Viva Pedro: The Almodóvar Interview

Pedro Almodóvar’s newest feature film Broken Embraces is a beautiful homage to cinema, an amalgam of styles that finds Almodóvar’s direction as graceful and strong as ever — there is a mature ripeness to these new images, which hold a delicately hidden eloquence and heartache in addition to a profound strength. As is his usual custom, the director toys with linear composition and symmetry in his hybridized world, filling in each space of the frame with visual interest whether it is simply a grid of lines, a close-up of an eye or the “fullness” of his flashback sequences. Every technical element the director uses here is refined, and the spectator is witnessing a master director working at the height of his powers — whether it is the delicate mixing of film stocks to transcend and challenge conventional temporality or merely playing with dialectical montage and editing to reinvigorate one of his favorite tropes: the show within a show, the director knows the medium inside and out.

Often labeled Almodóvar’s “muse”, Penelope Cruz, in her fourth performance for the great director, gives a nuanced, vulnerable and melancholic performance. There are so many moments of chic stillness from her here as the actress Lena, and she conveys a bottomless well of sadness with one soulful glance. The actress, who has a tendency to show new colors with each new performance, shows a kind of disquieting chilliness here, which imbues the work with an ice-blue tone. Cruz’s performance is akin to a frozen bird in a gilded cage, someone coolly haunted and trapped — she showed a similarly bruised side in Elegy last year and gets only stronger and stronger as an actress, it seems. Romantic possession, doomed love, and fatal beauty are recurring motifs in the world of Almodóvar, and their roots run deep into the canons of auteurs such as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Ingmar Bergman, three of the director’s most-revered cinematic reference points.

Broken Embraces is a seasoned masterwork, with subtle grace notes, humor, style and mystery. Part noir, part screwball comedy, part homage to his heroes, the construction of Broken Embraces’ mood hinges on the luscious way in which Almodóvar lets his story unspool in perfect harmony with an artful image. And if you thought Quentin Tarantino referenced a lot of classic cinema in Inglorious Basterds earlier this year, just wait until you see Almodóvar’s virtual filmic tapestry that celebrates the magic of cinematic creation: Louis Malle, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Audrey Hepburn, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 8/12, Kiss of Death, Voyage to Italy, Fanny and Alexander… there are so many films referenced here, often literally, and yet the proceedings never become burdened by the rapid-fire succession of smart historical references.

This is a love letter to movie making if ever there was one and nobody can do it with the kind of authority that Almodóvar does: with tremendous attention to detail, a deep understanding of the way the medium works and, of course, a keen understanding and profound appreciation of film history. The press notes for Broken Embraces were written by Almodóvar himself (which is fairly unusual) and the way he breaks down the elements of the movie is simply brilliant — he addresses each point of the film that he feels is important in understanding it and writes concisely about his intentions — there is a particularly amazing section where he talks about his use of “stairs” in the film, and then, briefly, about the history of the use of stairs in Hollywood film. His love and understanding of film and film history is staggering and unexpected.

Juggling a hectic promotional schedule, I was initially told that a private interview with legendary Almodóvar was basically out of the question and that he did very few one on one interviews to promote films, in general. Thanks to the efforts of one of the best public relations teams in the business, a little tenacity on my part, and a lot of prayer, I was able to sit down in a swanky Manhattan hotel suite to talk with one of the most celebrated filmmakers of our time. Almodóvar is a man who has already gone down in the history books as one of the best (witness groundbreaking triumphs like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Talk to Her for starters). He is a director who, like his star, becomes stronger and stronger with each new venture, while still retaining his signature sense of humor, his dignity and his distinct point of view. I’m still surprised that I was able to maintain my composure sitting next to the director of All About My Mother, which for me was a landmark piece of work that changed the way I looked at film in general and made me want to take it even more seriously. Generous with his time, effervescent and irreverent, and interested in chatting about Jessica Lange — Almodóvar was everything I imagined him to be.

What is it like travelling to all of the festivals with your film and presumably meeting all of the world’s great directors? Is it all business and no pleasure?

