Pedro Almodóvar was inspired by his rural childhood in the post-Franco era, yet he had to leave his family and village behind in order to make it as a director
A MEMORY from Pedro Almodóvar’s childhood. His first memory, in fact, and still among his happiest. He is a little boy growing up in Calzada de Calatrava, a small village rising from the arid and windswept flatlands of central Spain. La Mancha: home of Don Quixote and a boy who would grow up to become the most successful director of non-English language films in the world. His family is large – two sisters, one brother, numerous relatives – and poor. His father is out all day, hauling barrels of wine by mule. His mother – a formidable woman with no education and a wicked sense of humour, basically an Almodóvar character waiting to be written – is the centre of his world.
“This memory is of bathing in the river,” he tells me via his translator, a woman with lightning fast shorthand who scribbles furiously as Almodóvar talks in his native Spanish, gesturing elegantly with big, meaty hands. “It is one of the very best moments of my childhood. I would go down to the river with my mother so she could do her washing. She would always take me with her. There was no money for anyone else to take care of me.” Now he interrupts in heavily accented English. “I went with my mother everywhere,” he says, looking pleased.
Back to Spanish again. “I remember playing with the water, playing with the fish. I remember the soap suds from my mother’s washing, smelling them while I listened to the women sing. This was a very hard era in Spain; the post civil war period would go on for about 25 years, but there was something very exhilarating and joyous about those times. This memory has been a huge influence on me and all my films.”
Indeed, the way Almodóvar tells it, you can picture it as a scene from one of his films. The sensitive boy playing in the river. Soap mingling with water. Women singing and washing brightly coloured clothes (Penelope Cruz in a headscarf as the mother, perhaps?). It’s a story of community, Spain, sensuality, beauty for its own sake, and above all the fortitude of women. It brings to mind the stark opening image of his 2006 film Volver, a love letter to the La Mancha and women of his childhood, in which widowers clad in black sweep leaves from their husbands’ graves. This is how Almodóvar constructs the world. He has always seen, thought and remembered in the visual language of cinema. It’s why his films – like Hitchcock’s, Allen’s, or Tarantino’s – are so unquestionably his.
We meet in the library of a swanky London hotel. Before I lay eyes on him, I am aware that Almodóvar, now 63 and on his 19th feature film, is a man who knows his own mind. He will only do a small handful of interviews in a day, and they must be of sufficient length for him to answer in depth. A logistical nightmare for publicists, no doubt, but a joy for those asking the questions. He takes the business of talking about his films as seriously as he does making them. The upshot is that you can ask Almodóvar anything (like the journalist who wanted to know if he has ever wanted to become a woman, which he hasn’t) and he will nod meaningfully and then give you a fabulously long, lyrical answer that makes you kick yourself for never having learnt Spanish.
He is boyishly handsome with a warm-blooded, pudgy handshake and a shock of grey hair. Nut brown skin, a paunch, and one of those face-consuming smiles. He is dressed soberly – well, compared to an Almodóvar character – in a blue polo shirt and grey trousers, the requisite props of smartphone and Ray Bans on the table in front of him. He offers me a drink, then gestures at someone else to pour it. His assistant, a hipster in thick rimmed specs and Converse, pours him tea, to which he adds a generous spoon of honey. He doesn’t do pleases, thank yous, or small talk but is still warm and generous rather than cold and rude. He clearly inspires loyalty in the tight-knit group of people from his Madrid production company El Deseo (it means desire), which he set up with his brother and long-term producer Agustin Almodóvar. He comes across as a man who commands and deserves respect.
His new film, I’m So Excited!, is his first out-and-out comedy since Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown 25 years ago. It’s rowdy, ridiculous, and very raunchy indeed – a return to the pure kitsch camp of 1980s comedies such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels that made him the quintessential enfant terrible and the voice – an openly gay one, crucially – of post-Franco, liberated Spain. It was only much later on, with All About My Mother, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and Talk to Her, a film that called on us to sympathise with a man who sexually abuses a woman in a coma, that Almodóvar came to be revered as a masterful director of visionary, serious melodramas.
