Talk to Her: Interview with Almodovar–Part 2

Music

The music is also a key element. I didn’t want the typical piano, which is how they show silent films at the Cinematheque. Alberto Iglesias suggested the idea of a quartet; I thought it ideal because if there’s one kind of composition which Alberto has mastered it’s the quartet. I have to confess I find the result very moving. In the best tradition of musical cinema, the melody mingles with the actors’ movements, it gives a voice not just to the actors but also to the captions. The few texts which appear acquire a voice rhythm and movement with the music. They’re alive. But above all, the music situates the story in the realm of emotion, and brilliantly avoids the danger of obscenity and grotesqueness, both of which can hover around a story like “Shrinking Lover.” Thanks to Paz Vega, Fele Martínez and Alberto Iglesias, “Shrinking Lover” becomes a lyrical, emotive, profound fantasy, despite its apparent frivolity.

Pina Bausch

In “All About My Mother” there was a poster of Pina in “Café Müller” (it was hanging on a

wall in Cecilia Roth’s son’s room). I didn’t know then that that choreographic piece

would be the prologue to my next film. At the time I only wanted to pay homage to the

German choreographer.

When I finished writing “Talk to Her” and looked at Pina’s face again, with her eyes

closed, and at how she was dressed in a flimsy slip, her arms and hands outstretched,

surrounded by obstacles (wooden tables and chairs), I had no doubt that it was the image

which best represented the limbo in which my story’s protagonists lived. Two women in

a coma who, despite their apparent passivity, provoke the same solace, the same tension,

passion, jealousy, desire and disillusion in men as if they were upright, eyes wide open and

talking a mile a minute.

Around that time, I saw “Masurca Fogo” in Barcelona and was struck by its vitality and

optimism, its bucolic air and those unexpected images of painful beauty which made me

cry, like Marco, from pure pleasure. Not to mention the “sighing beginning,” which I had

to reduce for narrative reasons. I’m referring to the beginning of the piece: A woman

(Ruth Amarante) appears on a diaphanous stage, her hair is hanging loose and she’s

wearing an ankle length flowered dress. She picks up a 70s style microphone and holds it

up to her mouth. It looks as if she’s going to sing or talk, but she doesn’t do either. After

filling her lungs with air in a suspense-filled silence, she lets out a long, deep sigh. This is

followed by another sigh… and another.

“Masurca Fogo” begins with the sadness of the absent Benigno (the sighs) and unites the

surviving couple (Marco and Alicia) through a shared bucolic emotion: several couples are

dancing in the country to the rhythm of a Cabo Verde mazurca, also accompanied by the

sound of a little waterfall which flows miraculously from the grass in all its splendor.

If I had asked for it specifically I couldn’t have got anything better. Pina Bausch had

unknowingly created the best doors through which to enter and leave “Talk to Her.”

Caetano Veloso

At the height of the promotional campaign for “The Flower of My Secret” we landed in

Río de Janeiro, after dragging ourselves through TV interview sets, premieres and

crowded parties in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Sao Paulo.

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With the enthusiasm of a zombie, I looked out my hotel window at an explosive view of

Río. I didn’t want to move in the next hours, I couldn’t.

Worn out, brain damaged from various attacks of jetlag (overpowered by the typical

sensation of emptiness and in constant battle with Rossy de Palma because she was really

excited by Brazil and only wanted to go partying), I was informed that we had a

commitment: we were invited to the home of Caetano Veloso.

I already adored Caetano’s music although I didn’t know him personally, but in my physical

and psychic state, the idea of moving, mingling with strangers, talking or listening, meant an

effort verging on martyrdom. I tried to wriggle out of the commitment in the hotel,

alleging an obvious and real affliction; but Chema Prado, who was accompanying Marisa

Paredes, completely ignored my protests with that very Galician deafness of his and

dragged me to Caetano’s house by force.

I’m grateful to him now.

Caetano had just performed in Sao Paulo, he’d recorded the concert which would

become “Fina estampa ao vivo” and, as a curiosity, he played for us his version (it’s a

reinvention rather than a version) of “Cucurrucucú paloma” and suddenly all my ills

disappeared.

 

From that moment I wanted to include the song in one of my films. That’s the other dream that has come true. In “Talk to Her,” Caetano himself sings it live, accompanied by the maestro Morelenbaum. As we couldn’t bring the whole orchestra, the version which appears in the film is even more stylized, heartrending and intimate than the one he played in Sao Paulo.

