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Bad Education: Pedro Almodovar Interview

  Pedro Almodovar was born in Calzada de Calatrava, in the province of Ciudad Real, in the heart of La Mancha, in the 50s. At the age of eight, he emigrated with his family to Extremadura. There he studied in elementary and high school with the Salesian Fathers and the Franciscans respectively.

At sixteen, he left home and settled in Madrid, with no money and no job, but with a very specific project: to study and make films. It was impossible to enrol in the Official Film School. Franco had just closed it. As he couldn’t learn the language, he decided to learn the content, that is, life, to live… Despite the dictatorship that was suffocating the country, for an adolescent from the provinces Madrid represented culture, independence and freedom. He worked at many sporadic jobs, but he couldn’t buy his first Super-8 mm camera until he got a “serious” job at the National Telephone Company of Spain where he remained for twelve years, working as an office assistant, twelve years that he also devoted to multiple activities that really formed him as a filmmaker and as a person. In the morning, in the Telephone Company, he gained a real knowledge of the Spanish middle class at the start of the consumer era, its dramas and its misfortunes, a gold mine for a future storyteller. In the afternoon-evening he wrote, loved, did theatre with the mythical independent group Los Goliardos, made films in Super-8 (his only school as a film maker). He collaborated with various underground magazines, wrote short stories, some of which were published. He was a member of the parodic punk-rock group, Almódovar and McNamara, etc.

He was fortunate in that the opening of his first film in commercial cinemas coincided with the birth of Spanish democracy. After a year and a half of difficult filming on 16mm, in 1980 he opened Pepi, Luci, Bom a no-budget film, made cooperatively with the rest of the cast and crew, all beginners except for Carmen Maura.

In 1986, with his brother Agustín, he founded the production company El Deseo, S.A. Their first project was Law of Desire. Since then they have produced the following ten films which Pedro wrote and directed, and also produced other young directors.

International recognition came with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988. Since then, his films have opened in every corner of the world. With All About my Mother he got his first Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and also the Golden Globe, the César, three European Film Awards, the David de Donatello, two BAFTAs, seven Goyas and another forty-five awards. Three years later, Talk to Her had the same or better luck (Oscar for Best Script, five European Film Awards, two BAFTAs, the Nastro de Argento, the César and many more awards throughout the world except in Spain).

2003 has been one of the best years for El Deseo S.A. As well as the critical and public acclaim for Talk to Her, it produced and opened Chill Out! by Félix Sabroso and Dunia Ayaso and My Life Without Me by Isabel Coixet, nominated for Best Film and Best Director in the European Film Awards, a social phenomenon in Japan and a great critical success throughout Europe.

This leads us to the present day and Bad Education, the story of two children, Ignacio and Enrique who discover love, cinema and fear in a religious school at the start of the 60s. Father Manolo, the school principal and their literature teacher, is witness to and part of their discoveries.

The three characters meet again, at the end of the 70s and in the 80s and on each occasion they learn more about the lives and deaths of those closest to them.

Interview:

The Spinning Image (TSI): In Law of Desire (1986) the transsexual played by Carmen Maura goes into the church of the school where she studied as a boy. She finds a priest playing the organ, in the choir. The priest asks her who she is. Carmen confesses to him that she had been a pupil at the school and that he (the priest) had been in love with him. Is that the origin of Bad Education?

Pedro Almodovar (PA): More or less. Long before that, I had written a short story in which a transvestite goes back to the school where he had studied in order to blackmail the priests who had harassed him when he was a boy. While filming Law of Desire I remembered that story and it gave me the idea of Carmen's character going into the church at his school and meeting a priest who loved him when she was a boy. By then I was considering the idea of developing the short story in detail. Carmen is a foreshadow of Zahara.

TSI: There is also a film director in Law of Desire.

PA: Yes, and like Fele Martínez's character he mixes his personal desires with his work and in the end he pays a very high price for it. I've always been interested by the story of the artist who works with his own guts. It's a fascinating adventure even if it never ends well.

TSI: In your first statements you denied that the film was autobiographical.

PA: Paco Umbral says that everything that isn't autobiographical is plagiarism. The film is autobiographical but in a deeper sense. I am behind those characters but I'm not telling my life story.

TSI: I believe you were the soloist in your school choir...

