There's no need to define the genre of my own films. That's me masturbating to naked pictures of myself.
In a matter of words, cult filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia sums up his wild ways behind the camera: “I can’t make normal movies!” For fans of Spanish genre films, he’s something of a legend. His explosive directing style and gift for ghoulish humor led film scholars to coin a special term, “the popular auteur,” just for him. Take, for instance, the Spanish kingpin’s El día de la bestia (1995) in which a catholic priest teams up with a black metal head and an Italian authority on the occult to thwart the birth of a demonic beast, and with it, the end of the world. It’s a gift from baby Jesus.
Although the director, screenwriter, producer, and former comic book artist has yet to reach international recognition on par with his self-confessed spiritual father and mentor Pedro Almodóvar, the question is not if but dear God when? Iglesia was once considered to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Doom video game adaptation, and turned down Alien: Resurrection.
The tide is turning. This month, the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea presented a retrospective of Iglesia’s work befitting his landmark creations, which encompasses the short Mirindas asesinas (1991), the aforementioned El día de la bestia, Common Wealth (2000), The Perfect Crime (2004), 800 Bullets (2002), the TV movie Films to Keep You Awake: The Baby’s Room (2006), Witching and Bitching (2013), The Bar (2017), and The Last Circus (2010). Bucheon was also host to Diego López and David Pizarro’s Herederos de la bestia (2016), a commemorative documentary on El día de la bestia aka the film that cemented Iglesia’s name on a global scale.
While at the festival to give a master class, “El Maestro Cineasta Fantastico,” Iglesia spoke to Anthem about his monster creations, bullet-riddled college days, and close-minded genre haters.
This year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival ran July 13 – 23.
You’re not only at BIFAN to present the defining works of your decades-long career, but to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. What’s been going through your mind lately?
The festival reached out to me last October about this possibility and it’s an honor for me to be at BIFAN, which is a beacon for fantasy films. I’ve been making films for 20 years now, going on 30 years. The thing I always dreamed about was realized here. I had known that The Bar and Witching and Bitching were released theatrically in Korea. Even my very first feature, Mutant Action, was released here. It’s great to see my films screened in Korea, not just at festivals, but also in commercial theaters. Films unite us, especially fantasy films. For fans of the fantasy genre, it’s almost an incurable disease. It’s like we’re all infected by this thing that makes us go out and seek out these kinds of films. There’s only one cure for that. Festivals like BIFAN and Sitges in Spain attract fantasy fans from all over the world. We’re one. We’re all brothers and sisters.
They call you the “popular auteur”—quite a feat for someone who didn’t start out in film.
I studied philosophy. All of my school friends ended up in libraries. None of us were satisfied with our education. I don’t think the University of Deusto was great for philosophy. There were other, better institutions. A priest recommended that I travel to San Sebastián. It’s at the film festival there that I met friends who made horror films. That’s how I became interested in genre.
This is really the first time I’m thinking about this: I think my drive to make genre films is my fight against intellectuals who feign seriousness. There are intellectuals who are obsessed with how they’re seen by others, and because of this pressure, they wear masks. They’re unable to pursue what they truly enjoy and that’s a real shame. It’s the most conservative way of thinking. They believe that, if there’s a horizon, comedy is above it and the seriousness of drama—the stuff that’s “important”—is beneath it. That’s not the way to go. You have to enjoy yourself. You can’t just focus on the pain and the seriousness all the time. It’s joy that’s most important in life.
You have quite a drastic film language in both substance and style. What made you this way?
[Laughs] Let me tell you something that happened to me in college: I lived around five minutes from school. One day, I was getting off the bus when, all of a sudden, there was an exchange of gunfire. This was common. I saw bullets flying in front of me, so I ran across the street and into a candy store with my friends. Obviously, we started shoving candy and beverages into our bags. There’s gunfire outside—no one cared about what we were doing. We were picking bloodied candy out of gun shells littering the floor. We walked to school and never talked about it again.
In another episode, I was having a conversation with my friend outside and, all of a sudden, there was gunfire. Then this heavyset guy tackled my friend to the ground. My friend flew seven feet. Looking back, I think this guy was military in civilian clothes. It was just funny to me because the guy brushed himself off and turned to us with that look of, “What are you looking at?” He was most concerned with showing off his toughness. He seemed so removed from the reality of what was happening in that situation. My friend and I didn’t talk about this again either.
Maybe this is a good example of why I do what I do. There’s a strange link, this unbreakable link, between horror and comedy at the core. I really believe it. And I need to show that because, in trying to explain how the world is, people often like to put ideas into separate blocks. They need to put comedy in this box and terror in that box. If you separate ideas in this way, you don’t understand the world. They become mere impressions of a feeling. The world doesn’t work in this way. Everything is connected and linked. The world is a big paella. A horror moment always has a little dose of humor. That’s why it works. You need to have it. Look at sex. The best moment in Alien—the most terrifying movie I’ve seen—is when Sigourney Weaver is almost naked in the spacesuit. In that horror moment, you’re also thinking about how sexy she is. That’s true to life.
