Pedro Almodóvar on the Real-Life Fears and Aches Behind ‘Pain and Glory’
A version of this story about Pedro Almodóvar and “Pain and Glory” first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
When Pedro Almodóvar sat down to talk about his Spanish Oscar entry “Pain and Glory,” he looked trim and well-rested. That’s a relief, since the semiautobiographical film is about filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), whose physical and mental travails have blocked him from what he loves most — making movies.
(This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English.)
You’re looking well. I’m sure with your interviews for this film, everyone starts with, “Are you OK? How are you feeling?”
It’s true, that’s the first question I get from a lot of people. “Are you all right?” Yes, I’m doing much better than the Antonio Banderas character.
There’s an animated segment early on showing us everything wrong with Salvador’s aging body. Is this the first time you’ve used animation outside of the titles?
Yes, and I chose it to get the point across in the least amount of time. I’m introducing a character with multiple pains and afflictions, and that’s no fun to direct or to discuss. Pains aren’t very cinematic, unless they’re tied up with action, but to show headaches or backaches, there aren’t a lot of ways to shoot that in an interesting way. So I made a list of all the character’s aches, and I gave it to Alberto (Iglesias) to set it to music, and once I had the music, I gave it to (graphic designer) Juan Gatti to animate it. At first, it was a whim; it amused me to go from the characters to animated drawings. I was amused by the narrative risk. But on the other hand, as I usually do, I appreciated how practical it was — the viewer learns what they need to very quickly, and it’s visually interesting.
And after a certain age — I’ve seen this happen in my own family — that’s the first conversation you have with people. “What pains do you have? How’ve you been?”
There’s definitely an age where the question, “How are you?” becomes something you really mean. It’s not rhetorical anymore.
This film seems to be part of a moment where we’re seeing more films and TV shows that are talking about the act of aging. The fragility of the body, the regrets we sometimes have later in life, and that seems to be a topic movies have tended to avoid.
I’m not conscious of that. But in Spain, where we don’t talk that much about this stage of life, deaths are far outnumbering births. The Spanish citizenry is aging, Spanish society gets older every day, and there’s no renewal among the population. We’re the majority, in Spain at least, those of us who are aging and having problems with aging.
What I didn’t want to do in this movie was to present a character who was complaining about his aches and pains or about his inability to work, mainly because — unless you’re Philip Roth, and this idea is the crux of the work — it needs to be part of the narrative. Characters age, and they have problems they didn’t have before. Or their circumstances are different. And I think it’s great that those topics are included, mixed in as part of the story.
There has been a lot of discussion regarding how autobiographical this film is, but it’s about a filmmaker who hasn’t worked in years because he’s blocked, while you have remained fairly prolific. I wondered, What week was this where you weren’t working on a project?
(Laughs) That part doesn’t correspond with my life, true, but many other elements of the film do. The character has had back surgery, which I’ve had as well, and I started writing the script when I was having severe back pains during recovery. The character realizes that he’s in no shape to make another movie, and that’s the real reason he’s depressed. The real addiction, the real dependency for this character isn’t heroin — that’s a casual vice — but the capacity to create stories and to turn those stories into movies. And that inability makes him feel like his life has no meaning.
And I share that feeling, not because I’ve been blocked, but more in anticipation of arriving at a moment where I can no longer make movies. I can feel it, like a physical sensation. And the idea of that moment coming worries me. It’s why I greatly admire people like Clint Eastwood, who appears to be ageless and who keeps making films, even more than one a year. That idea of film being absent from my life frightens me. I always think of it in terms of my physical ability; I keep having ideas, or scripts, or drafts, on my desk, but I’m afraid of being physically unable to go into production.
And for people like me, there’s no substitute for the act of filmmaking. The great adventure of my life has been writing and directing. Even the great loves of my life have been sublimated into my work — when I think about some great memory of my life, it’s always linked to whatever movie I was making at the time. I don’t have birthdays; I have movies. Each film carries so many memories with it, having to do with everything.
Another connection is that the isolation that I live in now isn’t all that different from the isolation of Antonio’s character. The movie talks a lot about the passage of time — the ’60s, the ’70s, right now — and how the character’s life changes, and it’s the passage of time that has led me to make this movie as opposed to another one. This movie is the result of my having already made 20 movies, and of being in this profession for 40 years. Time changes your ability to do things — what came easy to you when you were younger suddenly becomes more difficult — and it changes your ability to love someone. You start losing that, and that’s a great loss.
In my case, I just turned 70, but it doesn’t mean that I feel completely different than I did when I was 30. I’m still social, I still go out, but on an intimate level, that desire, whether for things or for people, starts to diminish. And not so much the ability to desire as the ability to be desired; that’s a real loss, which provokes a certain melancholy, which definitely comes through in the film.
It seems like you’re discussing a hypothetical pain, that it’s about the idea of one day not being able to make movies, even though you can and do still make them. And over the course of 20 movies, you’ve obviously faced a lot of challenges to get them made. When it comes to filmmaking, are there still any peaks you have yet to climb? Or is it more about just being able to continue to work?
The need to keep telling stories isn’t about one specific tale to tell, it’s about ending that part of your life where you have an idea and turn it into a movie, which is such a huge personal and intimate adventure. It would hurt deeply to know that you’re never going to do it again. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but I imagine what that would be like. And physically speaking, film shoots are wearing, and you need to be in really good shape. You’re spending 14-16 hours a day on your feet, working, and at some point you either lose that ability or it becomes limited. All of that gives me genuine fear.
