Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas have made eight movies together, and their latest, Pain & Glory, may represent the high point of their collaboration. In perhaps Almodóvar’s most directly autobiographical film to date, Banderas literally wears the auteur director’s clothes to play a Spanish filmmaker named Salvador Mallo. As the character reflects on his youth, and suffers through crippling back pain, he rekindles a friendship with a volatile actor from his past and reconnects with a lost love. Given the rocky road of their own relationship—Almodóvar criticized Banderas for his early-’90s move to Hollywood and it took them years to repair the rift—the parallels are striking. In conversation with Deadline, Almodóvar and Banderas trace their relationship from a whirlwind first encounter through to the effortless sense of catharsis and self-reflection within which Pain & Glory was made.
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DEADLINE: Take me back to the beginning of your journey together. How did you meet?
ANTONIO BANDERAS: I was working in the Spanish National Theatre at the time. We were a group of actors having coffee in a coffee shop close by, and he appeared with a red briefcase; a famous red briefcase.
He was really talkative. That afternoon, he talked 10 minutes, and he was very funny, you could tell he was a genius. It was fast, witty. About the time he was standing up to leave, he looked at me and said, “You should do movies, because you’ve got a really romantic face.” I said, “OK…”
He left, and I had no idea who that was. I asked, and someone said, “He’s Pedro Almodóvar. He made a movie, but he will never make another one.”
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR: It was some envious guy. He said, “Almodóvar is never going to make any more movies.” I remember that.
And I remember Antonio. He had a big mustache and long hair, and really, the most romantic face. He had the perfect body and face to play the classic Spanish theatre. In this case it was Lope de Vega, no?
BANDERAS: No, it was Calderón. It was about a week after, I think, that you came to the theatre with Cecilia Roth. They saw La hija del aire, The Daughter of the Wind. He came to the dressing room and said, “Would you like to do a movie with me?” I said, “Sure.”
ALMODÓVAR: Calderón de la Barca, yes. By that moment, more or less, I was writing the script for Labyrinth of Passion. I called him to just make a short audition with him. It was just to try something with the camera, to see how he walked and looked at someone. I knew immediately that I wanted to work with him on a movie. As we worked together, I thought, Oh my God, if I’d have met him sooner I would have given him the protagonist of the story. I was so impressed with his natural skill to do everything in front of the camera.
DEADLINE: Could you have foreseen you would still be together nearly 40 years later?
BANDERAS: No. That first movie we did, Labyrinth of Passion, is a very choral movie with many different characters and situations.
ALMODÓVAR: It was just like a pop comedy with musical groups. It was a reflection of the Madrid at the time. Madrid was living an incredible explosion of freedom after the dictator’s death. It was a funny movie with many musical groups.
BANDERAS: It wasn’t until the third movie we did…
ALMODÓVAR: Matador, I think.
BANDERAS: Matador, exactly. That’s when we started connecting on a different level. At the time, he had already decided who was part of his group. It was almost like a company of theatre actors, but in cinema. A group that was working all the time with him. We were together practically the entire time. We used to go and live the night life of Madrid together, to the discos, to the dinners, to this and that. People like Rossy de Palma, Carmen Maura—
ALMODÓVAR: Victoria Abril. Yeah, it was like my stable company. We worked together, but we also hung out in the wonderful nights of Madrid of that period.
BANDERAS: We were more like a rock group than a group of people that were making movies, in the way that we behaved. We would arrive at places and people would say, “Uh oh, here come the Almodóvar people.”
DEADLINE: What do you think that atmosphere led to in terms of the movies you were making? Did the camaraderie—perhaps the debauchery—feed into the work?
ALMODÓVAR: It was so inspiring, because there were all sorts of peculiar behaviors and peculiar personalities. It really became a source of inspiration for the stories I wanted to tell. The nightlife was so important. For me, the nightlife of that moment in Madrid was like my university, where I learned everything that I would develop afterwards, in terms of my interest in characters, dialogue, and comic situations.
But also, just the way of life and the way of living. Just how you confront life. Everything was related with an extreme freedom. In Pain & Glory, the three main characters, they were safe during the ’80s. And that is something that is very specific. We were young in that moment, so we could enjoy the period. It was something that really marked our lives.
BANDERAS: Being a part of that moment in time, which was called La Movida Madrileña, I lived it very intensely in the ’80s. It’s true what Pedro says: we lived the night so intensely. I remember not getting home before 4AM or 5AM practically every day. My 20s were like that, quite crazy and fun.
At the same time as being a part of that with Pedro, I also had an independent life as an actor in the theatre. I used to do theatre—and also movies—with other people. I had that thing going on over there, but there was always Pedro. Pedro became the pivot point of my career; I always returned to him. Until I left Spain.
