Recent American profiles of Pedro Almodovar have marveled at the "Day of the Locust"-styled throng--"the multitude" as the flamboyant Spanish director calls it--that pushed and shoved last February to catch a glimpse of him as he arrived at the Madrid premiere of his eighth feature film, "Atame!"
Rivaled only by the world's top soccer stars and pop singers, Almodovar, the most internationally popular and important Spanish director since Luis Bunuel, encounters such unbridled enthusiasm in his country wherever he goes.
Just two years ago, Almodovar made a big splash on the American film scene as well with his 1988 Oscar-nominated "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." During his visit here for the Oscar ceremony last spring, the fiercely independent filmmaker was courted by the Hollywood establishment like cinematic royalty. He met with major studio executives about making his first American film. Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Goldie Hawn all hungered for the remake rights to "Women"--Fonda, backed by Tri-Star, eventually won out. Madonna herself took him on a tour of the set of the upcoming "Dick Tracy" in an effort to charm her way into one of his films. "Women" lost out to "Pelle the Conqueror" in the race for the Oscar, but Almodovar, nonetheless, seemed on the verge of megastardom in this country as well.
Now, one year later, his American experience hasn't been quite so triumphant. "Atame!," released here as "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," has been slapped with an "X" by the Motion Picture Assn. of America--a rating that is likely to limit the number of theaters around the country willing to screen it.
Faced with the "X," Miramax, the movie's distributor, has decided to release the film uncut and unrated. While the rating probably won't diminish audience enthusiasm in such Almodovar strongholds as New York and Los Angeles, where it premiered last Friday, it could very well shrink the film's box office take when it opens over the next several weeks in other parts of the country.
And what about Almodovar--how does he feel about the dreaded "X"? Well, to be frank, the 38-year-old director says he is outraged and humiliated.
"It's scandalous," said Almodovar, here for the premiere of "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (His wild, raunchy and hilarious 1982 film, "Labyrinth of Passions," opens here in June.) "I feel like it is exactly the same kind of lie that I used to know when I was in Spain under Franco. It's exactly that kind of fascist technique."
Almodovar, who produced his early films while working for the telephone company in Madrid, has made his name chronicling the dark, bawdy and ultimately lonely misadventures of people living on the fringes of society--heroin-shooting nuns in "Dark Habits"; a speed-addicted cleaning woman in "What Have I Done to Deserve This"; a murderous bullfighter in "Matador"; lovelorn homosexuals and transsexuals in "Law of Desire," and a group of emotionally mauled women in "Women on the Verge," (which is Spain's biggest all-time box office hit and has grossed well over $30 million worldwide).
"Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," shot in Spain for $2.5 million, has been called Almodovar's slickest and most technically accomplished film. It tells the twisted love story of Ricky (Antonio Banderas), a young man recently released from a mental hospital, who breaks into the apartment of an ex-porno star named Marina (Victoria Abril), ties her up as gently as possible, and waits for her to fall in love with him. While he has weathered the criticism from women who have accused him of masochism, Almodovar says the MPAA hit him with the X for the film's one prolonged sex scene, which shows the two lovers only from the waist up and focuses primarily on Marina's sexual fulfillment. In arguing on behalf of the film at a hearing before the MPAA, noted civil rights attorney William Kunstler called the X rating outrageous in light of other films that have received R ratings. Still, the MPAA upheld the X.
In an impassioned, half-Spanish, half-English conversation at his West Hollywood hotel on a recent drizzly morning, Almodovar spoke candidly about the MPAA, "the feminists," "Hollywood," drugs, celebrity and his passion for filmmaking.
Question: Were you asked either by your distributor or by the MPAA to cut anything from the film to avoid the X?
