El Deseo’s yin and yang

Almodovar brothers' prod'n company affords them freedom to 'be even more radical'

MADRID — Pedro Almodovar has always known what he wanted, but getting it was another thing entirely.

His first five films featured turbulent relationships with five different producers. For his sixth film, “The Law of Desire,” Almodovar found his dream collaborator, and he didn’t have to look farther than the family tree. Agustin Almodovar, Pedro’s brother, has been handling the production end of all of the filmmaker’s pics since 1986, the year they formed El Deseo.

The company moniker can be traced to the film title that launched their partnership, but also to a recurring theme of desire that runs through all of Pedro Almodovar’s movies.

The secret to their success is as much familial as it is cultural. “The workings of a typical, post-Civil War Spanish family, how they survive, come together and overcome all odds is the spirit of our relationship and it comes directly from our parents,” says Agustin, as if describing a multigenerational family saga on El Deseo’s upcoming slate.

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Unlike certain American sibling filmmakers, like the Coens or the Weitzes, the Almodovars’ relationship thrives very much on a yin-and-yang, left-brain/right-brain chemistry.

“Agustin has a marvelous head for business and I, on the other hand, am a disaster,” confesses Pedro. “No one understands my work as profoundly as he does. When you’re making a film, you lose so much time explaining things. With my brother the comprehension flows instantaneously and this is an enormous advantage.”

El Deseo’s familial dynamic extends beyond bloodlines. The editor of Almodovar’s current “Bad Education,” Jose Salcedo, has been working with the director since 1980’s “Pepi, Luci, Bom.” Almodovar has been working with director of production Esther Garcia for 20 years.

Even their relationship with distributors, such as the one they enjoy with Sony Pictures Classics — which has released four of the director’s films Stateside, including “Bad Education” — relies as much on passion as it does business acumen.

“Over time, we’ve created a network, of what I call ’emotional’ collaborators, who are a network of distributors that also happen to love Pedro’s films,” says Agustin. “Our relationship goes beyond the industry norm. No demands are made for results. When a film doesn’t meet expectations, the next isn’t difficult to make.”

This freedom is demonstrated in the Almodovars’ association with the industry. Despite loyal ties, El Deseo doesn’t have long-term contracts with anyone. “Every deal we do is on a per-film basis in all territories and in all formats,” says Agustin. “We don’t sell to the highest bidder, but rather to those who best understand Pedro’s work and can best communicate that understanding.

“We tell our sales people that our best option is not always the best in financial terms. For us, it’s completely natural, though others might not see it that way.”

In contrast to most director-producer relationships, wherein one or the other is juggling projects independent of each other, the brothers are very much on the same page from the beginning. “(Agustin) is the first to see my screenplay, the first to look over the shooting schemes and the first person to see the movie,” says Pedro.

“Pedro’s screenplays are very ambitious artistically and the challenge for me is to meet the height of his artistic goal,” counters Agustin. “The financial part is easy. Pedro’s name is everything. Finding the right production designer or actor who can do the job is more difficult.”

That difficulty manifested itself during “Bad Education,” which had been in the planning stages for two years but stalled because the Almodovars couldn’t settle on the right cast. Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal ended up playing the lead of a transvestite whose Catholic upbringing involved sexual abuse, even if the relationship proved tempestuous at times between director and star.

In a career that has mixed provocation with high camp, “Bad Education” has proved to be Almodovar’s most serious, unflinching drama, although the director’s requisite high style remains intact.

“The success I’ve received has allowed me to be even more radical,” explains Pedro. “I didn’t make ‘Bad Education’ to seduce audiences or academies or win awards. It was made with the same independence and the same solitude as ‘Pepi, Luci, Bom,’ or ‘Labyrinth of Passion’.”

So far, “Bad Education” has been nominated in five categories in the European Film Awards, and is up for foreign-language film at the Independent Spirit Awards. In the Oscar race, it will be competing in all categories except foreign language; Spain’s choice was “The Sea Inside.”

“The space dedicated to foreign films internationally has truly inflated,” says Pedro. “In fact, if you notice the awards dedicated to foreign films from the critics of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and the National Board of Review, there isn’t one winner that’s the same.

“And four of the five films are in Spanish: ‘Maria, Full of Grace,’ ‘Motorcycle Diaries,’ ‘The Sea Inside’ and my film. It’s the first time I’ve seen four films in Spanish competing together for the big American awards. I like the growing appreciation for the Spanish language in cinema.”

Chris Geitz is a Madrid-based contributor to Variety