My landscape was my mother

Elsa Fernandez-Santos in conversation with Pedro Almodóvar
Photography Nico Bustos, Styling Nicco Torelli

Pedro Almodóvar (Calzada de Calatrava, 1949) welcomes us into his home on a bright Sunday morning. It’s a typical Madrid winter day: dry, cold, and sunny. The filmmaker lives in an open and cheerful space made up of objects, paintings and colours—all of them familiar to those who know his filmography. There are also many books, clothes, and those wooden toys from a time when pedagogy and design were the embryones of modern art. 

Almodóvar had no such toys to play with in his childhood, but he still enjoyed the best of whims: the Super 8 camera, thanks to which everything started. Those were the years of the Spanish Transition, in which freedom and counterculture broke out after forty years of grey dictatorship. The hedonism and eccentric flair of that youthful explosion were his favourite subjects. As well as the rural world, its painful exodus and the shadow of forty years of national Catholicism. Memory and cinema; that’s how our conversation started. 

Elsa: A few days ago, you were at Javier Campano’s house,, a photographer who was on set in 1980 during the shooting of your first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom, and even in those Super 8 sessions of your first short films. What was it like to be confronted with photographs of you from the Transition period?

Pedro: Well… you see, in my recent times, a lot of circumstances have forced me to look back. A few days after seeing Campano’s photos, I went to the exhibition of Pablo Pérez Mínguez, who also portrayed me in those years of democratic Transition. It was powerful and emotional at the same time to recognise myself in these images and identify with them, whether I was posing in half-drag for Pérez Mínguez, during the filming of Pepi, Luci, Bom or at the Photocentro gallery in Madrid. It was not just a question of rediscovering my youth and feeling the emotion of memory. No, it’s that—deep down—I feel like I’m still the same person I see in those pictures. 

E. But with which one of those versions do you identify most today? 

P. Probably with Campano’s photograph at Photocentro while I was presenting my short films. It’s the one that best defines my character; full of determination, completely unfiltered, even though I was working in the most precarious conditions. I see my insatiable need to tell stories, regardless of the limited means at my disposal. This urge remains the same, intact. 

I recently had to select 24 clips from my films for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum in Los Angeles, and it was a very interesting exercise because it involved re-encountering my filmography—I never watch my films after they have been released—just like I don’t revisit my past. I have an aversion to digging into my past, but making this selection was an opportunity to look at my work from a distance, something I hadn’t been able to do until now. Naturally, I chose anthological moments [laughs]. But I discovered something much more important: a new pride and happiness in recognising myself in both the good and the bad. 

E. You mean recognising your own mistakes?

P. That’s right, my mistakes were still mine. And that was a significant reconciliation for me.

E. Speaking of the past, in March, you will publish a book of short stories from the Sixties till now. According to what you’ve already told me, it’s a kind of unconscious autobiography through the eyes of fiction.

P. Lola García (Almodovar’s right-hand woman) has been the project’s driving force. She holds onto a lot of stories of mine. I told her I didn’t want to deal with all that, but she made a good selection, which I later refined, and in which you can see my growth as a person, as a director and scriptwriter. There are two stories from the late Sixties in which you can clearly see the Salesian influence: they are anti-clerical and reflect what I had just lived through. There’s also one from 1977, where I almost seem like a different author. It’s the start of broader access to freedom, a process that would eventually lead to democracy. In the 2000s, after my mother passed away, you can notice the turning point. From then on, the tone becomes much more serious. I don’t mean sad or pessimistic because I’m not that kind of person but more serious, more profound and with other concerns on my mind: my mother’s death and the beginning of a terrible family curse, migraines…

E. I didn’t know they were genetic.

P. Yes. In fact, I have cousins who had to stop working at the age of 30. My symptoms started in 2005. It’s all written in those stories. It’s a journey that reflects the changes in the city where I live, which have also affected me personally. 

E. Would you consider leaving Madrid? 

Q: Madrid is losing its personality. It’s becoming more and more a theme park, like New York and so many other cities, that have begun losing their essence and what truly made them different. When small neighbourhood shops like haberdashery begin to disappear, and the city starts serving hordes of tourists rather than locals, you know something is lost forever. It’s no longer a livable city, and I understand that people are leaving, but, despite everything, living in an urban area gives me access to culture that makes it worthwhile to stay. For me, Madrid is still a place where I can go to the theatre, the cinema and museums, and that’s why I’m still here. The rural world is part of my roots, but I now belong to this city after such a long time. 

