“Cinema Perfects Life”: Pedro Almodóvar on Rewatching His Films, Using Latin American Music, and Fighting Against Penélope Cruz’s Tears
Notwithstanding the many awards seasons and release campaigns he’s endured in the United States, the manufactured climate of hotels and restaurants in Los Angeles still makes Spanish cinema idol Pedro Almodóvar uncomfortable. “Everywhere we go here is freezing,” he says as he sits down to talk and scrambles to find something warm to cover himself with.
It’s as if the coldness of these spaces he’s walked repeatedly over the years brings a sensory memory, one that he should have anticipated but still surprises him. Like so, we’ve come to expect a colorful aesthetic brand and tonal irreverence from an Almodóvar film, a baseline of artistic comfort upon which he manages to build revelatory melodramas. He’s an auteur with nothing to prove, yet still so much to tell.
Delving inward for Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), Almodóvar goes quasi-autobiographical and Antonio Banderas, his favorite male prodigy, gives a rendition of a director deterred from creation by bodily ailments, as well as intangible and unhealed lesions inflected by lovers, a mother and a reckless collaborator.
Not a culmination or even a return to form but rather a breakthrough into personal rumination, Pain and Glory sees Almodóvar turning his recollections into fictions with more directly discernible vestiges of his own life than ever before. Sometimes in metaphor and others as embellished versions of what truly occurred, the moments he curated for the screen this time brim vulnerability even if they are not memoir per se.
Tea in hand and borrowed scarf around his neck, the chat began with full knowledge that at this point in the promotional tour nearly all questions had been asked—especially those that equate him to Banderas’ character—so instead we started by talking about the past and how it maps the present, which is exactly what he’s doing in his latest work.
In that remembrance of what was and why it was that way there are unwanted tears, ardent boleros, unread bad reviews, and a boundless lust for storytelling, an addiction to it even, that has turned his movies into the building blocks of an existence that now cannot be comprehended if its not through filmmaking. For Almodóvar, indoor low-temperatures in California are just another footnote in this painful and glorious chapter.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that Pain and Glory is not your autobiography, and that instead your biography is found in pieces across all of your movies. Do you ever go back to watch your films from the past, the ones from the ’80s or ’90s, as a way to reminisce on your past or see how you’ve evolved?
Almodóvar: I don’t really watch them, but, for example, two years ago I rewatched Bad Education and the Law of Desire because I had to present them at the cinematheque. It’s not that I have forgotten them, but I rewatched them because I wanted to have a fresh reaction. Of course, I discover new things in them. I rarely watch them, so they still surprised me. In general, when I rewatch my movies I feel content for having made them, but I always rewatch them forced by a situation, not because I decide to rewatch them. And that’s unfortunate, because at the end of the day it’s not that one tells stories for oneself, but it’s sad not to be able to be a spectator to your own movies.
The thing is, there’s a moment in which your capacity to be a spectator is completely destroyed and that’s during the postproduction, when you have to see the movie from every angle, fast-forwarding and rewinding many times and repeating multiple sequences countless times. That’s when the movie is completely destroyed in your mind and you can only see the technical aspects, but absolutely nothing of what’s emotional. I’ve realized that watching one of my movies at least 15 years after making them, which is what happened to me with Bad Education, I can see them again with some objectivity.
Filmmaker: And in rewatching them do you still recognize yourself in them as an artist? What sorts of memories come to you from thinking about past projects?
Almodóvar: Yes, and it makes me remember the circumstance I was living, because the movies are not only my biography in the sense that they reflect many elements of my life. Many times parts of me are camouflaged behind characters that are not directly me, evidently. The difference with this movie is that the character is a film director with back pains like me [Laughs]; therefore, what’s autobiographical is more noticeable, but in the rest of my films I’m there or my family is there behind characters that nobody else has the key to understand.
The films really represent my life, but what they also represent, which is something I’ve realized when I’ve rewatched them, is that they bring me the memory of what I was doing at the time besides the movie: what were the conditions I lived in then, if I was happy or very miserable, what was going through my mind, what people surrounded me, or how I used to dress.
