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Broken Embraces - Pedro Almodovar interview

Pedro Almodovar directs Broken Embraces

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LEGENDARY Spanish director Pedro Almodovar talks about why his latest film, Broken Embraces, is perhaps his most complex and most personal movie yet and why his relationship with leading lady Penelope Cruz continues to flourish.

He also responds to criticisms that he’s repeating himself with his latest project, talks about his life in Spain and why he can’t go anywhere without being recognised, and how his sexuality doesn’t have too much of a bearing on his films.

Q. Is it fair to describe Broken Embraces as your most explicit love letter to cinema?
Pedro Almodovar: It’s true, but I only became aware of it not when I finished writing the script, but when I finished making the film. Essentially, what I wanted to talk about in this film was the relationships between the four characters – in some cases their fatal love affairs – and it just so happens the four characters are involved in making a film. In a very natural way cinema is a backdrop for the story and I realised when I put my camera in front of an editing table, in front of the lights, that I was paying tribute to filmmaking and to all these elements that have been an essential part of my life for many years.

Q. It’s also your least controversial film to date. Are you mellowing with age?
Pedro Almodovar: I never set out to be scandalous or to be shocking. Scandal is in the eye of the beholder and I just wanted to tell stories from my point of view and with my mentality. I admit sometimes that perspective could have been shocking. I’ve been making movies for 30 years and probably the way I feel now is less shocking, that’s only natural. But I never set out to be shocking – that’s what Lars Von Trier does, its’ what Madonna does, but it was never my intention. What’s important for me is if I connect with the movies, and people are moved and entertained and they like them, that’s great, but not to be outrageous. Also now it’s very difficult to be outrageous in movies. That was very ’80s or ’90s, but in this moment… we’re living in times of huge scandal. It’s coming from other walks of life – from politics, from the financial world, but I don’t think cinema generates scandal in that way today.

Q. Some critics have accused you of repeating yourself with this movie. How do you respond?
Pedro Almodovar: I don’t think I’m repeating myself at all. This is the most difficult movie I have ever made and it was necessary to make 16 movies before I was ready to do it. Of course, my other movies are reflected in this one. I mean, it’s clear the fictional director is shooting a version of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and I don’t try to hide that. It’s obvious it’s a declaration of love for movies because one of the actresses gives her life to finish a film, but some critics say I love a lot of movies and the ones I love the most are ultimately my own. That’s not true. In fact, I don’t see them after they’ve been released. I used to watch a lot of movies and there are some I watch every year. But I don’t mind… you can say what you like about me and my movies.

Q. You’re working with Penelope Cruz again. Have you seen any changes in her since she worked in America?
Pedro Almodovar: Not with me, no. Obviously, the conditions she shoots under in the US and in Spain are very different but I think when she comes back to Europe – and certainly when she shoots with me – she’s very much the same actress she was when we made our first film together 12 years ago. Her life has changed enormously, she’s been extremely successful and everything that surrounds the way she lives, the way she moves around the world, has changed considerably but I don’t think it has changed her approach to work in any way. The way she works with me is the same way it always was. Fortunately, she continues to place blind faith in me and I’m fortunate she hasn’t changed in that sense.

Q. You tend to use muses like Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz again and again. Why is that?
Pedro Almodovar: It’s a purely practical thing. When you’ve worked with someone before who you understand and who understands you, you’re halfway there. Also, it’s nice to feel like a family, you know? Woody Allen would make films with the women he was living with at the time. Even more interesting was how Ingrid Bergman would write for the actresses he was involved with at that particular time. He would write scripts about their issues, the women who were starring in his films and also starring in his own life, and that was fascinating.

Q. Would you work with Penelope again?
Pedro Almodovar: Oh yeah. I’m very happy with her performance. This character was the most difficult I’ve written for her and she demonstrated that she’s really versatile. The character is meant to be a little older and dark, whereas Penelope is full of light. I was trying all the time to darken it more and more. I would like to keep on working with her.

