It’s been a difficult 12 months for Pedro Almodóvar. The Oscar-winning film director suffers from chronic back pain along with tinnitus and sensitivity to light, all of which have forced him to delay the shooting of his next film, Silencio (Silence), a project he’s been working on for a couple of years.
“But I’m ready to start working again, I can feel it in my bones,” he says. In the meantime, he has been in London observing the final preparations for the West End musical version of what is arguably his defining film, 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
We meet on a frosty London morning the night after he’s attended the final preview of the musical ahead of its opening. He’s in a good mood, and after ordering a cup of tea, launches into a reverie about Spain in the late 1980s, the ambience of which the Women... stage musical attempts to capture. “It’s wonderful that it’s become one of my most-watched movies, but it’s also strange that the final product in no way reflects the making of the film. It was a very tough shoot, very dramatic. But none of that comes out in the movie. I’m very happy with the outcome,” he says of the film that made him an international star after it was nominated for the 1988 Oscars.
Does that make it a classic? “At present, if a film survives more than a decade, we call it a classic. Time ravages everything: movies, memory, our bodies.”
When I write for men, my own condition as a man gets in the way, and I find them boring”
It all seems a long time ago, he continues; a time when the shoot took place in November and the premiere was in March. Women... was Almodóvar’s seventh feature, and was made during a moment when he and its star, Carmen Maura, were like brother and sister, he says: “That was a fantastic time to be living in Spain, there was an explosion of freedom. In the film, Madrid is the perfect place to be except for one thing: a man abandons a woman.”
Despite him being a virtual unknown at the time, the film was a runaway success at the 1988 Venice Film Festival, and the screening, which took place on the same day as that for Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, was constantly interrupted by applause. “It was an amazing press conference, straight after his. There was no way that anybody was going to pay attention to me. I was so tired after arriving: I had just come from the Telluride Film Festival. In situations like that, I either collapse in a heap or I’m delirious. In this case it was the latter. The Italian press corps appreciated the dramatics.”
More than a quarter of a century later, he and Scorsese are now both shooting films bearing the same title, Silence. “In my case, it’s called that because that’s the element that leads to the worst things that happen to the main characters,” he says, adding that the movie will mark a return to “films about women,” which are close to his heart.
He says he is constantly asked about his ability to create powerful female characters. “I have several different prepared answers, and what comes out depends on the moment,” he says, laughing. “But I’m always careful to pay homage to the women who have inspired me: my mother, my neighbors, that generation of women who saved Spain after the war. I grew up surrounded by strong women, from La Mancha, who discussed everything in public.” Among his main inspirations, he says, was another strong woman, Blanca Sánchez, the painter and gallery owner he lived with when he first moved to Madrid, and a key figure in the Movida, the cultural movement that emerged in the Spanish capital in the early 1980s. Sánchez died in 2007. “Blanca was independent, she was the new Spain,” he says.
“I don’t find it hard to create female characters; it’s a lot easier than writing for men. But as a writer, I can only see drama in terms of women, because they are so much more direct and funny. When I write for men, my own condition as a man gets in the way, and I find them boring. They are always so serious … that’s just the way it is.”
Silence is still very much a work in progress, says Almodóvar, adding that the only actor he has decided on is Rossy de Palma, whose Picasso-esque face graced many of Almodóvar’s early films, including Women.... “I have wanted to work with her for a long time, and she’s going to be given a very dramatic role, very austere. Everything else is up in the air. I’m trying to fit faces to the parts. There is a central male character who creates conflict between the women. I am working on the idea of a drama, something different to my other films of this type, such as All About My Mother or High Heels. I want a drama without any screaming. At least that’s the idea. Then I’ll probably just do what I always do. I miss the color red, and I’ll end up using it in the sets. It’s just my nature, and it’s always welcome.”
What we desperately need now is another transition, but we don’t know how to do it”
Women is very much about the Madrid of the late 1980s – will Silence be a portrait of the Spanish capital today? “I don’t know. Cinema is the best art form for painting a particular moment in a country’s history. I don’t know if my new work will correspond with what Spain is today. I don’t know if it is even possible to extrapolate it. It won’t be a pessimistic film, but the Spain we are living in today is less optimistic and more worried about the future. In Women… the Transition [from dictatorship to democracy] was going perfectly. What we desperately need now is another transition, but we don’t know how to do it. Worse yet, we should actually have come through that transition.”
Back to the musical: Almodóvar says he is absolutely determined that there will never be a musical adaptation of any of his films in Spain. “They aren’t my films, they are very distant languages. The Spanish public can see my films any time they want. Which isn’t the same abroad. And inevitably they will see things that they like in the film that have here either disappeared or mutated into something disturbing but necessary for other tastes, moving towards parody. Because theater, and even more so in the case of musicals, requires farce. And if they are that interested, they can always travel to London.”
The West End production, which has been acclaimed by the British press since it opened last week, is a revamped version of the 2010 adaptation of Women... directed by Bartlett Sher at New York’s Lincoln Center, which was largely panned by the critics. Sher has been brought back to London in what he says is a more intimate production that more faithfully follows the movie and stars British actress Tamsin Greig in the lead role of Pepa, played by Carmen Maura in the film.
That said, there are differences, insists Almodóvar: “In this version, Lucía [played in the movie by Julieta Serrano] is insane, which is fertile ground for any comedian. It’s the same with Candela, who was played by María Barranco, who was in a state of grace throughout the shooting. But the most difficult role is Pepa, because she is at the service of everything else, keeping it together without showing the problem she’s hiding, while also being funny. For Carmen, as with Tamsin, the secret is their ability to move between drama and farce without overdoing it.”
Almodóvar says he’s been asked to direct musicals “thousands of times” but has always turned the offer down: “They terrify me [...] Perhaps if I were younger, I might think about it.”
A question of insecurity? “Oh yes, and that’s the case even when it comes to making movies, but there the insecurity forms part of the adventure. Every film is different and you never really know what you’re going to do. My self doubt keeps me on my toes, and it certainly doesn’t paralyze me; if anything, it gives me more energy.”