Sex. Drugs. Prostitution. Pedophilia. Rape. Pedro Almodovar has been able to translate some of the most delicate subjects to the big screen with grace and humor.
But the acclaimed master of Spanish cinema — who claims he has gone so far as to demonstrate X-rated moves on an actress to show how he wanted it done on film — still maintains some modesty.
The Spanish filmmaker says there's one subject that "still makes me shudder" — sadomasochism. He explains that he once tried to incorporate that subject while writing a movie script and balked.
"As I was beginning my research I found it to be so horrifying that I erased the character from the movie, because I wasn't capable," he says. "It's like having a phobia!"
In a recent interview in Manhattan, where his latest film, "Broken Embraces," closed the New York Film Festival and where he conducted a seminar at Lincoln Center, Almodovar says he was very happy with his most recent work, again starring Penelope Cruz and which Nov. 20 in the U.S.
The movie, a combination of film noir, drama and slapstick comedy, follows Lena (Cruz), an actress who is loved by screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) and obsessively desired by a powerful businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). The story deals with death, jealousy, abuse of power, betrayal and guilt.
It's the 17th full-length feature by the successful filmmaker, who admits that not everything he has done has left him satisfied.
"There are some that I like, some that I don't like, some that I like more or less than others," he says in Spanish.
Almodovar says that after finishing a movie he doesn't watch it again, unless he catches it by chance while changing TV channels or because he needs to give a talk about it.
The Academy Award winner (best original screenplay for 2002's "Talk to Her"), whose films are watched across the world, attributes his success to the fact that his films "are very entertaining."
"It's important not to forget that films are made to entertain. That's the key," he says. "Also, well, I think there are a thousand things on which the viewer can project himself."
Passion for storytelling
Born in the small town of Calzada de Calatrava, in the Manchegan region of Spain, Almodovar talks enthusiastically about the first movies that he saw as a child.
"Man! I think the first movie that I saw was a Spanish movie called something like 'Gloria Mairena.' It was very popular in Spain, and it belongs to what we call folk cinema. It was with Juanita Reina, a diva of popular folk songs," he says, smiling at the memory.
He also remembers being 10 and getting into a movie theater with his brother Augustin to see "The Virgin Spring" by Ingmar Bergman. "It was a powerful film about a rape, and we were terrified!" he says with a laugh. "But I think I had begun to like Bergman with that film."
Before Almodovar even began to imagine a career as a filmmaker — "I was born in the least suitable place. It was like wanting to be a Martian!" — he found that he had a passion for telling stories, which were mostly inspired by movies.
He remembers being 8 and transforming the plots of movies when retelling them to his sisters. "I would give life to parallel stories," he says. "And they can recall perfectly the stories that I told them."
Initially, he wanted to become a great novelist. Later he realized that his talent lay in inventing good stories for the big screen.
As a teenager, he began to watch American films from the 1950s — such as "King Solomon's Mines," "Mogambo" and "Splendor in the Grass" — and Almodovar says for some reason he could relate to them.
"I wanted to be part of that dream," he says.
Influenced by women-centered films
He bought his first camera in Madrid, a Super 8, when he was 22, with his first paycheck from his administrative job at a telephone company. Without the least bit of experience, he began making hand-held short films that later were shown in the city's underground film scene.
Five years later, in 1979, he was filming "Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom," the first in a series of dramas, comedies or tragicomedies that mostly focus on women and show the influence of classic Hollywood melodramas.
"The great melodrama of the 40s and 50s, by Douglas Sirk for example, 'Imitation of Life,' the ones he made with Lana Turner, 'All That Heaven Allows,' with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, all of those movies with Douglas Sirk, I loved so much and, for example, were an influence for 'High Heels,'" the filmmaker says.
He says old Hollywood movies in which the main character is a woman and everything happens around her — often starring Joan Crawford or Bette Davis — "don't really exist" these days.
"To me, this continues to be very interesting ... I like them and they have touched me, and I continue in this tradition," he says. He adds that old screwball comedies have influenced his work, especially his "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
Dream projectsIf Almodovar could choose one movie to direct from 1949 — the year he was born — or before, what would he pick? The answer: "Gone with the Wind."
"I would have loved that! The problem is I don't think I would have made it as well as the many, many filmmakers who directed it, and there were a lot," he said with a big smile.
Almodovar hopes his next project will be "La piel que habito," an adaptation of the novel "Mygale" by the late French author Thierry Jonquet for which he wrote a script.
But this starmaker, who has made celebrities out of Cruz, Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Victoria Abril and Cecilia Roth, has a dream that likely will please his most fervent fans.
"The truth is, I'd like to work with all of those people who I've done my best work with, those who have affected me the most," he says. "I would like to bring them all together in one movie."