Talk to Her: Interview with Almodovar
Actors and Actresses
Q: The leading characters in “Talk to Her” are two men.
A: Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti are superb in very complicated roles. In any case, “Talk to Her” isn’t my first film with male leads. “Live Flesh” is a testicular story. “Matador” and “Law of Desire” were also stories in which men determined the action. In “Law of Desire” even the girl (Carmen Maura) was a man.
Q: Working with actors or actresses?
A: When they’re wonderful and can make me forget that I’m the director and the writer, I enjoy both actors and actresses equally. Over the course of 14 feature films I admit that I’ve found more good actresses than good actors, but it’s also true that I’ve written more female roles than male or neuter roles. In the field writing, and as a general rule, women inspire me to write comedies, and men tragedies.
Q: Writing comedies?
A: The scripts come out easily, but I have to force it.
Q: Can you force a script, the elements that make it up, the tone?
A: No. You shouldn’t, with the exception of documentaries and biographic films.
Q: Genre of “Talk to Her”?
A: I don’t know. All I know is that it isn’t a Western, or a film about CIA agents. Nor is it a James Bond film or a period piece. Seven minutes of the film, to be precise, take place in 1924.
Q: Those 7 minutes are giving rise to a lot of talk.
A: They’re silent, in the middle of the film, the nurse, Benigno (Javier Cámara) uses one of his few free nights to go to the Cinematheque to see a silent Spanish film: “Amante Menguante” (“Shrinking Lover”). I show about seven minutes of that film.
Q: Risky to interrupt the narrative with a very different piece?
A: It is not a flashback, it’s a separate story, and yes, it’s risky, very risky.
Q: Fear that the spectator will be confused, or lose concentration?
A: Now that I’ve finished it, no, but while I was filming it I was terrified. I couldn’t sleep until I had the two stories edited together. The part that runs from when Javier goes to the Cinematheque until he finishes telling the film to the recumbent, remote Alicia (about 10 minutes running time) is one of my favorites.
Q: Reason for this “detour” from the central story?
A: It only seems like a detour, because the nurse’s story doesn’t stop during those 7 minutes, rather it overlaps and merges with that of “Shrinking Lover.” The original reason (when I was working on the script) was so that I could use the silent film as a front.
Q: To hide what?
A: What is really happening in Alicia’s room. I don’t want to show it to the spectator and I invented “Shrinking Lover” as a kind of blindfold. The spectator will discover what has happened at the same time as the other characters. It’s a secret which I’d like no one to reveal.
A: It’s a narrative option, and not exactly a simple one. That’s why I’m so proud of the result.
Q: Your characters explain themselves through another film.
A: Victoria Abril shouted a scene from “Autumn Sonata” at her mother, Marisa Paredes, in order to explain the love and hate that she felt for her, a love and hate so great they’d even driven her to kill.
In “Matador,” the protagonists hurry into a cinema (she’s running away from him) where they are showing “Duel In The Sun.” On the screen they can see what their own end will be.
In “Live Flesh,” while Liberto Rabal and Francesca Neri are fighting, the television is showing Buñuel’s “Rehearsal For a Crime” (aka “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”). Buñuel’s film could well provide the title for this section of “Live Flesh.” And its images anticipate two elements which will later appear in my film, a legless man (after this scene Javier Bardem’s character ends up in a wheelchair, in “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz” it was a dummy which had its leg removed) and the fire which would trap Angela Molina’s character when Liberto breaks off with her (in “The Criminal Life,” it was the oven in which Archibaldo de la Cruz was burning a dummy identical to the character played by Miroslava. By coincidence, years later, the actress really did die in a burning car). For me, the films I see become part of my own experiences, and I use them as such.
There’s no intention of paying homage to their directors or of imitating them. They’re elements which are absorbed into the script and become part of it. “Telling films” is something that has to do with my biography. I’m not talking about a film forum or the typical discussion about cinema (I hate those). I remember that when I was little I would tell films to my sisters, films that we’d seen together. I’d get carried away by the memory and while I was telling them I’d reinvent them. I was making my own adaptation, and my sisters preferred my inaccurate, delirious versions to the original film.
I remember that during those hours when time slowed down (sitting in the patio while they sewed, or gathered around the table with the brazier underneath), they would say: ‘Pedro, tell us the film we saw yesterday…’
Q: Telling films to your grandchildren?
A: I don’t know. It’s getting late for me to have grandchildren. I don’t think I’d do it. I don’t tell films anymore, I’ve lost that skill and I only talk about them when I’m forced to do so in interviews.
