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Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar talks ‘Julieta’, Caitlyn Jenner and the women who influence his art

By Samuel McManus

This interview was first published in Attitude issue 274, September 2016.

Rising to fame — indeed notoriety — in the early 1980s, Pedro Almodóvar balked at being labelled a gay filmmaker.

“When my films first left Spain, especially when they went to the US — where they were seen before being released in the UK — that’s what they called me,” says the Spanish director as he meets Attitude in a London hotel.

“I’ve never hidden the fact I’m gay but I found it strange because in Spain I’d never been classed as ‘the gay director, Pedro Almodóvar,’ so that was the first time I’d experienced it. It felt similar to a moral judgment.”

Switching from fluent English to impassioned Spanish, with an interpreter on hand to translate, the maestro insists: “You wouldn’t talk about the President of the United States and say: ‘The heterosexual President.’ So it felt like a judgment of values at that time.

“They were classifying me as a gay filmmaker rather than a filmmaker. But now I don’t care,” he adds

Pedro, 67, has earned the right not to care. In the ensuing three decades and more, the master moviemaker has fashioned many astonishing stories, continuing to push the LGBT+ envelope but also bringing his singular sensibilities to straight stories that reinvigorate melodramatic staples in startling new ways.

Just look at his latest film, Julieta — a drama about the younger and older versions of the same woman and her agonising search for her runaway daughter. Think Joan Crawford meets Todd Haynes by way of Pedro’s unique way with colour, voice-over and music.

It’s a heterosexual saga with a gay sensibility that makes it 100 per cent Almodóvar and if it’s less outrageous than his earlier work, that’s because he sees the world as a very different place to the one when he started out.

The place he began — as Spain explored new freedoms in the wake of despised dictator General Franco’s death —- allowed Almodóvar to go as far as he liked.

The winemaker’s son was a small-town boy who moved to Madrid in the 1960s to pursue his dream of becoming a moviemaker, directing short films before making his feature-length debut with Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom, in 1980.

It would take a whole book to detail all the fabulous, outrageous, taboo-busting, queer-agenda-exploring things he’s put on the screen since then. There were lesbian punk rockers and golden showers in that first film, a gay Arabian prince in Labyrinth Of Passion, drug-addled nuns in Dark Habits, and a love triangle between a gay director, his transsexual sister and bisexual stalker Antonio Banderas in Law Of Desire.

Then there was Gael Garcia Bernal dressed in a frock in Bad Education, and Banderas again, turning a guy into a girl in The Skin I Live In.

Along with all these, Almodóvar has made dramas and melodramas such as All About My Mother and Volver and comedies, including Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and 2013’s I’m So Excited, about a bunch of trolley dollies instigating an in-flight orgy that critics derided for being a throwaway return to his earlier, funnier films.

The criticism was water off a duck’s back to Pedro, and he makes no apologies for anything in any of his movies. As he engages in a lengthy chat, Almodóvar, who is as passionate, colourful and comical as so much of his extraordinary work, says he’ll continue to push the LGBT+ agenda but never in a woe-is-me way.

“I won’t make a movie about the problems of being a gay person,” he points out. “Since the beginning, I have put transsexuals, bisexuals, lesbians and gay men in my movies as part of everyday life.”

But being hailed as a genius embarrasses him. “When I look at myself in the mirror every morning, I don’t see a genius,” he blushes. “I see someone like everyone else.”

What was the original inspiration for your latest film, Julieta?

The original idea was from three stories by Alice Munro in the book Runaway. I love Alice Munro. She’s a wife who sometimes writes and I like her character. She’s taking care of her family, cooking for her children, desperately trying to find just an hour to write. She always talks about family relationships but at the same time there’s something very weird in her short stories. That really appealed to me. I asked for the rights immediately after reading the stories but it was very complicated to get to the point where I had a screenplay that I was happy with. It wasn’t just about unifying three stories but also adapting them to Spanish culture. The spirit of Spanish family life is very different to that of Canada [from where Munro hails] or the US. Young people become independent very quickly when they go to college in the US or Canada. That’s not the case in Spain; the umbilical cord remains. The most interesting thing for me is to have turned the stories into something very Spanish but also very, very me.

It reminded us a lot of The Flower Of My Secret, the melodrama you made in 1995.

Exactly. It’s very much a story that could have been written by the protagonist of that film.

Both Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte give wonderful performances as the older and younger Julieta. You’re known for your female muses, such as Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz and the incredible Rossy de Palma. Are your new leading ladies now part of your roster?

Oh yes. When I started casting this film I found the characters didn’t fit well with actresses I’d worked with in the past, so I held auditions. I knew them because they are famous in Spain, on TV or in cinema, but apart from Rossy [who plays a stern housekeeper named Marian] they’re all new to my movies. Now, though, they’re part of my ensemble; my repertory company.

Rossy is dowdy in the film and also very scary. Did she relish playing a character unlike anything she’s played before?

Yes, very much. I wanted to work with her again [she played Marisa in Nervous Breakdown] but with something completely different and this character was perfect. Also, I knew she could do it very well. And she can be even scarier than that! In Spain, she’s always done comedies, parodies, but this character is the opposite to everything she’s done in the past decade. She was very happy to do it.

She’s something of a gay icon, isn’t she?

She’s been that since the very beginning, when she appeared in Law Of Desire. She started doing fashion modelling but within a very gay iconography. She incorporates a non-standard beauty with a sense of irony — something with which the gay sensibility can identify.

Your films feature so many feisty female characters. Why is that?

