While contemporary audiences might know him best as the swashbuckling Zorro, the gun-toting El Mariachi, or the voice of Shrek‘s furry friend, Puss in Boots (who’s set to get his own spin-off film in 2012), Spanish native and Hollywood veteran Antonio Banderas got his start in the audacious films of art-house darling Pedro Almodovar (including Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Matador, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Naturally, we were dying to see if Banderas’ favorite films were as varied, and as controversial, as the movies in which he’s starred — and we weren’t disappointed.
We were also curious to address a pricklier subject regarding movies and the artists who make them, no matter their audience. This week, Banderas, Morgan Freeman, and director Mimi Leder attempt to subvert a popular way of thinking in Hollywood with their heist thriller, The Code; namely, that “direct-to-DVD” doesn’t necessarily equal “bad.” In The Code, Banderas and Freeman play criminals who form a tenuous partnership in order to pull off a huge heist in New York City; gangsters, girls, double-crosses, and, yes, a room full of lasers provide familiar genre obstacles for the pair, who enjoy a smooth chemistry onscreen in a genre exercise that probably could have performed well in theaters in the ’90s.
In this regard, Banderas is a happy pragmatist, and well aware of the difficulties (and values) of working outside of Hollywood on independent productions like The Code. “The work is what you do when you are acting,” he told us, satisfied with the experience alone. “But that’s the way it goes!”
Read on to see which auteurs Banderas noted among his favorites, why he joined the cast of Mimi Leder’s The Code (out this week on DVD) just weeks before filming, his thoughts on independent filmmaking, Fellini, Bunuel, and more, and how being a pragmatist is necessary for an artist in his particular line of work.
Why? Well, I think it’s an act of freedom, the whole entire movie, practically. They didn’t have a script. In 1962, which is the year when the movie was shot, I thought it was unbelievable that somebody would just go into an experiment like that. It’s still a very experimental movie, very emotional in a way. I like what he says about the human spirit and creation; in a way, crisis of a man confronting life, his past, his present and his future in a very formal way. I mean formal in terms of format, how the movie was told, not only in the content of the movie, which is amazing. Also in the way that he decided to just do it absolutely free, inventing new rules for telling a story and not going in a traditional way. I thought it was the masterpiece of Federico Fellini that most attracted me; I feel very proud that I know [what it’s like for] a guy like Federico Fellini, who got the balls to just jump into such believable, reflections of mirrors, you know, inside the movie.
I love the scope of the movie; there is something in David Lean that I like very much. He’s always of the macro worlds and the micro worlds; he didn’t only do it in Lawrence of Arabia, but repeated it in Dr. Zhivago and other movies. [In Lawrence of Arabia] he made a movie with enormous scope and events that were known in the world — the Turkish-British War, and at the time, the taking of Akaba — things that were very spectacular and very epic, but in reality he’s talking to us about the homosexuality of one of the characters and something really minimalistic and very precise. He gets into the soul of a man through this spectacular movie and this union of these two worlds. He did it again in Dr. Zhivago as I said before, because in a way he put together the entire Russian revolution, which is also very big, while in reality telling a love story. So this kind of union, joining, he does between the macro world and the micro world is something that I was always interested in, and he was a master of doing the type of job. It’s one of those movies that always remain in your mind. Also, he gave himself permission to do it in a way that probably no studio would buy in our day; just to see a man coming from five miles into the camera for two minutes and a half — no executive producer would allow that to happen! He gave himself permission to do that, and I had the luck of seeing a remastered version of Lawrence of Arabia in a theater in Spain 10 years ago, and it was magnificent because it gave you the possibility of thinking, which is unusual.
We also have the performance of first time movie actor Peter O’Toole. That was the first movie that he did, which I didn’t know until I worked with Omar Sharif in a movie that I did years ago called 13th Warrior, and he told me that. At the time, he was a very prominent theater actor in London, but that was the first movie that he did. I will never forget those blue eyes on the big screen. Amazing!
The Exterminating Angel is a surrealistic movie. It’s about a bunch of people from high society in Mexico who, after one night at the opera, decide to have drinks in the house of one of them, and they cannot get out. And they spend about three months there, and you don’t know why they cannot get out, but they cannot. [Laughs] It’s a very, very beautiful and interesting story — also risky, and very misunderstood at the time that the movie opened. But you know, that’s what happened sometimes; after the second World War, naturalism and realism won the battle, so it was imposed that cinema had to be realistic always. But there was a time that it was not like that; Russians were doing expressionist movies, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for example in Germany, and all these German directors, they were doing another type of approach to movies in formal terms. And in Spain, too, we had Luis Bunuel who was doing this type of surreal movies that were very interesting. Now they can be revised in sort of a different way, with time passed. But Luis Bunuel is definitely one of my favorite directors of all time.
I’m going to go to a guy who, being American, loved Spain; actually, he’s buried physically in the land where my father was born, in Ronda, Spain. His name is Orson Welles, and the movie is Touch of Evil.
Next: Banderas speaks candidly about why he joined the cast of Mimi Leder’s The Code, the challenges that face independent films in a studio-run world, and accepting the fate of the “direct-to-DVD” film. Plus, Fellini fan Banderas shares his hopes for Rob Marshall’s upcoming film Nine, adapted from the Broadway musical for which Banderas won a Tony nomination.
