"My 'Snow White' needed to be black and white, silent and with bullfights"
Pablo Berger's 'Blancanieves' is shaping up to be one of the Spanish films of 2012
In the same way that Michel Hazanavicius spent 10 years ruminating over the idea for The Artist, so filmmaker Pablo Berger spent eight years thinking about his Snow White retelling Blancanieves, and the last five battling to get it into production.
Blancanieves, you see, runs many of the same risks as Hazanavicius' Oscar winner - it's silent, in black and white - plus several more - it's set in 1920s Spain in a world of matadors, flamenco and bullfighting dwarfs. Back when he started out it seemed impossible that a silent movie in black and white could end up winning an Academy Award and cleaning up at the box office.
"I've never been a bullfighting fan," admits Berger, but "little by little I fitted the ideas together: Blancanieves needed to be in black and white and silent, and if I did it like that, it had to take place in the 1920s [the golden age of silent cinema]; and if it was in Spain, the real world of royalty was that of bullfighting, with its king matadors, their court of assistants and their fairytale country estates...
"I also had Cristina García Rodero's España oculta photos in my head, with that deep and visceral Spain, with its bullfighting dwarfs... And all that brought me to flamenco. Blancanieves' father is a fictional matador inspired by Belmonte. There are scenes of bullfighting in the film, but it is not a bullfighting film. [...] I always thought bullfighting was very cinematic. It has movement and conflict. Narrative ceremony."
Blancanieves is something of a punch in the face - brutal and blunt. Berger makes up and reads bedtime stories to his daughter and the project developed out of these feelings of childhood amazement. "It's my free adaptation of the tale, even though the characteristic elements are there: the orphan girl, the stepmother, the dwarfs, the apple... and something similar to the mirror." And so are Cristina García Rodero, and Ignacio Zuloaga, and Julio Romero de Torres, and the music of guitarist Chicuelo.
For those looking for comparisons with The Artist - beyond the fact that both films are in black and white and silent - there aren't any. "I was a bit scared when it was released," Berger admits. "When I saw it I realized they weren't similar at all. The Artist is a delightful film, though different from what I have shot. That said, it's served as an icebreaker in the movie theaters, breaking down a lot of prejudices about this film format."
Berger's Blancanieves is Spanish - featuring faces as perfectly suited to black and white as Ángela Molina as the grandmother who brings up Snow White; Inma Cuesta as Snow White's mother; Daniel Giménez Cacho as her matador father, and Maribel Verdú as her stepmother. It's also gothic - in the style of the Brothers Grimm, who revived the original German legend - and it is Carmen , as in the Georges Bizet opera: so much so that the Snow White in the film is called Carmen.
It's also a constant trickle of references for film lovers: "In the mid-1980s in San Sebastián, I saw a screening of Greed , Erich von Stroheim's great classic of silent cinema, with a live symphony orchestra. It created a feeling I've experienced very few times in a movie theater. I want to recreate all those feelings in the audience, that they feel like when I read the tale to my seven-year-old daughter. And to do that I go back to the origins, to its gothic aspect, even though to a different time, to the years in which masterpieces such as Abel Gance's Napoleon and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc emerged, when Universal started to shoot its classic horror movies."
And it seems people are starting to respond to it. After Berger rejected an offer from the Cannes Film Festival, Blancanieves - which is his second feature after 2003 comedy Torremolinos 73 - screened last Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival and the critic from The Hollywood Report sang its praises. On Sunday, influential US critic Roger Ebert also praised it to the heavens, saying the film has a good chance of winning the Audience Award at the festival, which runs until Sunday.
"The final discussion on Saturday was emotional, with people with tears in their eyes," says Berger. "They understand that it is a local story that is understood universally. Even Ebert didn't stress that it was Spanish, but that it could reach the whole public."
The movie will receive its European premiere on September 22 at the San Sebastián Film Festival, before going on general release the following Friday - September 28.
What's more, it has been shortlisted alongside Seville-set cop drama Unit 7 and Fernando Trueba's forthcoming The Artist and The Model as one of the candidates to represent Spain at next year's Oscars. Berger will find out whether his film is the fairest of them all when the Spanish Cinema Academy announces its final choice on September 27.