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Pain and Glory
Asier Etxeandia, Pedro AlmodóvarStill from Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar discusses drugs, Penélope Cruz and not understanding camp

To mark the release of his new film, Pain And Glory, we sat down with the gay godfather of Spanish cinema

Pedro Almodóvar’s films are totally unique, but we can always bank on them for a few things. Often, at first, the plot will meander gently, until you almost (but not quite) begin to lose interest, before it takes a violent twist that makes you sit up in your seat. There will usually be an anti-hero, either someone criminal or neurotic or adulterous, or someone we are not used to seeing centred in cinema, like a long suffering woman in an abusive marriage, a Catholic gay man who was abused at school, or a strong and empowered trans woman.

And then there is the gaudiness. The director emerged around the cusp of the 1980s and came to fame in the same decade – although his punk aesthetic has been swapped for something more glossy and commercial today, his 80s-inflected colour palette and graphics are ever-present – the characters and their clothes pop right out of the screen. To date, at nearly 70 years old, Almodóvar has made over 30 films. He is the gay godfather of Spanish cinema, and his films are so distinctive he has practically created a genre of his own.

He is in London for the premier of Pain and Glory, his newest film, starring Antonio Banderas as Salvador, a washed up, chronically ill and drug-addicted film director. Gradually, through flashbacks into Salvador’s early life (his mother is played by Penélope Cruz) we learn about the great loves of the artist’s life – from a first same-sex desire to his terse yet tender relationship with his mother – until we understand how his life became so solitary. Almodovar has said that the film is semi-autobiographical, and follows on from Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004) to complete an unintended trilogy.

Below, we asked the filmmaker about his own drug taking, what it’s like to work with Penélope Cruz for so many years, and whether he thinks of his own films as so many other people do, as camp classics.

So, Pain and Glory... you have said this is the final part of an unintended trilogy of films about your own life, can you explain how this, unintentionally, came about? 

Pedro Almodóvar: One has a career, you make many films and it is natural to have, for example, three films which have things in common. In this case, it is cinema and desire. But I didn’t know before... When I was writing this script it was at the end when I thought that the three films could create a trilogy because in the three of them there is a movie director, also very concerned about passion and desire, as in Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004). 

So it is a kind of trilogy but The Pain And The Glory is very different from the other films too, simply because I’m much older than I was when I did the others. My points of view are different and the way that I approach my childhood memories is different – this movie is the first time that I have talked about the idea of the first desire. I have talked a lot about desire before, but not through the eyes of a child who is nine-years-old. 

Is that close to a real memory for you?

Pedro Almodóvar: I remember that I had that compulsion at that age. You are a boy so you don’t know how to put words to the feelings… you don’t know how to name it. I can say that I discovered my sexuality at that age, but I was never specifically in love with a mason.

The thing is, in Spain, they always talk about my films as though they are completely autobiographical. It’s not exactly that though, it could be that everything that happens to Antonio’s character was happening to me, but it didn’t. Some of the things, yes, but not everything. It’s autobiographical in the sense that my work is composed of my memories, of course, but also the memories of my brother, sisters and my friends. 

To give you an example of how autobiographical it can be, there is a sequence where the mother explains to Antonio how she wants to be dressed when she dies. That happened, exactly like that, but she didn’t ask me to me to do it, she asked my older sister to do it. In the place I was born, La Mancha, there is a strong and beautiful culture around death but this culture is a feminine culture, transmitted from mothers to daughters. People dedicate a large part of their life to honouring the memory of the dead. The general idea is that the dead can appear at any point and that is why people put candles in a corridor in a passageway to help guide them. If you go to a cemetery in Castile-La Mancha, it’s one of the cleanest places you could ever imagine! Women go weekly to clean the tombstones and put flowers. It’s beyond religion, it’s more human than that. 

Like in Volver, or Live Flesh when Ángela Molina’s character is at the cemetery…. 

Pedro Almodóvar: Yes!

“There was a real explosion of freedom after the dictatorship’s death in Spain, where drugs were a part of our life and were very present” – Pedro Almodóvar

If the way you play with autobiography is not totally autobiographical, can that cause trouble? For instance, someone might see this film and think, ‘Oh, he’s a heroin addict’?

Pedro Almodóvar: One of people who saw it at the beginning said, “Pedro, you know that from now on everybody is going to think you had heroin when you were young, or even now.” It’s not true, not even in the 80s and 90s when it was very common and surrounded me. I don’t mind though. I know that I didn’t. It’s true that many people think now (that I did). I just know a lot about it because I’m a guy – like the guys in the movie – who was formed during the 80s. There was a real explosion of freedom after the dictatorship’s death in Spain, where drugs were a part of our life and were very present. 

I had, at that moment, many friends that had heroin and I don’t know why I never did it because I was in the middle of all that. Perhaps because I saw the effects since the beginning, I thought it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a very active person! But when I was writing the monologue in the film I knew about this kind of relationship from friends, where two people are completely in love, one of them takes heroin and the other is fighting for the relationship, but doesn’t get anything back.

