Silent cinema takes a Grimm turn in ‘Blancanieves’

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

A wise man once told me that however original and unique you may think your great new idea is, you’d better act on it quickly, because somewhere in the world someone else is having the exact same idea at the exact same time.

In the case of director Pablo Berger, this meant he was seven years into his Quixotic attempt to make a black-and-white, silent-movie version of “Snow White” set in 1920s Spain when the phone rang. It was a friend calling from the Cannes Film Festival, asking, “Have you heard about this film called ‘The Artist’?”

Berger, an expat Spanish filmmaker now based in New York with his Japanese wife, threw his phone into the wall. “It was pretty frustrating,” the director tells The Japan Times. “Especially because when ‘The Artist’ was released, I had already shot ‘Blancanieves’; it was already in the can.”

Berger had long been fascinated by silent-era films — with Abel Gance’s “Napoléon” cited as a particular fave — and the idea of making a homage to the era had been rattling around in his head for a while, but it was in 2005 that he started shopping the script for “Blancanieves.” His previous film, the 2003 sex comedy “Torremolinos 73,” had been a hit in Spain, but this was still a hard sell.

“If you go to people with a script,” says Berger, “and it says on the first page that it’s a black-and-white silent film, most producers don’t get past that page. They thought I was absolutely crazy. The more adventurous ones would keep reading, and when they saw it had bullfighting, they knew it would be an expensive project. I found so many obstacles for so many years. It was eight years of fighting and fighting, getting money from different sources.

“Then suddenly after eight years of getting it ready to release, here comes this movie with the same concept. Because what ‘The Artist’ and ‘Blancanieves’ have in common was to make a black-and-white silent film for everybody, not only for film buffs. When I found out about ‘The Artist’ I was really in shock, but the following day I realized it was going to be a big success, and it would also help create a new audience that would be open to silent movies.”

“Blancanieves” offers a potent mix of all those things that seem so typically Spanish: bullfighting, flamenco and fiestas; about all that’s missing is tapas. Yet despite seeming like the clichés of classical Spanish cinema, for Berger they are anything but.

“I’m from the north of Spain, not the south. I’m just one hour away from France. Northern Spain is dark and gray and there’s no flamenco or bullfighting. But there’s something about that romantic, exotic Spain which attracts so many writers; it also happened to me. But all that stuff was the context: The most important thing for me was the emotional impact.”

Berger describes how his initial idea for the film came from glimpsing a photo of a troupe of bullfighting dwarves in the book “Espana Oculta” by Cristina Garcia Rodero, a Magnum photographer who documented the bizarre side of rural Spanish rituals and festivals. “This photo just kind of spoke to me,” he muses. “I just had this vision of a Snow White dressed as a bullfighter with them; I could already imagine the poster.”

While it’s easy to say you want to make a film in the style of the silent era, it takes a lot of careful study to reproduce the look of films from the early 20th century. Berger is a big fan of directors such as Erich von Stroheim, F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer, and viewers can find shots referencing them in “Blancanieves.” “Cinema from the ’20s is to me a golden age,” notes Berger. “It’s when cinema became an art form.”

Yet the most surprising aspect is that the director actually shot his film in color. “It’s very, very difficult to shoot with black-and-white film; it’s extremely expensive. All the recent black-and-white films — like ‘The Artist,’ ‘The White Ribbon’ or ‘The Good German’ — they were all shot in color, but the technology in post-production is so advanced right now that it gives you a lot of latitude. It allowed us to make this black-and-white (image) full of contrasts and details, and hopefully close to what the film stocks were like in the ’20s.

“We did a lot of tests (prior to shooting), not only in terms of film stock; we wanted a specific grain and texture. But it was also important for hair and makeup, because how color translates into a shade of grey between black and white is very challenging. For example, if someone had visited the set of “Blancanieves,” they would have seen the makeup of the actors and they almost looked like clowns. Their lips could be purple, their eye shadow could be dark blue and the color of the clothes or how the art director painted the walls could look really strange.”

“Blancanieves” is an incredibly accomplished and beautifully shot film for a director only making his second feature, and Berger says that on this film “I learned to trust my crew and collaborate much more. I was a better collaborator on this film than my first one. Sometimes directors think they have to have answers for everything, but I definitely learned to listen with ‘Blancanieves.’ ”

When asked if his next project will take as long to put together, Berger laughs and says, “I don’t know if I have talent, but I do have patience. I never had it easy with my projects. All my movies are acts of love.”

For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets to see “Blancanieves” at theaters around Japan, visit jtimes.jp/film.