I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“My films are very Spanish, but on the other hand they are capriciously personal. You cannot measure Spain by my films.”
This interview with Pedro Almodóvar was conducted in Spanish. In the spirit of translating, I would like to mention two things. One is that Almodóvar kept on referring to “contar historias.” This roughly translates as “making stories.” It is a term which I have only heard Latin Americans, Latinos and Spaniards use to describe their work, whether in literature, cinema, or music. The other thing that I noticed is that our laughter throughout the interview often surfaced at the most devastating moments. Our irreverence, at the root of our shared Spanish, Caribbean and Latin American culture, is as present in our popular music and highbrow literature as it is in our cinema. Yet, this humor is often dismissed by critics as a lack of serious intention.
Almodóvar’s complex humor, poetic irreverence and deliberate refusal to conform to “politically correct” norms, make him one of our most controversial cultural figures. With KIKA, Almodóvar ushers Spanish-speaking cinema into a new era.
Ela Troyano How did you begin writing KIKA?
Pedro Almodóvar You mean the script? I began exactly with the controversial rape scene. The novel I was adapting begins with the rapist escaping from the police. But I believe that adaptations need to be “free,” you have to keep that original spark of energy, but not be faithful or literal.
That sequence, where someone watches during the rape, ended up being curiously engaging and entertaining, though still a rape. The character of Kika was already present, which is what really stimulated me to continue writing. So, to discover more about this character, I developed the story, completely forgetting about its origin in the novel. In that scene, someone watches, someone videotapes and afterward, what has been taped will be seen on a television screen, which already means two rapes. One is the physical one and the other takes place through the communications media—which is what the film is about. And I believe the one through the communications media is worse. It depends on how—if you want, I’ll discuss it later, after all you are a woman. This is not a boutade.
ET You use the camera as if it were the voyeur.
PA In this age, wherever you find an open window, someone could be looking in. In an era where television is like the eye of god, in this case the eye is a frame, a square frame. It is an omnipresent eye in everyone’s life. In every country, any place, there is a television. I don’t think there is a day in the year when we don’t see an image in that square frame. So, if there is an open window, then I thought that someone with a camera could be watching. From there on I began to depart from the original novel.
Even though what interested me at the beginning was a comedia loca and divertida, it became something a lot less optimistic than what I wanted. It gets darker at the end and I have not been able to avoid Kika being filtered through what must be my own pessimism toward the life that surrounds me. So, the film has ended up being turbulent, which I suppose is a projection of myself. But these things should not be avoided, one has to be sincere. And that is how I started writing the film.
ET Did something on actual television influence you?
PA At that time, I’m talking about two years ago, when I was promoting High Heels, I had been watching some television programs here in the United States which were not yet “reality shows.” There was the Kennedy trial, where one of the nephews was tried for allegedly raping a woman, and you could watch the trial on television. That kind of program really made an impression on me. It bothered me, it scared me. All of a sudden, television cameras could go anywhere. There was no personal space, nothing off limits, even where the police could not go, the video camera could.
And speaking of this woman who had been supposedly raped by a Kennedy, there was a close-up of her underwear, of her panties! And I found this terribly humiliating for her. It’s enough to be raped, but that your panties appear on television seemed to me as humiliating as the rape itself. Without the madness, the physicality, it was something much more diabolical. And thinking about these shows I was inspired to make the character of Andrea Caracortada (Andrea Scarface).
Later, as I was writing, I realized that the phenomenon of these “reality shows” was invading all European television. And when I was shooting I thought, I’m too late (laughter), what is happening on them has already gone further than what I’m shooting in the film.
ET Did you take anything out of the rape scene?
PA No. Generally…I never censor myself. I mean I am very reflexive when I go to work. How can I say this? I am reflexive technically and aesthetically because a film is something which is quite organized, systematic. A film has thousands of shots. You have to ask for a lamp or you won’t get one, you have to ask for a color or you won’t get it…everything has to be very organized at the time of shooting. But in writing and conceiving the film, my way of being sincere and honest is to have no limits. To let things happen almost from the most irrational point of view. I don’t try to control this, much less to be self-censored.
The rape scene is a long scene because the chico doesn’t leave. He doesn’t leave! He wants to break his record for the number of ejaculations. And a lot of other things take place during that scene. But it is shot as it was written. I was actually worried that it would be much more complicated, but the actors worked it out so that it moved fast and there was really no problem.
ET Would you like to talk about the style? It seems to me that in every single shot the space is always being broken up…
PA What do you mean? Say it in English.