Have you reached the age where insurance companies insist on a younger director shadowing you in case you’re unable to finish a film?
In Spain, we don’t do that. But I don’t think I’ve gotten to that age, no. They should have that custom in Spain — I’ve never heard about anyone needing one…
Like Robert Altman having Paul Thomas Anderson on set for “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Right, I knew about that, and that seemed very convivial of Mr. Anderson.
And David Lean had one for his last few films.
I’ve never had one, but I think it’s a great idea, if only to have someone to delegate to. In Spain, the insurance companies operate differently. In the States, I imagine insurance companies are keeping older filmmakers, who should still be working, from making movies. I suspect it’s a bad influence. At 70, you can make movies; at 75, yes, absolutely. I remember, while making “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” I met Billy Wilder, and insurance companies wouldn’t insure him anymore, even with a backup. And that’s a pity. If the director wants to direct, it means he can.
It makes me think of John Huston in the literal final weeks of his life, getting to the set every day to direct “The Dead.”
For me, that’s an essential image, John Huston. I thought about it a lot. When I was making “Pain and Glory,” I thought about including that picture of him directing, sitting in a wheelchair with tubes coming out of him. I thought I’d want to go out like John Huston, ending with a masterpiece, plugged into machines that are keeping me alive, but still alive and directing. It’s an image full of strength, John Huston directing “The Dead.”
Speaking of the aging generation in Spain, in the U.S. we talk about baby boomers, but obviously Spain’s post-WWII experience was vastly different from ours. Is the post-Franco “movida Madrileña,” in which you played such an essential role, your generation’s Woodstock? Was that the cultural explosion for people your age?
Yes. The movida is inextricably tied with the historical moment that made it happen, which is Franco’s death. There’s a before and an after with the death of a dictator, with a brief period of transition from 1975-1977. All the freedoms that happened didn’t just explode at the moment of his death. It took a couple of years. Everything changes in 1977. One of the fruits of that was the movida, and the three main characters in this film — the director, the actor, and the director’s ex-lover — are three people who were formed in the 1980s, and that gives them distinct characteristics.
I know these people, not just because of their age. There was a kind of liberty and a way of living and conducting yourself that has never been repeated in Spain. For example, all the young people used to go to the same clubs, and you would see people from all backgrounds, not to mention all sexualities. It wasn’t just about what the hippies called “free love,” it was about people coming face-to-face with various sexualities, and their willingness to experiment, to do whatever they wanted with their lives.
It wasn’t about going to a specific space to hook up with a specific kind of person; we were coexisting, with all the orientations mixed together. That gave a feeling of richness, of true diversity, and the idea that that’s how it should be, rather than have everyone segregated. That’s something that would happen only in the ’70s.
I was 20, old enough to be able to compare life without Franco to life with Franco, and to feel that freedom for the first time was an incredible sensation. And I think it has marked the rest of my life.
You’ve touched on it a few times over the course of your work, but do you ever see yourself making a movie about the AIDS crisis in Spain?
In Spain, disgracefully, they didn’t really start talking about AIDS until much later than other countries. And while the promiscuity of the 1980s was part of the conversation, the main focus was on drugs; many heroin users contracted HIV during that period. It comes up in “All About My Mother” — including a baby who is born with HIV and later clears it from his body, which is something that actually happened — but you’re right, besides that, I haven’t really thought about AIDS as part of a story. Spain hasn’t made many movies on the topic; it’s been somewhat silent.
We’ve reached this moment where films like “BPM” are able to look back at the 1980s with a certain degree of perspective. And some people have compared this era to the Holocaust, where we needed three decades or so to pass before we could look at it with any kind of perspective.
I think you definitely need perspective to be able to talk about it. You can’t tell the story when you’ve just lost someone close to you — we’ve all had friends who died — you need some distance and the ability to contextualize the story.
Years ago, you told me it broke your heart that people were watching your movies on a laptop, that it was a violation of the hard work of your cinematographers. Now they’re watching your movies on their phones. What do you see as the future of movies — the way we watch them, the way we experience them?
I see the future with some worry, because … well, certainly in Spain, in the last few years, they’ve closed hundreds of theaters, maybe 500 in the last five years. There are entire areas where’s there’s not one screen, and for me, that’s terrible. I can’t conceive of my own childhood without the idea of my parallel education, which is the one I got at the movies. I think it’s terrible for young people.
Susan Sontag once said that as long as there’s cinephilia, cinema will never die. But cinephiles will need to figure out how they will get to see movies, because there won’t always be the big screen, which is how movies were originally created to be seen. I’m a defender of the theatrical screen, of the screen in general — in this film, in the monologue, the only co-star the actor has is a big, white screen, which is my way of rehabilitating that particular artefact. And the movie talks about the small town’s big white wall, which is how I saw movies as a child. They were so important: My education, my ideas, my life were all greatly enriched and stimulated by what I saw on screens.
And Sontag also said, when the movies turned 100, that to feel transported by what you’re seeing, you need to see it in the dark, surrounded by strangers. (Laughs) And it’s true that that’s an important ceremony, one that’s in danger of going away.
I have to acknowledge technological advancements, many of which have been great for cinema — Scorsese probably wouldn’t have been able to make “The Irishman” 20 years ago — and I understand the convenience of formats. If someone wants to watch my movie on a phone, I don’t understand it, but fine. But there should always be the opportunity to see films on a huge screen. I think it’s essential that the size of the screen be larger than your TV at home. I think movies projected on screens is something great, and we need to defend it.
Read more from the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.