Pedro Almodovar: I Wanted ‘Skin I Live In’ to Be a Black & White Silent Film

Plus, the director talks about reuniting with Antonio Banderas at TheWrap's Awards Screening Series

Director Pedro Almodóvar wasn’t just thinking Alfred Hitchcock and “Frankenstein” when he made his new plastic-surgery-gone-amuck thriller “The Skin I Live In” – in which a doctor does some terrible things in the operating room to a beautiful woman who's not there by choice.

Initially, his plan was to shoot a silent film in black and white, the director revealed at a Q&A following a showing of the film Tuesday night at the Landmark Theater, part of TheWrap’s ongoing Awards Screening Series.

In 2002’s “Talk to Her,” “I shot a nine-minute [silent] short called ‘The Shrinking Lover,’” the director told TheWrap’s Steve Pond, who hosted the discussion. “I enjoyed so much to do that and also to discover that there is not the necessity of using so many words. I was thinking for two or three months to make this a silent movie in black and white…

"But my brother, who is also my producer, didn’t allow me to do that. He said, ‘Pedro, this is risky enough.’ And he is the intelligent one in the family, so I said, ‘You’re right.’

“Now I’m glad that I made it this way, because for a silent movie, someone like Fritz Lang or Murnau had really established the rules of the game, and in this case, it was better to feel more free from any influences.”

“The Skin I Live In,” which stars Antonio Banderas as a sociopathic plastic surgeon who experiments on an unwilling subject, feels less like Almodóvar’s earlier films and more akin to classic horror films like Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.”

“Of course, there’s a lot of resonance in this movie,” admitted Almodóvar, who was also in town to serve as guest director for this week’s AFI Film Festival. “This is an eternal subject, to create someone new. But I was not conscious [of earlier films] when I was shooting. Directors, in general, feel we are unique, and that we are creating something complete new, and we are, at least in my case. This is the first time I’ve made this material, so I wasn’t conscious about other influences.

 

But he did admit that “Alfred Hitchcock is present. And Hitchcock for me really is the master. It’s like he invented the cinema. It’s impossible to avoid the influence of Hitchcock. But of course, ‘Frankenstein’ is always there, too. And many movies with people with masks. But I didn’t think of them when I was shooting.

“But I remember that when we were filming on the staircase, I saw that the ghosts of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Vertigo’ were coming like guests, part of the family of the subject. I said hello, and they were very welcoming.”

The one director he did try to emulate was Franju. “Because I didn’t want to make a gory movie, I tried to be very austere like in Georges Franju’s movie,” he said.

The film was also a reunion for Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas, who became international stars together with early films like “Law of Desire” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” But even though the two have remained friends over the years, “The Skin I Live In” marked their first collaboration since 1990’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”

“I needed the same Antonio, in the sense of him being the same person with an incredible disposition for working and also someone very generous when we are shooting,” recalled Almodóvar.

“That’s the way he was in the past. At the same time, I didn’t want him to repeat the characters he played in the ’80s. I asked him for a completely different tone; Antonio is someone very expressive, very baroque — and I am, too — but for this psycho character, I wanted an empty face, which was perhaps more difficult for him because it’s the opposite of himself and the way he worked with me in the past.”

But even after a professional separation of two decades, during which Banderas became the first Spanish actor to launch a successful Hollywood career, director and star easily re-established their working relationship.

“When I spoke with him on the phone after I sent him the script, I think he intuited that I needed the security that he would arrive with the same disposition as always, so the first thing he told me, besides that he wanted to do the movie, was, ‘Pedrito, you can do whatever you want. I put myself in your hands.’ Which was exactly what he did. So in that sense, he didn’t change.”

While some directors welcome improvisation, Almodóvar said he rehearses everything beforehand, so that “nothing happens for the first time in front of the camera.”

Nonetheless, no matter how much he prepares beforehand, he says it’s his responsibility to cope with the changes that inevitably come once the cameras start rolling. “Truffaut said that a film shoot is like a group of people on a runaway train, and it’s the director’s job to keep that train from derailing,” jokes the director. “And we kept that from happening.”

One directorial trick the Oscar-winning filmmaker shared with the audience involved working with markedly different actors on a film set.

“The problem is when you have, together, an actor whose best work is on the second or third take, and the other in the same shot is an actor or actress who needs 20 takes. What I do is shoot the first close-ups with the third-take actor and then later, with the 20-take actor, I have the other one off-camera for those close-ups. The important thing is that they know what they’re doing, and I’m not saying the 20-take actor is any less talented; they just need a different kind of directing.”

Given Almodóvar’s affinity for music (remember the moving moment in “Volver” when Penélope Cruz’s character sings a song from her childhood?) and dance (the Pina Bausch pieces that bookend “Talk to Her”), has he ever considered making a musical?

“Always. I mean, I see myself more using songs that already exist and pulling them together. In my movies, the songs are really part of the script. I decide when I am writing, and all the songs really explain important things about the characters, and I use them like in a musical. But I hope I can make one in the future.”