Pedro Almodvar: Nobody sings. Theres no humour. I just wanted restraint

The director has limited himself to pure drama for his 20th movie. Here he talks about Brexit, the vanished freedom of the 1980s, and his need for solitude

Is Pedro Almodvar getting more respectable? You might say so. When the international film scene first caught up with the Spanish writer-director in the late 80s, he had already been notorious in Spain for nearly a decade with his films inspired by low life and high melodrama lurid, cheerfully scandalous, irrepressibly polysexual stories of porn stars, punk rockers, serial killers and rebel nuns. Now, 20 features into his career, Almodvar has long been recognised as a European classic, with his films since the mid-90s, including All About My Mother and Volver, largely turning away from outrage and perversity. Instead, Almodvar has come to specialise in emotional complexity, stylistic elegance and a distinctly high-art sobriety, never more so than in his latest film, Julieta, based on three short stories by the Nobel-winning Canadian author Alice Munro.

Its little surprise, then, to see Almodvar receiving one of the ultimate accolades for professional seriousness an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, which he was awarded in June alongside composer Arvo Prt, Apple designer Jonathan Ive and other international notables from science, law and theology. Yes, theres a certain piquant irony to the director of church-baiting comedy Dark Habits being honoured alongside a Czech monsignor. Typically, however, the film-maker saw the camp side of things: filmed after the ceremony examining his scarlet doctoral robes, he commented: I thought it was a Sister Act parody.

The same week, I meet Almodvar, 66, in a London hotel. He enthuses about the honour and about the laudatio, the official address in Latin, a language he learned as a boy at a religious boarding school in Extremadura. The ceremony was gorgeous, he says, leaning across a table in a bright tangerine polo shirt, his shock of silver hair making him look oddly like a chunkier cousin of David Byrne. I was very good at Latin. I was so pleased to listen to the laudatio because I knew what the guy was saying. There was something very, very old about it, but also a very modern point of view, very alive. I loved it. It was on the level of the Nobel prizes, he beams.

Almodvars last two films marked a return to his earlier, outr mode. The Skin I Live In, which reunited him with one of his most famous discoveries, Antonio Banderas, was a gothic surgical drama with a transgender twist. Less successfully, Im So Excited!, a hyper-camp farce set on an airliner, was loved by Spanish audiences but nosedived elsewhere (somewhat lost in translation was the films intended dimension of political allegory, depicting a Spain without a credible pilot at the controls).

Watch the trailer for Julieta.

But Almodvar finds himself back on terra firma with his most severe film to date, Julieta. Based on stories from Alice Munros 2004 collection Runaway, it charts the biography of one woman played by two newcomers to Almodvars cinema Emma Surez, as Julieta in middle age, and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self. Structured as a flashback, the complex narrative takes in a dreamlike night of passion, a love triangle, subsequent tragedy and Julietas retreat into depressive isolation. Rather than melodrama, Almodvar has said he was after something more austere this time pure drama.

Not that my other films are impure, Almodvar explains in Spanish (he skips in this interview between his native language and slightly rusty English, sometimes turning the standby interpreter beside him). Impurity has a moral meaning in Spanish, which I dont like. I just wanted much more restraint.

His intention was to strip out the familiar traces of his style: Nobody sings, no one talks about cinema and theres no humour. I had to force myself there; sometimes during rehearsals the odd comic line would come up, which was a relief for the actors. But after the rehearsals, I decided, no humour. I thought it was the best way to tell such a painful story. And also, you know, its fantastic that in my 20th film I could make a change. I mean, this is very welcome.

Almodvar had hoped to adapt Munros stories for some time and even tipped his viewers a wink by sneaking a copy of Runaway into a scene in The Skin I Live In. Intended to be his first English-language film, his adaptation, originally titled Silence, was to star Meryl Streep. In the end, however, he balked at working in English, and at the Canadian cultural specificity of Munros world, and set the story closer to home Madrid, Galicia, the Pyrenees. Its not a faithful adaptation, but once I moved it to Spain, I had to make it really mine.

Almodvars 2011 movie The Skin I Live In, in which plastic surgeon Robert (Antonio Banderas) uses his scalpel skills for extracurricular purposes.

He loves Munros stories, he says, because theres so much about her that I identify with shes a housewife who writes (in recent interviews, he often refers to himself today as a housewife). The essence of Munros writing, he says, is a great strangeness. What I like best about her is something thats impossible to translate to cinema, her commentaries around the main incidents minor comments but they become the most important thing in the story. At the end, I feel I know less about the character than at the beginning. For me, thats a very positive thing.

In the end, Almodvar decided to have his protagonist played by two very different performers, a choice that yields a moving reveal when a towel is removed from Julietas head after a bath to reveal that Ugarte has been replaced by Surez, visibly 20 years older. I dont trust ageing makeup, says Almodvar. It pulls me out of a film. When you use an actor who has aged, theres something that you cant imitate the eyes, the way she looks at things, the rhythm of walking, the body language.

