Q & A with Writer-Director Pedro Almodovar

Star of “Broken Embraces” Penelope Cruz

Star of “Broken Embraces” Penelope Cruz

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Pedro Almodovar about his new romantic thriller “Broken Embraces” from Sony Pictures Classics, which is generating an Oscar buzz for Almodovar’s original screenplay and for Penelope Cruz’s performance.

An official selection at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and the closing night presentation at the 2009 New York Film Festival, “Broken Embraces” stars Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar and Blanca Portillo. It was produced by Agustin Almodovar and by Esther Garcia.

The Story in brief (spoiler alert): A man writes, lives and loves in darkness. Fourteen years earlier he was in a brutal car crash on the Spanish island of Lanzarote. In the accident he not only lost his sight, he also lost Lena, the love of his life.

This man uses two names — Harry Caine, a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts, and Mateo Blanco, his real name, with which he lives and signs the films he directs. After the accident, Mateo Blanco reduces himself to his pseudonym, Harry Caine. If he can’t direct films he can only survive with the idea that Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena.

In the present day, Harry Caine lives thanks to the scripts he writes and to the help he gets from his faithful former production manager, Judit Garcia, and from Diego, her son, his secretary, typist and guide. Since he decided to live and tell stories, Harry is an active, attractive blind man who has developed all his other senses in order to enjoy life, on a basis of irony and self induced amnesia. He has erased from his biography any trace of his first identity, Mateo Blanco.

One night Diego has an accident and Harry takes care of him. His mother, Judit, is out of Madrid and they decide not to tell her anything so as not to alarm her. During the first nights of his convalescence, Diego asks him about the time when he answered to the name of Mateo Blanco, after a moment of astonishment Harry can’t refuse and he tells Diego what happened fourteen years before with the idea of entertaining him, just as a father tells his little child a story so that he’ll fall asleep.

The story of Mateo, Lena, Judit and Ernesto Martel is a story dominated by fatality, jealously, the abuse of power, treachery and a guilt complex. A moving and terrible story, the most expressive image of which is the photo of two lovers embracing, torn into a thousand pieces.

Pedro Almodovar was born in Spain in Calzada de Calatrava in the heart of La Mancha in the ’50s. When he was eight, he emigrated with his family to Estremadura. At seventeen he left home and moved to Madrid, with no money and no job, but with something very specific in mind — to study cinema and direct films. It was impossible to enroll in the Official Film School because Franco had just closed it.

Despite the dictatorship that was suffocating the country, for an adolescent from the provinces Madrid represented culture, independence and freedom. Almodovar worked at many sporadic jobs but couldn’t buy his first Super 8mm camera until he got a “serious” job at the National Telephone Company of Spain in 1971. He worked there for 12 years as an administrative assistant, sharing this job in the mornings with other activities which provided his real training as a filmmaker and as a person.

In the mornings at the Telephone Company, he got an in-depth knowledge of the Spanish middle class at the start of the consumer era, the seventies, its dramas and its misfortunes, a real gold mine for a future story teller. In the evenings and nights, he wrote, loved and acted with the mythical independent theater group Los Goliardos and made films in Super 8 (his only school as a filmmaker). He collaborated with various underground magazines and wrote stories, some of which were published. He was a member of a punk rock parody group, Almodovar and McNamara, etc. And he had the good fortune that his personal explosion coincided with the explosion of the democratic Madrid of the ’80s. That was the period the world knew as La Movida.

Almodovar’s films are the heirs and the witnesses of the newborn Spanish democracy. After a year and a half of eventful shooting on 16mm, in 1980 he opened “Pepi, Luci, Bom”, a no budget film made as a cooperative effort with the rest of the crew and the cast, all beginners, except for Carmen Maura. In 1986, he founded the production company El Deseo S.A. with his brother Agustin. Their first project was “Law of Desire”. Since then, they have produced all the films written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, and have also produced films by other young directors.

In 1988, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” brought him international recognition. Since then, his films have opened around the world. With “All About my Mother” he won his first Academy Award for Best Foreign Film as well as the Golden Globe, the Cesar, three European Film Awards, the David de Donatello, two BAFTAs, seven Goyas and 45 other awards.

Three years later, “Talk to Her” was a major success — winning the Academy Award for Best Script, five European Film Awards, two BAFTAs, the Nastro de Argento, the Cesar and many other awards throughout the world, but not in Spain. He then produced four films that were especially well regarded around the world — “My Life Without Me”, “The Holy Girl”, “The Secret Life of Words”, and “The Headless Woman” directed by Isabel Coixet and Lucrecia Martel.

