Alejandro Amenabar shoots for the top with controversial drama

Alejandro Amenabar is not even 33 years old and he’s threatening the reign of Pedro Almodovar over Spanish cinema. A Renaissance cinema artist, Amenabar directs, writes screenplays for his – and others’ – films, composes and arranges scores for his – and others’ – films, and edits, produces and occasionally even acts in them. In the eight years that have elapsed since his debut with «Tesis,» subsequent films, such as «Abre los Ojos» («Open Your Eyes,» which was remade by Hollywood as «Vanilla Sky») and the hugely successful «The Others,» have established Amenabar as one of the most sought-after directors of the international film industry. His latest film, «The Sea Inside,» which touches on the sensitive subject of euthanasia, has elevated Amenabar from the status of hopeful young director to an award-winning and firmly established artist. «The Sea Inside» has already earned the special jury award from the Venice International Film Festival, as well as the best actor award for Javier Bardem’s performance. It has also been nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and best actor, categories in which it is also vying at the Independent Spirit Awards. Moreover, the poignant drama has also received the award for best foreign-language film from National Board of Review and looks as if it is in serious competition for an Oscar. Despite the controversial subject of the film – which is based on a true story – at our meeting in London, Amenabar insisted that what interested him most was not euthanasia as a theme, but the story of love and strength that emerged from the real events. The early days What was your stance on euthanasia when you began working on the film? I was interested in the specific case of Ramon Sampedro, like many others in Spain, but I don’t remember ever asking myself whether I agreed with Ramon or not. What I did consider was what I would do if I were in his place; whether I would want to die or not. I had not considered making his story into a film at first, but later, out of curiosity, I read his book and found it fascinating. I felt a connection to his views on death; I respected them and at the time I agreed with them. At the same time though, I also felt more alive. The more Ramon said he wanted to die, the more fortunate I felt to be alive. I never thought I could make his story into a film, or that I would be the right director to do so because my stories are normally not social or political. A few years later, I reconsidered it, did some research and discovered that I was interested in the human side of the story. That’s what I wanted to focus on, the characters. Of course, the issue of euthanasia is always there but I always saw it as a secondary plot line. The main thing in the story to me is the character of Ramon himself: his magnetism, his vivacity, his sense of humor. What happened to make you «right» for the job? The fact that until the moment I became involved with this film, I was always the one who selected what stories to tell. This story overwhelmed me and it chose me itself, bringing me to the point of saying that I had to do this movie. I think the defining moment was when I met a friend of Ramon’s and he told me about all the women who were in love with him. That was when I thought that this was a love story and that was when I began feeling connected to it. While I was writing the screenplay, I considered doing a fictional film inspired by the facts. When I brought all the information together though, I was impressed by how real it was and when I gave the text to Ramon’s family, they said that this was his story. I always respect someone who chooses what to do with his own life. I respect him and believe that he was right when he said that his life was his own. Has your definition of love changed since you read the story and made the film? Love depends on many things and this story is an investigation into different types of love. The types of love he has for the two women he’s with are very different from one another, just as what it means is different for Ramon than it is for them. The bond of love he has with his sister-in-law is different. I was especially intrigued to examine love under such circumstances, as well as the possibility for love. Was he in love or wasn’t he? He said that he would not allow himself to fall in love, but the people around him said it was possible. Javier Bardem, when he was preparing for the role of Ramon, asked me whether he was in love or not, and I couldn’t answer him. Best actor for the job Why did you choose Bardem? It’s simple. He is a lot more talented than other actors. In Spain, when you want the best, you turn to Javier. For some reason, though, it had not seemed like a good idea at first. I was concerned – as was Javier – about the aging process. So, it was not a decision I could make very easily. Bardem says that shooting some of the scenes was very exhausting and that there were many takes. Like the death scene, he says you did it 40 times. It wasn’t that many, but it seemed like more to Javier because it is a long and extremely intense scene. He experienced the entire process of imminent death and in condensed form as well, because the scene is shorter than the actual event. There was one moment when he broke down and said that he couldn’t do it anymore, that he felt like he was really dying. On the first take, some members of the crew came up to me, terrified, and said they thought Javier was dying. I got scared then too, but for a different reason. I thought that maybe we were overdoing it and making a film about death when I wanted to make one about life. The story had to be told from the side of light and life. What was the public’s reaction to the film in Spain? The most negative reactions came from people who hadn’t seen it. They were negative about the fact that the film had been made at all. They said I should never have made the film and when «The Sea Inside» opened in the movie theaters, they said they would never watch it. In general though, it was very successful in Spain and I do not think it provoked reaction for or against euthanasia. Even the organization for the right to euthanasia did not take a stance when the film came out. After the success of «The Others,» why didn’t you choose to continue your career in the USA? Why should I? It is, of course, a serious question, but I have stopped worrying about it. What makes my work exciting for me is taking the audience on a journey. Not my personal journey to Hollywood. Los Angeles may be a great city but I don’t want to live there. New York is a more attractive option. It is, after all, the center of the world, but not the cinema world. Anyway, as far as making my films is concerned, I don’t feel restricted by living in Madrid. I have everything I need. This interview was translated from the Greek text.

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