PA: Yes. And I sang all the time, masses in Latin, motets, etc. I sang at all the religious ceremonies and the celebrations. And I guess I didn't do it badly. The priests recorded some of the songs I sang and played them at the door of the church to attract the faithful. And I remember that we filled the church. I'd give anything to recover those tapes, but I don't think they exist. What I most enjoyed in my time at school were the religious ceremonies. I'm agnostic, but I think the Catholic liturgy has a dazzling richness, it fascinates me and moves me. But it's been a long time since I went to mass. I don't know what it's like now.

TSI: Does Fr. Manolo exist?

PA: Yes, as a character.

TSI: But did he really exist?

PA: No. He's a made-up character, although for some scenes I was inspired by two priests at school.

TSI: For what scenes in particular?

PA: The harassment by the river and in the sacristy.

TSI: Are they real scenes?!

PA: Two schoolmates told me about them. If you're a boarder at a school you eventually find out about everything.

TSI: If the two people who were the inspiration for Fr. Manolo are alive, aren't you afraid they may react?

PA: Admitting that they were being alluded to would be like accusing themselves. I'm a director and a scriptwriter. For me, Fr. Manolo is a character, one with whom, I should mention in passing, I'm very satisfied. The character isn't a weapon thrown against the Catholic church (which does have a lot of problems to solve, including its priests' sexuality. If celibacy didn't exist, there wouldn't be so many cases of abuse.) I didn't create Fr. Manolo and his prolongation, Mr. Berenguer, in order to attack the church. They are elements that allow me to talk about two of the many faces of passion. When Fr. Manolo is played by Daniel Giménez-Cacho, the passion he feels for the boy, and his abuse of power, make him into an executioner. When he calls himself Mr. Berenguer and has cast off his habits and falls in love with Juan, the same terrible character plays the opposite role in the roulette of passion. Now he is a victim.

The film is inconceivable without those two characters, who are really one, and without their incarnation by Daniel Giménez Cacho and Lluis Homar respectively. Although they are two veterans, they were two great discoveries for me. I can never thank them enough for their lack of prejudice, their depth and their unending willingness to satisfy all the demands of a director as insatiable as I am.

TSI: What can you tell me about the rest of the cast?

PA: They are superb. Fele Martínez, Francisco Boira, the kids, Javier Cámara, Alberto Ferreiro, Petra Martínez, Francisco Maestre, and, naturally, Gael. It's a miracle to get it right with all the actors, especially when you don't know any of them, except Javier and Fele.

TSI: Fele doesn't seem like himself, physically.

PA: I made him slim down and train for four or five months, until he got another (better) body, another physical attitude. He was delighted, because everyone found him much sexier. As well as the physical aspect, we also worked on his tone of voice. I lowered its tessitura. He gave the character his heart, all of it, and his skin. I believe that from now on Fele will do other kinds of roles, less teen, more adult. He's an all-round actor. He can span the two extremes, torrid drama and crazy comedy. As happens in a different way with Javier Cámara.

Javier is very versatile, he works in all the media (cinema, television, theatre, cabaret) and in all the genres. In Talk to Her, even though the role was dramatic I discovered his gift for humour, and even though it's brief, his character in Bad Education was like an oasis for the whole crew. Javier is a comedian virtuoso. He has that special gift that goes beyond acting and that can't be learned. His composition of "Paca" is rich, exhaustive, human, hilarious, dangerous for whoever is at his side because you only have eyes for him. A natural "scene-stealer".

TSI: Poor Gael!

PA: Not in the slightest. Gael is going to work a lot and he's going to make lots of money.

TSI: How and why did you choose him, after cross-dressing every Spanish actor in the prime of young manhood?

PA: By auditioning him two or three times, like everyone else.

TSI: What did he have that the others didn't?

PA: He was very attractive as a boy and as a girl. And that was essential for understanding his character's relationship with the others, the intensity with which everyone became obsessed with him.

TSI: Is Gael the villain of the story?

PA: Bad Education is the opposite of a film with good guys and villains. In any case, I never judge characters whatever they do. My job is to "represent them", "explain them in all their complexity" and come up with an entertaining spectacle with all that. It isn't good for a film that the director judges his characters, even if they do atrocious things. Juan, the base-character that Gael plays, is a guy who doesn't stop at anything as far as he gets what he ambitions. He is capable of killing, if the situation comes up, of seducing and of having sex with men and women depending on his convenience. His absolute lack of scruples gives him an incredible strength, and makes of him a walking menace. But if you don't cross yourself in his ambition's path, Juan is a normal guy that can live perfectly integrated in society without anyone detecting the danger that he brings along. I like to compare it to those Patricia Highsmith's amoral characters, Ripley, for example, to whom crime does not affect morally, but ends up refining them, cultivating them and making them charmer. Considering the movie as an obscure "thriller", as I said before, the character of Gael, represents the typical "femme fatale", (in his case "enfant terrible") because he leads all the characters who come in contact with him to their downfall. And Downfall is the Spanish title for Double Indemnity (by the genius Billy Wilder), "noir" among the "noir"-est, to which I'm paying homage.

