Empathy for all characters: Pedro Almodóvar on Bad Education
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar discusses his writing process, his influences, and how his colorful imagination is starting to turn dark.
By Yon Motskin.
This article was first published by Creative Screenwriting in 2004.
With his magnificent melodramas, singular Spanish style, and peppery pompadour, one of world cinema’s most original and recognizable auteurs is back with what may be his best film to date. Like Bad Education, his new, stunning, complex film noir cabaret, the writer/director is both headstrong and hypnotic, paradoxical and passionate. On the phone with me from his offices in Spain—far from the Hollywood that he adores, yet avoids—he delves deep into a discussion about his writing process, his influences, and how his colorful imagination is starting to turn dark.
Pedro Almodóvar is widely considered a contemporary master and Spain’s cinematic successor to Luis Buñuel. He’s won two Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay in 2003 for Talk to Her and Best Foreign Film in 2000 for All About My Mother) and has been offered numerous A-list hot property Hollywood scripts. He has a somewhat contentious relationship with his homeland’s movie industry, and he is obsessed with classic American cinema. Despite all this, what many may consider good reason to cross the Atlantic and make movies here, the fifty-something filmmaker is content to keep his cameras rolling on European soil. Sure, one reason is that his soap opera stories and confessional storytelling are specific to Spain, its post-Franco culture, its Catholic religion, its Surrealism-influenced art. But there must be something else.
“I think Pedro is the freest artist on the planet,” Almodóvar’s brother/producer Agustin told the New York Times Magazine in Lynn Hirschberg’s excellent profile (Sept. 4, 2004). Agustin went on to explain that by waiting until after his films were finished before selling them to distributors, Pedro retains complete creative control over content and style. Think of it as a take-it-or-leave-it deal, only it’s hard to imagine any distributor leaving it. In the same article, actor Gael Garcia Bernal concurs: “Pedro is lucky. As a filmmaker, he can do whatever he wants. He has more freedom than, for instance, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese lives in a system in America that involves more than just making films. He’s forced to become a politician, to fight with the studios over content and money. That limits his freedom. Pedro doesn’t have those limits.”
Not surprisingly, Almodóvar, who has written all of the movies he has directed, has much to say when I mention freedom to him. “Freedom is the first and most important condition that I need in order to be able to write. Not only about the plot of the movie, but about the tone and the genre. And because of that freedom, lots of times the first idea doesn’t get shot down.” Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have Agustin’s protection or Almodóvar’s track record. But is Almodóvar really lucky, or is it that he simply created this autonomous environment for himself from the very beginning, out of an uncompromising vision, a fierce work ethic and an undying desire to express himself as a raconteur? To possess passion, patience and perseverance—that’s a given; to know how and where to apply those qualities, that’s another story.
Even on the phone, Pedro speaks fast and furious, overflowing with ideas, emotions and examples from his obsessive mental film catalogue. His English is fine, but he’s most comfortable in his native Spanish. So excited is he to express himself that sometimes he doesn’t even wait until Javier Giner— his colleague at El Deseo, the production company Almodóvar founded with Agustin—has a chance to finish translating.
Bad Education is the tragic story of three people over three time periods told in three different ways, with actors playing multiple characters, told through a non-linear structure, containing flashbacks, multiple narrators, and even two instances of a story-within-a-story mirroring the main narrative. Normally I’d eschew a lengthy plot synopsis, but in this case it seems important to understand both Almodóvar’s development process and his overall evolvment into a more mature storyteller.
The first narrative thread takes place in 1980 and follows Enrique (Fele Martinez), a twenty-seven-year-old film director looking for his next film. Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), an aspiring actor and former Catholic school friend, walks into his life. Ignacio gives a story he wrote, The Visit, to Enrique to make into a film. As Enrique reads it, we see the lengthy story play out, which becomes our second narrative. The Visit takes place in 1964 and is based on Ignacio and Enrique’s childhood. It depicts “two schoolmates who fall in love while at the school, and together discover cinema and sensuality, and, through a third person, discover what fear is.” That third person is Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho), a priest and teacher who abuses the boys mentally, emotionally, and physically, which leads to Enrique’s expulsion from the school. Years later, the fictional Ignacio, now a low-rent transvestite named Zahara (Gael Garcia Bernal), returns to blackmail Father Manolo, the priest who abused him.
