Spain’s greatest living director, Pedro Almodóvar, was recently in SoHo at the Crosby Hotel to promote his latest film, “I’m So Excited!,” an erotic airplane disaster comedy which opened in U.S. theaters on June 28, 2013. He was late, so I idly looked out the window and spotted him immediately by his trademark spiky anemone of grey hair as he emerged from a car.
Also at the press event were “I’m So Excited!” cast members Carlos Areces, Blanca Suárez and Miguel Ángel Silvestre. Areces nearly steals the movie as a campy airline attendant who along with his fellow flight attendants (Javier Cámara and Raúl Arévalo) lip synch and dance along to the Pointer Sister disco classic, from which the movie gets its American title, to distract passengers from the possibility their plane may crash.
Almodóvar is talkative, warm and very funny. He resembles a sort of lovable hipster Teddy bear. He spoke English, but when he got excited or his explanations became more complicated, which was often, he reverted to Spanish, which was translated by a dark-haired young woman who sat to his left.
In the film, which is almost entirely in the tight quarters of an airplane in first class – coach travelers are drugged asleep to avoid a condition called “economy class syndrome” – are an eclectic and shady group. They include a corrupt banker (José Luis Torrijo); a jittery psychic who is also a virgin (Lola Dueñas); a druggy bridegroom (Silvestre); a powerful dominatrix (longtime leading lady Cecilia Roth); an actor juggling two lovers (Guillermo Toledo); and a mystery man who is possibly an assassin (José María Yazpik).
The movie opens on a high note with cameos by Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas as married airport workers whose negligence causes the plane’s later technical difficulties.
Almost all the action in the film takes place in a broken plane that flies in circles and cannot find a place to land. It sounds like a metaphor for Spain and its current political and financial meltdown.
Here are edited highlights from the press conference:
Q: How does the Pointer Sisters song fit into your life? Does it have any particular significance?
Pedro Almodóvar: I love it. I knew when I was young that I loved them. It’s good disco music. It was the perfect song for them, for the stewards. At the beginning, unconsciously, I didn’t realize that this movie is a kind of tribute to the 80’s in Spain. That decade that we found had absolute freedom in every sense, because Franco died five years before and there was a new democracy, everything changed for the best. I miss that feeling. I was young, and I could enjoy that moment very deeply.
How did you come up with the idea for the film?
I remember the first pages, and that was the origin of this. Sometimes at home, in solitude, I write for fun. I don’t write with a precise vision. I write for writing as a kind of exercise. So I started for fun, and I wrote the sequence of the cockpit. It’s liberating in a sense when you’re not bound to a story or bound to a character, you’re just doing it for the sake of it. The result was very entertaining so I moved from the cockpit into the galley and wrote some of the sequences in the galley.
At some point, I showed it to my brother Augustine [who’s also his producing partner] and my secretary, and they loved it and encouraged me to make it. I tried to make this comedy and keep on writing, but the real challenge was going from a comic whim that I just did to entertain myself to actually build a structure and a story that has substance and that makes sense. That, of course, took a lot longer.
Did you want to do a lighter film than some of your previous films?
Yes. When I finished the script, I didn’t like it, especially all the parts of the passengers, so it took me a lot of time to want to continue the metaphor. Fortunately, we were living in a crisis and that gave me the idea of these people. It was funny but also really metaphorical about the Spanish situation where we were turning around without knowing where we’re going to land. It implies risk and danger, but we don’t know, so with that feeling in my mind, I rewrote it.
Also being on both sides, in heaven and in earth, dead or alive. That was really what gave me the ideas for the feelings. What I wanted is for [the passengers] almost to be in a cloud, in a place where they almost cannot lie.
Your early work is very funny, very comic, but then you moved into some dark, sad stories like your last film ‘The Skin I Live In” and you have emerged again in a very comic way. What are your two sides? From your films, on one hand, you have this comic side that shocks people, and then also you are someone who is possibly sad.
I’m not a sad person, and I don’t want to scandalize anyone. Both movies represent me completely, but I think one way to think about it is that I’ve been evolving. I don’t want to say I’ve been getting better because that’s not really the case, but I’m very happy that I’m not making the same kinds of films that I was making in the 80’s.
As I traversed through this so-called darker period, it was also because I was interested in these kinds of stories, but I am also quite taken and impassioned by comedy as much as I am the other ones. Just because I made a film like “The Skin I Live In,” which is such a dark and difficult film, it doesn’t mean that I’m experiencing that kind of horror in my own skin. I think as an author, I always work really hard to give my characters a happy ending so that they are better off at the end than they were in the beginning.
Talk about the cameos with Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas.
What I really wanted to do with that sequence was have this tiny little drama about the fact that she’s pregnant, and they’ve been trying for a very long time to get pregnant. So the moment when he finds out that she’s finally pregnant, it blows his mind so he has to just run off with her. To tell you an anecdote, she [Cruz] became pregnant shortly thereafter, and is now pregnant with her second child.
If you’re using this metaphor as a critique on Spanish society and how it is divided into first and second class passengers, how do you do that as someone who flies first class?
On the basis of having a big heart and feeling solidarity towards the people who have problems. Even though of course I do fly first class, that’s just sort of ancillary because I do feel like I belong to the economy class. It is how I really grew up. I came from a very humble stratum of Spanish society, so I relate to the problems of that social class. But I’m not the same guy that I was as a boy, so it is very clear for me. Even though I am in a privileged position and do not have economic problems, I do fight against this social inequality, especially because in the past five years, the gap between the rich and the poor has really grown, and I do find this quite problematic. The party that is now in power really considers me bit of a pain.
Your movies are such wonderfully rich vehicles for women. A decade ago you told me the American actress you would most like to work with is Maggie Gyllenhaal. What other American leading ladies would you like to star in your films?
There are many actresses here. Many fantastic actress, with the kind of skin that absorbs light, like Meryl Streep, of course, Glenn Close, Rooney Mara too … and Mia Wasikowska. I never know how to pronounce her name … there are many. And the two Kates, Winslet and [Cate] Blanchett.
What is your relationship with Madonna?
I have to thank her always. In 1989 when “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was nominated and it was really favored to get the Oscar but we didn’t get it, she was so nice. We didn’t know each other at the moment. At 9 in the morning the following day, she called to invite me to have lunch, and also, she was shooting “Dick Tracy,” so she invited me to the studio.
I went. Also I met Warren Beatty. It was one of my wet dreams when I was a boy. When I discovered I was gay, I saw “Splendor in the Grass,” and he was so incredibly nice also with me, Warren … we made a tour, and she showed me everything. That was really a nice detail gesture, because she didn’t need to do that, for someone who had failed the night before. It’s not that I felt like a failure, she didn’t’ care at all either…
Ever since then, I see her once or twice a year, and I have very pleasant memories with her. I think with me one of the things that happens is that she doesn’t behave as a star. She wears no makeup. We go to the movies. She gets to practice, if you like, the best of being herself with me.