When I think about my childhood in La Mancha, where I went to live when I was eight years old, I was always surrounded by strong women. My mother, the neighbours, I was always with women because the men were outside working and they only came to the house at night. So I felt a bit distant from the male members of my family. Men in La Mancha represented authority but an authority that wasn’t present during the day, so it was the women I saw at work. I grew up surrounded by incredibly strong women who were a lot less prejudiced than the men. This was a great influence on my work. With the exception of Julieta, the mothers in my films are really strong; they’re fighters. Julieta is different. If you compare her with the others, she’s much more fragile. She’s much frailer and more delicate.

Then there are the beautiful men you’ve featured, such as Antonio Banderas and Gael Garcia Bernal. Do they reflect your own taste?

I have a very varied taste. The men you mention, I recognise that they are very handsome but I don’t just like only one type, I’m very eclectic in my taste. When I work with them I might be aware of the fact they’re handsome before or after making the movie, but there’s something that de-eroticises them when we’re working together. For example, with Antonio Banderas during the 1980s we were very close friends and after he went to Hollywood we’d see each other often, but when someone said to me, “Oh Antonio, he’s so sexy,” I was surprised because at the time I didn’t realise it. I don’t see him so often now but when I see him on TV in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! or Law Of Desire, I realise how incredibly sexy and handsome he was. But at the time I wasn’t conscious of it.

Your previous film, I’m So Excited, took a bit of a critical bashing. How did that feel?

Well, there’s an impression that stories with such an explicit sense of humour such as in that film, which are also associated with the films I made at the beginning of my career, would have a harder time now. For example, Dark Habits was recently shown on television and a number of people rang me to say they really liked the film, how important it was, and that it’s one of my best films. But I couldn’t make the film now because we’re a more intolerant society. There’s a greater intolerance to that free tone, that corrosive, open, explicit tone. We’re less tolerant towards it now. There’s a big debate in Spanish society at the moment about gay marches and how the Church has responded to this. On the poster for Gay Pride, you have two virgins — the virgin of Barcelona and the virgin of Valencia — giving each other a kiss. This has provoked indignation from the Church, with the archbishops going bonkers about it. They’re saying it’s a huge offence to Catholic sensibility and sensitivity but this wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s.

When you made those earlier films, was it your intention to be provocative?

Yes, but there was a relationship of reciprocity. Spain was still in the shadow of a dictatorship but we had begun celebrating that we were a free country [after more than 35 years]. We’d thrown off the shackles. There were no reactions at the time to Dark Habits even though it had lesbian sex and nuns taking drugs. There was no reaction from the Church. There was a greater sense of provocation outside Spain at that time. I made the most of that new freedom to act with total spontaneity. But think about, for example, Madonna. She always wanted to be outrageous; it’s part of her work. But I didn’t try to be outrageous, it was just how I expressed myself.

What do you think of Lady Gaga?

It’s all very tiring. I think she must be exhausted about having to think each day about what her new look is going to be or how she can provoke or scandalise. [Laughs] It’s an entertaining process but now she’s trying to sell herself as kind of an ordinary blonde girl who is an actress. It’s a pity because she’s a real singer with a wonderful voice.

Getting back to those earlier films, are you proud you were ahead of the LGBT+ conversation?

I’m delighted if that’s the case, but now you wouldn’t find a TV show that doesn’t have a gay character. It’s almost an obligation. In Spain, we call it positive discrimination. It’s as if you have a quota you have to meet.

What about Transparent? Does that feel groundbreaking to you?

I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s wonderful that a show such as that is being made, especially given that the lead character is an older man [Maura, played by 72-year-old Jeffrey Tambor].

What’s your view of Caitlyn Jenner?

Do you think that if a sports star of a certain age with a particular visibility decides to change sex, and wants to do it on a TV show, that it is important?

Absolutely, although Caitlyn – like Jeffrey’s character in Transparent – has the wealth and privileges that other transgender people might not be lucky enough to have.

That’s my thought too. You belong to the Kardashian family, but what about making a programme about someone less relevant socially, someone much more common. I don’t want to judge Caitlyn Jenner, but I’m not sure she’s a model of what the life of a real transsexual is. They have to struggle with a lot of rejection, with prostitution and a very dangerous type of living. But at least in Spain that situation has changed. One of the families in the building where my brother lives attended a party there and their 15-year-old daughter was a boy who’d made the change. What’s fantastic is that you can make that change very young, with real doctors and not just someone who gives you hormones on the black market. You can be yourself, with the real gender you belong to, and that’s a huge change in society’s attitudes. But it’s not the same in all countries around the world.

On a lighter note, what do you think is the kinkiest thing you’ve ever put on screen?

When I was shooting What Have I Done To Deserve This? I remember thinking: “Maybe this is too much,” namely when Carmen Maura takes her son to the dentist and realising the man is a paedophile she almost sells the boy to him. I wasn’t sure I was right to do that. It was very funny, very Todd Solondz. I still did it, in the end.

Is your work less inclined to shock audiences these days?

The stories I tell have changed and the tone with which I tell them has changed. They’ve darkened. It’s not that I’m not as sincere and spontaneous as I was in the Eighties but life has become darker.

Is your camp sensibility a conscious thing?

It’s difficult for me to explain but we don’t have that camp culture in Spain or we don’t classify it as camp. I’m not sure it has the pejorative sense of something that’s old and out-of-date. In Spain, we have something called esperpento, which is a mix of grotesque, kitsch and black humour. It’s quite shocking, cruel and in-your-face. Think of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? I’ve never minded bordering on the ridiculous and embracing kitsch. But never in a mean-spirited way.

Given the song and dance scenes in your movies, it’s strange you’ve never made a full-blown musical.

I should do one; I love the genre. In my movies there’s always someone who starts singing. Songs are very important in my movies. It’s something that I must get around to doing.

The Almodovar Collection DVD and Blu-ray boxset is out now and features six newly restored films.

Words by Simon Button