In 2004 “Bad Education” was chosen to open the Cannes Festival and received extraordinary reviews worldwide. It was nominated for numerous awards — including the Independent Spirit Awards, BAFTAs, Cesar and European Film Awards — and won Best Foreign Film from the New York Film Critics’ Circle and also the Nastro de Argento.

In 2006 he received the Prince of Asturias Award to the Arts. That same year he presented “Volver” in competition in the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best Screenplay as well as Best Actress for the film’s six actresses, led by Penelope Cruz. The film received five European Film Awards, five Goya awards, the Fipresci Award, the National Board of Review and about 70 others.

Penelope Cruz was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in “Volver”, marking the first time a Spanish actress was nominated for a Spanish speaking film. Until now, “Volver” has been Amomodovar’s most popular film at the boxoffice.

After enjoying an early look at “Broken Embraces”, I was happy to be able to ask Pedro Almodovar about the making of the movie when he called recently from Spain. Although Almodovar’s English is excellent and he understands English quite well, he had a skilled translator on the line to assist him as necessary.

Lluis Homar (right) starring in “Broken Embraces”

Lluis Homar (right) starring in “Broken Embraces”

Q: I always talk to directors about directing, but when I have a director who’s also a writer I enjoy focusing on the writing process. How did you get the idea for writing “Broken Embraces”?
A: When I’m talking about my work, my maternal language is much easier for me. The origin of a story is always very, very mysterious. Very secret. The first image that could be described as the seed of the film is that photograph of (Golfo Beach on the Spanish island of) Lanzarote that I took about nine years ago. When I received the pictures after they were developed I hadn’t previously seen a couple of lovers who were embracing at the foot of the image. I hadn’t seen the lovers there before and that image was at the root of the film.

Both the island, the beach and the couple suggested that there was a secret behind them. And ever since I felt that I wanted to include that image in a film. For years I’ve been trying to include that image in the films I’ve written, but they never quite matched until this film when I actually connected that image to another image and that was really the genesis of the story.

I’m suffering from migraines — more intensely in the last five years. Beyond the pain and all that, sitting in complete darkness I started playing this game. I wasn’t really writing a screenplay, I was just playing a game to keep myself entertained to fill my time because I actually found that the pain had canceled out every other possibility. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t go on the computer. But my imagination remained entirely free. So in the darkness I started playing this game and I created this alter ego of Mateo Blanco. So this was a writer who was living in darkness. Later I decided I wanted to include him in my screenplay, but I didn’t want to give him exactly the same problem I had so that’s why I decided that he would be blind to justify the darkness.

So I started thinking about this alter ego Mateo Blanco, someone like me living in darkness. I was developing this character. I would take notes about my life. But there was a moment when there appeared his story with this actress and with this producer. Immediately, these characters meet in the photo that I was fascinated by in the last years. These two appeared in my migraine — this man living in the darkness and the photo.

I write scripts more like a novelist than like a screenwriter. First of all, I take a lot of notes about something that I’m interested in. You know, the story is growing. The story grows like layers that are gradually sedimented. So once I’ve got a considerable volume of notes, say around a hundred pages, I decide what the central story is going to be.

Usually, I have more than one story on my desk at the same time and I’m working on various screenplays in the notes stage at once. That’s why I say this is very different to how screenwriters would work in Hollywood.
Q: Would you enlarge on some of the differences between how you write and how screenwriting is done in Hollywood?
A: I don’t want to sound so dismissive about the way people work in Hollywood, but it would be impossible for me to be a script writer in Hollywood. What I mean is that my stories require a lot of time to simmer. I do write a lot. I type a lot. It has nothing to do with the time I spend. I do type a lot of pages a day. But those stories take a few months to simmer.

I think it’s a question of the natural way in which my stories and my characters and my visualizations take a certain time to mature. And it’s a time that cannot be abridged. So I think professional script writers have a lot less time on their hands. Actually, the way I work is very hand crafted. It’s the way Velazquez would paint his pictures under natural light. I’m not saying that another way of working is not just as valid, but that’s just the way I work. It’s the way I started to work and it’s the way I know how to work. I don’t compare myself to Velazquez. But I write in a very old fashioned way. This is my way of writing.
Writer-Director Pedro Almodovar on set of his film “Broken Embraces”

Writer-Director Pedro Almodovar on set of his film “Broken Embraces”

Q: When you’re writing, how do you work? For instance, do you use a screenwriting computer program?
A: I write in a computer, but I don’t use any computer program for screenwriters. When I’m taking notes, I take notes anywhere — on newspapers, on any scraps of paper when inspiration might reach me in any situation at any moment. I do put that on to my computer. But when I decide on the story that I’m going to focus on — so for instance now I’m just seeing one story — I do draft that on the computer. And that’s, as it were, the final stage of what will become a script. So I do write stuff on the computer. But I don’t use any specific applications for screenplays.