Back to the first narrative: in 1980, Enrique loves The Visit and wants to make it into a film; Ignacio agrees, but on two conditions: Ignacio plays Zahara, and Enrique refers to him as Angel. Enrique refuses, and Ignacio storms out. Enrique knows it’s great story, and sets out on a quest to find Ignacio. But instead of finding him, he discovers Ignacio is actually dead, and someone else is posing as him. The imposter/Angel returns and Enrique, curious about this mysterious stranger’s motives, takes him in as his lover and goes ahead with the production of The Visit. After shooting stops, Senor Berenguer (Lluis Homar), a former priest who is the real Father Manolo, visits Enrique on-set and tells him a story. This third narrative recounts the events of 1977 and reveals the bizarre truth behind the real identity of Angel, a young man named Juan (Gael Garcia Bernal), and most importantly, the true identity of Ignacio’s killer. If you didn’t notice, Gael Garcia Bernal plays no less than three different main characters: Ignacio/Angel, Zahara, and Juan.
The labyrinthine plot may seem confusing, until you’ve seen the film, after which it makes almost perfect, if not poetic, sense. In a statement about Bad Education, Almodóvar describes it as being more complicated than Talk to Her. “The film tells three stories, about three concentric triangles, which in the end turn out to be just one story.” He explains to me, “It’s like a triangle that becomes another triangle and another triangle in the future. It’s like a triangle that becomes a vicious circle.”
Writers might also notice that there’s quite a bit of voice-over in the film, often bridging the gap between characters, settings and time periods. According to Almodóvar, voice-over was written into the original script and not used as a narrative crutch. “It was actually pretty comfortable and easy to go through three different times—1964, 1977, and 1980—because there’s always the common denominator of the story called The Visit.”
As taboo and tricky as the tale seems, Almodóvar is well aware of alienating his audience. “I would like the movie to be understood by the audience with no difficulty. My interest is not to be cryptic—my interest is to be transparent. I’m very interested in making movies that are very complex. My challenge is to make transparent movies out of stories that are not. I want the movie to be understood in the same way as when someone understands something when they have been hypnotized. As if the story grabs you and drags you along without your being conscious of it. But I’m in the group of authors that would rather have his movies be completely understood. I recognize also that there are movies that I like a lot that I haven’t understood, like Mulholland Drive. I didn’t understand that whole film. But I don’t mind.”
He exuberantly dives into another description from his seemingly bottomless well of influences, this time citing The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “It was a wonderful, fascinating script by Raymond Chandler. Its sequence is so important and so strong, but when I watched it, and I’ve watched it millions of times, I always get the feeling that I don’t understand the whole story and how its sequences are related to each other. It was larger than life for me and I’m still fascinated by it and I don’t mind that I don’t understand it. I think Howard Hawks said that you could have never have understood Raymond Chandler’s script.” He thinks for a moment and then sums himself up in English. “There are movies that can be understood in other ways, and I like them very much as an audience member. But as the author… I really want to be very well understood.”
Even once you wrap your head around the puzzle-plot, there’s still plenty of parallel themes and motifs to piece together. There is not enough room here to cover everything, but astute analyzers and curious cinephiles can look for many recurring instances of identity, visits, and doubles. Film buffs will also freak out at the scores of cinematic references, including Double Indemnity, Rocco and His Brothers, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and even Almodóvar’s own Live Flesh.