Since you’re such a game changer, do you ever think about experimenting with material that’s completely foreign to you? What if someone gave you money to make a real love story?
I would need to be a great director in order to make a real love story. I don’t know that I could do it. It would be all about feelings and not the action. I love the kind of movies that I make. I think I saw one romance film a long time ago. [Álex gets up and starts walking back and forth.] This is what I’m trying to do with my films. Of course, I could make a movie about feelings. But I also need them to be entertaining. I want your attention. That’s why my style of filmmaking is so dramatic. I’m vying for your attention. It’s possible to make films with just a concept or an idea. Ingmar Bergman was very good at that, and he did it in his own way. But because I’m not Bergman, my priority is keeping you awake. That’s what forced me to mix interesting concepts.
Critics will always write about your work in their own way. What is your genre, to you?
It’s really difficult to name the genre. If I must, I would call it grotesque tragedy. It would have to be something to describe a ridiculous genre because I like to play with ridiculous ideas. There’s no need to define the genre of my own films. That’s me masturbating to naked pictures of myself.
Your latest film The Bar screened at BIFAN earlier today. There’s a lot of messaging going on about class, terrorism, fake news, addiction… I would love to know the significance of the bar itself because you could conceivably set this story inside any kind of establishment.
That’s very good. I think your concept of a bar might be very different than mine. In Spain, a bar is a place you can go to have breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks—basically, you can do whatever you want there. It turns into a discotheque at night. It’s everything: a café, a bar, a restaurant. In London, it’s similar to maybe a pub. In New York, for example, if you go to have breakfast, you don’t normally order a gin and tonic or whiskey at the same time. In Spain, it’s possible. You mostly find these types of bars in the middle of Madrid, or at least the classic ones. You can order whatever you want, all the time. It’s a place for social gatherings and everybody can go. A rich man mingles with a poor man. It’s really democratic and that’s the good thing about bars in Madrid, which are now starting to disappear. It’s not as common these days. So that’s why the movie is called The Bar. It’s not like bars with the pole and girls. [Laughs] That’s an American bar. Maybe for international audiences, we should call it The Coffee Bar or something like this.
The Bar takes from divine comedy. It’s an upside down pyramid of fear that we’re going down level by level. The first level of fear is the unknown: government conspiracies and things that are out of your control. When we go down one level to the bar’s cellar, we’re in purgatory. What you fear isn’t outside forces but things that are among us: each other. When they get to the sewer, true hell is revealed, which is ourselves. We’re forced to confront ourselves and overcome our fears. It demands that you be brave enough to acknowledge your faults and who you really are. That’s perhaps why Trini commits suicide, Nacho sacrifices himself, and Elena is the sole survivor.
As you said before, some people devalue genre films as throwaway entertainment. Hearing them critique, they’re downright allergic. What are your thoughts on such vocal opponents?
Those people you’re referring to don’t get out of their houses, don’t travel, don’t make the effort to meet new people, don’t read… They like the simple life, away from things they can’t control. They’re afraid of things that are different or unfamiliar to them. They pursue a kind of stability. If you don’t like surprises, that life is already dead. You feel alive when you’re surprised. It shows your will to live to the fullest. How do we show the will to live to those people? Not just through the medium of film, but by talking to them. Tell them to go outside their bubbles and talk to someone other than their girlfriends. That we’re at a festival like BIFAN is proof we pursue things that are different. It shows our curiosity and our desire to explore unfamiliar territories.
You seem to care deeply about who you’re ultimately telling your stories to.
I always think about what kind of things the audience will get from my film when they leave the screening room. There are a lot of moral issues. In terms of justice, I like to talk about our equal right to live. It’s not just about having one option in life, but being able to propose a lot of different ones. That’s really what I want to do with my films: I want to propose many options. Unfortunately, those options aren’t always clear, and I hide them, because the films will otherwise lose their meaning. The fact that you’re here, that I’m here, is a consequence of one option out of all the options available. In life, it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t know anything. Other times, we want to run away from the truth. I think that’s one of the reasons why people go to the movies. A film can be pure entertainment or also have meaning that you learn from. I want to do both. Perhaps this is rooted in my own insecurity, but I think every action should make some kind of contribution to a greater whole. I don’t want to transmit my insecurities to you, but I have been having a hard time falling asleep and getting up in the morning these days. I want to end on a positive: I know God exists because we can still make movies, and we can go watch them.