Pedro Almodovar is one of the most prominent European directors in the world. He’s also one of the most prominent gay directors – or rather director who happens to be gay, as he’d probably prefer it put. He’s back with I’m So Excited, a movie which perhaps has the most overt gay sensibility of any of his films.
The film hits DVD in the UK on August 26th, and to celebrate that we have an interview with Pedro, where he talks about the movie, how it’s a metaphor for modern Spain, and what it was like being gay as a young man in the era of General Franco.
Your new film, which is a great joy to watch and a great joy to experience. It was really great fun. I really enjoyed it.
Yeah, it was very funny to do it. I actually thought that making this film would be a much lighter experience for me than the films I’ve been making. But that was actually silly to think that. It wasn’t like that at all. Why should I ever think that? Because in fact comedy is perhaps one of the most difficult genres of films that you can make because it requires much more precision. It’s much tougher to make. And for me, in fact, that whole process of filming was a process where I had to have eyes on everything. I had to have eyes in the back of my head to watch what was going on, but in fact the film itself was a celebration for all of us. It was a joy for all of us to make, particularly because it took me back to the tone of the first films that I made when I started off my career: The comedies.
It became unconsciously a kind of tribute to the comedies of the eighties. That was when I was born as a director, but also it was the moment of that explosion of freedom in Spain with the birth of democracy that impregnate the movie and also my memories when I was writing.
For the actors themselves, it was just party day after day during filming. That made for a good result at the end of the day. Actually, the filming itself was uncomfortable in the sense you’re talking about a tiny little space, aren’t you, where everything is being filmed, you had a lot of actors and a lot of interactions going on between the actors themselves. And that for me was new to have to shoot in such a small space with so many actors. And so everything was completely rehearsed. It was more than rehearsed, it was choreographed. It wasn’t just the dance sequences that were choreographed. All of the actions themselves were previously choreographed. They were rehearsed months in advance before we actually got into the filming, which was done in that tiny space.
I know quite a few of your films have been turned into stage plays. I wondered whether you were thinking about the theatre when you actually wrote the script and created this world.
Not exactly, to answer your question about whether I thought about being a stage play. But at the beginning what I did have in my head, certainly, was the typical American screwball comedy. And those screwball comedies are actually very much based on the French theatrical tradition where you’ve just got one single space, one single set, and everything takes place there. So in a way that was the comedy genre that was in my mind when I started this.
But of course…And also, this is a movie based in words. I mean, words are very important for—words have their actions in the movie. And also you have this red curtain…I put it there because they have to separate the spaces, their rooms. But also just to remind theatre.
Just like the red curtain in the theatre. So whenever the actors are going to talk, or there’s a dialogue going on perhaps they go and use that public phone, I deliberately make sure the red curtain is drawn there, because the idea is to bring up that impression of the theatrical stage curtain. And the three stewards, I mean they’re just perfect, as if they were a chorus, don’t you think? (indecipherable) Or in some sort of Broadway comedy musical as well.”
So can you tell me why this particular film now? Because I think you first mentioned I’m So Excited about 2004 or something when you were also talking about The Skin I Live In. You were talking about other projects you might do. You made two quite dark films in a row; did you just want to find a little sunshine at the moment or a little ray of happiness?
The script was already done. When I made The Skin I Live In I had the script already written. But I was not completely sure. I thought that I needed to work it more, to rewrite more. For the rest of the team, they preferred to do I’m So Excited, but I thought it was not the right moment. So then I made The Skin I Live In. And during the editing, I started rewriting and that was the ultimate version. I correct and adapt everything til the last minute. I wanted to go back to comedy. And also thinking about the situation going on now in Spain, I thought it was a good idea just to release a comedy in this moment. I was working on this script for about five or six years and I was not happy. When you decide that this is finished, that is the moment to suit it.
It just coincided that the timing of bringing out of this film has coincided with the difficult times in Spanish society. And I’m happy actually that it did coincide. If only I could perhaps bring out comedies in times of economic crises, but it’s not enough to just want that to happen. I also think that the timing of it right now, I mean it’s great to be able to celebrate right now just being alive and also the greatest gift given to us by nature is sex. And to pay tribute relaly to that new freedom that we gained here in Spain. It’s good for people to remember that. It’s a good time to think about those things. I’ve got three or four scripts ongoing at the moment, perhaps two of them particularly really are not similar comedies. They are not as dark as the films I’ve been making, but they’re definitely not comedies.”
You mentioned the spirit of the eighties in your earlier comedies. It’s also interesting that although it’s an ensemble piece your three leads are all sort of gay men.
