Young and Learning:
An Interview with Pedro Almodóvar
By Eric Hynes
This is a longer version of a video interview Reverse Shot conducted with Pedro Almodóvar upon the release of the Spanish auteur’s new film, Broken Embraces. As the camera was being set up, Almodóvar mentioned his love for being on stage, which started the interview off from an unexpected angle.
Reverse Shot: Didn’t you used to perform in a rock group?
Pedro Almodóvar: Yes, that was the very early Eighties. For us that was the moment of post-punk, and I made with my group a kind of parody of punk rock. Parody in that it was a mix of the New York Dolls and Divine and all that. And it was extremely funny. We weren’t serious, dressed as women and all.
RS: But you were serious about being onstage and performing.
PA: I love to be onstage. When I was really young, in the seventies, I was part of a theater group that was very important in Spain. Very independent, very political. I worked as an actor with them. For me it was part of living, and it was necessary for me to have that experience. It was not my target, not what I wanted really, but that connection with an audience is something that I would recommend to everyone. It’s not always nice, of course, but that communication is so real, so alive. And all that was very important for my development as a writer and director.
RS: In your new film, Broken Embraces, the central character is a writer-director named Mateo Blanco who becomes blind, and henceforth works only as a screenwriter named Harry Cane. Did you identify with him, and do you ever think of yourself as more of a writer than a director?
PA: You know, in my case, they’re always together. It all comes from the same person, from the same necessities and sources. But I don’t want to use the word talent—let’s say I’m more talented as a director than I am as a writer. In the sense that if I were only to write, I would like to write novels, not just scripts. A script for me is much less important than a novel. I think I can write a good script, but I don’t think I could write a very good novel. I will try anyway, because I’d like to have that experience. But literature is something that I respect a lot. I always thought that I could be a good novelist by the time I reached 40 or something. I was gladdened to hear that Raymond Chandler started writing when he was quite mature, between 40 and 50. But when I was in my 40s I didn’t think I could do it. And it’s good to know that.
RS: But to encounter a character in Harry Cane’s condition, you expect that emphasis would be paid to how he’s suffering and how his powers have been reduced. Yet you don’t sense that he’s half of himself, or that he’s not creatively fulfilled. There are scenes in which he describes scripts and stories and they’re very alive.
PA: Well, when I tell you that I don’t think I could be a good novelist, it’s that I always feel more than a writer. Since the beginning, I’ve been a storyteller. Sometimes writing, sometimes directing. I remember in my childhood telling stories to my sisters and I was continuously fabulada, making fables, narrating. So my first vocation and my ultimate vocation is to narrate and tell stories. So for Harry Cane that was very important, to keep on writing because he was creating stories. And he’s very alive. You don’t see someone handicapped. If I were in that position, I think I could keep on writing scripts. But I would also keep on directing. Because I’m preoccupied with the visual part, but also sound is very important to me. When I make the choice to print one sequence or take, I pay attention to how they sound. If the voice is okay, then everything else is organic and okay too. Sometimes I make a choice even without watching the video. Just listening to them I know the take is good. So in this situation—one that I would never be in—I would become a theater director. Perhaps in the visual part very abstract, almost nothing on the stage. Just the actors and their voices. I think I could direct in that circumstance.
RS: Because you know the environment, the parameters, where the stage is.
PA: And also because the voice is very important. It’s the most important thing. The voice and the eyes. The way they talk.
RS: I love that you’re saying that, but often in contemporary films, Hollywood films, it’s not valued at all. Voice is third or fourth in priority when it comes to acting.
PA: It’s a pity. Because it’s the main instrument for actors. Of course it’s the whole body, but especially it’s the voice. Sometimes, for instance with Penelope in Broken Embraces, I made her voice lower than she’s used to, because she has a tone that is higher. I wanted for her to be more adult, a little older than she is, playing a woman who had a bad experience and is very rough and tough. So I work with the voices, in the way they say the lines. I’m not going to give any lessons to the Hollywood directors, but I suppose that they know a simple line like—what is your name again?
