Maternal Intrigue: Ramón Salazar on Constructing Characters for Sunday’s Illness and How Netflix Saved the Film   

Engaged in muffled psychological warfare, a mother and the daughter she abandoned over three decades ago channel resentment, guilt, and the remnants of unexpressed affection, while sequestered in a cabin with no other company but each other.

Ramón Salazar’s newest drama Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo) bestows on its audience an earth-shattering clash hidden amongst charged silences and acute stares. This superb two-hander is bolstered by a pair of Spain’s finest performers: Susi Sánchez (Julieta, The Skin I Live In) as Anabel, the wealthy mother; and Bárbara Lennie (Magical Girl) as her aggrieved daughter Chiara. Politely demanding that her mother spends 10 days with her as a retribution for 35 years of absence in her life, Chiara removes Anabel from her posh environment and forces her to settle in the countryside without explaining what she expects from their time together. Her cautiously arranged enterprise is only disclosed once their volatile exchanges have made them both vulnerable. 

To learn more about the evolution of Sunday’s Illness from the many drafts of the screenplay to its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival, and eventual worldwide release on Netflix, MovieMaker recently spoke to Salazar about his new work.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did the fundamental feud in Sunday’s Illness emerge?

Ramón Salazar (RS): It emerged from two central moments. One of them has to do with Susi Sánchez, who plays Anabel, and our previous work in my last film [10000 Nights Nowhere]. We loved working together and decided she would be the protagonist in our next project. I was lucky enough to have her involved throughout the entire creative process. We’ve spent two years together choosing the subject matter, getting her feedback when creating the characters, and reading each of the sequences I was developing in the screenplay. While we were looking for a theme, we came across a book by an Israeli author who collected the testimonies of mothers who dared to talk about the lack of empathy they felt for their children, the lack of affection they felt towards them despite having given birth to them, and even those who felt no remorse for having abandoned them or not loving them at all. Reading those accounts was so devastating, potent, and disconcerting that we felt the concept of abandonment was very powerful and full of dark and light nuances.

MM: Did the way you usually approach screenwriting change because you had an actress so closely involved in the construction of the story? 

RS:  No, I invested a lot of time—in this case a year—collecting information and building the characters’ lives. I spent time writing how each of these two women lived their lives during the 35 years they were apart. I dedicated half of the screenwriting process to the construction of these detailed biographies, then I decided what part of that story I’m going to tell. Then I create outlines and choose which encounters could be the most interesting to include in the film.

Ramón Salazar on the set of Sunday’s Illness. Image courtesy of Netflix.

MM: The screenplay plays with the audience’s expectations about the plot and the characters’ motivations. How do you avoid falling into traps that could have ruined the impact of the narrative, particularly near the end? 

RS: First there was a clear and important decision that marked the tone of the narrative, and that was to choose when to reveal to the audience what is the daughter’s motivation to spend 10 days with her mother. Obviously, if this were revealed halfway through the story, then it would have been a different movie from the one where it’s disclosed 10 minutes before the film ends. I believed it was much more interesting to do it near the end. [The] story could have easily devolved into melodrama with a mother and a daughter talking about abandonment, [but] it’s more grounded on film noir tropes and intrigue. The movie has to move forward following the mother’s uncertainty as she tries to guess why she is there: from thinking she is going to get killed, or that this is part of her daughter’s revenge, or that maybe she wants to have her back in her life. There were about eight or nine drafts of the screenplay before arriving at the final one. 

Bárbara Lennie’s audition for Chiara, quelled any doubts that she could play someone 10 years older.

MM: How did Bárbara Lennie come to play the rather challenging role of Chiara?  

RS: Bárbara came on board through a casting call once the film had secured financing. We brought in seven of the most important actresses working today in Spain. I initially thought Bárbara was the one that least resembled the character because she is 10 years younger than the character in the film. I had told the actresses’ representatives that they were free to call me if they had any questions or concerns before the audition, and all of them called except for Bárbara. That caught my attention. She arrived at the casting call and performed what I considered to be the most emotionally difficult sequence, when Chiara throws a mug at her mother and allows herself 20 seconds to express what she has been feeling for 35 years. She played it very close to what I had dreamt that sequence to be. I felt that if she achieved that without having talked to me about the story or the character, then if we worked together on the creative process her work would be even more impressive. She became the character right at that moment. 

