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Why the secret of Almodóvar’s cinema lies in a chocolate bar

The Oscar-winning moviemaker discusses his craft ahead of the release of his 20th film

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What is the secret of the Pedro Almodóvar style? The answer, the Spanish director has revealed, lies in a bar of chocolate and the cards of Hollywood stars inside each one that accompanied his teatimes in Franco’s Spain. In a recent masterclass organized by infrastructure and renewable energy company Acciona in Madrid, the filmmaker reflected on his origins, how he became interested in movies, his passions and his way of working in the run-up to the release of his 20th film, Julieta.

“The crime pages are a great source of material. Reality gives you the first line, the second one you then write”

Pedro Almodóvar

More than 600 people queued for four hours to attend the session, which began with Almodóvar talking about his childhood and the discovery of his vocation. “I always knew I wanted to belong to cinema,” he told the packed hall. “Even before I was 10, my family lived in La Mancha and we ate bread and chocolate. Those bars had cards of Hollywood movie stars inside. It was my first greasy, unctuous contact with a universe that obviously wasn’t from La Mancha. I wanted to get away from the street where I was born and work with those stars. I began to see films in the open air during the summers at Madrigalejo [Cáceres province] where we moved to, and remember films projected on a white wall, the corners of which we children urinated against. Those smells of chocolate and piss are mixed in my memory.”

Strangely, that wasn’t the only mention of urine made by the double Oscar winner: “In an interview with a foreign media outlet, my mother said – to my shame, because I had to translate it into English – that she was in labor for three days and that the first thing I did after she gave birth to me was to pee, and that it shot across the room to the curtains. That’s how it all began.”

Almodóvar also remembered how he initially thought that actors did everything in films. “But then I discovered that there was somebody behind the camera, and decided that was who I wanted to be. Fellini, Welles, Antonioni, part of neo-realism. I came to Madrid as soon as I left school. And so I saw films at the Filmoteca [a movie theater specializing in classic film cycles] in a more ordered fashion. Working at Telefónica I was able to buy a super 8 camera and I began making my own little films. I traveled to London, I was influenced by US underground cinema from the late 1960s, as well as British film, then Free Cinema, the French New Wave. At my altar are Hitchcock, because he is the father of cinema, Buñuel, Berlanga. And then a huge choir: Lang, Melville, Bergman, Chabrol… I am a huge movie fan. And I don’t want to forget the new Spanish cinema of the 1960s, when we were kidnapped by the dictator. La tía Tula, The Hunt, El verdugo, El extraño viaje and El mundo sigue…”

Almodóvar was more melancholic when he came to talk about cinema’s declining importance over the course of his lifetime. “The movies were a kind of parallel world, almost celestial… Spain had to try escaping in whatever way it could. And one way was the movies. For me, filming was more than a dream, it was something visceral. The social impact was stronger in those days. There are many reasons: Spain, us, we’ve changed. Today the internet and the new technologies rule. The way we used to watch movies came from the power of hypnosis, the immersion in parallel worlds that went beyond the talent of the film. Now screens are smaller. This devalues the cinematographic product.”

Video: The trailer for ‘The Skin I Live In.’

Where does he find his stories? “The method is to be awake. The crime pages are a great source. Reality gives you the first line, the second one you then write.” But he doesn’t look for ideas. “Almost every day I get up thinking somebody should make a movie about this or that. But that doesn’t mean I have to be the one to do so. I am clear about my ideology. But I’m not able to make social cinema. Three years ago I was determined to do something about the Civil War era told through a pathologist, and it’s written, but I’m not happy with it. I’m not able to impose ideas. Films speak about when they are made, independently of the wishes of whoever makes them. There are no explicit messages in my films, but there is moral autonomy and freedom.”

The director avoided discussing his new film, Julieta (previously known as Silencio), other than saying that it is about the pain of missing somebody. “It’s not a tragedy per se, but it’s about the disappearance of the main character, and it’s then as though she never existed. It’s mysterious and painful. I show how one lives with an absence.”

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