‘The Good Boss’ Director Fernando León Reflects on Two Decades Directing Javier Bardem

The Spanish Academy surprised some this year when it selected Fernando León de Aranoa’s Javier Bardem-starrer “The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”) as the country’s submission for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar race. It’s main contender was Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” which wowed at Venice – Penelope Cruz took the award for best actress, did well at the Spanish box office and has been an overwhelming critical success and has since been nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Non-English Language.

To many, particularly in Spain however, the decision was less of a shock. Bolstering “The Good Boss’” credentials as a true contender, the film is one of the Spain’s best-reviewed films in 2021 both at home and abroad – it currently boasts a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes – is the year’s highest-grossing domestic indie and recently broke a 30-year-old record for the most Spanish Academy Goya Award nominations by a film, earning 20 nods in 17 categories. In the end, decision had to be made, and “The Good Boss” was the Academy’s choice.

León’s latest unspools in and around the Blancos Básculas factory, where all things must be always in balance. There, the seemingly benevolent boss, Bardem’s Blanco, is preparing for an upcoming inspection by a group which is visiting local businesses looking to single out one for a prestigious prize. Tensions mount, however, when a disgruntled, recently-fired employee sets up camp across from the factory’s gates, protesting Blanco and his business practices. On top of everything, Blanco’s behavior behind closed doors threatens to create even more trouble for the boss at the worst possible time.

After the Spanish Academy announced their selection, Variety met up with León in the stylish lobby restaurant of Madrid’s Hard Rock Hotel, nestled in the cultural heart of the city and the shadows of the famed Reina Sofia Museum, to discuss the working relationship with him and his frequent leading man.

20 years ago, the two embarked on their first collaboration in what would go on to be Spain’s 2002 Foreign Language Oscar submission, “Mondays in the Sun.”  Both León and Bardem had been in the industry years and boasted impressive domestic resumes, but “Mondays” proved to be both a box office and critical hit which elevated the two to global recognition.

“I remember when I first proposed the character of Santa in ‘Mondays’ and after a few early conversations he asked me if I would mind if he recorded our work conversations,” León recalled of their first interactions and Bardem’s impressive attention to detail. According to León, the actor had around a dozen blank cassette tapes ready to capture every word León shared.

León and Bardem later reteamed for 2017’s “Loving Pablo,” and although the film didn’t reach the lofty heights of “Mondays,” both Bardem and his co-star Penelope Cruz were nominated for Spanish Academy Goya awards for their performances as Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar and Virginia Vallejo, a journalist who had a romantic relationship with the man, respectively.

When it came to cast “The Good Boss,” León knew that Bardem was the right choice to play his Blanco as soon as he’d finished the script but insists that the part wasn’t written for the actor.

“I always believed Javier was a possibility, but as a screenwriter when I start writing I try not to think about possible actors because, practically, there are times when you write a part for someone and then they don’t do the movie for whatever reason,” he explained. “But more importantly I think when you’re writing with someone in mind it becomes too easy to write things that you know the actor does well rather than what the character would do in that situation.”

As has become a custom between the two, once cast, “Javier brought me in incredibly early in his process, even before we started rehearsals. We always have a first meeting where he introduces me to the character,” León explained. “He feels strongly about the characters he develops, but he’s always respectful to me and my ideas and we work on things together, establishing the nuance of the character.”

In the film, Blanco is a man who, outwardly at least, seems to have it all together. His employees look up to him, his friends are loyal and he still has time to help his wife in her own entrepreneurial endeavors. Beneath the tranquil surface, however, boil several impending confrontations that a man in Blanco’s position is unaccustomed to. In fact, the lofty position Blanco occupies, acquired through inheritance rather than through his own efforts, leaves him vulnerable to strong opposition, which all come out of the woodwork simultaneously at the worst possible time.

León explained that, “The film’s other characters were created as foils to Blanco, but as people whom he doesn’t view as true rivals. They are characters he thinks he can handle easily: a woman who works at a supermarket, a blue-collar immigrant delivery driver, a young intern. But everyone stands up to him and says “no,” and that generates an increasing frustration on his part.”

Importantly though, that dynamic “also generates empathy. We tend to empathize with those who are suffering, and here Blanco is suffering through the whole film. On the other hand, I think there is also a cathartic element in that we appreciate seeing the other characters, those which aren’t traditionally empowered and who Blanco underestimates, stand up for themselves,” he explained.

That empowerment worked not only in the film’s narrative, but on set as well. It’s possible to think of Bardem, an Oscar-winning international superstar who, by his very presence, dominates a Spanish shoot with several new and young actors on set, as a Blanco type character even if only for the strength and imposing figures they project.

“The other characters in this film are strong, they must be to confront Blanco, but the actors playing them need that same strength to work with Javier,” said León. “Javier brings so much power and charisma, and as such he elevates those attributes in the people he’s working across from. It was important to me that in the performances there was an equal power-vs-power struggle, and that Javier’s strengths as an actor and his character did not overshadow what the other actors needed to play their parts, and that was never the case. Everyone understood the need to find a balance, and we worked on that a lot in rehearsals.”

With three features and a 20-year friendship under their belts, there are few more qualified to comment on Bardem’s evolution as an actor. However, the esteem León holds for his favorite leading man is clear, and his answer reflected that admiration.

“As a person, Javier is the same guy he was 20 years ago, which is wonderful considering the journey he’s been on. He’s still just as noble and generous as he was when we first met. I adore him,” he started. “As an actor, I think his range has grown a lot in that time. He has never liked to play it safe. He’s someone who will always take risks. Javier has always been very present and in the moment on set, but I think that’s even more true now.”

“The Good Boss” has already enjoyed an impressive run at the Spanish box office, and was acquired for U.S. distribution by the Cohen Media Group last month.

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