Highly prolific Catalan filmmaker Ventura Pons (born 25 July 1945) sees the world through a cinematic lens. He argues that “a film is based on three essential fundamental pillars: concept, story and cast”.1 story, the eye of the director and the casting.”] I had the privilege of interviewing him on a hot summer’s day in his studio, Els Films de la Rambla, in Barcelona on 17 July 2017
Pons, who recently turned 72, calls himself a citizen of the world, and is currently involved in a number of projects. Most importantly perhaps – and appropriately, given the media hype at the time surrounding Salvador Dalí and the 61-year-old woman who claimed to be his daughter2 – Ventura Pons last year finished shooting his semi-documentary film Miss Dalí, in which the focus is equally much, if not more, on the artist’s sister, Ana María Dalí. Also residing in Barcelona, Pons has been living in Cadaqués since 1968, directly opposite Dalí’s house in the village of Port Lligat, and knew both Dalí and his Russian-born wife Gala personally – albeit not the quieter Ana María. This year marks the 40th anniversary (one year after the first Spanish democratic elections were being held) of the release of Pons’ first feature film, the artistic success Ocaña, retrat intermitent (Ocaña, an Intermittent Portrait, 1978). To commemorate the film, special screenings have been organised by, for instance, Texas Cinemes in Barcelona. Pons recorded a special introduction to Ocaña for the occasion.
As the very approachable filmmaker invites me into his studio, located on the busy street Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, I find myself surrounded by posters of all his films spanning a 30-year career in filmmaking. Images of new and upcoming films also decorate the walls. A very talkative Pons comments on each poster, and recounts personal anecdotes on several actors and their professional skills. The artistic space below street level also contains memorabilia, written references to upcoming projects, honorary certificates, awards and books on fellow contemporary filmmakers. Pons expresses his respect for their work, and counts several of them as personal friends (for example, he shared a nice evening with Luchino Visconti during the 1971 Cannes Film Festival screening of Death in Venice, admires the work of Ingmar Bergman and expresses delight at having also met Liv Ullmann. Pons was also close to both Pier Paolo Pasolini – whom he got to know in Barcelona – and Bigas Luna, knew Rainer Werner Fassbender and is acquainted with Pedro Almodóvar despite not having seen the latter for some years.3). At one stage of our interview, which doesn’t begin in a more conventional sense of the word until into the last hour of my visit to his studio, Pons – who speaks Catalan, Spanish and Italian fluently, and English well – claims, “I like films more than filmmakers”.
Having gained iconic status as a cineaste representative of contemporary Catalan society and culture – his films have screened at film festivals nationally and abroad – and one who channels conflicting sentiments amongst fellow citizens toward the city of Barcelona, Pons’ oeuvre is valuable to analyse from both a thematic and chronological perspective. While some of his films reveal the still lingering shadows of Francoism, others make the leap into more fluid, postmodern times. They all provide valuable insight into Catalan society in general. The city of Barcelona generally steps forth as a character in its own right and becomes the urban focal point around which his narratives revolve (Pons agrees with this characterisation, and adds that “every filmmaker has a landscape”). It has rightfully been argued that “Ventura Pons is perhaps the only filmmaker who has established a personal cinematic idiom about the city of Barcelona, his own city.”4 Whether Pons’ narratives portray Barcelona in a positive or negative light, as a rule the city is given narrative precedence. Pons’ films allow viewers to witness the urban overhaul of Barcelona while at the same time familiarising themselves with the intricacies of the Catalan language.
During my hours spent with this fascinating director (an evening that begins with Pons pondering what subheading to use as a catchphrase for Miss Dalí – “the true hidden story” might be the most effective one – and finishes with him generously inviting me for dinner after the interview), I begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited into his personal workspace and for being allowed an interview. Pons retorts, “I’m a very simple person; I’m a filmmaker; I’m a human being – it’s good education. Life is very simple: you treat the other ones as you want to be treated. It’s very simple. It is us that complicate things.” He adds: “I’ve never done something I couldn’t do. I hate pretending. I’ve gone slowly […] I’m not working, I’m enjoying life.”
When I ask him whether he always wanted to be a filmmaker, he replies, “Yes, my life is cinema, and it’s a life in pictures.” Pons, who says he never went to film school but that he watched movies in his youth and became inspired, adds that pursuing a career in filmmaking meant going against the wishes of his father, who never wanted him to go down that path: “All my life I understood him. Now I don’t understand him that much […] a father has to encourage, because we only live once.”
Jytte Holmqvist: You started your career as a theatre director and spent almost a decade in that profession. Why did you decide to leave theatre behind?
Ventura Pons: Because I had the cinema in my blood. The theatre is local but the cinema [is fixed]. [As a theatre director,] I had success and I got drunk and I asked myself what I was doing with my life. Now everybody is asking me to go back to the theatre, and I say no.
