Pedro Almodóvar has been dancing with the idea of directing an English-language film for decades, but he’s closer than ever to getting there. “I think I’ll make it sooner or later,” the Spanish director told IndieWire via Zoom from his Madrid apartment earlier this month. “I should be more honest about my condition.”
That admission comes just months after “A Handbook for Housekeepers,” the adaptation of Lucía Berlin’s short stories that Almodóvar spent years hoping to make, fell apart just months before production began with Cate Blanchett. A series of complications led Almodóvar to cancel the production, leaving the rights to the project with Blanchett’s production company.
Now, Almodóvar is re-emerging with another dive into English with “Strange Way of Life,” a touching gay western short starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal that follows his initial journey into the language with Tilda Swinton’s short “The Human Voice.” in 2020. Almodóvar is beaming with his new project, and already has two more in the works, but the collapse of the one he planned to do next still bothers him.
“Even now, it’s very painful for me to think about it,” said Almodóvar. “I’d been discussing it with Cate all year. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I was not afraid of languages. I was afraid of the many locations, of the many actresses. I wasn’t sure how much time they would give me to try.
Since the film was a Spanish production, he would have been forced to recreate many of the American scenes on a soundstage in Madrid, a process made especially challenging because the director micromanages every detail of every frame. “That scared me,” he said. “I was just thinking to myself that I had to oversee everything in a bigger studio and I thought it was going to be a nightmare. I knew the honest thing to do was write Cate and tell her I was very sorry, but I couldn’t do it.
After touting the plan himself for over two years, he seemed shocked by the outcome. “I know it’s my fault,” he said, unprompted. “Maybe I could have thought of that sooner, but you know, I haven’t had much time.”
That’s the silver lining of the whole ordeal, of course: At age 73, Almodóvar remains in the midst of his most fertile creative period. He made his most personal film with 2019’s ‘Pain and Glory’, earned an Oscar nomination and directed Cocteau’s experimental adaptation ‘The Human Voice’ in the early months of the pandemic when few productions could chart a path to follow. He dug up diaries of his cinephile habits during the lockdown and dusted off old scripts. He steered his muse, Penelope Cruz, to an Oscar nomination with his powerful post-Franco trauma indictment “Parallel Mothers,” attacking a sensitive subject he’s avoided for years.
And “Strange Form of Life” allowed him to explore a dormant American genre that he’s adored from afar since his early filmmaking days. “I was interested in doing things that had never been done in the West before,” he said.
Almodovar shot “Strange Way of Life” in the scorching heat of Almería, Spain, last summer, with the same sets that Sergio Leone used for “Once Upon a Time in the West”. However, the short plays less like an homage to spaghetti westerns than like the sort of warming blend of romance and violence that has been at the heart of Almodovar’s work since “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
The story stars Pascal as Silva, a former gunslinger who tracks down his old lover, Sheriff Jake (Hawke). The couple once dreamed of living together on a ranch hidden from the world; now, closer to middle age, they find themselves in more disturbing circumstances: Silva’s son has been accused of murder and it is up to Sheriff Jake to track down the criminal, but that doesn’t stop him from reuniting with his old lover, the night before work. The ensuing drama is poignant and personal, but ignites an erotic chemistry between the actors that seems almost subversive because of the two movie stars at its core.
Pascal found time for the role between the busy production schedules of ‘The Mandalorian’ and ‘The Last of Us’, the confluence of which made him one of the biggest stars working today. “I think he really shows a range of logs that he can hit that people haven’t given him yet,” Almodovar said. “I hope the audience can appreciate it.”
Pascal told IndieWire via email that he first encountered Almodovar’s work when his parents took him to see “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” in 1988, when he was 12 years old. They finally met 30 years later in New York when Almodovar was in town to be honored at the MOMA gala and went to see Pascal in a Broadway production of “King Lear.”
After the show, the director launched the western backstage. “I loved the idea of Pedro taking on an era of cinema in a place that encapsulates the physical history of some of our most beloved and rebellious westerns,” Pascal said. After successful businesses in recent years, he has welcomed the opportunity to work on a smaller scale. “There’s something so much more intimate about being under the singularity of someone’s vision,” he said. “Even more so when it’s a vision that has had such an influence on your creative inspiration.”
