A City in Film

March 27, 2017

Iker Gil interviews Bilbao-born filmmaker Koldo Serra.


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© David Herranz.

La casa sin fronteras (1972)
No es bueno que el hombre esté solo (1973)
El Pico (1983)
Bandera negra (1986)
Todo por la pasta (1991)
Accion Mutante (1993)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Pagafantas (2009)
La máquina de pintar nubes (2009)
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Gernika (2016)

All of these films were shot in Bilbao to support or contextualize their plots, ranging in genre from stories of drugs and crime in the 1970s and 1980s to international blockbusters and futuristic thrillers after the opening of the Guggenheim Museum. As the city has changed, so have the stories that take place in it. To discuss the transformation of the city and how it has been portrayed in films, Iker Gil interviews Bilbao-born filmmaker Koldo Serra, director of the film Gernika and great grandson of the prominent architect Pedro Ispizua.

IG: You were born in 1975, so you have lived through the transformation of Bilbao. What memories do you have of the city growing up?

KS: I was born in Bilbao and after six or seven years we moved to Algorta (a neighborhood in the town of Getxo, 14 kilometers away from Bilbao), but I have always been very connected to Bilbao as my two grandmothers live there. One of them lives in the Ribera de Deusto, now facing the Guggenheim Museum, something that, obviously, is completely different from those times that I would go to her home at Christmas growing up. What I remember from my childhood is the grey color of the city, a color that I think defines all the movies of that time. Now we talk a lot about the “Blue Bilbao” but then, if there was something that defined the city, it was the “Grey Bilbao.” I remember a grittier Bilbao defined by punk and Gaztetxes (self-organized youth centers). I also remember it as a city forged by the steel industry and the Nervión River. It was filled with cranes and metal and it went hand in hand with the Bilbao of that time. It is a Bilbao that has almost disappeared. Pedro Olea has mentioned in previous interviews that the river is an element that has fascinated all of us involved in cinema or audiovisual. It is very suggestive to the camera.

IG: The river shaped the city, but was also a limit to the city. Its riverbanks were used for industrial purposes, not as a public space.

KS: The riverbanks below the Concordia Station, La Naja Station, the Ripa Dock, and the Abandoibarra area have completely changed. Now you can walk along the river, but what I remember are the hundreds and hundreds of shipping containers where the Guggenheim now is. It was a grey landscape of gigantic metallic boxes. I believe that there is a sequence in the opening minutes of the movie El Pico (Eloy de la Iglesia, 1983) where two of the main characters walk on the La Salve Bridge showing that grey landscape of cranes and containers where now you see the Guggenheim Museum.

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Screenshot of El Pico.

IG: When you look at the movies shot in Bilbao during the 1970s and 1980s, besides the panoramic views of the city, you notice the strong presence of the La Salve Bridge.

KS: It is true that in those movies the river and the La Salve Bridge, either from above or below, are very present, even more than the Arriaga Theater. I think that it is also that, in those days, it was more used as an entry point to the city than it is now.

IG: It is interesting that both the river and the La Salve Bridge are infrastructural elements, defined by cranes and port facilities, while the Arriaga Theater is one of the cultural and architectural references of Bilbao.

KS: Exactly. And it is interesting that those movies prominently featured the troubled areas along the river. Nowadays, you can cross any of the bridges to both banks of the river and there is no problem. Some areas are still not perfect, but they are definitely not as conflictive as they used to be. Except for a couple of streets, the riverbanks of the city have been revitalized with the revamped Ribera Market, new bars, and other cultural institutions. Before, they were uninviting places: humid, made out of concrete, and full of syringes. Aesthetically, they were perfect for films, but they were not welcoming for the everyday life.

IG: The movies of those decades are defined by that context. I am not sure if Bilbao determined the type of movies that were shot in the city, or the Bilbao-born filmmakers filmed specific type of movies because of their experience having grown up in that context.

KS: If you analyze police thriller movies of the 1970s, they always have a pessimistic tone, many of them ending up badly. I think that something similar happens in Spain in the 1980s. In large cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao, there were areas of crime. During that time, there was also the introduction of heroin in Spain, which is a key aspect as it defined a whole generation. Films such as El Pico, Perros Callejeros (Jose Antonio de la Loma, 1977), and others that are part of the so-called Cine Quinqui genre (juvenile delinquency films) have heroin and areas of crime as common denominators. If in the US the Vietnam War defines many of the films, in Spain they are defined by the transition to the democracy after decades of dictatorship. Suddenly, there was a sense of freedom with a new drug, music, and other elements shaping the Spanish society. Consequently, those changes shaped the stories and the aesthetic of the films. It is impossible to imagine El Pico or other movies of the time removed from the context were they were shot. But responding to your question, I think that they are influenced by a little bit of both aspects.

IG: As you mention, the films of this period focus on the themes that are important in Spain at the time. Are there certain cities that reflect these topics better than others?

