The Spanish filmmaker reflects on the romance at the heart of his new queer western, Strange Way of Life, and the freedom of working in a shorter format.
In 32 minutes, Pedro Almodóvar’s Strange Way of Life packs in more tenderness, eroticism and cinephile references than most feature films manage across a couple of hours. In his second foray into English language filmmaking after 2020’s The Human Voice, the international auteur takes on the most American and most macho of genres: the western. Balancing the contrasting sex appeals of Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke, Almodóvar imagines a lover’s reunion, lubricated by wine and memories of a youthful lust.
LWLies: What is your relationship to the western?
Almodóvar: The western is not a genre I discovered as a child. I remember children playing cowboys and Indians but I was never part of this. Once I arrived in Madrid, in my twenties, I became passionate about the genre. There are genres that I never discovered in my first youth – like film noir, thrillers, and the western – but I effusively embraced in my adulthood. So, the truth is that I’ve never thought about making a western, although the western is present in at least two of my films: Johnny Guitar (1954) in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), in the ‘Lie to me and tell me you’ve been waiting for me’ scene, which I think is one of the most beautiful pieces of dialogue ever written; and in Matador (1985), the final scene of Duel in the Sun (1946) appears as a premonition to the main characters in my film. Johnny Guitar is also an exception in the genre as it’s a woman’s western, where Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge wear the pants and the guns. The western is essentially a masculine and an American genre. It’s America inventing itself through cinema.
I lied, there was one other time when I thought about making a western. It was in the early nineties, I got the rights to Tom Spanbauer’s novel ‘The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon’, which features gay cowboys and Indians. I did a first draft in Spanish but I needed an American writer to work with me, and that’s when I hit a wall. Everyone I spoke with said they wouldn’t dare touch a story like that. I hadn’t thought about making a western since, until three years ago, when I wrote the scene that became the foundation of this film, which is the long conversation between the two old lovers after their orgiastic reunion. I think they’re more naked in that scene than if I had filmed the orgy itself.
The cowboy, like you mentioned, is the quintessential cinematic emblem of masculinity. What did you want to add to its mythos?
Naturally, it’s a masculine genre. Women are secondary characters. But there’s never been a conversation about desire between men. It’s a taboo akin to the one that exists right now with footballers. There are no gay footballers. Same as there’s no gay bullfighters. You know, in Spain, it’s even forbidden to insinuate that such a thing exists. It was most attractive to me that they were old lovers remembering their youth, and how they react to a night of excess, sex and alcohol, where one of them is denying what happened between them whilst the other reminds him of it incessantly. I’m not only talking about desire, but about nakedness. Their real nakedness is in that morning after dialogue. They’re both ambiguous, because they both have ulterior motives. Silva is trying to advocate for his son, who he knows has murdered the sheriff’s sister-in-law.
I wanted them to be two old lovers who still want each other, which becomes clear during dinner, but that one of them still has that desire and wants to give it a name while the other rejects it, although he delays his work until they’ve spent that night. It’s a very masculine thing, within gay relationships, this ‘yes but no’. Yes, tonight we can be together, but tomorrow I have to leave and go find a murderer who’s also your son.
You’ve mentioned this excess when they encounter each other again. The food, the alcohol. When we see Silva and Jake in flashback, their first kiss is drowning themselves in wine. What’s the role of excess in their relationship?
Excess is the excuse to unleash their desires. I remember my youth, many times drugs and alcohol would open up sexual experiences that you wouldn’t have otherwise had. Whenever Sheriff Jake talks about the past, he says, “It was crazy,” while Silva instead recalls those moments every time he drinks. It’s two very different positions on sexuality. It’s also an old-fashioned idea, that in the chaos of drugs and alcohol, a man can indulge desires that in more sober circumstances, he wouldn’t allow himself. It’s sort of hypocritical but…
It’s the ‘yesbutno’.
Can you expand on this central scene, a loving but also reproachful conversation, that is the heart of the film, and concerns the love that could’ve been but wasn’t.
Each one has their own dramatic tools. Sheriff Jake uses honour – the word he gave his father-in-law. Honour is elemental to the western, especially individual honour. He’s constantly using his obligations as a defence. Silva is the complete opposite. He uses sentimentality, nostalgia and the memory of pleasure to undermine the Sheriff’s determination. Silva is constantly bringing him back to a lover’s territory, which is a topic Jake does not want to touch, and at one point even leads him to threaten Silva with a gun. On the one hand, there’s honour as the Sheriff understands it, and there’s Silva’s obligation to his family, a father’s need to defend his child even if he turned out to be a murderer.
At one point, Silva reminds the Sheriff of his own desire, and how he’s expressed it over the past 24 hours. In their youth, Silva had proposed they live together on a ranch, but the Sheriff purposefully put a distance, a literal desert, between them. All of this makes the Sheriff lose his composure. Silva is smart and very crafty. He keeps confronting the Sheriff with his own contradictions. There’s a moment during their dinner when they toast to their contradictions. Silva is cornering him until the Sheriff unsheathes his gun.
