Soon after her arrival in Cannes for the premiere of Money Monster, director Jodie Foster advocated for more leadership opportunities for women in film and for more complex female characters. Foster may have found her answer in Pedro Almodóvar, the legendary Spanish director whom we should all try to emulate.

At Cannes 2016, No Film School sat down with Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte, Almodóvar's leading ladies in his Cannes premiere Julieta, to discuss the director's appreciation for women, his collaborative style, and why "less is more," especially with regard to music.

A deep respect for women

Almodóvar’s films first gained attention during the Movida Madrileña, a Spanish cultural renaissance inspired by the death of dictator Francisco Franco. International renown came a decade later, when his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. In 1999, he won that same award for All About My Mother. He also won Best Original Screenplay in 2002 for Talk to Her.

He has had four films in competition at Cannes for the Palme d’Or: Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), The Skin I Live In (2011), and this year, Julieta (2016). 

"With this film, I came back to a place I’ll never leave altogether: the feminine universe​."

Did you notice the movie titles? Aldomovar has become known for his films’ female muses, and his latest, the highly-anticipated Julieta, is no exception. Despite the decidedly male focus of most Spanish films, this director’s success is due in large part to his respect forand his collaborations withwomen.

Julieta_pedro_almodovar'Julieta'Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Julieta is both raw and beautiful. Its centerpiece is a mother’s desperate desire to reconnect with her estranged daughter. A haunting portrayal of guilt's lingering quality and just how long it takes for wounds to heal, this emotionally-charged portrait of the human condition balances hope, humor and sensitivity, all delivered by a superbly talented and primarily female ensemble.  

Almodóvar knows not just how to recognize talent, but how to nurture it. When we first encountered the team who made Julieta, the chemistry was palpable. First came the press conference; their presence filled the room. Aldomovar was brimming with energy and enthusiasm, and so were the women who starred in his film. Clearly, this was a collaboration that marked them all deeply.

"I owe everything to my assistants. They made me reanalyze the first draft."

“He loves and respects women a lot,” Suarez vouched during our personal sit-down. “He is one of the few Spanish directors willing to give a leading role, a very interesting role, to a 45-year-old actress.”  

Ugarte agrees. "Normally, the most important roles in Spain are for men," she said. "Women are just accessories; we play wives or mothers. It’s actually very sad, especially because women of 45, 50, 60+ years are often more interesting than 20-year-old girls."

Pedro_almodovar_julieta_no_film_school_interview_0The actresses and director at CannesCredit: taniavolobueva /

Collaborative spirit

Almodóvar didn’t plan on casting two leading ladies to play the same role, but as the script evolved, he couldn’t resist. "I was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s The Obscure Object of Desire, where two actresses played the same character at different ages," the director said at the film's press conference. "One is a free spirit, and one has experienced life: it adds to the wealth of the character. And I liked the collaboration.”

Almodóvar is quick to share credit with the females who surround him. “This film was made with six hands,” he explained with obvious pleasure. 

Even the script for Julieta began with a woman: the well-known Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro. Almodóvar liked Munro’s “less is more” approach. "Her work contains a great deal of mystery," he said. "When I get to the end of one of her stories, I feel like I know less than when I began to read it. This is the most exciting feeling for me.”  

"As a scriptwriter, I wanted to turn [Julieta] into a victim of losses that sap her power as a person until she is almost a zombie."

He also liked Munro's “marvelous train scenes,” which reminded him of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, so he bought the rights to three stories from her prize-winning book Runaway and turned them into a screenplay.

“In the first draft of script, the film was in English, and set in New York—as opposed to the original Canadian setting—but then I began to have doubts.” Here, too, women helped him. “I owe everything to my assistants, Lola, Barbara and Augustine. They made me reanalyze the first draft. A Spanish family is very different from an American or Canadian family; it’s a totally different culture. In America, the mother knows at some point children will become independent and leave home, that they’ll see their children very little. But in Spain, we never break ties with family members, even after they leave home, and that makes this story even more poignant.”

Julieta_pedro_almodovar_cannes_no_film_school2'Julieta'Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Almodóvar admits that he is "not very faithful in adaptation."