JH: This is interesting, in relation to Miss Dalí: at one stage in the film, Salvador Dalí [played by Joan Carreras] rejects theatre as passé and argues that “cinema is the future – we shouldn’t look back”. What do the playwrights whose works you choose to represent on screen have in common (if anything)?
VP: Well, I think that they look at the same society. You know, a book is a book, but a film is a film. It’s the same story: a play is for the audience, but in the cinema you use another technique and it’s the same story. What changes is your representation of the story.
JH: Of the playwrights you draw inspiration from in your oeuvre, whose work do you find most readily adaptable to the screen?
VP: Each one has difficulties but, for instance, Caresses [a play by Sergi Belbel] was a flop at the theatre. I saw it and I didn’t like it. Then, [Bebel] had his office opposite my house, and I wanted to ask him for the rights to Morir (o no) [To Die (or Not)] – that was a flop too, but it was a better story in the theatre. So he said, “Come back next week,” and so I bought the rights for both his works. Then I read it again and I liked it, and he said, “It happens to all of us,” and then I went back to see Sergi and he said, “Make a movie.”
JH: So you, in a way, rescued his work.
VP: Yes, it’s an artistic collaboration in the end.
JH: You are impressively prolific, releasing one or two new movies every two years on average, and you currently have a number of films in the works. How have you been able to fund your films despite the difficult economic climate during the Spanish recession that began in 2008? Do you fund all of your films independently through Els Films de la Rambla?5
VP: It’s the reason [for] my independence and liberty: to control my work.
JH: Your first semi-documentary feature film, Ocaña, an Intermittent Portrait, reflects the culturally groundbreaking, liberalised Movida years at the beginning of Spanish and Catalan democracy – a time of “cultural explosion”6 – through its focus on Andalusian cross-dresser José Pérez Ocaña. After being ostracised by his fellow Andalusians, he was met with a much more welcoming climate in Barcelona. Can you please comment on your interest in Ocaña and his value for Catalan society, and explain why you chose to further highlight Ocaña in your 2018 film Universal i faraona – which also includes interviews with gay Catalan museum curator Ignasi Millet, and through which your career comes full circle? Is this a way to celebrate not only the liberalised man, but also the now liberalised city of Barcelona?
VP: Because José Pérez Ocaña and [for example] “Gato” Pérez7 – it’s the people who come from outside that teach us another vision, and they teach us things […] they have made the city of Barcelona universal and phenomenal. Universal i faraona is a film of films.8
JH: Films like Carícies (Caresses, 1998), Morir (o no) (To Die (or Not), 2000) and, in part, Barcelona (un mapa) (Barcelona (a Map), 2007) portray Barcelona in a much more dystopian light – the characters experience a sense of urban malaise expressed on screen through disharmonious dialogues and fast camera movements, which sketch “the upheaval taking place in Catalan society.”9 Has Barcelona been subjected to modernising urban changes far too fast?
VP: It’s quite clear: where I was born doesn’t exist anymore, and you can’t pretend that you are living in another world. You have to look forward always. All filmmakers change. I like to walk and see how […] the landscape of my childhood has disappeared. It was in black and white. Catalan was forbidden, and we had a dictatorship. Franco has stolen 30 years of my life […] and now, finally, this country has changed a lot. And we shall have democracy on 1 October.10
JH: Will the result of Catalonia’s upcoming election have an impact on your future films?
VP: No, no, because my films are not political. You know, I am [a] citizen, and I make movies about people’s sentiments, feelings […] I am king of my “flight”, which is an independent republic (laughs) – but I really want it for my country.11 Nowadays, in Europe, there are no independent countries. They are all related. We are all Europeans.
JH: You often use flashbacks as an effective narrative technique to connect past and present. What film in your oeuvre most effectively achieves this fluid connection and transition between different time periods?
VP: I don’t know, because all my films are lately about memory, and they are mixed. I don’t know. I don’t have the distance [from] them. For instance, [regarding Miss Dalí,] I must take off my hat […] I have already done it.
JH: In Barcelona (a Map) and in Forasters [Strangers, 2008], you use black and white and sepia in scenes depicting the past, and you revert to colour in scenes set in the present. Would you ever consider doing the opposite to highlight the strength or intensity of the past compared to the present? This reversed colour scheme is used by, for example, François Ozon in Frantz (2016).
VP: This is a narrative game. You never know. I have so many ideas for a film, but the most important thing is the story. Every film is different. For instance, in Morir (o no), it was the anguish: part one [of the film is] black and white, and [there’s] anguish because [the characters] die. [In] part two, they don’t die, so it’s colour. The most important thing is the story, the way you express [it] to the audience, the way you look at things.
JH: Also, your films are quite universal, because they’re all about the themes and sentiments experienced by people all over the world. That’s why people can quite readily understand and relate to your narratives.