It was very appealing to me to have a character in a western say, ‘This strange fate of ours, that your sister-in-law had to die so we could share a bed again.’ I love this sentence, and to hear Pedro Pascal say it. It’s difficult to say and very difficult to hear for the Sheriff. The first scene I wrote was the morning after, and I let it sit for a while. When the possibility of doing it with Anthony Vaccarello and Saint Laurent, I developed the beginning and ending of the story.
Silva and Sheriff Jake are complete opposites in the way they speak, live, and remember. Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke are also radically opposite in their screen presence. What made them right for these roles?
You said it, they’re opposites, almost paradoxical. I needed two actors who were very different from one another. Pedro is of Latin origin and Ethan is Texan, very Texan. Before I even met him, he gave me this impression of secrecy – a coldness and distance that the character has with himself. Often you have to change cast for different reasons, but from the first moment, I knew.
Bypassing agents, since I knew both of them, I sent them both the script and fortunately, they both said yes. I’d seen Pedro onstage, doing King Lear with Glenda Jackson in her return to Broadway. He’s famous now, as he says, as a ‘streamer’, but he’s a very complete actor, trained at Julliard. I needed Pedro to hit different notes to the ones that he’s used to, because the type of epics he’s known for are vastly different from the epicness of these characters. I’d also seen Ethan onstage, in The Bridge Project’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’/‘The Winter’s Tale’, directed by Sam Mendes.
Everything has been effortless. They both admired each other from afar, and they had great chemistry. Chemistry is a mystery. It has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with each individual personality. Fortunately, they complement each other perfectly. They each represent two opposite cultures.
Colour plays a huge part in the film.
All the costumes have been designed by Saint Laurent and my job was to research and pick. Being Spanish, I was afraid that Americans would clock straight away, ‘Oh this is a western made by a foreigner.’ I was more careful than ever in not being anachronistic. I’ve watched tons of westerns. I was interested in dressing the characters in the way that cinema has dressed them, which is not exactly realistic. Reality was a lot uglier, dustier and muddier. My reference pool is cinema itself, not real life. For instance, in Vera Cruz (1954), Burt Lancaster’s character, the villain, is dressed completely in black leather. We copied his costume for Joe, Silva’s son. The costumes of the Mexican sex workers are inspired by Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1966).
Vaccarello favours blacks and greys in his design, but I tend to have more colour in my films. Silva was my window to bring more colour into the story, but I wanted to avoid falling into anachronisms. Fortunately, there’s an Anthony Mann western, Bend of the River (1952), in which James Stewart wears a green jacket. Something quite unusual, and especially vivid in Technicolour. That was my green. It was my justification.
The way of dressing male characters in westerns hasn’t really changed. The Sheriff is always very elegant, allowed a bit of fantasy in their vests, which are sometimes satin or silk. But the rest are very sombre, plaid shirts and a neckerchief. So I tried to pick out some colourful options for Silva.
The ending seemed to me as hinting at the possibility of a shared life between Silva and Jake. Did you want to end on a hopeful note?
To be totally honest, I’m not entirely sure how this story ends. I like that it ends with Silva explaining what two men could do on a ranch. I’d say this is an answer given to the two shepherds in Brokeback Mountain, to the question Jake Gyllenhaal asks Heath Ledger, what would two men do on a ranch together. Pedro Pascal gives an answer to the question posed by Brokeback Mountain. I deliberately leave the ending open, with an injured Jake looking out at an idyllic landscape, compared to his solitary life as a Sheriff. That’s the direction I gave Ethan Hawke. He’s hurt, he’s in a place he didn’t want to be in, but he is at peace.
But, similarly to the end of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), where Victoria Abril is driving off with her sister and Antonio Banderas and singing, ‘Resistiré’, which is this hymn to independence, her eyes are welling up with tears. Partly because she’s in a good place with her sister, and partly because in her look towards the future, I can see as a director and writer that this couple isn’t going to work. They’ll be over in three months’ time. It’s going to be crazy cause he’s got no clue what he’s doing and she’s going to go back to heroin. It’s a moment of fullness and I’d rather end the film on that.
The ending of Strange Way of Life is a hopeful image, but I also think that the minute Jake can get up, he’ll grab a gun, attack Silva, and head off in search of the murderer, who’s probably made a lot of mistakes. It would turn into a Sam Peckinpah film.
With The Human Voice (2020) and now Strange Way of Life, will we see you making short and medium-length films more often now?
I should do a third short film to make it a trilogy. I’m seriously thinking about a third one. I feel a much bigger freedom making a short. For instance, the structure of The Human Voice wouldn’t work in a feature. A short film allows me to follow the character through these two cloisters, her flat and the stage, until she is set free at the end. With a feature film, you inevitably have a bigger commitment to reality. The formal experiment would not work in a feature-length film. Making a short is like breathing fresh air. These two shorts have been a treat to make. I would like to do it a third time, and maybe join them together as a feature.
Both these films are about caged characters.
Absolutely. Strange Way of Life is a very abstract movie. While I’m trying to be very faithful to the western genre, even using the sets that Sergio Leone built for his Dollar trilogy, the characters are very isolated. It’s these two characters, alone, confronting their desires, satisfying them and undoing them. I don’t think this works in a longer film. I’d have to add more elements that I just did not need to tell this story.
Published 18 Sep 2023