 

BENIGNO AND MARCO

 

Benigno (Javier Cámara)

 

Benigno’s life has been spent around a bed. There was always a woman in the bed. First it was his mother, then Alicia. His mother installed herself in bed (and never left it again) when she still wasn’t ill. It was her way of celebrating the fact she’d turned forty. Her husband had just left her and in the mornings the mirror had begun to hint that her beauty, eternal until that moment, was showing the first signs of its ephemeral nature.

 

Everything happened at the same time. If it hadn’t been for the help she got from Benigno (her son, a boy whose ugliness she never quite understood), the mother would have died of negligence.

 

Benigno looked after her day and night, and even studied nursing to learn how to take better care of her. He only left the house to go to his classes. He also studied beauty care and hairdressing, but he did that through a correspondence course. He didn’t want his mother to deteriorate, he wanted to see her always beautiful.

 

He guided her on her walks inside the house. He bathed her, dried her, dressed her, did her make-up, fixed her hair and settled her in bed as if she were on a throne. And after

that, he’d look at her. Despite all his care, his mother died twenty years later. The short walks around the sitting room weren’t enough for her heart.

 

Before she died, she asked her son (Benigno was now a man of twenty five who had known neither female nor male): “What are you going to do when I die, Benigno?” “Kill myself, I guess,” he replied quite naturally. If his mother weren’t there, his life would be pointless. After a flattered silence, his mother decided for him: “Well, you have to live, Benigno.  When you no longer have to look after me, you’ll have to look after yourself. Go out on

the street, look out the windows, travel. Out there you’ll find a horrible world, but you’ll also discover things that will interest you and some of them you’ll want for yourself and you’ll fight for them.”

 

Benigno opened his little eyes, filled with amazement at his mother’s words. He went over to the window, pulled back the net curtain which had gone out of fashion over 20 years ago and for that reason now seemed modern, and looked out at the street.

 

He ran his eye over the buildings opposite, he looked at the Decadance Ballet Academy diagonally across from his house, to the left. Placed there by fate so that he could contemplate it at his ease. That was the first day he saw Alicia dance. She was an adolescent with very white skin

who swayed in time to a soundless music (he couldn’t hear it). After delighting in contemplating her face, her long neck, her shoulders, her breasts which were firmly

outlined beneath her lycra top, Benigno thought that he wanted that adolescent for himself, and he admired his mother for her foresight.

 

Javier

 

Cámara is Benigno. Totally and completely. I’m sure that if Javier were to look for a job as a nurse he would get one (and also as a manicurist, a beautician and an embroiderer; all skills which, given the demands of the script, the actor had to learn until he mastered them). As well as sewing, combing and cutting hair, doing manicures, etc., he spent four months learning the many activities involved in tending to and caring for a body as matter.

 

Bodies in a vegetative state need twenty four-hour care. Javier applied the same joy and dedication to his work as the character dedicated to Alicia in the story. His evolution

from a slightly chubby, naïf, bouncy nurse, with a certain femininity acquired by his constant (and sole) contact with his mother, into a thin, bearded man, prisoner of a tragedy which only Marco can understand, separated from the only thing that keeps him alive, Alicia’s presence… the evolution which the actor imprints on the character is prodigious. I fear that for a long time Benigno will accompany Javier Cámara as his shadow.

 

Marco (Darío Grandinetti)

 

Marco is the “man who cries,” a good title for a film if only Sally Potter hadn’t thought of it first. Marco is Argentinean, sentimental and mysterious, sick with nostalgia, a traveler, a wandering journalist, a travel guide writer.

In the 90s, he meets Angela, who is still under age, for whom he feels instant passion. Shortly after, he discovers that the girl has got problems with heroin and soon they sink into a hell of aggression and lies.

 

Life in Madrid is unbearable and they start to travel in order to keep Angela away from drugs and from Madrid. Their relationship only works when they’re running away. Marco makes use of the journeys to write a travel guide of each place; once she’s got over her withdrawal symptoms, Angela is the best traveling companion imaginable. They wander through Istanbul, Havana, the Ivory Coast, Mexico, Santo Domingo, Brazil… always aimlessly. On each of the journeys they are confronted with unexpected, marvelous

images. Ever since then, a sudden moment of unexpected beauty will make Marco cry because it reminds him of Angela and because he can no longer share it with her.

After five years and seven travel guides, Marco leaves Angela at her parents’ house in her home town. With time, her parents manage to separate her from Marco and from drugs.