E. And is your countryside still your home or not anymore?

P. My countryside and landscape were different. Well, above all, my landscape was my mother and the house where I lived in my early childhood. You would see farmers all day, and we kids could always play by the river. As a child I had no toys. I had the river. In fact, I refer to the river with nostalgia in my films. In Volver, when Penélope’s character buries her husband, she buries him under a tree very close to a river. And in Pain and Glory, the neighbours go to wash their clothes in the river. I also used to go with my mother and our neighbours to wash our clothes in the river, and while they were washing them, I would play with fish.

E. And did you bathe in it? In Bad Education, there is a river where the children play.

P. When I used to go with my mom and our neighbours, I was too little; I was four years old or so. I started swimming in it when I was older when I was nine or ten. The freshness and weightlessness of water always made me happy. The river is also related to my first sexual discoveries. The river was life. There, women worked so hard, but they also sang, which would cheer them up. The space from my memories was also that of the courtyards where neighbours gathered to talk and weave bobbin lace (bobbin lace is a lace-making technique made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread wound on bobbins.) The river and the patios of La Mancha were the sanctum sanctorum of the feminine universe of my childhood. These two places are, for me, the origin of life and fiction. In these places, they talked about everything that had happened in the village. They especially talked about forbidden things. For me, it was like gothic terror. I still remember one of the rumours about my neighbour who got pregnant and didn’t leave the house for a year.

E. What a horror. 

P. They were talking about incest because it was happening around them, as in many small communities. There was also talk of apparitions of the dead. Because in my village—and perhaps in the whole of La Mancha—there is an enormous culture of death. But it is not morbid or sad but somehow uplifting.

E. That can also be found in Volver.

P. Yes, Volver talks about all that. I remember people in the village who turned on a little light in their house during the night so that the dead could find their way if they came back in the dark—things like that. 

E. And you weren’t afraid?

P. No way. I was amazed. There were also a lot of suicides. People who threw themselves down a well or hanged themselves. All this may sound terrible to people, but for me, it was the origin and the beginning of fiction. Women don’t imagine that a four-year-old child could be listening to these stories and registering them all, but yes, I did, and when I started writing, those facts and much more came out. Along with talking about the dead, these women sang, told jokes, and spoke about very dirty things concerning their husbands… listening to women as a child was for me life’s greatest spectacle.

E. And has that culture been lost?

P. Since my mother died, I haven’t been back to the village much, but I think it has been lost. There are hardly any Bolilleras (bobbin lace) associations left in Almagro. It is a marvellous craft, but no one knows what to do with it. 

E. Do you need to escape to the countryside from time to time?

P. No. I have a house in a tranquil residential area near a small hill where goats roam. The countryside, however, makes me feel claustrophobic.

 E. Spanish cinema is experiencing a great year with a lot of diversity and more women as directors and screenwriters… Do you think there’s a change in the cycle thanks to these new emerging talents?

P. We should embrace this. In the last nominations for the Feroz awards, for example, out of the five films nominated for Best Film, four were directed by women, and only one was directed by a man. The long feminist struggle for women to become incorporated into all types of jobs is finally bearing fruit. There are not only new female directors and screenwriters, but we can also see women in more strenuous jobs, such as camera crews—a mainly male-dominated sector until now because of the physical strength involved; there are also female directors of photography, electricians…

 E. There is also a return to rural fiction written and directed by women.

P. In Spanish cinema, there is a great tradition of rural stories. And not just about the Civil War. I’m referring to gems like Calle Mayor, La tía Tula or Surcos, films that talked about the opposite phenomenon: people from villages emigrating to the city. But the return to the countryside is also in women’s literature, which interests me a lot. I like Sara Mesa and Eva Baltasar very much. I am intrigued and fascinated by the hard and sacrificed life that their characters choose. They return to the countryside not to lead a better life but a very hard one. It’s fascinating. It intrigues me a lot. In all of my films, you can see the journey from the countryside to the city in search of prosperity, perhaps because I belong to that generation. 

At that moment, his cat Pepito enters the scene. He is white. “I’ve got an even bigger one,” he says. “Pepito, don’t interrupt, stay there, always sniffing bags! He likes bags, I don’t know why… What was I saying… I belong to the generation that came to Madrid from a village. I arrived when I was 18”. 

