Common language

Five acclaimed international directors discuss the origins of their latest works.

Pedro Almodovar
"Volver" (Sony Pictures Classics)

In the late 1990s, Pedro Almodovar's mind returned to the small village in La Mancha, Spain, where he grew up -- to the black-clad widows and empty streets and ghosts that drifted in and out of the houses with an almost domestic familiarity. It would form the setting of his new film "Volver."

"My entire childhood, there were these kinds of stories," he says, referring to tales about the ghosts. "Even in my family, there were stories of people coming back from the dead. I never had that experience myself, but I do believe that others had it. One of my sisters once saw two people sitting at the top of the stairs in my grandmother's house, and when she saw old photos later, she established it was our great grandparents."

At that age, Almodovar admits, he was scared. Now, he says, "I find them somewhat comforting."

Ghosts are both comforting and scary in "Volver," in which the seeming apparition of the mother of a restaurant owner, played by Penelope Cruz, returns to visit her shortly after her husband has been killed.

If ghosts, murders and beautiful women seem an odd blend -- not to mention a restaurant that Cruz takes over -- that is hardly unexpected with Almodovar, one of the most original directors working today. His new film effortlessly shifts in tone in ways that will be familiar to fans of his earlier films, 1999's "All About My Mother" and 2002's "Talk to Her."

But if Almodovar seems to bring disparate elements together with ease, that would be an illusion; developing this story took him many years.

"First, I thought about a woman with a restaurant at her (disposal)," he recalls. "And then I thought I must give her something to hide in that restaurant. I thought she must have a body to hide, the body of the husband."

Only later, the helmer says, did the character of the ghost/mother appear: "I realized that was the story I wanted to tell. It began as a screwball comedy and then became the story of Penelope's relationship with her mother and her past."

The film also became about Almodovar's own relationship with his past -- not just because of its echoes of his childhood but because he returned to La Mancha to shoot the film -- to the village with the widows and the vacant streets and the drifting ghosts.

"There was something very particular about shooting in the place where I grew up and lived and where my mother lived," he reflects. "It generated an atmosphere that was tangible. It's very hard to quantify, but it is as if the film was blessed by something supernatural."

Guillermo Del Toro
"Pan's Labyrinth" (Picturehouse)

It's been an extraordinary year for Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. After gaining prominence stateside with studio projects like 2004's "Hellboy," del Toro not only managed to earn a 20-minute standing ovation at May's Festival de Cannes for his Spanish-language fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth," but he's now enjoying Oscar buzz for the darkly original film.

The story concerns a young girl (Ivana Baquero) who travels with her mother to the north of Spain shortly after the end of that country's civil war and encounters a mysterious labyrinth peopled with bizarre creatures. Although the film is, in some ways, a follow-up to del Toro's 2001 Spanish-language ghost story "The Devil's Backbone," which is set during the same time period, the filmmaker says he found himself wrestling with the script for "Labyrinth" for weeks on end after sitting down to write.

"I kept rewriting the first 10-20 pages," del Toro says. "The opening I wrote and rewrote obsessively. After I nailed the first 20 pages, I got the rest in eight to nine weeks."

Given its elaborate setting and visual effects, "Labyrinth's" budget easily could have rivaled that of a major studio feature, but del Toro knew that in order to have the creative freedom required to bring such an outre story to the screen, he would need to finance the film independently. "We went through every difficulty," he says. "First, we had an investor who was going to cover 100% of the cost (the final budget was $17.7 million). And then he called me one day and said, 'I am not making movies for a while.' It was a huge blow to me. I could have just thrown in the towel."

Instead, he attempted to mount the film as a Mexican-Spanish co-production and entered into a labyrinthine world of bureaucracy rivaling that of his movie.

"We had a huge amount of bureaucratic red tape -- I mean huge!" del Toro says. "We had to open a company in Spain. We had to register it, deal with union issues. And after all those difficulties, we started hitting the real difficulties: We were going to shoot in a forest that got into the biggest forest fire in the history of Segovia, and (the firemen) forbade us to use any bullets, any squibs, any explosions -- (even though) this was a war movie!"

Despite every obstacle, del Toro brought his film in just a week past schedule. Now more than ever, he can identify with the anti-Francisco Franco forces that railed against authority during the war.

"It was more than a year and a half of bureaucratic stuff," he groans, pointing out that that mind-set is anathema to his personality. "I think of myself, I wouldn't say as an anarchist, but as an independent. Definitely an independent."

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
"The Lives of Others" (Sony Pictures Classics)

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was a young student newly enrolled at film school, sitting at home, lost in a world of dreams, as he listened to Ludwig van Beethoven's "Appassionata." Suddenly, the director recalled Vladimir Lenin's words about the famed sonata.

"Lenin once said, 'The "Appassionata" is my favorite piece of music. But I have decided not to listen to it anymore because when I listen to it, it makes me want to say loving things to people. And I have to smash those heads, bash them without mercy, in order to finish my (work),'" he recalls.

Those words resonated with Henckel von Donnersmarck and merged with a simple story he had begun to create in film school about an East German Stasi agent who starts to question his work as he spies on an innocent writer in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The first ideas came to the director in 1997; nine years later, "The Lives of Others" -- his meditation on Lenin's words and on the disconnect between excessive principles and human emotion -- is the toast of Europe and recently won the top prize at the European Film Awards.

Reaching this point has not been easy. For one thing, Henckel von Donnersmarck's initial producer backed out when the movie's budget grew too large -- even though its final cost was just more than $2 million. For another, he had to wrestle with a mixture of research and writing that consumed him for three years -- a chunk of it spent in a monk's cell in a Viennese monastery, where he locked himself away to work on the script.

And that was after months of tracking down real-life former Stasi agents, whom he interviewed.

"One thing I discovered: All these people had shut out their feelings," he recalls. "They became completely men of principle, but they had to shut out their feelings. And this is exactly what Lenin was about: He was afraid his feelings would prevent him from pursuing his principles; that is a terrible thing."

Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of one retired agent who invited the director to visit him in his home.

Quite cheerfully, the retired officer spoke about how the Stasi had collected odor samples from possible state enemies and how marvelously they worked -- except once.

"He said, 'There was this woman who had her period when we took the sample, and there was a just a drop of blood, but when we handed it to the dog, it was completely confused.' And he laughed at that!" Henckel von Donnersmarck recalls. "They'd made this woman rub herself with a piece of cloth, during her period -- and he laughed! And I was sitting there having tea with him."

Adds the director, "He made me see how close complete barbarism was to the surface of civilization."

Paul Verhoeven
"Black Book" (Sony Pictures Classics)

Years after leaving his native Holland for Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven had had enough -- he'd grown tired of making studio films such as his last American endeavors, 1997's "Starship Troopers" and 2000's "Hollow Man," which were frequently subject to critical lambastes and hadn't exactly caught fire at the boxoffice. He decided it was time to return to the more personal style of filmmaking that had been a hallmark of his early career in Europe, where he became known for projects such as 1979's "Soldier of Orange" and 1980's "Spetters."

It appears that change is exactly what he needed. Verhoeven's latest film "Black Book," which is based on real-life events, is a riveting and compulsively entertaining $21 million Dutch-language World War II drama about a young Jewish woman, played by Carice van Houten, who goes undercover for the Dutch resistance and embarks on an affair with a Nazi officer.

Although Verhoeven has never been one to shy away from explicit sex or violence -- his entire filmography is fraught with graphic imagery of one kind or another -- the director unquestionably wanders into some taboo territory with "Book." The film received a decidedly mixed response when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but subsequently, many critics have praised the provocative feature as a fast-paced, imminently watchable character study.

Still, it's almost impossible to view "Book" without wondering whether Verhoeven's tale about romance between a Jewish woman and an SS officer doesn't cross some sort of moral boundary.

"If you look at it only that way, you eliminate any humanity to anybody," Verhoeven says vehemently. Noting that he is currently writing a book on Jesus as a historical figure, he continues, "Jesus has said, 'Even your enemy you should love.' From that point of view, you should humanize the enemy, and we did that. Don't forget that this was a man who, because there was no work, became a police officer and went into the army in his 30s and was never really put on trial or condemned after the war. He was one of the decent German officers."

Verhoeven says that, throughout his work, he has wished not to moralize, to abstain from judgment. But more than that, he says, "To fall into the cliche that every German is always bad -- that seems, to me, silly. If we continue to think in cliches, we will continue to see all our enemies as devils."

Zhang Yimou
"Curse of the Golden Flower" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Zhang Yimou was a young man who had just enrolled in film school in Beijing when he first came across "Thunderstorm," a famous Chinese play from the 1930s that is still performed today. "It was a very classical tragedy -- like Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks -- about one family and (the destruction that befalls them)," Zhang says. "The whole story happens within 24 hours. It is very dramatic."

Zhang was overwhelmed, not only by the play but by theater itself, which was new to him after his years of working in a factory during the Cultural Revolution before he enrolled in film school. He imagined the piece would make a marvelous film.

So, 20 years later, when the now-world-famous director of pictures like 1992's "Raise the Red Lantern" was searching for a "good story," he returned to the play that had so moved him decades before. Of course, Zhang's $40 million "Curse of the Golden Flower" bears little resemblance to the play, by the director's own admission.

The story no longer takes place in the 20th century and is set instead at the dawn of the Tang Dynasty, some 2,000 years ago. It also happens to be a vast spectacle full of blood and horror that has more in common with his martial arts films -- namely, 2004's "The House of Flying Daggers" and that same year's U.S. release "Hero" -- than his earlier work.

Making the film -- an epic drama with 1,000 costumed extras -- was a huge endeavor. With more than 20 night shoots and days of endless rain, Zhang says it was a constant challenge. He is more circumspect about a different challenge, however: working with his former muse and lover, Gong Li, who stars in the movie. "She has matured," Zhang says, acknowledging that he has done so himself.

While many of Zhang's admirers yearn for him to return to the more intimate films he made with Gong, the filmmaker is adamant that he will continue to make the lavish, martial arts productions that have come to define the latter portion of his career, in addition to smaller movies like Sony Pictures Classics' September offering "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles."

"If there are no commercial movies from China, then the Chinese market will be dominated by Hollywood movies," he says. "I want to have this balance between the small productions of intimate movies and big commercial movies."