Juan and Mr. Berenguer go to the Museum of Giant Figures in Valencia to plan a murder. Juan tells his lover that after they carry it out they mustn't see each other for a while. With the naivety of the typical manipulated lover, Mr. Berenguer thought that the murder would unite them forever but, on the contrary, it drives them apart and he can't bear that idea but it's too late to avoid it.
This scene is a reference (and reverences) to the scene in the supermarket in Double Indemnity. Even though I really like how it turned out, I'm aware that no film in colour can surpass the image of Barbary Stanwyck in a curling blonde wig and large dark glasses, surrounded by stacks of canned food, all of it, including Fred MacMurray, in glorious black and white.

TSI: What was it like working with Gael?

PA: A challenge, for him and for me. It isn't easy to play a character that is actually three, especially when two of them are very different physically. I guess it's the hardest work that Gael has done to date. On top of the difficulty of changing sex and not looking grotesque, there was the accent. I wanted him to speak Spanish, not Mexican which is very different...

TSI: Are you satisfied with the result?

PA: Yes. I hope that the spectators won't let themselves be influenced by the fact that one of his characters is so hateful. To end up, I don't want to forget Alberto Ferreiro, Francisco Maestre, Petra Martínez and the kids . They were all wonderful surprises. With Raúl García and Ignacio Pérez (the kids), I hit the jackpot. You never know what can happen with one child, never mind two. I have no experience with child actors. I directed Ignacio and Raúl as if they were adults, and I think the result is very moving. I'm very proud of that part of the film (the story of the two boys and their relationship with God and Fr. Manolo), perhaps because before I started shooting it seemed to be the most difficult and most delicate part. I'm very grateful to Joserra Cadiñanos, the casting director, who during the shooting helped me explain to Ignacio and Raúl what they were doing and why they were doing it. Joserra was my best intermediary.

TSI: The structure of Bad Education is at least as complicated as that of Talk to Her...

PA: I think it's even more so. As in Talk to Her in Bad Education there is a film within a film, but in this case it lasts half an hour, which is even more risky. Really, the film tells three stories, about three concentric triangles, which in the end turn out to be just one story.

TSI: The story of a director-scriptwriter who is looking for a story...

PA: And who finds it. As Truman Capote said, quoting St. Teresa, "There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers"...

TSI: Why so many voiceovers?

PA: The voiceover is used to explain what isn't seen and to speed up the narration rhythm. It is as if a character in the movie visits you, sits down in front of you at the table and sums up part of his/her story. Voiceovers have been essential for me to shift from one story to the other, from one period to the other.

The good thing about having the two protagonists, one a film director (that is to say, a narrator, someone who investigates so that everything is understood) and the other possessing a tight secrecy attitude, intrinsic quality to the impostor's nature, the good thing about having these two opposed characters, I say, is that it makes us understand lots of keys to the Gael's character through the director (Fele Martínez). The spectator knows what Fele knows, so he/she identifies with Fele, and it's his eyes and his "voiceovers" what explain his discoveries about himself and the mysterious and ferocious figure of Gael-Juan.

TSI: One of the elements in the plot that works best is when we discover that two of the characters are brothers.

PA: Yes, and I'd like to keep that a secret. I adore the feeling of fraternity, and I've always liked films about siblings: Warren Beatty getting a beating in a parking lot for defending the honour of his sister, Barbara Loden, in Splendor in the Grass. Legs Diamond, in the film by Budd Boetticher, getting caught because of his brother's carelessness. The Bonnie and Clyde gang, led by two brothers. The entire Godfather saga has given us marvelous scenes of siblings who love each other, beat each other up, protect each other and kill each other. All of Ma Baker's children in No Orchids for Miss Blandish (written by James Hadley Chase, directed by John L. Clowes). Bloody Mama, by Roger Corman. Fierce mothers, leaders of gangs made up of their own children.