Is Bad Education Almodóvar’s 8 1/2? Like Federico Fellini’s seminal film, Almodóvar’s fifteenth feature comes at what can be considered a crucial turning point in his career, as he moves toward darker, more mature work. It is also dreamy, semi-autobiographical, and features a film-within-a-film. One of the narrative engines in the story is a film director’s search for his next film. Before Ignacio walks through his door with The Visit, Enrique desperately hunts through the tabloids searching for a new story. While Almodóvar admits to sometimes doing the same, inspiration doesn’t seem to be a problem for the prolific picture maker.
“Bob Dylan used to say that it was as if a ghost came in through his window and left the ideas and papers on his desk. For me, that ghost only brings me that first line on the script. And when I mean the first line, I’m referring to the main character or the essential situation. And if that situation, that first line, intrigues me enough, that’s the impulse that I have, that’s the necessity I have to know what happens next. That’s the impulse that brings me to develop a script. I always have different scripts, several of them in different stages of development. When I have an idea I start taking notes around that idea. There’s always four or five scripts on my desk, in progress. I’m not organized, but just taking notes. So when I get around one hundred pages of notes, I feel that I have enough material to develop a script.”
Like Lynch, Almodóvar can’t emphasize enough the importance of what he calls “the first idea, the first spark. That essential line that intrigues me is normally at the core of my movies, meaning, it’s not at the beginning nor the end but in the middle.” He gives an example from his 1991 film High Heels. “I was at home watching the news, and suddenly the news reporter, a woman, announces that there’s been a crime, and I was sitting there and thought, ‘You know what would be awesome? To have her say next: ‘I know who did it.’ So that situation, not only a news reporter announcing a crime, but confessing that she is the author of the crime, intrigued me enough in order to develop the script. What intrigues me makes me try to find out what happens next to the character, and also how the character got into that situation in the first place.”
In Bad Education, that essential line belongs to Enrique, the film director. Almodóvar says that his final line in the film, “How far would you go?” not only defines the protagonist best, but also Almodóvar himself. “I think most filmmakers or story creators are not only driven by curiosity, but are kind of like a detective. You’re not only writing the story, but trying to figure out all the information yourself. You are relating the trip to the audience, and in that sense you can either find all the information or not find it, but you will not know until the end, until you reach your destination at the end of the story.” Almodóvar remembers exactly where his inspiration came from. “The true origin of Bad Education comes from a short story that I wrote, about ten pages long, in my adolescence. When I reread that short story in the ’90s, I found that there was something there that I could use. The original short story only tells about the show that Zahara performs in the town where she grew up, the visit that she pays to the priest, and the blackmail being offered. Once I started working on it, immediately the two-brother relationship showed up.”
Paramount to him was the fraternal element, an underused cinematic sentiment which “springs from love and friendship,” and he cites such varying models as Sam Shepard, the novel Middlesex and The Godfather trilogy. “But in Bad Education I think these two brothers are closer to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In a sense that spilling of what we call ‘grand guignol’, kind of like the grotesque, underlines this whole movie. But that only lies underground and is never shown explicitly.” Once the characters were defined, Almodóvar went to work on establishing an appropriate setting. “I was very interested in having these three people [Enrique, Ignacio, and Father Manolo] meet again, in the future, when the whole situation explodes. And I was also very interested in having the first part [of the movie] take place in a dark, early ’60s, Spain under a dictatorship where repression was commonplace. And then the second part of it taking place in a completely different country where freedom is the norm, which is the ’80s.” What translates onto the screen is two-fold: a real, rooted sense of time and place, as well as a dreamy, parabolic atmosphere.
If Almodóvar makes the development process sound easy, it wasn’t. “Bad Education went through at least ten drafts, across a big chunk of time, around ten years. It took longer than usual, because I didn’t get to the point where I was happy with it. But that’s not what normally happens with all my scripts. When I take myself as a reference, from my experiences, it takes me a longer time to develop. Other scripts normally take me from two to three months to finish. But this script is pretty special. I’ve learned with it that there are many things that you are going to write that you are not going to use. I’ve gone through so many different drafts that I got to the point where I thought I was never going to get it.” Part of the process was incorporating personal memories. “I was a singer in a choir. My fascination with the Catholic Liturgy is evident. There are brothers, there’s a filmmaker, there’s a school, that kind of mixes all the elements that I’ve used throughout my movies. But the character that I feel closest to, not because I have followed his path but because it is the character that moves me the most, the character that I identify the most with, is actually Senor Berenguer, the ex-priest who casts off his habits and gives his life to the bad boy that shows up in his life.”
