Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Alejandro Amenabar

Doing Unto 'The Others'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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A couple of old ladies push their way through the doorway to Postrio, and polite, unassuming Alejandro Amenabar, a slight fellow with untucked button-up shirt and a slightly crooked haircut, lets them go by. I take a moment to wonder if the old ladies would have given him a second look if they knew he had directed superstar Nicole Kidman in his new film, The Others.

Amenabar got the job on the strength of his last film, Open Your Eyes, which scored as one of the biggest hits in Spanish history. But when it came time for the film's 1999 U.S. release, distributor Artisan dropped the ball. The film played for perhaps a week in a few major cities before disappearing. Even the video release was botched -- the film is still only available on a "priced-to-rent" VHS video, costing around $100. (The film will finally be released on DVD later this month.)

Nonetheless, the few who saw that amazing film, starring the now-famous Penelope Cruz, fell madly in love with it. Among its fans is Tom Cruise, who not only co-produces The Others but also produces and stars in the U.S. remake of Open Your Eyes, called Vanilla Sky, to be directed by Cameron Crowe. "It was my child and now it's theirs," Amenabar says coolly. "I don't know what they'll do, but I think they're doing it with lots of respect."

Cruise took a more indirect approach to The Others, though. "Tom Cruise's job was basically to be a warranty for the film," says the director over a light pasta dish at a back table in the clattering cacophony of Postrio. "He has a lot of technical knowledge about movies. That really surprised me. He knows a lot about movies. He gave me advice with the format, for instance. It was going to be shot in 'Scope. But he had big problems with Mission: Impossible II, and considering that this was a story about darkness and we were going to play with low light, that would have been a problem. So he was very supportive and at the same time, he was very respectful. He never came onto the set during shooting. He mostly gave his opinions before and after the shooting. I think he really understood the nature of the film."

The nature of the film is -- basically -- ghosts. While Open Your Eyes dealt with alternate perceptions and spooky turnabouts, The Others plunges straight ahead into an old-fashioned ghost story, with a new twist. Kidman plays a 1940s housewife named Grace whose husband has gone off to war. Her kids are photosensitive and must be kept out of the light at all times. She hires three new servants who take charge of the house just as mysterious things begin to happen. Grace's daughter (Alakina Mann) begins seeing visions of a family, especially a little boy and an old woman. Then things get really creepy.

I told Amenabar that The Others reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining in its use of one single location and the squared-off space of hallways and rooms. "For me, the three influences would be Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Kubrick," he says. "So maybe how I tried to focus on the camera... I can see the influence of Kubrick. It wasn't on purpose. Then there's Hitchcock. The character is called Grace, and she resembles Grace Kelly. But that's not on purpose at all."

Speaking of Kubrick, Kidman had just come off of a long shoot, working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut. But Amenabar says working with such a great filmmaker did not spoil her. "What really impressed me was her energy and her capability to work," he says of Kidman. "She loves working, and she loves repeat taking, doing more and more takes. She loves different takes because she tries to give something different each time. She gives different levels of energy, so that you can build the character in the editing room. She always tried to play the character from the inside, but she also has technique and she's very, very hard working. So it doesn't shock me that she worked with Kubrick."

"I think that I went deeper in that kind of vision in this film," he continues. "I think it's my purest film, from the camera point of view. I just tried to be specific and simple. We are talking about the opening credits, and [Dimension Films] wanted to do some effects. And I said, 'it has to be simple and specific.' It's the best way to get the audience's attention. Because nowadays you're subjected to these very, very short close-ups and this very fast editing with all these explosions and all this moving around. To me, in the end it's just boring. The best way to get back, to get the attention of the audience, is having a very quiet film that plays with silence, and with very simple shots."

Aside from working behind the camera, Amenabar also writes the screenplay. "That's the most difficult for me because it's actually creating." He starts with the twist ending, then develops the beginning, then fills in "all the stuff in the middle." He recalls, "it was summer and I was alone all the time, trying to scare myself. I almost got it a couple of times, because my cat is always around and you never know when he's going to jump and tackle you."

Amenabar also writes to music. "Soundtracks, mostly," he says. Fitting, because Amenabar himself is also a composer, having scored all his own films, plus last year's Spanish import Butterfly. Mostly he listens to the master, Bernard Herrmann, who composed dozens of brilliant scores, including Hitchcock's Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.

Though he's not afraid of ghosts anymore, he feels that he purged all his childhood fears by making The Others. "It happens with every film. All your obsessions, your paranoias, you mix them with your story. In my case, I try to work in two levels. One is pure entertaining level, for an audience who just wants to go to the cinema and have fun. And the other level in which I set up all my questions, not even answers. Questions I ask myself and I would like the audience to ask themselves."

Strangely, even after purging his fears and looking with a rational eye, Amenabar still does not believe in ghosts. "I consider myself agnostic," he says. "When I was ten, I traveled to Chile with my brother and an aunt of ours had a séance in front of us. And it was quite impressive, but I can find out many explanations for it. It's not something that really obsesses me. To me, this is a story about human ghosts. And that can be even more scary."

July 20, 2001

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