This coup de cinma is all the more poignant for viewers who may remember Emma Surez from the 90s as the angelic-looking lead of Julio Medems surreal existential dramas The Red Squirrel and Earth. Two decades on, her looks and acting style have acquired a stately severity that is absolutely compelling and all the more moving for being so contained.

As for the younger Julieta, shes played with hyper-alert energy by Adriana Ugarte, the star of a hugely popular couture-themed TV series, El tiempo entre costuras (literally, The Time Between Stitches). The director cast her purely because she was superb in her audition, he says; he has no interest in Spanish TV. For me, it isnt a reference. I cant judge the actors in Spanish TV fiction. I mean, they are brrr! Poor things! he laughs. They dont have time to do a good job.

Almodvar has always said that he works with different actors in different ways. On Julieta, he enforced a rule of strict reserve no comic lines, but also no tears, no overt emoting. He gave Surez a reading list of books on pain and loss, including Joan Didions The Year of Magical Thinking, while directing Ugarte seems to have involved teaching both deportment and social history.

The way I directed Adriana was much more physical. It was more to explain how in the 80s a young lady behaved. Twentysomething girls now are so different from the girls of that age. I had to explain that a girl in the 80s would have felt free to fuck a man on a train if she felt like it. There was a feeling of extreme liberty and equality among the people that I knew, men and women. The modern women of that time behaved like men in their sexuality, in the decisions they made. The bad education I gave Adriana was to make her a woman of the 80s.

Whether or not Almodvar can claim authoritative knowledge of how young women behave today, he certainly knows what hes talking about with regard to Iberian subcultural history for cinemagoers around the world, his name is synonymous with 80s Spain and its mores. Born in a village in the La Mancha region, Almodvar moved to Madrid in 1968, got involved in underground theatre and started making Super-8 films variously inspired by Andy Warhol, John Waters and the Hollywood melodrama tradition (he was already also an art cinema devotee, passionate about Bergman and Antonioni). He eventually emerged as a mainstay in the Movida Madrilea (the Madrid Scene), an explosion of art, music, design, nightlife and general cultural liberation that lasted into the mid-80s and was a celebratory, wildly eclectic response to the end of the Franco dictatorship.

Almodvars early work was overtly provocative, intensely sexual and marked by comic-strip flippancy. His barely seen first feature in 1978 was entitled Folla folla flleme Tim (Fuck Fuck Fuck Me Tim) and, two years later, his canonic debut proper Pepi, Luci, Bom featured the director himself presiding over an erections contest. His 80s films are among the classics of queer cinema, although Almodvar has always refused to be categorised specifically as a gay film-maker. A friend of mine recalls him fulminating when she asked him whether he made gay films: Did people ask Hitchcock if he made fat films?

Volver (2006): in her third role for Almodvar, Penlope Cruz stars as a single mother whose daughter gets into trouble. Photograph: Allstar/Sony Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
Almodvar is known for his reluctance to discuss his private life, which is, in any case, very rarely touched on in the Spanish media, although some papers have identified photographer Fernando Iglesias, who sometimes plays cameo roles in his films, as being his partner for over a decade.

I ask Almodvar whether he is nostalgic for the energies of the movida years, of a different, more optimistic Spain. I dont like nostalgia as a feeling but its true that tolerance, beauty, freedom are what defined the 80s and its not what defines this decade in Spain. The films I made at that time, I had no trouble making, nobody got offended, yet theyre quite provocative. He is convinced that his 1983 anti-clerical comedy Dark Habits could not have been made today It would have had a very radical and violent response from the religious establishment. Theres a new phenomenon on the rise in Spain, he says the offence to Catholic sensibilities. He mentions a recent Gay Pride poster, which showed two Virgins, associated with Barcelona and Valencia, kissing. The archbishops held masses to condemn it. That would have been unthinkable in the 80s.

We talk about the current state of politics, Spanish in particular and European in general, since our interview happens to fall in the few days between the outcome of the Brexit vote and the general election in Spain. Almodvar commiserates with me on the turn of affairs in Britain. In Spain, we are all in shock. For my generation and the generation that came after, London represented freedom. I first came here in 1971 during the Franco dictatorship, so you cant imagine what that meant for a young Spanish man. Regarding the bad morale arising from Brexit, he adds: If it extends to Spain, it will favour this feeling of fear and uncertainty and the more conservative side of Spanish politics, the Partido Popular (Peoples party).

He was right, of course: the following Sundays results saw the rightwing PP maintaining its position in power. Almodvar had already voted in advance for the leftwing Podemos; he has been a prominent critic of the PP and is among many who regard the recent massive hike on VAT for cinema tickets as the governments punitive revenge on the film communitys opposition to Spains involvement in the Iraq war.

Theres no doubt that the downbeat mood of austerity-era Spain has played its part in determining the tenor of Julieta. Reality always filters through into my films, even when I try to reject it. It finds a crack to seep in through. The climate of the last four years in Spain has been of enormous unhappiness and even though I havent personally suffered from the harshness of the economic situation, Im surrounded by people who have. I dont think Julieta is a metaphor for Spain today but its no accident that my 80s films were much happier.

