It feels weird to say that Pedro Almodóvar — one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last 35 years, a man who has an Oscar and countless classics to his name, a name which has itself become a kind of shorthand for a particular brand of colorful, irony-drenched movie — is getting some of the best reviews of his life for Pain and Glory. But he really is getting some of the best reviews of his life for Pain and Glory, his proto-autobiographical drama starring his longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas (who is definitely getting the best reviews of his life) as a melancholy film director looking over a life of regrets. And the director admits that he got a little “vertigo” when it became clear that this would be his most personal film yet. During a recent conversation, we talked about putting oneself out there, his most notable disagreements with actors, and Hollywood’s occasional attempts to get him to make a movie in English.
Much of Pain and Glory focuses on the protagonist’s struggles with his health. You’ve spoken of some of your struggles with migraines and other problems. What prompted you to make a film about this?
I never thought I would make a movie about these kinds of pains. I’ve been really lucky in my life. I never dreamt that I would have a life like the one I experienced, and I didn’t want to complain. All around me are thousands of thousands of people in worse situations. But you talk about yourself, and I always did in my movies — not only in this one. In my other movies I represent myself in a more oblique way. Sometimes I am behind characters that aren’t filmmakers; sometimes I am behind female characters. But it’s true that this is the first time that I took myself as a reference for the character. All these films originate from a realistic situation, and the reality is inside of me, so I usually have to take a particular distance from it, but at some point when I was writing Pain and Glory, I got vertigo because I was going to implicate myself much more than I ever had before.
Was it your decision to make Antonio Banderas’s character look like you as well?
Yes! In my movies I am the one who decides everything. There is a moment in preproduction when you start designing the faces of your main characters. I thought maybe he should have my own hairdo. Even the clothes — I gave him some of my jackets and some shoes. But above all, I gave to the character the same apartment that I live in. The paintings were mine, and some of the furniture is mine. This made the entire production process go much faster. Everyone came to my house and replicated it in the studio.
But I feel that the movie would be the same if Antonio had red hair, or other kind of hairdo.
When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, Banderas told me that he’d gotten some bad habits in Hollywood, which you had to wean him off of when you reunited to make The Skin I Live In. What were those bad habits?
He’s really a good kid. He’s quite generous to be talking about these problems. It’s true that we had very different ideas about the kinds of takes that we were going to do and how he was going to interpret his character. We did argue. But at the end my point of view triumphed because Antonio is a very disciplined actor, and he’ll do what I ask him even if he isn’t convinced. I was not comfortable seeing him do that, just giving in. But you have to be pragmatic when you are shooting. And Antonio is so sincere that when The Skin I Live In went to Toronto and he saw it the first time, he understood everything I told him during the shooting. It was a lesson for him in a sense. And that lesson was very important for Pain and Glory, because when he read this script, he knew that he absolutely wanted to do it. And he said, “Don’t worry, Pedro, I will be in a very different position than The Skin I Live In. I’ll leave myself in your hands completely naked, and you can do whatever you want.”
This doesn’t mean that I don’t like actors that come with their own ideas. It’s of course natural that an actor might have his own ideas about how to interpret the character. Especially for experienced actors like Antonio, and actors who have been directors (like he has). Also, I know actors who really have to work on the characters themselves at home because the director isn’t giving them any real indications of what they want. But in my case I’ve always given them instructions. And when you have a director who has a very clear vision of what he wants, it is the actor’s job to listen and to deliver what the director wants.
Was this always your style with directing actors?
Yes! Even when I shot Super 8mm movies, I behaved exactly the same. The actor is the face of the film, the eyes of the film, the voice of the film. There are all these other elements that go into the making of a film — the cinematography, the mise-en-scène, etc. — but what the spectator is going to identify with is the actor. I became a director because I like to work with actors. I admire them very much and I’m always quite grateful for them. The actor is actually giving life to a fantasy that I’ve written at home, so the work they do is an act of great generosity.
What is the biggest disagreement you’ve had with an actor?
I’m not going to give any names because it’s not nice to give names, and in general, I’ve been lucky. I remember only three times that I’ve had big arguments, and I suffered a lot because the actors really didn’t want to do what was necessary. Or they were not in a good place. Or we had a very bad relationship that was projected onto the movie. It’s awful when this happens. Awful!
