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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pedro Almodóvar’s answer to ‘Brokeback Mountain’

Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke in “Strange Way of Life,” debuting on Wednesday at the Cannes film festival.

By Kyle Buchanan

The gunslinger in green locks eyes with the sheriff.

“Don’t look at me like that,” says the sheriff, squinting.

“How do you want me to look at you?” replies the gunslinger, flirting.

It wouldn’t be a Western without a fraught standoff, but when Pedro Almodóvar is behind the camera, the glances are even more loaded than the pistols. In “Strange Way of Life,” a new short film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal star as a lawman and a cowboy who reunite 25 years after having a passionate affair. But will their old magic be rekindled, or are both men concealing ulterior motives for the meeting?

In many ways, the project is a swerve for Almodóvar: The 73-year-old auteur, typically known for Spanish-language movies about modern women living in beautiful apartments, has cast two English-speaking actors in a short that is set in the dusty Wild West. But Almodóvar, who was courted two decades ago to direct the gay Western “Brokeback Mountain” and turned it down, sees his new project on a continuum with that 2005 film, which was ultimately directed by Ang Lee, who went on to win best director.

“In ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Jake Gyllenhaal’s character says to Heath Ledger’s character that they should go away and work on a ranch,” Almodóvar said on a video call. “Heath says, ‘What would two men do in the West, working on a ranch?’ In many ways, I feel my film gives answer to that.”

Almodóvar wrote a few pages of the centerpiece scene three years ago, then put it out of his mind. “Sometimes I just write for the pleasure of writing,” he said. “I didn’t have any purpose for it.” But inspiration struck when Anthony Vaccarello, the creative director of the fashion label Saint Laurent, mentioned that he had just produced a short film for Gaspar Noé. Almodóvar remembered the sequence with the two pistoleros, added a scene-setting prologue and a guns-out aftermath, and offered Vaccarrello the screenplay for the 31-minute “Strange Way of Life.”

“Of course, it could have become a feature-length film,” he said. “But I do think it was the perfect duration for the story I want to tell.” And after making the short film “The Human Voice” in 2020 with Tilda Swinton, Almodóvar hoped to continue casting English-speaking stars. “I never wanted to do it in Spanish,” Almodóvar said. “Even though we have our own Western type, the spaghetti western, I wanted to make it a classic Western.”

Almodóvar soon reached out to Pascal, whose star was beginning to rise with the series “The Mandalorian” and “The Last of Us.” The 48-year-old actor was eager to sign on; he had watched his first Almodóvar film, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), with his family as a young teenager.

“I remember it feeling like going to a new amusement park,” Pascal said in an email. “An entire world of color and play and a kind of naughty rebelión was introduced to my experience.”

His co-star was just as gung-ho. “I felt really honored to be an American actor that was getting to work with him,” Hawke said by phone. “A lot of times when you’re making mainstream American movies, there’s this third entity in the room, which is you want the movie to sell — you just feel it from people behind the monitor. And what’s so wonderful about working with Almodóvar is that you feel there is nobody you need to make happy but Pedro Almodóvar.”

The short went into production last summer in Almería, Spain, on the outdoor sets where Sergio Leone once shot his classic 1964-66 trilogy of spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. “The passing of time, 50 years of it, had given authenticity to the place,” Almodóvar said. And in addition to producing the project, Vaccarello doubled as its costume designer, a crucial post on an Almodóvar film.

“There’s some directors I’ve worked with who are wonderful directors, but they’re just not that interested in costume — it’s just, ‘Yeah, whatever you want to wear is fine,’” Hawke said. “Whereas Almodóvar would spend weeks deciding what shade of green the wall is behind you or what color gray your jacket is and what fabric it’s made out of.”

Although Almodóvar’s films are also notable for what happens when those clothes come off, “Strange Way of Life” is surprisingly discreet, fading to black when Hawke and Pascal move in for an embrace.

“The sexual tension in my film happens around the gazes, so from the very beginning, I decided I wasn’t going to show the entirety of the sexual scene,” Almodóvar said. “They’re way more naked in the conversation they have after.”

It’s that conversation that made Almodóvar want to shoot the film in the first place: After making “Pain and Glory” (2019), which starred Antonio Banderas as a thinly veiled version of his director, Almodóvar has found himself increasingly drawn to stories about middle-aged gay men looking back at their lives.

“I do think this is partly a reflection of my own age, that I’ve decided to tell stories about older men,” Almodóvar said. “If I had written these stories when I was 25 years old, I probably would have written a story about two 25-year-old cowboys.”

The shoot wasn’t easy, Hawke admitted: The production had to battle a record heat wave over 15 days in the desert, “and it’s very difficult to think about nuanced ideas when all your body wants to do is go to sleep or find some air conditioning,” he said. But as the project drew to a close, he was able to step back and take it all in.

“All of a sudden I wrapped and realized that I was in the desert in Spain on an old Sergio Leone set, and Almodóvar was hugging me, thanking me, and I just thought about how much I love the movies and what a unique challenge this was and how much I keep wanting to hunt these kinds of experiences out,” Hawke said. “I felt somehow better for having done it, and I don’t know how to say it other than that.”

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