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Interview with Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar is without doubt the most influential film director to come out of Spain since the fall of Franco. In Britain to promote the release of his latest film Talk to Her, he gave an interview at the NFT with Jose Arroyo. What follows is an unedited transcript of that interview
Jose Arroyo: Ladies and gentlemen, Pedro Almodovar.
It's a great privilege to have you here at the NFT. I have always admired the way that you have handled very difficult material with great humour and great generosity. It seems to me that ...
Pedro Almodovar: Sorry, may I interrupt you?
Thank you. Thank you so much for my reception. I want to thank the audience. It's always very moving to get a reception like that. Thank you so much for coming.
JA: You have been making feature films for over 20 years now and it seems that each film you make is even more popular than the previous one. You started with Law of Desire. It seems that there has been a change since The Flower of My Secret ...
PA: Sorry, can I interrupt?
It's The Law of Desire. In Spanish, the film was La Ley del Deseo. I
don't know why you dropped the definite article. Why did you take the
article away? Sorry, I am asking you something that you are not responsible
Sorry. I promise not to interrupt again.
JA: So, do you think there is a shift in your work that can be traced to The Flower of My Secret?
PA: I think it's a change that I did not intend at the time but it is clear that, from The Flower of My Secret on, there is a change in my films. A lot of the journalists have very generously attributed this to my growing maturity. But, although these films express many similar ideas from my previous films, I think they express these ideas in a different way. The 1980s really ended for me in 1992 with the film Kika. I think that I had become very saturated by everything that I had done in the 80s.
JA: So what do you think these changes are, then? Like you say, there are so many recurring themes, such as love, desire and obsession.
PA: I think, on one level, the change is aesthetic. The colours are not so explosive. I think that the narrative tone also darkens but, for me, becomes more transparent. I think the humour is not as present as it was - at least in not such an evident way. I think my concern in portraying emotions becomes much more evident. I think that, to a certain extent, these are the things that happen to you when you cross that barrier into your forties. I think that, even if I am dealing with similar issues, a film like All About my Mother, which does have these recurring themes, would have been impossible to make if I had not made the films before.
JA: Is this a sign of an increasing mastery over the medium or do you detect an increasing generosity of spirit, although you have always been very generous to your characters?
PA: I think that "generosity" has always existed, although
I do not label it as such. It's really my life. It is not even part of
my life. It is my life itself. I think that this "generosity"
comes because this work is a passion for me. It is probably the closest
thing to being in love. I think that, perhaps the main difference is,
when I made Pepi, Luci, Bom I felt that passion but I was not conscious
of it, in the way that I am conscious of it now. I think that the consciousness
of passion makes you act very differently. I don't think it's the same
as the passion of Romeo and Juliet. It is more like the passion of Humbert
Humbert, or James Mason, for Lolita. With the James Mason character, the
passion is more painful. This is what it is to be a director. When I saw
that clip from The Law of Desire earlier, I was shocked. I hadn't seen
it for ten years. I don't know how I dared to do it.
I felt very proud. It was good to see that piece because, although I have not forgotten it, I hadn't seen it for a long time. It's a pity that I can never really enjoy my movies because, after the mixing, your capacity as a spectator just disappears. I have to think about what I felt just before the mixing.
JA: Let's move on to Talk to Her. One of the difficulties as a critic in terms of writing about your films is that, in describing them, they sometimes feel silly or banal or just too convoluted. And yet when you experience it, you are experiencing this tremendous emotion. It becomes a question of tonality. I think that is particularly the case with your latest film. So much of it seems to be about loneliness. But it becomes difficult to articulate this when you talk about the plot. How would you explain that?
PA: It's the same with the actors. With my last two films, they told
me, "Pedro, we can't tell this story." I said, "Good."
I prefer it like that. They really didn't know how to explain it. It happened
with All About my Mother - it sounds like a screwball comedy. But even
more so with Talk to Her. The story is very important but the tone is
what really defines the movie. It is very difficult for me to talk about
the movie to people who have not seen it. It sounds almost monstrous.
JA: There also seems to be a self-conscious handling. It feels like you've cried honest tears by the end of the movie. You feel like you've been guided. The film starts with a fine balance between humour and a description of the characters' states and then, two-thirds of the way through, it becomes incredibly heavy. Was that something that you consciously structured?
