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Álex de la Iglesia Puzzles Over “The Oxford Murders”

Álex de la Iglesia Puzzles Over “The Oxford Murders” (photo)

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This interview originally ran in June 2009.

Álex de la Iglesia always has to be the odd man out. At the American Cinematheque’s Recent Spanish Cinema series last year, de la Iglesia’s thriller “The Oxford Murders” was the lone English-language film shown, serving as a linguistic break from Goya winners like Jose Luis Cuerda’s “The Blind Sunflowers” and Agustín Díaz Yanes’ “Just Walking.”

The film’s also a departure from the wild comedies de la Iglesia has become known for, like the cutthroat salesman competition comedy “El Crimen Ferpecto” and the theme park-set spaghetti western “800 Bullets.” (If you haven’t seen either, we won’t be offended if you run out to rent them now.)

Thanks to the questionable state of “Oxford”‘s one-time American distributor ThinkFilm, the screening was a rare opportunity to see the Elijah Wood-John Hurt thriller on a U.S. big screen — up until now. And while reaction from parts of the world where the film did get a theatrical release was mixed, “The Oxford Murders” is an undeniable reaffirmation of de la Iglesia’s status as one of the world’s most inventive filmmakers, both visually (exemplified by a particularly breathtaking tracking shot of the streets of London) and as a storyteller (demonstrated by his application of philosophy to Guillermo Martínez’s literally by-the-numbers tale of a professor and a student who go after a serial killer guided by mathematics).

During his excursion in Los Angeles, I sat down with de la Iglesia to talk about this film and his next (“The Yellow M”), philosophy and dismembering fellow director Alex Cox.

How did you become interested in adapting Guillermo Martínez’s book for the screen?

It’s strange because at the beginning, I read a bad review in a Spanish newspaper, so I remembered thinking, “Maybe it’s a good novel.” [laughs] And I read it and my first idea was it’s impossible to make a movie with this novel because it’s only mental, there’s no action. Everything happens in the brain. Maybe one year later, Gerardo [Herrero], my producer, called me and told me, “I read the novel, I loved the novel, I bought the novel. It’s the Guillermo Martinez novel. What do you think?”

And suddenly I felt that this was a challenge for me. How can I tell the story visually? It was a real exciting exercise for me and an English movie with English actors — it was like an exam. [laughs] Can I do it in a real way? Can I make a British movie? I enjoyed doing it and I think the results are really positive.

08032010_oxfordmurders2.jpgThis film is also a departure from the dark comedies you’ve made with a far more serious tone and a darker color palate. Did that make it more challenging?

That was my idea, to make something different. I don’t like the filmmakers who become [set in their ways]. I really wanted to do something different, but when you see the movie, suddenly you feel that it’s not so different than the other ones. The plot [of “The Oxford Murders”] is very similar to “800 Bullets.” You have a child that suddenly goes to a strange place, trying to find his father, and his grandfather helps him, trying to find his own past.

In “The Oxford Murders,” it’s the same thing: a young guy goes to London, a strange place like [the theme park] in “800 Bullets,” and in this place finds some kind of master, some kind of Gandalf, who helps him and trains him to know something about life. It’s really similar.

Since “The Oxford Murders” takes place on a college campus, it seems like you were finally able to make use of your degree in philosophy, which is particularly evident in the opening scene where Elijah Wood’s character Martin confronts John Hurt’s professor Arthur Seldom over Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics and language. Was that also part of the film’s appeal?

Well, in the script, we changed mathematics for philosophy, so [the characters] are talking about philosophers. In the novel, Guillermo talks about Wittgenstein, but we wanted to make the part bigger because for me, he’s the great thinker. I remember studying philosophy and not understanding anything about [Wittgenstein’s sole book] “Tractatus.” I read it when I was 18 years old. And Wittgenstein worked on “Tractatus” when he was in the first World War, not in the middle of battle, but in the trenches.

So Wittgenstein is perfect to understand the plot in the story [about the imprecision of applying logic to reality], as is [German theoretical physicist Werner] Heisenberg. Heisenberg says that it’s impossible to understand a phenomenon because when you study the phenomenon, you change the object, the position, the way the electrons work. So it’s like Elijah’s character. [SPOILER AHEAD!] [By his mere presence,] Elijah changed the phenomenon, changed the murders. Not only changed, but provokes the murders, so he’s a killer because he’s trying to study, trying to know what happened in this house with his grandmother and his sister. It’s so beautiful.

06162009_oxfordmurder9.jpgI love your films for your appreciation of the macabre, but I also worry that you spend much of your time thinking about plotting out the perfect murder after seeing films like “El Crimen Ferpecto” and “La Comunidad.” Why is it a recurring theme?

I love murders. [laughs] I love murder and mystery movies. It’s a beautiful genre for me. I love the whodunit movies, trying to find out who is the killer?

Obviously, you also love Alex Cox [the director of “Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man”], who has appeared in both of your English-language films. [In “Oxford Murders,” he plays a researcher who goes insane and attempts his own lobotomy.] How did you meet?

I met Alex Cox in Mexico. He was working on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” because he was the first filmmaker [around 1997] and suddenly he lost the project. Alex was very excited about this movie and we were friends. I love his work. I think he’s one of the best filmmakers and it’s a shame because Alex is not working in the way I love to see. I would like to see more movies from Alex Cox.

[I wanted him in “Oxford” because] it’s like another “Perdita Durango” [de la Iglesia’s first English-language film], so I work with Alex Cox because I love Alex Cox.

Did you enjoy cutting his legs off in the film?

Yeah, it’s so beautiful, huh? I remember people said to me during the movie, “you don’t [want to] cover the body with the sheet?” And I say, “No, no, naked, naked! I want to see the body!” [laughs]

“The Oxford Murders” opens in select theaters on August 6th, and is available on VOD.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…