Pedro Almodóvar’s visual imagination ran wild while he was reading Alice Munro’s short story “Chance” during a vacation in the Dominican Republic seven years ago. The story, which is featured in the Canadian author’s 2004 short story collection Runaway, focuses on a fateful train trip from Toronto to Vancouver during which a young PhD student named Juliet is confronted with death and encounters a man with whom she will fall in love and have a child. “I remember I was completely hooked with the part on the train, what happens on the train. I was very surprised by that section in that story, and I found it particularly cinematic,” the director and screenwriter tells Co.Create during an interview at the Peninsula Hotel in New York City, noting that he has long aspired to shoot a train sequence akin to the memorable ones captured on film by Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers On a Train, The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest.
On its own, “Chance” didn’t necessarily provide enough material for a feature-length film, but as Almodóvar continued to read Runaway, which is made up of eight stories, he was glad to find that Munro had written a total of three stories centering on Juliet. In a second story titled “Soon,” Juliet returns to her hometown outside Toronto as a young mother to visit her family and discovers that her father is cheating on her mother, who is ill, and in a third story, “Silence,” a middle-aged Juliet, who has become a talk show host in Vancouver, is abandoned by her now grown-up daughter, who never comes home after attending a retreat.
Together, the three stories offered plenty of plot, and the complex mother/daughter relationships Munro had constructed appealed to Almodóvar, who is, of course, famous for depicting the lives of women, including mothers, in films like All About My Mother and Volver. So the Spanish filmmaker bought the rights to the trio of tales in 2009 and got to work on a script for what would become Julieta, his 20th feature film.
Now in theaters, Julieta is a moving drama that goes back and forth in time from Julieta’s younger years when she takes a train trip that will change her life to the present when her heartbreak over being abandoned by her daughter causes her to start living in the past, and if you have read Munro’s short stories before seeing the film, it is interesting to see how the worlds of Almodóvar and Munro blend together.
Almodóvar has adapted the work of other writers before. His 1997 romantic thriller Live Flesh is based on Ruth Rendell’s book of the same name, and his 2011 psychological thriller The Skin I Live In is based on the novel Tarantula, originally published in French under the title Mygale, by Thierry Jonquet. (Incidentally, a copy of Munro’s Runaway appears as a prop in The Skin I Live In.) But translating Munro’s work for the screen presented new challenges for the director that began with uniting all three stories into a cohesive narrative, finding ways to link them that didn’t exist. That was a lot of work, but Almodóvar wrote a script that he liked, originally titling the movie Silence. He planned on making Silence his first English-language film, and he was going to shoot in and around Vancouver. But after visiting Canada to scout locations, the director, who lives in Madrid, realized it would be difficult for him to relocate to Vancouver for six months.
He then decided to set the movie in New York City and had even gotten as far as talking to Meryl Streep about starring in the film. But he ultimately decided not to go forward with that plan either. “I felt my English to be insufficient to actually be able to shoot and direct a shooting here,” says Almodóvar, who does this interview—and all of his interviews with English-speaking journalists—with the help of a translator. (While the director does speak English and begins answering every question in English, he is more comfortable expressing himself in Spanish and tends to switch to Spanish mid-way through responses. He also doesn’t hear well, which is another reason why he does all of his interviews in person.)
Beyond not being comfortable working in English, Almodóvar goes on to explain that he also didn’t believe he really understood North American culture deeply enough to make the film here, after all. “At the end of the day, you can call that fear,” he surmises. Given his concerns, Almodóvar decided there was no need to rush forward with the film, and he put his Munro-inspired project on hold for two years, allowing himself time to reconsider his approach when he had a breakthrough. “I started to ask myself, ‘What if I had it happen in Spain?’ ” he says.
Returning to his roots, Almodóvar rewrote the script in Spanish, setting the story in Madrid and retitling the film Julieta. He also allowed himself to take more liberties with the story. “I love her,” he says, referring to Munro, “and I love her work, but once I decided my way, the feeling was almost as when you become independent from your family. Once I had chosen my path, I then had to remain faithful to my own path. I was not completely faithful to Munro, but even in the case when I changed [something] completely, I have a very strong link with her.”
Among the other changes Almodóvar made to Munro’s narrative: He shifted the train portion of the story, which took place in the 1960s in Munro’s “Chance,” to the 1980s, and his Julieta has sex with the handsome stranger she meets on the train and conceives their daughter on the night of that journey whereas in Munro’s book the relationship moves at a slower pace.
Almodóvar also burdened his Julieta with an enormous amount of guilt. (In Munro’s “Silence,” it is difficult, but Juliet does find a way to go on with her life after her daughter shuts her out.) Explaining that decision, “We are a different culture,” Almodóvar says of Spain, “and we live the family relations in a very different way than in Canada, or here in the United States.”
“Like, for example, young people here, once they go to university, that’s the moment they become independent from their families. In Spain, you never sever that umbilical cord with the rest of the family, and that’s why in the Spanish context, if a girl—I made [Julieta’s daughter] 18—severs her relationship with her mother, her mother literally goes insane,” he continues. “She will never be able to rebuild her life even though she tries, and she succeeds at some level.”
Almodóvar hasn’t spoken to Munro directly regarding his adaptation of her work, but he notes, “We had a very good relationship with her editors, and the editors are very happy with the results.” At the time we spoke, the director was planning to write a letter to Munro. Knowing she likes to keep to herself, “Even without the hope of being answered, I am writing a letter, yes, with all my respect, telling her, this is what I did with your material,” he says.
“I don’t know if she’ll respond,” Almodóvar muses, “but if she doesn’t, I will understand completely.”