It’s always a mixture. One of the nicest things about festivals is that I always end up seeing actor friends or director friends who I don’t otherwise get to see. Because it’s not really the ideal location to evaluate a film. For example, at a place like Cannes, there are so many films to see, so much excitement built around it, that there is very little time for reflection. But in any case, feeling that excitement is also a lot of fun to feel. For example, another thing you get to do at these festivals, is see your film screened for the first time, for a particular audience, say here in New York at the New York film festival and it is very exciting and at the same time a little nerve-racking because you don’t know how a particular audience is going to react to your film. It’s always pleasure and business. I mean, it’s always an interesting experience.

What was the most surprising thing about Penelope in the film for you in Broken Embraces?

It wasn’t a surprise, it was a confirmation. At the same time it’s always a surprise because I am always confronted with her versatility as an actress. So it was, for example, a very different role from the one she played in Volver and I was fully confident that she would do it well, but at the same time, you don’t know whether she’s going to do it well, so you always have that mixture between confirmation and surprise.

I feel like every time I see a new performance by Penelope, there is always new shading or that there is something surprising there…

Yes! I know! This is something amazing. I mean, the four different movies we did, I cast her as something completely different. I’m very glad that people can watch that. I mean I knew the secret to it — she has many different faces and has many different women inside her, as an actress I mean. Sometimes almost the opposite — she can be like in the style of someone strong, like Sophia Loren, like in Volver and someone much more frail or fragile like Audrey Hepburn like at the end of this movie. These are two very different types of actresses, even physically, but she can be that and that’s fantastic.

Speaking of actresses, when I was about seven, I fell passionately in love with Jessica Lange.

(nodding enthusiastically) I can imagine!

It was because of her gaze on the poster for the film Frances!

In Frances, she was amazing! She was nominated but didn’t get the Oscar?

She won for Tootsie, for supporting actress that year.

(shaking his head) But not for Frances

Do you remember a specific point when you were younger when you just fell in love madly with actresses?

Oh yeah! Very much! I was a child. At the end of the ‘50s, the early ‘60s, I fell in love with many. Audrey Hepburn was one of them. But Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardener. Gloria Grahame, also, in all these kind of noir movies. I always felt a lot of pity with Gloria Grahame because she died in almost all the movies I saw at that moment. It was very unfair. But it was another time, you know? I think I became a director for the possibility of directing actors or actresses. But in that particular case, I was obsessed with Bette Davis and Kate Hepburn. They were alive when I started making movies, but of course, I was a small Spanish director that couldn’t get the possibility of working with them, but it was my dream to work with these two actresses, specifically.

And also Ava Gardener, I was fascinated by her. In Mogambo, it was completely magical. Or in The Barefoot Contessa. I remember very well that period. I was just a child or an adolescent. Even in ’64, when she made Night of the Iguana, she was not so young, but I was very impressed by that movie. I know it is not, like, a perfect movie and not even the best John Huston movie, but I was so impressed by everything, but about her and the work here. I remember also that I was very impressed — I didn’t mention this [on Saturday] because we didn’t have enough time — if I have to talk about the seventeen movies that I did, some of it is very personal at the beginning. I identified very much with that sensibility and that is Tennessee Williams. All the movies made, the adaptations of Williams, I had a strange feeling that I belonged to that sensibility, even though I was so far away.

Who are your “key directors”?

You went into Autumn Sonata in great depth at your New York Film Festival lecture, and talked about Ingmar Bergman as being one of your “key directors” and I was wondering who the others are? Is Cassavetes one of them?

No, no. Cassevetes, I used to like him very much. For me, Opening Night is his masterpiece. But, I mean, Billy Wilder is one of my key directors. The darker Wilder, and also the more screwball comedies from him. On one hand I am a big admirer of the screwball comedy — Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubtisch, and Wilder. But also I am fascinated about the noir. He did some, Double Indemnity, for example, is a key movie for me, a really dark satire. I think some of the darkest satires are made by foreigners like Wilder. And George Cukor is one of my most key directors, in general, George Cukor in all of his periods. Even the last movie he made, Rich and Famous, Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bissett, it was a very good end. You know, sometimes the last movies of these kinds of monumental directors, they are too old and in the case of George Cukor it was a good end.