PA: [Puts a hand on Eric’s knee] “Hello Eric, how are you?” An actor can tell it in twenty different ways. Perhaps not touching you—or perhaps touching you on other parts of your body. But absolutely the tone can be very different and can express very different things—if they are tired, if they slept well the night before; if they are in love with someone, if they are in love with you; if they like you very much or if they just don’t like you at all; if they don’t want to make the interview, or if they are concerned with personal things. The voice, with small differences in tones, can express very different things.
RS: Throughout your career but certainly in your last several films, you’ve relied more on monologues, on a character delivering a story.
PA: It’s true.
RS: Which really depends on voice—it’s absolutely essential because it’s almost a self-contained performance. Is that related at all to how you value the human voice and its ability to tell a story?
PA: It means above all that I believe in words. Words are very important for me. It’s the best instrument for communication. I hate for example this kind of tele-reality, reality programs, with people that perhaps don’t talk but then they talk in front of a camera. It’s very interesting as a director that people talk so openly in front of a camera. But they should talk at home. [Laughs] Words are the best instrument we have just to relate to other human beings. So [what I’m doing] is like a defense of words. But also this comes from someone who is very different from me but who has been a big influence: Ingmar Bergman. Of course he came from theater and you can see that in the movies, even in the visual parts. He has the characters expressing themselves with words. I remember a close-up in Fanny and Alexander that took almost ten minutes, and yet you were never tired or fed-up of that long, long close-up. When I use very extreme close-ups I always think of Bergman. It doesn’t mean that I compare myself to him. He’s a master. I’m still young and I’m learning. But this is my reference.
In Broken Embraces there’s a character, Judit, who in fourteen years doesn’t say a word about something that happened. Harry doesn’t want to talk about it either and tries to be another person, because with those memories he couldn’t keep on living. So he pretends to be someone else. But there comes a moment when you have to face up. You have your own memories—it doesn’t matter that you changed your name. You are the same person. But for Judit, she’s the reason he doesn’t want to know anything related to the past. She feels very guilty about that, and for good reason. So in this one moment of catharsis, it’s not that I’m explaining the movie or what happened. But the character needed to explain herself to Mateo, because it was fourteen years of silence. In that night she needs to tell everything.
RS: It’s like a confession.
PA: Absolutely it’s a confession. But it’s a confession not to the spectator, but to the other character. There’s something that happens in detective stories, when the detective reunites all the characters and discovers whodunit. It’s the only way for the writer to explain everything that happened. Which is not so good, when you take advantage of one monologue to explain the story. But in this case the character needs to explain herself, and that takes time. So I’m not afraid of words. I love them. I’m not afraid of close-ups. What I don’t like is this continuous movement of the camera, so that you don’t see the action. They fragment it so much that you don’t feel the emotion. I’m talking about adventure movies. I don’t feel the sense of danger because it’s so quick. And it seems that the director doesn’t trust in the actors. The shot, the take is like five seconds. I think I’m making the opposite of that.
RS: If I’m not mistaken, you generally shoot scenes as they’re written. You’d don’t get a lot of extra coverage, or shoot extra dialogue and then cut it down in the editing room. Which would make it very hard to cut it up in a million places. In the end that really relies on acting, because you already know how you’re going to shoot and how long scenes are supposed to take.
PA: Yes, the way I shoot includes the editing. And of course I have actors that I trust. I direct what I write, but I also write in a way that is adapted to [the actors]. I put faces on characters when I finish the first draft, and from the third draft until the moment when we start shooting, I make, like a tailor, a kind of adaptation of the character to the actor— without betraying the character, but taking advantage of what the actor does better and avoiding things that he doesn’t do as well. If the actress is very good at crying, I try to put in a crying sequence or take her to that emotion. If she’s no good at crying, I don’t put her in that situation. I rewrite almost the whole script depending on the real person playing the part. And nothing happens for the first time in front of the camera. It always was rehearsed. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t improvise. I improvise a lot. Me—not the actors. On set new ideas appear, and I want to take advantage of that. You have to think that everything you are shooting is alive. You have to conduct, to drive these things like a train, to not go beyond the rails but at the same time take advantage of the life, to take that life and adapt it to your own character and to your own story. Like in this movie, there’s a sequence I wrote at the very last minute—when Penelope is making love with the old man. The inspiration came from the rehearsals, and I wrote completely new dialogue. The actors were so brave. They just learned it in the last five minutes. You have to be open to that. But it’s always based in something I wrote, even if it’s ten minutes before.
