Spain’s official entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2013 Academy Awards, Pablo Berger‘s Blancanieves recasts Snow White as a flamenco-dancing bullfighter in 1920s Spain. Spun in glorious black-and-white with a brilliant flamenco sound track, this “silent” film resonates with operatic moments and high passion. •Availability: In theaters January 18. •Thanks to Denise Sinelov and Steven Raphael, Required Viewing•
DT: As a modern Spaniard who went to film school at NYU, why did you focus on this period in Spanish history?
PB: I lived abroad for a long time and my wife is not Spanish, but Spain and its iconography have always been my obsession. Also, I approach cinema like time traveling. I’ve done films about the ’70s (Torremolinos 73) and the ’50s, and the ’20s always fascinated me, with its world of bullfighting and flamenco. At the same time, the origin of the film was a photograph from Cristina García Rodero’s book España Oculta about a troupe of bullfighting dwarves. The photo clicked in my head, and I put Snow White in the middle, dressed as a bullfighter. That was in the early ’90s. Then I had to write the script, and that’s when this fascinating world of early twentieth-century Spain got into the picture.
DT: Many filmmakers are shooting today in black-and-white: Miguel Gomes, Bela Tarr, Michel Hazanavicius. Why did you choose black-and-white?
PB: It was required by the approach that I took. If I was going to time-travel to the ’20s, I had to do it in black-and-white, and if it was an homage to silent cinema, I had to do it silent and black-and-white. But I would also add that all directors dream of making one black-and-white film. I don’t want to put my name next to the big ones, but we all know Woody Allen or Scorsese or Tim Burton. We all have dreams, and I think for a filmmaker one of these dreams is to make a black-and-white because at the end black-and-white is pure cinema. It’s more abstract. It’s more magical. It’s more poetic. And I think we dream in black and white, and for me, cinema is to dream awake. So black-and-white is the color of dreams.
DT: Using a musical sound track rather than dialogue also has the same effect in a way. It eliminates whatever is illusory or extraneous.
PB: I agree completely. Before I’m a film director, I’m a film buff. I love cinema, and one of my favorite periods is ’20s silent cinema. I’ve had many out-of-body ecstatic cinematographic experiences watching the great masterpieces of the ’20s, with a live orchestra, like—
DT: El Señor Don Juan Tenorio?
PB: Yes. I wanted to convey that to a wider audience. For decades silent cinema has been only for film students, scholars, and film buffs, and thanks to The Artist or Blancanieves we are opening it up for a younger audience that has never seen a silent or a black-and-white film. With silent cinema, sometimes it takes a little time to get into the journey, but because it requires more attention, the audience has to participate more, has to use more of their imagination. They have to be more active, so the end of the journey is much more satisfactory. If they’re going to feel emotion, they’re going to feel more emotion than in a normal film. The experience is closer to watching a ballet or opera than watching a traditional film.
DT: The way you linked flamenco and bullfighting was brilliant. Pairing a bulerias (a flamenco style, or palo) with the great bullfighting stadium in Sevilla was perfect: It was Lorca, it was Hemingway, it was great.
PB: I’m glad you feel that way. I’m Basque—I haven’t lived flamenco and bullfighting as part of my education. You name Hemingway’s fascination for Spanish culture and bullfighting and flamenco, and that’s how I feel. I feel like somebody from the outside portraying the world of Spain, because I’m from a part of Spain that doesn’t deal with this culture. At the same time I do it with so much respect. I think the iconography of flamenco and bullfighting is a metaphor for all kinds of emotion.
DT: Maybe I’m reading too much into the film, but I saw Carmencita as an allegory for Gypsies. She was made into an icon that people both ridiculed and adored.
PB: When films get shown, they belong to the audience and to all kinds of interpretations. Definitely Gypsies were such a big part of flamenco culture and bullfighting. Definitely it was not a conscious association, but now when I watch the film I will also see the connection you’re mentioning. I believe that film should be interpreted by the audience, and directors just have to respect and even enjoy the interpretations of it.
DT: There was that fabulous sequence when you’re panning across the audience at the dwarves’ bullfight. It reminded me a lot of the scene in Sullivan’s Travels where he’s panning across this sea of laughing faces. I didn’t know if that was an intentional homage.
PB: As I said before, I’m a film buff, a film lover. I saw the world through the window of cinema, from the screen. I didn’t travel all over the world when I was eighteen, I didn’t go to the safari, to war, so definitely the film is full of conscious and unconscious homages to cinema. Sullivan’s Travels is a fantastic film and I love it, but that was not a conscious homage.
DT: How did Spain choose Blancanieves as an official entry?
PB: We have an academy with more than a thousand members. First they choose from all the films that have been released in Spain that year, probably between 130 and 140. Then they choose a short list of three and then there is one.
DT: With so much cruelty and class distinction depicted in the film, it doesn’t make the Spanish look so great.
PB: Stories are to be told, not judged in that sense. Academy members are audience themselves, the same way that before you’re a journalist you’re an audience and a film buff. Academy members just loved the story; they went for the emotions, they got involved, they empathized, and they went for the journey. And they felt it would be the best film to represent their industry. They don’t think about representing the country. Maybe if it had been the government, they would have chosen a different film. Our film shows how great cinematographers, great art directors, great editors work. Being a period film it’s a complex film, so independently of the story it’s both a showcase of how you can make great films with more constrained budgets and how you can do a production in Spain.
DT: Can you talk about the sound track?
PB: The composer is Alfonso Vilallonga, and for me it was important that the sound track be unique. I didn’t want to work with a film composer who makes five or six sound tracks every year so all of them sound the same and they’re interchangeable. Alfonso Vilallonga is a rare bird in the sense that he only makes one sound track every two or three years for projects that he loves. He has his own career as a singer, and I wanted him to approach the film like it could have been his last sound track. He really took chances, and he made something personal, unique, very eclectic and full of colors. We wanted to make a sound track that had valleys and hills, big philharmonic moments and chamberlike, small pieces, and mix it with flamenco and with club. We wanted something that at the end felt like coffee with milk, with the music and the images perfectly combined. We worked for months composing the different pieces, and then we spent a couple of months recording and doing the music editing, so it was a very long, very hard process, but it was a great collaboration with very satisfactory end results. I’m very, very happy that Alfonso’s music is the voice of my characters.
DT: That’s the way original silent film sound tracks were assembled—from different bits and pieces of various scores.
PB: Definitely. In the old times there were very few sound tracks made specifically for the film. There were orchestras in the different movie theaters and they would choose different pieces. Oh, it’s a sad piece, it’s an action scene, it’s melodramatic….but there were very few, only Eisenstein sometimes, and Murnau, some Abel Gance, so for us it was important that the music and the images be perfectly combined to really get the most out of this combination.
DT: Villalonga didn’t compose the flamenco.
PB: No. The flamenco is Chicuelo. I wrote the lyrics of the songs.
PB: It was my baptism in writing lyrics for music. I wrote the script, so it felt natural to write the lyrics as well. The flamenco music was done by Chicuelo, and it was sung by Silvia Pérez Cruz, a great new singer.
DT: Did you study flamenco letras (verses)?
PB: I read some, I did some research, and then I let myself go and just went for it.
Copyright © Director Talk 2012