Answer: No. The MPAA is very delicate. I really like this, hypocrisy needs good manners. So they don't tell you, 'Cut this or this.' Oh, to them that would be awful. That would mean censorship and they don't have any censorship. No, they simply advise that these kinds of images and sounds deserve an X. So the way of understanding that to the director is, cut this, and the reason for the X will disappear. They give you the scissors to do it, but they never mention cutting. They never mention censorship. I'm fed up with this kind of hypocrisy. I really would like someone to tell me you have to cut this, and start a real fight. I don't mean physical. Well, perhaps that is necessary. But I want the terms to be clear. I don't want the MPAA to treat me so delicately. It's like they are making fun of me. I permit an enemy to attack me, but to make fun of me is humiliating.
Q: Do you think the X will hurt the film at the box office?
A: I don't know. I'm anxious to find out, but I hope not. I believe that the people who know my movies will realize that I won't cut anything, and they should be a little familiar with the discourse that I'm engaged in. And people know that I come from a free country and that's the way things are done there.
Q: Do you have any of these problems in Spain?
Q: How was the film received there?
A: Very well. As always happens to my films, the Spanish critics are mixed. I had some very good reviews and some bad ones. The same with "Women." In terms of box office, it's done almost $4 million, which is very good for Spain in three months. There really has been no negative reaction except for one Argentine writer, who accused me of masochism.
Q: How would you describe "Tie Me Up!"?
A: It's trying to deal with various themes. The most important for me is the relationship between a couple. The problems of coexistence. Scenes from a marriage basically. From the moment where he kidnaps her, it becomes a film about a marriage--two people who are sharing a bathroom, a house, a bed. Two people who share each other's fantasies and fears. They are living a very common and painful process, the process of getting to know each other. The film is also about loneliness, and in that way it is related to "Women." The loneliness in "Women" is the loneliness that is felt after a passionate relationship. The loneliness in "Atame!" comes before the passionate relationship. In fact this boy, what he's doing is trying to run away from loneliness, which is what everyone wants and tries to do.
Q: But he does that by tying her to the bed?
A: Yes, but the people who look at this movie and give it a literal reading won't understand it very well. It's not that I think, as I've been accused, that women ought to be tied to a bed. What this guy is trying to to do is just immobilize her so she will look at him, notice him and then understand him and eventually fall in love with him. I'm not saying that this is a model of behavior, although sometimes I would like to behave like that, with that kind of primitive spontaneity. For a kid like Ricky, who lives in a big city, it's very difficult to meet people and even harder to have relationships. There's no time, no opportunities. So he imposes that situation. But he never wants to harm her, and I think that's very clear in the film.
Q: A woman I know saw the movie and, while she liked it, she felt a bit disturbed when Marina falls in love with him after he holds her hostage like that. Are you sensitive to the fact that women might react this way?
A: I'm worried about the reaction some women are having. I didn't intend to bother people with this. If this happens, I don't know what to say other than, I'm sorry. My intent is not to humiliate anyone. To me it was very important to tell this story in a very raw and naked way, and when you tell stories in such a raw manner, that can really leave a strong impression on the audience. But for me, it is important to risk that.
Q: It's strange, in a way, because until this film you have always been lauded for writing about women and for your understanding of their feelings and needs.
A: Yes, yes, and that's why it hurts me more if there's a negative reaction from women than anything the MPAA could say. I feel misunderstood. In the case of women, they are very autonomous and very independent in all my films. And this independence must include making mistakes and showing their own weaknesses. I don't want to make idealized heroines. I think that some feminists might be bothered that the protagonist in this film might opt for passion, instead of trying to kill her oppressor. But I'm not talking about an S&M; relationship here. When she is kidnaped, she tries to leave any way she can and she attacks him in every way she can. But there's a moment when she discovers that no one will ever love her as much as this boy. And that gives her pause. But still she's a normal woman. And at the end when she says, "Tie me up," what that means is that even though she's in love with him, if he doesn't tie her up, she will leave. To me it is a wonderful declaration of love--the equivalent of saying, "I love you, and I'll accept all that other stuff--that you are a bit crazy and the world we will inhabit is quite hostile--that I don't like that comes along with you." If there are people who don't understand that, I'm sorry. But that is the intent.
