Alejandro Amenabar is intense. His dark hair is cropped close to his head, his dark eyes look directly into yours, and his slight frame shifts restlessly on the hotel suite sofa. But he also has an obvious gentleness about him, as well as a seductive excitement about movies. Born in Santiago, Chile, the twenty-nine-year-old writer-director-composer grew up in Spain, and attended Madrid's Complutense University. By 1992, he was already winning awards for his short films and videos. His first feature, Tesis (Thesis), released in 1996 and starring Ana Torrent, follows a young cinematography student working on her doctoral thesis, as she finds some archival footage that turns out to be a snuff film, establishing his affection for suspenseful, scary movies.
With his second film, 1997's Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), starring Eduardo Noriega and Penelope Cruz, Amenabar mixed science fiction, romance, and suspense, in a plot involving a young man in a cryogenic sleep, trying to sort out in his dreams just what has happened to him. The film, which screened at Sundance in 1998, won the attention of Tom Cruise, who, with his producing partner Paula Wagner, developed it for a U.S. version, directed by Cameron Crowe, and starring Cruise and Cruz.
Amenabar's new film, The Others, is also concerns the mounting terror of a young -- and very pale -- mother named Grace (Nicole Kidman), living alone in a mansion on the Isle of Jersey during the final days of World War II. Anxiously awaiting her long-absent soldier husband's (unlikely) return from the front, she devotes herself to caring for her two young children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). As the children have recently developed a deathly allergy to sunlight, Grace must keep her curtains closed at all times. When a trio of servants shows up at the house, offering to help get the house in order, Grace accepts. And so begins a frightening journey toward her self-knowledge.
Cynthia Fuchs: How would you describe the thematic connections between The Others and Open Your Eyes [Abre Los Ojos]?
Alejandro Amenabar: I would say that both films are very similar thematically and philosophically, and they ask the same kind of questions. But from an external point of view, the stories and styles are completely different. When I wrote my first film, I could see that I could have some input, apart from the plot and the tricks, that I could create suspense and raise questions. I imagine an audience's point of view. I try to work on both levels.
CF: What are the questions that you like to raise?
AA: I'm trying to bring things down to a human level. I don't like to give big morals in films. though I like to have a personal position in the story. I like to ask questions that are big to me, but have an audience ask them of themselves, in their own way. So, in the case of The Others, it has to do with death, and how religion gives meaning to death and the concept of destiny, and how it responds to not really knowing. I would say that my position is agnosticism, and it should be the same for the characters at the end of the film. It's about not having big answers for everything, but questioning ourselves.
CF: The structure here is less fragmented than in Open Your Eyes, but also considers a fragmented existence, across different times.
AA: It is a different style in The Others, not as much jumping in time. It's not that I think it's a bad technique, but I wanted to do something different. in Open Your Eyes, I think I had to do it. Otherwise, it would have been three completely different movies. It was confusing. I remember one day on the set, Penelope [Cruz] saying, "Ah! Now I think I got the idea!" [Laughs] In the middle of the shoot! I thought then that next time, I wanted to do something simpler, with just three actors, in one set. Something more linear.
CF: Here the point of view gives you depth.
AA: Yes. The point of view mostly belongs to one character, Grace. And in Open Your Eyes, the one point of view always comes from one character. That's an important concept for me. It's hard for me to adopt a position of God, seeing what my characters do, and hiding some parts. I prefer to work from one character's point of view.
CF: I kept thinking as I was watching about the concept of "otherness," and how you define yourself in relation to those who are not you. And how does religion give you a specific structure for that relation?
AA: Exactly. I was brought up in Catholicism. And religion gives you the answers. I think it's not good to think that we have the answers. That's what I'm trying to say through this story. For me, it's a journey for Grace and her children toward light, as a form of knowledge. And the War -- it's Grace who cannot accept and realize this other, outside War, which has to do with her own war, her own reality in conflict with her beliefs.
CF: And those beliefs disallow the existence of ghosts?
AA: Yes, but actually, religion -- including Grace's -- has always had a base in ghosts. And for me the tricky thing was to make that work on the opposite level. Because she believes in her religion, she can't accept the supernatural thing.
CF: How did you come up with the particular setting, and especially the time, the end of the Second World War?
AA: When I start to write, I always need to know the beginning and the end, mostly the end, because I need to know the journey for the characters. And then I need to come up with the middle. It's important how you set up the story, that's what makes it surprising, or honest or dishonest. It's not what happens, but how it happens and how you set it up. I wanted to use this setting because I used to read these novels from the '40s and the '50s, second-hand most of them. I wanted to get that sense back, the mystery of those novels. And I wanted to get back to the style of the suspense films of the '40s and '50s, that feeling that I can't feel nowadays in many horror pictures. Also, because I think that for a woman living in this jeopardy, it was harder in those times. And the war -- as an idea -- was important, even when I wrote the film in Spanish and thought about placing it in South America. I needed the husband to go to war and come back. And when we decided to set it in England, it made sense to set it during the Second World War, and especially in these Islands, which were the only British territory occupied by the Nazis. There was a whole sense of guilt on those Islands, because of the "nice" relationship between the English and the Germans. And it is a story about guilt, more than anything else.
CF: How would you describe the "pleasure" of being scared, and how it's different in your film, compared to current horror films?
