Álvaro Brechner said the genesis of the idea to take on the true-life tale depicted in A Twelve-Year Night, which debuted this year at the Venice Film Festival, was not easy to discern. But he described the path to telling the story of courage, imagination and sheer will — the film is about three political prisoners in Uruguay who in 1973 are thrown into solitary confinement for more than 12 years, then survive to see the end of the brutal dictatorship and become, among them, Uruguay’s president, a minister of defense and a poet — as a journey.

A Twelve-Year Night
Venice Film Festival

“A director is like an explorer — you jump into the jungle and you know the north, but the north is always just a point, it’s not a place where you can arrive,” said Brechner, who with producer Mariela Besuievsky spoke onstage recently at the Awardsline Screening Series at The Landmark in Los Angeles. “For us it was always about that north, that point, was the exploration of the human condition — what is a man when everything that you know disappears, and you need to reinvent yourself, and keep yourself a human being.”

The Spanish-language film, which stars Antonio de la Torre as Jose “Pepe” Mujica (who served as president of Uruguay from 2010-2015) along with Chino Darí and Alfonso Tort as his fellow prisoners, is Uruguay’s submission to this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race. It is Brechner’s third Oscar submission, following 2009’s Bad Day to Go Fishing and 2014’s Mr. Kaplan.

For Twelve-Year Night, Brechner and Besuievsky met with the real-life subjects (Mujica, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro) many times over the years to hone Brechner’s script; the writer-director said the story sounds like something Ray Bradbury or Jack London, or Kafka, would write. Besuievsky noted the humor among the three former prisoners when they talked about what happened to them.

But it was something Mujica, then still president, said during a one-on-one conversation that stuck with Brechner.

“One of the first things that was really shocking for us — one moment Mujica said, ‘You know, Alvaro, sometimes I wake up, and I miss those days,’ and it’s like, what?” the director said. ” ‘ I miss those days’,” he continued, ” ‘because I never — that solitude, I had to focus on how to manage myself. And that solitude I never experienced again. And I would never be the man I am if it wasn’t for all those years I spent being myself.”

Check out the conversation above.