It’s rare for a feel-good film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but Spain’s submission “Champions” is trying to buck the trend this year. Directed by Javier Fesser, this unlikely sports dramedy follows a basketball team made up entirely of players with intellectual disabilities. Led by a disgraced professional coach, their heartwarming journey conveys the importance of empathy and camaraderie. Expressing the same enthusiasm depicted in the film, Fesser was effusive about this unique filmmaking experience when I spoke with him recently. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: What inspired you to make this film?
Javier Fesser: This is the first time I’m making a film based on a screenplay I didn’t write. And I found characters in the screenplay that I fell in love with. By the second page of the screenplay, I thought that I’m the right director to tell their stories.
SS: How did you approach the portrayal of these characters considering the increased awareness relating to the representation of marginalized persons in films?
JF: The first decision for me was to work with real people with intellectual disabilities, instead of actors playing those roles. So my approach was to capture their reality, their own personalities and the natural, spontaneous things they are able to do. They are playing themselves and talking about their own lives. So this was the idea from the beginning. Forgetting about my point of view and trying to capture theirs.
SS: Was it a long casting process to find the right actors for these roles?
JF: It was more than a casting. We spent 4 months meeting almost 600 people. For me, it was an unbelievable opportunity to understand these people deeply. Their families, the places where they work, their environment and their point of view. It was invaluable information to write the last version of the screenplay. Actually, when we finished casting, we re-wrote the whole screenplay to change dialogue and situations to use their own personalities.
SS: What was the atmosphere on set between these non-professional actors and the more established actors?
JF: It was better than the best expectations. Before the shooting and first rehearsal, we tried to create a real basketball team. The first job was to create the basketball team. I have to say that in the first minute, they looked like a real team, a real family. It was an unbelievable experience to see them work because they absolutely pushed each other. It’s different from working with experienced actors but for me, every person is different and the approach to every person is always different. Including if they are experienced actors or not.
SS: What made you realize that Javier Gutiérrez would be perfect for the lead role?
JF: He was the first and only option in my head from the beginning. I knew Javier from a short film and for me, he was the perfect actor for “Champions”. He was the only coach in my mind. He’s been more than an actor. He was my link between the director and this inexperienced cast. Javier also has a son with intellectual disabilities, so he was very involved in the story. He is a huge actor but he was working with them, trying to make their work shine. It’s beautiful to see him working for them and not himself.
SS: This is quite an upbeat film, which is rare for a Foreign Language Oscar submission. What was your reaction to being chosen to represent Spain for the Oscars?
JF: I was very happy. We are talking about a very serious comedy. It’s funny not because the jokes are funny, but because the main characters are very happy people. They are people with a very positive outlook toward everything, people who enjoy every minute of life. They have no pre-judgments and they never lie. They always say whatever they are thinking. So their sense of humor is always there. It’s impossible to make a portrait of them without humor.
I think that’s why the movie is traveling so well. It’s easy to translate the humor. It’s not based on local jokes. It’s based on a real, funny way to look at everything around you.