The following is from a Q&A session with Alejandro Amenabar, director of The Sea Inside, and the starring actor, Javier Bardem, during a roundtable discussion at the Drake Hotel on December 15th.
We first met with softspoken Alejandro in a standing only room, as reporters covered the table before him with recorders. After about a half an hour, Javier came in to sit down. Dressed in a sports jacket and slacks, the handsome, tall actor was tired, but still very gregarious about the new film.
At the end of each session, both gentlemen signed copies of the production notes for reporters. In the following questions, they discuss preparation for the film, its controversial subject matter and timeless relevance.
ALEJANDRO AMENABAR, Director
What motivated you to do this story, and give it this title?
After I did The Others, I wanted to do something about the sea. And when I heard about his story and read Ramon’s book, “Letters From Hell,” I felt alive. I thought about this story, thinking, what would I do, if I were in his situation? I wanted to use the concept of the sea, entering his inner world.
What happened when you approached Javier for the role of Ramon?
I think he is one of the best actors in Spain. He considered it for a few weeks and I wanted him to really think about it. The main challenge in this role was that his performance be absolutely real.
Can you talk a little bit about for preparing for Ramon’s death scene?
Javier watched the actual footage of Ramon’s death, which was difficult, but he really worked very hard to prepare for that scene.
How long did it take to shoot that scene?
It took about 6 minutes to shoot, 15 including technical directions. Initially, I wasn’t going to include it in the film. I was worried it might take away from the movie’s positive spirit, but, we kept in the end.
What happened after he died? Did they try to hold anyone responsible?
Ten thousand people had signed a petition, saying that they had something do to with his death.
Have the laws changed now?
Only slightly, but you’d still go to jail for helping someone die. Euthanasia is a very hot subject in Spain right now.
Has Mr. Sampedro’s family seen the film?
Yes, and they liked it very much. They are very supportive of the film.
You not only co-wrote the screenplay, and directed the film, but wrote the score.
I’m humming and singing all the time. Music was important in this movie. Sampedro liked opera, Julia liked classical, and for Rosa, we used Celtic music. But I am more comfortable directing than I am writing a screenplay or a score.
You used a lot of the same crew on this film as Pedro Almodovar. What do you have to say about his work?
I think he is one of Spain’s most important directors.
What movies out now do you like?
JAVIER BARDEM, lead actor
So how long did it take you to prepare for this role?
I would say one month to think about it, read the books and see the documentary footage, two months rehearsing and talking to the people that knew him, working with Alejandro, and three months shooting. Six months.
How much time did you actually spend lying in bed? Did you practice?
Yeah. I would start being still, in the sofa, trying to talk to myself, trying to offer up different emotions, but I would realize I was moving. So I would put on a video camera and record myself, and try to be still, several hours a day. Before shooting, there were five hours of make up. Then there were the hours during shooting, plus the hours I’d go back to sleep in my own bed at night.
Had you read his story?
I read the script and his two books, the poetry one, and the other one, that has letters and thoughts about important issues — life, death, sex, God, religion, family.
Did this movie renew your respect for life?
For human beings, not for life. Life is not an absolute value.
If you were ever in Ramon’s situation would you want to die?
I cannot answer that, only that I hope not to be. It depends on so many things, how old I am, where I am, what are the circumstances, the people that surround me, how they’d react to that. But I am sure that if somebody I loved, asked me, what Ramon Sampedro was asking, and I am sure that it’s fully meditated, yeah, I would help them, even if it breaks my heart for the rest of my life.
Did you get to talk with both of the women?
I talked to Rosa, and with other family members. They all were very supportive during the making of this movie, they all saw how much respect Alejandro had for this project. They all saw the movie and loved it. They thought Ramon Sampedro’s spirit was in there.
You also did some research visiting quadriplegics.
I went to some of the hospitals, and spoke with five patients. They all knew Ramon Sampedro, but they all took the other attitude, which was to live. But they were very respectful of his decision, because they had been there, living it, they knew how hard it is, sometimes even wanting to go the other way. It was great for me to talk to them. In the end, they made me feel like I was the cripple, that I was the man not able to do anything, because they were so strong willed and so able. I have to respect them and their choices as much as Ramon Sampedro’s. But I’m not telling anyone what they should do and how they should feel.
What was the challenge of writing with your mouth?
I tried for two months, but I wasn’t able to even write my name. It’s impossible! You damage the muscles of the face, it hurts so much, you cannot talk.
You were nominated for an Oscar four years ago, and you described it as being one of the worst experiences you ever had. Here you’re in this situation where you’re probably going to be nominated again…
It’s not one of the worst, but… the awards here are very important, not so much in Spain. If the awards give these movies more recognition, more people will go and see it, and that’s good. I like this movie and I want people to go see it. But to get that, it’s very hard work, and I’m tired. On the other hand, with the Golden Globes, being with Leo di Caprio and Liam Neeson, it’s an honor. Awards can help your career, in theory. So, it’s not that bad, not that good, something in the middle. But it’s an honor.
Do you see similarities between Ramon Sampedro and Renaldo Arenas?
Both of them gave their lives for the same reason, which is freedom. They were prisoners of different institutions, religious and political, not allowed to be themselves, to express themselves. Somebody was dictating how they should behave. So yes, there are some similarities. But Renaldo was attacking, Ramon was reacting to what he sees.
Did you do things to lighten up the mood on the set?
Yeah. People get tired, not just me, but my colleagues, the crew. They wait a lot. Alejandro’s sense of humor helped us. Also, I had a fart machine, that was a present from Jo Allen. One day I put the machine in a bag and started to ring the button, and everyone was very polite. And I’d be like, man, please, react, do something! And they were like, oh, we thought it was the real thing.
Were there any scenes that were emotionally difficult for you to shoot, such as the death scene?
I was never overwhelmed by any of the emotions while doing the scenes. But I had to see the video of Ramon’s death, and it broke my heart, because I saw this man in agony for real, dying alone. I had to watch it, because it was necessary to get those details. In a way during the filming, I had to be detached.
With Christopher Reeves’ passing and last year’s Barbarian Invasions, this issue keeps coming to the forefront. Do you feel it’s important to keep the dialogue going and will you do more after this is over with?
Obviously people want to talk about it, there’s an interest in what’s going on with these issues. There’s so many problems in the world, and Gandhi says we have to become the change that we want for the world, so yes, let’s start to talk about it, at least. If we are talking about it and people are reacting like you are, then it’s important.
What are you going to do now?
I’m reading some stuff, but it’s up in the air. I’m not in a rush. I work every two years.
What do you do in the time in between?
Normal things, read, go see my friends, take a walk, have a drink, go back to my acting school, I try to go there six months every year. I’ve been going for the past 13 years.
Do you have any interest in writing or directing?
No, I think I have enough with my own ego to not have to deal with 50 others.
What was your take on Amenabar’s direction?
I thought he would be more inexperienced. Why? Because the three stories he did up ‘til now, the weight of the stories relied more on the plot, or the way they were shot. This story was character driven, and about a subject matter that people react to, and I was surprised at how much he knew about acting, how to take you to the right place, with few words.