‘I asked him to be the opposite of what he was famous for doing’ - Director Pedro Almodóvar on working with Antonio Banderas on Pain and Glory
The great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar on his most intensely autobiographical work and asking long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas to press reset on his acting style
Franco had to die, Pedro Almodóvar once said, so that I could live. As a gay man hailing from the ultra-conservative rural heartland of La Mancha, he had a point: a priest-ridden, culturally hidebound backwater was no place for Pedro, and in his early films he delighted in shocking and scandalising polite society with stories of lowlifes, prostitutes, cross-dressers and pimps.
Films like High Heels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! were funny, transgressive, full of life, a bold rewriting of Spanish national identity, but in his middle years, once Pedro had made his point, he settled into stronger, less showy but more profound dramas (Talk to Her, All About My Mother, Bad Education, Volver) that mixed the grit of Italian neo-realism with the lush melodrama of Douglas Sirk.
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Autobiographical elements were always present, but as he's gotten older, the Spanish master has plunged ever deeper into himself. His latest film, Pain and Glory, is his most overly personal yet, and stars his old friend and most frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, an ageing Madrid film-maker whose chronic back and ear problems have put paid to his once stellar career.
Depressed and increasingly isolated, Salvador starts smoking heroin to dull the pain, unleashing visions of his rural childhood and his fiercely pragmatic and resourceful mother that inspire Mallo to begin creating anew.
"This film is more personal than any of the others," Pedro admits when I meet him in London's Soho Hotel. He turns 70 next month, and his shock of upstanding hair has turned quite white, but he seems hale, and as in love with cinema as ever: before we finish, he tells me that he's "writing like crazy" on his next project. He has reasonable English, but sometimes lapses into musical Castilian which his translator interprets.
"I project myself in all my movies," he says. "I mean, I don't ever need to write my autobiography, because my autobiography is in the 21 movies that I've made. But in the other movies, I was usually hidden in supporting characters. In this film, I was conscious from the start that I was in some sense talking about myself. It's not completely literal, it's mixed with fiction, but everything came from myself."
The fact that Antonio Banderas plays the lead role makes Pain and Glory feel even more intensely autobiographical. In the 1980s, at the height of Madrid's 'Movida' artistic renaissance, Banderas and Almodóvar were close.
"This character Salvador's heyday was in the 1980s, and in that decade myself and Antonio were very close friends: he knows very well Madrid and the kind of character-type he's playing. So it was all very familiar for him."
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Banderas rather melodramatically declared that "to create this character I had to kill Antonio Banderas", adding that "there was something in me that I definitely could not use for this role." Pedro smiles and nods in agreement when I quote it.
"I asked him to be the opposite of what he was famous for doing," he explains. "I didn't want him to deploy the range that he habitually uses, I wanted this to be much more delicate. So he had to find a way of renouncing those things and become a different actor for this film. The key thing is he realised that extremely quickly: he found these extraordinary new tones, and I was so impressed just watching him doing it."
Physical pain is almost like another character in this film, so intensely does it afflict and transform the once vital and dashing film director, Salvador, who retreats from the world to cope with tinnitus, loss of hearing, a swallowing problem and crippling back pain. It's a predicament with which Almodóvar is familiar.
"I had a similar situation before shooting Julieta [his sweeping 2016 melodrama] when I'd had a bad operation and it had incapacitated me. So I couldn't move well at all and I was thinking I can't possibly shoot a film. Julieta was the first film I made after the operation so it was about trying to rediscover the passion, and Antonio's character also has this sense of needing to make it: it's the one thing that makes the pain disappear.
"The passion in actually shooting the film was so great, it's almost like being in a trance, it's as if the pain disappears, and this was the case for me when I was shooting Julieta. In this film, it's the pain that makes Salvador try heroin, but that takes him back to his childhood memories, and he has that moment of epiphany, he has the need to tell another story, he has the impulse to write it, and he goes to the laptop and he sits down, and starts writing furiously as if he's running out of time to finish it, so desperate is the need to tell this story. His dependency is making film, not drugs."
In Pain and Glory Salvador, who's also gay, has a moving encounter with a former partner, but this film is ultimately not that kind of love story, because the thing Mallo seems most devoted to is the memory of his mother. She's played in brusque, no-nonsense fashion by Penélope Cruz in flashbacks, and in later years by another Almodóvar regular, Julieta Serrano. The frank and funny conversations between her and Salvador seem all too plausible.
"It is inspired by my mother," Pedro nods, "not everything, but there are parts that are directly from reality. I mean when the mother reminds him of how she wants to be dressed when she's dead, and laid out, that was exactly from reality except for the fact that my mother didn't ask me, she asked my older sister, because you know there is a big death culture in La Mancha, but it's more a female culture.
"My sister told me that whenever my mother came to see me in Madrid in the last five years of her life, she would wear this mantilla that she wanted to be buried in, just in case, you know!"
In the film we see flashbacks of Salvador's mother encouraging the precocious 10-year-old to teach illiterate local youths to read and write. "That was so funny because I have a very clear memory of that, and I did it with five or six guys of 17 or 18, taught them to read and write. They would work in the fields by day, and in the evenings they'd come to me, and it was very funny because my mother told me later that they were dressed like if they were going to the church or the doctor, with their best clothes on.
"They said I was very tough and demanding on them, like a director! It was all my mother's idea: she was trying to get money to take the family forward, but it was also a cultural service, because illiteracy was a big thing back then."
In Pain and Glory, Salvador reveals that he hasn't watched his most famous film for 30 years. Does Pedro ever watch his? "If there are retrospectives, that you have to talk at, then I look at them again so I know what I'm talking about! But not otherwise." He's proud of them, though.
"I think you have to accept, for better or worse, the film that you made at the time. You have to recognise the movie that you did: there is no explanation or justification, and you have to live with that movie for the best and the worst, even if you don't like all of it, this is what you did. Fortunately, I have a good relationship with them, I have my favourites, some of them I don't like so much, but what I discovered watching the movies now, is that even in the films with parts that I don't like, there is always something that I really love. And it was necessary to make them all."
Pain And Glory will be released in Irish cinemas on August 23