Pedro Almodóvar crafts a creepy Frankenstein-esque tale of rape, revenge, and survival in "The Skin I Live In" – a polarizing film which is one of his most ambitious yet. Because the movie features an unexpected twist halfway through the film, discussing it becomes difficult – how do you debate the themes, the issues and the meaning without giving it all away? We leave that task to the esteemed director and his cast that includes Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya, who hit NYFF this week to present this latest concoction, a tale unlike anything Almodóvar has put on the big screen before. Covering everything from the twist in the movie (don't worry, we won't reveal it here), the reason why Antonio Banderas had to watch Cary Grant movies to prepare for the film, and the themes of identity that run through the story, the trio were happy to discuss in detail the quirky, provocative and unforgettable film.
1. Almodóvar first read the story on a plane – and took flight with it.
While looking for a bit of light reading for a one-hour plane trip, Almodóvar came across a trashy hardboiled noir novella by Thierry Jonquet called "Mygale," also known as "Tarantula," also known as "The Skin I Live In," depending on which language you read it in. After reading the story of a plastic surgeon’s revenge against a man who raped his daughter, Almodóvar decided to transform the story into a little something extra. “I got the idea that this man was trying to create a new skin, and when the skin became the big idea, I was abandoning the original idea of the book,” he said. “I was just creating something different. We have the rights, so it’s good to mention the book, I was inspired by the book, but I created my own way.”
Consequently, Almodóvar asked his cast not to read the original story, which was darker in some areas. (A woman isn’t just kept prisoner, she’s pimped out as a prostitute; a man doesn’t just commit rape, he unknowingly rapes his own friend, whom he doesn’t recognize). “Pedro first told me about the story in 2002,” Banderas said. “And he said, ‘Don’t read the book. It’s not going to help you. It’s going to take you in a different direction, and I don’t want that. I just want you to use the material we have, and I don’t want you to get confused by information that you can’t use.'” Of course, now that the film is completed, Banderas is “very curious” and plans to read it right away.
2. Pedro Almodóvar says the twist gets more satisfying on subsequent viewings
While elements of the surgeon’s revenge have changed and take on broader meaning, one detail of the revenge is the same in the book and the film – and one we won’t give away just yet. Suffice to say, like "The Crying Game," "The Skin I Live In" bears repeat viewing just to get one of the characters straight. “There are two movies here,” Almodóvar said. “There’s the first time you see it, and the second time you see it, when you are familiar with the plot, with the twist of the plot, and you can enjoy it more. I invite you to see it a second time.”
Banderas explained, “The whole entire first hour of the movie is a question without an answer. You don’t know anything about why this woman is there as a prisoner. What did she do? You’re mostly learning about the doctor. You see how he's lost his wife. You learn that his daughter is in a mental institution. You start feeling for him. But then Pedro takes the rug out from under your feet, and says, ‘OK, but look at it from here.’” When the point of view shifts, Banderas says, “then the movie takes off.”
3. In casting the movie Almodóvar wanted a reunion with an old friend – and possibly also found a new muse.
When the director thought about who should play his central characters – which include the surgeon Dr. Robert and his prisoner Vera – he immediately knew who he wanted, since he had worked with them before, and in a sense, had discovered them both. Banderas got his start as a young actor in a series of five Almodóvar films in the 1980s -- "Labyrinth of Passion," "Law of Desire," "Matador," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" – before Hollywood beckoned. But the two hadn’t collaborated in 22 years.
“At the beginning of the process, I thought about Antonio,” Almodóvar said. “I talked to him at Cannes. I went to L.A. and talked to him. And let’s say when I decided I was ready to make this movie, I knew I wanted him. I wanted someone who was 50, who was attractive, and who doesn’t give the feeling of looking at him that he’s a psycho.”
As for the part of the psycho’s prisoner, Almodóvar remembered an actress he had given a small part to in 2002’s "Talk to Her" – Elena Anaya. Back then, he called her asked her to do the part as a favor.
“I said, ‘Of course,’ because I’d play even a microphone for him, I’d be so happy,” Anaya recalled. “It was like biting the forbidden apple to act for him, so delicious.” Ten years later, he called her again. “He was offering me this amazing character, so complex, so many layers, for such an amazing story,” she said. “He wanted to tell a story that is much farther than he’s ever gone, so we follow him, of course.”
“I really love her,” Almodóvar said. “I’m sure that I’m going to work with her again.” Could she be his next muse, given his penchant to collaborate with actresses over a long period of time? “I hope so!” he said. “I’ll sign up tomorrow!” she said.