“When you start to make a film, the genre doesn’t matter,” he insists. “It’s an adventure whether it is a comedy, a tragedy, or a drama. But comedy needs precision. It’s not the same as other genres. There is no room for error. You need a particular lightness to make it work.”
I’m so Excited! tells the story of a group of strangers on a flight from Spain to Mexico. It’s an ensemble piece showcasing many of the actors with whom Almodóvar has worked over the years. Most of the action takes place on board as the plane circles above Toledo, unable to locate a runway to make an emergency landing. If this were a Hollywood film, disaster and the threat of terrorism would ensue. Instead, we get sex, drugs, and if not rock ‘n’ roll then at least a deliciously camp rendition of a Pointer Sisters song by the all male, all gay air stewards. Who, incidentally, are off their heads on tequila and mescaline.
It’s a film that celebrates hedonism, bodily desire and the 1980s. Watching it, I wondered whether Almodóvar feels nostalgic for that time. “I don’t know if it’s nostalgia and I don’t really like that word,” he says. “I like to think we need to work to make things better, not look back. But the film is an homage to that decade and the way we lived in Spain at that time. The world felt like a better place. So in that way, yes, it is a nostalgia for my youth, a time when I was 33 years younger and anything seemed possible. It is also a nostalgia for the early years of democracy and a celebration of sex, drugs and euphoria and those years when I began making films. Madrid was a more interesting city than it is now. Spain was living through an explosive moment. It’s not just Spain that has changed. It’s the world. We can’t all live like we did in the 1980s but I do miss the liberty of those times. Madrid was a very nocturnal city, a place where you partied 24/7.” He laughs heartily. “Now there is a fiesta but it only lasts seven hours.”
It’s no coincidence that I’m So Excited!, his lightest, frothiest film in decades, follows hot on the heels of the darkest, most austere film of his career. The Skin I Live In, which reunited Almodóvar with Antonio Banderas for the first time in 21 years, was an unusually brutal film, as close to horror as its director gets. It told the Frankenstein-esque story of a surgeon and the woman he ‘creates’ to try and cope with a trauma in his own family and Almodóvar admits he needed some levity afterwards.
“And you know, in Spain I have a lot of direct communication with people,” he says. “I walk down the street and they constantly tell me about their own lives. In the last decade people kept asking me to go back to comedy. And you know, they are like my clients. I have to give them what they want.”
When Banderas returned to work with Almodóvar on The Skin I Live In, he said of the director, “He is more complex now. More serious, profound, and minimalist.” Would Almodóvar agree? Does he feel his work is becoming darker? “It’s something that comes with the passing of time,” he shrugs. “I don’t make the decision to make a darker film. The ideas just come and I act on them. My more sombre films of this century represent me in the same way that my comedies did. I’m making films that may appear as opposite but they all represent aspects of me. My life certainly isn’t more sombre.”
He starts to speak in English. “And in Spain it’s true to say that we are living in a world that is much worse than when I started making movies in the 1980s. Perhaps I am influenced by all that.” He sighs and looks a little frustrated. “There is a mystery as to why you make the movies you do. I have to put it into words because you ask me to. But I am very unconscious about it. The origin of creativity is absolutely mysterious. I like to keep it that way.”
Back to 1950s and 1960s La Mancha, where somehow a peasant’s son harboured a dream of becoming a film director. How did it happen? “I was a very patient boy,” he laughs. “I knew my nature wouldn’t be nurtured in a small town. I couldn’t be free in a place where everybody was on top of everybody else. I don’t know if I was an unusual boy but I was certainly very affected by what was happening around me. And while people didn’t read where I grew up, I started reading from an early age.”
When he was eight the family moved so that he could attend Catholic school, an experience which decades later inspired his 2004 film Bad Education about sexual abuse and a boy who becomes a filmmaker. Religion didn’t move him though. Instead, he found cinema. “By the age of eight I was dreaming of being a part of that world,” he says. “I didn’t know how but it was there in me.”