PA: Yes. I am partly not conscious of structure with my movies but this is when I am writing. I leave my mind very free and then I correct it after. But, yes, this was totally conscious. I was clear what I wanted to do with this movie. It's very simple to explain. I started with the performance of Café Muller by Pina Bausch. She actually gave me the autograph that Benigno gives to Alicia in the movie six years ago. That autograph was mine. The atmosphere is darker in this film.
In the opening scene, you see these women who are walking around blind and sleepwalking. From that moment on, I am telling the audience that there are going to be two women with closed eyes who will be facing this world full of obstacles. We don't know what these obstacles are but they have to face them. There are two men watching this spectacle. They are sitting next to each other but they do not know each other. One of them cries and the other one is curious about why the other is crying. This is the prologue that starts the film. We end the film with another Pina Bausch piece, which brings closure to the story.
We also end the film in the same place as it began. And, curiously, the
story began in the same place that All About my Mother ended. This had
a great significance for me. After the enormous success of All About my
Mother, all the awards and everything, I wanted to start a movie in exactly
the same place that I used to be before. I wanted to show that all of
the success had not changed my perception. I present the two female characters
as metaphors in Talk to Her and then I present the two male characters
in the flesh. I first present Benigno. We see that he is a nurse, a special
nurse who talks to this lady in bed. We see that he has a warm relationship
with this female body. We then see Marco on what I call the Star Trek,
but it is actually called a Body Trek. Sorry, it's an awful joke.
He looks like he is crying but he is sweating. I wanted the audience to recognise him as the man who was crying immediately. He is barely watching this terrible talk show. But the moment he sees Lydia, he pays attention. She is clearly an attractive woman. But she is also in pain. He likes really desperate women, women in trouble. And she is clearly horrified by the woman that she is sitting next to on this TV show. We see that one man talks a lot but he does not move. He stays in the same place. The other man is moving a lot but does not talk.
I then tell the story of the romance between Marco and Lydia, the bullfighter, and the day-to-day existence of Benigno. And then they meet each other at the clinic. Once they are at the clinic, Benigno can ask everything. Hospitals are places that you have to stay in for a long time, even if you are a visitor. Time doesn't seem to pass in the same way in hospitals as it does in other places. Time seems to almost not exist in the same way as it does in other places. The hospital is a perfect place to have as a setting for this movie. It's a perfect place for flashbacks to take place. It's a perfect place for Benigno and Marco to get to know each other.
Benigno is a very curious character. In this setting, he can really grab Marco and find out what his story is. After this, I can go into telling the stories of these two couples - Benigno and Alicia, Marco and Lidia. The hospital was a perfect place for time to go off in different directions. That is exactly what I needed because I tend to go off in different time fractures. I like to break up time - go back, go forward and tell stories. I was concerned that all of these different pieces were not going to come together. But thankfully, the editor really helped me to bring these elements together.
The challenge to me as a director was for the audience to see the film as going on in a straight line, so that they did not sense all of these break-ups. I did not want a film to be a collage of all these images. I had these different elements, such as the Pina Bausch pieces and the "Shrinking Lover" film. I did not want the spectator to be brought out of the story whenever one of those set-pieces took place. I wanted them to really integrate them into the story. I wanted this sense that the story was a straight line.
JA: The characters in the film seem to be structurally equal and opposites. Marco can't stop expressing himself. Alicia cannot express herself at all. Lydia is like her father's son and Benigno is almost like his mother's daughter. These things compliment each other very well and they come together at the end with this friendship between these two men.
PA: Yes, it is this and yet more so. I was very keen to do things like this from the very beginning. The structure of the script was iron-clad from the beginning. It was clear to me that this was a very risky structure because the story only goes in a straight line after Marco's return from Jordan. Until then, it brings elements back and forth. I knew that it was risky but I needed to take that risk. I do not know why I made that choice. But I needed to do it. I really needed to make this movie. The movie is like a declaration of sadness, of melancholy. I did not know if it was going to be understood. It was a radical decision that I took. I do not know why I did it. It was almost like a reaffirmation of myself.
