Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, is one of the most autobiographical in his long career. It’s moving, colorful, and more than a little complicated, so it’s worth first laying out at least some of the plot’s twists and turns. It tells the story of Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas), an aging movie director who is suffering from a number of physical ailments. Just before a 32-year-old film of his is about to be screened, he reestablishes contact with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor in that movie, who introduces Salvador to heroin. Salvador allows Alberto to perform a one-man show based on a confessional piece about a romantic relationship Salvador had in the 1980s. Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the man Salvador was writing about, happens to attend a performance and reconnects with him. Meanwhile, Salvador spends chunks of the film recalling his childhood in Valencia, when his sacrificing mother (Penélope Cruz) arranged for him to attend a religious school on scholarship, and when he fainted after seeing Eduardo (César Vicente), a young workman he is teaching to read, naked.
We spoke with Almodóvar on his 70th birthday about the new movie, his habit of repeating themes and storylines from one film to another, and his special relationship with Cruz and Banderas. The interview, which was conducted with the help of a translator, has been edited for clarity and length.
Slate: Is Pain and Glory about you? Is Salvador Mallo a stand-in for Pedro Almodóvar?
Pedro Almodóvar: It has a lot to do with me. Intimately speaking, it’s the movie closest to me. But you can’t take it literally as an autobiography. Let’s just say that all the places and all the situations that happen are familiar to me, but I haven’t explicitly gone through them myself.
The main things are based on my life or on someone very close to me. When I say my life, I mean also my family, the memories of my brother, the memories of my sisters, or something that I heard. Memories, also, of some friends. I made them mine.
If you didn’t want people to think that it was a literal autobiography, why did you reveal in the press notes that you had used your own apartment furnishings and your own clothes for Salvador’s apartment and clothes?
There is a moment after making the casting in the pre-production period when you have to make a choice about hair, decoration, and all that. I’m sure that the theme would be the same with different hair for Antonio [Banderas], different clothes, and another apartment, but … it fit him well. It fit the character well. What was important is that he’s living with a lot of paintings, in this kind of solitude, very isolated. It was not completely necessary to use my apartment. Once we decided, it was more for a pragmatic reason: It was much easier for the art directors. When we were shooting, if all of a sudden we realized we were missing something, they would just send the assistant to my house to grab it.
You mentioned that you borrowed some things from other people’s lives, which reminds me of Salvador giving Alberto his story about addiction to star in—but saying that he must say that it was his own story. Why?
At first, Salvador doesn’t want to even hear about Alberto doing the piece. Alberto reads it while Salvador is out of it. He’s groggy [after taking heroin]. In the first version of the script, Alberto actually stole [the text] and interpreted it without the director’s knowledge. As I developed it, I preferred that they have an agreement between them. Salvador doesn’t want it to be represented because, as he says in the film, it’s very confessional and very intimate. In reality, he sees Alberto again because he wants to take heroin again. Once he gives him the piece, he says the condition is that his name shouldn’t appear anywhere. It’s interesting because it then functions as a bridge for his former lover, Federico, to come find him and for Federico to discover what happened to Salvador. At the same time, Salvador, when he first gives the piece, the last thing he wants would be for Federico to actually see it.
Really what I’m trying to say is that theater can be a repository, not just of memory of the author’s memories, but it’s also a place that connects. It connects the authors with the audience. It connects people.
Is that why so often, almost always, you have a representation of live theater or dance or the performance of a song in your films?
Yes. There are also many movies in my movies. There are many moments when the characters are watching a movie on TV or watching a movie in a theater. My characters go to see movies and also to the theater. It is very important for them.
For example in Talk to Her, I open the movie with Pina Bausch’s dance piece Cafe Müller, which is a masterpiece. On one hand, what I needed at that moment was that two men are watching something very moving onstage. One of them is crying, the other one isn’t. The one who is not crying finds very mysterious the other who is crying. He is also taking care of a girl in a coma who’s supposed to be a former dancer. He goes to see dancing just to have something to tell to the woman in a coma. That was the reason.