Q: And is that why you shot the sex scene from her point of view, focusing on what she wanted and the joy that she was feeling? You almost never see that in American films.
A: Yes, this is for the feminists. This is the victory of the woman. If I would continue shooting, it seems that she is going to tie him to the bed. She controls him. Now she's controlling everything.
Q: But the MPAA didn't like that?
A: The MPAA doesn't care about the violent part. It welcomed that. They are only concerned about the lovemaking scene, and I find that even worse. These two characters have nothing. They live on the fringe of society. They are hurt physically. All they have is what nature has given them. Their bodies. No one can take away their ability to have pleasure from their bodies. Nobody. Not the MPAA, nobody. No society can steal that possibility. They are young and they make love with the energy, with the joy and enthusiasm that something like that deserves. I feel really attacked when the MPAA tries to censor that because in a moral sense, that scene is completely innocent. And of course I am not trying to make pornography. If I wanted to do that, I'd put in some other shots. You are only seeing their faces, but their faces are so sincere and they are such good actors that it of course gives the sensation that they are really making love. But I don't make any shots of organs.
Q: Even with all the controversy, this seems to be a more optimistic movie than any of your previous films? Are you feeling more optimistic personally?
A: I suppose so. All the films I make reflect my life in a very direct way. In the end this one is more optimistic than the others because as an author I just didn't want to leave either of them alone. I thought they had enough problems already to make them lonely also. But it has an open ending. If I had to make a sequel, I don't think Marina would make a good housewife, and I think they'd probably separate in a few months.
Q: Are you going to make that sequel?
A: I like the idea in case I ever make a movie here in this country. She'd run away and maybe she'd come here and live in some small town. She'd work in a bar, and he'd come chasing after her in the States and they'd both encounter the American culture. It would be fun with a person as primitive as him to see how he survives here. I'd like to make a movie like that. But I can't do it with the Hollywood studios.
Q: Why not?
A: Because my needs for independence seem a little too excessive for the needs of the studios. (Almodovar makes his films with complete autonomy under the banner of his own production company, El Deseo. His brother serves as his producer.)
Q: You already have the feeling that the movie-making system is too restrictive here?
A: Absolutely. I've talked to many people here, and the stories that I've heard are frightening. But there are also other possibilities to work without the big, big studios. Like Stephen Frears did with "Dangerous Liaisons." Some small companies give you more independence.
Q: Last year, mainstream Hollywood really wined you and dined you. How did you feel about all that attention? Have you rejected the idea of working for them?
A: First of all, I didn't believe any of it. It's very common to become the flavor of the day and everyone asks you to do this and that because you are the flavor. Perhaps in some part those offers were authentic. Then, what I need above all is to find the right script. I'm writing. I'm generating ideas and in the moment when I find something that has to be done here, I'll knock on the different doors and try to make it.
Q: Why do you think "Women on the Verge" became such a mainstream hit? What appealed to people about that film above and beyond your others?
A: It was the fourth or fifth film of mine that people knew here, and it doesn't matter that the other films did not have such a big audience. They were well enough known that they created a base for "Women." And the fact that "Women" happened to be a very white film, that helped with the audience. White meaning no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll.
Q: You have portrayed drug use rather frivolously in some of your earlier films as an expression of absolute personal freedom. In "Tie Me Up!" you treat drugs differently. Marina is trying to detox. To stop using. Why the change?
A: I continue to respect the absolute freedom of any human being. There are parts of a person's life that belongs only to them. In the '60s and '70s when I was formed, drugs were not just entertainment. They were, at least in Europe, also a political ideology. A way of fighting the society, against Franco. We weren't aware of the fact that they could be such a great danger. And that's been discovered in my generation in a very tragic way. While I continue to respect the liberties of human individuals, they also should be aware that drugs are very dangerous. In Spain, drugs have become an enormous problem. You can't turn your back on it.