How did he manage to see films? “They let me and my brother into the cinema for free,” he laughs. “I suppose it was because we were just a couple of poor boys from the village. And I saw everything. A lot of spaghetti westerns and trashy movies from Italy, Mexico, Spain... Movies by Bunuel, Bergman, some very early Fellinis, trash, I enjoyed it all. I remember being able to watch very adult movies, like the films of [Michelangelo] Antonioni. I remember precisely the moment when I saw La Notte and L’Aventurra. I was only 13 years old yet in my own way, I understood them. I thought he was talking about me. There are some films I remember very well, like Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. I must have been ten. I was shocked.” His whole face lights up as though he’s about to sit down and watch it now. “Oh, it was incredible,” he says with a sigh.
It’s an extraordinary story, a singular transformation that wouldn’t look out of place in one of his own films. But separating Almodóvar’s life from his films is a pointless exercise. Why would you want to? Everything in his oeuvre – from the dresses his women wear and the vivid colour palette of his interiors to the themes of transgression, death, and above all empathy with otherness – comes from his mind and his life. To watch one of his films is to see how he sees. Transformation is one of Almodóvar’s grand themes – whether from life to death, child to adult, or man to woman and it’s hard not to bring it all back to the moment in 1967 when the 16-year-old boy left home and his own metamorphosis began.
“I couldn’t have lived in a small town,” he says. “It was the only argument I ever had with my family. I was still very young at the time, but to leave and get that independence was crucial. It had to happen.” And so with no money, no job, and no support, he went to Madrid. What did he do when he got there? “I knew no one so I just walked and walked and tried to smell out where the modern people were,” he says in English. “And then I started working in all sorts of awful jobs, like going round people’s houses and selling books to them, and selling craftwork on the street. There were many dangers for a boy as young as me – drugs, etc. What kept me alert was that I had this really clear vocation. I wanted to enrich myself culturally. I knew I wanted to direct films. That saved me.
“I went to the cinema every single day,” he continues. “I saw theatre and dance whenever I could. It was a marvellous time. In fact it was more than marvellous. It was unmissable.” It was also extremely hard work. Franco had closed the national film school, so Almodóvar worked for the national phone company and used his first paycheck to buy a Super 8 camera. After Franco died and Madrid became a hotbed of change and experimentation, Almodóvar was in the right place at the right time. He became a leading figure in the counter-cultural La Movida, formed a glamrock duo in drag, and started making short, no-budget films.
He never stopped going back to La Mancha, though, just as he’s never stopped returning to that river in his mind. “I often went to see my family,” he says. “Around 12 years later, after my father died, my mother came to Madrid to live with my sisters. That’s when we had a really intense relationship. The last 30 years of her life we were very close and those were also the years when I made films.” What did she make of them? “She tried not to watch them,” he laughs. “She wasn’t interested in cinema. She was very happy that I was successful but didn’t need to see the movies. I think she got the sense that they weren’t the type of movies that she would like.”
And so we return to women, his desire to make revelatory cinema out of their stories, and his own mother. “She wasn’t a woman with small town prejudices though she lived in a small town her entire life,” he notes. “She had a fantastic sense of humour. She was the star of the street. Watching her entertain the neighbours was an education. She had extraordinary initiative and she could make something out of nothing. She has been a direct inspiration for my films. I have lots of characters who talk like her.
“I recognise the miracle of maternity,” he goes on. “It is one of the only pure miracles that we have. The mother is at the centre of all relationships: with men, women, children, society, land, and reality. So in terms of filmmaking, she is the key for me.”
Two publicists have entered the room to put a stop to the interview but Almodóvar ignores them. He carries on talking, while the translator carries on scribbling. He tells me that he is working on a screenplay about six different mothers at the moment. “But I could write a million stories where the mother is central,” he announces. “The strength of them, the way they forge ahead and get things done even in the most difficult and uncompromising of circumstances... these are key concepts in all my films and will continue to be so.” He throws his large hands in the air, and laughs. “The mother is the Don Quixote of all my characters.” n
• I’m So Excited! is on general release from Friday