Also, I sometimes put art or paintings because they are in my life, and also they represent some of the most meaningful moments in my life. They’re not just there to be decorative or to pay homage. They’re an organic part of my films.
I’m also interested in characters who are artists, writers, director, actors, or dancers. The three elements that I’m really attracted to are the idea of the origin of creation, the creator, and desire, and how all those things intertwine.
Which, of course, are all present in this new film.
I’m curious about your use of repetition. You’ve talked about this new film forming an “unintentional” trilogy with Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004). In your films, things constantly repeat. Even small things like characters getting wet before an epiphany or putting on red clothes before an important event. You also repeat storylines, like Chicas y Maletas. [In Almodóvar’s 2009 movie Broken Embraces, the characters are making a movie called Chicas y Maletas, which is very obviously the same story as that told in Almodóvar’s 1988 movie breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.] A lot of people would think that’s repetitive, something to avoid, but you don’t seem to worry about it.
No. It doesn’t bother me as long as I’m not repeating it exactly the same way. You see this a lot in painting: A painter might paint something, but he keeps coming back to it and not necessarily in the spirit of repetition—but in the spirit of developing it and going deeper into it.
Also, sometimes there’s a practical reason. As you noted, Chicas y Maletas refers back to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The reason I did that really is because I needed the contrast between the very dramatic and very heavy story that Penélope [Cruz]’s character is living and the comedy that she has to play. On some level, it was also easier to just come back to that rather than to develop a whole new comedy.
Sometimes I’m not conscious of [the repetition]. For example, when I was doing this movie, I was not completely conscious at the beginning that it makes a trilogy with Law of Desire and Bad Education. There is a sequence, when the boy is making this kind of audition, he has to be a singer in the choir. That belongs directly to Bad Education. I could put this sequence in Bad Education.
Or for example, [in Pain and Glory] this pious woman in black comes to see Penélope and says, “This boy has to be for God,” meaning that they will give him a scholarship, which is the only way he was going to be able to study, to go to a seminary. That also could be part of Bad Education. Also, the memories of La Adicción [Salvador’s confessional story, which Alberto performs as if it represented events from his life] belong completely to Law of Desire, to that period, and to those characters.
I was not completely conscious of this when I was writing, but I think that these three films have many things in common. The protagonist is always a filmmaker. Desire is very linked with creation, with different results, and different periods of my life.
What about getting wet before something significant happens?
I had not realized that.
For example, in Law of Desire, when Carmen Maura jumps into the street cleaners’ hose and yells, “Water me!”
I’m very proud of that sequence. When we were doing it, I got the feeling that we were doing something very impressive. I met Susan Sontag in Madrid when we were shooting Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. She came to the shooting, and she was so flattering, talking about that sequence. She told me that that it had already entered the collective unconscious, just like Marilyn Monroe’s dress.
Is there a similar scene in this movie?
In this movie, Eduardo [the object of young Salvador’s desire], pours water on himself at a significant moment.
Well, Eduardo was dirty.
You made him dirty!
Yes, I make him dirty. I’m the origin of the dirty. In this case, the sequence is very important for me. Talking about the origin of desire is very rare. We don’t see it, or at least I don’t remember any movie talking about when a young boy of 9 years old, or a girl of 9 years old, felt the first passion of desire.
I was very interested in this movie explaining that the character of Antonio, of course he was conscious of the moment. He was a child, so he doesn’t know what word to use, but he’s so impressed that he fainted.
Penélope Cruz is an amazing actress and Antonio Banderas is a great actor, but when they work with you, they’re extra special. You seem to bring extra depths of emotion from them. What’s the secret of Pedro and Penélope and Antonio?
Thank you! This is very flattering. I agree with you. Perhaps they are ready to work with me because they trust me. Perhaps also because other directors don’t know them as well as I do. We are very good friends, the three of us, for many years. We rehearse for months before the shooting. I’m sure that the conditions of working with me are very different.
This is an advantage that I have. They are absolutely generous with other directors, but really they trust me in such an extraordinary way that they really are ready to do things that they never do with anyone else. Because they feel protected. They feel watched. They know that I’m not going to let them do anything that’s silly or wrong. That gives them a lot of freedom.