In the 66th Academy Awards’ pithiest acceptance speech, Spanish director Fernando Trueba, picking up a best foreign-language Oscar for his sly, seductive “Belle Epoque,” remarked that he “would like to believe in God so that I could thank him, but I just believe in Billy Wilder. So thank you, Billy Wilder.”
“If I win, I think: I would be horrified to have to talk in front of so many people,” said Trueba the morning after the big night. “I can’t understand how I finally did it.
“For me, Wilder really is the best director ever, a major direct influence on me. He’s also the best screenwriter ever. He’s made more masterpieces than anybody. If it were not for his movies, maybe I would not be a director today. He called me today--and said, ‘It’s God.’ ”
“I wish he hadn’t said that,” retorts Wilder, by phone from his office. “People start crossing themselves when they see me!
“ ‘Belle Epoque’ is a picture with a lot of style--it could be made here in English,” Wilder continues. “Trueba is a very, very serious picture-maker. The Spaniards are so on top of everything: He and Pedro Almodovar know more about me than I do. Almodovar came by my office, kissed me on both cheeks and said, ‘Now I might as well turn around and go home.’ ”
For all his admiration of Wilder, Trueba, a slim man of 39, has taken as a key inspiration for “Belle Epoque” in its sensual mood and idyllic setting Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country,” as well as the films of Marcel Pagnol. Another inspiration for him and his distinguished screenwriter Rafael Azcona was the libertarian-spirited writings of Georges Brassens, whom Trueba regards as one of the most important poets of the century.
He and Azcona then picked a golden moment in modern Spanish history in which to tell their story: the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the Republic in the early ‘30s. “People had a lot of hope then,” he said. “A lot of people believed in the possibility of a Utopia.”
The starting point for “Belle Epoque” (now playing throughout Southern California), however, was his own relationship with his father-in-law. In the film, a rural landowner (the great character star Fernando Fernan Gomez) befriends a handsome young army deserter (Jorge Sanz), but is afraid that if the young man should fall in love with one of his four beautiful daughters--the attraction between him and all four of them is steamily mutual--he would lose a friend albeit gaining a son-in-law.
“When I was 19 I met an older man--he was 52--and we became very, very good friends,” said Trueba. “He was a painter, a draftsman, and had a lot of humor. I never met anybody who read more books. He liked Italian neo-realist films, the French films of (Marcel) Carne and that generation, while I preferred the new wave and American films. We closed every bar in the neighborhood talking about politics and movies. Later, I married one of his four daughters. We’ve always been friends, but it isn’t the same.”
Trueba was a Madrid film critic when he made his feature debut with the 1982 “Opera Prima,” a delightful romantic comedy. Currently, he is preparing his next picture, an adaptation of the Donald Westlake thriller “Two Much,” to be filmed in Miami this fall and produced by his savvy longtime colleague Andres Vicente Gomez (who joined him onstage Monday night to accept the Oscar). Gomez hopes the Oscar will trigger the release of some of Trueba’s earlier films.
“ ‘Two Much’ has a lot of humor. It’s very crazy,” said Trueba, who made his English-language debut with “Mad Monkey” (retitled “Twisted Obsession” by Carolco and released in 1990). “The central idea is that the hero pretends he has a twin, and then he’s forced to play both roles. It’s a perfect idea for a screwball comedy. I got a letter from Westlake. He said that now that he’s seen ‘Belle Epoque’ he’s not worried.”
Although Trueba said he “absolutely” intends to remain a Spanish director, he concedes “I would like to work here also-- if I can do good projects. I never did a movie I didn’t believe in. Maybe I made mistakes but I believed in what I was doing. Making an American comedy, ‘Two Much,’ is like a dream come true. Making a dream a reality is good, yes?”