ALMODÓVAR: He left!
BANDERAS: That was the beginning of the ’90s. I left behind La Movida. At the time, La Movida was finishing and something else was starting.
DEADLINE: Pain & Glory deals with what happens many years later. What it means for the people that were part of that moment when they come back together and look back on that time. How did the stone start gathering moss towards what this movie would become?
ALMODÓVAR: It’s always very mysterious when you start writing, because usually the first pages are not the movie that results. They will become a script, and after that a movie, but I would be writing every day about anything; sometimes short tales, sometimes just ideas.
This specific script was started just as you see in the movie, writing about those moments when I was in my swimming pool, under the water, and they were the only moments where I didn’t have any kind of muscular tension. The only moments I was in peace. The only problem is that you can’t breathe underwater. It was relieving for me, because I was going through surgery on my back and I was in a lot of pain.
So, I started there, writing about the situation of feeling like a ghost inside the water, alone with yourself, your mind and your memory. What immediately came to me was another stream of water: the river of my childhood, when I went with my mother and our neighbors while they washed clothes. They sang, they talked. I was maybe three or four, and it was the beginning of storytelling for me, because they told stories to one another and talked about the things that were happening in the rural place we were living in.
I developed these things in Volver, stories like a girl who was pregnant by her own father. Sometimes they were awful stories like that, but as I was hearing them, they were everything to me, and they were life. I realize now it was a very inspiring moment for me. Really, the base of strong women that I wrote in my career was these women: my mother and the neighbors, washing clothes at the river.
DEADLINE: That’s a very positive look back, but is there regret in the retrospective also?
ALMODÓVAR: I regret youth. That’s something you have to learn to live with. When I thought about getting older when I was young, I thought I would be OK, because by the time I got there I’d have different necessities than I did when I was 24. I was wrong. I would like to do exactly what I did when I was 24, but of course I don’t. I don’t hang out; I don’t go out. Yes, I go to see movies and shows—if I didn’t, I would cease to exist—but just to survive you have to live in a different way than you did when you were 24.
And when I say youth, by the way, I don’t mean beauty. No, I mean strength.
DEADLINE: And vitality?
ALMODÓVAR: Exactly. A lack of restraint. Energy. And that you dare to do everything and you’re not afraid.
DEADLINE: Passion, too? The movie deals with what it’s like to reckon with passions—both positive and negative—that burned bright in youth. Things that you have to let go of. Love, but also hot-headed arguments and disagreement.
ALMODÓVAR: But I even miss those kinds of problems [laughs].
I think I’ve matured very well as a filmmaker. I didn’t really know how to make movies in the beginning, and I’ve been learning, one after another, until I made my 21 films. I’ve matured, perhaps, personally in the sense that I’ve come to accept whatever physical limitations that I have to live within. Inside my head, inside my being, I’m still that 24-year-old. In that sense, I have not quite matured.
Anyway, I don’t lie to myself. I know who I am. I know the age that I have. But inside me—and this is serious—I had always felt, for example, that I’m a tall man. In my head, I thought I was as tall as Antonio. I got that same feeling that—and this is not a joke—to be transsexual, you are not born into the body that you belong. It took many, many years of thinking I was tall to realize I wasn’t. I felt that too: that I was in the wrong body.
DEADLINE: Antonio, what did you make of the script he delivered to you? You play a man who looks and lives strikingly like Pedro. And there were moments along the way in your relationship where, like the actor character of Alberto in the movie, you had disagreements. Did you think that character was you?
BANDERAS: I think Alberto, in a way, is a Frankenstein made of many of the characters of the actors, and also the actresses too, he has known along the way. But actually, he called me, and he said, “I’m going to send you a script. You’re going to feel me in it, and you’re going to feel the references to many of the stories that we’ve lived in the past. You’re going to see some of the characters that we’ve put together.”
What caught my attention at the beginning was of course the story, but it was also the form. I found it a very simple story in the way he was telling it. It was very austere. It was outside of the normal baroque Almodóvar that I know. There was something very honest that ran through the whole script. It sounded almost like a confession to me in the beginning, even if it’s not a confession. It had a feeling of something that had been written in a monastery. It’s almost like if Pedro went to that kind of state in which the movie starts, in the water, and he wrote it from there.
I think I perceived the truth of the script right away. That helped me in the process, actually. I was a little bit afraid. But then, every time I go to work with him, I am afraid, because he’s very demanding and very, very precise.
ALMODÓVAR: I’m awful.
BANDERAS: No, but it was different [laughs]. This time it was different to anything we had done before. It doesn’t matter that I was in hell. No, I had the biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my entire career of making movies with him. And we’ve had great times; absolutely great, great moments. I can tell you many beautiful stories about the movies we’ve done together. They will always be in my memory. But you’re always a little apprehensive, for the reasons I described.
