Salinero.

How can you turn a wonderful 300-page novel into a 90-minute movie?

It was a “long and complicated” process. In the first scriptwriting tries, he was “true to the novel”, making it “impossible to film”. Audiovisual language calls for images: we must turn sensations into scenes. “Decisions must be made, some things must be sacrificed and others must be reinvented”.

Due to time and budget restrictions, a lot of the points suggested in Olmo’s last proposal were left out: the background of the two main characters, the reason why the sea creatures attacked…

There were actually seven versions of the script and five different directors who wanted to do it their way.  “For better or worse, many people handled it— said Olmo— What you have seen, has fragments of the different versions, and if I’m going to be critical, I must say that you can tell; the script couldn’t be as coherent and well-worked as I had suggested”.

Lanzarote, fourth character

Jesús Olmo didn’t know that The Cold Skin would be filmed in Lanzarote until long after writing the script. However, while he was reading the novel, he imagined landscapes in the Canary Islands. “I would go as far as to say that Lanzarote has a magmatic energy, a certain light, something very special”.  There was a point in which the producers considered the option of filming in Iceland, with another primitive and volcanic landscape, but the climate was vital when it came to making up their minds.

Four years went by before Xavier Gens took over the film in movie theatres (in Spain, in October 2017). “The fact that the film was made at all, is already a miracle, because it’s very complex; it’s based on a novel that led to high expectations and it had a need for a generous budget in order for it to work well”.

In the final result, he recognises his script, but also admits that it seems to be missing something. “I still get shaken when I share a screening with someone, but they have done an extraordinary direction, art, photography job. I’d like to praise the work behind all of it”.

“They don’t tell the part about the carasapos which are dying because the sunken ship has mustard gas tanks; they rebel against human impact”. There’s no trace of the explicit sexual relationships explained in the novel. “It had to be toned down in order for it to be able to premiere as a movie for the general public”. Olmo laughs at a particular point and he describes what’s being done in Teatro El Salinero as “post-spoiler”.

Several hands are raised to ask questions. To keep on researching that other film Olmo had in mind but couldn’t complete:

When you read a book, you always imagine the tone of voice the characters have. Did you like the ones in that film?

I imagined them like that, but that doesn’t mean that I like it.

That degree of expression and emotion is down to the director. The script only makes suggestions. In the loneliness of a room, I project a movie in my head, but I know that the creature must keep on living. I look after her during the first year, but after that, she will be raised by other people. The first few minutes when the lighthouse keeper shows up, was the part that touched me the most. It’s a wonderful feeling to have imagined something beautiful and then be able to see it in the big screen.

I’m especially happy with the work done by actor [Ray Stevenson] .

The poetic part of the movie. Is that your work?

Well, when you’re touched reading a book like The Cold Skin, what’s left afterwards is a scent, something that feels closer to a poetic style than a narrative one. The book is filled with extremely beautiful moments: the shine of the carasapos on their skin, the sensation of this lighthouse not real, it goes beyond time and space, whales that throw water, icebergs floating around and shining like aliens…  It’s not easy when it comes to adapting.

Is it more complicated to make an original script or an adaptation?

When Raymond Chandler was asked what he thought about the adaptations that had destroyed his books,  he answered:  “No, my novels remain untouched for anyone who wishes to read them; they’re there”, he said as he pointed to a shelf. There are examples of adaptations that are true and free at the same time, respecting the soul of the text: “El nombre de la rosa”, “El silencio de los corderos”, “El señor de los anillos”, “Las amistades peligrosas”, “Los santos inocentes”…

What advise would you give to a scriptwriting student to help him know how to differentiate between what works and what doesn’t work? How do you know what you can be rid of?

You must read the novel several times. The first reading is always emotional, you represent readers, but that needs to settle. You must do more than just leave emotions behind and ask yourself very specific questions until you know what the novel is about and how to put the topic into practice, in cinematographic terms. You must have a clear idea of what you want to hold on to. Every chance I get, I give the same advise that a Screenplay teacher once told me: “Think that what you’re writing about, must be understood by a blind person if you read it out to them”. He meant that you shouldn’t beat around the bush, or be abstract. We cannot talk about feelings but rather about what we can see and hear, things that can be expressed in visual terms. You cannot say, ‘the writer is anxious’, you must show a bin full of crumpled paper instead.


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