We talk to the cult Spanish director about his acclaimed new movie

Over the past three decades, Pedro Almodovar has brought the Spanish film industry to international attention. Based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, ‘The Skin I Live In’ tells the story of a man driven to desperate measures after the death of his daughter. Brogen Hayes travelled to meet the director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to talk Frankenstein, myth and monster.

The Skin I Live In was shown in competition at Cannes. How did that feel?

PA: When it was proposed for me to come to Cannes, I was in the middle of editing the movie and I didn’t think about anything else, just the movie. At that time I dodn’t know the type of movie that I had, so I said no. When Thierry [Fremaux – Artistic Director of the Cannes Film Festival] saw the movie and really wanted it in the Selection, I was lazy to think about coming in Competition, but when they decided that they liked the idea I said OK. It’s better to be shown In Competition. It’s more exciting for everyone, for you, for me and for the audience.

This project was in development for quite a few years. Why did it take so long?

PA: In the novel, what I really was interested in was one situation. The rest – when I read the novel through the eyes of an adaptor – there were many things that didn’t work for me and for the script. So let’s say that I was – during all these years – fighting against the novel. Until I forgot it completely and I tried to make my own story. It was very difficult to build a character like Robert, for him to be believable, but yet people can be horrified by this character and not find him grotesque. Then it took time to make everything believable, because it is a very unique situation. My challenge, as the writer, is to make the situation more believable. In this case, the situation of Vera and the situation of the doctor was very difficult to make believable.

Did you see Robert as a modern Dr Frankenstein?

PA: I can’t really do anything but recognise that there is a Frankenstein presence in the film. It’s not something that I was thinking about when I was writing the script, but very clearly, it’s there. There is this image of Vera with this map work of horrible scars across her body – it’s a new Frankenstein. I think that the myth of Frankenstein falls quite naturally into the context of the film and I accept Frankenstein as my companion, I am sure he is going to be with me for the next few months. The idea of Frankenstein – not the movie. I love the movie, but it was not in my mind. Really this was not a reference that I used while I was making this movie, I tried to make it in my own way. I dreamed to make a silent movie in black and white because I admire Fritz Lang and the silent movie so much. In my mind I was trying to make like a silent Fritz Lang movie but I thought it was too risky. There is enough risk in this movie, so I was a little afraid. I like to take risks when making a movie but you need to have an idea of the risk you are taking. You need to assess it. I am aware of the risk that I take in any film that I make, I have always taken risks, I accept that and I am aware of the consequences.

As a film maker, how much do you feel like Prometheus yourself?

PA: Well first of all, Prometheus is a Titan, a kind of super man, very close to being one of the gods of Olympus. Now I am fascinated by the myth of Prometheus and as you know, it inspired Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein. For her, Frankenstein was kind of new Prometheus because Prometheus was expelled from Olympus because he dared to steal the fire from the gods and give it to mankind. Frankenstein – through electricity – created a new being and so, in a way, that was kin to Prometheus. I think that the image of Prometheus – not so much Prometheus bound in chains, but Prometheus as an image – is one of a super man, someone who is very generous, very giving, but someone who is a great creator in a way. I would never be so pretentious as to call myself Prometheus, so please don’t put those words in my mouth! There is a part of Prometheus that I have to say I do identify with sometimes and that is when the gods chained Prometheus to the rock and condemned him to have liver eternally consumed by a devouring vulture and his liver constantly regenerating and the whole thing continuing. At times, I feel chained up and devoured by our limitations as human beings and other times I feel like vultures are pecking away and devouring my flesh.

Is the film a comment on what people do with their wealth and their power?

PA: No, it’s more an abuse of power than an abuse of wealth I would say. The abuse that is perpetrated by Antonio’s character is more the abuse that is perpetrated by the powerful. The commit these crimes and abuses in many different ways; they buy justice for a million dollars, they build prisons like Guantanamo Bay – that they fill up with prisoners who are not treated like human beings, they don’t even have the most basic conditions in which a human being can live. Unfortunately in our society today, I think there many examples of abuse of power, and massive abuses at that. Sometimes we participate in this unconsciously, through our indifference. I think in our European society today we don’t lack solidarity, but I am not sure how much it matters to us, for example, what is going on in Africa. I don’t know how much we really care… Antonio’s abuse, or the abuse of Antonio’s character is an abuse of a very concrete, specific nature and that is through conducting scientific experiments – which might be considered very legitimate science – doing everything to change a person’s identity. I don’t believe you can go further than that. For me, that’s the abuse to end all abuses. It’s the most severe abuse that I can conceive of, and it’s an abuse of power. That abuse can be perpetrated through something that is – in and of itself – perceived as good. Through transgenesis you could envisage the end of major diseases, of deadly diseases. So, I am not saying that science is something that’s bad in itself, in the same way that electricity is not bad intrinsically; but if you use electricity for the electric chair, then I have to say that I am against electricity in that sense. If you use science in the way that Antonio [his character] uses it in the film, then I have to say I am against that science, but electricity and transgenesis are major scientific discoveries, they are huge achievements of the human race; it is just that humanity has an enormous capacity for evil. It all depends on how you use these technologies.

Is the film a comment on the dangers of plastic surgery?