Julieta also reflects his personal mood. In the last three years, Ive suffered physical pain and great solitude. If he had written the script in a different decade, he says, he could imagine Julieta going out, meeting people in the streets of Madrid. She would be involved in others problems. Now it was very easy for me just to talk about her kind of solitude. I know a lot about solitude.

I ask what he means and why especially now, since he has often talked about solitude in the past; in one book of interviews, he recalls feeling isolated as a 10-year-old because other kids werent interested in discussing Ingmar Bergman. In this case, he says, solitude is something I choose. Anyway, you have to experience loneliness for this sort of work.

How so because he needs to be alone to write?

Its a mixture of everything, he shrugs. Its a mixture of time passing, of getting older, the fact that going out is much less exciting. Im at an age when everything is less exciting and I have to look for inspiration much more inside myself and my home than outside.

Photograph: James Rajotte for the Observer

There is a downside, he admits. Im afraid of turning into a misanthrope. I want to see what other peoples problems are and to empathise with them. I have to be careful not to isolate myself too much. This is something, indeed, that hostile Spanish critics have accused him of as his international profile has risen.

He shrugs again. Anyway, I dont want to complain but [hes speaking English now and emphasises the but] I have a lot of migraines, I dont hear with one ear and Im photophobic. I dont go to award ceremonies because TV lights mean having a migraine the whole evening. So the press in Spain think I feel scorn for the ceremony.

Sometimes solitude comes from something specific, like the fact that I dont smoke, I dont drink, I dont take drugs, I dont hear well. I dont want to be a drag for other people, so I stay at home. Its as simple as that.

Because of his hearing problem, he had to warn the people sitting beside him at lunch in Oxford that his conversation might accidentally sound silly or surrealistic. And they were very charming about it.

Whatever his longer-term woes, 2016 has not been an easy year for Almodvar. In April, his long-standing repertory player Chus Lampreave, a much-loved specialist in grandmother and eccentric doyenne roles, died. A few days later, shortly before the Spanish release of Julieta, it emerged in the Panama Papers, the leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, that El Deseo, the production company founded by the director and his brother, Agustn, had set up an offshore company in the early 90s. Given the directors prominence as a leftwinger, this was a major embarrassment, to say the least. Agustn issued a statement to explain that the short-lived company had been set up to facilitate co-productions but was never used; Pedro commented that he accepted his responsibility but later added that he and his brother were some of the least important names implicated: If it was a film, we wouldnt even be extras.

It was a very bad moment, Almodvar says. I was on the front of every single newspaper and TV programme. The press was using me, in the most sensationalist way possible. It was awful, because its very hard to be part of a list of people that you hate. But I felt used by the media. Im absolutely against tax havens but Im also against the commercialisation of news.

This unwanted exposure, he says, partly accounts for the fact that his usually faithful and very diverse Spanish public adolescents, many, many gay people, lots of old ladies, housewives, every category and every profession seemed to reject Julieta. The film scored his worst Spanish box-office in 20 years, although it went on to triumph in France and Italy.

One reason for Julietas disappointing domestic showing, surely, is that it is such a dark film, hardly calculated to please a nation facing tough times. The director also points out that Spanish audience figures have diminished anyway, partly because of that VAT hike. It must be galling for him, though, that Julieta was significantly trumped at the box-office by a sex comedy called Kiki, Love to Love (not to be confused with the directors own 1993 Kika), which, by all accounts, is in the spirit of Almodvars 80s work.

The Oscar- and Bafta-winning All About My Mother (1999). The film follows a woman (Cecilia Roth) whose son dies in an accident and her subsequent attempts to track down his transgender father.
Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Tristar

The directors spirits visibly rise when I ask him about the retrospective of his films that has just begun at Londons BFI Southbank, for which he has also made a personal selection of must-sees from the history of Spanish cinema. Which title would he most urge British audiences to see? Without hesitation, he chooses 1964 drama Aunt Tula, while among his own films he recommends Law of Desire and Talk to Her. He clearly takes his curatorial role seriously because a few days later I get an email from his publicist to say that Almodvar has had a rethink scratch Aunt Tula, hell go for another early 60s title, the black comedy El verdugo (The Executioner).

On the sources of his own inspiration, Almodvar claims the choice sometimes just imposes itself, as presumably it did when Alice Munros stories came to fascinate him. The truth is, Im not very conscious when I write, when I decide to do one story and not another. Im very permeable I dont exactly decide the story myself. It sounds paranormal.

Im curious to know what the maestro is reading now and his assistant goes into the next room to fetch a paperback a Spanish translation of Nothing Grows By Moonlight, a novel by Norwegian writer Torborg Nedreaas. Its fantastic, its incredible, Almodvar enthuses. I Google it later; its about a miners daughter who forms a masochistic obsession with her teacher. It seems just the sort of thing that Almodvar might feel like adapting if he remains in his current downbeat mood, but you wonder if hell allow himself some jokes in it.

Julieta is released on 26 August. The Almodvar season is at BFI Southbank throughout August and September

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