 

It’s a very sad story. There’s nothing worse than leaving someone you still love. That wound is never cured, or it takes ten years. Marco has remained anchored in Madrid. He can’t conceive of traveling without Angela, he’s even nostalgic about her withdrawal symptoms. In a cardboard box, the kind used for moving house, he keeps hundreds of photos with her. Years later, he still doesn’t dare open the box. He also keeps her notes apologizing to him each time he came home and she wasn’t there. He hasn’t dared to read them either.

 

When he meets Lydia she has just put an end to a love affair which is still beating strongly in her heart. Neither one knows the other’s secret, nevertheless the mystery draws them together, like creatures of the same species.

Marco regains the pleasure of traveling. He accompanies Lydia by car to all the places where she fights.  Inside the car, Lydia clings to his hand in silence and he looks out at the countryside. And both feel relieved, leaning mutually on the other.

 

 

Marco

 

Dario Grandinetti is Marco, undoubtedly the most complex role in the film and the one with the least visible embellishments. Darío gives a lesson in breadth of register. He has the greatest catalogue of looks that I know (with the priceless help of the director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe. The density of the light and the shadows which he has given to the close-ups of Darío are of an explosive richness).

 

Darío has 1,000 eyes and each one of them expresses a precise, different emotion. His refined, virtuoso technique is fortunately the kind that you don’t notice. When Darío

passes through the camera lens he is beautified and enhanced. Just as Benigno is a character magnetized by a bed with a woman in it, Marco is a traveler, mobile, a wanderer (the few pieces of furniture in his house include a table with bicycle wheels, and the only paintings he has are two hearts and a map of the world which fills a

whole wall).

 

During the months that he remains anchored in the clinic, we see him continually walking along the corridors. Walking unhurriedly and almost always aimlessly, which is the nicest way to walk.

 

The list of actors who have known best how to walk in front of a camera (John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum) will now have to include the name of Darío Grandinetti. His slow way of walking along the edge of the swimming pool, until he disappears into the darkness of the far end of the porch where Caetano Veloso is singing, is as moving as the tears he’s trying to hide.

 

Lydia (Rosario Flores)

 

Lydia’s father was a “banderillero,” but he dreamed of becoming a bullfighter. He reared his daughter as if she were a man so that she would achieve what he couldn’t. The girl inherited his same yearnings. But the bullfighting world is very chauvinistic. After the death of her father, her great and only support, Lydia had to face the prejudice and scorn of the professional bullfighters on her own. Many refused to fight alongside her, for the mere fact of being a woman. That was when the matador called “El Niño de Valencia” offered not just to share billing with her but to accompany her wherever necessary afterwards. They fell in love. This newsworthy romance, rather than her skill, kept Lydia in the limelight and she was able to fight regularly.

The couple appeared weekly in all the gossip magazines. “El Niño” was delighted, but it sickened her. She didn’t like becoming famous that way, nor was it the kind of life she wanted to live with the man she loved. They finally broke up. Lydia still loved him but at

that time her indignation was greater, or at least so she thought.

In a suicidal fit and given the lack of opportunities to fight, Lydia decided to fight six bulls,

on her own. Unaware of the danger, or running to meet it, she longed for “El Niño” to

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be in the bullring as a spectator, so that at least he’d feel guilty if one of the bulls should

charge straight into her.

But that afternoon, covered with sand and blood (bull’s blood), Lydia was a wonderful

success. Marco was among the spectators…

Rosario

In Rosario I looked for strength of character and those sad, innocent eyes which go so

well with a character defeated by abandonment. I also looked for and found a body which

was both athletic and feminine. Dressed in the revealing bullfighter’s breeches, Rosario

looks like a bullfighter in the style of Manolete. And poured into a design by Dolce and

Gabana, she is a stunning woman. Of all the female artists I know, Rosario is the only one

who, when dressed as a bullfighter, looks like a bullfighter. Even the hat suits her.

But not everything in her is physical (although that’s fundamental for her character).

Rosario’s eyes and her voice, childlike from the loss of her father, her only support in a

world of chauvinists, are linked directly to her heart, and she has given Lydia’s character

authenticity, naturalness and a style which will undoubtedly be more appreciated by those

who don’t know her.

In the film Lydia is killed by the bull of bad conscience. When someone loves two people

(in the end Lydia goes back to the bullfighter when she’s still with Marco) that doesn’t

mean the pleasure is doubled, only the problems are. Lydia hates lying to Marco. When

she finally decides to tell him everything she doesn’t have the chance… And with that

sense of unease she goes out into the ring.

A woman on her knees in front of the bull pen, ready to face the bull in that position,

shouldn’t be thinking about anything else, much less about two men. Because the bull can

smell her thoughts and her weakness.