The fact that there are more homosexuals is part of the casting of my previous films. It’s not the celebration of homosexuality itself, it’s more to do with the genre itself, and the fact that this is comedy, a screwball comedy. You’re doing this crazy comedy and it’s set inside a plane where the obvious thing is to make the three flight attendants your main characters there as flamboyant as you can make them. Because that’s the way to get the best out of the comicn-ess of the situation and the genre that you’re working with. Yes, I’ve always had homosexuals in my films before, but perhaps not so much with so over-feminine characteristics as these ones in particular. But it’s more to do with the celebration of explosion of freedoms that we gained back in the 1980s than homosexuality itself. Really, there’s also a celebration of feelings. It’s about a celebration of sexuality itself, sexuality expressed by the bisexuals, by the heterosexuals, by the homosexuals, by the virgins and the non-virgins!
I feel like there’s quite a lot of stuff that I miss as a British person in terms of what sort of comments you’re making about Spain itself. Is that something you can sort of read into the characters you created for the business class?
You’re right all of those characters are connected to Spain’s society right now.
The economic class is completely drugged, as you know.
The whole of the economy class is drugged. I mean, that’s actually an abuse of power by the pilots themselves.
Of course, this is escapist comedy. But you don’t really need to know the details of what’s going on in Spain to really understand that what I’m doing here is linking it up with what’s happening in Spain through this metaphor. The film is a metaphor really. It’s about the uncertainty that’s facing us all in Spain. The fact that you’ve got the plane that’s going around and around in circles, not even circles, it’s an elliptical route. No one knows when they’re going to be able to land. They know that they have to land somewhere. There’s going to be an emergency landing; they don’t know how dangerous it’s going to be.
They need a runway, they don’t know when they’re going to find this runway. This is direct metaphor for what’s actually happening here in Spain. We know, too, that there’ll have to be a landing. There’s a happy ending in the film, of course, but we don’t know if that’s going to be the case here in Spain. It’s a really serious situation here for us. Somewhere there has to be a runway. Where is it? We know it exists, but we don’t know when people are going to be able to take us to it or who’s going to be piloting the plane. We don’t know what dangers are entailed with this emergency landing. Actually, we think perhaps they’re even taking us in the wrong direction towards this runway. So it’s not just the fact that you’ve got this corrupt bankrupt on the plane, who’s also representing part of Spanish society. There are more things to that. The whole airport itself is ghostly, the empty airport.
The airport is real you know. And there are seventeen airports like that. Useless. In this case, this cost like 1.2 billion. For the Spanish people, it’s obvious because they know this airport and they know what it means. But the movie is political in that sense, not in an obvious sense, but it is.
But the money was public funds misused. It was embezzlement with the banker to build this place. It’s all about megalomaniac policies by politicians who end up then just taking the country to bankruptcy. Would you believe this runway is the longest runway in Europe? And it’s an empty airport. It’s not used. And there are seventeen like that. So there is a subliminal message there, perhaps for foreigners it’s more difficult to be able to actually catch all the messages. But it’s really about where Spanish crisis has come from, the origin of the crisis and the ugly face of the crisis.
You mentioned how you want to remind people about the great gift of sex. And you were sort of talking about a nostalgic time back in Spain when things were much more free and much more open in a lot of different ways. When you first came to Madrid were you able to be open straight away or was it a journey for you to embrace your sexuality? Or is that something that filmmaking helped with? What was that journey for you?
Remember, I actually came to Madrid in the 1970s. Spain was still in a dictatorship back then. And I came from a small village. So when I came from a small village to Madrid, Madrid for me symbolized freedom. It was a chance for me to come and see films, go to the theater, to live my own life really. I was very young then. I didn’t have any problems myself with the police. But it was an atmosphere you could feel, it was almost like a solid block around you.
Madrid for me was like the freedom at the moment. But also I immediately after coming to Madrid, I went to London. And that meant for me, much more freedom. That was really, the moment of what they call permissive society.
I mean that was the time of glam rock. Glam rock was really hitting the headlines, David Bowie as well. Everyone is now paying tribute to the great Bowie. At that time it was a completely liberating experience.
So that was real freedom. But anyway, I hated to leave another small country. So I was happy living here. Immediately when I arrived to Madrid, I started making theatre. I needed money so I started working in the telephone company, as office assistant. So I have like a triple life. Very early, I work as office assistant; in the afternoon I used to write, or I was doing a play with this group, or I was just having my life. And that, immediately, one year after, when I saved enough money, I bought my first Super-8 camera and then I started making small movies. The 70s was a dangerous moment also, because it was a dangerous time just before the death of a dictator.
Were there places for gay people to go then? What did you do?
