Jaume Collet-Serra has no big life plan. At the age of 18 he moved from his native Barcelona to Los Angeles to try to make a living. He wanted to make movies. "At that age you don't know much, nor have things very clear in your mind," he says. "I certainly knew that I wanted to go. I don't have anything against Spanish cinema, but the blockbusters I wanted to make are not shot in Spain, but in the US."
And so he moved in 1992. For a decade, he climbed the rungs of the industry ladder. He started out as an editor, then became an indispensable advertising and music video director, whose name was on the lips of anyone who wanted a quality TV commercial. After that it was a natural step into cinema, where he has earned a reputation as a creator who plays with darkness and dreams like few others.
Today, at the age of 37, Collet-Serra is unveiling his fourth feature film, Unknown, in Spain. A thriller about amnesia, espionage, scientific research and personality transplants set in Berlin and starring Liam Neeson, the movie was the closing film in the official selection at the Berlin Film Festival, and then shot straight to the number-one spot at the box office on the first weekend of its release in the United States. The film earned $25 million in three days, having only cost $30 million to make.
However, Collet-Serra is something more than a successful and outspoken film director. He's also just started Ombra Films with his friend Juan Sola.
"The idea is to make one or two films a year, supporting young Spanish directors," he explains. The productions will be low-budget genre pieces - thrillers, horror films, fantasy movies - shot in English. "There is a lot of talent in Spain, and not much of an industry," he says. But don't think there's anything patriotic about the project; he doesn't believe in such sentiment.
"My production company will only support Spanish directors, but not everything goes. Never," he says. The driving force will be original screenplays, made on a low budgets using new digital technologies and mixed Spanish-American financing and technical crews.
"[In Spain] we have installations such as the Ciudad de la Luz studios in Alicante to use," he says.
At his side while shooting Unknown in the cold of Berlin - where temperatures dropped to -26ºC - was Spanish cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano, one of Alex de la Iglesia's regular collaborators who also worked on Collet-Serra's second movie Goal II: Living the Dream.
"Flavio is a great example of a technician who would work well in those mixed teams, of an artist who ought to forge a great career in Hollywood," he says.
And what's more, as a producer, the Catalan will be able to do something that he never managed as a director. "I love making cinema. As a director, I can physically only make one film a year. It's exhausting. It absorbs a lot of energy. And what's more, I am nervous during the shoot. I don't want 100-day shoots, with lots of hours waiting around, if 40 days is enough. Setting up a film, getting it started, takes a lot of effort. A thriller can be made in many ways - bringing all the energies together is difficult. However, I can accelerate that process as a producer using the best of digital technology."
Ombra Films' first project already has a director, Jorge Dorado, and a title, Mindscape, and will tell the story of a man with the power to read minds who has to find out if a 16-year-old girl is a trauma victim or a psychopath. "It will be filmed in Spain," confirms Collet-Serra, with Ivana Baquero of Pan's Labyrinth starring as the teenager.
Collet-Serra's support will help his directors from being duped, as happened to him with his first film, House of Wax, which starred Paris Hilton. "I wanted to direct. They called me in a hurry and I accepted a bunch of impositions because more than everything else, I wanted to direct and I liked the project."
In his future career as a director, a thriller in Hong Kong might be on the cards, and after that, his version of Dracula, backed by the production company of a good friend of his, Leonardo DiCaprio.
"We want to go back to the essence, to foreground the character of Jonathan Harker, the Scotland Yard police officer who pursues the vampire. The script is based on Bram Stoker's book, but we have made changes to modernize it and give it a touch of the unexpected."
The same spirit, new blood. Just like his production company.
Is it possible to identify the hand of a creator in a thriller like Unknown? "Of course," says Collet-Serra. "Auteur films depend on the money you have. If you have a $40-million film and a star, it's difficult to feel like the author, but your hand ought to be noticed. I worked on the script of Unknown a lot, because in the original novel, there was no internet or cellphones, and new technology works against thrillers. It takes nothing to confirm information on the web."
The film features Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones (Mad Men) and a spectacular face-off between Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella. "It's easy to work with these budgets when you have freedom with the casting," says Collet-Serra. "If you look for actors for these characters, these names emerge very quickly. They're actors who make a director's life easier."