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Almodóvar reveals how he makes a movie

John DeFore

NEW YORK In discussing his new film "Broken Embraces," Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar weaves entertainingly in and out of English beginning his answers in the language of his interviewer, then slipping into his native tongue when concepts get slippery, often speaking for quite a while before letting his translator catch up to him.

So it's doubly intriguing when the arthouse star, who had seemingly rejected the prospect of making a movie in English, admits he has reconsidered: He's too idiosyncratic and fond of his own methods to submit to a Hollywood studio but he discovered a book he might adapt for an independent English-language production, allowing him to work with American and British actors he admires. (Meanwhile, a theater company led by Bartlett Sher is translating Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" into an American musical.)

The director wouldn't share the name of the book he hopes to adapt, but he was happy to discuss the inner workings of films he has already made and his worries about keeping up the pace, as well as working on "Broken Embraces," which opens Friday.

American-Statesman: 'Broken Embraces,' whose protagonist is a filmmaker who loses his sight, brings to mind an old conversation-starter: If you had to choose, would you live the rest of your life blind or deaf?

Almodovar: Oh my God, this is an awful choice. (He laughs.) ... You know, I'm half-deaf now. I only hear from one ear, as a result of chicken pox. In '55 in Spain, doctors weren't using antibiotics properly, and this is a result. But I direct more using my ear than my eyesight. If the actor's voice has the correct ring to it, that means the entire personification of the character is in line.

I have actually thought about this, about what I would do if I were blind. I would direct theater, very text-based theater on a stage that is very minimalist.

You wouldn't become a writer, as Mateo (the main character in 'Broken Embraces') does?

When I was younger, actually, my first vocation was writing. I always imagined that when I reached 45, I would write a great piece of work, a novel, because that was my passion. But when I reached 45, I realized I didn't really have that great novelist in me. I absolutely can invent stories, but literature is something else. It was sort of a painful discovery for me, but I had to realize it was like that. I think I can write a good script, but I don't think I could write the type of novels I really love.

You've discussed worrying about losing your filmmaking stamina as you get older, and noted that some older directors like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen can keep going in part because of the people around them — regular crews that stay with them from movie to movie for years.

Absolutely, that helps a lot. I don't have it in Spain. I've only found, in 17 movies, two people like that. One is the editor (Jose Salcedo) and one is the composer (Alberto Iglesias). The rest I change with every movie. And that gives me a lot of work. It's maybe that I'm too weird or too personal to work with. I'm sure that I'm a nightmare for the production designer. In the end, I do it myself, in all the movies.

In the case of Eastwood, he's very lucky to find the right scripts. In my case, I do my own scripts. And I do it a different way from Woody Allen. My scripts, I live with the stories for years. My stories really accompany me, and so coming to the final version of a story is kind of like a long pregnancy process.

I can write very quick, and can have 200 pages in a month. But you know, the stories need some time to cook. They have to take in the flavors, just like food does. You can force that on the story, if you have someone asking you to be done in a month, but you know that there are all sorts of layers that won't be developed if you don't give it the time it needs.

I need time, and now, at my age, I'm frightened that I will not have enough time to make all the stories that are in my desk. That is more what I fear, rather than the problem (of blindness) Mateo has.

Your films are so carefully put together, it's hard to believe it when you talk about how much improvisation you do on the set — that sometimes you write something five or 10 minutes before it is shot.

I do, very often. You know, that for me is very easy, to improvise with the actors and with the dialogue. The reason it works is because the plan for the shoot is so carefully set out that you can build on top of that. And also the fact that you've been working on those characters for a long time, so there's a ton of situations and moments that you've lived with them that are not necessarily in the script, but that you carry with you.

I don't know how it works here, but for us, I don't get my set — everything together — until the very last minute. So I finally have the chairs and the sofas and pillows, and the curtains, and everything comes alive, and the situation generates things and you have to adapt to that.

For example, when we shot the sex scene between Penelope (Cruz) and the older character, Ernesto (played by Jose Luis Gomez), we had to construct a set for it at the last minute, and I suddenly came up with the idea of having a sheet covering the lovers, referring to a painting by Magritte. We had not rehearsed this, and suddenly the sheet started to take on the characteristics of a shroud.

At the end of the scene, they've been making love for six hours and he finally collapses on top of her. She tries to slink away, but his hand remains on her breast until she frees herself from it. And when I saw that image of the hand, that gave me the idea of death, and I thought it would be wonderful for him to pretend being dead. When she comes back and thinks that he might be dead, that was completely new, not in the script. I realized that I could underline the duplicity of both of these characters: He's going to pretend to be dead, and she's going to have this moment where she sits down, takes a cigarette, and starts thinking about what her next step is.

Would you say something that substantial is improvised on many of your films?

Yes, on a lot of them. That is so exciting, at the last minute when you find a new idea. The idea is always good, because it is the result of something you have been working on for many years. But you only have everything together at that one moment.

The shoot is always alive, and you are working with and against something that could get out of your hands. You have to be able to control it and make it play in your favor.