Pedro AlmodÃ³var’s Plane of Existence
ABOVE: PEDRO ALMODÓVAR (LEFT) SHOOTING I’M SO EXCITED!. IMAGE COURTESY OF EL DESEO S.A.
When you first take up a conversation with Pedro Almodóvar, there are several things you notice. Yes, the nimbus of silver hair is the immediate bull’s-eye, but you may also note his graciousness (“Would you like to drink something? A water?”); his rapt attention (the eye-to-eye ratio is high; he only looks down to scribble notes, as a student would); and his “aw, shucks” sense of humility, as if he were one of us—feeling his way through life—instead of who he really is: arguably the most successful Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel.
Having released over two dozen films since the ’80s, the self-taught, self-professed oveja negra (black sheep) has been at the helm of such seminal work as the Oscar-winning All About My Mother , Talk to Her , Bad Education , and Volver , which caught he and longtime muse Penélope Cruz at the apex of their combined powers. Grating social commentary, gender-bending plots, subversion, sexuality, camp, and color are all keywords to describe his oeuvre. And now, at 63, he’s promoting his latest turn, I’m So Excited!, a screwball ensemble comedy largely set on a bungled flight over Toledo, Spain. Loyal Almodóvarians may observe that this 95-minute flick (his golden rule: comedies shouldn’t last more than an hour and a half) is an elevated departure from the auteur’s recent binge of increasingly dark and baroque films. It is, what he calls a “pit stop”—which makes us think that when a character muses about “living close to the abyss,” the director may have been illustrating himself. Turn off the seatbelt sign; the world is Almodóvar’s to reinvent.
We recently met with the director at the Peninsula hotel in New York.
JEANINE CELESTE PANG: You’ve said that ever since you were a child, you were a fabulador.
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR: Ever since I was eight years old, the stories I would tell were based on the films I had seen. I would tell these stories to my sisters, but, just from my excitement and involvement in telling the stories of the films, I would change the stories and they would become entirely different. And when I could write, starting at around 10, these stories would eventually become my first Super 8 movies in the ’70s. Under the Franco regime, we could have been taken to prison for the content—homosexuality, travesty—so for that reason, I’d always shoot in the country.
PANG: Was the country safer?
ALMODÓVAR: Yes, because there was nobody around—no police, especially. And God was the DP, so he provided the light. Months ago, I was watching some of the better ones, and they reminded me of the movies [Pier Paolo] Pasolini did in Morocco. All of my preoccupations with love, passion, kids, pop—and all kinds of sexual orientations living in peace, let’s say.
PANG: Spanish filmmakers, or let’s expand that to the whole Mediterranean, are open with how they capture sex and sexual orientation, much more than their American counterparts. Why is that?
ALMODÓVAR: The main reason is that we don’t have censorship; I’m talking about the [scribbles on paper] MPAA. So, in this case, it becomes self-censorship. The second reason is that we don’t make big-budget movies and it’s cheaper to talk about human beings and their problems. For me, I think it’s much more interesting—I want to—but it’s also cheaper to narrate a lot of tension between you, me, and her [gestures to his translator], here in this room or perhaps on the street…
PANG: No need for superheroes.
ALMODÓVAR: Yes, there are too many superheroes. I actually think that the tensions in a human adventure movie can be just as cinematic as a superhero adventure movie. It seems to me that American movies are targeting very young audiences and children, but European movies, when they talk about human nature, are movies for adults.
PANG: Your audience is very adult. I wonder specifically, do you create films with the audience in mind?
ALMODÓVAR: No, never. No, no, no. [shakes head] For me, the audience has no face, it’s like, es un monstruo sin cabeza—and this headless monster is always going to surprise me. It’s always impossible for me; I’ve never been able to anticipate the audience’s reaction, so I don’t calculate that into my filmmaking. This seems like a moral lesson, but I’ve tried to be the most myself that I could.
PANG: So, how would you describe that pure self? I’ve heard it called “Almodóvaria,” a symptom when a viewer leaves one of your films feeling a mixture of devastation and euphoria.
ALMODÓVAR: Well not for this film, per se, but that’s actually a good definition for my other movies, because they’ve become darker and darker. But this kind of sadness—it doesn’t make me feel sad.
PANG: What does it make you feel?
