Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger made a name for himself with his offbeat 2003 debut feature, Torremolinos 73, about an unlikely married couple who become the director and star of adult films—and wind up more successful than they ever imagined.
Berger’s ambitious, long-awaited follow-up, Blancanieves, finds the eclectic moviemaker working in completely different territory, and bringing a new twist to iconic material.
Set in 1920’s Spain, the film takes its inspiration from the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale, Snow White. This time, though, the famous heroine is transformed i
nto Carmen (Macarena Garcia), the daughter of a legendary bullfighter, who escapes from her tyrannical stepmother (Maribel Verdu of Pan’s Labyrinth) to join a troupe of bullfighting dwarves, and, in the process, discovers her true calling in life. With its unforgettable visuals and beautiful black-and-white cinematography, this re-telling of Snow White is unlike any you’ve ever seen. And, as an homage to the golden age of European cinema, the film is silent—propogating, along with The Artist and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, a European renaissance in silent film.
Just before the movie’s release on March 29, MovieMaker caught up with Pablo Berger to discuss the truly magical Blancanieves.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): How did the innovative concept for the film—transforming the classic Snow White fairy tale into the journey of a female bullfighter in 1920s Spain—come about?
Pablo Berger (PB): The idea originated from a series of photographs I was looking at of bullfighters in Spain who were dwarves, by Spanish photographer Cristina García Rodero. I thought, “What if I placed a woman in these photos? What if that woman was Blancanieves [Snow White]?” From there, I started developing the idea and I thought I didn’t want Blancanieves to be the daughter of the king, but a normal person from the village, so her father could be a bullfighting king. If her father was a bullfighting king, then naturally her mother would be a flamenco dancer. The idea evolved very naturally and organically.
MM: Blancanieves manages to fuse many genres—it’s a fairy tale, a gothic melodrama, a love story. If you had to boil down the movie to its essence, how would you describe it?
PB: I like the idea of gothic melodrama in the early 1920’s. In the silent era, many movies said at the opening credits, “A melodrama directed by…,” so it was right there. The truth is, for me, the movie is a cocktail of different genres: drama, dark comedy, love story, horror movie, gothic melodrama. The truth is, I don’t believe in pure genres. I believe in a mix of genres. If I had to describe the film, I would say it is like a lasagna: a thick layer of emotion, thin layer of humor and another thick layer of surprise. Which are the three elements I would like all my films to have.
MM: You spent nearly ten years developing the film. Why did it take this long, and what was the biggest hurdle along the way?
PB: It was a very long, long journey to get this film made. Blancanieves is my second film; my first film was Torremolinos 73, released in 2003. It was a critical and commercial success, so I felt like I was the king of the world, but not for long. I thought I could bring a script out and it would get financed right away. But the reality was very different. I wrote the script [for Blancanieves] in 2005 and brought it to producers, and many didn’t get past the first page because it said, “Silent black and white film with music from beginning to end.” It’s an extremely expensive and complicated film to make. A very long journey. Producers thought films with those characteristics would never get financed, released, or made. Of all the difficulties, the biggest was to get the film financed.
MM: Shooting a black-and-white period movie (not to mention a silent one) couldn’t have been easy. What was the biggest challenge you encountered during filming?
PB: It’s a complex film. A good friend of mine says, “Pablo, this is your second and your third film!” It counts as two for its complexity. The most difficult aspect of actually making the film was to shoot with the bulls. All the bullfighting scenes were very complex. Bulls are not like actors, they don’t hit their mark. In my movie, they were characters, they were protagonists in their own way. At the same time I didn’t want to do the bullfighting scenes like they normally show on TV. I wanted the audience to feel what it would be like to be in the middle of the ring and to confront a bull: the fear, the tension, the loneliness. To achieve that, the camera had to be in the middle of the ring, I couldn’t shoot with long telephoto lenses. We had to construct this cage that normally people would use to shoot sharks. We spent two weeks just shooting bulls. They weighed 1,000 pounds; when they got in the ring, everyone had to run and hide to protect themselves.
MM: Between Blancanieves, The Artist, and the semi-silent Tabu, silent film seems to be making a comeback. Do you think we’ll see a continued resurgence of silent movies in years to come? Why did you think Blancanieves would work better as a silent?
PB: I want to think yes, because silent film is an art and it’s an industry, and both The Artist and Blancanieves prove that. The Artist has been one of the biggest successes in recent years and Blancanieves is a big box office success in Spain [the film also nabbed ten trophies, including Best Picture, at this year’s Goya Awards—the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars] and France. Hopefully in America, it will be the same. I think, because they have been successful, producers want to put money on winning horses, so all the obstacles and all the difficulties Blancanieves and The Artist faced—they won’t be scared if another black-and-white silent film comes along. I like The Artist, and I think it’s successful because it’s a good script and it’s a good story. I hope more black-and-white silent films from other countries get released because I think black-and-white silent films are an entirely different film experience. I think the audience has to participate more. The audience completes the film. The end result is much more gratifying an experience. It’s a sensorial experience. The audience, instead of thinking, they feel.
I wanted to make a silent film. Before I wanted to make Blancanieves, as a choice, I wanted to make a silent film. It has to do with my love for silent cinema. I still remember the first time I saw a silent film projected in a theater in the mid 1980’s. I felt things I had never felt before. The film was Greed and the music was played live, with Carl Davis directing the orchestra. The experience was breathtaking, it was cinematographic ecstasy. First was the silent idea, and then when I saw the photo with the bullfighting, I started thinking about making Snow White—“Why don’t I make a marriage and combine this idea?” For that reason, it was written from the beginning as a silent film. When I was writing, I was thinking about visual solutions and storytelling. It was very important to tell this story through images.
MM: Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from watching Blancanieves?
PB: I want audience to have a sensorial experience. To dream awake for the duration of the film. I would like the audience to lead the lives of the characters that appear in Blancanieves. I would love that they have a great time. I would love them to be surprised from beginning to end. And I would love that at the end of the film, that people will talk for five minutes about what happened at the end and hopefully they will disagree with each other. One of the secrets of Blancanieves is the end, it’s the cherry on the top of the film.
MM: Do you have any upcoming projects in the works you can tell us about?
PB: The truth is that since the film premiered in Toronto last September, I’ve been on a roller coaster ride of festivals and promotions, and I still have many other countries to go. The film is opening in Russia this month, Belgium, Greece, etc., so I try to go to as many territories as possible. At this moment I’m not preparing any project right away. But it took me so long to get this film financed; I need a chance to read some scripts and start thinking about making them. I am very critical when I read the scripts—If this were to be my last film, would I want to do it? I approach each film as if it were the last film I was to make. MM
Photo credit: Director Pablo Berger and actress Maribel Verdú, courtesy of Impacto NY.
Blancanieves begins its U.S. theatrical run on March 29.