That bad boy is Juan (Gael Garcia Bernal), the key that unlocks the story’s startling secret. As he was fleshing out Juan’s character, Almodóvar made an important discovery that elevates this story from being just another melodrama into the pantheon of great hybrid films that reinvent a genre, like Sunset Boulevard, All That Jazz, and Unforgiven. “What I think is very special about this movie is the tone itself. I think it could more easily be related to my last three movies than to my previous ones. I actually discovered that it was a film noir as I was approaching the end of writing, which made me have to go back to the beginning and change most of it. And that is the way I work. I work through layers. I get an idea that interests me that starts developing until the end. But then when I’ve reached that point I realize that there’s a lot of new information that interests me so I go back to the beginning and start rewriting the story from that new point of view. And that process goes layer by layer by layer by layer.”
Each genre has its requirements, and while Bad Education may not seem like a film noir in the classic, hard-boiled Sam Spade Dashiell Hammett sort of way, Almodóvar is careful to play by the rules of the game. “In film noir there may not be policemen or guns or even physical violence, but there must be lies and fatality, qualities that are normally embodied by a woman: the femme fatale.” Almodóvar is known for populating his films with unique, strong females—it’s safe to say he loves women—so finding a femme fatale should not have been a problem. Except for one thing: “I was just interested in speaking about male characters. I present a universe from the beginning that is exclusively masculine. So, Gael’s character would be the equivalent to the film noir femme fatale.” Throw out tradition—this is transgressive film noir. This is sing-your-heart-out, screw-his-brains-out film noir, full of transvestites, feathered boas, homoerotic priests, and falsetto-pitched choir boys.
“For me Gael’s character is a very dangerous psychopath… that reminds me a lot of those psychopaths by Patricia Highsmith, who are mainly normal, who can integrate very well in society, so only the victim of those psychopaths will be able to detect them. Actually our model, when talking about the performance and everything, was Alain Delon playing Tom Ripley in Purple Moon. It’s a boy with a clean, innocent look to him that no one could ever think this is a person without any conscience. Even sexual passion could debilitate him in front of the others; everything is done out of interest for something. So he can go any way—straight, bi, gay—because in a sense it’s not him that feels the passion, it’s the others that feel them. And that character represents fatality. All the characters are running towards fatality. They decide to do it, they act upon it, and they never complain about it, no matter what the end may be. I never judge characters, whatever they do, even if they do atrocious things. My job is to represent them, to explain them in their complexity, and come up with an entertaining spectacle with all that. That’s why the movie might resolve so dark and so pessimistically, but that was what I was fascinated by.”
A big change for a filmmaker whose earlier works were noted more for their camp-color and sing-songy superficiality than for fatal attraction and conflicted criminals. But don’t think that he’s traded in deliverance for nihilism. “I like the fact that people don’t hate Juan. And there’s a certain sense of pleasure in which the immorality of the character gets into the audience. What redeems the character is that for everything he gets, he’s also paying a price in return. There’s always something positive in that.” This is a storyteller at the height of his powers, one who has thought out every trait and action of his characters, is aware of all the repercussions of their actions and decisions. As Almodóvar told the New York Times Magazine, “My goal as a writer is to have empathy for all characters. In all my films, I have a tendency to redeem my characters. It is very Catholic—redemption is one of the most appealing parts of the religion. Sadly, I am not a believer in Catholicism, but the priest is probably my favorite character in Bad Education. I love characters who are crazy in love and will give their life to passion, even if they burn in hell.”
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