VP: Yes […] because, at the end, we have the same behaviours and the same problems everywhere. For instance, Virus of Fear [El virus de la por, 2015], for me, is a film that […] has been a surprise. I didn’t know it was [going to] be so universal, but, then, you think about it, and everywhere I go – I’ve been in Canada, in Mexico, in New York and London … a bunch of countries – everywhere, in Q&As, people say the same thing, they ask the same questions.
JH: Your recently finished, highly engaging Miss Dalí situates the action in Cadaqués and in Port Lligat rather than Barcelona, and tells the story of Salvador Dalí (inspired by texts by the artist himself as well as Ana María Dalí, Lali Bas Dalí, Antonina Rodrigo, Antoni Pitxot, Federico García Lorca, Luis Buñuel and Ian Gibson) from a refreshingly different perspective. How successful will this film become?
VP: The film is about Dalí, and the hidden story. What else can be explained about Dalí? It surprised even me and the actresses. When [Josep Maria] Pou read draft number one, he said “This film is going to be blessed,” and Claire Bloom said, “We are going to the Oscars.” When it happens, I don’t know. Que será, será; whatever will be, will be.
JH: It is a beautiful film, in which every detail has been carefully considered. The scenes engage, and all characters are realistically portrayed, with actors who are spitting images of the real people. You found the perfect actors.
VP: I’m very proud of them. The land: this is the reason for the beginning and the ending.12 […] It’s the eyes; when I do the casting, I look at the eyes […] I have worked with a lot of actors and actresses, and everyone is different. The relation they have with their work, it’s more or less the same. As a filmmaker [when considering an actor or actress for a role], you have just one opportunity […] they read their lines. If they like the lines, then there will be the whole film.
JH: Still referring to Miss Dalí, what made you want to represent Salvador Dalí’s life on screen, and how did the idea for the film first come about?
VP: This is a very good question, because I was questioning myself the other day; because, I remember, with all [my] films, I have had the idea. This one, no. You know, I was talking the other day to my companion. I know the day I had the idea of El gran Gato [The Great Gato, 2003], [and] of every single [other] film. I can explain it to you … not this one.
JH: Perhaps it’s something that became familiar to you because you lived in that landscape … ?
VP: Yeah, but why did I choose this? I don’t know.
JH: It doesn’t have to be explained.
VP: Yeah, but I want to know.13
JH: This fine film is the result of hours and hours of thorough research on your part. How did you gain access to personal letters, books and diaries?
VP: Reading. I like reading. For instance, for the last sequences, the widow of [Dalí’s manager] Captain Moore gave me his memoirs in French, they had been published in French […] The other one is very interesting: it’s the […] only interview about sexuality he did in his life. [There are] stories that you discover, and you find there is a place [for them]. Because a film is a synthesis … how to get a rhythm and go fast and slow at the same time, that was my main concern. The devil is in the detail […] and the most important in film is that [the audience] feel your presence.
JH: Yes, that is very interesting – if the details are not thought of, then a project will fall apart. That’s why this is such a good film, because all the details have been thought about.
VP: Yes, but everyone has a different reaction. You may like a film, or you may hate it.
JH: As long as there is a reaction in the viewer.
VP: The most important thing is that they feel your presence and you explain the story, a story I have lived in a certain way. And emotions are very important in life. Most of my films are about emotions.
JH: How did your personal friendship with Salvador Dalí develop?
VP: I knew him. He was at parties in houses of friends, and we lived close to one another.
JH: While Salvador Dalí is the catalyst for the “plot”, in focus almost equally as much is his sister Ana María (played as a reflective older woman by Siân Phillips) – as seen in your chosen film title, Miss Dalí. It is through her words, initially in voice-over, in her story of Salvador’s life narrated from the perspective of the present (the Dalí family as a collective being represented through memories in flashback), that we discover her brother: the man whose “art was greater than the man”, and the genius. Who is the real protagonist in the film: Salvador or Ana María Dalí?
VP: Ana María: she was [also] in my head when writing the screenplay. I didn’t know Ana María … she kept her privacy. The true hidden story is to do with Ana María, who died three months after Salvador and never got to say goodbye to him […] how can a brother and a sister live in the same village and not talk to each other for 40 years?
JH: The film becomes an intimate portrait – not only of Salvador Dalí and the people close to him, but it could also be seen as a love story with the municipality of Cadaqués on the Cap de Creus, where Dalí spent many holidays with his family and which later became his home. Did the partly rugged landscape of this peninsula inspire Dalí in his work, in addition to his muses Ana María and Gala?
VP: Of course. The first muse was Ana María, and […] you can see the landscape in most of his paintings.
JH: You yourself reside in Cadaqués, just in front of Dalí’s house. Does this stunning scenery trigger your own artistic creativity?