"When I read something great, I want to explore why it moved me," he explained, "and inevitably, the story evolves. The reality here is that Munro’s book gave me a chapter, but then I took charge. Aside from the series of sequences that take place in the train, her story really became my own."

Once again, it was the female character in Munro’s stories who moved him. "With this film, I came back to a place I’ll never leave altogether: the feminine universe. I’ve done lots of movies about mothers, but this one, Julieta, is the most vulnerable of all, with the least capacity to fight. As a scriptwriter, I wanted to turn her into a victim of losses that sap her power as a person until she is almost a zombie, walking the streets without hope or direction."

Tireless preparation

As Almodóvar’s actors see it, every decision he makes as a filmmaker is done with great care and precision. "Everything in Julieta has meaning, down to the paintings on the walls,” says supporting actress Michelle Jenner. "He’s a genius."  

"[Almodóvar] is not just an excellent director; he’s a master of sensitivity. He’s like a father."

That's not to say that Almodóvar is methodical to the point of science; to the contrary, his actors say he likes to go with the flow and try many different approacheswithout losing his original vision. Each of his cinematic visions is marked by a great deal of thoughtfulness, intense dedication and, above all, heart.  

Almodóvar wants his collaborators to be as inspired by a project as he is. With that goal in mind, he provides references that both he and his actors study as preparation for the film. In the case of Julieta, the list was both academic and staggering: Joan Dideon’s book The Year of Magical Thinking; Emmanuel Carrère’s book Other Lives But Mine; Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours; and Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ‘51. All of them explorations of grief and loss that Almodóvar thought would help his actors plumb what he described as "that region of loneliness, the anguish of abandonment felt by Julieta."

Julieta_pedro_almodovar_cannes_no_film_school'Julieta'Credit: Cannes Film Festival

And then came the rehearsals: long, intense, and discarded on the first day of shooting.

Ugarte laughs at the memory. "I thought I understood Julieta, but then we started shooting and I realized that Pedro was reinventing the character every day," she said. "He was super clear and direct, but he always wanted more. At first, you feel really lost, even terrified, but then it gets really stimulating. You build trust, you learn to forget your ego. He’s not just an excellent director; he’s a master of sensitivity. He’s like a father.”

"I never would have been able to make this film before now, but because of my age, I have a better understanding of fate, of the tragedies that can happen."

Getting personal

Almodóvar’s films are supremely personal. A great deal of his inspiration comes from real life—"a chance encounter, a nightmare I had, or my own fears when I’m awake," he said.

He revealed that the vivid colors that fill his films are an instinctive rebellion against his own mother, who always wore black. "Black can be a glamorous, sophisticated colorunless it’s imposed on a child by his mother. Then it’s not just a form of mourning, it’s a curse!"

The director also admitted that he identifies with his characters, even though they are female. "I identify with them all, for the best and worst reasons," he said. "They all represent me in one way or another. After all, I’m 60-something years old. I don’t feel like an old man, but I’m getting there, and I understand her maturity. I never would have been able to make this film before now, but because of my age, I have a better understanding of fate, of the tragedies that can happen.”

Julieta_pedro_almodovar_cannes_no_film_school3'Julieta'Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Julieta was a surprising departure from what Almodóvar calls his "usual melodrama."

"My films have always been so baroque: lots of pop songs, exaggerated colors, characters with strong personalities who never hide their feelings at all, the opposite of a Puritan attitude," he said. "But here, with Julieta, I found myself creating a drama that was very restrained. Temperate, almost somber."

He couldn’t even find music to fit the film. "I’ve worked with the musician Alberto Iglesias for over two decades, but when I showed him a rough cut of Julieta, he had the same reaction I did," the director remembered. "He said, 'I don’t think it needs any music at all!' We wound up very restrained, with just the one song in the end credits, where the lyrics felt as if they could be part of the dialogue at that final moment."

Suarez, who plays the older Julieta, understood. "The beauty of Pedro’s work is that it reflects not just his life, but society," she said. "The side of society that we rarely see, the female side. His films help us question ourselves, they help us grow as individuals. It’s so important that that type of cinema exists."

See all of our coverage of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.