Words and Loneliness
Q: When the psychiatrist asks Javier Cámara’s character what his problem is, he replies:
“Loneliness, I guess.”
A: Marco (Darío Grandinetti) also tells the two women in the film on two very different occasions that he’s lonely. In both cases, neither Benigno nor Marco gets melodramatic about it, they’re simply stating a fact. Loneliness is something which all the characters in the film have in common.
Alicia and Lydia are lonely too. And Katerina, the ballet mistress. And Alicia’s father, although it’s likely that after a while he’ll have an affair with the receptionist in his consultancy. And the nurse played by Mariola Fuentes, secretly in love with her fellow worker Benigno. And the housekeeper in Benigno’s building. Even the only unpleasant character, the despicable interviewer played by Loles León, ends up alone on the set, talking to the camera because Lydia (quite rightly) has stormed off in the middle of the interview. And the bull is left alone in the huge ring when Lydia is taken to the infirmary, fatally injured… “Loneliness, I guess” is another possible title for this film.
Q: How does the loneliness affect you?
A: I don’t feel contempt for anything, not even for things I hate. The reason I interview myself is for practical rather than endogamic reasons. I say what I want to say and in the fastest way possible. A self-interview is a written piece and writing is always done in solitude.
Q: Have you ever realized you were talking to yourself?
A: Yes. A few months ago. I caught myself doing it on several days. I did it either in the morning, when I’d just got up, or at night. (I’ve been told that Buñuel also talked to himself in the morning, to check on how his deafness was progressing). I was doing it to check the sound and power of my voice. I lost my voice during the shoot and for a few weeks when I got up after the long nocturnal silence, I’d talk to myself in bed or in front of the mirror. “How’s my voice today?” I’d ask myself. “Much better. If I don’t force it, I may make it through to the evening.” I’ve always believed in words, even when you’ve got no voice,. or no one to talk to.
Q: the message in “Talk to Her?”
A: As in any film, the message is “Go see it;” then, in a subliminal way, “and tell your friends about it.”
Privacy and Spectacle
“Talk to Her” tells a private, romantic, secret story, peppered with independent, spectacular units. I’m referring, as well as to the bull fights and the inclusion of “Shrinking Lover,” to the collaboration and presence of Caetano Veloso, who sings “Cucurrucucú paloma” live, to Pina Bausch, the choreographer of “Café Müller” and ”Masurca Fogo,” the pieces with which the film begins and ends. I’m also grateful for the return to the stage in “Café Müller”of Malou, a member of the original Wuppertal Tanztheater who now teaches youngsters and who, out of sheer generosity, immersed herself in the stage again and enthralled everyone.
It’s the synthesis of a silent film, introduced half way through the narration of “Talk to Her.” The decision that it should be silent and in black and white is due to the fact that this is the last genre discovered by Alicia before her accident. An interest which Benigno inherits from her.
As the film didn’t exist, I had to make it. I’d already written the story of a shrinking man,
much more detailed than the one inserted into “Talk to Her.” Originally, it was a story of love and suspense. The man who is shrinking leaves Amparo, the beautiful scientist, and goes back home to a despotic mother whom he hasn’t spoken to in years. It’s an opportunity to be reconciled with her. When Alfredo measures only a few centimeters he moves into one of his toys and lives there surrounded by his boyhood fetishes (books, comics, etc.). Among the pages of one of his favorite books he discovers a letter from his dead father; although it’s addressed to him, Alfredo never received it. In it, his dead father tells him about his mother’s growing insanity and warns him that if anything should ever happen to him his mother will have been responsible. The mother senses that Alfredo has discovered that she killed his father. Alfredo is living inside his electric train and doesn’t want to come out for fear of his mother. In a fit of rage, his mother chases him from carriage to carriage. Just then, Amparo appears (after discovering where the mother lives). She saves little Alfredo and takes him with her to the Hotel Youkali where she is staying.
For obvious reasons, I’ve only used the beginning and end of all that melodrama. I really
enjoyed making both fragments. For years I’ve dreamed of the image of the lover walking around the body of his loved one, as if it were a landscape. And now I’ve got it.
In order to prepare myself for the language of silent cinema, I saw my favorite silent films again, Griffith, F. Lang, Murnau, T. Browning… “Sunrise” was essential. I wanted to be
true to the narrative and form of the time. I found it more attractive to struggle for accuracy than to break the rules. Except for some inevitable license, all the shots were done with a tripod. I didn’t use a single traveling shot, in the composition of a shot the upper part of the frame is usually empty, the actors walk into frame, the props are authentic, from the mid-20s, and the acting is strictly expressionist, with a lot of care taken to avoid the risks of overacting.