Remember, we were living freely, we were free inside, behind closed doors, but not outside at all. For me I think the transition was ongoing, even if Franco hadn’t died. The transition was underway. The seventies was a really important time for me, even though half of the 70s was in the Franco time before democracy. But it was such an important time. I was making these small, short films, it was a whole learning process for me. I was learning in the theatre group that I was a member of, even my day job working in the telephone company, that was a learning experience, too, because I was finding out all about society, about middle classes, and that came to be important for me later in my films.
I think when you’re young, if there’s a freedom there, you find the way to make the most of it. The assumption was, we knew the dictatorship was going to come to an end. If I hadn’t thought that, I would’ve been off to Paris or London. I used my savings I got from the telephone company and I’d go to London and Paris quite often, and for me that was freedom. But it wasn’t until after 1977 that freedom became tangible and real, a freedom you could actually see when you were on the street. For me freedom meant being up to date on culture and the rest of the world. I was very up to date on everything that was going on in New York underground which was a big influence on me; also London, especially the music scene.
We [Spain] have a huge influence from London and New York in that period, in the seventies. It was our way to imitate the new wave, mixed with punk, that became something very different from the origins. I knew all the groups of the moment, and they were just imitating the British group of the moment or the American.
So when you went to London in those days, did you go see people playing music or would you more go to clubs and hear the music playing in the clubs?
Well, I did both. I remember [going to see] Alice Cooper. I only went to a club that David Bowie used to go to. That was the only place that I went, because all the waiters were Spanish. And there were many people from the music scene, and also I went very often to the cinematheque. But I went almost every day. The seventies were also a very, very, for us, very important, what was happening in England. So you know that kind of information we had it even when Franco existed. But we were paying attention to what was happening, buying records, going to concerts, a lot of exhibitions. That was my school, the pop in general, and with lots of nuances.
One thing that really marks out your characters, are really unusual combinations of people fall in love. And also, sexuality is very fluid. So I wonder what you think about that. Is sexuality fluid in life?
Yes, it’s certainly what I’ve tried to reflect in my films. But it’s not really a theory that I have about sexuality being fluid. It’s something that I see as much more natural than that. Of course, I’m portraying a world of fiction as well in my films, but it’s also my world. It’s the world that I see and the world that I live in. For me sexuality is not a problem. I understand that it might be, it could be in some cases for some people. But I don’t see it as that. And if I have homosexuals in the film, it’s not because I’m saying there is a problem with homosexuality, it’s simply one of the characteristics or the personality of one of the characters in the film. It’s just the most natural way that I’ve found to tell the stories.
So what I’m saying is of course sexuality can lead to problems, there can be problems in relationships and with passion and with love, etc. but I’m not treating homosexuality or bisexuality as a problem at all. And looking back at that, I don’t think I ever took a deliberate intellectual decision to portray sexuality this way in my films. It’s much more intuitive than that. But if I was young today, starting out as a director, I think I probably would.
In some of my first movies, Franco didn’t exist. Not the memory that he existed. And that was conscious. I didn’t want to recognize even his existence. One country needs to have their own memories, and it’s very important to have memories. But in the beginning I made movies as if he didn’t exist, because that was my small revenge.
I know you’ve said that you don’t want to be called a gay filmmaker. You don’t think your films have a gay sensibility. You don’t want to have films that are specifically like Geroge Cukor’s The Women…
That’s not here in Spain. Maybe in the US and England, but nobody actually pigeonholes you at all as a ‘gay director.’ The point was in the interview in the US, they introduce you as the ‘gay director.’ Why would you do that? You would never say ‘Here is the straight president.’ Europeans don’t get asked those questions. Nobody would do that here. My reaction is to the fact that they would pigeonhole me that way. I’m not saying it is negative to say I’m homosexual, I’m simply saying there is no sexuality in the film itself. This film is filmed in digital. But the film itself doesn’t have any sexuality.
I mean there are some filmmakers that are extremely militant activists in their approach, but I’m just not like that in that way. I mean think about In Cold Blood written by Truman Capote. He was a so-called flamboyant gay, but you would never say that that was a gay novel. These adjectives that they pin on you so quickly in the US, unthinkingly, I just think they’re rude. That was my point. I wasn’t just trying to defend myself. I mean, I love George Cukor movies, but my movies are not like his. I would say yes, this film I’m So Excited is perhaps the one film that I’ve made that has a much more overt homosexual sensibility to it.
Do you watch any modern gay cinema? Do you keep up with modern gay filmmakers?
I saw Weekend. I think he [Andrew Haigh] is very interesting. Todd Haynes, I’m very curious about his work, and I think he’s brilliant. I’m a big moviegoer. The problem is that there are not so many movies now to watch. But I like to go to the theatre at least twice a week.
Thank you very much. So nice to talk to you.
And to you.