Banderas is game to team up with Almodóvar again as well. “I know for a fact that we will work together again,” he said. “I don’t know when or in what context, [but] we will. I personally would love to make a comedy with him again. I was telling him in the middle of this movie, ‘Pedro, we need to laugh like in the old days! Let’s do something light and fun.’”
4. Almodóvar told Banderas to watch the iconic noir "Le Cercle Rouge" to help prepare for the film.
Despite their long history, Almodóvar wanted something out of Banderas he hadn’t seen before – something cold and calculating, but not obvious. “For this character, I wanted him to hide everything,” Almodóvar said. “No emotion in the face. For me, the movies I have with Antonio couldn’t be better, but I wanted to explore something we didn’t do in the ’80s. I wanted him with a surgeon’s precision, a kind of tone we didn’t do before. Something that was the opposite of Antonio himself.”
This was no easy task. Banderas said he struggled to throw away his usual style and techniques and to make his face a mask. “This can make you very insecure,” he said, “because you’re starting from zero, from scratch.”
Even things that Banderas didn’t pay as much attention to before were thrown into focus – such as the position of his eyebrows. “It’s the quantum physics of acting,” he said. “Pedro would say, ‘Don’t do that with your eyebrow.’ ‘Don’t do what?’ ‘When you pronounce that word, your eyebrow moves. You did it three times.’ I wouldn’t have even known about that, those little details.”
To help Banderas get into character, Almodóvar pointed him to chilly classic French crime flick "Le Cercle Rouge" with Alain Delon, noir films starring Robert Mitchum, and anything with Cary Grant. (For Anaya, he asked her to watch Hitchcock, "Double Indemnity" and pre-code classic "Baby Face").
“He wanted me to reflect back to a type of acting from the ‘40s and ‘50s, so we played the game like that,” Banderas said. “The idea was how after you discover someone’s a serial killer, everyone always says on the news, ‘Oh no, he was so nice and charming, so polite and well-mannered,’ and yet he had five people mutilated in the fridge for five years. These characters have to melt into society and be undetectable.”
5. After finally seeing the movie at TIFF, Melanie Griffith understood why her husband was tense for three months when making the movie.
Getting into character was difficult. So was getting out. After finally seeing "The Skin I Live In" at the Toronto International Film Festival, Banderas’ wife Melanie Griffith was pensive the whole night, even after attending a few parties. Then he said, they had the following conversation:
Melanie: Now I understand.
Antonio: What do you understand?
Melanie: Now I understand certain behaviors you’ve had for the last three months.
Antonio: You can’t be serious?
Melanie: I’m not saying you’re a bad person or you want to cut somebody’s parts off, but there was something you were carrying these past three months and I didn’t know where it was coming from. Now I do.
“That really scared the shit out of me!” Banderas said. “I wasn’t conscious of how the film affected me, but it stays with you. Even when you think you’re fine. I was kind of creepy, and I didn’t know it.”
“This movie remains in your gut,” Anaya agreed. “How bad people can be. How crazy people can be.”
Still, Banderas said, he knows where his character ends and he begins. “I have daughters. If someone did this to one of my daughters, yes, I might take revenge and take an axe and cut his head off,” the actor said. “But to do this for every day for six years? This is something deeper than revenge. There’s something suicidal in the action he’s taken. Pedro might disagree.”
6. The movie has a message: "Beauty is only skin deep, identity goes even deeper."
Issues of identity are key to "The Skin I Live In." Almodóvar wants us first to think about how our skin – our largest organ – is not fixed but malleable. “Up until recently, our skin has been a way of identifying us,” he said. “It says what race we are. It can betray whether we slept badly. It’s supposed to be a mirror of the soul, but I don’t think we can say that anymore.”
Plastic surgery is the primary reason why, and both Banderas and Anaya are concerned with how prevalent it’s getting, especially in Hollywood. “Unfortunately, plastic surgery is nothing but a symptom. It’s not the real problem,” Banderas said. “The problem is in society, which is heavily pushing everyone to be better than they are on the exterior. And there is something sick about it, because they don’t only want you to look more beautiful, but also look younger, and that is against nature. And so we are always trying to bend nature.”
