Pablo Berger, Bullfighting, Blancanieves, and Pepe the Rooster

Blancanieves begins in the grand bullfighting arena of Seville in the 1920s. A famous torero, Antonio Villalta, proud in his gilded costume, is in the ring for a marathon of matches. His beautiful, heavily pregnant, flamenco-dancer wife watches him from the stands. The crowd loves him. For just a moment, he takes his eyes off the bull and throws his hat to his wife. When he regains consciousness, he is in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down, and his wife has died during a stress-induced childbirth. He cannot bare to look at his newborn child, Carmen.

Spanish writer and director Pablo Berger’s second film, Blancanieves, combines elements of Snow White (Charles Perrault, not Disney), Carmen, bullfighting, Bette Davis at her most frightening, and the grotesque. It is also silent, shot entirely in black and white, and stars two unknown, but marvelous, actresses: Sofía Oria and Macarena García, as Carmen the little girl and Carmen the teenager. Berger is not jumping on The Artist (or live-action Snow White) bandwagon: the filmmaker has been working on Blancanieves for the past eight years. It shows in his work, which is at once mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and deeply disturbing.

EMMA BROWN: Which idea came first: that you wanted to adapt Snow White, or that you wanted to do a film about bullfighters in the 1920s?

PABLO BERGER: They sort of came together, is the funny thing. In 1990 was published a book called España Oculta, like “Hidden Spain,” by a Spanish photographer called Cristiana García Rodero. In this book appeared a series of photos of bullfighting dwarves; there is one especially where you see all of these bullfighting dwarves looking at the camera; and that photo, it was so mysterious to me. I kind of imagined: “What if I put in the middle of this photo Snow White, dressed in a bullfighting outfit.” So it was a combination of both. It had to be bullfighting; it had to be Snow White. But another key element is Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning—one of my favorite films of all time. So it was obvious that it had to be Snow White from all the tales of the Grimm.

BROWN: So you’ve been thinking about it since in the book came out in 1990?

BERGER: This book—because I know you write for Interview magazine and the kind of audience you have—is like The Americans by Robert Frank, in Spain. This photographer stayed 15 years—it’s his first book—traveling all over Spain taking black-and-white photos. It definitely stayed with me. But even before that, in the mid-’80s, I used to go to San Sebastián Film Festival, when I was a teenager. I saw Greed (1924) by [Erich von] Stroheim, with a light orchestra with Carl Davis directing, and I flipped. I really had an ecstatic cinematic experience. It was like extra-sensory. I had never felt any similar [feeling] watching a film. From that moment, I got obsessed with silent cinema. Silent cinema has been part of my life as a film buff, always. I always watch silent films, collect silent DVDs. It was, for me, the combination of that photo and Freaks with my obsession with silent cinema. I just kind of put it together in this cocktail shaker. It’s the sum of those ingredients.

BROWN: Did you always know how the film would end?

BERGER: It was there from the first draft. The last three seconds… it was a little later. I don’t want to be the spoiler. It was long before the shooting, but it was a later draft. Definitely, that epilogue, it’s a very Tod Browning, Freaks, kind of ending. That was from the beginning; the first, early drafts of the script. I see it open-ended. As a writer-director, I think films are never finished until they meet the audience. I don’t think films should be closed; I think every audience should make their own interpretations and find how they connect with their own lives and their own problems. The last scene, or the last shot, it’s heartbreaking, but in a way, not. Audiences react in two ways. Some of the audience think it’s very sad, and half of the audience, they see hope.

BROWN: Have you seen a divide in terms of where you’ve screened the film?

BERGER: I haven’t thought about it. But probably there’s a connection. Definitely, I see the audience divided. The movie has a secret; I constructed the movie so the end is the climax. I really believe that the end should be the most important part. It’s like the cherry. It’s the last thing you eat. It’s what stays with you, so it was intentional building [it] that way. It changes—a little bit—the tone, and it has to keep the audience in some kind of element of: “What happened? Where am I?”

BROWN: How did you find the actress Sofía Oria? She’s so great as young Blancanieves, Carmencita.

BERGER: That was a miracle. That was such a find. I had all the cast, all these famous, great actors, all these really great supporting actors. We were four weeks before we started to film, and we hadn’t found Blancanieves—neither the young girl, nor the teenager. As a director, I was freaking out. I was not showing it, but I was like, “Oh my God, we’re starting in four weeks and we don’t have Blancanieves.” But we had an army of people—a group of people in Barcelona, a group of people in Madrid, a group of people in Seville—looking for the Blancanieves. I had seen thousands. And I put together this reference. I said, “For the young girl, I want somebody like Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) by Victor Erice.” I don’t know if you’ve seen the film—that’s one of the great Spanish movies—this girl is just about eyes. And for the teenage one, it has to be someone like Penélope Cruz in Jamón, Jamón (1992), because that was Penélope’s first movie. So the standards were very high. I was so desperate that I called a friend of mine who’s an acting teacher in a school, [acting as an] extracurricular activity—your daughter goes to school one hour a week. And he said, “Well, I have one girl in here that I want you to see.” And that was Sofía. She didn’t blink. She was so centered. She did the audition and there were no finalists; it was her. It was amazing. You cannot take your eyes off her when she’s in the screen.

