Pedro Almodovar – Twenty years ago and still going strong

                                     August 2004  By Philip Berk

He’s one of the world’s most respected artists, uncompromising, outlandish, irrepressible, and in person not unlike the character he created in his best loved film Speak to Her.

His films usually speak to audiences all over the world, but his latest Bad Education has had a muted response in many countries, notably in  the U.S.

Even though it was named the year’s best foreign language film by the New York Film Critics Circle, it failed to get even one nomination from the Academy.

The fact that the Spanish Academy  overlooked the film didn’t help matters either.

But then Almodovar has always been a prophet without honour in his own country.

Asked about it in Los Angeles last October, he doesn’t mince any words.

“I prefer not to think about it  because if I really analyze it I find there is a kind of hostility against me. My movies do very well in Spain with audiences, but the (Spanish) Academy has never been generous with me. I won’t say I always deserved to be the Spanish entry, and I don’t know what is going to happen with The Sea Inside (it has been nominated and is likely to win) but I can say that Monday in the Sun (chosen over Talk to Her two years ago) didn’t have any chance even for nomination. I don’t want to complain but I will say it’s not something I enjoy, this hostility.”

Bad Education by any standard is a masterpiece, particularly because it is his most personal film.

How autobiographical is it? I ask him

“It’s absolutely autobiographical yet at the same time fictional, which is how movies and novels are. I lived in the same period, in the same type of school as the protagonist and the children. I also started making movies in the late 70s, early 80s like the protagonist when he grew up. I was in the same places, but it’s not exactly my life. I was a singer in the choir, I discovered the reciprocity of love with a school mate, I discovered cinema at the time. But one important difference. I was never abused by a priest although abuse was rampant  at all times. I share with the director in the film the fact that he confronts situations without prejudice, and he started working after the death of Franco in a new democratic Spain. But I don’t take as many risks as he does in my own life. So one could say it represents both aspects, something very intimate, but not my life story.”

The gay sex in the movie has disturbed audiences.

It’s been rumored that Gael Garcia Bernal was not happy on the set, and that they weren’t always on speaking terms. 

Is that true?

“We had  the normal problems you encounter when a part is as difficult as Gael’s, although I have to say he had more trouble with it than I did. He had to take dialect classes to lose completely his Mexican accent. He also took lots of classes in femininity, to become a woman. He had to learn to wear high heels. He had all this preparation to do even before he could confront the part.  He also had to immerse himself in to the Spanish culture because a Spanish transvestite in the late 70’s is different to a Mexican drag queen nowadays.They might seem the same, but they are completely opposite. So long before he started to work on the film he had to have exhaustive training.”

But on the set, wasn’t he uncomfortable?

“Sometimes he was. And sometimes it was equally hard for me both physically and psychologically. The sex sequence, the erotic sequence, it was tough for him. Curiously it was not for the the other guys, who were not gay, because it’s not the point if you are gay ore not. It’s easier, it’s something different, and he told me in confidence of the difficulties he found in the process. But it’s completely false that we didn’t talk to each other. We talked to each other a lot especially when he felt uncomfortable being in drag; we always trusted each other.” 

And there was never an impasse?

“We actually had very open communication. He was very open about discussing the difficulties he was having with the role of Zahara (the transvestite.) We had e the typical communication you have between an actor and a director regarding a difficult role. He might have had some feelings inside of him that he never revealed to me. But you’ll have to ask him.”

Does Gael have the potential to become an big international star?

“Obviously he is becoming a big, big, big star, and that’s good, but it all depends on how he will handle it, and the choices he makes in the next two or three years. I understand that he wants to do theatre which is very good.  There is a lot of noise around him at the moment; doing theatre is the best way to be quiet. I think it’s a very good idea for him to stop.”

Was he his only choice for the role?

“I had tested, auditioned a lot of Spanish actors for three years, but I couldn’t find someone that was both masculine and feminine enough. The closest I came to choosing someone was Eduardo Noriega. When he was made up to look like a woman, he was amazing; he looked exactly like Ava Gardner, but his shoulders and back were too big, and there was no way to refine that. I chose Gael because he was the only one that could play an extremely masculine character and also become an incredibly beautiful woman, which was a surprise for all of us. You never know what you’re going to get when you make them up.And we had a very curious situation with Gael. He has two different profiles (see accompanying story.) So when I discovered that, he got the part.”

