- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, whose haunted house thriller "The Others" is his first English language feature, seems to have been a quick study.
Mr. Amenabar, in his late 20s, already is a stylistic virtuoso with both sensuous and mind-teasing mystery motifs. A professional career became practical while he still was enrolled in the national film school in Madrid.
"A Spanish director liked one of my student films," Mr. Amenabar explains recently at the St. Regis Hotel, during interviews to promote "The Others."
"Not that we could afford film stock. All the student shorts were done on video. It's cheap and lets you delete and explore and try again and again with a minimum of waste and expense. Anyway, this director encouraged me to write a feature. So early in my fifth year, which is the final year of the complete course of study, I did finish a screenplay and sent it to him. Really, I just wanted his opinion. He said it was a pretty good script, looked for the money and found enough for me to make 'Thesis.' I never did graduate."
Mr. Amenabar's debut feature became in effect his extracurricular thesis project. Released in 1995, it was the precocious attraction of the year in Spain.
"Death is a common subject of my three films," the filmmaker says. In "Thesis" it threatened a college student who was preparing a thesis about "violence in the media." Mr. Amenabar's second feature, "Open Your Eyes," an eye-opener for American art-house audiences in 1998, makes extensive scenic use of Madrid while delving into a grievous, esoteric state of unconsciousness. "The Others" is designed to keep the audience baffled about lines of demarcation between the living and the dead. It stars Nicole Kidman as the possibly overprotective, possibly demented mistress of a secluded, fog-enshrouded country house on the island of Jersey circa 1945 cooped up with her two young children and a trio of newly arrived servants.
Mr. Amenabar does not want to be taken literally. "For me the death theme is just a metaphor," he says. "I don't personally believe in ghosts or the supernatural. My position is one of agnosticism. I try to adopt a very realistic, or let's say human, point-of-view about the ghosts. To be inspired by them, but no more so than by the audience and by anticipating its responses. Using suspense as a way to approach the audience is something I'm very interested in. There is very much an influence of Hitchcock's movies. I thought it was quite explicit in my second film. For me making movies is the perfect way to play with obsessions and concerns and paranoias — with what is hidden. I like to explore that."
Mr. Amenabar's ascending career has overlapped the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman marital split in a peculiar way. Remake rights to "Open Your Eyes" were acquired by Mr. Cruise's production company shortly before the movie was imported. An adaptation titled "Vanilla Sky," reuniting Mr. Cruise with Cameron Crowe, the director of "Jerry Maguire," may be released before the end of the year. One of Mr. Amenabar's cast members, Penelope Cruz, whom Mr. Cruise is dating, will be re-creating her original role. The cast also features Cameron Diaz (evidently playing the bad girl who visits calamity on the hero), Kurt Russell and Tilda Swinton.
While Mr. Cruise took a proprietary interest in "Open Your Eyes" as a starring vehicle for himself, he facilitated "The Others" as a vehicle for Miss Kidman. He acquired the Amenabar screenplay in association with Miramax Pictures.
"I wrote it originally in Spanish," the director says of "The Others" in English that seems about 75 percent fluent. "I never thought this story to take place in Spain. I was thinking about South America. When I gave it to my producers, they thought it was a perfect script to shoot in English, that it had more to do with English storytelling elements than Latin or Mediterranean. So we had it translated into English and sent it to a few companies."
Mr. Amenabar says he does not think of himself as an aspiring Hollywood director. "It can be very exciting but also very dangerous for a director from another country," he says. "First of all, I try to protect the nature of my projects. I don't have to work in a specific place, although I like to work in Europe, and I like to stay close to where I live, which is Madrid. It depends always on the story. In this case it became possible to shoot in English while remaining in my country. We found a perfect house in the north of Spain, in Cantabrie. Not so close to the sea, so it isn't really like Jersey. But with cold weather compared to the rest. We needed always to find cloudy days. Then we could return to familiar studio space in Madrid, where I worked with many of the same crew members as before. Tom and Nicole really understood a filmmaker's need to do that."
The condition of the director's English was a question mark until production began. "I tried to improve as much as possible, and we reserved the idea of having a translator on the set. It wasn't necessary, but the real learning on both sides started when we began the picture," he says. "If you want to understand each other, you are always able to. I wanted to be as specific as possible with the actors, because we are talking about psychological aspects of behavior. Then, especially with the children, who had done no film work at all. To our good fortune, they were very smart and very nice and behaved like a real sister and brother. We needed them to understand what this story was about, and they were able to."
Mr. Amenabar regards Alfred Hitchcock as a pre-eminent stylistic influence for his work, but the movie that influenced the young filmmaker the most while planning "The Others" was Jack Clayton's "The Innocents." That 1961 film derived from Henry James' novella "The Turn of the Screw."
"Clayton played with silence and solitude, with very simple and primal fears," Mr. Amenabar says. "I wanted to do that, and work at a much quieter and less distracting level than I had in 'Open Your Eyes,' which involved a lot of shooting around the city. I also wanted to get back to the spirit of suspense and mystery movies in the 1940s and 1950s, when the concern was always persons, always your characters. I'm missing it nowadays, especially with horror movies, which I'm fond of. But now they're often about special effects and nothing else. And when that's all they're about, they don't scare me."
Mr. Amenabar was a bit concerned that casting Miss Kidman might be misconstrued as a sign of the Hitchcock influence. "When I wrote the script in Spanish, the name of the heroine was Graciella. I wasn't thinking of any actors at all. I never do when I write a screenplay," he says. "Her name in the translation became Grace. Then Nicole came into the project and put on a blond wig and it started to remind us of Grace Kelly in her Hitchcock pictures. That wasn't on purpose. But I can understand why people think it was intended. When I see the film now, I think it was written for Nicole."
Mr. Amenabar says he was more attracted to the movies through soundtracks than images. "I started to listen to film music as a child. I got very interested in music, although I never studied music. But I started to compose simple things, with a little keyboard, before I began to start writing stories and drawing pictures to go with them," he says.
"I started to watch films a lot when I was about 10. Never in theaters. I rarely went to the movies until I was a teen-ager. Somebody told me you could actually study film at university, and I thought that sounded like more fun than studying law or something like that. At school I began to make short films and found that I felt very comfortable with all these specialties: the writing and directing and composing. I never have tried to write songs — just the themes for films, which real experts, orchestrators and musicians and sound people, translate to the soundtrack from my demos."
Mr. Amenabar often finds it useful to begin his mystery plots at the end. "I always need to know the journey my characters will travel. Sometimes I even start at the very end. I did with 'Open Your Eyes,' then went backwards. I don't think the endings of my films are happy or sad. I like to provoke certain physical responses from the audience along the way. That's what I like about suspense. It can give you something very precise if the preparation is correct. The actors are always very aware of needing to protect the story elements. They cannot reveal too much or too little. The trickiest thing about these stories is integrating the mystery elements with the plot and making it all look organic, as if it could not happen any other way."
Mr. Amenabar was born in Chile in 1972. His parents left for Spain a year later, "for political reasons," about two weeks before the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and elevated Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The director's father, who worked for General Electric Co. before his retirement, is Chilean. His mother is Spanish. Mr. Amenabar has an older brother, who lives in London and works at Heathrow Airport. Visiting his brother has made London his second favorite city in Europe. This connection seems likely to result in an Amenabar movie with a London setting someday.
"It always depends on the story. Something has to cause a strong and powerful pull in some direction," he says. "If it should be set in England or America, fine. I don't like too much traveling, though. I think I am a very bad traveler, really. Maybe I should use this for a movie. It might be funny to force travel on a character who prefers to go nowhere."

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