PA: In this particular case, in the film abuse is being perpetrated by a surgeon, so the surgeon is the guilty one, but I am not judging cosmetic surgery as such. If you are trying to present me as some great moralist, I have to say when I am writing a film I am anything but. I just want my characters to come to life; I want them to be people who are real and believable. I want the spectators to understand those characters. I think that cosmetic surgery is a sign of our times. I think that often when there is abuse that abuse comes from the very clients themselves; people who end up entering a kind of vicious circle in search of beauty and that leads, sometimes, to quite grotesque extremes. That really falls under the category of your own self-control and the decisions you make for yourself. I think that surgery in and of itself is a good thing. If you have some kind of abnormal growth or something that’s really unfortunate, really ugly then yes, if surgery can help you with that, then that’s wonderful. The same thing if you have some sort of deformity or malformation. I also think it’s acceptable to seek, if not eternal youth, then the extension or the prolongation of youth. If surgery allows you to enjoy being 60 in today’s world – where 60 is what is was to be 40 20 years ago – then this is very welcome progress. Anything that prolongs youth – and I don’t just mean the external appearance of yout, I mean youth from within, visceral youth, emotional youth, physical youth – is a wonderful thing. I would prefer to live to the age of 90 than to die at 60 or 50. I think that what’s important is the control that you apply to your use of that kind of surgery. I have to say, as a director; I prefer that my actors not be touched up through cosmetic surgery procedures. For me, the emotions that I conceive of in my characters really need to be represented by faces that reflect their true ages. You reach a stage, I think, where if you continue along these lines, then any attempt to make a period film will suddenly look completely improbable. If you were to make Visconti’s Il Gattopardo today, with the actresses that we have today, nobody’s mother would look old enough to be their parent – the mother looks younger than the daughters. It’s funny if you make science fiction or movie that happens in the future, but not for a period movie. I think that today we find it a kind of anachronism in the faces of the people that we see. If you do a 15th century film, people pay close attention to the furniture and the décor, but I think – as a director – you have to pay very close attention to the faces of the actors. If these faces don’t look like 15th century, 14th century or 18th century faces then the effect is very anachronistic. I am very interested in literature and the big novels from the 19th century – and perhaps I will make one one day – then it is difficult to find the right person, that they really look like that period. I would like to make a film about the three women in the life of Elvis Presley. The wife, the daughter and the granddaughter, they look exactly the same age. I remember a photo of them on the cover of Vanity Fair and really, Priscilla looked younger than the granddaughter and I think that’s wonderful to make a comedy, but not if you try to make Madame Bovary.

What was it like working with Antonio Banderas again after such a long time?

PA: I always felt very close to Antonio, he is like part of my family. He was like my younger brother. In the 80s, he was the actor of that moment that represented me better. I had many Spanish actresses, it was easier for me to find good actresses for me, but the male actors – at least for me – were more difficult. He had that kind of passion and desire that I loved in the 80s. We have a very deep deep link. Of course he went to the United States and created a family, he created a career and all that. I was living in Spain and I only saw him when I went to America – every two years or so. Let’s just say that you can love someone and have a relationship with them, even without seeing them, without talking every day with that person. There is a place, an emotional place that we have together and this is part of our lives, but it is in our memories and that creates a strong relationship. We met on stage, I remember he was playing in a classical play but he was one of the extras. It was a crowd scene and he was one of the extras. I liked him specifically and I was looking for dark haired boys for a movie so I called him and we talked for a while. The first thing I ever said to him, he remembers, was ‘You could play major romantic leads’ [laughs]. I asked him to be in my movie after a short audition. [This film] was easy. Of course he grew up – he was not the same Antonio – but he kept inside the same Antonio that I live with in the past – a very happy person, very playful – and also, very importantly, he wanted to make this movie. I really appreciate that from the beginning he treated me as the only director on the set.

The mother is always a strong character in your films. Can you talk about this?

PA: When we are talking about creators and creation, I have to say that motherhood is one of the best examples of that concept. Motherhood is a theme that is of enormous interest to me, I think you can approach it from any number of different perspectives and it lends itself to all genres; you can make a melodrama a comedy, a horror film, a thriller, a gangster movie about the theme of motherhood. Really, you can do anything with it. Now you have to add the figure of the surrogate mother, who, as a plot element, is extremely interesting. I’m sure that someone is making a film about that, because it is really very appealing to me. I took some notes about that. There are not good mothers and bad mothers. I think a mother is someone that is so strong that remains the same. For me, I think that a mother is the same, however you look at her. Someone like Ma Baker, who is the head of a gang comprising her own sons and who sleeps with them, as a mother is exactly the same as Mildred Pierce who will defend her daughter from committing the errors that she committed in her life at all cost. They are equally fascinating as figures. A good mother is the same thing as a bad mother, it’s the relationship… I think that women, unlike men, have this relationship to another human being who is their child that is quite unique. It has many many different manifestations, all of which are completely fascinating to me. Angelica Huston in The Drifters, for example, stealing her son’s life savings, cutting his throat and then crying as a mother… She has killed her son, she is crying about that but she loves life more than her son. At the same time time her own survival kicks in. She is the same as all the mothers from the Latin American melodramas. In my movie the character of the mother is a wild mother. Marillia talks about having the madness within her. She is an absolutely ferocious mother who has given birth to these two sons who are completely wild, completely ferocious men. Each of whom, behaving very violently, but in a very different way. The family is a completely vicious family and the mother talks about this as having come from within her. She didn’t need to tell Antonio’s character that she was his mother because she was there from the very beginning.

Words – Brogen Hayes

The Skin I Live In is now showing in Irish cinemas