When I run into someone I remember a very specific moment in relation to a movie I made. For example, yesterday I ran into Edward Norton, who I hadn’t seen in 20 years, and I remember him in relation to the movie that I was premiering in the United States back then, so that makes me remember everything else from those days. I remember the place where we stayed. He used to go out with Salma [Hayek], and I was with Penelope [Cruz] promoting All About My Mother. The movie All About My Mother has its own biography, that’s linked to events beyond the film. My memories are always, or at least when I evoke it, connected to the movie that I was writing, making or promoting at that moment.
Filmmaker: In Pain and Glory, the addiction that Salvador has to heroin almost feels like not really an addiction to a substance, but to something bigger. It’s like he’s trying to fill a bigger void.
Almodóvar: I’m not taking about a junkie in the movie. A junkie is a different type of character. Salvador uses to alleviate the pain, but his true addiction is making movies. In truth, that’s what he wouldn’t be able to live without, and he says it. He can’t conceive of his life if it’s not creating fictions. That’s one of the reasons why the character is so depressed, lonely, and in a terrible moment of his life. He thinks that he is not physically suited, and that he will never make another movie. The real addiction is that to fable, because since the moment you start writing until you make the movie it’s all an enormous adventure, even this movie, in which I’m very present. As you are writing the story reveals itself to you. It’s like starting to read a novel for which you wrote the first few pages, but then to know what’s going to happen next you have to actually live through it and that in itself is a great journey. Later, if you make it to the shooting, which is an extreme physical and psychological adventure on its own, all of that creates a great addiction.
Filmmaker: Could you have made this movie at a different time in your life?
Almodóvar: It had to happen now. Time is very present in this movie with the three different eras, the ’60s, the ’80s, and the present. The film talks about time, about change, and about whom that plethoric 9-year-old boy becomes at 60. I believe I needed to have made 20 movies to make this one. I can’t see myself writing it at another time, and in fact, it’s the product of having lived all this time and of having made all the movies I’ve made.
Filmmaker: The scene in the film when Salvador and Federico meet again after several decades seems to encapsulate the pain and the glory of that romance, and of the entire story, in a single conversation. What’s the significance of that encounter?
Almodóvar: For me it’s one of the moments that moves me the most, the block of scenes, since Federico appears until he leaves through the door. This character in particular, Federico, does represent someone from my own life with whom I had to break up when the relationship was still alive but it was necessary to do it.
Sometimes cinema doesn’t only inspire certain sequences, like in the monologue that talks about him, but in a way cinema perfects life. I lived what’s in the monologue, what I didn’t live is what we see in the movie. That reencounter I haven’t lived. I didn’t try to solve a problem at all, but fiction has so much force that now I have memories of that sequence like if I had lived it. I know that I remember it because it’s in the movie. Those are the memories of a relationship whose cycle ends well, and that’s allowed through fiction even it hasn’t been allowed by reality.
It was really moving to shoot it with the two actors, first of all because they are both superb. Antonio was surprising in that scene. There’s something that Antonio has always done really well since the beginning of his career — he knows how to look and listen well, even for the craziest characters I gave him in the ’80s. I couldn’t find anyone that performed desire in a glance so well.
In Pain and Glory, the scenes with Federico or with the character’s older mother are scenes in which he speaks very little. You essentially understand what the other character is saying through Antonio’s eyes. He listens, which is something really difficult for an actor, and you as a viewer understand everything via the emotion that the other person’s words produced in him. Antonio’s reaction in that scene was very touching, because I didn’t expect it was going to be so clear and evident. I really like that they are an older couple, but that they are still attracted to each other.
Filmmaker: There’s still desire between them.
Almodóvar: Yes, but for Antonio’s character the desire for Federico is everything, for Federico the desire he feels for Salvador in that moment is complementary to a life he has established elsewhere. That’s the difference, I believe, between being bisexual and being homosexual. For the character that’s bisexual that’s only a part of his life, but for Salvador his life is focused on staying hung up on this man for the rest of his life. That will continue if they sleep together that night. That’s why it’s so important for him to say no to Federico spending the night.
It was wonderful because both actors were extraordinary, and, of course, they did it without any prejudices. I explained to both of them that the spectator had to understand they had been lovers and that they desire each other more than anything else in the world, even if this was a dialogue-driven scene.
