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“I Make Fiction Films Because I Like Representation”: Director Pedro Almodovar On All About My Mother

All About My Mother

From Filmmaker‘s archives, and online for the first time, here is our interview with Pedro Almodovar about All About My Mother as well as many other things, including Tennessee Williams, rejecting primary colors and the difficulties, sometimes, of being “Almodovar.” This piece originally ran in our Fall, 1999 issue.

“Mainly women,” says Leo, the desperate, devastated, lovelorn romance writer played by Marisa Paredes in Pedro Almodovar’s eleventh feature film, The Flower of My Secret. “Adventurous, suicidal lunatics.” He might as well be talking about the characters found in Almodovar’s films, for his is a body of work dominated by actresses, peopled by heartbroken women and absent men. And in his most recent film, All About My Mother, Almodovar further indulges his fascination in their transparent despair, their resilience, and their capacity to heal.

Of all his works, All About My Mother is a film consumed with theater, with artifice, with adopted identity, worn like a costume. The plot is gnarled with coincidence, reduplicated characters (no fewer than three named Esteban), with tragedy. And like so many of his films, it is taken with the spontaneous solace and solidarity women provide to each other, bound together by trouble.

Almodovar is one of a handful of international directors whose name is an adjective, whose signature encompasses a visual style, a favored cast, a city (Madrid) and an abiding appreciation for sexual antics and the high jinx they bring. He is, in fact, the author of his own genre, the self-styled “screwball drama.” And as much as he protests the burden of audience expectations, his films remain doggedly accessible and routinely popular. All About My Mother, which took the Best Direction Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has been called by many his best work to date (though for others, it’s tough to top the brilliant mess of his 1988 breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown).  

If Almodovar’s tone has darkened a degree in his last three films (The Flower of My Secret, the somber sexiness of 1988’s Live Flesh, and this current film), his preoccupations have deepened. He remains fixated by American movies, the lush melodramas of classic Hollywood. Even this title is a riff: a deliberately revisionist take on Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 All About Eve. References to films like The Apartment and Casablanca litter his work. But here he most deliberately invokes theater—specifically Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”—to reflect, refract and amplify the emotional condition of his characters. It is a film consumed with roles and stages, with scripted lines that ring like the truth. Here particularly, Almodovar is interested his women’s ability to, in a word, perform.

Filmmaker: There are scenes in The Flower of My Secret where a woman takes part in a hospital simulation, role-playing a mother whose young son has been killed. Here that same idea becomes a jumping-off point for a more involved story. What interested you about this aspect of your previous film that made you want to return to it? How did this new story develop?

Almodovar: When I start writing, I always have a lot of notes for one subject, or I try to. And then, of course, you don’t know where you’re going. The first note that I wrote which then led to this script did come from that scene in The Flower of My Secret. And in the beginning it was much more present than at the end of the script. I was very interested in the capacity of people who are not actors professionally to act, or to represent. It is amazing how many professions need you to act even without being an actor. But you have to act, and sometimes even disguise yourself.

I make fiction films because I like representation. That’s why I don’t make documentaries, and I don’t think I’ll ever make documentaries. The colors of my movies are not completely real, because I like that distance, that this is a movie, and reality is over there. I don’t want to make something that looks completely real. I want a representation of that. And this is what was appealing to me and why I started making movies.

Filmmaker: It’s something you share with American filmmakers like Douglas Sirk: the very heightened production design, along with the sense of melodrama. It sometimes seems like you’re commenting on a kind of emotional truth through an artificial style of filmmaking.

Almodovar: I don’t think the way I do things has to do with telling the truth. But the style doesn’t mean you are lying. No. The style sometimes gives you more strength to say things. Because there is something that the spectator has to identify himself with, and for me, the thing is the emotion. And that emotion can be isolated on a set that is completely artificial. I don’t mean that everything is represented, fake, stylized. Not everything. There is something that should be very clear, and it is perhaps your guts, your heart, your sensibility.

Filmmaker: In this film particularly, you incorporate a lot of references to film and theater. The title, of course, comes from All About Eve; then there’s the play-within-the-film, A Streetcar Named Desire. You present a number of situations where your characters can see their lives reflected in fiction.

Almodovar: Absolutely. That play has a lot of meaning, and not only the meaning that Tennessee Williams intended, but all of the meanings it has for the characters in the film. For Manuela, doing that play was in some way a rehearsal for what she would then later do in her own life. She did that play 20 years before, and during that play, she met her husband Esteban, who would then become Lola. Esteban played Stanley Kowalski, and 20 years later he (or she) could play Blanche DuBois perfectly.

And I also like that sometimes reality, in terms of the story I’m telling in the movie, happens on the stage. And on the contrary, that scene that takes place outside the theater in Madrid—that billboard outside the theater theatricalizes the exterior of the theater—it’s a set, and in a way, it’s more theatrical that what’s inside the stage.

