Jennifer Merin interviews Pedro Almodovar re “Volver”

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ALMODOVAR FROM LA MANCHA

Already designated as Spain’s official selection for Oscars consideration, Pedro Almodovar‘s “Volver” is arguably this year’s most haunting and inspiring film about women.

In it, mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, friends and neighbors gradually unveil all the mysterious secrets of their pasts and passionately embrace each other and the future.Of the inventively complex and highly entertaining plot, no more need be revealed– except that Almodovar‘s characters are, as always, brilliantly nuanced and astonishingly truthful, and that the places he creates begin to feel like home, even if you’ve never been there.

“’Volver,’ meaning to come back, is a title with many meanings. First, we shot in La Mancha, the place where I was born and lived my first eight years– so I’m coming back to my roots. I was very aware of this while we were shooting, and I encountered my mother– not physically, but I strongly felt her presence,” says Almodovar. “Then, I returned to working with two important actresses in my life: Carmen Maura– who’d been my artistic soul mate– for the first time since 18 years, and Penelope Cruz– whose beauty, strength and vulnerability obsess me– for the first time in seven years.

“”Volver” is also the title of the song Penelope sings– a song that’s so important for her character and for the meaning of the film. And, it also indicates the passage of time– and the return of the mother who, in a way, comes from the beyond.”

MERIN: We’re lucky eight Almodovar films have returned to NY in a retrospective of your work. Is there a through line from one film to the next that perhaps reflects your personal evolution?

ALMODOVAR: Yes, I think so. But, it comes unconsciously. I don’t consciously select my stories– they select me. Then, I fill them with my own experiences– and, truly, as you say, my experiences as they change during my life, also change my films. But one important thing that doesn’t change is I never judge my characters. I really give them everything they need and complete liberty to make choices they want in their lives. I look after them with compassion, love and care– and that’s the life they breathe within my films. Even if they commit crimes that are awful– murder or anything– the challenge for me as a writer is to explain them as human beings being in their humanity. This is also my way of living.

You’re absolutely right in what you said about my work in relation to myself. But it’s difficult to talk about that. I feel like sighing, because really it’s like talking about myself in a way I’m not used to.

MERIN: Do you dream your characters?

ALMODOVAR: I dream a lot, but not exactly what’s happening with the characters. It’s mysterious, the way they appear and what happens to them. My work is similar to the work of a detective. When you’ve created a situation for a character, you have to ask how did this character get there, why, and how’s he going to get out of it– and this becomes the job of a detective. It’s a weird way of working, because answers come little by little. The story develops as almost a process of sedimentation– a series of layers slowly progresses within me as I write the story, and they add up.

MERIN: You make audiences into detectives, too, by giving us visual cues. Each shot presents information we receive almost subconsciously, and each time we see the film, we understand more. How’d you accomplish that?

ALMODOVAR: It all comes from where I put the camera, what I focus on, the colors I choose. Absolutely. You have to give clues you want audiences to know. And on my set, there’s a lot of waiting while we decide what color we want the wall to be– you have to be specific. I often work by instinct, like a painter would, making decisions based on intuition– not necessarily intellectual decisions. But environmental colors should express a character’s internal being, circumstances and mood.

I test a lot. I think certain colors will work and I do it that way– and need to change it. Mostly, place determines coloration. In “Volver,” for example, there’s a lot of black and white– colors I don‘t normally include in my palette. That was precisely determined by place, by the austerity and severe conservatism of La Mancha.

MERIN: You also use music– in addition to the title song– as a narrative element, to advance the plot and elicit emotions….

ALMODOVAR: For me, music is the best element of narration. In my movies, it takes a very active part in the story, giving information about what’s happening. It’s dynamic. If the music stops, the story stops. But it must be used properly.

Fortunately, I always work with a wonderful composer, Alberto Iglesias– I can’t live without him. Without him, my movies would be very different. He knows everything about the script and he knows what I want for it– so, working with him is the same as working with actors, entirely collaborative. I’m as lucky with him as Fellini was with Nino Rota.

The music must be integrated into the story, not there to sell more CDs– because that’s one thing I hate, when songs included at the end of the movie aren’t related to what’s happened in the movie and there just there to sell CDs.

MERIN: Do you write all the visual and audio elements into your screenplays? Do your scripts change while you’re shooting?

ALMODOVAR: I take seven or eight years to write a script, so my screenplays are ironclad. But on set, at the unique moment when actors, set décor, cameras come together for the first time– at that very moment that I’ve never lived before, sometimes I get new ideas and add things. When I write the script and while we’re rehearsing, I develop a lot of different possibilities, so I know characters by heart and can improvise at the last minute. I allow myself and the actors to be very fresh and alive. I really adapt everything to the moment we’re shooting. To shoot a movie is something completely alive, and you have to make sure it stays that way. (Published in New York Press)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).