ET Sometimes a scene begins as a reflection on the water, or is seen through a mirror, or there are so many visual distractions that it is hard to place oneself in a given location. For example, even when you have an establishing shot, like the one with a tree, the tree really acts as a barrier through which we can’t see, we can’t tell where we are…
PA It is the gaze of someone who looks without being seen. Someone who looks through things, not only through a window, but one who is hiding and watching. It has a lot to do with our society. We receive images from every place in the world, all kinds of situations, all kinds of peoples, including images which were technically impossible for us to get before. Right now, we can watch how a war takes place on television! We can even watch nighttime military maneuvers—think of the Gulf War. We live in a world where we can be sitting down at home and have access to the most intimate, and the most atrocious, images.
And KIKA is a film that refers to all of this. Everyone watches themselves, everyone is spying on everyone else, and everyone is lying to everyone else. And yet, all of this furtive information about everyone else’s life doesn’t really help you to understand anyone. It doesn’t lead you to help anyone. On the contrary, these images which are seen passively do not move you toward any kind of solidarity with others.
This is something which occurs in our society. We have never had more information about other people’s tragedies. I don’t believe that we have ever lived in a more alienated world than the one in which we are living now. And this is something which is in the ambiance of the film. But the film is a comedy, and I hope that people laugh, at least in Spain they laugh a lot.
ET The characters seem to reflect this lack of communication.
PA Most of the characters work in the communications field. Ramon is a photographer and plastic artist, Andrea has a television show, Nicholas is a writer. Kika is a parrot, habla por los codos. (She doesn’t shut up.) And yet, no one communicates. When the characters really talk or communicate, the one they are speaking to is either dead, or asleep, or has fainted. (laughter) Paul Bosso speaks to his sister while she is knocked out. He talks to Kika when she is asleep. Kika tells Ramon her life story when she thinks he is dead. Andrea Caracortada has a television show, but she doesn’t have anyone in the audience. She shows us the empty chairs. (laughter) There is an enormous lack of communication among all the characters. This is something that exists in large cities.
Although you don’t see the city that much, this aggressive atmosphere, the hostility of living in a large city is present in the hostile environment in which Kika lives. Kika, a stupendous and positive character, is a chica who is a continuous victim of a thousand aggressive acts, from domestic ones to the ones coming from the apartment across the street. The only way in which she can survive all of this is with an extraordinary vitality, which is somewhat the message of this film. That to survive all this hell you need to have an enormously good disposition. (laughter) Because if not, you succumb.
ET So how are the characters connected?
PA The action takes place in a kind of labyrinth. All of the action occurs through the windows, the doorways, the hallways, the stairways. I mean, in a way it is an open film where all of the characters are geographically connected. And it is easy to go from one character’s window to another character’s window, then to the kitchen.
Physically, these locations are related, but not only physically, there are huge round windows that are a metaphor for the eyes and the camera, which link the space—objects in the foreground and the background are seen through these connected spaces. This functions aesthetically and dramatically as what in painting would be called a collage. A number of independent, simultaneous universes are seen together as in a puzzle, which is the dramaturgy of this film—the “puzzle” in which there are many mixed genres which do not seem to be related among each other but which have the same history and universe.
ET How does KIKA relate to your other films?
PA All of my films are very eclectic, all of my films mix different genres. I am not a person capable of respecting the rules of any particular style. But KIKA is more radical than any other. High Heels is a drama if it needs to be categorized. In all of them there is humor. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a light comedy. I think KIKA is the most unclassifiable. I don’t mean to say that I have invented any new genre, as much as that it is truly hard not only to classify, but to even tell the story. Depending on which character you follow, the story keeps changing. It is the most non-linear. And that always creates a certain challenge for the spectator. That’s why I was more worried with this one than with any of the others. The audience likes to feel familiar with what is being told, that it corresponds with their expectations. This is a film which begins telling one story and halfway through the film you begin to discover, with the same elements that appeared at the beginning of the film, that that story is another one, and that it is very different from the one being told. And in the end, you find out it is another story altogether. I don’t know up to what point this is disconcerting for the audience.
I see it as a film in which I finish a cycle and where I go toward another, though I don’t know yet what that will be. It is a film which serves as a period, an ending to a chapter in my filmography which situates me in another one.
ET At the end of the film there is a change in the look, the space is depicted simply, and the coloring is different, full of earthy, almost red blood-browns. Can you talk about this?
PA I really love brilliant colors, but here I am using a very different range of colors than what I’m used to. For example, I have never used so many masses of gray. Red is still the predominant color, but in this film there are more intermediary colors than basic ones. Which is still a fairly brilliant coloring, but with more tension or at least, for me, much more drama.
