EXCLUSIVE: As the Spanish auteur filmmaker teams with Saint Laurent for his latest English-language experiment, he looks back on his choices to avoid Hollywood over the years.
Pedro Almodóvar has spent decades avoiding the appeal of American studio projects, from Sister Act to Brokeback Mountain, and still doesn’t trust the system. “It’s kind of a contradiction in terms,” he told IndieWire one afternoon in his Madrid office recently. “Hollywood wants to bring in talent from outside, but they don’t always let them do what they want to do.”
These days, Almodóvar has tackled this conundrum by letting the talent come to him. The 72-year-old director continues his foray into English-language filmmaking, which began with his 2020 short The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton, and is about to take another step.
Strange Way of Life, which begins production in late August, will star Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as two middle-aged gunslingers at the center of a 30-minute western. Much of the action will take place in the desert region of Spain’s Almería region, where Sergio Leone filmed the famous film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, although Almodovár didn’t see the story as a throwback to spaghetti westerns. “I don’t consciously refer to those films,” he said. “I don’t know how it will be, except that it will be mine.”
Almodóvar has managed his projects autonomously over the years, producing them with his in-house production company El Deseo, a team that also includes his brother, producer Agustín. For “Strange Way of Life” he has gained another accomplice in Saint Laurent, whose chief designer Anthony Vaccarello will act as costume designer and associate producer for the project. Saint Laurent has supported several recent short and feature films by major filmmakers, including Gaspar Noé’s Lux Aeterna, which recently opened in the United States “It’s very convenient for me,” Almodóvar said. “I feel a lot more free to do things in English that way.”
Earlier this summer, he held a first rehearsal for the project via Zoom. “It was a horrible way to rehearse,” he said, “but they worked.” After Pascal wrapped up production on HBO’s The Last of Us and Hawke finished promotional duties on The Black Phone, the two would become friends Meeting in Spain in early July to make further arrangements, including the Saint Laurent costumes. The title of the short film is derived from the name of a Portuguese fado song by Amalia Rodrgues, which Almodóvar says will open the film. “These songs are all very sad,” he said. “And that’s how these two main characters live.”
The short offers Almodóvar another English-language experiment before A Manual for Cleaning Women, the adaptation of Lucía Berlin short stories he still plans to direct with Cate Blanchett as the lead. Production is currently scheduled to start next year, but it’s been a long time coming: He completed the script along with two others during the first pandemic lockdown, but said “Strange Way of Life” is his current priority. “Right now we are concentrating on the West,” he said. “I know how I want to do it, but I’ll discover more things as I shoot.”
This isn’t the first time Almodóvar has flirted with the genre. The opportunity to direct Brokeback Mountain came before Ang Lee’s involvement in the 2005 Oscar winner independence to do what I wanted,” Almodóvar said. “Nobody told me that — they said, ‘You can do whatever you want,’ but I knew there was a caveat.”
The screenplay, which Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx, lacked the level of lust Almodóvar envisioned for the two cowboy characters, ultimately played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. “The relationship between these two guys is animalistic,” Almodóvar said. “It was a physical relationship. The climax of the film comes when they must break up and Heath Ledger discovers that he cannot think of giving up. This is a powerful discovery. But up until that moment it’s animalistic, and it was impossible for me to have that in the film because it was a Hollywood film. You couldn’t let those two guys fuck all the time.”
Given that history, Almodóvar said “Strange Way of Life” offered a new opportunity for a western two-handed sword. “It could be like my answer to ‘Brokeback Mountain,'” he said.
He was reluctant to reveal too many details about the plot but said Hawke will play a sheriff named Jake, while Pascal will be the gunslinger Silva and the characters live on opposite sides of the desert. The two have not seen each other for 25 years. “So one of them travels across the desert to find the other one,” Almodóvar said. “There will be a showdown between them, but the story is really very intimate.” Could it even be… romantic? Almodóvar chuckled. “You can guess,” he said. “I mean, masculinity is one of the themes of the film.”
When Almodóvar talks about filmmaking in his office at El Deseo, he sits at the center of his legacy. A huge photo collage adorns the wall behind his desk and tells the story of his career. There are plenty of images of the young director hanging out with like-minded creators: photos featuring John Waters, Frances Ford Coppola, Spike Lee and choreographer Pina Bausch were all featured, along with one from meeting Billy Wilder in the 1980s . At the time, Almodóvar was riding high with international success for Women on the Brink of a Meltdown, and the studio veteran advised him to keep his distance from Hollywood.
“He was right,” Almodóvar said. “I always rejected that idea. First of all, I don’t know the culture as well as Spanish culture. But the way of taking pictures is also very different than it used to be.” He observed other international directors who had gained a foothold with English-language projects. “We have some exceptions, like Yorgos Lanthimos or the Mexican friends” – that would be the three amigos of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñaritu and Guillermo del Toro – “but for everyone else it was very bad for them to go to Hollywood,” he said, “Also for directors like John Woo. His brand of action thriller is perfect for Hollywood, but even he didn’t survive.”
A few years ago, El Deseo produced the dark Argentinian comedy Wild Tales, which established filmmaker Damian Szifrón as a major director and gave him the opportunity to develop studio projects, including a remake of The Six Billion Dollar Man. The project failed after three years of development. “This example is very typical,” Almodóvar said. He was stunned by the successes Iñaritu achieved with Birdman and The Revenant, both of which earned him Best Director Oscars. “His films are very dark and not typically Hollywood,” said Almodóvar. “I don’t know how he figured out how to survive in Hollywood by making his own films. It’s very strange.”
Almodóvar said he first recognized challenges to his work in the United States when he wrote Tie Me Up! in 1989. Tie Me Up!” opened there and was pressured by the MPAA to remove some of the sexuality from the film to avoid an X-rating. “It was the first time I tried to defend something that was obvious to me, which was the director’s freedom,” he said. “And then I realized that wasn’t one of the rules there.” Miramax, which distributed the film, sued the MPAA and lost; The film was released without a rating. “I found that Miramax was very happy with the situation because it was like advertising for them,” Almodóvar said. “I felt really bad about it.”
The plot, in which a character played by Antonio Banderas kidnaps an actress in order to seduce her, also led to some awkward interviews. “A journalist from ABC asked me if I was afraid that some guys would imitate Antonio Banderas and start kidnapping girls,” he said. “I remember my answer. I said that if I knew that my films only get distributed in prisons and psychiatric wards, then I would be careful about the stories I tell. But I don’t think the audience is crazy.”
Despite these concerns, he was confident of completing his path to an English-language feature with A Manual for Cleaning Women in the foreseeable future. The project, which began in the ’60s and culminated in the ’90s, appealed to his sensibilities. “We’re going to make this film,” he said. “The way the main character behaves is very close to my heroines. That’s why I chose it. I know nothing about American society, the small details of everyday life. So I said no to the rest.”
However this venture came about, Almodóvar insisted it would be done with the same resources that have allowed him to sustain his vision over the years. “There are a lot of people in power in America who have to be listened to,” he said. “But here in Spain I don’t listen to anyone.” He stopped himself. “I mean, I listen to my brother,” he said, “but I can be independent.”