JA: There are two very interesting metaphors for the male characters in the film. Caetano Veloso's song seems to act as a metaphor for what Marco is going through. And the silent film acts as a metaphor for what goes on in the clinic. What brought you to this idea of the silent film? It is very tender and yet also very comic.
PA: The silent film has a lot of meanings. The first part of the film is comic. It represents the burlesque feel of those silent films. But I think that the second part of the film is full of tenderness and emotion. This tenderness becomes almost asphyxiating. It represents reality and yet it also represents the culmination of a dream for Benigno. And, at the same time, it ends in his death.
With this silent film, I wanted to hide what was going on in the clinic. I wanted to cover it up in the best cinematic way and in an entertaining manner. Benigno had become like a friend of mine, although I wrote the character. Sometimes, you don't want to see things that your friends do. I didn't want to show Benigno doing what he did in the clinic. I also did not want to show the audience that image. So I put the silent movie in there to hide what was happening.
But it is, of course, full of meaning. I anticipate what is going to happen later in the film. I also wanted to express the strength of cinema to hide reality, while being entertaining. Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness. And, moreover, I really wanted to make a silent black-and-white movie. It was a lot of fun to make. The story was not one I came up with while I was writing the script. Unfortunately, it was a story that I already had. I pillaged it for this movie. I took out the beginning and the end. I didn't originally intend to make it as a black-and-white, or indeed a silent, movie. The rest of the story is unfortunately sitting in a drawer somewhere.
JA: There is some wonderful acting in the movie, as there always is, and also some very enjoyable cameos. The revelation for me was the welcome return of Geraldine Chapman. With this casting were you attempting to evoke a sense of the cinema of the late 60s and early 70s?
PA: Not exactly, no. Geraldine was cast because she is just like the character. I have always admired her. She has the physique of the character. I was having classes with a teacher that looked like that and I was tempted to use her. But movies are a representation, after all, and I always want to use actors. The only girl that I knew who was that thin was Geraldine. She was also a ballerina so it was perfect. She even danced in Paris. She had everything for the part.
The main revelation in the movie is Geraldine, as well. I want to write something for her. We understood each other very well in one way. But she also has this kind of innocence. She can be very extravagant and she has great sense of humour. She could do these extravagant things with real naturalness. People like this are very believable. The bit in the film where she talks about the choreography she is going to do in Switzerland was something she invented. I was talking to her about the moment when she says goodbye and leaves the film for a bit. She started telling me about this choreography piece and it was so funny that I added it to the film.
JA: The tone of the film certainly shifts when we enter the jail. There is this wonderful shot when we see the reflection of one super-imposed over the other. It is almost like these two heterosexual men have become at one through friendship, although there is no sexual element to it.
PA: Whenever I arrive on a real location, I have to move around and work out what the best angles are going to be. When I was moving around with the lens, I discovered things that the naked eye would not have. The set was a very ugly location but I think that I found that edge. There were two things that I like a lot. I liked the fact that they were enclosed in these cubicles, which I think expressed the concept that this man was condemned to death. It also gave the impression of an endless path. The reflection was discovered by accident. I asked the DP to light in a way to accentuate this idea of these two men becoming one.
There was almost this sense of two bodies becoming one. At that moment,
there is nobody in the world that loves Benigno as much as Marco does.
Marco knows what he has done, he has reproached him for it, but he has
nobody else in the world but him. And Benigno knows this as well. This
is almost a moment of romantic love. Even when you have structured dialogues
and rehearsed things a lot, sometimes sensations that you did not experience
before occur. I was also very surprised by that. I almost thought that
I would write another scene where they see each other and they have a
vis-à-vis. Because it is so sad to hear someone say that he doesn't
have anyone. Some journalists have asked me if Benigno is gay. But I don't
know everything about my characters, even if I wrote them. It's very personal,
It's true. Journalists asked me whether the character Manuela in All About my Mother is gay but, the truth is, I don't know. He probably was but I like the idea that I am the author but I do not know everything. The point about Benigno's character is that he is completely innocent, in the sense that he does not have experience. He lives in another world. This world is parallel to the real world but it has its own rules. Sexual orientation probably does not exist in this world. He could have probably gone for any object of desire but it just happens that he becomes enamoured of that body in the hospital. Strangely enough, it is the film that brings that onto him. The film makes him recognise his desire and makes it real for him. That's why he is so shaken up by the film. It suddenly makes it real for him.
