Pedro Almodovar is the most acclaimed Spanish film director since Luis Bunuel and Carlos Saura. A true auteur, Almodovar‘s work is passionate, colorful, and controversial, often full of comic misfortune and perverse wit. His latest feature film, The Skin I Live In, is one of his darkest pictures in years—and under your skin it will certainly get. Based on Thierry Jonquel’s novel Tarantula, the film stars Antonio Banderas, who reunites with Almodovar after their early work together on movies like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. A frank and hilarious Mr. Almodovar gave an interview from his hotel suite in Midtown Manhattan during the week of The Skin I Live In‘s release.
You’ve been a filmmaker and screenwriter for over a quarter-century. Is there a particular part of the process that you enjoy most?
For me, it’s really the shoot that’s the most exciting. It’s the great adventure! When shooting, what is already written in the script is really more of an abstraction. It’s only what’s in front of the camera that’s alive and breathing, and you have to find a way to control all of that. Truffaut used to say that a shoot is like a train that has lost its brakes, and it’s the director’s job to make sure that the train will not derail. I think it’s dangerous and it really becomes an addiction, but you need to feel that addiction in order to be a director and shoot a film.
Tell me about adapting Thierry Jonquel’s novel Tarantula into The Skin I Live In.
I spend long periods of time writing. With this film, it took me a lot of time to figure out the medium where the characters would interact and develop, and this took me much longer than with other scripts in the past. But once I decided that I liked the script, it took me four or five months in production. I rehearsed with the actors for at least two months. I edit the movie during the shooting period, though the chronological structure is always decided by the script. In the USA, directors have a very different relationship with the film and the editing. The director might not have access to the footage while shooting, but I insist on it.
What is your relationship like with your actors?
I work more like I am directing a theater play rather than a movie. Everything is rehearsed for five months and the shooting is around ten weeks. This is something I really demand as a director. My movies are not expensive to make, but I demand more weeks than most. In Spain it’s usually eight, but I demand ten or eleven weeks. This is just the way I work–I work very hard with the actors.
It seems you tend to work with the same actors for years, particularly female certain female actors. Why do you think this is?
Ah, yes. It’s not something I’ve done consciously. It just has happened that way. I don’t feel that pleasure or pain is experienced any different between a man or a woman, but I think it is true that women are more spectacular in their reactions, and more expressive and a lot less judgmental towards what they feel and a lot more direct. Also there is a lack of prejudice in general that it makes it more interesting. Women even in a conservative society tend to be less prejudice than men. So for me, at least, it becomes more attractive. The women from my childhood influenced me very much. They were very strong and they marked me in a very particular way.
You have discussed your childhood before. Are there subjects you don’t feel comfortable talking about?
Oscar Wilde used to say, there is no such thing as indiscreet questions, only indiscreet answers. You can say that I am ready for anything.
What’s most challenging for you as a director?
I don’t want to be too transcendental, but the challenge is always to survive. For me the biggest challenge is the changes in my life and confronting them, and of course that has to do with getting a little bit older. For example, I still want to shoot movies as if I was 25, the way in which my outlook on life was colored. I think it’s different now, but I would love to recuperate the feeling of the first time. My philosophy is to never throw in the towel.
I don’t think you should be too concerned. Do you read reviews of your work?
You can’t ask people to see a movie twice, but in Madrid I asked the audience the first time it screened to see it twice. See the movie and take it home, sleep with it, because in my experience you realize what the movie is about after sleeping on it. Everyone who has seen it for a second time has really enjoyed it a lot more. I tend to see films twice, not only the ones I like but also the ones that I do not like. My movies are very overwhelmed with emotion. What I hear always is that the second time, people like it more in the sense that they can pay attention to the details because the plot is very extreme and the twists—once you are familiar with the movie, then really you can enjoy much better.
Do audiences react differently to your work in Spain than in America?
The American audience tends to be noisier, and have very immediate reactions, which is good. For example, I write humor into the script, but of course there will be moments when the spectator will be laughing at something I was not expecting, and I think it’s out of nervousness and discomfort. It’s not good or bad, but it is interesting. As a director I welcome all of that because I think there is an entire range of reactions to any one of my films. The film becomes one hundred different films depending who is viewing it.
How about the role humor plays in your films? I find most of your work immensely funny.
You must never be embarrassed about finding something funny in a dramatic moment, because life itself is like that. It’s something that belongs very much to American culture, which robes the ability to react. The contrary happens in Spanish culture. Pain is always mixed with humor and tragedy is always part of humor, too. It’s like life — humor makes it more palpable, more livable. A movie is like a person. You understand a person better as you talk to them and get familiar with someone. I know a movie is something to be seen and forgotten with the passing of time, but The Skin I Live In demands a special kind of attention.