Pedro Almodóvar and I are discussing green jackets, specifically the vibrant one worn by Pedro Pascal’s cowboy in the Spanish director’s new Western, Strange Way of Life.
“It’s the first film where I don’t mix genres, the only one where I’ve respected the rules,” declares Almodóvar over Zoom from his offices in Madrid. “There are no anachronisms in the clothing, the language, anything.”
Except, perhaps, that leaf-green jacket, I venture — surely those didn’t exist in the Old West. “Yes, even that existed!” Almodóvar shoots back with a triumphant smile. “In a film by Anthony Mann called Bend of the River, James Stewart wears a jacket like that.” An assistant is summoned to produce photographic evidence on his phone. “I wanted to add colour, but I didn’t know how . . . so I was very happy to find Bend of the River. If James Stewart wears a jacket like that, so can Pedro Pascal!”
It’s a typical but rare Almodóvarian flourish in a movie that otherwise adheres mostly to convention: a rancher (Pascal) rides back into the old desert town he left years ago to defend his wayward son, who is wanted for murder by the local sheriff (Ethan Hawke). There will be horses, pistols, ten-gallon hats and a climactic shootout. There is just one notable break from classic Western tradition: the two middle-aged men are former lovers, the flame of desire rekindled by their new encounter.
“The first thing I wrote was the two old cowboys waking up after an orgiastic night of alcohol and sex,” Almodóvar says of the film, which is only 31 minutes in length. “What interested me most was their conversation and how each of the characters reacts to that night — a very distinct reaction in each of them.”
This collision of unquenchable love and impossible circumstance reminded me of wartime Hollywood romances such as Casablanca, I tell him. “There is romance, but on the other hand there are the elements of the Western . . . traditional values united with a story of this passion that seems unilateral. Because Sheriff Jake doesn’t react like a man in love, quite the opposite, as if to say, ‘Nothing happened here, it’s only the alcohol,’ which is a very typically male reaction to homosexual desire.”
In any discussion of gay cowboys, especially with Almodóvar, it’s impossible not to mention Brokeback Mountain, which he was approached to direct but eventually declined. As he told me in 2014, “I like [Ang Lee’s] version very much, but I always imagined it differently and I don’t think I would have been able to make it the way I wanted. They wouldn’t have let me.”
I wonder if the same applies today. Is the appearance of gay love in the hallowed American form of the Western still such a taboo almost 20 years after Brokeback? “I never felt any taboo but evidently for the directors who made [classic] Westerns it was a prohibited subject . . . And it seemed strange to me that I’d never found a film that dealt with the desire between two men. That’s why I was interested in tackling this subject.”
His interest was excited further by the appearance of several boldly original new Westerns in recent years: Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017), Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019) and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021), in which repressed homosexuality plays a key role.
“Curiously, all three are made by women and all very different, bringing a new eye to the genre. The Western continues to be current depending on the gaze of the writer or director.” He also points to more traditional new examples of the form, for example the TV series Yellowstone. “It’s all very masculine — even the women. The daughter of Kevin Costner’s character is more masculine than any of the cowboys.”
Strange Way of Life too is male-dominated, strikingly so for a director famed for giving women the foreground in celebrated films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother and Volver. A shift came with 2019’s Pain & Glory, which focused heavily on male characters, Antonio Banderas playing a thinly disguised version of Almodóvar himself.
“It’s true that I’m more open to making films about men than before,” says the 73-year-old director. “I think it has to do with age, looking back on memories and seeing part of your own life.”
The new film is also a departure in terms of language. It is only Almodóvar’s second in English — written by him in Spanish, then translated — and his first full original script to incorporate English dialogue (2020’s The Human Voice was a Jean Cocteau monologue delivered by Tilda Swinton). All of this is a warm-up of sorts for his first full-length English-language feature, “a very intimate one about women”, to be shot early next year in New York. “These two [short] films have been experiments to see if I was capable of working in the language,” he says.
To this end, his casting choices for Strange Way of Life are astute, beginning with Hawke, one of the most European of American actors — “he’s atypical, a kind of adventurer” — while Pascal (star of The Mandalorian and The Last of Us) is Chilean-born and arrived on set “attracted to changing register and showing that he can do something very different”.
Did he discern a difference working with American-trained actors? “We had to mutually adjust to each other and I had to explain my ways of working,” he says. “During preproduction I insisted a lot on rehearsals, for example, because of insecurity and because it’s what I always do. I rehearse even while we’re already shooting, when they are setting up the lights. I realised they were not so used to that way of working.”
Key to the success of the project was how the two actors connected on screen, the drama driven by their longing looks and roiling inner conflict. “There was an immediate chemistry between them, and that aided my work a great deal,” says Almodóvar.
Could it be that the real taboo these days is not that the two lovers are men — or even cowboys — but that they are approaching or over 50? “Not for me, but we see it very little. I think it’s an effect of marketing. The most highly valued thing in marketing and publicity is youth . . . But desire exists among people over 50 and one should show it because it’s real — and cinema should reflect some type of reality.”
It may be this thirst for emotional authenticity that has kept Almodóvar at the forefront of arthouse cinema for more than 40 years. I ask him if audiences have become more conservative since he started making films in the heady days of Madrid’s post-Franco Movida scene in the late 1970s.
“Society in general has become more conservative, including in Spain,” he says. “The US too is much more conservative than it was 30 years ago . . . There is a wave of puritanism that is reaching all parts, together with the politics of the extreme right, which is worrying for the liberty of expression. Society has regrettably become more conservative — and I try to fight against that.”
‘Strange Way of Life’ is in UK cinemas on September 25 only, with an Almodóvar Q&A
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