E. In search of freedom?

P. The experience of moving from a dictatorship to a democracy is an indescribable emotion, especially when you are young. It’s as if, overnight, we all lost our fear, all of the Spanish people at the same time. Those who were over 40 years old were marked for life. But my generation and the next ones to come were very lucky. I gave every pore of my body to that freedom… [laughs]. At that time, what we called La Movida was not a movement. We were young, and living in such a special time united us. There was no political attitude, quite the opposite. There was an apolitical and, basically, hedonistic attitude to life. We just wanted to enjoy ourselves, although that’s also a political attitude in itself! 

 E. On some occasions, you have said that you made a film like Pepi, Luci, Bom, as if Franco had never existed. 

P. That was my revenge against Franco’s regime: not even acknowledging the shadow of its existence. Was it a denial of the past? At that time, yes, I recovered that past in other films, but, at that time, our reality was different, and in our homes, we didn’t talk about the Civil War and its crimes. When I did research with my team for Parallel Mothers, many people agreed that grandparents didn’t talk about it. Never. It has only been in this new century that grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who lived during the Civil War have begun to claim the remains of their relatives. Spain has been slow to address the humanitarian problem of all those who disappeared. For some of the victims, it’s too late, and they cannot be identified. However, we must welcome the Law of Democratic Memory. We cannot continue to be second only to Somalia when it comes to the number of missing people due to a Civil War. 

E. For many people, it was an indescribable trauma that lasted for several generations.

P. A trauma that resulted in a pathological silence. Franco buried thousands of people in mass graves and denied their existence. The Transition in Spain wasn’t perfect. It was carried out without rupture because there was a lot of fear—and there is the coup d’état of 1981 to prove that this fear was justified—there were many Fascists within the new democratic regime, both in public office and in political parties. But after 1982, with the absolute majority of Socialists taking part in the elections, something had to be done. It wasn’t about opening old wounds, as many have said. Everyone has the right to a place of remembrance where flowers can be laid for their lost ones.

E. Especially when you consider our culture of death…

P. I also know many women who have bought a spot in a graveyard and are taking care of it until it becomes their grave. Women used to have their favourite saints to whom they went to pray, depending on what their needs at the moment were. My mother always invoked Saint Anthony, and I would say, ‘Mum, you treat Saint Anthony as if he was your maid.’ I found this presence of the divine in the day-to-day very interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit it. My sisters did, though. 

E. What remains today of the Spain of the Transition? 

P. What remains is a country that can be compared with any other European democracy. That Spain laid the foundations for the modernisation of the Spain we know today; access to the European Economic Community, freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship, Social Security… Not everything that we consider normal today was always there. The memory that has most marked my life is the explosion of freedoms that the country experienced after 1977. I would not have been able to do any of the things I have done if that change had not occurred. 

E. If your career had started today, what do you think it would have looked like?

 Q. I would have met many more difficulties. If I had made Dark Habits or Law of Desire today, I would have had a lot of problems with distribution and showing them. And if I had managed to release them, the ultra-rightist and the exacerbated Catholic sensibility would have come after me. We have lost spaces to exercise freedom, together with a lot of spontaneity. Spontaneity is becoming more and more difficult every day. There are too many people ready to feel offended. You have to be very careful about what you say. Unless you are in Congress, where there is no ban on saying all types of crazy things. I have the impression that for ultra-conservative politicians, there are no longer any limits, and the situation has become very worrying. The political class has lost respect for itself and for all the citizens they represent. And then there are social networks that have created Trump and the anonymous organisation of haters. 

E. We are also experiencing an intense confrontation between sectors of feminism over Trans Law. What do you think about this complex conflict? 

P. At a time like this in the feminist fight, with all the achievements in the field of cinema that we were talking about earlier, during this unique moment for women, for this division to happen seems pathetic to me. I am in favour of the Trans law, and it seems that historical feminists are wrong to say that a 16-year-old is not mature enough to have a say about their gender identity, amongst other things. Trans children develop an awareness of their identity much earlier than others, almost as soon as they can talk and start to state a preference for how they want to dress. I think it is a significant step forward that, at the age of 16, they can decide about their gender reassignment without consulting their parents. The transition process is a very painful path; it involves many sacrifices and is definitely not based on a whim. Spanish society approved this subject long ago, and families and communities now know what to do. Trans people are no longer condemned to the streets. And it’s a very serious issue that historical feminists claim that a woman can only be called a woman only if she was biologically born one. Of course, biological women have been fighting for their rights longer than trans women. In that sense, they are correct, but they cannot say that a trans woman is not a woman. She is as much a woman as a biological one. 

