Palm Springs International Film Festival executive director Darryl Macdonald calls Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger "the perfect illustration of the Palm Springs film festival group following a director's career."
Berger's thesis project at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Truth and Beauty, won Best Comedy at the inaugural Palm Springs ShortFest in 1995. His first feature, Torremolinos '73, won the New Voices, New Visions award at the 2004 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
His second feature, the black-and-white silent film Blancanieves, made its U.S. debut Thursday as the festival opener.
The prestigious slot isn't just a reward for loyalty. Macdonald thought it deserved to make the short list of nine films vying for a best foreign language Oscar nomination, although it didn't make the cut. Festival artistic director Helen du Toit calls the adaptation of Snow White to a bullfighting setting "quite interesting."
Berger, 49, talked about the film in a telephone interview from Spain.
Q. Without being in contention for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, what do you hope to achieve from your exposure at Palm Springs?
A. We already have distribution. It is going to open in the next few months. So, it's a great chance (to tell) audiences and film journalists in North America we are arriving very soon to the movie theaters.
Q. How did you come up with the idea of turning the Snow White fable into Blancanieves?
A. The idea came from a photo. This Spanish photographer called Cristina Garcia Rodero published a book called Hidden Spain in the early '90s and in that book appeared a few photos of bullfighting dwarves. They fascinated me. Also, I mix it with one of my favorite films of all time, Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), so it was a combination of those two elements, and also Snow White, the tale by Grimm, is only three pages. For me, the source was just a starting point. I basically only kept the main characters and the basic plot, and that gives a lot of freedom to the writer.
Q. I understand you made silent shorts in college. Did you have a longstanding desire to make a silent feature or did you just feel your concept of Blancanieves had to be done as a silent?
A. It was a long, longstanding desire - even before I went to film school. When I was young my favorite place to go to was the San Sebastian Film Festival. On one of those occasions they screened Greed by (Eric) von Stroheim with a live orchestra directed by Carl Davis. I got hypnotized by the image and the beauty of the music and the power of lighting and composition. When I got out of the screening - and I was already making small Super 8 films - I said to myself, one day I have to make a silent film.
Q. What was your reaction when The Artist came out before your film? Did you think it might help your film's acceptance or steal your thunder?
A. When The Artist was released, I had already shot my film and it had taken me eight years to get Blancanieves off the ground. Like with (The Artist director) Michel Hazanavicius - everybody thought he was crazy in the French film industry - everybody thought I was crazy in the Spanish film industry when, after Torremolinas in 2005, I came out with a script that the first page said, "this is a black-and-white silent movie with music from beginning to end." So, the element of surprise of my film is gone. But, on the next day I change my mind because I realize what a huge success The Artist is. It is going to break all the prejudice and I have to take the big wave. I think it's fantastic that The Artist became the movie of the year. It opened the doors not only for my film but for others.
Q. Do you think other silent films are coming?
A. I'm sure because if a movie is successful, producers and exhibitors will want to have more successful films and they like to repeat characteristics. The Artist was a very successful film. Blancanieves is a very successful film in Spain and is becoming an art house success all over the world. Silent cinema is an art form. It produces in the audience a different reaction than when they watch a (talking) film. They get into the spell, and the reward at the end is much bigger. In a way, it's closer to an opera or a ballet than to sound film as we know it.
Q. Will there be a market for silents in cineplexes or do you think they'll be restricted to occasional performances in theaters with live ensembles. And would you rather see your film in a cineplex or a theater with live music?
A. I have noticed there have been many more events with silent cinema with live orchestra. When Blancanieves opened in Spain, we did it in Barcelona at the big opera house with almost 2,000 people and an orchestra. In Madrid, we repeated the event and they were huge successes. My dream came from seeing a film with live music. So I definitely prefer to see my film with live music - not in a cineplex. But the digital projection with this great Dolby sound, it makes it an extremely enjoyable experience to see it in a cineplex.