I remember the most painful one. For the first time, I had to go to a psychiatrist just because of the anxiety. It was an extreme situation that had nothing to do with the actor’s ability, but he had an almost psychotic reaction toward the character, and both he and I had to go to a psychiatrist — me to deal with my anxiety and him to deal with his issues. My brother was convinced we were never going to finish that movie, but I never threw in the towel. The idea of not finishing a film is the most painful thing I could imagine. Even if the actor and I died trying, we were going to finish that movie. We both had to find a middle ground, and at some point, I rewrote part of the character to fit this particular actor better. And for the longest time, I couldn’t see this film, but I saw it again four months ago at a retrospective in Spain and I was quite pleased with the result — having to rewrite the role played well for the film. It’s a really big adventure. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you have to be ready for it. But this was an exception in my career. In 95 percent of the cases, I had the right casting and they are wonderful for the film.
Can you at least tell me the name of the film?
No! [Laughs.] If I tell you the name of the film, you will know the actor.
When you first started making movies, you were working in a Spain that was still quite conservative, just a few years after the death of Franco. I know some of the response to Labyrinth of Passion at the time was quite volatile. Were you afraid at all?
I was never afraid. I think I was unconscious perhaps. My ambition was to make the films I wanted to make, and that ambition took me to a place where I could completely disregard any kind of reactions to my films. Not just with Labyrinth, but also Dark Habits. Spain is officially supposed to be secular, but in reality we’re a very Catholic country. In Dark Habits, we had nuns helping prostitutes, heroin addicts, murderers. One of the nuns also shoots up heroin. In the context of Spain, it was a very difficult film.
But I can see how much Spanish society has changed now, because when Dark Habits was shown on TV more recently, many people called me and said, “You can’t do this movie in Spain anymore.” Not in contemporary Spain. Which means that Spain is worse now than it was in the 1980s! Spanish society at the time [when the film came out] was much more accepting of that type of thing than they are now. What happened of course was that we had just entered democracy, and in that freedom, the reactionary aspects of society were a little scared — because we had taken over the streets and they were hiding in their houses, afraid to react. What’s happening now is that the people who were hiding are now front and center, and in fact the far right has now reappeared in Spain. This is bad for Spain, but it is happening all over Europe. The Trump effect has been very damaging for Europe. He has inspired these characters that are quite dangerous.
You had a lot of early success in the U.S. as well. Were you ever approached by Hollywood to come make films here?
Yes, a couple of times. After Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I got many proposals to make films here — including the remake of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown! But I always hesitated about their intentions. They always told me I could have the same freedom and independence that I was used to working with. But I didn’t believe it. I talked to many directors — both Hollywood directors and independent directors, people like Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader — and the stories that they told were frightening, talking about the way that Hollywood produced movies. So when they tried to tempt me, I was mature enough to know what I wanted to do. What I see is that the way of producing a movie in Hollywood is so different from the way I do it. It’s not only a question of power — in Europe, it’s clear that the film belongs to the director — but here there are way too many voices that have opinions in the process and I don’t think I could work that way. I would not know how to satisfy them and I would feel confused.
Are there any American films you wish you could have made?
The only one that I was tempted to actually take was Brokeback Mountain, which the screenwriter Larry McMurtry offered to me to direct. I knew the story by E. Annie Proulx, and I was fascinated by the project. I hesitated during the two or three months that they were waiting for me. In the end, I think it was much better that Ang Lee made that movie. I love the movie and I think both actors are wonderful. But my vision of that short tale was much more physical than it was in the movie. That’s what it’s about in the story — there’s something very animalistic about their love, they’re searching for warmth in each other, and it has that twist to it. I was sure that I couldn’t do it as physical as I wanted to. Perhaps I will one day make a movie in English, but it will be with European money, then I can be as free as I am now.
The final image of Pain and Glory might be the most powerful shot you’ve ever directed. And yet it’s so simple. Just a mother and a child waiting in a train station. Can you tell me how you came up with this moment?
The idea was to say to the spectator: All the flashbacks that you’re watching have been the movie that Salvador is making, and Penélope Cruz has been playing the mother. What I wanted also to convey is that when Salvador discovered the watercolor [of himself as a young child, drawn by a bricklayer whom he taught how to read and write], he felt the passion of telling that story. This is what he missed — the necessity of telling a story. And he found it in that image. So immediately he went home and started writing. This is what saved him. Because he thought making a new movie would have been impossible.
But I also wanted to, in that final shot, put the past and the present in the same place, united by the dolly shot. Here young Salvador is with his mother in the train station. He says, “Do you think there will be cinemas where we’re going?” She says, “First I would like to have a home.” This is what the movie is about — these two big necessities. That’s the past, but also here is Antonio, in front of a video monitor, watching the image, and the women around them recording the sound. It was tough because we didn’t have a lot of space, and I hate using big, open wide angles à la Terrence Malick. I’m glad that the shot works. Some other sequences come to you along the way, like in the fifth draft, or during the shooting. But I had this as the ending of the film ever since I started working on this script.