They understood really well that their glances needed to convince the spectator that these were two lovers that had loved each other far beyond what’s reasonable. This had to be communicated just by the way they look at each other the first time. Then there are things that Leonardo Sbaraglia, who plays Federico, did that I didn’t instruct him to, like touching Antonio’s face when he arrives. He touches him in a way that’s not sexual, but that established a great intimacy between them.
I had so much luck with these two actors in this sequence. This sequence is of great importance because on the one hand it closes a period that was still open. It wasn’t as painful as in the beginning, but it had not concluded. Once the cycle is closed, Antonio tells him it’s better for him not to stay the night because that would have represented more memories and more difficulty to forget him. Antonio’s character at that moment gains control of is life back, and at that moment he decides to go to the doctor and have the doctor take care of all of his analgesic issues.
It’s important because in cinema I have never seen, although I’m sure it’s out there, two men close to 60 kissing. There’s still sexuality in them and the ability to get turned on. It makes me very happy to be able to show that, which was something new for me.
Filmmaker: Antonio has said that he cried during that scene but that it wasn’t planned. Does that happen to you often with actors, that emotions overtake them while shooting a scene?
Almodóvar: Yes, but it had never happened to me with Antonio. He is always emotional, but up until now it was dry emotion, it wasn’t a sharp emotion. There are actors that I have to keep controlling continuously so they don’t cry, because that’s their immediate reaction, like Penelope [Cruz]. I always have to fight against her tears. When Antonio’s character tells Federico to keep it together, to not cry, it makes me think about certain actresses. Definitely Penelope and Elena Anaya, as soon as they start acting their eyes begin to get moist and I always tell them to fight against that urge to cry because it’s not pretty to see someone crying. Seeing someone cry in a contrite and compulsive manner is not pretty. One tear falling down a face is definitely photogenic, but truly crying creates a mask on the actor’s face that’s not photogenic. What’s really photogenic and very intense is when the actor feels a very strong emotion, but fights against giving in to it. That fight against overwhelming emotion is evidenced by their eyes, and makes the performance much more interesting. I put that line in Antonio’s mouth through the character, but that’s’ what I actually think about crying.
Filmmaker: Shifting gears a bit, I recently read an article on Remezcla, a Latino culture site, that discussed the ways you’ve used Latin American music in your cinema, not only the songs of Chavela Vargas, but also singers like Lola Beltran and La Lupe. Do you have a special emotional connection to these songs and what narrative purpose have they served in your films?
Almodóvar: It hasn’t been totally deliberate. What happens is that in Spain, Latin American music, especially during my childhood and youth, was very present on the radio. They would play local music, but also Mexican music. Back then Mexican music was very well known in Spain, today it’s much less widely heard, as well as music from other Latin American countries, like Argentina, of course.
The ones I’ve chosen for my movies, I’ve discovered them as an adult. I started listening to Chavela in the ’70s, and that was the period when she had retired. I thought she would never appear on a stage again, and precisely when she reappeared in Madrid they asked me to introduce her. That’s when I met her, 25 years after I first started listening to her music, because she underwent a long journey when she quit alcohol. When I listened to her albums in the ’70s, Chavela was almost a spiritual guide for me. She was more than just a singer, like Billie Holiday or Nina Simone. Listening to them was more than just listening to music, because of their lyrics, the vitality each of them had, and for their long careers. I’ve never used Billie Holiday or Nina Simone in my movies, but I could have.
The way Chavela sings, both boleros and rancheras, and her own life experiences make her in a perfect sonic vehicle for my characters. When in High Heels you hear “Piensa en mi,” the song is a continuation of what you are watching, and it helps to better understand the characters played by Marisa Paredes and Victoria Abril.
In Pain and Glory I used Chavela’s “La noche de mi amor,” in which her enormous voice seems not to fit on stage. The character is talking about the time he was with his lover in a hotel in Mexico crying profusely discovering and listening to “La noche de mi amor.” It works for that scene, which was a very lucid decision. It occurred to me at the last moment. When the song starts Asier Etxeandia’s character Alberto stays quiet listening to it, and after a verse, he tells the crew to take it off, because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to continue with the monologue.