AA: I think the difference is in how you approach the audience, and trying to connect with the audience. I think for better or worse, I'm trying to do exactly the opposite of what you see in most horror films today. Start with the special effects: in other films you might be seeing ghosts flying around. It doesn't disturb me. So I tried to work in a more realistic way and play with primary fears, and very simple elements, the things I was scared of when I was a child. I tried to adopt the role of a child when I was writing. And I tried to put the audience in that position. Or the sound, for instance; I think that nowadays, the levels of sound in many mixes are completely unbelievable and insane. So we tried to make a very quiet film, and use silence as a way to create suspense.
CF: What do you think is the pleasure that we take in fear?
AA: For me, it's one extreme feeling. It's fun when you are completely safe, but I had a lot of creepy feelings; I was a very easily scared boy. The experience in movies can be so extreme that we can learn from that. To me, it's the best to express many of my concerns, obsessions, or even paranoias. It's an easy way as well, because it works as mathematics. Scaring people can be easy. [Laughs] The tricky thing is to integrate it with a plot. It's not like comedy, which to me seems very difficult. For me it's the perfect vehicle.
CF: In many horror films -- and yours is a good example -- the anxieties stem from family dynamics, wanting to understand or possess or protect your family members.
AA: Yes. And family is a very big concept in Spain. I was brought up in a very nice and strong family. But what I wanted to explore in this film was the dark side of the family, which is not against love. But this dark side of love is very interesting.
CF: I was also intrigued that there wasn't a direct "explanation" or rationale for what happens.
AA: I think there is a physical level of explanation, and also a spiritual or emotional one. We talked about having Nicole doing a long speech at the end of the film, or to show the whole thing in flashback. But we decided not to, and that this was more elegant and simple, a more economical way to end. Many questions are answered. But especially with all the religious stuff -- hell, heaven, purgatory -- I wanted to leave many open questions. I want to leave something for the audience to ask themselves.
CF: But the film doesn't explain her actions, or demonize her.
AA: You're right. That is left to poetry.
CF: You also compose the scores for your films.
AA: For me, it's fun, and something I started with my short films, and even as a child, playing with keyboards. But for me it helps to set the tone and the mood. Many directors can do that by talking to a composer. I think that I would be such a pain in the ass trying to work with a composer, so I prefer to do it myself.
CF: So as you're conceiving a story, how or when does the music come in?
AA: Actually, I'm singing all the time [laughs]. And that's a problem, as I'm walking down the street, just put a soundtrack to my whole life! But I think it helps e to develop many ideas, because I can't write music. I used to have a little recorder that I would use to record melodies. But then the hard work comes after the final editing of the film. For this film, I had to spend lots of hours, because unlike other composers, I don't know how to write music. I have to try to listen to everything first, and put the music into my computer, then transfer it to a score. I play with samples, and try to reproduce what I hear in my head. In the case of this soundtrack, I focused on soloists. In many horror films, the music is so great, and so well-orchestrated and perfect, but then again, it just doesn't scare me. I thought that a solo cello would be good. Most of it is very simple.
CF: How was it to work with the kids?
AA: It was good. [Laughs] I was very scared, because I don't have kids and I've never worked with kids before. I think Hitchcock used to say something like that, "Never work with horses or kids." And one of the problems we have with kids nowadays is that they don't read too much. So we needed young kids who could understand the nature of their characters, and their souls. And these kids are very smart. I tried to get along with them as soon as possible, to establish with them a relationship based on respect. So they knew they came to work, basically, and I was feeling sad for them, because they couldn't be exposed to sunlight, to keep their skin as white as possible. Of course they were in makeup, but they had to stay pale. So when they went out, it was at night, like little vampires. [Laughs] They're very nice, and they behaved like brother and sister. And though it was difficult, the allergy was an excellent metaphor for this story, the journey toward light.
CF: That journey for Grace looks harrowing, and Nicole Kidman appears in most every scene.
AA: For her, the freakiest thing was -- and she insisted, and I thought she was right -- that she performed always the character from the inside, from her heart. It must have been hard for her. She has children. When the character went into hell, she also went into hell. Once, she said, "I bled for this film," and I can believe it. As a director, the best I could do was support her. And I tried to give her freedom to create the character, and to make Grace hers.
CF: The plot is so precise, too, as each scene is interlocked with another scene.
AA: Yes, the cast and I we were very aware, considering the nature of suspense, not to give away too much in any one scene. So, that had to do with what I was shooting as well as what they were doing.
CF: I'm also interested in the use of the servants as a way to create tension.
AA: The servants don't move in a very precise period. But we thought that Mrs. Mills [Fionnula Flanagan] had to be someone who could stand up in front of someone like Grace. But in this case, women are much stronger than men in the film: men are dominated by women. You can see this in the relationship between Mrs. Mills and Mr. Tuttle [Eric Sykes], the gardener. The whole class concept is there, but not as strong, probably. Once you are inside the house, it is difficult to realize at what time you are or even where you are. It has more to do with human level. And these two women start to become sort of friends.
CF: How did you think about Grace's "development," given that, at some level, she must remain so undeveloped, so ignorant about herself?
AA: There are so many explanations about that! [Laughs] To me, again, it's about religion and miracle. How she perceives what happens has to do with miracles and with God, her belief that "God is with me," like when her husband comes home. She believes, "God is helping me." For the children, they see that their mother has tried to do something, but she does not achieve it. For Grace, it's like trying to get it out from her mind, but the girl doesn't want to get it out.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.