The sexuality of the character stands out as Pascal was particularly discreet towards him. “Strange Way of Life” isn’t graphic – unless you count the fleeting shot of Pascal’s butt – but the men share a series of tender moments, physical and otherwise, that require some commitment given Almodovar’s fixation on the trial process.
It goes without saying that he and Hawke make a compelling match. “I don’t envision sexual chemistry as something to approach,” Pascal said. “It’s just about playing the character. Pedro placed his trust in us to inhabit the story as he felt that much of the work had been accomplished through casting. I think there’s a disarming, playful sensuality to everything Pedro does, so it’s exciting to enter that world. It also helped to have a good scene partner like Ethan.
Hawke, who is straight, mocked the connotations of his bedroom scene with Pascal. “I did a show in 1991 where Steve Zahn and I made out, so, you know, I was always game for fun,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve done love scenes with so many wonderful actresses and they’re always so hard. Human intimacy is a very difficult thing to photograph. It starts to be about bodies and then it can be a bit soulless. … I know Pedro thought a lot about what he was trying to communicate to the audience. He always tries to understand the story he wants to tell.
It’s a stark contrast to the approach he once described for “Brokeback Mountain,” another film that almost became his first US project before he walked away. In that case, Almodovar told IndieWire last year, he felt the tale of two cowboys involved in an affair needed to be more carnal than he thought was possible in an American film. At the time, he described “Strange Way of Life” as his “answer” to “Brokeback Mountain,” though now he wished to clarify that he wasn’t referring to sex per se. “It had more to do with a question asked in that film about what two men would do together on a ranch,” Almodovar said, referring to a scene in which the two men dream of a future together that will never come true. “I see this film as sort of an answer to that question.”
Almodovar has a lot to say about his approach to sexless sexuality. “The film is full of these moments that are erotic without being sexually explicit or dealing with any kind of physical nudity,” she said. “There’s a certain intensity, these pauses, that are very erotic and carnal to me.”
The film is littered with references to westerns that Almodovar has treasured for years. A flashback between the two men, in which they shoot wine barrels and shrug off some prostitutes for their own agendas, stems from Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” but also envisioned Hawke’s character as an extension of the archetypes in John Sturges’ films ‘Last Train Out of Gun Hill’ and ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’. John Ford loomed for the spectacular vistas, and Almodovar said he thought a lot about “The Searchers” and “Cheyenne Autumn,” as well as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Pascal is wearing a green jacket (supplied by Saint Laurent, who also helped produce the film) which serves as a nod to the one worn by Jimmy Stewart in “The Bend.” Other costumes were inspired by “El Dorado”, “Red River” and “Veracruz”.
For Almodovar, these details gave me a toolbox to build his way into the genre. “When the Western came into the picture, it was really its aesthetic, a language,” she said. “It’s a very macho or masculine genre. With the exception of something like “Johnny Guitar,” women are always like supporting characters. The film takes that flaw and turns it into a strength: the perceived homoerotic tension of the western written in a big way without an ounce of repression. “The characters are more naked with their words than they would be if you saw their bodies,” Almodovar said. “Of course, I’m not thinking of a puritanical audience. I never am.
The scope of the short film helped Almodovar feel like he’d cracked the code of what he needs to do English-language projects. “I can make a film in English, but it should be an intimate and contemporary story, so I can go buy everything I need for the set with minimal locations – three or four – and not use many actors so I can have time to try,” he said.
When pressed, he revealed he actually had new plans for another English-language project scheduled to shoot this year, though he was reticent to go into too much detail and bring him bad luck. “I have an English script that’s almost done,” he said. “It’s a film very similar to what I described. It has three characters, is a contemporary story, takes place in New York. There are many dialogues in the story. Actors talk a lot. It’s more difficult as a film in a way, but it’s more accessible for me as a director.”
He smiled. “I can’t say more,” she said, then added that she was writing another script set in Spain. “I’m working a lot, but that’s the way I like to be,” she said. “I’m not complaining. I’m very happy.”
“Strange Way of Life” will premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing it in the United States this fall.