His blinding pain steered Almodovar to the light that engendered 'Embraces'

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NEW YORK -- With too many movies and not enough time to see them, Academy members scouring for Oscar contenders often start with films from directors whose track records suggest that anything they do deserves consideration.

Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar is one of few foreign filmmakers with such brand-name recognition. It's the product of a 35-year career that includes winning the original screenplay Oscar in 2003 for "Talk to Her" and a nomination for directing it.

His romantic thriller "Broken Embraces," starring Penelope Cruz and distributed domestically by Sony Pictures Classics, played in May at the Festival de Cannes and was the closing-night pic at the New York Film Festival. It's not Spain's official foreign-language Oscar entry, but there's talk that Oscar voters could embrace Almodovar's original screenplay and Cruz's performances in two roles.

"Embraces" centers on Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a film writer-director blinded 14 years earlier in a car crash in which his actress-lover, Lena (Cruz), was killed. Since then, he has survived by deciding that he, too, died in the accident, so he lives and works as Harry Caine, his writing pseudonym.

When Almodovar recently called from Spain to talk about "Embraces," he had a translator on the line to assist, though his English is quite serviceable.

"When I'm talking about my work, my maternal language is much easier for me," he says in English before shifting to Spanish.

The film originated, he says, because "I'm suffering from migraines -- more intensely in the last five years. Beyond the pain and all that, sitting in complete darkness, I started playing this game to keep myself entertained to fill my time."

The migraines made reading, writing, watching TV or using a computer impossible. "But my imagination remained entirely free," he says. "So in the darkness I created this alter ego of a writer who was living in darkness."

Almodovar wound up putting Mateo, his alter ego, into a screenplay.

A story's origin, the helmer says, is always "very, very mysterious. Very secret. The first image that could be described as the seed of the film is a photograph of Lanzarote I took about nine years ago."

Looking at pictures he shot on that Spanish island, he noticed for the first time two lovers embracing on the beach. The photo evolved into a story because it suggested to Almodovar that the couple had a secret.

He wanted to include the image in a film for years, but until "Embraces," it never quite matched anything he was working on.

"I write scripts more like a novelist than a screenwriter," Almodovar says. "I take a lot of notes about something I'm interested in. The story grows like layers that are gradually sedimented."

Typically, he has several stories working at once -- unlike a Hollywood screenwriter, who is hired to hammer out a single screenplay.

"I don't want to sound so dismissive about the way people work in Hollywood, but it would be impossible for me to be a scriptwriter in Hollywood," he says. "What I mean is that my stories require a lot of time to simmer."

The way he writes is "very handcrafted," he adds. "It's the way Velazquez would paint his pictures under natural light. I'm not saying another way of working is not just as valid, but that's just the way I work."

Reflecting on that, Almodovar clarifies, "I don't compare myself to Velazquez, but I write in a very old-fashioned way."

Although he has given up his typewriter for a computer, he doesn't use screenwriting software. His notes go into the computer, but he writes them on newspapers or scraps of paper when "inspiration might reach me in any situation at any moment."

Rewriting? Only from printed pages.

"Perhaps that's a legacy of the old typewriter, but I feel the process is a lot deeper and more effective if I can work on paper," he says. "I've tried to correct my drafts on the computer, and it just doesn't work the same way."

His first drafts establish a film's main themes and characters, then he throws those drafts away. "I can probably go through nine rewrites until I gradually fine-tune the story," he says.

When writing "Embraces," Almodovar knew Cruz would play the serious role of Lena as well as the character's comedic role in the film within the film. They already had made three movies together including "Volver," for which she received a best actress Oscar nomination in 2007.

"I believe Penelope is an actress who holds a thousand women inside her," Almodovar says, "so she can act in a Sophia Loren light or she can suddenly be a replica of Audrey Hepburn." With that in mind, the director says he was confident she could play the two roles in "Embraces."
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