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Vying for the Premio Kutxabank at the San Sebastian Film Festival’s New Directors sidebar, “Secaderos” (“Tobacco Barns”), the feature debut of Rocio Mesa, includes a beguiling creature of the woods that was designed and created by the Oscar-winning team behind Guillermo del Toro’s 2007 “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
For make-up and special effects whizzes David Martí and Montse Ribé of DDT SFX, it was the script that convinced them to board this small-budgeted film by a novice filmmaker.
“Only once in a very long time does a script like this land in your hands; it somewhat reminded us of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’” said Martí, who added that they also boarded it as associate producers.
Inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Jim Henson, they fashioned a tobacco leaf-covered creature that would move with a system of levers and monitors inside it. Martí volunteered to man it, enduring the scorching heat of Granada in the worse summer month of the year, August. “We couldn’t use real tobacco leaves as they would change color and were too heavy, so we hand painted each leaf out of fabric that was 80% silk and 20% cotton,” said Martí of the long process. “I had a harness on my shoulders and used the levers to move the creature’s face and head, we had never designed anything like this before,” he said, adding that they were working on four different projects at the same time.
“Working with the creature, or as we liked to call it, La Nico (“Nicotine, Nico for friends”), was truly magical thanks to the wonderful team at DDT. They come from working on blockbusters, but they had the humility and compassion to know how to adapt to a small shoot with limitations,” said Mesa who also spoke of dangerous hurricane winds and a huge storm that hit them during the most complex shooting day of all.
Set in the tobacco plantations of rural Granada, “Secaderos” follows two young girls, a younger one who is visiting from Madrid and a teen who has worked with her parents at the tobacco plantation all her life and who yearns to move to the city. At first the younger girl and her friends are the only ones who can see the creature but it later manifests itself to the adults, healing them all in the process.
Mesa, who now lives between Los Angeles and Spain, draws from her own experience living in such a rural town where tobacco was the predominant crop.
“During my childhood, the tobacco barns seemed to me like huge lairs of monsters that took care of the earth. When I reached my teens, that fantasy faded and I began to use my imagination to invent ways to get out of there, I wanted to experience what was happening outside my town,” Mesa recalled, adding: ‘Secaderos’ is not autobiographical, but it is borne out of feelings that I can relate to.”
Defying the age-old advice never to work with animals and children, Mesa did just that. With a few exceptions, most of the cast were non-professionals from Granada.
“I believe that children and animals can be a gift full of purity and truth, it is simply necessary to give them the patience and empathy that they require,” she mused, adding: “Good casting is key, so it’s worth investing a little more time in that phase, as well as expanding set times when they’re on stage, giving them space to play and create.”
“As far as animals are concerned, we had everything: Snails, crickets, dogs, birds, goats, rabbits… I thought it was essential to narrate life in the countryside. Luckily, ‘Secaderos’ had a loving and compassionate art team that made the task sweet and relatively easy,” she added.
Martí, Ribé and their DDT Special Effects company are currently working on the Almodovar Western short “Strange Way of Life,” with Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal.
Mesa is now writing a feature film set in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range and is developing a short and a feature with her partner Jana Díaz-Juhl that are meant to be co-produced with the U.S. She also just shot a short 16mm experimental film that is currently in post.
Latido Films handles international sales on “Secaderos.” It was produced by Olmo Figueredo of La Claqueta, one of the driving forces of Andalusia’s production sector, in co-production with La Cruda Realidad, Secaderos La Película A.I.E., Un Capricho de Producciones and Amplitud Inc., in association with DDT SFX and Fourminds Films.