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The Sea Inside - Alejandro Amenabar Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

COMPOSER, writer, editor and director, Alejandro Amenabar, has built his reputation in his native Spain with a handful of original, thought provoking movies.

He made his feature bow in 1996 with Tesis, which was eclipsed by the enormous success of Open Your Eyes, a year later, subsequently remade in Hollywood as Vanilla Sky. In 2001 he tackled his first English-language film, The Others.

The Sea Inside is based on the memoir of Ramon Sampedro, a man paralysed in a freak accident as a young man who lived as a quadriplegic for 30 years. Towards the end he demands the right to die with dignity, but is unable to quicken his end without help.

Q. As the story of Ramon Sampedro is so well known in Spain was there a great deal of pressure on you to do his story justice?
A.
I wouldn’t say there was pressure from other people, but I felt the pressure myself to be faithful to the facts and the essence of his story. Everybody knew the story, the official one anyway. That was Ramon Sampedro in his bed talking to the government, and through his book. But the private life of Ramon, his personal life, wasn’t known at all by anyone.

Q. What made you cast Javier Bardem in such an atypical role?
A.
Once we wrote the script we thought about who could play Ramon. That was an important decision. Javier’s was the only name that came up because he’s the best actor in Spain.
The problem was that it would seem like a crazy idea because he’s big where Ramon was thin, and he’s not the same age, and he has a different accent. It was a question of Javier’s talent against all that.

Q. And it was helpful presumably to have him portray Ramon in the scene that flashes back to the accident, wasn’t it?
A.
If we had cast someone in their 50s we would have had to cast a younger actor in that part. That didn’t represent a problem to me. It’s a plus obviously being able to see the real Javier when he was young.

Q. Was there a great deal of discussion about how the accident itself would be portrayed?
A.
That was one of the few things in the book that is fully explained. The book doesn’t give you the story of Ramon’s life, but he starts telling you how the accident was.
I remember one of the things that really impressed me was that he saw his whole life flashing in front of his eyes when he was waiting to die.
And what he saw was the harbours of all the cities around the world that he had visited as a sailor, and all the women he had loved. So here was someone in his 20s who has travelled the world, and that of course had to be in the film. You see the photographs during the film, we tried to find a way for the audience to make that journey too.

Q. What was the reaction of Ramon’s family to the film?
A.
They’re very pleased. I talked to them before I started writing, even before I decided to get into this project. I just wanted to know what they thought about the idea. They wouldn’t say they were reluctant, but they weren’t really enthusiastic either.
Then I asked them for some anecdotes with Ramon, and they told me what life in their house was like. And then I wrote the story without talking to them. After the writing I gave them the script, they approved it, making some comments but basically approving it. And then after I finished the film I showed it to them.

Q. Did you form an opinion on Ramon’s decision to die?
A.
Firstly, you ask yourself, when someone like Ramon is asking for this right to die, is what would you do if you were in his condition. I don’t think I would want to die.
But the second question is should someone try to cheer him up, and tell him he’s such a good writer, and all these people love him, that he has to go on living.
I asked myself who am I, at 32-years-old, to ask this man who’s been thinking about it for 30 years to change his view. I think it’s really up to him.

Q. Your film was presumably already finished when Christopher Reeve passed away. He had a completely different attitude to his condition, didn’t he?
A.
I think he was the opposite side of the coin. I truly think both these men were extraordinary. When I was writing the film, I was conscious of anyone who endures and wants to go on living. I didn’t want the film to be an insult to them. I tried to be very careful with that, I didn’t want to encourage people to kill themselves, but I wanted to tell the story of this man.
Eventually, it’s just about asking yourself how much you love your life. In my case the more he said he wanted to die, the more I respected him and at the same time the more alive I felt.

A. And it’s because it means dying with dignity, doesn’t it?
A.
Ramon wanted to live with dignity. And for him life without movement had no dignity for him. We are talking about a man who travelled around the world in his 20s, so movement was important to him. But I think what he wanted was to die with dignity which doesn’t happen since his situation is not recognised by the law. So he had to die alone and suffer.

Q. Did the film provoke any controversy when it was released in Spain?
A.
I think there was some, but the film hasn’t been attacked or anything. Most of the people who’ve gone to see it have liked it, though we’ve had people from the church who say it’s not good.
They say Ramon is a bad example and that the film shouldn’t have been made. People who say that also say they haven’t seen the film and don’t intend to see it. But mostly what you get is people who’ve seen it and really liked it.

Q. What about positive reactions to the film?
A.
When I’m stopped on the streets of Madrid it’s by people who come to me and say thank-you. That’s something that’s never happened to me before.
Of course, we all have to deal with death sooner or later. I’m not talking about our personal death but when we lose relatives or friends. This film places you in front of death, but it’s about feeling life, so the more you feel about that situation the more you will think afterwards about how much you love your life.

Q. Is there a relationship between The Sea Inside and your previous movie, The Others?
A.
I think there must be a connection at the back of my mind. I never thought that I’d make four films and they’d all be films about death. I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who is obsessively talking about it.
But in the last couple of years, I’ve found death around me, I’ve found myself in the cemetery consoling friends. In my films I don’t think it’s death so much as how we face it, how we deal with it. Whether we want search for something else, whether we want to find a way out and focus on our lives in the here and now.

Q. There is a terrific sequence in the film where Ramon gets out of bed and flies to the coast. What was the inspiration for that?
A.
That wasn’t in the book, but Ramon said a couple of times that when he slept he dreamt of flying. That’s the moment he felt absolutely free.
We were thinking about the dramatic problems, that he couldn’t see the sea from his window. Mateo Gil, my co-writer, and I were thinking what should we do.
We thought about changing that part of the story and making him see the sea from the window. But I thought it was much more interesting having him flying to the sea.

Q. When it happens, just for a moment, the audience surely thinks he must have been faking?
A.
Actually the festival jury in Venice were telling us that they didn’t know too much about this story, so when he stood up they absolutely thought he was faking it. That was much more shocking for them. In the story we would drop in what we called windows, so the audience wouldn’t feel trapped in the room with him. That was one of those moments.

Q. What are your wishes for this film?
A.
I would like the film to be seen as a tribute. This is something that I felt when I finished the film, that it be a tribute to the ones who pass away, and a balm for the ones who remain.

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