KS: I think that big cities, where you can find everything, are a breeding ground to represent the topics that are discussed in the movies. Todo por la Pasta (Anything for Bread, Enrique Urbizu, 1991) could have perfectly taken place in Madrid instead of Bilbao and feature other nightclubs and nightlife or even Barcelona with places like El Raval. The quinqui genre focuses on three main cities: Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao and, specifically, the Otxarkoaga neighborhood in Bilbao. It is a historic moment that is strengthened by the conditions of those cities at that time. It is interesting that I remember Bilbao being rainier then than it is now. I am sure that it is just as rainy as it was then, but the architecture, industry, and pollution gave the impression that everything was more oppressive, pessimistic, and sad. The transformation of the city has created a completely different feeling.

IG: The buildings had that grey patina from the pollution that made them generic and invisible. As they were cleaned years later, the city has rediscovered their value.

KS: There is a definitely a feeling of a less polluted city, with more blue skies. There are more bike paths and trails to walk, as well as many more green areas. Before, the city might not have been as welcoming to those outdoor activities.

IG: With the exception of specific areas, most of the spaces that defined Bilbao in the 1980s have disappeared. The river has abandoned its industrial character in most of its areas, the brown water of the river now is clean and accommodates the swimmers of triathlons, and buildings’ facades have been cleaned. Bilbao has transformed itself and so have the films shot in the city.

KS: If someone today wanted to tell a story similar to the ones in the 1980s, it would be harder to find the places to shoot. The river has nothing to do today with the river three decades ago. As a child, all the trips between Algorta and Bilbao would take place driving along the river, seeing the smokestacks from the steel factories. I compared that world with The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) which opens up in Clairton, Pennsylvania. It is an industrial and grey environment, filmed in winter, the trees without leaves. Then the film takes you to Vietnam, where the landscape and cinematography completely change. I remember the Bilbao of that time just like the opening of the film. Obviously, I didn’t work in [the steel factory] Altos Hornos, but I do remember the smokestacks, the docks, and the rusted railings. I don’t know if, as Bilbao-born filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia says, the new landscape invites people to make romantic comedies, but it is true that visually it is a much friendlier and welcoming city. In the opening scene of James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999) or a decade later in Pagafantas (Friend Zone, Borja Cobeaga, 2009), you can see it’s another type of city, no longer industrial. The city now welcomes other types of stories.

IG: I think that The World Is Not Enough, shot months after the opening of the Guggenheim Museum, marks the before and after of the city. However, the film only shows the museum and the Iparraguirre Street, not providing a comprehensive view of the city.

KS: Every Bond film searches for new and emblematic locations. In this case, the decision was to open the film with the Guggenheim, the newest thing at the time, and jumping from the office building across from it. Coincidentally, for my film Gernika, we have had several meetings with the Provincial Council of Biscay in the same room from which Pierce Brosnan jumps through the window.

IG: New directors also have different referents and context from the ones that associated Bilbao with the industry. It is a new generation.

KS: It is clear that every generation of filmmakers portrays what they have lived, what they have grown up with, or even the films that left a mark when they were growing up. To my generation they have always been referred to as the “Goonies generation,” as it defined a whole set of 1980s films of adventure and fantasy directed by Landis, Spielberg, Lucas, and others. The future generation has other referents, probably from the 1990s and so on. Logically, the fact that Enrique Urbizu or Alex de la Iglesia grew up in the city at that time makes it easier to relate to the city of the past. But sometimes, even if you haven’t lived through something, being a fan of a specific period or type of film makes you relate to them or explore them. For example, I am a fan of the thrillers of the 1970s such as The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) more than most contemporary thrillers, but it is true that the place where you grew up defines what you talk about, as you typically talk about the things that you know and what you have experienced, the bars that you have had the pleasure or the bad luck to visit in your youth. For example, now you don’t see groups of heavy metal fans in the street like you saw then, but I am sure that current groups of people or tendencies will be the focus of future films.

IG: Can Bilbao be a character in itself and not just a generic background? Can the city have new qualities that, while being different, are as important as the ones in the 1970s and 1980s?

KG: What I think is great about Bilbao is that it offers many different faces. On the one hand, Bilbao still has a few of those gritty areas to shoot a thriller or a crime movie. But it also has many other faces such as the Arriaga Theater, the Arenal, and the Campo Volantin riverwalk that could tell another type of story, maybe something similar to Woody Allen’s New York. We have the Doña Casilda Park that, without being London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park, can also be a great location for a film. There was actually a movie called Un banco en el parque (Agustí Vila, 1999) that was shot in the Doña Casilda Park. Obviously, the Guggenheim Museum has changed the riverbank and could also be a good location for a film. And you also have the main streets of the city such as Gran Via Avenue or Autonomía Street where many car commercials are shot. The Wachowskis, for example, came to Bilbao to use it as a futuristic location for their film Jupiter Ascending (2015). On the other hand, I have shot a film in Bilbao that takes place 80 years ago. So the good thing is that Bilbao offers a variety of aesthetic opportunities and locations to situate the stories and not be just a generic background.