There is a declaration of principles, of the aesthetics with which I work, always based on the mezcla, or mix. When I went to Puerto Rico and to Santo Domingo I said, “These colors are the ones I use, and everyone here uses them, on the outside of the houses, in the interiors, everyone uses these colors spontaneously.” I feel very close to the Caribbean, which is quite a vast area. The barroquismo and the coloring of the Caribbean…. At the same time, I was formed by the 1960s which was the time of the birth of “pop.” The characters in my stories are very baroque, very expressive. So that mix of pop-barroco-Caribbean, and I don’t know, the Memphis furniture style all combined…
ET What countries have you visited?
PA Of these countries, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, also I have gone once to Cuba. And I feel very close on a human level to the nature of the Caribbean character and how this nature manifests itself visually, and how it expresses itself through music. Music is something which really defines my characters. The boleros, the mambos that I use in this film, or the trios from Puerto Rico.
I mean, my characters are very descarados, bold. They have no shame when it comes to talking about their feelings and they behave in a very direct manner. All of this I find in the bolero. The bolero is a type of song that isn’t scared to be tacky. It expresses feelings in a direct way without embarrassment, without shame. In this case, with KIKA, I used the mambos of Perez Prado. Not only when Kika appears, but also when Andrea appears there is a concert for bongos he composed which sounds very primitive and savage.
ET How did you begin to show your work in the United States?
PA The Miami Film Festival has been one of the doorways through which Spanish cinema has been able to enter. It is one of the few festivals which features films from Spain. And it is a small door, because the American film industry is not willing to allow Spanish, or any other foreign competition. In the United States, the presence of non-American cinema is about two percent. In Spain the presence of American films on Spanish screens is eighty percent. I am grateful to Anac Seriac, the director of the Miami Film Festival, for being the first to show one of my films.
ET Which one?
PA Dark Habits. And because of the sensation it caused, the next year I was invited with What Have I Done to Deserve This?, which was picked up by a distributor and shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Afterwards, I began to be known, and more importantly, exhibited in the United States, which is extremely difficult to do because it is so expensive just to get publicity. Exhibitors don’t dare to take films and it is quite difficult for foreign film directors. I came in through the Miami festival and now I am going there for the closing night with KIKA.
ET How do you see yourself as a director in the world arena?
PA Films are understood anywhere, they transcend place. The only thing which is of any interest is that films have a personal seal, that they have their own moral, their own point of view, their own mentalidad. And that is what distinguishes you from the rest of the directors.
I see myself as a personal director, very independent in every way, economically as well as aesthetically. Although, I tell you, this is really difficult, my films are very Spanish, but on the other hand they are capriciously personal. You cannot measure Spain by my films. I have the impression that I am inventing them, but I am not inventing them from a void. Black humor is at the root of Spanish culture, from literature to painting. And the aesthetics of my films are related to this, but what is really certain is that my films are not like any Spanish films. But in any case, I am a Spanish director.
Spanish cinema is absolutely unknown in the world. I am lucky that I appeared at a moment when Spain was undergoing a great change. And that in the rest of the world, for the first time—at least since I have been alive—there was a curiosity about what was happening in Spain. And a curiosity which was not full of superiority. Spain has always appeared to be culturally inferior. After the democracy, and after it became known that a lot was happening in Madrid, foreigners were coming and saying, what a happy city, fun, free, drugs are permitted. There began to be a curiosity and then my films appeared. I believe it was a juncture that facilitated the connection of my films with the public.
ET If your films are Spanish and yet not Spanish, what are they?
PA Urban. I am an urban film director. We live in a time where information is shared and alike. For someone of my generation living in the United States, there is a sensibility that makes it seem that we live in the same place, we both use the same references. Lives in large cities really resemble each other. A film made in Madrid is perfectly understood in the United States.
Although I am a well-known director throughout the world, I continue to be a marginal director, deliberately marginal. (laughter) Fortunately my dreams are not to make expensive films.
ET That is what I wanted to ask you next, is there anything you would like to film but which you can’t due to financing?
PA No. I come from poverty. Socially speaking, my family was a poor family. And also speaking as a producer, a director, my beginnings were pauperrimos, no budget. I’m accustomed to maneuvering myself within a lack of means. That is where I learned to do what I know, that is, if I have learned anything.
To tell my stories I really do not need large sums of money; but to tell my stories, I need an enormous amount of freedom. And control. But I am also aware that I belong to a market. These films, which are something extremely personal, when they leave my hands, go directly to a market and I cannot be so disingenuous as to be unaware of the rules of this market.
The price of my independence will always be tied to my moving within low budget filmmaking. Fortunately, I don’t really dream of making 50 million dollar films. It isn’t my style. Fortunately, the stories I want to tell do not need enormous special effects. They are based more on great actresses and good dialogue, and that is equal to the special effects in Terminator. (laughter) For me, two chicas talking, two really concrete characters, with a few good lines of dialogue are as effective as any expensive special effects. And they are cheaper. So I will work in this camp.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee