In 1996, the thriller Tesis garnered attention for first-time feature director Alejandro Amenábar. Soon, Amenábar was well-known as the director of Abre los ojos, the twisty mystery purchased by Hollywood for Cameron Crowe, who remade it as Vanilla Sky. In 2001, Amenábar directed Nicole Kidman in his English-language debut The Others. On November 19, 2004 at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Amenábar joined me to discuss The Sea Inside, a Spanish biopic which grapples with euthanasia.
Groucho: I was looking at your website, and I know sort of a motto of yours is that your films—your movies are not movies of answers but of questions.
Alejandro Amenábar: Mm-hm.
G: I think one of the most impressive things about The Sea Inside is the delicate balance you maintain of the different viewpoints, so as not to dictate any one. How conscious were you of guiding the audience through that intellectual and emotional minefield?
AA: Mm-hm. Um, I think I—the concepts were very clear to me from the beginning. And what I tried was—in an emotional level—I tried to connect with the audience. Let's say that all the intellectual word[s] of Ramón Sampedro, I was trying to translate it into emotions for the audience. So that I was tried the audience to feel alive, to feel the presence of death, and not being scared of it. To feel love, to feel impossible love, to feel freedom. It was always something related to emotions, so that once you see the film, you can—because of what you have felt during in the experience, the journey, the emotional journey—you can think everything about your own life and how much you love it.
G: Mm-hm. Your films are poetic, I think. They're full of emotion and symbolism. Can you tell me about the development of your style? Is it purely responsive to the material? Well, you generate a lot of your own material.
AA: I think, um—. Well, this one was based on true events. So we can say it's an original screenplay because it's not based in, not even in the book because it was a poetry book, but I think it—the process of making a movie is a mixture of, should be a mixture between common sense and madness. I think that madness—by saying madness, meaning creativity. I think it's important to free yourself, and I try to free myself more and more when I start each project. But at the same time, you need—you need to think about it. And that's something I really consider a lot: giving us—in this case, Mateo and I when we were writing—giving us time to think and rethink, why won't he do this, or this would helps us or not.
AA: That's it.
G: In the movie, euthanasia is referred to as "love shared in its purest form" and there's also a line Ramón says to Manuela: "You know I'm spoken for." And she responds, "Yes, by death." Can you speak about the relationship of sex and death in the film?
AA: Uh, well, sex somehow meant a lot for Ramón Sampedro. And that's why he would refuse to fall in love with any woman. And, um, the question I think is: for a man who is looking for death, he couldn't help seducing women when they came to his room. So I think it was a way for him to feel alive. And there is a contradiction there.
G: The sea is also, of course, a strong image in the film of both life and death. Did you picture his accident as a kind of rebirth of purpose?
AA: Yeah. Yeah, he says that...when he had the accident, that should have been the natural moment for him to die. And that he felt the rest of his life [was] so some artificial extension. So Mateo actually, Mateo Gil, insisted on using the accident as a reference, as a tragic reference, and mixing it with the actual moment of his death. I know that to show that, violence has been—I mean life and death has been rebalanced.
G: And one of the things that struck me while watching the film is that, while you're watching it, he's insisting that he wants to die and he wants to die with dignity. And you're seeing him affect positively so many of the people around him. And I think there's a tendency on the part of an audience that's familiar with maybe a more clichéd story to say, "Oh, well, of course he's going to learn the lesson that he has, that his life does have this value that's more important than his own desire," but of course, he is steadfast in his resolve. Which is almost the opposite of traditional drama where the character changes.
G: I don't know, I guess, what I want to ask about that, but is that something that, again, you were conscious of?
AA: Yeah, well that was in the real story. When I research[ed] on his private life and they told me how important he was for everybody, what he represented in that family—he was really the head of the family. And how people evolved around him. Ramóna Maneiro, the real character...Rosa is based on, she was something that would hate herself, and she learned to respect herself by talking to Ramón. So, um, yeah, it's a story he's—he actually, he was like a rock. And that could have been a problem. When we're writing the character, we thought, from a drama point of view, the character should evolve, and he doesn't, but it—that was taken from reality. So the only scene where we, we just see him breaking down and crying, that's something that, for instance, the family says would have never happened.
AA: He was—he was like a rock.
G: And of course, what's dramatic about it is his internal process. It is kind of going inside and seeing how he—his own perception of his existence. So I think that succeeds.
G: Many of your films, or most of your films, touch on some physical infirmity. Is that a personal concern of yours that, maybe, the betrayal of the body is the individual's greatest challenge?
AA: I don't know. Well, I think that most of them are about people into trouble, I would like to think. Which I think that's something [in] life, it's just trouble and how we face it, man. The biggest trouble we have, actually, is death and how we deal with it, that's interesting.
AA: I think when I saw Ramón Sampedro for the first time on TV, I think the first question that I asked myself was what if I was in his condition?
AA: What I would want to do?
AA: I think it's easy for me, somehow, to put myself in the position of someone who is in prison, for instance, or someone that is tortured. My first film is about people being tortured. It's something that I really tend to say; I can't even sleep when I think of that.
G: Yeah, putting yourself in the position of the character sounds very much like an actor's perspective, and that's something I think I hear when you talk about your music for your films, is representing the emotional, again...
G: ...viewpoint of each character. How do you approach that translation into music, and are you essentially self-taught as a musician?
AA: Yeah. Well, I've been—since I've been interested in soundtracks since I was a kid, to me it's a very natural—talking in terms of film score. So I know what my—what I need when I'm creating. And I think that so far it's been very difficult for me to try to do something without music, film music. So I trust my own intuition, and I also think that I'm quite pragmatic when I'm making music. I just—there is, of course, the director's position and the musician position, and I think it always wins, the director's position.
AA: So I—
G: Whatever serves the moment.
G: Whatever serves the moment.
AA: Yeah. And of course I try. I've been trying much more since the beginning to—my music to have a kind of sol-solidity? No, some kind of a personality. But at the same time, if I come up with something that doesn't work with the scene, that, for me, that's a low. I have to do it—try again.
G: Sure. You've enjoyed the freedoms of limited locations and studio shoots, like the luxury of shooting in chronological order on this film.
G: Do you think that at heart you are theatrical? Do you like to limit yourself and keep it very...
AA: I don't know.
AA: Well, it wasn't exactly chronologically shot. Since a big part of the movie was going to be shot in interiors, we tried to make it as in order as possible in order to help the performances.
AA: Um...I don't know. I know that when I did The Others, that was for sure I just wanted to explore a minimalist film.
AA: Not too many characters in one single location. When I decided to do this story, actually that was the opposite problem, the problem we had, because we had this man who would refuse to get outside. And I wanted the film to be visually rich. I wanted to travel. I wanted, I needed—this man had travel[led] around the world before the accident. I wanted that window to show up in the film. I wanted to see the ocean. So it was the whole work of creating, was about how we—how would we manage to get the audience outside of the room.
G: Mm-mm. Your actors talk about the relaxed atmosphere you have on the set, and in looking at the onset footage of The Others that's on the DVD, that seems apparent, that you are calm and relaxed. Is that really, genuinely calm confidence, or are you kind of churning in the inside and just trying to put that out for the others?
AA: Um, no, I think of it—it's a mixture of both. You have to feel self-assured when you are directing because the crew needs that, needs to know that you know what you want. And at the same time I think I'm those kind of guys who in—when some days tension is created, we try to calm things down. So, and I think that's quite helpful in a shooting because in the set there always—there's sometimes tension. There is a lot of people working together, and I think it's very useful to being able to calm people down.
G: Sure. It's obvious that you trust your actors immensely and offer them a great deal of freedom to get where they need to go. Can you talk about how you fostered that trust and how improvisation played a part in this story?
AA: Hm-hm. Yeah, let's say that I'm trying—I've been trying to free myself, from the directing point of view or the performing approach, and that means letting the actors be free. And in this case, by improvisation, I mean the lines of dialogue weren't the Bible, weren't—they weren't something that you couldn't change. Actually, I encouraged them to change things if it was necessary. If they weren't comfortable with a part of the text, I would say, you try [to] write your own stuff. So, and then in rehearsals I was obsessed with not, by repeating and repeating, losing the naturalism of the lines.
G: Sure. You're probably tired of this question, but when you made The Others, one of the things that I think appealed to you about that, you said, was the difference between that minimalist style and the silences and the stretching out of time as opposed to the bombarding style of a modern Hollywood horror film. Do you think the difference between Abre los Ojos and Vanilla Sky is emblematic of the difference between the style you want to achieve and the Hollywood style, or what did you think of that?
AA: No, uh. I think Cameron Crowe is a quite a personal director. To me, it felt weird when I saw the film for the first time because I just—it was obviously the same story, the same characters, and even the same actress, Penelope, and I couldn't help think, "Oh! I would have done this differently." And then I realized that I had already done it.
AA: But I really perceive that he really tried to do—I don't think he tried to do a Hollywood picture. He tried to do a very personal stuff. He tried to—as I said, it was the same song with a different voice. He just put his voice.
G: Right. Yeah, it's interesting—when I watched your film again, I found myself thinking, yours is so much less cluttered. It's so—it's so much more direct.
G: And so you feel it more. But yeah...as you say, it's just a different approach to the same story, so both have their validity. Do you find a particular attraction to genre filmmaking, like science fiction and horror, or is that happenstance that you found yourself doing those films?
AA: I think, in general, it's very useful. And I think that what happens is that I really enjoy any genre, so why not explore in different genres? And I think this film has let me explore drama and comedy.
G: I wanted to ask you: you said that, you know, comedy strikes you as maybe the hardest thing—
G: Is that something you'd like to tackle someday, a full-length comedy?
AA: Yeah, but not—I wouldn't say that as an act of—as a defeat? Defeat? Or of self-defeat? Or no, no, no, a challenge.
G: Right, right.
AA: As I said, a challenge. I just look for the story, and then I look for the best way, the best approach. In the case of this movie, because we were told about Ramón Sampedro's sense of humor, and because I think life has to do with laughing also, we wanted a part of the movie to be comic.
G: Hm-hm. We're almost out of time, but I guess I want to ask you: have you given thought to what your next project will be? Do you have movement on...
G: ...another story?
AA: As I said, I try to free myself as much as possible, and I really cannot have different projects really developing in my mind. I need time to just sit and create the environment and start working, so—
G: A space to be filled.
AA: Yeah, exactly. And watch around. So that means that I could have—I could end up doing a film here in the States or in Spain or in France. I don't have any compromise.
G: Mm-hm. Alright. Well, it's been wonderful to talk to you. Thank you.
AA: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of The Sea Inside, click here.]