Celluloid Diaries: Interview with Alejandro Amenábar

Friday, June 2, 2017

Interview with Alejandro Amenábar

Alejandro Amenábar

Back in April, I had the chance to have a long chat with Alejandro Amenábar at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF). He's the director of some of the best and smartest movies Spain has ever produced, including Tesis, Abre Los Ojos, The Others, Mar Adentro, Agora, and Regression. We talked about the entirety of his career, and I tested his knowledge of Belgian cinema.

Most first movies are autobiographical. To what extend are the characters of Tesis an extension of you? I already know you were still a film student back then, so it doesn't come as a surprise that this is the world in which you set your film.

A few days ago I had a meeting with some of the friends I had at the university. One of them is exactly the character of Chema. Also, Tesis had to do with university life because that was what I was experiencing at that time, and the people at the university lend us the building to shoot the movie. I was a bad student, though. I got bored most of the time, because the degree wasn't properly orientated in Madrid, so I went a lot to the cafeteria where I met most of my friends. We all wanted to make movies, so that's what we did.

Do you resemble the character of Angéla, played by Ana Torrent?

Her character is at a subway and there's a corpse in the middle of the railway that she doesn't want to look at. That's something that really happened to me when I was a student. I was always reluctant to any kind of image related to violence or blood. It's something I simply cannot look at.

Tesis is a movie about filming violence and the moment of death, but it brilliantly avoids showing anything. Angela dials the brightness of the image to zero, so as an audience, we can hear what is happening but can't see it. This happens time and time again throughout the film. Was that a statement you made? That it's better to suggest violence than to show it?

When you think of horror, suspense and mystery, many directors will tell you it's better to hide the monster. In that sense, I was certain I didn't want to show the images. But what really got my attention was that we started to have shows on TV related to violence, and, more in particular, the reaction of that audience. For me, it was much more interesting to focus on the faces of the actors looking at those images than looking at the images themselves.

I watched the extras on the DVD of Tesis, and one of your actors, Fele Martinez, complained about the way you directed your actors.

I was an asshole, basically. It wasn't until my third movie that I really took actors seriously. Until that time I was one of those directors who was only focused on their shots. Nowadays, I think that the actor is my best special effect and the most important thing in the movie. I work everything around the performance.

Your third movie was The Others, so I suppose it was Nicole Kidman who taught you about working with actors?

What happened with that movie was that the producers were committed to shooting in English, which I didn't speak back then. That's why I tried to learn everything there was to know about directing actors, so I read a couple of books. It's really not such a big thing, just a couple of rules you have to follow. One of those rules is never to impose your point of view. It's about letting them play. An actor is almost like a child. They need to have fun. Of course, you need to have clear ideas when working with actors or actresses. Sometimes it's as simple as saying, “What do you think if...” It's a question of manners. I try not to be rude or have big discussions in front of the crew. If I need to discuss something, I talk to them privately. It's just a matter of respect. They're playing with their minds and their emotions.

The part of Angéla in Tesis was written with Penélope Cruz in mind. How come she didn't play the part of Angéla but ended up in Abre Los Ojos instead?

We went to visit her, and she really liked the script. But first she had some other movie to do, and I guess, when you're making your first movie, you're kind of reluctant. You can't really trust these guys. She didn't know who I was and what I wanted, and she was pretty concerned about the violent nature of the subject. So I think she decided to wait. But on the other hand, we got Ana Torrent, who's an excellent actress. She's famous in Spain for having been in El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive). The power of her gaze is amazing. In my second movie I got the chance to work with Penélope. We always say it would be great to work together again, but it always depends on the kind of project and if we got a character that would fit her as an actress.

Many critics argued that Abre Los Ojos was too complicated. Is this the reason why your next movies were much simpler?

I already wanted to make something much simpler, almost minimalistic, while I was shooting that movie. Abre Los Ojos is a complicated plot with these laps in time, which is something I don't usually do. So I thought, okay, let's have a bunch of actors and one location and let's see what happens. That was The Others. I always try to work in totally different ways for my next movie, to refresh myself.