You named 8 ½ as one of your favorite films, but you actually earned accolades for your performance on stage in Nine, an adaptation of the film. How did that stage experience differ from your experience watching the film?
Antonio Banderas: Yes I did, actually. It was half a point more, it was Nine. [Laughs] So in a way, I am familiar with the movie, the work, but it was a theatrical experience, slightly different. I know that Federico Fellini actually saw it in 1982 when Raul Julia played it, and he loved the version that they did of it at the time. I never met Federico, unfortunately.
How do you feel about 8 ½ being adapted yet again, in a way, with the film version of Nine?
AB: I know, they already did the movie and apparently it’s brilliant. What they did actually is not an adaptation of 8 ½, what they did is an adaptation for cinema of the play that I did. Daniel Day-Lewis is playing [Guido, the main character] and some friends of mine like Penelope Cruz… I didn’t see the trailer but my wife saw it the other day and she said it looks fantastic. And I hope the best for them, although I think they’re not going to need my hope and I think they did a great job and they’ll be very successful and I’m happy for them.
What is it in the material that lends itself to multiple adaptations?
AB: I think that Federico did something that is very open and you can reflect very much over the work that he did, there’s always an open door to revise the material with the years. When you’re talking about [the subject of] creation, it’s something that’s very wide and you can get with different times different opinions and points of view, and I think Rob Marshall probably did a great job.
You also named Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and I agree that it’s sadly true that movies that risky are seldom made anymore.
AB: It’s very difficult if you want to do those movies within structures that are based in commercial issues. You can do movies like that if you go in the independent world. In fact, last year for example Slumdog Millionaire is a movie that comes from that world, and it breaks structures because they are more daring. But coming from the studios, it’s very difficult to find that. I’m not criticizing the studios; they have to do what they have to do. They’re looking for commercial movies, and that’s fantastic and it keeps alive the industry and I think that’s absolutely fine. But if you want to find those types of risks, you have to go to another structure. I think movies serve many purposes; one can be purely entertainment, another can be a reflection of the human spirit, and another goes in another direction, experimental… many, many different purposes. All of them are good. I am not criticizing specifically one way of making movies; this just is the way it is.
Speaking of the studio system and working outside of it, when I watched The Code I was surprised at how good it was considering the stigma that, frankly, “direct-to-DVD” films carry with them. But going straight to home video seems to be increasingly the best option for many independently-produced films these days.
AB: It’s curious, the case of this movie The Code. Because it’s a genre movie, and those are movies that normally are supposed to be done by studios. It’s very rare — this is an independent company, but they emulate the studios in a way. It’s very difficult to compete with that, because if you have a $20 million movie playing genre, confronting a studio movie with $120 million budget that is doing genre too, obviously in visual terms and many other ways of looking at a movie these days, especially by the young people who go to the movies these days, it’s very difficult to put in competition a movie like The Code with the movies that they have. You know, The Code is a movie that probably, if it would have been presented in the ’70s or the ’80s, would have been a very successful movie.
When I saw it, I thought that it could have had a good theatrical run even as recently as the ’90s.
AB: It’s funny, because in Spain, it was released theatrically and it did very well with practically no promotion at all, competing with big Hollywood movies. And I understand that they’re going to open in like 25 countries also, theatrically. But in America, no — there were offers from studios, I am aware of that because I talked to [Nu Image and Millenium Pictures head] Avi Lerner, but they didn’t want to give the money necessary to compete in a theatrical environment in terms of publicity and promotion. But that’s the way it goes! [Laughs] That is our world.
For me, I joined [the project] very late in the movie; almost 15 days before they started, they called me. And so I had to travel to New York very fast… but for me, the big attraction for accepting the role was Morgan Freeman, to tell you the truth. The possibility of working with an actor that I really admire. He’s got a tremendous personality. He’s one of those guys that it doesn’t matter what he does in front of the camera, he’s always interesting because he’s got this aura. And then, Mimi Leder became one of my attractions to the project, because she’s a woman that has inside more than I have seen in the movies. A couple of movies of hers I really like, and when I saw her working, she’s very powerful. There’s also a sensitivity coming from women that I love, and I’ve been directed by women three or four times, in terms of directing actors and managing the entire set. It’s very interesting. So all of those elements made it for me. Then, the results are something that you never know what’s going to happen, especially in a movie like this — a genre movie made by an independent company. That is the problem.
Of course, that all makes sense. Even so, it seems like a very good thing that you take a pragmatic approach to the business.
AB: Oh, absolutely. You have to be, in this professional world; otherwise you’d spend your whole life in a psychiatric ward! Going up and down continuously, “I am great!” “I am depressed.” No, I think it’s important that you understand in this profession that the results are not continuously the most important thing. But the way that you work and the things that you do, for me it’s very important in my mind to have clear that my professional life starts at “action!” and finishes at “cut,” and whatever happens around that — yeah, it can be very satisfying sometimes, it can be very depressing at times, but it’s just another side of the work. The work is what you do when you are acting. And, I have to say, during the time that we were doing The Code I felt I was doing what I wanted to do.