Mariano Barroso may be the best Spanish filmmaker you’ve never heard of. He cast Javier Bardem in his first leading role (in the 1996 crime film Ecstasy) and his formidable 2013 drama All the Women, which recently played the Chicago Latino Film Festival, just won a Goya award (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Screenplay and was called the best Spanish film of the year by none other than Pedro Almodovar. All the Women tells the story of Nacho (Eduard Fernandez), a charming, hyper-macho Spanish veterinarian who hatches an ill-fated plot to steal cows from his father-in-law and sell them for a hefty profit in Portugal. When his plan swiftly unravels, Nacho seeks advice from six different women: his wife, his mistress, an ex-girlfriend, his mother, his sister-in-law and a psychiatrist. The result is a potent critique of masculinity that deserves wider stateside exposure. I spoke with Barroso in person about All the Women and his filmmaking career to date.
MGS: I didn’t realize until after I saw it that All the Women was adapted from a television miniseries you had done a few years ago. I was surprised to learn that because it works so well as a 90-minute movie. How does the movie differ from the miniseries and when did you realize that the miniseries could work as a standalone movie?
MB: The thing is that we recut the series. Originally, it was conceived to be a feature film and this producer from TNT in Spain — in television — offered to do a miniseries. So we could produce it with them, but I always felt it still could be the feature film that I wanted it to be. It’s not that we cut for the movie, but that we added for the series. So we recut it, we changed the music and we changed a few things but basically, yeah, it was a pleasure actually to be cutting out all of the stuff that I didn’t really love in the series.
MGS: So it ended up being what you wanted it to be originally?
MB: Exactly. And now it’s going to be done in the theater too. Somebody offered me — I’m not going to direct it because I’m doing something else but — it’s going to be done in Argentina and in Spain too.
MGS: Do you have a theatrical background?
MB: You mean with other movies?
MGS: No. Directing for the stage.
MB: Yeah, I’ve done a few plays in Spain.
MGS: The reason why I ask is because I saw your film Ecstasy (1996) with Javier Bardem . . .
MB: Yeah, yeah. And this also . . .
MGS: . . . is set in the world of the theater. It’s a crime film but setting it within that world made it fresh.
MB: That’s true.
MGS: But back to All the Women: I loved the way it was structured. It has six distinct chapters in which the main character, Nacho, has conversations with six different women. When you first came up with the idea, were you thinking of this structure or were you thinking of the story?
MB: I thought that the portrait of the man as seen by six different women would make a nice puzzle — in the sense that each of them would have a different point-of-view about him. But putting them all together could bring us some light about this sick guy. (laughs) On a moral level he’s miserable, but on a human level we wanted him to be adorable. It’s actually based on somebody that I know, very close. These kind of characters always fascinate me. Everywhere we show the movie, in Argentina, in Spain of course, here in Chicago, in Poland a couple weeks ago, people empathize (with) or recognize themselves within the character. Men feel they have some connection with him and women know somebody who behaves like that: manipulation. Somebody said it’s like a chronicle of machismo.
MGS: That’s what I was thinking: it’s like a critique of machismo but from an insider’s perspective. Would you say you’re interested in exploring sexual politics in your films?
MB: It’s more about . . . What I’m more interested in is, like, family relationships — in the sense that I think big drama happens in small relationships: the smaller the group, the bigger the drama. And I think that’s where the origin of all drama is. It’s a low-budget movie but no matter what the budget is, no matter what the production is, it’s in the subject of making drama, not spending money on big action (scenes), but in trying to go deep into the characters; that interests me a lot. Like to find out, to discover, to understand that kind of behavior, to see how people react to what they see. It’s very interesting to see and to have the chance, like here in Chicago now, to listen to people’s questions. They’ve been very active in that sense, asking questions in the Q&A sessions after the screenings. It’s really amazing because they all relate (the movie) to themselves. So I think that’s something that is very easily recognizable.
MGS: So you’re more interested in depicting intimacy — in depicting intimate relationships between people — rather than male-female relationships specifically?
MB: Well, that includes everything. The first thing includes the second one. But, yeah, of course now, especially in Spain, we are always way behind the changes that people — let’s, say, like in the States — now we are dealing in Spain for, what (only) 10 or 15 years now, with the big change in the role of women in society. That’s something that happened years ago but in Spain we are dealing with that (now). So I think this situation where the men have to find their place, you see this guy, this Nacho, you see how he doesn’t find his place. He’s not able to see the truth. He even says at some point, he says, “I don’t know why you are all obsessed with the truth. What the fuck is really the truth? (laughs) What happened to the truth?” And he believes it.