In the case of John Huston, also, I admire very much The Dead. It was a very, very good way of saying goodbye to this world. It was a precious masterpiece. One of the best adaptations of a literary text. Traditionally, the good novels, they don’t become good movies. Fellini is also one of my favorites. Goodwill also to Renoir, Vittorio De Sica, I admire many, many, many directors. Fritz Lang is one of my absolute favorites — the silent period and the American period. He could make such good movies in two very different countries and curiously, I think it was a great coincidence and a really question of great timing, that at the time when he arrives to the United States he is having as a backdrop all of the films he shot in the silent period. That he was able to then transfer that style to this thriller kind of genre that budded right around that time.

I should probably ask a question about Broken Embraces!

(laughing) Yes! Yes! You have to!

I was taken with the use of music in the film. For example, the use of the Can song (“Vitamin C”) and also the Cat Power (“Werewolf”) were intriguing. What drew you to these songs?

The first time that I listened to Cat Power, I was in L.A. I was very moved by that song. There was a kind of sad sensuality in that song that I liked very much. When I saw personally, onstage, Chan Marshall, I found her fascinating, a very peculiar performer. It’s incredible that someone can sit like this (Almodóvar then mimics Marshall’s performance stance at the piano by kneeling on the floor and using the coffee table as a keyboard) smoking and singing at the same time. She’s very peculiar and fascinating in the sense that she does things one shouldn’t do onstage and she does them and they come out great and perfectly original. I think her voice has many different textures in a way that sometimes reminds me of Billie Holliday. Rich, very rich. This song, I love this song. I was very moved by it.

And Can, it’s amazing that this group could make this song like, 25 years ago — I don’t know how many years ago — during the ‘70s, so when you listen to it in the movie, it really sounds contemporary. They were very nice because they gave the rights to me almost for free! They were very surprised that I asked them for the rights of the song.

The Cat Power song, to go back for a minute, I felt really grounded that particular scene on the beach, a landscape that felt very other-worldly at times. Can you talk a little bit about filming on the beach?

What was absolutely new to me was shooting in kind of landscape that is limitless in some way, it’s very open, it’s the horizon that is your limit, and that is very new to me. And the other thing was interesting for me was the originality of the colors, the colors of that beach, which is called Golfo Beach. Lanzarote, for example, is primarily a volcanic island, so the predominant color is black. Even though this is a place where they go to retreat, there was something already kind of like a mortuary in a way, like a little bit of a foreshadowing of what’s to happen. It’s the colors, but it’s also the shapes that nature takes on that island, it’s already very original and very dramatic and for the story it was perfect. Not a lot of people know Lanzarote. So it was also very interesting to shoot such an intimate kind of story made up of mostly close-ups or two-shots on such an almost limitless kind of landscape that was also a very interesting thing for me to work with. It was something very new. It was strange in a good way.

Pedro Almodóvar: (urging me to stay and ask another question, pointing at my notes) I always have the feeling that, you know, the journalists are not satisfied because you have prepared many more questions.

That’s very kind of you. Because I write for a website, I am always interested in hearing director’s and performer’s opinions; because there is such a proliferation of new media, about the debate on whether online film criticism is as valid as traditional print criticism. So as somebody who makes films and also has such a deeply-felt sense of the history of films, I was wondering what your opinion is on the place of the film critic right now?

I think we are really at a new moment in time, as far as criticism is concerned where online criticism is shaking up the hegemony that print media, or those who work for print media have over criticism, and I really do think that is a good thing. It’s interesting, what I don’t like about the internet, in general, is simply that on one hand that is really interesting is this kind of incredible democracy that the medium in itself carries. And those that I don’t like — at least in Spain — are the anonymous writers. The ones that write, say, for forums where people don’t really have much to say and they really impoverish what there is to say about things because they end up saying very empty things.

I do think of the internet as this great big monster that has some good things and some bad things. For example, one of the things that do proliferate is this sort of aggression in the comment making. People are free to make comments anonymously — they can level al kinds of insults in very aggressive ways. I’m not talking about the critics. I think if it’s done well, that part of what’s going to happen is that new points of view are going to really give new blood and renew those points of view that were on some level solidified in the print media. I do read some of the criticism in Spain and it’s much more interesting than what is being written in newspapers.

Broken Embraces opens in New York on November 20th, 2009 and will slowly be distributed across the country as the prestige film season rolls out and the Oscar race begins.