The Storyteller: An Exploration of the Writer/Directors Pedro Almodóvar and Neil Jordan
Updated: May 30, 2020
The directors are ultimately storytellers; people who rummage through their own lives and deliver honest reflections on the human condition no matter the genre. Even filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, who has delivered blockbusters time and again, uses experiences from life and his inspirations to make films like E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) but for this piece I would like to look at the writer-director, those who delve into controversial territory and portray taboo and diverse characters, progressive female roles create beautiful stories that translate wonderfully to the screen. Pedro Almódvar and Neil Jordan are the best example of filmmakers like this.
"Almodóvar’s stories unravel whilst Jordan’s unwind."
Both Jordan and Almodóvar grew up in times of political turmoil; the former during the height of the Troubles in Ireland and the latter under Franco-ruled Spain. Their films touch upon these issues but ultimately they allow their upbringing to influence but not define their work. In a similar stain to Powell and Pressburger in the 1940’s and 50’s both create films with a magical realism about them, a world not too far from our own. Almodóvar in particular has produced a universe that is perfectly his own, with his use of colour and style one need only see a frame and recognises his work. Jordan began his career as a novelist, and his world-building within his films has a potency one would find in literature. He has successfully adapted many novels to the screen, the works of Grahame Greene, Angela Carter and even Anne Rice. The latter’s work is one of his greatest achievements. Interview with the Vampire (1994) did the original book justice bringing it beautifully to life and also re-invented the cinematic vampire genre. Both directors deliver honest and moving stories that are incredibly human beneath the mystery and charm.
"The director is the god-like force watching over the events... the silent master manipulator."
Jordan favours night scenes, stories that unfold under the cover of darkness. There is a richness, and noirish quality to them. His style is contemplative, secretive and moody. The lighting is often blue-hued, with smoky rooms but rarely bleak. He creates a mythic environment in Michael Collins (1996) of the Irish revolutionaries rallying amongst the smoke and mist, in The Crying Game (1992) he makes the moment Dil sings in the bar, the light raining down on her, her gold dress shimmering as she caresses the empty space before her, a very personal, dream-like experience. And in The End of the Affair (1999), the two lovers first kiss is framed and shot in a swoon-worthy scenario, the shadows hiding them, the light from the windows on their faces bathing them in a silver moonlight; it evokes a dramatic romanticism, what they are doing is madness, forbidden but everything they need. Neil Jordan, if he were born in the 19th century would have been in a similar league to Byron with his semi-gothic imagery. Different from mainstream cinema, he is patient with his scenes, will hold a frame or follow a characters smoothly, rarely using handheld. The director is the god-like force watching over the events, that is how Jordan works; the silent master manipulator.
Unlike Almodóvar whose films flourish with vibrancy. His earlier work was full of manic characters, erratic plots an example being Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). But his style was still evident. His films are sleek, like a perfume commercial, full of colour and the Spanish sun. Even his darkest tales have a composition and palette that is beautifully designed. Volver (2006) is vibrant ripe with red in every shot, considering there is a murder, the film could be mistaken for a comedy or the very least a melodrama. It is full of warmth and touching moments, of women coming together in times of crisis. The Skin I Live In (2011) in is cooler tones but the placing of the actors, the voyeurism of Antonio Banderas’s character of his experiment as he watches her on the screen as she reads. He mimics her position, Almodóvar forces us to ask the question; is this any different to how we watch cinema, how we are watching those two characters before us. This is the director’s style; media, the cinematic platform, its perversions, its magic is key to his storytelling, just as literature and its structures is very prominent in Jordan’s work. Almodóvar’s stories unravel whilst Jordan’s unwind.
Popular themes in their writing seem to grow from the oppression and uncertainty they had to endure. Isolation, guilt, religion, sexual awakening and gender are prominent but most importantly change. Both reflecting their progression as filmmakers, as they have made each film they have matured and cannot be accused of producing the same content time and again. Each story is individual, with some weaker entries in their filmography but overall delivering, Jane Giles wrote in her critical essay on The Crying Game and Jordans works and his style of film-making that:
‘Jordans films can be thrilling and bewildering. Repeated viewing affords a familiarity with the internal logic of his world, while considering each film within the context of his other woks allows a coherent project to emerge… Jordan’s belief that the complicated process of film-making exists to be bent to his imaginative purpose…’ – (Giles, 1997, pg. 16)
It is interesting how often the directors cross over into similar territories and how differently they deal with it. Both have been mocking of aspects in their own cultures, both have addressed Catholicism, Jordan in a positive way, often exploring the ‘friendly priest’ twist as with Jason Isaacs role in The End of the Affair. Meanwhile, Almodóvar has been harsher, in his controversial black comedy Dark Habits (1983) he portrayed the hypocrisy of the church with a convent full of homosexual, drug-taking nuns. Again he revisited the subject briefly in All About My Mother (1999) and then again in Bad Education (2004) about abuse in a boys catholic school. To revisit and explore the recurring themes in their works is to understand the director or at least their intentions. These are very human feelings and the gifts of these writer-directors is stripping away the melodrama, the madness and addressing these relatable subjects within extraordinary frames of work.
