The TDF Interview: Jonathan Cenzual Burley

Hi Jonathan. How are you?

I'm okay, thank you very much.

Thanks for taking the time out. Congratulations on The Shepherd.

Thank you.

You open up with a quote from James chapter five, verses one through six, condemning the greed of the wealthy. So what originally drew you to the theme of greed and its stages?

It was a bit of a stretch of the imagination, because I initially wanted to do a documentary about moving house from A to B, like they used to do. With no machinery, no industrial... basically walk or ride horses. Kind of following the seasons. Basically I found that very fascinating, that in this day and age they still maintain that way of doing things, which is better for the animal and better for the environment. Even though it would be a lot cheaper to just put it in a truck. So I think I found that very fascinating. So I was looking into that, I was thinking about that. I was aware, I was talking in India in the fall.

And then I came back to Spain. When you travel, you kind of detach yourself a little bit from current news. And you see all this poverty and misery, and we kind of connect with what we call the Third World, the developing world. And I came back. It's the same, it's just that people hide it better. Especially with the crisis here, all these people were being thrown out of their homes, which they bought by the banks. The people who kind of created the whole thing, they're still in power, of they're still in a position of power.

So I thought it was a good combination to do something, because the shepherd kind of represents that ancestry, respecting the environment and respecting the people around you. And the idea of these people wanting to take away his land is very primal. It's exactly the same, so they force him out of it, really does show greed overtaking any kind of morality. It's a very good vehicle to show that in that sense. I wanted to do something, my little grain of sand, to bring awareness to what's going on. And I think everyone knows what's going on, but sometimes such a constant thing happens so often, we become immune to it.

As you say, in the story, Paco and Julian have this narrative that they're actually quite well off, but actually they're in their own sort of financial crisis.

Of course, yeah. The premise is not as simple as a black and white situation, there's no bad guys and good guys. Well, of course there's bad guys, but they're higher up. Julian and Paco are these puppets, and they just think they're better off than the other guy. That's the problem, people are always treading on each other to get to the next level. They are caught in the machine. The problem is they don't realise it. Paco is an idiot. He's just not very clever. And Julian is actually a nasty person.

One thing that occurred to me all the way through is this mythic sensibility that runs throughout. Did you think about it in terms of mysticism and symbolism going into it?

But mysticism, yes, it shows that I wanted to represent, you said it very well, a nice spectrum, he's a nice part of the human spectrum. You wouldn't want to hang out with him, he's a pretty dull individual. But what I like about him, what he represents is just being nice. You don't have to be a saint to be nice.

And it's weird how timely I find this. There seems to be a huge uprising in bullies. We allow the bullies to get these positions of power. Bullies shouldn't be in power, they should be made an example of, and power should be taken away from them. Because they have gained power by bullying people.

The Spanish countryside plays a key role in the film. Did you have a particular image in your head from the outset about what you were going to do with the landscape, or how you were going to integrate it?

Yes, I grew up here, I live here, so I know it very well. And one of the reasons I love this place is there is nothing here. There are fields of grain. And the most beautiful massive skies. It can be quite claustrophobic sometimes. There's just nowhere to escape. I knew I wanted the countryside to play that part, kind of invite you in, quite pretty at the beginning. The first day, a day in the life of the shepherd. Turn it into a big, nasty sea. A big, brooding ocean of nothingness where they can't really escape. They can't really hide from the actions. There's nowhere to hide actually, there's no trees and the clouds get broodier.

And the great things is, that's why I chose to shoot in October, because that's when everything turns here. Like in the summer, there's not a single cloud in the sky. And then suddenly we get these amazing cloud formations by the time you get to October, it just kind of looks like, you know, all hell is going to break loose. So Sunday was a day I had off, I would go off by myself to shoot all these landscapes, because they were just getting darker and darker. It kind of actually worked very well with the mood of the film.

Were there advantages to working with such a small crew for this film?

It's got its advantages, it's also got its huge disadvantages. I mean, I drew that up at home, in budget and that makes it very easy to improvise. Although I mean, I'm very much a perfectionist when it comes to the acting. It's a bit like Stanislav, "I've got nothing better to do,” I would be here until the power failed. If you had a massive crew, it would be much more time-consuming. But with a little crew, you can do anything.

Shove one in a car, you can shove one in a bus. It's much more moveable. It's like the scene where Julian is waiting for Anselmo by the hub and the light is shining in the car and of course we have to generate that. And of course you try to lift it, we put it somewhere. But it didn't really work. Then by mistake somebody moves the car behind and shone the light through, you couldn't actually see the car behind. If you have enough crew, there's always going to be a car in the way. Oh, we have one car. When we went to shoot, two cars were there. And it makes flexible so you can try things out. It’s like an elastic band. Stretch it too much and it breaks. Because you're working under the pressure of time. And you have other people. I would personally prefer to have a big crew. Because you can't achieve everything you want. You always make compromises. Which is what happens. You make a low-budget film, so then you appreciate how easy it is to have a big crew and really make the most out of it.

The last act rapidly becomes a genre picture compared to the first hour. Did you have a specific kind of genre inflection in mind when you were writing it?

I knew the image I had in my head, and what was going to happen at the end. I knew that it was almost like a western, like a neo-noir kind of film. I don't know if I read it or somebody told me, but in westerns, you always deal with one of the capitals sins. Greed or envy or stealing, and in this case it's very much about greed. And it does, in its own way, like a western. But the thing with westerns, they deal with the way people dealt with problems a century ago. But the things is, in the countryside, people still deal with their problems that way. I've seen it many times. Some people seem to be surprised at the ending. To me, you can see it coming a mile away. I didn’t want to speed it up, I wanted to give it time. I wanted that tension to be very slow-building. Of course you need to understand the concept of tension because I wrote it and I made it. I don’t know if people are surprised by the ending. To me, in a way, the speed of it is exponential.

Lastly, is it true that you're working on an English language feature next?

I am and I'm not. I've got these three ideas. I'm trying to decide which one I should choose. I grew up in the UK when I was sixteen. And there's something, I think it’s language, it's a different kind of thing. Just the poetry of it, you know. The way that words sound. I think I will find it easier to direct the English version than the Spanish version. I would like to direct something.