Q&A: Alejandro Amenabar

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CANNES -- Alejandro Amenabar just can't stay in one place. The Chilean-born, Spanish-raised auteur burst onto the international scene with the surrealist gem "Abre Los Ojos" (a movie later remade by Cameron Crowe as "Vanilla Sky"). Then he went into the realm of the spooky with 2001's "The Others," a surprise hit that breathed new life into the hackneyed genre of the ghost story (and had one of the great whopper endings in modern genre tales). The director then pulled a 180 in 2004 with the bittersweet human drama "The Sea Inside," a tearjerker in which Javier Bardem starred as a terminally ill man who fought for his right to die -- and a film which won the foreign-language Oscar that year. Now he pushes deeper into new territory with "Agora," a big-budget story about astronomy, politics and a master-slave relationship in Roman Egypt. With a reported $60 million budget, it's one of the most expensive art house movies in recent memory -- and one of the most anticipated acquisition titles here at Cannes). The Hollywood Reporter's Steven Zeitchik talked to Amenabar about the latest turn in his eclectic career.

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The Hollywood Reporter: The epic is kind of a lost genre in Hollywood. Did you feel like you could watch any recent movies to find inspiration or did you have to go back a lot further?

Alejandro Amenabar: I watched and re-watched movies like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Ben-Hur" because I wanted to see how the masters did it. The thing that's hard with epic movies is, you want to make it look really good but you also have to think about how it really looked like if you were there. It can't just be what you wanted it to look like. The problem with epics sometimes is that they can seem really big but you lose the sense of intimacy.

THR: Did you find that balance tricky as you made the film?

Amenabar: It's true, you have to make it feel really personal or it won't work. That's why we have the relationship there -- it makes you understand not just the time but the people.

THR: And it's a relationship between people who wouldn't normally have one.

Amenabar: Exactly. It's a relationship between a master and a slave. That's interesting on a personal level, but also a political and social level, because there were rules that were supposed to stop that from happening.

THR: It's easy to think about civilizations like ancient Egypt or Rome and feel superior to them. How much do you think we've learned from those eras?

Amenabar: We've learned a lot but we've also made the same mistakes. Those societies had a very developed civilization in terms of economy and culture, and they thought that could prevent a lot of the problems that other civilizations faced. And what we're finding today with the recession and everything else is that we have the same systems, and we believed that they would protect us, but it turns out they don't.

THR: So when you research and make a movie like this, does it make you more pessimistic about where we're headed as a society?

Amenabar: It definitely makes you realize how everything is cyclical, and what they went through then, we're going through now. We've been hearing for a long time that our civilization is due for a fall, and now that seems to be happening. But I don't think that means we're doomed. From making the movie, I also see how a society can rise. (Laughs). I don't know, maybe I'm just an optimist.

THR: You've now worked with two Hollywood actresses at or near the peaks of their careers -- Nicole Kidman eight years ago with "The Others" and now Rachel Weisz. What's it like working with each -- especially Weisz, who's on the verge of becoming a pretty big star?

Amenabar: They're very different. I learned a lot from Nicole. With Rachel, she's the actor who doesn't want to feel like a puppet. Sheneeds a lot of space. But she also spends a lot of time thinking about the role. She sought out a lot of information about astronomy. How many actors are going to do that?

THR: A lot of auteurs have careers that take them in unexpected directions. But it would be hard to find a filmmaker whose first four films feel so different from each other. Does that mean you'll be doing a political thriller next time out?

Amenabar: (Laughs) People really don't believe me when I say that I never know what my next movie is going to be after I finish one. It's all what catches my attention. It's hard to plan. I never thought I'd be interested in astronomy either, and look what happened.

THR: So no hints on your next project?

Amenabar: Making this movie was so intense, I may just need a holiday.

THR: You've now made two movies in English and two in Spanish. Is one easier, and what makes you decide on one or the other?

Amenabar: With language, it always depends on the story. I thought about making "Agora" in the native language, but the only option would have been to shoot in Ancient Greek or Egyptian. And I think it's best to leave that kind of stuff to Mel Gibson.

VITAL STATS:

Nationality: Spanish
Born: March 31, 1972 (Santiago, Chile)
Festival entry: "Agora" (Out of Competition)
Selected filmography: "The Sea Inside" (2004), "The Others" (2001), "Abre Los Ojos" (1997)
Notable awards: Foreign-language film Oscar, European Film Award best director prize and Venice Film Festival grand jury special prize for "The Sea Inside"
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