With your second film, you already received the dubious honor of an American remake, luckily for you by a good director. What's the experience like to see your own film remade by somebody else?

It's weird. Mainly because I had many doubts about Abre Los Ojos. We wrote it very, very fast and after we made the first cut, my producer said, “Let's release it.” We never had a second cut. Once they told me Cameron Crowe was going to direct Vanilla Sky and Tom Cruise wanted to play the lead, I knew I wasn't going to be involved in the process. Luckily, they didn't try to make the typical stupid remake, but they didn't change the elements I wanted to change.

I suppose you did get to work with Nicole Kidman via Tom Cruise?

Yeah, Tom was really interested in Abre Los Ojos, so he established the relationship between Nicole and I. She loved the script of The Others, so I took the opportunity to have someone of her talent involved in the movie. Even though Tom Cruise co-produced and Nicole Kidman played the lead, they were all coming to Spain. It was weird, but somehow it worked.

Do you agree that The Others is in many ways your "remake" of The Innocents?

With The Others, I explored the genre before the story. I wanted to do a movie about haunted houses, and one of my references was The Innocents. Then there's this movie that I loved since I was a child called The Changeling by Peter Medak. I put these haunted houses films together, and I had a little trick for the end. The Innocents wasn't successful when it was made, but it works so well nowadays. It's just beautiful and still scary. I had a scene in The Others which was a total homage to that movie. If you saw that scene, you would have said, “That comes from The Innocents.” But it slowed down the pacing, and Tom Cruise said, “Your movie doesn't need any homage, so take it out.”

alejandro amenábar interview

Let's talk about Mar Adentro, which was based on a true story. How much of that story did you change to suit your needs?

Most of it is true because the real story fascinated me. I was very impressed with this guy who was able to write a book with his mouth. Once I started researching it, I learned he not only had a relationship with this woman who helped him die, but there was also this journalist who fell in love with him, and they had this impossible love affair. I found it fascinating, because she was ill as well. At that moment, I decided to make the movie. Because we didn't want to offend anyone, we had to change this woman's job, and instead of having several nephews and nieces, we only had one. It was a question of numbers. In case of what really happened and what the guy wanted, the film was based on real events.

I read that Mar Adentro helped you deal with death.

As we get older, we have to face death, because some relative or friend dies. Around that time, I had a girlfriend who died. You have to deal with it, but somehow we don't want to talk about it. I wanted to make a movie about something that could happen to me, because I always try to be in the position of the protagonist, but I also wanted to make a movie about death. The more we talk about it and see it, the more it becomes part of life. It's healthier. I think it's part of my life and it's part of my movies as well.

One of the most fascinating things about Mar Adentro is how it defends the right of this man to take his life, but at the same time it points out how his life gives meaning to the people around him.

I tried to be respectful, but at the same time I had my point. If I were in Ramȯn Sampedro's position, the real guy, who could actually develop some kind of movement in his arms, I wouldn't have chosen dying. But I can understand he wants to and I think we have to respect that.

As opposed to Tesis, this time you do show the moment of death. In fact, you focus on it for at least a minute.

There was a point where the producer was thinking about taking out that moment. However, the whole movie is about this scene. He actually recorded his death because he wanted the audience to see it. It was also hard for Javier to perform, so we decided to keep it.

Mar Adentro won the Oscar for best foreign feature. Was that an important award for you to win?

It's an iconic award and you have a lot of pressure. You have to go to meetings and showings and promotions and Q&As. It's torture. You really want to win. So the moment you get it is like a relieve. And because it's such a powerful figure, everyone who comes to your house wants a picture with the Oscar.

Sometimes you compose your own soundtracks. What is your process like? Do you get help from others?

I love to put music to my short films. For my first movies, I did it alone, but I always try to work with someone because I don't know music. I play by ear. The help of technology is vital to get it done. For my last two movies, I had these two talented people composing for me – Dario Marianelli for Agora and Roque Baños for Regression. Roque Baños allowed me to see his creative process, and it was a pleasure to see how he does it.

alejandro amenábar influences

That brings us to Agora, which is about the emergence of science. How did you become interested in that subject?