JA: I would like to open it up to the audience now.
Q: Why did you use the theme of bullfighting in the film?
PA: As I said before, although I do not delve into it much, Marco has
a special interest in women with problems. The last woman who he was involved
with was a heroin addict, with whom he spent many years and suffered very
many problems. She left him with a very open and large wound. He had to
be attracted to someone faced with a great problem and there is no problem
greater than death. And there is no profession closer to death than bullfighting,
unless you work in a morgue.
I wanted this character's career to be closely associated to death and the most spectacular career I could think of was that of a bullfighter. I chose the character as a female bullfighter because it is now a reality. Nowadays, if you go to a bullfighting school around seven out of twenty of the students are women. I think the idea of a female bullfighter is a very noble concept.
Q: Why did you choose to do that scene with Caetano Veloso, which appears to be shot in your living room with all your friends?
PA: I wanted the memory that Marco had to be a musical memory. I also
wanted something that made him cry. It's not easy to find these moments.
It is almost a magical thing that makes you cry. I decided to choose things
that had made me cry. I remember that the first time I met Caetano in
Rio de Janeiro he sang that song and I burst out crying. I wanted to play
it safe and go for something that I knew had that effect. I wanted to
get the best performance from Caetano. And the best performance he gives
is always at my place.
I wasn't the host in the film but it was someone like me. When I have a party in my country house I invite people like Marisa Paredes and Cecilia Roth and all the people in that scene. They were the perfect extras for that sequence. Their eyes are all fixed on Caetano. All the magic that Caetano brings with him can be destroyed by the look in the eyes of one extra who comes from an extras company. It was very important to have these people because I knew that they would listen very closely to Caetano.
Q: There seems to be a theme of utopian love in the film. Is that correct?
PA: I think that there is always a part of utopia in any romantic relationship.
I am sure that you don't understand your wife completely. This is almost
impossible in one company. There is a lack of understanding in almost
every love story. In terms of utopian love, I think that if you look at
Benigno and Alicia, it is a real relationship. Or at least in Benigno's
mind it is a real relationship because he feels absolutely compensated
by taking care of this woman and being with her every moment of the day.
He says it, in fact. He says, "I don't know many couples that get
on as well as we do." But that's crazy, I know.
Q: Do you write to direct or do you direct what you happen to write? Which of the two pleases you most?
PA: My first ambition was to be a writer. I remember when I was ten years
old I used to write a lot. I won a prize at school when I wrote about
the immaculate conception.
I have always been very interested in writing. But it seems to me that I have more capacity for telling a story with images. It seems I have more talent for film-making than for writing a novel, which is my dream. I have always found it easy to let my imagination go. You do not just need imagination for film-making, you also need a lot of passion. When I discovered cinema as a way of telling stories, I felt that I had found something that was in my nature. I am glad that I had this ambition to become a novelist because it has helped me in film-making.
Q: The last line in Live Flesh when Victor, the main character, tells his yet-to-be-born son that, "the Spanish have lost their fear," has always moved me a great deal. Is it true that the Spanish have lost their fear and, if it is, their fear of what?
PA: I think that it's true. The line is a reference to the moment when Victor's son is going to be born in 1998, in comparison to the night in 1970 when Victor was born. The night in 1970 was when Franco's minister of information, Fraga, declared the state of exception. The state of exception wiped away all the freedoms and all of the rights of the citizens at that point. People were defenceless against the state. I don't think you could have picked a worse night to be born. I do think that the fear was lost.
The reference is to the year 1977. Franco had died in 1975 but when the following government came to an end two years later, there was a change that all Spaniards could feel. People could look at policemen in a different in a way. You were able to go out without your ID without worrying over whether you would be stopped. I think at that moment we all realised that something had changed because we did not feel afraid anymore. I wanted to end one of my movies with that wonderful memory because I felt it very strongly myself - that absence of fear.
JA: Pedro Almodovar, thank you very much.