Alicia (Leonor Watling)

I know very little about Alicia. Only what is seen in the film. At times, the writer knows

the characters’ past and their future, far beyond the ending of the film. In this case, I have

the same information as the spectator. Alicia’s real film begins at the end, in the theater,

when she meets Marco who has been so moved by the sighs in Masurca Fogo.

Perhaps, at some other time, I’ll tell the story of the two of them, Marco and Alicia, but

first I’d have to write it.

Alicia’s mother died when she was a child. Her father is a psychiatrist and she is a dancer.

Her skin is white and her expression severe, as if her premature development has made

her mistrustful of the glances she attracts. She always occupies the same place in the bar

exercises, next to a window, in the Decadance Academy. Her dancing mistress, Katerina

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Biloba, an ex-ballerina and lonely like Alicia, adores her. Alicia makes the academy her

home and Katerina her most solid emotional reference.

When Benigno sees her dance for the first time (from the window opposite) he doesn’t

hear the music. Alicia seems to be absorbed in an interior melody. That absorption will

continue for years, on the bed in the “El Bosque” Clinic, a two-story building which looks

like a detached house and in which Benigno is the model nurse.

 

Alicia’s room is decorated with personal objects, things she had in her bedroom at home until, one rainy day, she was knocked down by a car. It was the first thing Benigno told

her father: “Bring me something of hers, something personal…” “What kind of thing?” the

confused father asked him. “Things that she has in her room… so that when she wakes up

she won’t feel she’s in a strange place.”

In her house, before the accident, Alicia had lava lamps on both her bedside tables. She was reading The Night of the Hunter (the masterpiece by Davis Grubb) and page 115 was turned down at one corner, as a marker. She also had an alarm clock and a photo of her parents when they were young. And two tiny, brightly colored boats, a souvenir which Katerina brought her from a trip she’d made to Salvador de Bahía to see the Bahian women dance. And a photo of Katerina. All these objects returned to her, on both sides of the bed again, in her room in the clinic. The alarm clock was still working but the marker in the novel hadn’t moved from page 115.

 

The lava lamps (like the corridors and the treetops moved by the wind) are a metaphor for the curdled passing of time. Their thick bubbles, wandering ceaselessly in the depths

of an oily liquid, suggest the mysterious limbo in which the beautiful, recumbent Alicia dwells.

 

Leonor

 

She’s wonderful playing the sleeping beauty in the “El Bosque” Clinic. Her motionless body is so expressive and so moving! Anyone who thinks that simulating a coma is easy is mistaken. It isn’t enough just to lie on a bed and close your eyes. Skin reacts to the slightest contact, and the nurses never stop working with her all day (massages, changing her position several times a day, checking her vital signs, giving her rubdowns with rosemary alcohol, putting drops in her eyes so they don’t get dry, applying moisturizing creams, changing the bedclothes daily with the patient in the bed, washing her body every

day, etc.)

 

In order to achieve the self-control which allows one to disconnect from the exterior world, Leonor and Rosario took yoga classes (Yyengar, to be specific) for three months before the shoot. I wanted them to be sunk within the very depth of their beings, an unfathomable depth, and for that they had to be very relaxed.

 

Although she has scenes where she is speaking and is upright or with her eyes open, Leonor’s presence is more obvious and more powerful the greater her absence. Let me

put it like this. Leonor isn’t playing dead, something I don’t think would be easy either.

 

(Buñuel first chose Fernando Rey because he liked how he played a corpse in some film or other). Without words, without eyes, without the help of the slightest movement,

Leonor Watling’s body withstands the presence of two superb actors (Cámara and Grandinetti) without the spectator ever losing sight of her. She shares the scene with

both of them and at times steals it and transports it to some mysterious place which even I don’t know.

 

Watling is Alicia living in the darkest part of the other side of the looking glass. When, at the end, she looks at Marco in the theater, her eyes show in silence the long, dark road

she has had to travel in order to be able to open them.

Leonor Watling fills the screen to overflowing with dreams and desires. The word is made flesh in her and I shall always be grateful to her for her generosity.

 

(Regarding the preparation, there was one point when Rosario, Leonor and Javier Cámara were spending the whole day doing classes of one kind or another. As well as the daily practice of yoga (the Yyengar type) Rosario had training and bullfighting classes every day with the maestro Macareno and Leonor was slogging away at dance classes with the ballet mistress Irena. In turn, Javier (along with the marvelous Mariola Fuentes) was being trained in the countless details involved in looking after a coma patient. Both Mariola and Javier did everything “for real.” From the script, I emphasized that the actors should

show their skill as nurses. Only in that way could one understand the total dependence of

a body in a vegetative state. As well as nursing, Javier learned to embroider, to give a

manicure and to cut hair. All the while, he was also on a strict diet to lose weight. And

he did everything with an infectious joy and enthusiasm.)