Both winners of best original screenplay, at the Oscars, their diverse storytelling won the hearts of wide audiences and paved the way for a more progressive cinematic future. Both filmmakers have found their voices through taboo subjects. Jordan, considering his upbringing in a strict catholic household, has tackled plenty of controversial topics. One of the most famous films of the 1990’s was The Crying Game, he wrote the story of an ex-IRA officer falling in love with a transvestite. In a later interview with the Stephen Rea who starred in the lead role as Fergus, said of the story ‘I come from Belfast and this was such an interesting way of dealing with all the issues that tormented people there. To throw gender identity into the mix of our political identity problems cast a different light on everything.’ (Brady, 2017) He upset many due to the political subject matter, which he has never shied away from, but he was intent on making the point that these people who were painted by the media as manic monsters were just people who had reasons for believing in what they did, could love and change their views. Later on he revisited the topic, featuring another transvestite character in the film Breakfast on Pluto (2005), a film about an openly gay man growing up during the troubles in Ireland, searching for his biological father, an Irish priest, and how he stayed true to himself through all the hardships he faced.
Almodóvar cast a transgender actress in his film Law of Desire (1987); he wrote transsexuals and homosexuals into his films and includes positive strong female roles in all his films. Roger Ebert (2006) said of the director that he has a great appreciation of women and their strengths, and you can see it in his writing. Mostly to do with his upbringing in Spain surrounded by a supportive matriarchal structure, they were the ones who were there for him as he struggled as a young homosexual man (Saner, 2016). Even in a film such as Talk to Her (2002) - which won Almodóvar his academy award for Best Original Screenplay - , about two women in comas and the men who care for them, seems as though it wouldn’t work. The two main women are unconscious throughout the most of it, there is even a brutalisation of one of them (handled in both a subtle and artistic way) and it can be easy to assume that it uses the women as tools for the story rather than actual characters. But to watch it, they are the story. Without them, the men would never have formed a friendship together nor would they have found the courage to say what they needed to say. It’s a criticism of the lack of communication among men.
Actors have often praised working with Jordan and Almodóvar; they have earned loyalty amongst some of them because of it. It is often though that Almodóvar is able to get the very best performances and characteristics from his recurring actors Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz. Bochenski (2006) wrote of the directors skill with regards to Cruz’s performances that ‘…he brandishes actors like weapons; well if that’s so, Penélope Cruz is his nuclear button‘. And Jordan has worked with Stephen Rea in eleven films, the two complimenting one another well with Rea’s great understanding of the story being told and his gentle, subtle performances perfectly suited the contemplative film-making of the director.
"...content is prioritised; the composition is tidy, economical and intelligent."
The two director’s ability to convey so much in a single look, in a positioning of the camera is far more important than what intricate motions they could make the camera do. The content is prioritised; the composition is tidy, economical and intelligent. During the scenes of depression in Julieta (2016), Almodóvar focuses only on the title character, before this we have seen the faces of the two young girls who take care of her but the camera moves closer and closer to her as time passes. The other characters are just voices and actions to the audience, just as they are to Julieta, it makes them no less important, and it only shows how incapable she was of considering her daughter who gave up her youth to look after her, until it was too late. In Interview with the Vampire, there is a scene that would have been made with multiple cuts, probably handheld if it had been shot now and by another heavy-handed director. The scene is the moment Lestat attempts to seduce Louis into drinking the blood of a prostitute all the while playing with his conscious prey. It is wides and mid-shots, its theatrical and dramatic, with sweeping slow tracking to the wineglass being placed against the bleeding wrist. Playing out slowly, it forces the audience to endure the suffering, its brutal in its lavishness.
As auteurs, Neil Jordan and Pedro Almodóvar are able to convey wonderful stories with great emotional heart. They focus on substance and have a strong vision that compliments their style. Jordan said himself that all one needed to direct was ‘… to have some intelligence and a visual sense.’ (Brady, 2016). They are proof that a gentle touch makes for a pleasanter cinema experience and that breaking the mould can genuinely pay off as they are two of the most progressive filmmakers working in the industry today. Because they remember the power and relevance of storytelling.
(Originally submitted on 07/01/18 in association with an assignment on the directors role.)
BOCHENSKI, M. (2006). Volver Review. Little White Lies.com. [Online]. 24th August. Available from: http://lwlies.com/reviews/volver/. [Accessed: 28th December 2017].
BRADY, T. (2016) Neil Jordan Interview. The Irish Times [Online]. 17th March. available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/neil-jordan-michael-collins-was-conventional-apart-fromthe-guerrilla-warfare-1.2569575. [Accessed: 2nd January 2018]
BRADY, T. (2017). Neil Jordan and Stephen Rea Interview. The Irish Times [Online]. 1st August. Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/the-crying-game-they-wanted-me-to-casta-woman-that-was-pretending-to-be-a-man-1.3167472. [Accessed: 28th December 2017].
EBERT, R. (2006). Volver Review. RogerEbert.com [Online].21st November. Available from: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/volver-2006. [Accessed: 2nd January 2018]
GILES, J. (1997). The Crying Game. First Edition. London: BFI
SANER, E. (2016). How We Made Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/sep/13/how-we-madewomen-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown-pedro-almodovar. [Accessed: 28th December 2017].
Interview with the Vampire. (1994). Film. Directed by Neil Jordan. [DVD]. US: Warner Brothers.
Michael Collins. (1996). Film. Directed by Neil Jordn. [DVD]. UK: Warner Brothers.
The Crying Game. (1992). Film. Directed by Neil Jordan. [DVD]. UK: Pathe.
The Skin I Live In. (2011). Film. Directed by Pedro Almodovar. Spain: Pathe.
Talk to Her. (2002). Film. Directed by Pedro Almodovar. Spain: Pathe.