But these things are meanings that I take for myself and that help me to not feel gratuitous. And I need it: I need to give an explanation to myself for everything that I do. I am not used to clarifying those private things, because sometimes they are very serious, sometimes they help you, sometimes they are not so meaningful.

Filmmaker: A lot of the drama in All About My Mother takes places actually backstage, in the actresses’ dressing room.

Almodovar: The dressing room for me is like the center of the female universe. I very much like to see the actresses when they are making up or getting dresses. It’s very intimate. They talk. It seems to me that women can’t lie in a dressing room or in the toilet or in the kitchen. These are spaces in which you can only say the truth. I don’t know why. Like at a party, where women are usually in the kitchen talking about their husbands because they are more drunk than usual and are a little bit more sincere. And also in the bathroom in many situations, you are more sincere, talking about desires, like “I want to do that if possible,” or “I want to sniff that if you invite me,” ot just talk in the bathroom about very important and serious matters. These are places that invite you to talk.

Filmmaker: People have commented that your films seem to have gotten darker, more introspective in the past few years. The Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh, as well as this new film, do seem to take on more serious subjects.

Almodovar: That’s true. It seems to me now that I don’t intend to do it. I’m conscious, of course, after making the films that these three movies create a sort of trilogy. They are very different, but for me, when I think about them, they are a trilogy. Because since Flower I have tended toward greater sobriety, greater simplicity and greater transparency in the resolution of each shot and each image. And more than ever in my previous films, pain is much more present. There is humor as well, like there is in everyday life. But it seems to me there is more pain than desire in these films.

Filmmaker: And why is that?

Almodovar: Perhaps because I’m aging! I don’t know. But I really wanted to make it like that. I rejected all primary colors. I used black and white—which are colors I never use. I used very dark green in the last two movies, which is a color I had always rejected. Always, my movie will be very bright for the American audience, because my culture is very colorful. But my palette is obviously changing, I think because I was very saturated with myself and what I did in the ‘80s. I was very fed up with being “Almodovar.” I don’t have any kind of identity crisis or problem. Everything that was brought to me by the crew that could have been said to be very “Almodovarian” I rejected immediately. That’s one of the problems I had with the crew.

Filmmaker: Before The Flower of My Secret?

Almodovar: No, even in these films. In The Flower of My Secret, supposedly my style was already very defined, and so the crew, the art director, the costume director, etc. would always bring examples of things—furniture, clothes, etc.—that were very much in that style. And I rejected them immediately. Sometimes it’s dangerous to have a trademark, especially when that trademark has been successful, because suppose that you do not evolve? After making these three films, I feel more free to do really what I want because I think that the audience has now recognized that I can do all these different things. I can take all these different styles and work in all these different themes. I do notice something that audiences demand of me, as if I were a singer and people were telling me what I should be singing: gay people, sex and comedy.

Filmmaker: It’s identifiably yours. It’s true.

Almodovar: And I think I have to! In Spain, I have direct contact with the audience, because people just stop me and talk to me. And sometimes they ask me that, and demand it of me. “I love this movie, but Pedro, when will you but a little more sex into the next one?” “Are you going to make a new comedy because you are gifted in that.” This is very funny, but it’s true that many, many people, not just in Spain, demand it. And I really would like to do it.

Filmmaker: Now you are going to do an all-English language film.

Almodovar: Perhaps. We are working in that direction, and are working on the script. But I have to say that it doesn’t feel right yet for me. I have not decided that the script is exactly what it should be. My project that is most developed to this date is the English-language project, The Paper Boy. [The film was eventually directed by Lee Daniels. — Ed.] But until I say “Action” I’m not really sure what film I’m going to be making. The audience demands of me gay people, comedy and sex. Because they know that the emotional heart is a given. And I think that is has the three. It’s a very dark story, but it has a lot of humor. There is a big sex sequence, and there is a lot of desire. Also there is a gay man.

Filmmaker: It’s Almodovar then. You’re all set.

Almodovar: It’s an American gay which is very different, completely different.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that American audiences have always responded to your work. Why do you think that is?

Almodovar: I don’t know, but I’m flattered. There are many fictional things in my movies, there are many ideas. And one of the more flattering comments I received in The New York Times was that Hollywood can make 20 different movies out of this movie. Perhaps the American audience has this wonderful childlike attitude in front of a new movie: “Give me things happening, movement.” And in my movies, many, many things happen. This may be a basic explanation, I don’t know. But also, I think I’m a big symbol of liberation for Americans. I think they go see one of my films and after coming out, they think, “God, I am so liberated, so liberated. I have no prejudices, because I love this film.”

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