MGS: I feel like at the end of the film he had made some kind of breakthrough.
MB: Yeah, the psychologist, the therapist does not get involved with his emotional mess. So she stays away even though he tries to take her into his craziness. But she manages to stay away and then by doing that I think she provokes that he feels anguish in a way. That way, he can find some kind of question or some kind of truth about himself. That’s the idea.
MGS: Was that because she was a therapist or because she didn’t know him as well as the other women?
MB: Well, both, but I think more the fact that she doesn’t know him. And the fact that she has to stay with him, on a medical level anyway — because if we only had her not knowing him, she would leave like after five minutes. But she’s a therapist and when she sees that he’s in trouble she empathizes with him, because he’s a charmer. So that makes her stay and listen.
MGS: The moment where she has him address the empty chair was very powerful.
MB: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. Many psychologists come to the screenings. I would have never (otherwise) spoken to spectators who are psychologists. One month ago in Argentina we had plenty of psychologists everywhere. So, like, 15 or 20 psychologists came to the screening and said, “Thank you for the portrait.” Last night (in Chicago), happened the same thing. They said, “It’s an excellent portrait of a psychologist because usually in the movies people make them look ridiculous.” We tried to make her believable.
MGS: And she’s good at her job.
MB: (laughs) And she’s very good. And she’s a great actress too (Nathalie Poza).
MGS: They’re all very good. Eduard Fernandez seems like he was born to play the role of Nacho.
MB: (laughs) Yeah.
MGS: I read that you were influenced by the character of Tony Soprano . . .
MB: Well, my co-writer and I, we love The Sopranos. So in a way we tried to do this very difficult thing that Gandolfini did, and The Sopranos did, which is like to convert the darkness into light. How to make something that is really dark — like in his life and in his look and in his way of thinking — how to make a light . . . a shining show, in a way. And that is The Sopranos too. The character also is, like, morally, he can’t be worse. On a moral level, he’s so lost.
MGS: But we like him anyway.
MB: We like him anyway. He’s asking for help to all these women. He’s asking for help to all of them so that’s why I think we like him.
MGS: Yes, I agree. I wanna ask you about In the Time of the Butterflies (2001) with Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos. That was made for Showtime, I believe, in America?
MB: Showtime, yeah.
MGS: Was that a positive experience for you, making that?
MB: It was a great experience, and I wish I could have been able to enjoy it more. But the pressure, I’m not used to working with such pressure, with so many producers telling you what to do, really. We don’t have that in Spain. And that is something good and something bad. All the movies that you do, you invent them, you create them, you’re supposed to get them made. Then, it’s like, the director has the last word. But in America that’s quite different. I’m not saying it’s bad or worse. It’s just different. So the business is too tough from my point-of-view. I like making movies but I find making movies such a hard job that I’d rather enjoy making them than suffer. So it’s too tough. I find it too tough for me. It was too intense but it was an amazing experience and I had wonderful people working with me. And, yeah, it was great.
MGS: It’s a good film.
MB: I also jumped into the directing job on that movie like four months before (shooting began). We had to redo the script. But, yeah, it was a great experience, yeah.
MGS: Are you working on any projects now that you can talk about?
MB: Yeah, I’m working on a sequel to (All the Women). But we take his character, Eduard’s character, five years later. And he, of course, got in some deeper mess so he’s living under a different identity and he’s living in South America — in Argentina or Uruguay. It’s a different identity. He’s working on a cow farm. But then something happens to him.
MGS: Is Eduard Fernandez going to play the character again?
MGS: So it’s the same character but a different, self-contained story?
MB: Exactly. I don’t want to do a sequel because the movie, even though it’s done very well in Spain — we got the Goya award for the script . . .
MGS: And Pedro Almodovar said it was the best Spanish film he saw last year!
MB: Pedro said that, yeah. Yeah, I said thanks to him every time I see him: “Thank you, Pedro, for that!” Everybody calls after that! But, yeah, he was really nice. And then, yeah, we’re working with the same character.
MGS: That’s going to be a film or another miniseries?
MGS: Very cool. I greatly look forward to seeing that.
MB: Thanks a lot.