Q. What does she bring to your films and what do you bring to her?
Pedro Almodovar: She brings to me a great sense of security because she has a blind faith in me. She believes in me much more than I do myself. That gives you a lot of strength, knowing you have an actress who will do absolutely everything you ask her to do without even blinking.

Q. When you say she believes in you more than you do yourself, does that mean you don’t know what you’re doing?
Pedro Almodovar: No, no, I do know what I’m doing [laughs]. What I meant is that she sees me as an utter genius and that is not the way I see myself at all. It’s very embarrassing when I listen to her. She’ll do anything I ask out of this boundless admiration she seems to have of me as a director. She trusts me so much and I have the feeling I can ask her anything, and that’s the same with all the actors. In terms of what I bring to her, I think I give her strange characters that are interesting to perform – a kind of character she couldn’t find in the United States… very complex, very risky, a real challenge, and she loves a challenge and changing from movie to movie.

Q. Given your fame, is there a weight of expectation on you that wasn’t there when you started out?
Pedro Almodovar: That pressure is certainly there but there are periods when I don’t feel it. Now that the film is about to open that pressure exerts a huge weight, but when I’m writing or shooting fortunately I don’t think about how people are going to receive the film. But once it wraps there’s the pressure. I’m naturally going to be concerned about what people are going to think, what they’re going to say, how the critics are going to react. It doesn’t change the way I work but it certainly makes me feel that pressure, yes. At this point in my career I think it’s very important not to be concerned with making the best film. It’s something the market seems to demand or expect, but I really don’t want to be thinking: “I have to make a film that’s better than the previous one.” I want to make the film that my heart wants me to make. That’s a very important consideration and I feel lucky I’ve been able to achieve that.

Q. You’ve said it’s hard to be exposed to real people because everyone recognises you…
Pedro Almodovar: I live in Madrid in a very pleasant part of town, but I feel this ongoing paradox between the places I do live and the places I’d like to live. I tend to live in very comfortable, pricey parts of town whereas I’d much rather live in the opposite neighbourhoods – the more popular, livelier parts of town. Those places are far more vibrant with migrants from all over the world, which is far more representative of today’s Spain. Those streets interest me much more than the streets in the area where I live. I complain a lot about this. This is something which popularity steals from you. It robs you of that possibility of being in a place you want to be.

Q. So why don’t you move?
Pedro Almodovar: [Laughs] I just can’t. I can’t step outside where people won’t leave me alone – with the best intentions of course. I don’t have that peace, but if I could I would set up a very comfortable place in one of those livelier areas.

Q. How does your sexuality inform your work?
Pedro Almodovar: Obviously, the director’s personality informs the films he’s making. I don’t think the fact I’m homosexual necessarily influences all my films but some more than others. I don’t believe in the Anglo Saxon description of a ‘gay’ movie or a ‘heterosexual’ movie for that matter. I’ll give you an example: Laws Of Desire has all gay characters but to me it’s not a gay movie. You could tell exactly the same story with heterosexual characters and it would be the same movie because it’s a story about how these characters are influenced by this devastating passion, which could apply to straight or gay people. A good example of this nuance is that although the film has had a big impact on the gay community and a lot of people have come to me and said: “I came out after I saw Laws Of Desire…” I also heard other opinions – Emma Thompson told me she went to see it with a gay friend, and they said: “Let’s go and see this gay movie…” And suddenly the last thing on her mind was the fact it was about people who were gay.

Q. Was the tone of your early films a reaction to the repression of the Franco era in which you grew up?
Pedro Almodovar: It is true that I was a lot younger and probably the life I led and the things I was surrounded by were more unsettled, and at my age it’s only natural that you live a more settled life. But it is true that I started making films at a specific point in time when Spain reached its democracy and I’m a direct heir of that democracy. There was a huge explosion that spilled over into all forms of human, artistic and cinematographic expression, and of course it spilled over into my films. There was this huge exhilarating expression of freedom, of pleasures we’d been denied before. So you can say my films have run parallel to life in Spain. It’s no longer a new democracy – it’s still a young democracy but it’s now firmly established.

Read our review of Broken Embraces