Julio Medem on How Penelope Cruz Helped Him Write a Movie Unlike Any He’s Ever Made

A film production is a complex, living organism. From the earliest stages of story development, up through location scouting, wardrobe tests, then on to shooting and post-production, a project continuously evolves and transforms before reaching its final iteration. The story takes on new dimensions, characters find their voices, and unexpected themes emerge within the swirl of industrial activity. For Spanish auteur Julio Medem, his eighth and latest feature Ma Ma was no exception — only this time what began as an original idea stowed away in a desk drawer gave way to an unexpectedly fruitful collaboration when he received a chance phone call from Penelope Cruz.

The seed for Ma Ma‘s tragic story of illness and loss first came from an encounter with a powerful image in a German museum. The bronze sculpture by Thomas Schütte entitled Brozenfrau N° 6, consists of an an expressive but amorphous figure twisted over upon itself as if writhing in pain. The image so greatly impacted Medem that he returned home and immediately wrote a first draft of what would eventually be the screenplay for Ma Ma. However, it wasn’t until years later that a pending collaboration with Cruz led him to dust off the manuscript and send it along as a potential vehicle for the Hollywood A-lister. Cruz was hooked.

The story of a young mother diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of personal crisis played perfectly to her sensibilities, and together the two began a process of research and dialogue that brought out new levels of meaning and a deeper sense of character from Medem’s mock up. The final result, as Medem enthusiastically calls it, is a “celebration of life” told through a story of unspeakable tragedy. The resulting collaboration between director and star was so seamless and profound that the opening title discreetly proclaims that we are witnessing, “A Film By Penelope Cruz and Julio Medem.”

Indeed, Ma Ma is a film unlike any we’re used to seeing in the highest ranks of global auteurist cinema. In a time when pessimistic visions like those of recent Cannes winners Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante reign supreme, Ma Ma feels like a work of provocation from an artistic dissident. That’s because despite the film’s seemingly endless parade of death, loss, and illness, Ma Ma wears its positivity unabashedly, like a badge of honor. It’s a position which has earned the film its share criticism, but perhaps only because we’ve come to associate doom and gloom with artistic depth.

In the run up to Ma Ma’s U.S. theatrical premiere, we took the opportunity to chat with Medem about his creative collaboration with Penelope Cruz, the mystery of inspiration, and running home to embrace your loved ones. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On Inspiration and Accessing the Other Side

For those of us who like to tell stories, sometimes and for some reason you see something that produces a stimulus or creative arousal that allows you to dream up a story, like a point of departure. For me it happens in all of my films that there is a point of departure that is visual and that produces a very intense sensation which I can say comes from the unconscious. Given the constant creative exercise that artists engage in, it’s easier for us to access that “other side.”

On Collaborating With Penelope Cruz

I wrote like seven drafts of the screenplay, and then she would read what I had written and would give me notes, very interesting ideas that I liked very much, and so I would work them in. And then of course when we started scouting for locations and doing wardrobe tests. We talked quite a bit, and we worked together on the medical research as well. We both spoke with patients, with women who were sick, gynecologists, and then she went on her own to speak more with women who were dealing with the same condition, and from there we found many new possibilities for the film.

On Creative Differences

Penelope didn’t want to rehearse, and for me it’s fundamental to rehearse with the actors before shooting, and from there I get at least one or two new versions of the script — but she didn’t want to. And I understand, because it’s a very powerful story and there are difficult scenes that are best left for the shoot because they’re very intense and delicate. But as a director I was also scared that she would show up to the set with her character all worked out, and wouldn’t allow herself to be directed. But the truth is that it didn’t happen like that. When Penelope would get to the set she immediately wanted to know what I had to say. She wanted me as a director to guide her to where I thought her character needed to be for the film.

On Telling Stories About Women

There’s a point where men and women can easily find common ground, as we men also have our feminine side, just a woman can have her masculine side. And clearly I’m connecting more and more with my own feminine side, and that’s the place that I work from… For me it’s something entirely natural.

On Making A Film He Never Expected

When I write a film I try to get away from what I’ve done before. On my first five films, I always wanted to do something entirely new. Nowadays I’m not so concerned about that because I realized that I just can’t do it. Ma Ma is a film that I wasn’t at all expecting to do. I was in a very different place creatively, telling very different stories, more complex stories with multiple characters, and then this opportunity came along to do something smaller. It was Penelope who asked me, “Do you have a project we can do together?” And so I dug up the screenplay for Ma Ma and she said, “I want to do that.” So I said, “let’s go, let’s do it.” Then she laid bare her soul on the film and I absolutely loved working with her. I can tell you it’s the film that I’ve liked the most. It’s entirely unique and it’s all because of Penelope.

On Hugs

What I want from this film — and I think it can happen — is that when the lights go up, the audience feels the desire to go home and embrace their loved ones.

Ma Ma opens in New York on May 20, 2016 with a national roll out to follow. Check here for listings.