 

Supporting Actors

 

Geraldine Chaplin has been one of the great discoveries of this shoot. When I saw her in “Nashville” (Robert Altman) I already sensed that she was an actress for me. I adore her

accent, a mixture of multiple accents, and her personality, lovable, simple, funny and diverse.

 

Although they may seem very different, she’s in the same line as Chus Lampreave, that kind of actress and woman who is made up of innocence, lack of prejudices, a natural goodness (which makes them very daring because they think that everyone is the same and so they are unaware of danger) and a delightful sense of humor. Both Chus and Geraldine can play any role, no matter how flamboyant and outrageous it may be, and they always seem natural, believable and affectionate even when they’re

playing unpleasant characters.

I’ve got a comedy pending with Geraldine. And another with Mariola Fuentes (a future

Carmen Maura if she’s given the opportunity).

From the start I was convinced that no matter how small the parts were, they would be

played by professional actors. For me all the phrases are important and all the actions.

 

Loles León, Chus Lampreave, José Sancho, Mariola Fuentes, Helio Pedregal, Fele Martinez, Ana Fernández, Juan Fernández, Adolfo Fernández and Roberto Álvarez, for example, undertook to play such small roles (as well as showing a solidarity for which I thank them with all my heart) fills out the characters, prevents them from being diffused and gives them greater significance.

 

Among other novelties, the cast of “Talk to Her,” with the exception of Chus, Loles, Sancho and Mariola, is made up of actors with whom I’ve never worked. The four leading

actors are new for me and most of the supporting actors too. And the experience has been very stimulating.

I very much liked working with the new life blood of Spanish cinema, marvelous young actresses who have taken possession of the present and the future: Paz Vega, Elena Anaya, Mariola Fuentes, Carmen Machi, Ana Fernández, Beatriz Santiago, Lola Dueñas.

 

Warmth of Color

 

I also want to welcome to my filmography the director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe, to whom I didn’t have to explain the warmth of color, because on reading the script he felt the story with the same light as I did. Especially in locations like the clinic, which cinema has portrayed so many times and where I wanted to avoid

convention. No coldness, no bluish tones, I told Javier. This clinic is a place where the characters spend most of their time, they live there, it’s like their home. I didn’t want the

spectator to be faced with an atmosphere of pain or illness.

 

What I wanted to show was the everyday life of some people who live in that place. We painted the walls a siennamustard color and the corridors grayish-green, with a kind of orange padded strip about three feet above the floor. That was my idea. Curiously, there’s a hospital in Bullit which has the same colors.

 

Strindberg’s biography says that Kafka refers to him in this way: “I don’t read him to read him, but to cling to his breast.”

 

For me “Talk to Her” is (pardon the sentimentality) the embrace I’d like to give to all the spectators, sinking against the breast of each one of them as Lydia sinks against Marco’s back, at the party. And embraces must be warm, and the light that illuminates them must also be warm.

 

Pepe and the Narrative

 

The narrative follows a broken line which mustn’t be noticed. That was the most difficult thing in this never-ending shoot. I’m used to mixing tones, genres, universes, but I’d never played so much with time, a few kitsch (and Hitchcockian) flashbacks in “Labyrinth of Passion,” but not much else.

 

Here time passes in several directions, and the main action is interrupted by the appearance of other actions with their own significance, the dances at the beginning and the end, Caetano’s performance, the appearance of “Shrinking Lover,” etc. All those elements had me on tenterhooks until the last minute.

I never presume that things will turn out as I plan, however hard I work at it and however much every member of the team does exactly what I ask of him or her. I need to stick

one image to another, and that one to the next, in order to see that what I wanted to tell is actually there. For better or worse, the editing is a box of surprises.

 

Broken time and a mixture of various narrative units work better when the action is more mental or interior, or happens in another dimension, as in David Lynch’s films; in this kind of fantastic neo-realism, or naturalism of the absurd in which I move, plot ruptures can mean a jolt for the spectator who had become fond of a character and a story, and then I pull at him, I drag him away and force him to follow another character and another story.

 

Thanks to the wise and omnipresent editor Pepe Salcedo, “Talk to Her” overcomes all those difficulties and is, or so I believe, a complex film which, however, seems simple and transparent. For content, I tend more and more towards emotions, and for the container, transparency.