Richard O. Smith on the home team who signed up with an Oscar-winning director

I am standing in front of All Souls’ imposing gates while providing my Argentinian companion with a quick ‘greatest hits’ tour of Oxford.

Without warning, a pack of 30 teenagers suddenly scream at disturbing volume: “Juan! Juan!! JUAN!!!”

They rush up to my colleague and quickly become hysterical. Everyone demands a selfie with him. This is the sort of hysteria I have only seen in black and white images when the Beatles sprint for their car, but it’s happening here and now.

“Richard, your help please,” Juan requests. I lead him away purposefully, selecting my most pompous authoritarian British voice — the one I’ve heard used to deal with troublesome foreigners in Empire-era dramas.

“Nothing to see here!”

Nothing to see here, apart from arguably the biggest non-footballer celebrity in Argentina: Oscar winner Juan Jose Campanella.

Yet Juan Jose Campanella’s trio of names will now never again appear without being prefixed by three more words: ‘Academy Award winner’.

His previous film The Secret in their Eyes won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture.

His new movie, The Unbeatables, is expected to provide him with a UK summer smash.

Starring Rupert Grint and Rob Brydon, it is an animated 3D comedy packed with unswervingly British humour — an unlikely attribute for a movie initially conceived in Argentina and now tipped for Bafta recognition.

“The decision was taken to rewrite from scratch a British script. We wanted it to feel like a domestic movie, not a translation of an Argentinian film, so the characters can be British — and that gives the film an edge over the big animated movies that just produce a one-size-fits-all international product.

“It’s not only in English, it’s in British not American English, so the kids can completely relate to it,” explains Campanella. The BFI agrees, assigning The Unbeatables UK status.

The Oxford Times:
Richard with Juan Jose Campanella

Campanella is the Latin Woody Allen: a maker of intelligent idiosyncratic independent movies that always find backers. Consistently making $23m movies (the cost of The Unbeatables) without studio backing — and ensuring no executive interference — is virtually unknown in the industry. This has brought him almost unrivalled fame in his home country.

I ask him about the mobbing experience outside All Souls.

“They are all Argentinian. This happens a lot in Argentina. I would prefer to be anonymous. As a director I made a decision to stay behind the camera.”

It’s difficult to name a British film director who could routinely expect to be mobbed in public.

How did an Oscar-winning Argentinian director make a movie with Oxford producers and writers?

Campanella’s regular producer Jorge Estrada Mora has collaborated with Oxford-based producer Victor Glynn on various projects since 1991. Hence they sought Victor’s production expertise for sourcing the talent required to make a British version.

Not that the Argentine original (Metegol) has not done well. It is officially the most successful movie in Argentinian cinema history.

Yet it is typical of Campanella’s integrity that he is not rushing to make a sequel.

Whereas most major studios would see a golden goose as a battery hen for turning further profits, he will only consider a sequel if the plot is sufficiently weight-bearing for telling another 90 minute story with the same characters. “People forget,” he opines sagely, “that Toy Story 2 is actually a better movie than Toy Story. But they waited several years to make it.” Many observers have made comparisons between The Unbeatables and Toy Story, based on the presumption that both films pivot on toys magically coming alive. However, Campanella points out: “This [premise] didn’t start with Toy Story. Tin Soldier, Nutcracker, Pinocchio — toys coming alive is a classic of children’s literature.”

Campanella himself experienced a ‘coming alive’ moment. “I was in my third year studying engineering at university and the day I was due to finalise my fourth and final year on July 1, I went to see the 1pm showing of All That Jazz. I left the theatre knowing I wanted to make films and never went back to university.”

The Oxford Times:
Eve Ponsonby recording the soundtrack

But be warned. If you intend to make an award-winning 3D animation comedy blockbuster, you have to be prepared to put in the hours. “I started in 2007. We worked on characters and script development.

“By 2009 we had five minutes of animation. We showed it to two developers — one dropped out immediately, but the second stayed.” If the labour was difficult, the film also encountered temper tantrums during its infancy, particularly during the terrible twos.

“Two years into making the movie was a really traumatic time.

“I was directing a movie whilst still learning how to do it. The animators went on strike. Although they still came into work each day, they refused to do anything but play foosball!”

In a reconciliatory move that would be the envy of ACAS, Campanella arranged for the foosball tables to be removed from the studio. The animators instantly agreed to return to work, as long as the foosball tables were reinstated. They were.

“We finally finished in July 2013.” The British version took another year on top of that. Requiring seven years to produce 90 minutes of cinema is a lengthy gestation, and testimony to the film’s scale of ambition — it purports to entertain children and adults, football aficionados and non-soccer fans alike.

I ask Campanella where he keeps his Oscar? “In my studio.” What are your memories of winning at the ceremony? “The distributors told me to prepare a speech. As a lucky charm I never prepare a speech. But I did for this occasion: the only time. I repeated it everywhere for three days.

“I tried a joke out beforehand and everybody confirmed ‘that’s a good joke’.

“When we won, I got up and said my joke. And it died. In front of a global TV audience. But I remembered to collect my Oscar!”

Campanella has an exclusive for The Oxford Times: “Oxford is such a beautiful place I’m working on a script for an Oxford movie with Hugh Laurie [Campanella’s directs House — the hit TV show starring Hugh Laurie].”

The Unbeatables opened in cinemas on August 15. Oxford resident Richard O. Smith is the movie’s principal screenwriter.