“Most plastic surgery is going a little far,” Anaya said. “We live in a society that doesn’t accept growing up, getting older. And that’s anti-natural. All the time we are being pushed by commercials to be young, to be beautiful, so people start changing their faces, their skin, and that should be forbidden. Sometimes with the photographs , they change your face, and it’s like, ‘Thank you, but don’t do it.’ I hope to have a face full of wrinkles when I get old.”
Anaya’s character’s flawless on-screen skin wouldn’t be possible in the real world, surgery aside. “You cannot create that kind of beauty in the real world,” Banderas said. “Maybe in thirty years, it will be possible.” (It took a lot of lighting tricks and post-production magic, Anaya said, so her skin looked baby new.)
Almodóvar is also concerned with the rapid progress made in the fields of transgenesis and genetic modification, and not just because he always gains weight when he eats GMO food on trips to the U.S.! “Most of the food here is transgenic,” he said. “And while transgenesis has its pluses, the diseases that disappear, we’re moving beyond curing disease and into determining the characteristics a human being can be born with. There are limits placed on transgenesis by the scientific community, but if they’re not already, they will be skipped over, because science is not something that is going to limit itself.”
The director predicts that eventually, science will create an artificial, synthetic human being, at which point “our relationship to creation, to God as creator, will change drastically. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it is scary.”
7. Long a champion of transexuality, in "The Skin I Live," Almodóvar uses it as a gruesome punishment.
Almodóvar has featured transgendered persons and defended issues of transexuality in many of his films, but this is the first instance in which sex reassignment is forced. “Of course, surgery can save lives, and make people feel comfortable in a body that didn’t feel like their own,” Anaya said.
“But this is the opposite of what’s going on in this film,” Almodóvar said. “Transexuality is used as a punishment here, and it’s hard to imagine anything worse.”
Almodóvar said attitudes about transsexuals have changed drastically since he first addressed the issue on film, because they’re no longer thought of as “freakish figures,” at least in Spain. In his brother’s apartment building, a family invited him to a party to meet their “new daughter” – because their 18-year-old son had a sex change operation and was now female. “This girl was a boy my brother used to see go up and down the stairs,” the director said. “And now the boy is being presented as a girl, by the family, and not as a strange thing.”
As a side note – the dilators given to a character in the film, in increasing sizes so to gradually enlarge a new vaginal opening post-op, are the real deal. “That was one of the more horrific sequences to shoot,” Almodóvar said. “I told Antonio, ‘You have to tell her how to insert them like a doctor, very cold, very mechanical.’ And those things are completely and absolutely real. You cannot and should not invent that.”
8. Banderas has two more sci-fi films on the way that he's making back-to-back
Next up for Banderas is a sci-fi film called "Automata," about robots in a future world which start to develop a consciousness, leading to a possible war. “It’s not a Hollywood movie,” he cautioned. “It’s about singularity. The robots don’t jump from building to building. They’re just supposed to be performing tasks, but they break the second law famous in [Isaac] Asimov’s world, and they’re better than us, so they take over.”
Anaya is not joining Banderas in Automata, however. “You know, this is something we need to erase from IMDB!” Anaya said. “This is a mistake on there. A friend of mine gave the script to Antonio, he loved the script so much he’s also going to produce it, but I’m not in the film. I would love to, though.”
Besides "Automata," Banderas is prepping his next directorial effort, called "Solo." “I’m doing these two movies back to back,” he said. “Solo is a reflection on solitude and war environments. It’s the story of a lieutenant colonel from the Spanish army who comes home from Pakistan and he’s messed up about events that happened to him in the war, during an experiment. Ultimately, something’s happening in his head.”
9. Almodóvar is planning an English language movie, but not a Mina biopic.
Like Anaya, Almodóvar wants IMDB to make a correction. Despite previous reports, he has no plans to direct a biopic about the Italian singer Mina. “That is something that someone invented, and it wasn’t me,” he said. “My office called IMDB and said it was not true, and Mina’s son was in contact to say it wasn’t true, either. I like her very much, but I don’t have this project at all. I’ve never even talked about it, but do you know how many people ask me about it?”
However, Almodóvar is planning to proceed with another previously reported project – an English language film. It won’t be his next film – he’s choosing one of four others in development first – but perhaps his second one.
“My English is very poor, but I wrote the script in Spanish, and after the promotion of 'The Skin I Live In,' I’ll try and look for an English writer,” he said. “It happens here, in America, with American characters. They are not Latin people living here. So I need a good writer to finish the script in English. I don’t want to give away any details, because it’s in the process right now, but I really like the subject, so it’s a real possibility. Just don’t tell anyone!”