MM: There are contrasting visuals in Sunday’s Illness that convey information about who each of them is: one comes from palatial opulence and the other lives in a rural and minimalist environment.

RS: Visually we wanted to take into account at what point in their lives each of the characters was at the beginning of the film. We showed Chiara in Anabel’s universe, one of wealth and the bourgeoisie, and how she feels totally out of place there. Then we played with contrast by showing how Chiara takes Anabel to her territory, and how Anabel, during those 10 days, slowly transforms and loses the armature that had been on for 35 years, thanks the subconscious bonds that are awakened between a mother and a daughter. It was interesting to see the change in Anabel not only on an emotional level, but also physically. We see how that spotless woman becomes sort of feral and begins mimicking the forest, just before arriving at the resolution where the character is naked physically and emotionally. 

MM: When you have a two-hander of a film like this, where these incredible actresses are portraying distressed characters, what is the biggest concern when directing them? 

RS: Equalizing the actresses. Not only are the characters strangers to one another and very different women, but they are from different generations, who face the creative process in distinct ways. The challenge as a director is to manage and play with those differences at the beginning, and then bring together for that common ending. We had to be very precise in what we wanted from them. We were telling a story with lots of silences and pauses, so we had to give each of them enough information so that those silences could be filled with emotion and so that their looks could express all the pain and hurt they’ve carried around for so long. In order to achieve that, I wrote a biography about Anabel’s life during those 35 years and a biography about Chiara’s live during the same period of time, and I gave them that material. They ignored what the other character’s life was like, which made each of them feel powerful with the insight they had, but at the same time vulnerable knowing the other also had as much information. The shoot was secretive to keep information from each of them about the other character. I whispered all the adjustments or directions in their ears so the other wouldn’t hear what I was asking.

Bárbara Lennie and Susi Sánchez star as a mother-daughter duo reunited after 35 years under suspicious circumstances.

MM: Tell me about the decision to set the story in France rather than in Spain or an undisclosed location. What does this specific choice add to the narrative?  

RS: My mother is Dutch and my father is Spanish, and I was raised in a cultural and linguistic limbo. I felt it would be interesting if these characters were in a neutral terrain in terms of what’s around them. Because of where we put them, it seems like they are the only two people there and everything around them appears to belong to a different world. That decision isolates them in a more powerful manner for the story. They are foreigners in the place where they’ve decided they are going to reopen their hearts and try to heal their wounds. 

MM: In the past, you’ve written screenplays for other filmmakers. How do you balance that work for hire with your personal projects, and do you find both of these writing processes rewarding? 

RS: Because of the emotional weight that a film puts on me when I write and direct my own stories, once I finish them I go through a phase where I have to do other things that won’t take me right back into making another movie of my own. To do that, I like to look for different writing projects for other directors. After Sunday’s Illness I’m going to direct a Netflix series with 18-year-olds as protagonists. The change in energy has been fascinating in comparison to the energy that surrounded Sunday’s Illness. It’s about constantly moving and not stagnating. It’s about not staying in your comfort zone. After making this TV show, I will feel completely clean from Sunday’s Illness, and I can start a project from scratch without the fear of my previous project contaminating it. 

MM: How instrumental was Netflix in the creation of the film? 

RS: Due to its themes and the pacing, and because the protagonists are women over 40, this movie had very few possibilities to be financed in Spain. Netflix read it and decided that it would get on board from the screenplay stage. They gave me absolute freedom during the creative process. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the second TV show Netflix has produced in Spain. Without Netflix this movie wouldn’t exist. MM

Sunday’s Illness is now available on Netflix. All images courtesy of Netflix. This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English by the author.

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