I'm moved by all of Alain Delon's brothers in Rocco and His Brothers. Even Michael Jackson and Latoya Jackson, deformed mirrors of each other. Natalie Wood and George Chakiris in West Side Story. Hayley Mills playing her own twin in The Parent Trap, the Siamese twins in Sisters, by early Brian de Palma. The Marx Brothers in any of their films. The touching Harry Dean Stanton in Paris-Texas and his silent visit to his brother, Dean Stockwell. The two Mills sisters in Fallen Angel, by Preminger, the two delightful spinsters in Arsenic and Old Lace and Shelley Winters' little orphans, pursued by the evil Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. And even, although Raymond Chandler's dialogue prevented the slightest sentimentality, Lauren Bacall defending her indefensible sister in The Big Sleep.

At times the fraternal relationship gets complicated (How could it not!) when there is sex. I love Sam Sheppard's play Fool For Love, and the wonderful novel Middlesex in which a brother and sister even get married.

Fraternity is a sentiment in disuse, replaced in present-day life by friendship, but it isn't exactly the same; fraternity springs from two great sentiments, love and friendship, united by something as unfathomable as consanguinity.

Among the films about siblings that I remember, I haven't mentioned Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich), a "grand guignol" which the two immense leading ladies elevate in category and genre. Two sisters, both of them former child stars, live together when they are adults, even though they hate each other. One of them (Bette Davis) ends up killing the other (Joan Crawford).

There is something of this in Bad Education, although in a hidden way. When they were little, Juan (Ángel Andrade) was jealous of his older brother Ignacio because he was better at everything. Jealousy in younger siblings is very common. But in Juan's case, it grew over the years. The two boys wanted to be artistes. Everything was easy for Ignacio, singing, dancing, writing, reciting, transforming himself and acting. Everything that Juan would have liked to do, Ignacio did better. And Juan hated him in silence until Ignacio gave him cause to hate him openly when he began to take drugs and dress as a woman in the little town where they lived. Family life was absolute hell because of Ignacio. The mother, who had a weak heart, was in an unbearable situation The father couldn't stand the shame and started to drink more and more, until one winter's day they found him dead in the street, in a frozen puddle.

Out of obedience to his mother, and in his own interest, Juan went to live with his brother in Valencia. He enrolled in an acting school and kept an eye on Ignacio, so that his mother wouldn't worry so much. It was the start of democracy in Spain and in Valencia Ignacio lived a very free life, devoted to writing, to changing his body for that of a real woman, and to using heroin to anaesthetise the tension produced by his lifestyle.

Then Mr. Berenguer, Ignacio's old literature teacher, turned up. He had hung up his habits and was living in Valencia and working in a publisher's. The appearance of the former Fr. Manolo dynamites the two brothers' existence.

TSI: After thirteen years, (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) you're working with José Luis Alcaine again as director of photography.

PA: What a great idea it was to call him! José Luis has done a splendid job. I barely had to tell him what I wanted. Music and photography are two abstract elements, hard to explain. I turn up for the shoot, laden with references, but the director of photography has to sense, guess, smell the atmosphere that goes best with the story. Or atmospheres, because in Bad Education there are a lot of films together, and very different aesthetics coexist within the same story. Alcaine was immensely inspired every day of this very hot shoot. As a professional he's at his peak, and I think we've both matured as people and the result has been a perfect marriage.

TSI: And Gaultier?

PA: I called on him to dress Zahara, in particular her outfit for the show, which is a masterpiece as regards cut and conception. It's a flesh-colored dress, tight-fitted to the neck like a second skin, that gives the impression of total nudity. The ass, the tits and the pubis are made with sequins and brown and pink glass bead and tones. The dress in itself represents false, naked femininity. He also undertook to give a touch to Ignacio-adult's gabardines and shorts. Jean-Paul is like a big child. That's why he'll never make a vulgar dress. Working with him is great fun. I adore him.

TSI: This is the fifth time you've worked with Alberto Iglesias...

PA: Alberto Iglesias is the only marvelous artist I know without any ego problems, the only one I make repeat the themes over and over again without him losing neither his enthusiasm nor his creativity. He is a musician and a person out of the ordinary. For this occasion, he has built a powerful, original column of sound on which the film rests, like a baby rests in its mother's arms. Alberto surprises me in every movie, after the mixing I can not think of a musical costume that suits better Bad Education than the one that Alberto has created for it.

TSI: To judge from the answers to your own questions, you give the impression of being very happy with this film.

PA: I'm never happy, but, well... Let's say I'm pretty cheerful.

TSI: Future projects?

PA: To recover my sleep and my waistline!
Author: Darren Jones

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006