E. A few days ago, Madrid experienced some of the most impressive demonstrations in defence of public health care in living memory, and you were there to witness it.

P. Universal public health care is a fundamental right of Spanish citizens, and this is enshrined in the Constitution. I don’t think I need to explain that public health is one of the foundations of the welfare state, but I was there because, like so many thousands of Madrid residents, I wanted to respond to the cry for help made by the health workers in Madrid who are falling into depression because they have had to tend to an average of 60 patients a day for months. If, at the beginning of the pandemic, we went out to our balconies at 8 o’clock to applaud them for their generosity because they dedicated all their efforts to save our lives by putting theirs at risk—and sometimes even losing their own lives in the process—the demonstration of the other day took the applause from the balconies to the streets to show health workers that we stand with them and that we will fight for them until the situation returns to what it used to be. It’s clear that the presidency of the community of Madrid is trying to kill off public health care and get people to choose private insurance. Those of us who have money are doing it, but there is a middle class on the verge of precariousness that isn’t able to do it, and their lives are in danger. It was a civic demonstration, called by health professionals and neighbourhood communities, with no political parties or flags waving in the wind, just napkins and white handkerchiefs. 

E. You have just finished a new short film, a western with Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal and Manu Rios, shot in Almería. Tell me about your relationship with this genre… the ritual of man, horse and the countryside.

P. I wouldn’t say I liked the western genre when I was a child, but I began to discover it as a teenager and adored it by the time I was an adult. Visually, it is a gift. The countryside is another character, like the relationship between nature and the land. And also the relationship with honour, generally from a masculine perspective. Men with unshakeable values based on honour. A field to which I have added a new element: desire, not only the one that manifests itself in moments of extreme drunkenness but also the one that is still present the morning after. I have also had the pleasure of shooting in one of the villages built fifty years ago by Sergio Leone for his Dollar Trilogy with Clint Eastwood. 

E. What is the film’s focus?

P. Masculinity. Each of the characters experiences this in a very different way.

E. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of wounded masculinity in The Power of the Dog is impressive, but it’s impossible to beat Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain

P. I agree, Cumberbatch is the most important thing in Jane Campion’s film. But Ledger was superb in Brokeback Mountain, superb, superb… the way he conveyed the pain of discovering himself. You know, I was close to making that film. They offered it to me and even waited for me. But Annie Proulx’s book—from which Brokeback Mountain is taken—was much more physical than Larry McMurtry’s script, which was on the verge of becoming a Hollywood film. I was told I would have been given all the artistic freedom I wanted, but the best thing I ever did in Hollywood was never to believe what I’d been told. 

E. Was this new short film produced by Yves Saint Laurent?

P. They are producers, and Anthony Vaccarello was in charge of the wardrobe and did it very well. I watched a lot of films, and I took a lot of references for the dresses and jewellery that I wanted the most. I would tell him about it, and he would go to work. He got everything right, and I was delighted.

E. Actually, you did quote western movies in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown with the famous dialogue between Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar.

P. I love Nicholas Ray’s films; he did it all and did it very well and in a personal way. Johnny Guitar contains the most moving dialogue on love ever written for cinema. I wonder who wrote it: Phillip Jordan, who wrote the script, or Ray himself, who was also involved in it, although he is not included in the credits. I’m inclined to think it was Nicholas Ray, his most feminine side. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has a lot to do with Johnny Guitar, which is an unusual western for such a masculine genre. The action, the trousers and the guns are carried by two women, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. 

E. It seems that short films are your thing these days. You began your career with ‘Super 8’, and now you’re back to this short film format that offers you more freedom, as you said when you presented The Human Voice

P. Now that series are proliferating, the great luxury for me is to have made two short films in English. The experience has been so enriching that I plan to make some more. There are stories whose natural length is 30 minutes, and I refuse to stretch them as I don’t need to. Besides, as you say, not being in an industrial format allows you much more freedom than if you were making a feature film. In short films, there is less commitment to reality, and I love that. 

E. There’s another picture of you from your early days, walking around Barcelona with a white mask and a poster of your first short films, like a sort of promoter… That’s you, isn’t it?

P. Yes, yes, that’s me. I did everything. I hung a white blind on the wall, ran the credits on a roll of toilet paper and dubbed all the characters. It’s funny how photography captures the spirit of a person or a time in a much better way than video. It captures something that the naked eye and video cameras don’t see. The photograph you quote represents me because that’s where the storyteller already is.

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Elsa Fernandez-Santos in conversation with Pedro Almodóvar

FROM DUST #22