Unlike his earlier comedies, his last three films have been somewhat somber. 

Is there a reason?

“It has more to do with the passing of time than anything else. I am getting older and I am getting more lonely. I am more alone than I was before, and with these last three movies I have looked more inwards. In the past I lived more indoors that outdoors. I would love to start going out more and doing comedies, but it’s not something I have control over. When I start writing I submit myself to the story and the ideas come to me. It’s not me who decides what type of genre or story I am going to tell. During the 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s I was a very outgoing person. I was always surrounded by lots of people. I would go out at night, do substances — I don’t do substances anymore — and that usually encourages the type of movies where you celebrate the pleasures of life. Now my life has changed. It’s more inwards. I don’t see as many people. I feel more lonely. So right now this is the type of movie I want to make.”

Did the death of his mother four years ago have anything to do with it?

“I was affected as anyone would be by such a loss, but strangely her absence has become a presence in everything I do. And in fact in the three scripts I am working on now,  there are characters that represent her in a very direct way. You can say  my mother’s death is what made me grow older and more mature. I look at my surroundings now with the same eyes but something has shifted”.

When he says he’s lonely, are we to feel sorry for him?

“Not at all. Loneliness is a very concrete feeling. It has to do with the number of people that surrounds you in your everyday life. On the set I’m surrounded by so many people  so I welcome being alone the rest of the time. I don’t complain about it. It’s something you get used to.” 

So there’ll be many roles for women in future films?

“My new script, which is a comedy, is full of women because in Bad Company there is no woman at all. I used to have a lot of women in my movies It was very painful for me to write Bad Education, and to make it, not because there was conflict with Gael, but for other reasons. It was very difficult to find the children. It was incredibly difficult to find the school because the Church was completely against the idea of making a movie about two priests. And the preparation was hell, but still I wanted to make this movie. And now I feel I have made three movies that I am very proud of. I would like to change to something more light,  but I’m not looking to repeat myself. I don’t want to do Women on the Verge even though I’m very proud of it. I hope to do something funny that relates to me at this time.” 

The score of Bad Education is particularly memorable. How involved is he is that process? 

“I’m not a composer, but I have a very good ear for music. So I decide exactly the music for all my movies. Music is a very abstract art form and it’s difficult to communicate your ideas to a composer. I am lucky because the composer I work with can understand me without the use of words. Alberto Iglesias has scored my last four movies. Though I am not a composer I direct him as I direct an actor or the production designer. Usually he makes a lot of demos. We see the movie during the editing process. We talk about the moments that we think we need music. I explain to him the type of music I would like. After I finish the editing, I am with him in the studio every day. He composes, and I choose the musical themes and the songs. In Bad Education for example I chose the song Moon River which the child sings because it’s a song I love. Also it corresponds with the time frame of the movie. And there was was something perverse in having a child sing a song that is usually sung by a woman. And it was interesting that the priest accompanied him by guitar. The same with my choice of Rossini, which the boy also sings, and then Zahara’s song Quizas, Quizas, Quizas, which was made famous by Sara Montiel who was a big gay icon in Spain in the 50’s 60’s. I select the music, we work very closely, but it’s Alberto Iglesias who has the really incredible talent.”

Was he surprised when Fahrenheit 9/11 won the top prize in Cannes?

“I like the movie, but I thought that  award was a little excessive. Not that it doesn’t have incredible social value, but still it’s a documentary.  I’m a friend of (president of the jury Quentin) Tarantino and many of the people on the jury, but in my humble opinion the Grand Jury prize would have been more appropriate. The Palme d’Or should be given to a fictional movie.”

Why are so many of his characters transvestites?

“Many of my movies involving those characters but not all of them. There were none, not even a gay character in Live Flesh. There were none in Talk to Her. There were several in All about My mother, but I have always had intimate friendships with transvestites. They have brought a lot of things to my life, but you’ll be pleased to know, in the next three scripts I’m working on, there are no transvestite characters.”

Does he watch a lot of movies?

“I do. I am a good spectator of cinema. I go to the movies every week.”

Were there any that really impressed him?

“Unfortunately with each year I find less movies that affect me.The last two movies that impressed me and moved me was Tarnation, and Spring, Summer, Fall… the Korean movie.”

Both personal favorites of mine.