I was very fascinated by science at that time. It's not that I'm not anymore, but back then, I was obsessed with astrophysics and Einstein's relativity theory, something I hated as a child. I read it in a spiritual way. I wanted to portray the world of scientists and priests, because these guys were trying to get to the truth. Religion was like a mirror; it didn't allow us to look through. My research led me to Newton and Einstein and Galileo and Copernicus, and I wanted to link them all together in a mini-series. And then I found Hypatia. Her character was amazing, as was this period of time, so we tried to focus on that. I re-watched Agora a couple of months ago because it was screened in the Astrophysics Museum of Tenerife, and I was invited. I couldn't really remember the movie, so I was able to see it from a detached point of view. I had the impression it was about what is happening nowadays, with Alexandria being present-day Europe and the empire being the United States. It's about cultural decadence and about something emerging that isn't good.

One of the things that shines about Agora is the scale. It's big, it's open, it's wide, and you spend a lot of time outside; you don't cheat by going indoors. Were some of these sets computer-generated?

Most of it was built because I wanted the actors and extras to interact with real places and sets. Of course, we had a few digital images for things we couldn't do physically. That's why most of the budget was spent on sets.

Almost all of your movies take place inside the head of your characters. Knowledge and the unconscious are key. You also come across as someone introverted, someone who prefers to stay in the confines of his own mind and read a book instead of traveling and experiencing the world.

I wouldn't say I'm introverted, but I'm the guy who likes being in his office and look at the sky and think and read. Sometimes you can see that in my movies. I'm interested in the human mind, in psychology, because at the end of the day, everything has to do with our minds. I like to explore that, even when I'm playing with monsters and mysteries.

Your latest movie, Regression, is about collective hysteria, about an entire village believing in something that is a complete fabrication. Have you ever considered that this psychological effect is similar to what we experience in a movie theater?

Watching a movie is a hypnotic experience and my job as a director is to hypnotize the audience, to get their attention. It's increasingly difficult nowadays because we have different screens; we're watching a movie but at the same time we have tablets and mobiles.

The lighting in Regression is very different from your other movies. How and when do you choose the lighting and the colors?

I'm a very bad photographer. I like to think I know where to place a camera and I know what I want a scene to look like, so I say, “The camera goes there.” Sometimes I mention a lens. In terms of color and texture, though, I'm a total disaster, so I surround myself with the best professionals and I allow them to put their talent into the movie. The most I can say is, “Can we have less light?”

alejandro amenábar movies

Let's move to the end of our interview. I was inspired by a short movie you made, Vale, which I liked very much. It's about a man who tries to impress a girl with his movie knowledge. Today, I'd like to test your knowledge of Belgian movies. Do you think you're up to it?

(laughs) I don't think so.

Name a Belgian movie that is based on the works of Charles Bukowski.

There's no way I could know that.

The answer is Crazy Love.

Is that based on Charles Bukowski? Interesting.

Few Belgian movies are available on DVD or Blu-Ray outside of Belgium. Can you name three?

You got me there. I'm sure I know some. I should have prepared myself.

The best known one is Man Bites Dog. Have you heard of it?


I'll buy you a copy. Name one Belgian movie that was nominated at the Oscars for Best Foreign Feature.

I'm gonna fuck it up. Okay. I couldn't. I'm so sorry.

As a music lover, you should look into Farinelli.

Farinelli? Is that Belgian? I've seen that one.

Good for you. Bad for Belgian cinema. Thank you for coming to the BIFFF this year.

interview alejandro amenábar

To end this interview with Alejandro Amenábar, I'm inviting you to watch his short film Vale. Amenábar made this 12-minutes long short film in 2015 and it's the most charming film you'll see all month. Also, it stars Dakota Johnson from Fifty Shades of Grey. Enjoy!


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