David Trueba’s Film Is the True Story of How Beatles Songs Helped Spanish Kids Learn English

With the exception of mega-budget space odysseys about jetting off into black holes on a search for inhabitable planets now that our own has finally spluttered its last breath like the dying gasps of a lifelong chain-smoker, few films this year will strum the chords of romanticized escapism as evocatively as Spanish road movie Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados (Living is Easy with Eyes Closed). If the title sounds familiar, it may be you are familiar with the work of a certain John Lennon, for it is taken from the lyrics to the Beatles classic “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon wrote the song while in southern Spain filming what would be his only non-musical acting role, in Richard Lester’s 1967 war comedy How I Won the War.

Set during the dictatorship of General Franco, Living is Easy with Eyes Closed follows a ragtag group of travelers across a southern Spanish canvass of arid landscapes and sleepy towns in the 1960s. Antonio, played by (Javier Cámara), is an English teacher whose educational methods revolve largely around having students read out the lyrics to Beatles songs in class. When he learns that John Lennon is in Almeria, he sets off on a quest to meet his idol. Along the way he picks up young hitchhikers Belén and Juanjo, each of whom has their own reasons for hitting the road. It is a gentle and warm-hearted film, which nevertheless tackles the jarring collision between sixties liberalism and the repressive state structures and widespread conservative dogma of Franco’s Spain.

Released to both critical and commercial acclaim, Living is Easy with Eyes Closed cleaned up at Spain’s Goya awards earlier this year, and has been entered as the country’s contender for the 2015 Oscars. With the final nominations still to be announced, we spoke to director David Trueba about the film’s success, how he intends his movie to speak to young people in Spain today, and where we should go on our own Spanish road trip.

David Trueba
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What can you tell us about the film?

“I’m not a particularly idealistic person, but I feel that life’s not worth living without ideals.”

The character of the teacher is inspired by a real person, Juan Carrión, who went to meet John Lennon in Almeria in 1966. But the film’s really about the two youngsters and a Spanish generation I wanted to honor, which left us a better country than the one we have now. They made sacrifices and intuitively understood that this was a historic moment. So the idea of bringing these elements together on a trip to find a Lennon that is more mythical than real – a symbol of liberty and anti-authoritarianism – is a narrative I’ve wanted to address for a while.

Freedom. Escape. The Beatles. It’s a very idealistic film. What was the concept behind Living is Easy with Eyes Closed?

I’m not a particularly idealistic person, but I feel that life’s not worth living without ideals. Spain is today going through a very difficult situation, a huge crisis, so I wanted to tell young people that throughout history people have experienced difficulty, yet they’ve never lost sight of their ideals or principles.

The film’s title comes from the lyrics to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” while the presence of John Lennon is fundamental to the narrative. What is the relevance of the Beatles in the film?

I didn’t want to make a film about Lennon, but on something I feel is more ambitious than yet another biopic of a famous person. I wanted to look at the influence figures like Lennon had on a particular era, the way in which they helped people to grow, to find themselves.

Can you tell us why Lennon was in Spain?

He came to make a film called How I Won the War on the orders of the actor Richard Lester. A short time ago Lester wrote to me saying he had seen my film and liked it a lot, although he confessed he didn’t know that Lennon had written “Strawberry Fields Forever” during the shoot. That’s something Lennon admitted in later interviews, and so I decided to feature both these threads in my film.

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed had tremendous success at Spain’s Goya awards this year, winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Breakthrough Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Music. Did you think the film would get such a good reception?

“I wanted to remind people that, during testing times, destiny is in their own hands.”

I’ve made several films and I know a director needs to be humble, as you can never be sure how a film will be received. The important thing is to do your work without hoping to be anything other than satisfied with your effort and for the honest work you’ve done. Anything else is a bonus. At each screening of the film it seems that the public has left invigorated and full of enthusiasm, which I like a lot, even though I’m only trying to tell a story.

The protagonist Antonio (Javier Cámara) is an English teacher. Is there a particular reason for this?

Generally, conventional heroes don’t appeal to me. I prefer anonymous figures that change the world in their own particular way, but who do it up close and who influence daily life unknown to the rest of society. I wanted to remind people that, during testing times, destiny is in their own hands. A teacher may seem unimportant, but their work can have an incredible resonance over the lives of their students.

Is this kind of trip very typical in Spain? Can audiences relate to the film’s characters in this way?

Not so much these days, but in the 60s and 70s my father used to pick hitchhikers up all the time and bring them home, where my mother would give them something to eat. American or French people fascinated us and seemed from another galaxy. It was a generous and trusting time, something we’ve lost and which only existed in the sort of undeveloped country that Spain was back then. We should reflect on how we recognize progress, giving up the street, our trust, our humanity.

Javier Cámara
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The two young protagonists, Belén and Juanjo (played by Natalia de Molina and Francesc Colomer), are both going through a confusing and uncertain stage in life. Do they represent young people in Spain today?

“My intention is to speak about today by referencing the past.”

Yes, as I said, my intention is to speak about today by referencing the past. I always say that there are no period films, as each film is a contemporary of its time. Even though a story is set in the 16th century or a future space age, all films reflect the era in which they are made.

What can the film teach us?

It would be wrong for me to say. My job is to suggest, to leave the doors open, and to invite the viewer on a journey. It’s for the viewer to interpret the message.

After watching Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, a lot of people are going to want to go on a road trip round Spain. Where should we go?

Almeria is a marvelous place and not too badly developed along its most virgin beaches like Cabo de Gata. But I’m lucky to be from a country which offers several different landscapes, with some beautiful places. My mother is from Santander and I’d recommend it to everyone. But that’s in the north. If you want beaches, without doubt, the south’s your best option.

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed is Spain’s submission for the 2015 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.