VP: No, because, for me, it’s like paradise. […] I like to work on the train.
JH: At one point in Miss Dalí, we are told that “There are two Cadaquéces: the real one, and the one you see reflected in the water.” Please elaborate.
VP: It’s the magic of Cadaqués. It’s the reflection of the water. For instance […] the reflection of the full moon in Port Lligat is yellow. In the bay of Cadaqués, it’s white. And added to that is the tramontana.14his fierce north wind, as integral a part of life in the Upper Emporda as the rain in London, has to be experienced to be believed. Dry and bitterly cold in winter, it roars and blasts its way down through the passes of the Pyrenees (hence tramuntana, ‘from across the mountains’), sweeping the sky clear of clouds, and, hitting the Emporda, forces the cypresses almost to their knees, smashes flowerpots, snaps television masts and coats the cliffs of Cape Creus white with salt lashed from the waves. The tramuntana blows regularly at over 130 kilometres an hour, and has been known to overturn railway carriages and hurl cars into the sea.” See Ian Gibson, “Chapter One: The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí”, The New York Times: Books, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/g/gibson-dali.html]
JH: You draw from Ian Gibson’s 1997 book The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí in your screenplay. What does he mean by “shameful”?
VP: [Dalí] was a great artist, but he betrayed a woman, he betrayed a family, he betrayed Picasso, he betrayed [Joan] Miró, he betrayed Buñuel. People say that he didn’t betray Cadaqués, but I think at a certain moment of his life he started doing stupid things, and people in Cadaqués [began] to close the door when he passed by. He betrayed everyone. He betrayed himself. He betrayed Gala. In Púbol, there are two graves: [in] one is Gala, and the other one is empty. A great painter, but a great traitor and a great fascist.
JH: American singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman has sung about there being “fiction in the space between”. How much is truth and fiction in your film?
VP: I think everything is true. It’s a fiction [based on] reality. Of course, everything I’ve done, I explain … I have checked 40 times, so it’s a real story.
JH: What film would you say is the most powerful in your oeuvre?
VP: Everything is difficult in a certain way. You have to [examine] all the work; you are a long-distance runner.
Pons is engaged in several concurrent projects at the moment, including a film that establishes a connection between the City of Mexico and Barcelona, as well as the upcoming musical Shake it, Baby!.
- “Una película se basa, en mi opinión, en tres pilares fundamentales, que no pueden faltar: historia concepto y reparto.” Conxita Domènech and Andrés Lema-Hincapié, eds., Ventura Pons: Una mirada excepcional desde el cine catalán (Madrid and Frankfurt am Main: Iberoamericana and Vervuert, 2015), p. 23. Note that, in our interview, Pons expresses himself slightly differently: “A film has three legs: [the ↩
- Raphael Minder, “Mustache Intact, Salvador Dalí’s Remains Are Exhumed in Paternity Suit”, The New York Times, 21 July 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/world/europe/salvador-dali-exhumed-paternity.html ↩
- Pons comments on Almodóvar’s absolute dedication to his work, achieved by generally staying away from media publicity while engaged in a new project. ↩
- Jaume Martí-Olivella, “Catalan Cinema: An Uncanny Transnational Performance,” in A Companion to Catalan Culture, Dominic Keown ed. (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2011), p. 200. ↩
- Els Films de la Rambla, Pons’ production company, was established in 1985. ↩
- As described by Ignasi Millet in Universal i faraona. ↩
- Argentine musician Javier Patricio “Gato” Pérez, the focus of Pons’ 2003 musical documentary El gran Gato (The Great Gato). ↩
- Indeed, the film contains images from Caresses, and makes reference to other works by Pons. The documentary, which contains “fragments of memories of three great artists who have helped to make the city of Barcelona universal” – José Pérez Ocaña, “Gato” Pérez and Pepe Rubianes – also features lengthy interviews with, for instance, Millet and also Ocaña’s brother, Jesús Pérez Ocaña, aka Sevilla. ↩
- Anton Pujol, “Ventura Pons’s Barcelona (un mapa): Trapped in the Crystal”, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, vol. 6, no. 1 (December 2009): p. 67. ↩
- This is the day that the 2017 Catalan referendum on regional independence from Spain was scheduled, and it was eventually held despite police suppression. However, the process was declared illegal by the Spanish government, and the declaration of independence was suspended. See Sam Jones, “Catalan Government Suspends Declaration of Independence”, The Guardian, 11 October 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/10/catalan-government-suspends-declaration-of-independence ↩
- Pons goes on to say that he is independent but not an independentista (i.e. someone who is overtly pro–political independence). ↩
- The Cadaqués landscape plays a leading role in Pons’ film. ↩
- Pons goes on to note that the project first started taking shape five years ago. ↩
- In Ian Gibson’s words, “[t ↩