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The Pinnacle of Craft: How James Rouse and Blur Made their Grand Prix-Winning Red Cross Film

Blur Films executive producer Pablo García Acón takes us behind the scenes on the powerful film that won the Film Craft Grand Prix at Cannes Lions 2018

The Pinnacle of Craft: How James Rouse and Blur Made their Grand Prix-Winning Red Cross Film

Last week ‘Hope’, James Rouse’s heart-wrenching slice of drama for the International Committee of the Red Cross, won the Grand Prix for best direction in the Film Craft category at Cannes Lions, making Blur Films the first Spanish production company to take home the award. And you only have to watch it to see what moved the jury to make this decision.

When the film, written by Madrid-based agency Sra. Rushmore, first emerged there were more than a few leaky eyes in the LBB office. An instantly gripping story that sets you up for a gut-punch of an ending but ends up ripping the carpet out from under your feet, it makes its point on a visceral level. 

As a charity film, the budget was modest, but the production values its award success celebrate are about the essence of craft - squeezing the most out of all the talent and resources available to the team.

LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Pablo García Acón, executive producer at Blur, to find out the exactly what kind of craft it took to create this remarkable piece of work.

LBB> Congratulations on the Grand Prix! It's a refreshing choice for the Film Craft category, not being a big, expensive-looking extravaganza. What makes you most proud about the finished piece of work?

PGA> Many thanks! We are very happy with this great achievement and above all, for having won the award with a film that has such an important message to spread across the world. This type of award gives this critical message more visibility and means more people can see our piece of work. That is why we are so happy, because we think that this award at Cannes has meant the message will reach more people across the world, who need to see it. It is also true that having a very low budget (since it’s a charity), and having practically the whole team working altruistically, makes the prize an even more special reward for all.

LBB> What was the original script like and what attracted you to it?

PGA> The script was written by Pablo Cattaneo and David Titos, who are the creatives at Sra. Rushmore, and it was clear from the beginning. The desperation of Raya’s father to get to the hospital  - trying to save his daughter, while trying to reassure her (as we do all as parents when our children are sick) and make her feel safe. That is why the end of the film, and the message we throw to the world, is so devastating. James Rouse worked on the script hand-in-hand with the agency, polishing details together until arriving at the final definitive script.

All watching intently inside the camera car

LBB> What were your initial thoughts on how you'd make it work, production-wise?

PGA> Both James and our team were clear from the beginning that this story was about something devastating that unfortunately happens in the real world, so we had to get rid of any hint of artificiality. We ensured all of the production elements (the location, the actors, their acting, the car...) oozed reality from all their pores. If at any point in the film there was something that took the audience out of that reality, we would have failed in our job. 

LBB> What were the big considerations you had to make to ensure it was the incredibly moving film it needed to be?

PGA> The first, of course, were the actors. We needed two actors capable of transmitting the anguish and fear of Raya, and the desperation and protection that her father had to give off. James spent several days in Beirut watching the casting and from the moment he saw Shirley, it was clear to us that we had our little girl, Raya. 

The second, the environment. We had several possibilities for location, but when James saw Lebanon, he knew immediately that history could happen there. 

Thirdly, I think that opting for the handheld camera, with a live camera, operated by the great Alexander Melman, was a true success. 

And finally, post production. The assembly of Art Jones, the post production of Twin Pines, the colour of Metropolitan, the music of Siren and the sound design of Factory. I think that all these elements add their own great contributions, which make the piece so rounded. 

The infamous car

LBB> Where did you shoot it and what guided that decision?

PGA> We shot in Beirut (Lebanon), with the help of Clandestino Films (our production company partners there). As I mentioned before, we were clear that we needed reality, and we could not go anywhere and recreate a country in conflict. Beirut was the perfect mix between a place where there is industry (the guys from Clandestino could not have done a better job) and where, unfortunately, you can still see echoes of their previous conflicts. So it's a safe place to roll, but with areas that are still destroyed from past wars.

LBB> What were your references for making sure it looked authentic?

PGA> For this, we worked very closely with the agency and the client. The International Committee of the Red Cross were very clear that they did not want the action to identify with any place in the world specifically, since unfortunately, this happens in many places across the world. So, from the actors’ dressing room, from the terrorists they cross, to the helicopter that flies over them, everything was made to be real as if it could be anywhere where there is a conflict (from the Arab zone of the world, of course).

Perfecting angles and light

LBB> For such a performance-based piece, the casting must have been vital. How did you go about that?

PGA> James travelled a few days before shooting in Beirut and sat down with Mia Daibess (the casting director) to cast the actors and watch the first sessions together. The truth is that it was very satisfying because we had great options, but as I was saying, as soon as James saw Shirley and Elias together, we knew who our protagonists were going to be. 

Once they were approved by agency and client (who always trusted our criteria), there were rehearsals, and finally, the big day. James is a director who never dismisses anyone from the casting until he has been able to work with them and see if he can really get something good. He’d spend days locked in the casting rooms trying to get the best out of each person. Ultimately, what he does so brilliantly, is work hard to get the best interpretation out of each actor.

Behind the camera during the final takes

LBB> And how did you make sure the father and daughter gave such powerful performances? It must have been an emotional shoot!

PGA> James, for me, is one of the best performance directors in the world. In fact, at this year’s Cannes Lions, he won a Grand Prix for best direction in Film Craft, and a Gold Lion for script in Film Craft, for this campaign, which was super emotional - but he also won a Gold Lion for his Marmite film (produced by Outsider), which has another totally different style - humour. For me, that’s where his greatness as a director resides. He has that ability to get exactly what he wants from each actor, to listen to them, and to detect what really works. 

And yes, it was terrible. The girl cried, the father cried, James cried, Alexander cried, the agency cried... everyone cried. I think being in a place like Beirut, filming a story that could really happen and with such good performances made everyone realise the extremity of the situation and how horrible it is that anyone might need medical help and not having access to it. As the final claim of the campaign says, "even wars have rules".

An iconic image of the hospital in the final scene

Some final words from James for the ultimate shot

LBB> What were the biggest production challenges on set?

PGA> The most important thing was to be able to create an atmosphere of intimacy on set. The shots inside the car were filmed whilst driving on a road 50 kilometres from the Syrian border, so the actors really felt what they were interpreting. Then there were smaller challenges, like getting weapons for the ‘terrorists’ or having to change a location because there was a Hezbollah demonstration where we were going to shoot. But again, the guys from Clandestino made our lives very easy; Javi Lara (our chief of production) took the production forward so we never had the slightest feeling of insecurity.

LBB> Any final thoughts? It must have been quite a memorable experience.

PGA> Well, we are really overwhelmed by the expressions of affection from all over the world, happy that such a film has won such an important award, and above all we are very grateful. To the agency for trusting us with this treasure of a script; to the client for doing such commendable work; to James for having put his great talent at the service of such a powerful message; to each and every one of those involved in this production for working with such strong desire and enthusiasm, and Mario Forniés, the owner of Blur, for being a wonderful madman and pushing for this movie. And finally, we’re honoured because this message now has the ability to reach the whole world.

The Sra. Rushmore team, with Mario, founder of Blur
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