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© David Herranz.

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© David Herranz.

In terms of interior spaces, now there is the Bilbao Bizkaia Film Commission that works very well, inviting people to shoot in Bilbao by helping them to find the right locations. Also, thanks to the public organization Bilbao Ekintza, we were able to see the interiors of many fantastic places for the locations for Gernika, such as the Olabarri Palace, headquarters of the Port Authority of Bilbao and almost across the Guggenheim Museum, the Bilbao Club, the Arriaga Theater, or the Bilbao Philharmonic Society. They identified and opened the doors to places that otherwise we might not have been able to access because they are private, they have institutional activities, or because they are abandoned. In the film La Casa sin Fronteras (The House Without Boundaries, Pedro Olea, 1972), Pedro Olea uses the Ibaigane Palace as the headquarters for a satanic cult. (The Ibaigane Palace is now the headquarters of the Athletic Club).

IG: This is an anecdote, but apparently Pedro Olea did his military service in the building while it was a military station and this was his way to take revenge.

KS: Sometimes directors make inside jokes or just want to include places that have been important, for good or bad things, in their lives. In my case, it was the Arenal Bandshell designed my great grandfather Pedro Ispizua.

IG: It is interesting that your film Gernika is set at time in the history of Bilbao that is defined by buildings designed by your great grandfather, such as the Arenal Bandshell, the Ribera Market, or the Tiger building. Which buildings of that period have you chosen to include in your film?

KS: To make our film, we researched extensively, looking for the buildings that shaped that period. To our surprise, we noticed that the city at that time was packed with cars. For example, the space in front of the Arriaga Theater, now a pedestrian plaza, had a tall central streetlight and was used as a bus stop and for parking. In the film, on the one hand, we have tried to use places that are emblematic of the city and can be recognized by the audience, and, on the other hand, for production reasons, we have looked for spaces where our physical intervention had to be minimal. In the end, we shot at the San Antón Bridge, in the exterior of the Arriaga Theater, in the Bidebarrieta Library, in the Plaza Nueva Square, interior of the Bilbaina Club, and in the interior of the City Council, including its Arab room. They have been very supportive of our filming, even allowing us to completely muddy the space in front of the building. We have been very lucky that the Arriaga Theater, since we have the light train, looks more like it did in 1930s than the one a few years ago. Except for the front of the Arriaga Theater that was different and that in front of the Concordia Station there was another station, the rest was quite close to the city in the 1930s. The cobblestone streets, rails, and overhead power cables of the light train have been great for us. We have obviously had to clean up and remove some of the modern features—trashcans, shelters, ads— as well as block new shops and business. We had to create many fronts and windows that would be typical in the 1930s to block current shops. Without a Hollywood film budget, we had to be smart about our decisions.

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© David Herranz.

IG: Were you able to include any of the buildings designed by your great grandfather?

KS: I feel gutted about not using the Arenal Bandshell due to production decisions. A scene that was supposed to be shot there was finally done in the Arriaga Theater. The ‘Tiger’ building, which is one of my favorites, was built slightly after the period the movie is set in, and the current exterior of the Ribera Market has nothing to do with the original one. It is too bad as it was quite close until recently.

IG: It has been more than three decades since the devastating flooding of the city and two decades since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum, but the transformation continues, now with Zorrotzaurre and other projects across the city. In two decades the city will be very different from the one we see today. What would you like to see added and what would you like to see maintained and not lost?

KS: As filmmakers we tell stories and, the more interesting the context the better. If it was up to me, I’d like Bilbao to not change anything. I would have liked it to not have changed as much in the last decades even more, but that goes against the natural evolution of the city, against making Bilbao a more livable city. But as I mentioned earlier, for filmmakers it is probably more interesting than the industrial city. It is probably similar to actors that like to play bad characters as they are more complex and have more layers to explore. I have always been more interested in Darth Vader than in Luke Skywalker. I think with cities it is similar. Visually, it is always going to be more interesting to have a place full of rust, made out of concrete, and with a river whose water has the color of chocolate as context than a place that invites you to have a drink in a café. Logically, Bilbao will tend to move towards this clean version in the future, maybe more international and touristic. It will become a nicer and more livable city with more green spaces and where the quality of life will be better, but it would be great to maintain the character of the city. Even though some of the neighborhoods are not my favorite, I like that they are there, that they are part of the city. It could be nostalgia, but for the type of stories that I gravitate to, I think it is more interesting to see the gritty parts of the city. If I were to film a romantic comedy like Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), I would probably like to showcase places that are beautiful and clean, but ugly things are also beautiful and you just have to learn how to appreciate them. Each story requires a specific place. Bilbao will continue to change like it has done in the last three decades and become nicer and more livable, but could also become a little less interesting cinematographically speaking.

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© David Herranz.