At this point, a new Pedro Almodóvar film is a major event. His latest, Julieta, both harkens back to his 90s woman-centric melodramas, and boldly evolves the concept. For starters, it’s adapted from three different stories by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. The Canadian writer is known for her keenly observed narratives about women, and Almodóvar—a longtime fan of Munro’s Runaway collection—had initially planned for this to be his first English-language feature film. Tentatively titled Silence and rumored to have courted Meryl Streep, the Spanish director’s 20th film eventually became Julieta, when Pedro realized he could have a better handle on the material in his native tongue and in his native Spain.
After premiering Julieta at Cannes and opening it in his home country, the director has now brought the film to New York. Starring a string of newcomers to the Almodóvar universe (as well as our fave, Rossy De Palma), Julieta centers on a chance encounter on a train, a fractured mother-daughter relationship, and the guilt about the conversations we don’t have with those we love. (As with the rest of his filmography, his intricate plot is best left unspoiled – the better for you to enjoy it on first viewing.)
After a packed press screening during the New York Film Festival, the Spanish director sat down to talk with Kent Jones, the fest’s director, and dished on why he was so drawn to Munro’s stories, how he worked differently with the two actresses playing the leading role of Julieta (Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, who joined him on stage), and even shared what Latin American film playing at the festival is his favorite of the year. Check out some highlights from the press conference below.
On Adapting an American Story To a Spanish Setting
Pedro: I read [Munro’s] work years ago. And at that moment I was a big fan of hers. But this collection, Runaway (the three stories are part of this collection) were all about the same protagonist, Juliet. I was really hooked by the first one, called “Chance”, and when I read the whole book I thought about doing an adaptation for a movie. It was pretty hard. It seems like these stories belong to the same character but not really: they are completely independent. They’re three different stages. So the first thing I did was to try and make a unique story – our story.
The type of family that Munro writes about is really an American family. [The Spanish] behave and feel in a very different way—in our relationships with our mothers, fathers, brothers, and so on. [So] it was clear for me that this could be my very first English-language movie. I thought of making [the film] here in New York. We even found a location here at the beach. I did the first draft in Spanish, with the idea of [translating it to] English. But there was something that I was not satisfied [with]. So I left the script on my table and I took it up again two years later. That’s when I tried to adapt it the geography and the culture of Spain. And once I realized it was possible, then I had to make a lot of changes just to make my own path. But I have to thank Alice Munro, for inspiring a different way of storytelling. I think for the first time I wanted to be very austere. Very restrained. And that was a huge adventure for me as a storyteller.
On the Film’s Spirituality
Pedro: I tell the story here of a great failure. Of a secular woman. A woman raised by secular parents in the 1960s, [who] imparts the same kind of education (also secular). [She] follows all those credos but at the same time she fails, because her parents didn’t teach her how to cope with the kind of guilt [that] runs contrary to her secular education. In any case, children are a mystery. I don’t have any of my own, but the film speaks to that mystery wherein a young woman abandons her daughter to join what we presume is some sort of cult, the specifics of which I’m not interested in. It’s always a mystery to figure out why anyone could abandon someone they’ve been so close with all of their lives, abandoning someone that, as Munro writes, is of no use to them anymore.
His Actresses On Playing the Same Role
Adriana: Well, when we knew we were going to play the same character, I remember calling her up because we wanted to see each other and celebrate – because it was incredible and it was this huge gift for us. I think maybe we wanted to talk about Julieta and to maybe build the character, see how she talks and walks. But when Pedro brought us together I realized it was going to be very different. He directed us separately and it’s a miracle, because we didn’t prepare together. He actually worked with us in very different ways. He didn’t give me any references but he gave Emma a lot. So the process was absolutely different and complex, and when I saw the film I was shocked because I couldn’t believe how the character was the same and was “Julieta” all the time. I didn’t miss the “old” Julieta or the “young” Julieta because the character was just one woman.
Emma: My work with Pedro was very interesting and fascinating. A very creative process where I got to prepare and create this character. I needed some references to dive into Julieta’s grief. He referred me to this great book which was pivotal for me (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking) but he also gave me a bunch of films and actresses. He singled out The Hours, the work by Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep. Jeanne Moreau in Elevators to the Gallows.
Pedro: I mention Jeanne Moreau because she walks a lot in Louis Malle’s film. And I love the way that Louis Malle walks.
On Hillary Clinton as a Chica Almodóvar
Pedro: Absolutely. I think she’s really strong. And you know, I’m very surprised. Because twenty years ago I couldn’t think that in a moment like this I could be praying for Hillary to be the president of the United States. So I mean, in this country, she’s the first Almodóvar girl that I can imagine.
On the State of Spanish and Latin American Cinema
“I saw Neruda and I think it is the best movie I saw this year.”
Pedro: I don’t have the feeling that in Spain they’re imitating the Hollywood way of production. Actually, there are like two thrillers that could be inspired by American thrillers, but the way the budget, everything, works in Spain is so different that it seems to me that we cannot name it with the same word. I mean, the average production budget in Spain—my brother Agustín knows better than me—is around $2 million dollars. Or less. So, it’s something completely different. It’s impossible to imitate Hollywood.
And then in terms of movies made in our language. I think it’s a good moment. For example last week I saw Neruda and I think it is the best movie I saw this year. Also we’re now producing more—for example, we are now working with Lucrecia Martel, the Argentinean director, and we are very happy with that. It is very convenient for El Deseo, our production company, to be in contact with other directors, other Latin American countries, because we have something in common which is huge: the language. I think that the movies in the Spanish language give me a lot of pleasure as a spectator and as a producer with my brother. We want to keep on working on both sides, but in Spanish.
On Shooting a More Restrained Drama
“For me, my personality and my character is very baroque. So I tried to avoid that and tried to make a drama which is not my natural inclination.”
Pedro: From the beginning, when I wrote the script, I wanted to be more austere just because of the style of Munro. For me, my personality and my character are very baroque. So I tried to avoid that, and tried to make a drama, which is not my natural inclination. I’m trying to control myself in the sense of not [having] Julieta singing, you know? Not to use humor –because during the rehearsals there was a lot of humor, but at the end of the day I abandoned that. I tried to avoid all these elements that identify me but at the end, Chavela Vargas [whose song “Si no te vas” closes the film] came to my mind as the best singer to talk about to be abandoned. I don’t think anyone has sung about the abandoned woman the way Chavela Vargas has. I don’t know if anyone ever saw her on stage but she sort of became this priestess of the abandoned woman. And the lyrics of her song can be a continuation of what Emma Suárez’s character is saying in that last scene: “Si tu te vas en ese mismo instante muero yo.” If you leave, in that precise moment, I die. It was a way of also to complete the dialogue and to end the movie.