ALMODÓVAR: It actually gives me a kind of energy. If I see one depressing movie, I don’t get depressed. Instead, I feel happy to show—or see—a masterpiece, a movie that really moves me. For example, with Amour , it’s not a happy story and sometimes it’s difficult to watch, but it’s a masterpiece. It’s so rare to see a movie like that. When I was making The Skin I Live In , I liked the story and the genre, so that filled me with life. I think at this point, I’m more interested in telling these devastating stories—I’m So Excited is a kind of pit stop—and you can’t ask me why I’m interested, I’m just more pulled in that direction.
PANG: Well, you said that these films energize you. Maybe to create a film that captures devastation so beautifully, with poignancy, is a challenge you enjoy?
ALMODÓVAR: Yes, absolutely. I enjoy the challenge, and it’s more appealing for me. For example, I always have many stories at my desk, but I need to feel a kind of passion about the story to commit. Devastation, or any kind of human process that doesn’t represent the nicest aspect of our nature, that’s what’s appealing—though of course, there is always sex, and that’s quite a pleasurable aspect of our nature. [laughs]
PANG: Can I ask you what you are passionate about with this particular film, since it is a comedy?
ALMODÓVAR: Sometimes you need this fresh air and make something lighter. I needed that. Everything started when I wrote Broken Embraces ; the story is very dramatic, but then I needed a complete opposite after that—a high comedy. And also, with this new film, I wanted to know if I was capable of making a light comedy again. It was good to discover that the comic and that outrageous tone from the ’80s was still inside of me; that I can still summon it.
PANG: Well, you can.
ALMODÓVAR: And I will again, with time. [laughs]
PANG: Do you think that the funniest lines in a foreign film have a knack for disappearing in the subtitles?
ALMODÓVAR: They are very difficult to translate, yes. It’s impossible to translate everything, because there’s no room. So you have to synthesize and the movie always loses at least 20 to 30 percent of the comedy.
PANG: For this film, how much of the humor will be lost on the American audience?
ALMODÓVAR: Well especially in this case, because there are many actors sharing the screen and in the process of having to read the subtitles, you’re missing their facial interactions. You just cannot catch it all, so my advice is to see the movie at least three times.
PANG: And to learn Spanish!
ALMODÓVAR: To learn Spanish is not a bad idea. The demographic specialists say that with time, it will be the leading language in the States, because the Spanish reproduce faster than the Anglos. [laughs]
PANG: In The Pedro Almodóvar Archives you write, “I ask myself questions that journalists don’t dare to ask or don’t know how to ask.” If our chairs were switched, what would you want to ask yourself?
ALMODÓVAR: I don’t know. When I spoke of giving myself self-interviews, it’s not so much that people aren’t willing to ask, they just don’t think of asking me these questions.
PANG: Like what sort of questions?
ALMODÓVAR: Si, bueno. Entonces, por ejemplo… [scribbles] Are you in love now?
PANG: Well, I… Oh, wait, I started to answer your question. Are you in love?
ALMODÓVAR: No, no—this is the question: “Are you in love, and if you’re in love, is your love requited?”
PANG: So, are you in love?
ALMODÓVAR: [laughs] I don’t want to answer, thank you.
PANG: Fair enough. Let’s talk about your relationshp with the fashion industry, instead. Karl Lagerfeld has designed costumes for two of your films, including High Heels , Anna Wintour has publicly honored your work, and Missoni offered you a starring role in last year’s campaign. What designer would you like to partner with next?
ALMODÓVAR: For whatever reason, the people that I have the most affinity with are fashion designers—not all of them at once, because they can’t stand each other—but you can ask me about any of the designers and I’ll tell you that they are a friend of mine and have been very generous with me. So, for example, if I were to do a remake of Funny Face, I would call John Galliano.
PANG: That would be fantastic.
ALMODÓVAR: John Galliano is really talented. And I think everything that is happening with him is very, very unfair. It’s universal and global punishment. I don’t know how many times someone has to ask to be forgiven.
PANG: In I’m So Excited!, there’s a lot of impending doom and tension on the flight, and plenty of alcohol and elixirs to help numb the nerves. If you were having a bad day, what’s your go-to remedy?
ALMODÓVAR: I would love to be a believer, to be able to give my faith over to a saint or a God. But regrettably, I am not. All I can do is breathe deeply and keep calm.
I’M SO EXCITED! OPENS TOMORROW, JUNE 28.