When I go to correct my drafts, I always have to print them out and revise them on paper. I feel that is absolutely essential. And perhaps that’s a legacy of the old typewriter that I still haven’t broken away from. But I feel that the process is a lot deeper and a lot more effective if I can work on paper. I’ve tried to correct my drafts on the computer and it just doesn’t work the same way.

When I write the first draft, what the first draft provides me is the main themes, the characters’ main features. But that first draft goes straight into the trash can. Basically, what matters about the first draft is that it has a beginning, it has an end, it has a plotline, it has a set of characters. But that’s when the real writing process begins. I can probably go through nine rewrites until I gradually fine tune the story. Something that I actually do and that I don’t suggest and I certainly don’t recommend because it’s extremely time consuming is that I put these “what if” clauses into the screenplay.

I develop lines “what if such and such character did such and such a thing?” That allows me to develop alternative aspects of a character’s personality and that’s what allows me to actually improvise so fast when I’m on a shoot. Sometimes the actors are absolutely amazed at how fast I can improvise. But actually what I’m doing is I’m bringing in aspects of the character that I had previously developed and then set aside.

So to me the cornerstone of the film absolutely is the script and I am very rigorous in that. I come across as being very strict and I am very strict, but at the same time I’m always very open to improvisation during the shoot.
Q: Can you give us an example?
A: When Penelope comes out from under the sheets (in a bedroom scene) and her elderly lover’s hand comes out he looks absolutely exhausted. He actually looks like he could be dead, which is understandable because he’s a 70 year old man and they’ve been screwing for hours and it’s only natural that a 70 year old should be exhausted after that. But that’s when I made the connection when I saw that hand that looked like it could be dead and the sheet looked like a death sheet.

That’s when I decided that he would play dead at that point. So it was only after Rodrigo Prieto (the DP) was putting up the lighting that I decided that I was going to put that in. The characters didn’t know. I was just feeding them the lines from behind the camera and that’s pretty improvised and now it is one of the key scenes in the film that actually gives you the clues of both characters’ duplicity.

I’m always open to the scene that happens during the shooting because shooting is something completely alive. That’s very dangerous, but sometimes it’s wonderful because you can take advantage of this light and integrate it into your own story. So this is the way I work.
Q: When you’re writing, you know that eventually you’re going to be directing the script. Do you ever write thinking about how you might not want to direct a scene the way you’re starting to write it — like a scene to be shot at night during pouring rain?
A: Yes, sometimes during the production process as long as the change isn’t essential and it’s not particularly relevant to the main story, I might just change, as you say, a night shot to a day shot because it’s obviously simpler to shoot during the daytime. So I do make those adjustments and they’re absolutely intentional, of course. I might simplify locations because the most expensive thing is to move the whole thing around from one location to another. And even if it’s somewhere on the set I might also simplify things and bring them together. But, as I say, nothing that would make the film suffer. They would always be minor changes that wouldn’t affect the core.

One change that I have had to make and it’s probably been the most painful, is nightfall shots. I’ve very often had to give up nightfall shots because keeping up continuity of those shots would really require a week of shooting and we really don’t have the production means to be able to sustain that. I remember in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” when Carmen Maura is taking the mad woman who’s carrying a gun and wants to shoot their lover, both women’s lover. All that scene was originally in nightfall and Carmen was chasing this woman. She kept coming up to a whole range of obstacles and that was in the most amazing nightfall light on their route between Madrid and the airport. I had to cut that down to two car shots. I did have to sacrifice that, but just on the premise of pure realism because that outdoor lighting at nightfall is extremely expensive to maintain and it would have required weeks of production.
Q: In writing “Broken Embraces” I’m assuming you knew Penelope was going to play both Lena and a character in the comedy movie within your movie. Is it helpful when you’re writing to know who’s going to play a role?
A: In general, I don’t put actors’ faces to the characters in my first draft. I do that immediately afterwards. In this case, I did know that Penelope was (going to play) Lena. But Lena also changed immensely throughout the writing process. On the one hand, when you do that it can help, but it can also be a limitation. You have to bear in mind that in the writing process my characters change immensely. They not only change age, but they also change sex sometimes.

In the case of Penelope I did know it was going to be her and I think I demonstrated in some of the scenes in the film that I believe that Penelope is an actress who holds a thousand women inside her — some of them actually even opposing (each other). So she can act in a Sophia Loren light or she can suddenly be a replica of Audrey Hepburn. But obviously knowing her and knowing her as an actress allowed me to handle these people inside her (knowing) that she can play all these images. So it’s actually a source of great comfort and inspiration that she plays the two of them.