These songs by Chavela, Mina, or La Lupe, have a narrative function, they are never just a background song or just a nice song to listen to. Lola Beltrán on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is creating a portrait of an unhappy woman through her song, which is the same kind of woman we talk about later in the film. In Women on the Verge, that song is the prologue and the epilogue of the story. On the other hand, with La Lupe, the pride and arrogance in the song “Puro teatro” reflects, with some slight difference, the mental state of Carmen Maura’s character. She has freed herself from that man and she can tell that he is “puro teatro” (all farce). She is now a different woman from the one we met at first, much stronger.
I remember I discovered La Lupe in a nightclub or bar called La Escuelita in New York, I don’t know if it still exists—cinematographer Nestor Almendros took me there. I was very shocked because at the door you would get searched and people who had guns would leave them there, and there were many guns. I though, “Where has Nestor brought me?” The show was put on exclusively by transgender Latinas, and there was one of them that specialized on impersonating La Lupe, and who did everything La Lupe was famous for. La Lupe would go into a trance and rip her clothing off, and her voice of course resembled a young Édith Piaf. I was dazzled when I saw this performer becoming La Lupe at that place. It was 1986.
The next day I went out to buy her albums. She had been very important in the Latin beat era of the 1960s with Tito Puente. I didn’t know it, but at the time when I discovered her she was homeless in New York City. La Lupe’s life was a very novelesque. I used her as part of the screenplay for Women on the Verge. Her song represents a part of the last monologue that Carmen Maura’s character would say if she had one. Both Lola Beltrán’s words and La Lupe’s words are what Carmen’s character would have said but in two very different emotional states.
Naturally, Spanish-language music is really linked to my work, but for example in Pain and Glory using Italian singer Mina serves the same purpose. Mina’s song in the film is from 1960, and I remember listening to her since I was a kid. It’s a song that for me represents the sun, summer, sweat, and everything that’s ethereal. Sometime songs don’t work for a certain moment, but I synchronized this one with the sequence and saw that it fit wonderfully.
All that said, boleros above all go very well with my movies, with the types of characters that I write, and the situations I convey. I think I’ll keep on using Latin American music.
Filmmaker: Aside from Antonio and Penélope, there are other actors like Javier Cámara, Rossy de Palma, or Carmen Maura that are recurrent players in your stories. Has time and repeated collaborations made interactions on set more convenient or does familiarity bring its own challenges?
Almodóvar: It’s easier. It’s like something in which you’ve invested time. The fact that they have already understood you, that they know how you are, how you explain things, and how you function on set gains time [shooting]. For me, it’s beneficial to know them already as actors, because I direct each actor in a different way based on how the person is. There’s no general system for directing actors, at least I don’t have one. Knowing them already as actors gives me more confidence about the end result and the process is faster. Although sometimes there are surprises, sometimes you know the actor, but not in that specific character you’ve given him or her, and sometimes that’s difficult to figure out. In general, it’s like having an artistic family. That comes with many advantages.
Filmmaker: At this point in your career several books have been written about you and your oeuvre. It’s often criticism attempting to decipher your motifs and recurrent themes. Do you ever engage or read what’s been written about you and your work?
Almodóvar: It should interest me, but the truth is I don’t read them [Laughs], but it’s because of a certain type of modesty I feel, not so much because I don’t want to know if I agree with them or not. Each of the books that have been written about me says something different because each writer sees things based on their mentality, their culture, their situation in life, their age, and many other elements that shape them. Opinions vary a lot.
If what you read about Law of Desire is by Pauline Kael—it makes me very happy she was actually able to write about my cinema—that’s very different than if you read the book that Frédéric Straus wrote about me for Cahiers du Cinéma.
I also don’t read my own interviews, because it gives me a certain awkwardness to see what I’ve said. I only know what’s being said about me in general. Throughout these nearly 40 years making movies, I’ve also been misunderstood countless times, but even those misunderstandings I accept them as part of my work. Those misunderstandings in interpretation form part of the movie you have made.
One movie is 1000 movies depending on who watches it, and that in turn enriches the movie. Even the reviews that I may think are wrong are also born from the movie, so all them are part of a whole that relates back to the movie I made.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English by the author for Filmmaker.