The gunslinger in green locks the sheriff’s eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that,” the sheriff said, squinting.
“How do you want me to look at you?” responds the gunslinger flirting.
It wouldn’t be a Western without a loaded standoff, but when Pedro Almodóvar is behind the camera, the looks are even more loaded than the guns. In “Strange Way of Life,” a new short that will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal play a lawman and a cowboy who reunite 25 years after having a passionate affair. But will their old magic be rekindled, or are the two men hiding ulterior motives for the encounter?
In many ways, the project is a diversion for Almodóvar: the 73-year-old author, generally known for his Spanish-language films about modern women living in beautiful apartments, cast two English-speaking actors in a short film set in the dusty Wild West. But Almodóvar, who was courted two decades ago to direct the gay western “Brokeback Mountain” and turned it down, sees his new project as a continuation of that 2005 film, which was ultimately directed by Ang Lee, who won the award for best director. .
“In ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Jake Gyllenhaal’s character tells Heath Ledger’s character that they should go and work on a ranch,” Almodóvar said in a video call. “Heath said, ‘What would two men do out West, working on a ranch?’ In many ways, I feel my film responds to that.
Almodóvar wrote a few pages of the centerpiece scene three years ago, then put it out of his mind. “Sometimes I write just for the sake of writing,” he said. “I had no purpose in that.” But inspiration struck when Anthony Vaccarello, the creative director of fashion brand Saint Laurent, mentioned that he had just produced a short film for Gaspar Noé. Almodóvar remembered the sequence with the two gunslingers, added a staging prologue and gun suite, and offered Vaccarrello the script for the 31-minute “Strange Way of Life”.
“Of course it could have become a feature film,” he said. “But I think it was the perfect length for the story I want to tell.” And after directing the short film “The Human Voice” in 2020 with Tilda Swinton, Almodóvar hoped to continue casting English-speaking stars. “I never wanted to do it in Spanish,” Almodóvar said. “Even though we have our own kind of western, the spaghetti western, I wanted to make it a classic western.”
Almodóvar soon reached out to Pascal, whose star was beginning to rise with “The Mandalorian” and “The Last of Us” series. The 48-year-old actor was eager to sign; he had watched his first Almodóvar film, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), with his family as a young teenager.
“I remember it felt like going to a new amusement park,” Pascal said in an email. “A whole world of color and play and a kind of naughty rebellion were introduced into my experience.”
Her co-star was equally enthusiastic. “I felt really honored to be an American actor working with him,” Hawke said over the phone. “A lot of times when you’re doing mainstream American films, there’s this third entity in the room, which is that you want the film to sell – you just feel it from the people behind the monitor. And what’s so wonderful about working with Almodóvar is that you feel there’s no one else to make happy but Pedro Almodóvar.
The short went into production last summer in Almería, Spain, on the outdoor sets where Sergio Leone previously shot his classic trilogy of 1964-66 spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. “The passage of time, 50 years, has given authenticity to the place,” Almodóvar said. And in addition to producing the project, Vaccarello doubled as costume designer, a crucial position on an Almodóvar film.
“There are directors I’ve worked with who are wonderful directors, but they’re just not interested in the costume – it’s just, ‘Yeah, whatever you want to wear is fine’ Hawke said, “Almodóvar would spend weeks deciding what shade of green the wall is behind you or what gray color your jacket is and what fabric it’s made of.”
While Almodóvar’s films are also notable for what happens when those clothes come off, “Strange Way of Life” is surprisingly low-key, fading to black as Hawke and Pascal move in for an embrace.
“The sexual tension in my film happens around the looks, so early on I decided that I wasn’t going to show the entire sex scene,” Almodóvar said. “They’re a lot more naked in the conversation than they have afterwards.”
It was this conversation that made Almodóvar want to shoot the film in the first place: after directing ‘Pain and Glory’ (2019), which starred Antonio Banderas as a thinly veiled version of its director , Almodóvar found himself increasingly drawn to stories about middle-aged homosexuals looking back on their lives.
“I think it’s partly a reflection of my age, that I decided to tell stories about older men,” Almodóvar said. “If I had written these stories when I was 25, I probably would have written a story about two 25-year-old cowboys.”
Filming wasn’t easy, Hawke admitted: The production had to battle a record-breaking 15-day heat wave in the desert, “and it’s very hard to think of nuanced ideas when all your body wants do is go to sleep or find air conditioning,” he said. But as the project drew to a close, he was able to step back and understand everything.
“All of a sudden I wrapped up and realized I was in the desert in Spain on an old Sergio Leone set, and Almodóvar was hugging me, thanking me, and I just thought how I love movies and what a unique challenge that was and how much I keep wanting to chase those kinds of experiences,” Hawke said. “I kind of felt better for doing it, and I don’t know how the say otherwise.”