This time, that all transformed into something that was very rhythmic between him and me. I don’t know how to describe it. It was some sort of rhythm that we understood and knew how to work. I could approach him and talk, and it was relaxed. There was something so very magical about it.
ALMODÓVAR: Sometimes this happens, and it’s very weird. We found ourselves not only walking at the same pace, but also on the same path. That really created a dynamic that engendered a lot of trust between us, and that is not usual. It is not the normal way things work. In this case, it happened, and it was really wonderful. I think this is also why his performance is so extraordinary.
But not only that, I thought at the beginning that just to make this movie—and I don’t know why I thought this—it would be much harder and tougher because of the nature, or the implied nature, or the intimate nature of the story. But it was the opposite. It was absolutely faster, quicker and easier.
At the same time, it could be as deep as I wanted it. This really is a kind of miracle, because when you start shooting, anything can happen. The nature of a shoot is that there are going to be problems, and the director’s job is not to let them get out of hand. Truffaut used to say that shooting a film was like having yourself and your whole team on a train, on a fast track and with no brakes. And that it was the director’s job to make sure the train didn’t derail. But sometimes it happens in a peaceful and blessed way, as this one did.
BANDERAS: I was just thinking too, and it’s something I had not thought of before, that perhaps something caught my attention about the character that helped. I could smell something in him that was not written, but that made him a little bit of a witness of himself. It was like looking in a mirror; like he was looking in a mirror all the time. There was some transparency there.
Let me explain this. I didn’t want—and I think Pedro didn’t either, although we never talked about it—to manipulate the audience. It was probably very easy to do, but we didn’t want to go there. You want the audience to take the trip with you, although in a different way. Like you’re riding one of those bikes that has a sidecar, and you invite the audience to ride with you. There was something about the character where all that was in the layers.
I loved to think, when I was performing, about that. About being a witness. I am looking at Leonardo Sbaraglia who plays Federico, but I am also looking in a mirror and seeing myself. I am looking at my mother and looking at myself. I am looking at Alberto and looking at myself.
Maybe it was just a game in my mind, because of the fact that Pedro was there the whole time. I could see him every day while I was telling a story reflecting his own life.
DEADLINE: The character is facing mortality, and you faced your own at the top of 2017 when you suffered a heart attack. Did you relate on those terms?
BANDERAS: Yeah. It came from many different places. It was not one thing, like we opened this box in the morning with the same suit and wore it every day. No, it was not like that. I think it was a state in which we were allowing things to happen.
Sometimes you can get into a state in which you go, “I’m going to do this—I have to—I cannot delay it.” We were really relaxed, and when things came up, we accepted them. I remember moments that were very precise, being in the room and discovering, for example, a reflection in the furniture of red. The camera was going to be on me, but no, let’s go to the furniture and look at that reflection instead. It’s beautiful. It was a state of giving ourselves permission, to just travel with the character and travel with the story without too many impositions. It developed in an easy way, and a way I’ve never really experienced before, not just with Almodóvar, but with any filmmaker. It was a totally different experience of making movies.
DEADLINE: You mentioned earlier, Pedro, that you were changing over the course of making these 21 movies. How did Pain & Glory, and this experience you both describe, change you?
ALMODÓVAR: It’s hard to say. For example, this is something that happened on this particular film, and we were both aware of it. From there, to sort of extrapolate and say it could happen in the future—that we’re now approaching things differently—I think there’s no way of knowing. Perhaps it will, but all we know is that it was different this one time.
BANDERAS: And actually, as we talk about it, it is making us do an exercise that is not good. As we’re thinking all day long about the narrative of how we did this movie, as we discover things, we intellectualize them, and in the moment that you intellectualize something, the magic disappears. It’s exactly what he said: if you try to repeat exactly what we did in this movie, it’s not going to work. You have to find for the state in which you allow these new things to come freely without you trying to drive it too much.
But I am curious. After I did this movie, I have done other things, but I have done things that were more in the parameters of things I’ve done before. I did a movie with Robert Downey Jr. where I play a pirate [Dolittle], and that doesn’t have anything to do with this. I’m hungry now for movies that allow me to experiment a little bit with what I found doing this one. I don’t know if it’ll work or not, but I want to try.
ALMODÓVAR: It was just wonderful to experience that. I think I will never forget it. I really would like to find the same chemistry again that we found in a natural way with this one. Perhaps it will be in a different way. It really is the ideal where you’re working, but you also have to know how to work in other conditions, and also in some very bad conditions. You have to find a way to do it. So, it depends. It depends on what the next project is. But the memories of this will always be gorgeous.
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