Penélope Cruz is incredible in the film. You have a very long-standing relationship with her. What is your working-relationship like and what is your friendship like? What makes her an amazing leading lady?

Pedro Almodóvar: Both those relationships are related. If we’re having lunch or working, those two spill into each other. That’s not to say I treat her in a more friendly way when we’re filming but there is a greater sense of affinity because we work together. I work differently with each actor because each actor is different. With Penélope, before we begin shooting, she needs to really rehearse a lot so she really feels that she’s able to enter into that role. That’s not the case with Antonio Banderas, it’s very much about directing him in the moment. We don’t have to prepare exhaustively for that. So I think one of the things about my job is that you have to find the right way of working for each actor. 

As an actress, she’s very gifted in a very Mediterranean way which is a different school of acting – linked very directly to their emotions and their sentiments, their feelings. For the characters I create, this is absolutely excellent. She’s also extremely beautiful – belissimo, more than beautiful! So very photogenic, and popular with the fashion houses. And the other thing about Penélope is that she is a mother of a family and family life is very important to her. She’s a normal mother – her role as a mother has nothing to do with her being a star. She is a classic mother in terms of the mothers that I know and that’s so important to me. Her talent is linked so much with her feelings and her sentiment. 

“My characters have an element of shamelessness, they’re very open about their feelings and they’re very demonstrative” – Pedro Almodóvar

Your work is generally thought of as part of the great canon of camp. I wondered, is this a term that you have in Spain? Because I know in Italy there is no equivalent word for this...

Pedro Almodóvar: No, in Spain we don’t have a word! Similar words for different things, like cursi (coarse) or tacky. I always have this problem because since the very beginning, the journalists ask me about camp in my movies. And I know what it means, more or less, but it’s something that’s foreign for us, an anglophone term. But for example when I go to New York and I see an actor who’s a specialist in playing Bette Davis, I can see that was completely camp...

That is camp, yeah. 

Pedro Almodóvar: For example Divine, I can understand that it is camp! But Spain and Mexico are exaggerated countries, exaggerated in a natural way, especially compared with England. The “Torch Song”, they may call it a camp form of music. Or like Chavela Vargas. But to me she’s everything but camp because of the sincerity with which she is speaking. This exaggeration, it’s lost in translation. 

How do you feel when people describe your work as camp then?

Pedro Almodóvar: I really don’t know. I ask myself is it good or bad that they’re describing my films as camp. Just to give an example, at The Meta Gala the theme was camp which was obviously inspired by the iconic article that Susan Sontag wrote about camp. I was invited to the Gala and I was thinking about the term and what it evoked – shocking, grotesque, extravagant and exaggerated – but thinking about those terms, I didn’t know what to wear. It seemed that those terms created something that was almost like a costume. For Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde was camp, but not for me – I think he was a genius. To use the term ‘camp’ to describe Oscar Wilde just doesn’t make sense to me. 

So when talking about my films I think people may use the term camp because they’re exaggerated. Maybe they use the term for me because my characters have an element of shamelessness, they’re very open about their feelings and they’re very demonstrative. My films have a very particular type of humour. When you talk about my films and talk about camp – talking about tackiness as a part of camp – it doesn’t really feel like that’s what my films embody, so I don’t know how to interpret it exactly!

Today there is a lot of cinema around the world putting LGBTQ+ people on the screen – thankfully we have more films where trans women are the hero of the film. This wasn’t the case when you were making films like Law of Desire. Did you come under criticism for making films with trans and gay protganists like that in Catholic Spain in the 1980s?

Pedro Almodóvar: Not really, you know. I was very lucky. That period was very special in the history of my country. Now many journalists say to me that I couldn’t make Law of Desire now with the same kind of freedom. The reception was as open-minded as I was at the moment of making it. 

Now in Spain, we have lost many things from that moment, in terms of behaviour. Of course we have freedom of expression but there are many sensitivities that would be wounded by a film like that. At that time, the sensitivities and sensibilities were different – Spain was in a moment of transition. I think those sensibilities that say ‘you’ve wounded my Catholic spirit’ are much more present  in the current climate.

Could it also be more people see your films now, whereas then, maybe only the more progressive or left-wing people watched it?

Pedro Almodóvar: Yes, I think that is true.

When you put LGBTQ+ people in your films as protagonists, does it feel political or natural? 

Pedro Almodóvar: Both. Back then I was conscious that it wasn’t the usual thing but when you are a director, and even more so if you write your own story, you can impose your own mentality. It’s almost like being a little god. You impose that little power that you have. You establish what is, for you, natural. For me, trans and gay characters have the same treatment as any other person because that is the way that I thought. It was very much about my own exploration of the power of the director at the time to impose my own vision of the universe within my films. 

Final question: what is the best gay cinema that you’ve seen recently?

Pedro Almodóvar: In general, I don’t really think of gay cinema as a certain type of cinema but I know what you mean. And I do love a story of two gay men. And the last one, which I thought was beautiful, was Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino.

You liked it a lot?

Pedro Almodóvar: A lot! I loved it. 

Pain and Glory is in UK cinemas from 23 August