BROWN: Carmencita’s pet is a rooster called Pepe. Does everyone ask you about that?

BERGER: [laughs] Sometimes, but I really love Pepe the rooster. Some journalist told me in America there’s some kind of film festival with an award for the best performance by an animal. I think Pepe deserves that award. Pepe is a real character in my film; I was inspired by the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. He’s a key character in the film because this girl has a really difficult life and this is her pet. It was tough to get a rooster to do all those things. Definitely, to have a lot of roosters, the magic of editing, a lot of special effects, and a lot of patience. The animal wrangler was going crazy because this rooster had to live with him, in his house, for four or five months. He was like a Chihuahua; he had to be comfortable watching TV. That was good, but at 5 o’clock in the morning [the rooster] would sing. So he was going insane. He was really looking forward for the shoot to finish.

BROWN: What happened to the rooster?

BERGER: I don’t know. I don’t want to know. We ate it in the wrap party, no. I want to think that he’s with the animal wrangler as his Chihuahua, and [the wrangler] goes everywhere with his rooster Pepe. In a bag. I could see Paris Hilton… maybe we can create a trend of having roosters instead of Chihuahuas.

BROWN: Do you remember the first time you saw Snow White?

BERGER: I remember clearly because my house, where I was raised, was next to a movie theater. And in this movie theater, they always played all the Disney movies—it doesn’t matter that Snow White is from 1937, they played it in ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. So I saw it in the movie theater. I remember when I saw it; my memory is of having a great time—[the] smell of chewing gum and candy. I didn’t get scared—I love horror movies and fantasy, but I don’t get scared easily—but the dwarves stayed with me more than anything. Those are the characters that I find most intriguing from that film. When my daughter was growing up—now she’s nine—seeing Snow White [again], it’s like “Ok, the stepmother is wonderful,” but I want her to [be] more like the original Grimm [Brothers’] tale. A little more obscure and gothic. So I was like, “Ok, let’s change the iconography, let’s change the dwarves,” so people can think of a new Snow White.

BROWN: This movie is coming out a year after The Artist—and after The Artist was so successful—and some very big-budget, live-action adaptations of Snow White. Is that a very frustrating coincidence?

BERGER: It’s just a coincidence, but sometimes it makes me think maybe I shouldn’t be a director, I should just get a ball and figure out the trending topics of the next year—what films are going to be about that year. I’m in a sandwich that I cannot believe: this is the third Snow White. I’ve been working on this project for eight years. When The Artist was released, I had already shot my film. This film is my second film; my first film was Torremolinos 73. It was released in 2003. The script for Blancanieves comes in 2005. This film could have been released in 2007, but nobody wanted to make a black-and-white, silent, and expensive film at the time. It’s been a really long journey. Everybody thought I was crazy. Everybody thought it’s never going to get made, and even if it gets made, it’s going to be a disaster. Nobody wants to see a black-and-white, silent film these days; it’s anachronistic. Who knew that the movie of last year was going to be The Artist and who knew that Blancanieves was going to be the biggest success in Spain this year, a success in France, and hopefully it will be an art-house success in America.

BROWN: Do you think that The Artist and the other Snow Whites—Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror—helped your film or hurt it?

BERGER: I’m a positive; I’m not a tragic. I’m not negative. I always think that everything happens for a reason. So I think that The Artist is going to open doors: there’s some audiences that saw The Artist and they said, “I like The Artist, it doesn’t matter that it’s silent.” And Snow White, none of us respected the author, because it’s an oral tale. My film is a new version of Snow White. Parents tell Snow White for hundreds of years, I’m telling my own Snow White to the audience. I feel like I’m putting the audience on my lap—with good intentions, there are no bad intentions—and I’m telling them a story, my Snow White.

BROWN: I liked it when one of the dwarves said,  “It’ll be like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

BERGER: That was the thing. For me it was important that this was not an adaptation at all. I could have even called the film Carmen. I think in a way it’s closer to Mérimée’s Carmen, with all this myth about the bullfighters, than to Snow White. It’s almost like a marriage of Carmen and Blancanieves. That’s why there are only six dwarves and not seven. I’m not even loyal to anything, even with the end. There’s a semantic, postmodern game when I say, “We’ll call you Blancanieves.”