Q: In Spain you have become an enormous celebrity. What's that like for you?
A: Sometimes the experience of a multitude is very strong, very energizing. Everyone should feel that. I'm lucky that I have that experience because it's not the usual for a movie director. The great stars of this time are sportsman, rock stars or politicians. There are times, like at the premiere, that it's very exciting, there's so much energy. But barring those few moments of fascination, in general, it's a very bothersome situation. It really disturbs me. Everything is difficult. To live, to go here or there. Perhaps as I'm getting older, I want to be able to live in some kind of anonymous way, to be able to learn from it. I need that for my work.
Q: Do you feel extra pressure because of all the attention? Is making films still as much fun?
A: When I'm giving birth to a film, I forget about all of those things. It is so absorbing that it leaves no space for other ideas or worries. But when I'm done with the movie, I begin to feel those pressures. I feel it now. After a success like "Women," everyone awaits the next film with anxiety and that's often very negative. They compare the movie to the last one, and I realize that in a subliminal way, they are expecting a failure. It's like being on a gladiator field. There's a morbid kind of atmosphere.
Q: You mean like in "Day of the Locusts" where the public seems to adore the movie stars, but in reality they want to swallow them up and kill them?
A: No, not the public. I'm talking mostly about the media and the modern people in the cities, who are always talking and criticizing. The film following a success is always approached with much more prejudice. That's what scares me about this X rating and the feminists because now the people who go to see the movie aren't relaxed. They aren't cool enough to just go and watch and judge the film for itself and nothing else. Perhaps "Atame!" should be seen 20 years from now.
Q: So you think there is an Almodovar backlash?
A: I think that's what happens when you are hot or in fashion. That's why you shouldn't believe it too much when you are "in" and everyone is so generous and sympathetic to your film. I try to behave in a natural way. And if I'm going to be on the out lists now, I prefer that. I really would like not to be in style, not to be hot, but to become a classic. Just to become a director that makes movies that people go to see and the media writes about. But not with all this hysteria. That's the situation that I'd like to get to, but I also like being in contact with people. I learn a lot about my movies talking about them with journalists and with other people. Or when I have to defend myself against an attack. Those things are all part of your life.
Q: In the '70s you dabbled in art and made jewelry and performed with a band, what is it about film making that has captured your interest so completely?
A: It's something magical. To me it has become an obsession that sort of parallels a great love story. When you start a love story, you're moved by something very concrete. Perhaps a physical attraction. And then with time you discover the reasons why you are with that person. And a great love story begins to happen as the years pass. As if you have a disease that finally ends up consuming you entirely. Film has become something like that for me. At first it was a love story with a very immediate pleasure. And it has become something much more painful as time passes, but also something much more complete. Something I couldn't live without. I wonder where that need to make films and to narrate stories comes from. I don't know. Perhaps it is a fight against death, a fight against all the limitations we face.
Q: What's next?
A: I'm writing a new movie that I will make in Spain. It's a story about revenge and again it's the story of women--three or four women. And it's the first time that I've tried to write a very evil part. The main protagonist is really a bad girl in the sense that Bette Davis could be bad girl in "The Little Foxes."
Q: And the American version of "Women on the Verge," what happened with that?
A: I'm trying to call Jane Fonda to see. Columbia/Tri Star changed so much when (Sony) bought it that I'm afraid this project is not so urgent for them now. That's the problem with the big studios. They are so slow, many projects just disappear.
Q: Are you involved with the remake?
A: No. I refused that. If I pay for the rights to something, I would not like to be saddled with the author looking over my shoulder and criticizing things. So they have complete freedom. I don't mind if I'm distorted. It will be someone else's adaptation of something I did and I'm very curious about how it will be in the end.
Q: Aren't you afraid of what they'll do to it?
A: Well, a little, but my curiousity is bigger than my fear.
Q: Actually, that could be your epitaph, don't you think?
Almodovar only smiles.