I was lucky that both Paz Vega and Fele Martínez could place themselves effortlessly in that situation which is so close to parody without ever succumbing to it. Their performances, naïf, tragic-comic and accurately expressionist, are due solely to their intuition and talent. The music is also a key element. I didn’t want the typical piano, which is how they show silent films at the Cinematheque. Alberto Iglesias suggested the idea of a quartet; I thought it ideal because if there’s one kind of composition which Alberto has mastered it’s the quartet. I have to confess I find the result very moving. In the best tradition of musical cinema, the melody mingles with the actors’ movements, it gives a voice not just to the actors but also to the captions. The few texts which appear acquire a voice, rhythm and movement with the music. They’re alive. But above all, the music situates the story in the realm of emotion, and brilliantly avoids the danger of obscenity and grotesqueness, both of which can hover around a story like “Shrinking Lover.” Thanks to Paz Vega, Fele Martínez and Alberto Iglesias, “Shrinking Lover” becomes a lyrical, emotive, profound fantasy, despite its apparent frivolity.
In “All About My Mother” there was a poster of Pina in “Café Müller” (it was hanging on a wall in Cecilia Roth’s son’s room). I didn’t know then that that choreographic piece would be the prologue to my next film. At the time I only wanted to pay homage to the German choreographer.
When I finished writing “Talk to Her” and looked at Pina’s face again, with her eyes closed, and at how she was dressed in a flimsy slip, her arms and hands outstretched, surrounded by obstacles (wooden tables and chairs), I had no doubt that it was the image which best represented the limbo in which my story’s protagonists lived. Two women in a coma who, despite their apparent passivity, provoke the same solace, the same tension, passion, jealousy, desire and disillusion in men as if they were upright, eyes wide open and talking a mile a minute.
Around that time, I saw “Masurca Fogo” in Barcelona and was struck by its vitality and
optimism, its bucolic air and those unexpected images of painful beauty which made me
cry, like Marco, from pure pleasure. Not to mention the “sighing beginning,” which I had
to reduce for narrative reasons. I’m referring to the beginning of the piece: A woman (Ruth Amarante) appears on a diaphanous stage, her hair is hanging loose and she’s wearing an ankle length flowered dress. She picks up a 70s style microphone and holds it up to her mouth. It looks as if she’s going to sing or talk, but she doesn’t do either. After filling her lungs with air in a suspense-filled silence, she lets out a long, deep sigh. This is followed by another sigh… and another.
“Masurca Fogo” begins with the sadness of the absent Benigno (the sighs) and unites the surviving couple (Marco and Alicia) through a shared bucolic emotion: several couples are dancing in the country to the rhythm of a Cabo Verde mazurca, also accompanied by the sound of a little waterfall which flows miraculously from the grass in all its splendor. If I had asked for it specifically I couldn’t have got anything better. Pina Bausch had unknowingly created the best doors through which to enter and leave “Talk to Her.”
At the height of the promotional campaign for “The Flower of My Secret,” we landed in Río de Janeiro, after dragging ourselves through TV interview sets, premieres and crowded parties in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Sao Paulo. With the enthusiasm of a zombie, I looked out my hotel window at an explosive view of Río. I didn’t want to move in the next hours, I couldn’t. Worn out, brain damaged from various attacks of jetlag (overpowered by the typical sensation of emptiness and in constant battle with Rossy de Palma because she was really excited by Brazil and only wanted to go partying), I was informed that we had a commitment: we were invited to the home of Caetano Veloso.
I already adored Caetano’s music although I didn’t know him personally, but in my physical and psychic state, the idea of moving, mingling with strangers, talking or listening, meant an effort verging on martyrdom. I tried to wriggle out of the commitment in the hotel, alleging an obvious and real affliction; but Chema Prado, who was accompanying Marisa Paredes, completely ignored my protests with that very Galician deafness of his and dragged me to Caetano’s house by force. I’m grateful to him now. Caetano had just performed in Sao Paulo, he’d recorded the concert which would become “Fina estampa ao vivo” and, as a curiosity, he played for us his version (it’s a reinvention rather than a version) of “Cucurrucucú paloma” and suddenly all my ills disappeared. From that moment I wanted to include the song in one of my films. That’s the other dream that has come true.
In “Talk to Her,” Caetano himself sings it live, accompanied by the maestro Morelenbaum. As we couldn’t bring the whole orchestra, the version which appears in the film is even more stylized, heartrending and intimate than the one he played in Sao Paulo.
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