RS: Broken Embraces has a Russian doll—or matroshka doll—quality. What’s different is that instead of dolls inside of dolls—where you know the shape and know that they’re going to keep getting smaller—you don’t necessarily know which story is going to be longer, which is going to be the last story. It’s a challenge for the audience because they don’t know if it’s going to be a five-minute sequence or a 35-minute sequence.
PA: I’m fascinated by this kind of complex structure. This is one of the things I’m most proud of with this movie, the narrative structure. The film is told through three different narrators, and sometimes from the interior monologue of one of the characters. That’s very complex to do, but at the same time very appealing. The only problem is that at the end you always say to yourself, “I hope it’s not too complicated for the audience, and that they understand everything.” Because if they don’t it’s your fault, it’s the director’s fault. But I have to admit I have more interest in this kind of difficult structure, like with Bad Education, than I do in a straight structure that is easier for everyone—easier for the spectator and for the director to do. In Volver, for example, there’s a big character and you follow her in one direction. Here [in Broken Embraces] there are many different directions. I mean I share these two things—narration like in Volver and the complexity like you see here. But I always ask if it’s too complicated for the spectator.
RS: Well it’s like a labyrinth, almost like Borges. On one hand it’s freeing and exciting because you don’t know where you’re going to go. But on the other hand it’s also a bit scary, there’s tension because you don’t know where the exit is.
PA: Yes, yes. But what do you think of the spectator? Because this is the part that I’m more concerned with. I mean I was conscious of all these things, because it was built like that, the script. Well, anyway, I can’t ask you this about spectators.
RS: But you know you’re presenting a challenge.
PA: It is a challenge for them. But I don’t know if it’s a good line to promote the movie. “This movie’s a challenge—are you intelligent?” [Laughs] No, I would like to use this line for promotion: “You have to see this movie twice.” Because it’s very good for box office. [Laughs] I suppose once is good for any movie, but it’s true that with this movie the second time becomes richer.
RS: It works in the sense that the first time through, just on the level of experience there’s something rewarding and powerful. Like any good work of art, the second and third time through you see other things.
PA: A movie—even something shot and edited and frozen—I think is like a person. You know more about that person with time. I used to see movies a lot of times—not continuously—but I like to go back to them. The impression is not that I understand them better, but that the experience is always different.
RS: Something related to this, and something that’s very present in Broken Embraces, is a theme of reinvention. Mateo Blanco becomes someone else: Harry Cane. And Lena, the Penelope Cruz character, is a secretary who marries a rich older man and becomes someone else, then works as an actress and becomes someone else for a living. Characters are constantly reinventing themselves, which I think the film is doing too. It moves from one kind of story, genre, and tone to another. There’s power in that, and a joy in losing oneself. You said before that at the end of the film Harry has to face reality. Likewise everyone who disappears into a film in the end has to go back to reality.
PA: The reality you come back to is a happier and much more subdued reality, if not exactly happy that you’ve come to the end of the film. So in the case of the characters, for example, you have Harry who of course is blind, and given the fact that he’s a director this is not exactly a good thing. And Judit feels very guilty about what she’s done. But by the end, a family has been created, and you get a sense of some kind of subdued happiness. This is a family, a real family, with limits and suffering. And they’re reunited in front of a cinema image. It’s like a love declaration to the cinema. Not as an author or professional—but to the cinema as a spectator. Life is imperfect, reality is imperfect, but the cinema helps to make it a little less imperfect. I hope that it’s a good feeling. And also the last line for me is very important. That you have to finish a movie in any condition. Absolutely in any condition. Even if you are in agony. You have to finish. You, nobody else.