He debuted 12 years ago with one of the best movies in the history of Spanish horror, The Nameless; he then took the United States by storm with Darkness, a box-office hit that was 100-percent Spanish; after that, together with Paco Plaza, he made the first movie in the celebrated [REC] horror franchise. And now, displaying the courage of someone who's aware of his own talent, he has extracted the most out of actors Luis Tosar and Marta Etura for Mientras duermes (or, Sleep Tight), a delightful film that smells of Polanski and opens in theaters across Spain today after premiering at the Sitges Film Festival last Saturday.
Jaume Balagueró, 42, has been bringing joy to horror fans for years. This down-to-earth, unpretentious Catalan is one of the most powerful filmmakers in the Iberian peninsula, yet he remains a man without any hidden catches, as genuine as a good scare.
"I don't remember the first time I felt scared," he says. "But I do remember one time I was really affected by fear: I was returning home with my dad from Cubells, in Lleida, where we used to spend our summers. We were driving, I must have been seven or eight, and he told me the story of a couple who once drove down the same road. Suddenly the man had to pee, and when he was doing it by the side of the road he looked up and saw an old woman, a witch presumably, staring down at him from a tree branch. It stopped his piss cold! That's what my father told me. I was really scared about that."
Balagueró is aware that his daily fears have little to do with classic horror themes. "Mine have always been very down to earth, such as death. Not so much my own, but that of the people around me. Also the suffering of others, not in an obsessive way, but as a matter of concern to me. Or the typical examination you haven't prepared for... That kind of thing, nothing special. You know, the fears of modern life. Nobody is scared of monsters any more, only in the movies. If one day you bumped into them on the street, you would be surprised and nothing more."
There is no doubt that Balagueró is a horror film director, but he admits it was the genre that seduced him and not the other way around. "The truth is, horror chose me. I remember when I started watching [1980s TV series] Mis terrores favoritos. I'd always felt attracted by genre films, but that definitely won me over," he recalls.
A movie that left a deep mark on him? "It would be hard to name one, but I remember a great one called Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which took me to a dimension as yet unknown to me. Also films like Maniac or Zombie... marvelous."
And yet even he will admit that a man cannot live off terror alone. "I started making movies because of people like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, although I could also name Wim Wenders or Alain Tanner. They all encouraged me to make movies in one way or another."
Neither does he hesitate when he talks about his first foray into filmmaking. "I remember when I made The Nameless because it was very funny: I was in a bookstore called Gigamesh in Barcelona, I saw the book, I turned it around to read the back, and I read about a child who'd been missing for five years and was now phoning her mother to ask her to come get her. That's when I said to myself, 'Dude, this is the story!' And I hadn't even read the book yet. I thought, 'Damn! This is fascinating.'
"That is where my adventure with genre films began, and that is probably when I decided I wanted to keep making horror movies."
The director is now returning to horror territory with Mientras duermes, a film with a murky atmosphere that has little in common with Balagueró's previous work.
In the film, Tosar plays the evil janitor of an apartment building who wants to make life hell for one of his tenants, played by Marta Etura. "This is a movie with lots of mechanisms, where one piece moves another piece. It is a result of experience, because you learn from every movie. I don't know whether it is the work of a mature director: I am still exploring, let's be clear on that, because you're always exploring. Besides, this movie is planned like a game with the spectator, who has to interact with the plot, and that was pretty complicated...
"At the same time, this movie is a lot more cerebral and intuitive, and it has a clear goal, and for everything to work the machinery has to move in a very specific direction."