Two strangers’ lives intertwine in Parallel Mothers, the latest film from Pedro Almodóvar. Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are single mothers who give birth in the same hospital, forming a friendship that changes them both. 

From its sterling cast to its sensational production design, Parallel Mothers is filled with Almodóvar’s characteristic touches. It’s also the most politically engaged film he’s made in years, one that asks viewers to come to grips with Spain’s troubled past.

Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine has collaborated with Almodóvar on landmark films like Bad Education, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and more recently The Human Voice. He spoke with The Film Stage at the ENERGACamerimage festival in Toruń, Poland, published now as the film continues its U.S. theatrical run.

The Film Stage: At the Parallel Mothers screening yesterday, cinematographers Robert Yeoman and Xavier Grobert were amazed that you were using f/11 and f/22 for your interiors.

José Luis Alcaine: It seems like a lot, but I have the camera at 4000 ISO. There is another possibility: we can open the shutter to 360 degrees, which essentially means without a shutter. If the actors move too much they will be blurred. We choose the moment where they hardly move at all, so we can set the camera to 8000 ISO, which is really a lot. That’s how we get to f/22.

Did Almodóvar ask for deep depth of field?

Pedro is not like other directors. We don’t prepare the way you would with normal movies—with animatics, storyboards, lots of rehearsal. He’s very concerned about the art design, the production design, the costumes, above all the faces of the actors. 

What I proposed to him was that everything should be in focus. When viewers are watching a movie they want to be inside it, be a part of it. Filming the way we did in Parallel Mothers, the viewers feel like they are in the set looking at the actors. That’s important for capturing the emotions of the scenes. It’s like cinema in the 1940s, 1950s. Cinema today can be too cold. Half of the screen, maybe two-thirds of the screen, is out-of-focus. The director is driving the viewers on a very specific path. I think it’s better to give a lot of information to the viewers so they can feel they are with the actors, suffering the same emotions.

Parallel Mothers is filled with two-shots and close-ups. How close do you get to the performers?

I don’t use wide-angle lenses because they aren’t flattering. When we are going to close-up, we are on a 50 or 65 millimeter. I think the best lens is a small telephoto lens, which can be 65, 75, 85. 

So are you physically close? I’m thinking of the shot where Cruz sees terrible news on her computer and starts to cry.

I’m where you are [about three feet]. I will say the scenes in the film where the drama is exploding were very difficult for Penélope and Milena. She is also excellent; she will be a great actress. This was her second movie—previously she was a hotel receptionist. She has real strengths, because to be next to Penélope is not an easy job for an actress.

Are you concerned about protecting them when they are so emotionally vulnerable?

That’s Pedro’s job. When he sees that Penélope is near to what he wants he shows her what is happening on the monitor, he says a little less, a little more, you can go more this way or this other way. He’s always defining what he needs, but in a way that is comfortable for the actors.

The two shots between Cruz and Smit carry a lot of weight.

When you have such deep focus you can see, in the same shot, the same frame, the reactions of the two. That is wonderful because you are watching really what happens between them. I did propose a shot to Pedro—it’s a moment when they sit together and we crop off the sides of their faces.

Another moment is when Anna, Penélope’s character, answers her door. Normally the camera will be with her, but Pedro and I noticed that her shadow on the wall, before reaching the door, was very interesting. It described, in an impressionistic way, how lost she was. After she enters the frame, and the shadow disappears, it’s as if she were a shadow of herself, because her character’s at a point where she doesn’t know what to do. That was something found in the moment. Pedro works a lot like that; it’s like the shooting takes on a life of its own.

He also tries to shoot everything chronologically. That way we can change ideas and shots—we can solve a problem in the moment without having to return to an earlier scene to reshoot it. The actors can change, evolve, as well.

So you’re always moving forward, building. 

Yes, that’s true. And mostly without talking, because Pedro and I have worked so long together.

You spoke before the screening of wanting to capture a sense of Hollywood glamour of an earlier time, when women looked like goddesses. How do you achieve that?

Well, we can’t. We can’t employ the same light they used because it is unbelievable. The glamour lighting of someone like Josef von Sternberg filming Marlene Dietrich—that was a very strong light. It came from expressionistic lighting used in theater. It’s very high and very hard. People accepted it back then because most films were black-and-white. When you use the same light in color it’s very artificial. 

When you saw a black-and-white film in the 1940s, your world was not black-and-white, right? As a viewer, you thought subconsciously: that’s another world, another life. That’s why you go to the movies, to go to a different world. That’s why movies were so successful: people were looking at another world very different from the one outside the theater. It was a world where you could have goddesses, whereas in the real world it’s very difficult to find them.

Black-and-white was a very powerful way to look at actors. That’s why in studios like MGM and Paramount stars were the most important thing. DPs were chosen by their ability to light actors. 

How did you approach lighting the performers in Parallel Mothers?

I always have what I call a glamour light over the camera. It’s a little wide, to cover the entire face. Another light that is very good for women is a sidelight, but used in a certain way. I used to use fluorescents; now I use LEDs. For the nose you put a light to the side and it’s very flattering. Then you put a white diffusion card to one side, and in the shadow on the other side you can put in a little light or reflection. It’s work.

At times it seems the light is bouncing off the floor, up into Cruz’s face.

I was born in Tangier and spent 23 years there. It’s a city with plenty of sun. I would study how light would travel over a room. It would enter directly in the morning and afternoon; at midday the sun is high and very, very hard, and it can rebound off the floor. It’s a very good light, surprisingly enough. I did a few shots like that in this movie.

Lighting from underneath is not always flattering, but I make it a very wide, bouncing light. Gregg Toland always said that the best way to light actors is to use a low light, never a high light. Other DPs put the light overhead because it’s very common, very comfortable to have a high light. But in Citizen Kane, for example, Toland had ceilings on the sets, so his lighting looked very different. We shot the same way on the soundstage, as if we were actually shooting in a house. 

Almodóvar’s films are not usually this political.

The world today is divided into two camps: the right and the left. In Spain those two camps don’t touch. They have nothing in common. The cinema audience is also divided, so if you say something political you are in danger of losing half of your viewers. A movie that would normally gross 6 million will now earn only 2 or 3 million. But it was important to discuss politics in Parallel Mothers because the events from thirty years ago have never been resolved effectively. The big problem today is that one side has invented “alternative facts.” How can there be an alternative fact?

Parallel Mothers is now playing in theaters.

No more articles