The sniper in green locks looks at the sheriff.
“Don’t look at me like that,” the sheriff says, squinting.
“How do you want me to look at you?” replies the sniper flirtatiously.
It wouldn’t be a Western without a fraught standoff, but when Pedro Almodóvar is behind the camera, the looks are even more charged than the pistols. “Strange Way of Life,” a new short film premiering Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival, stars Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as lawman and cowboy who are reunited 25 years after a passionate affair. But will their old magic be rekindled, or are both men hiding ulterior motives from meeting?
In many ways, the project is a fallback for Almodóvar: the 73-year-old author, typically known for Spanish-language films about modern women living in beautiful apartments, has 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 on a continuum with that 2005 film, which was ultimately directed by Ang Lee, who ultimately won the award. won for best director. .
“In ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Jake Gyllenhaal’s character tells Heath Ledger’s character to go away and work on a ranch,” Almodóvar said during a video call. “Heath says, ‘What would two men in the West do who work on a farm?’ In many ways, I feel like my film answers that.”
Almodóvar wrote a few pages of the centerpiece scene three years ago and then put it out of his mind. “Sometimes I just write for the joy of writing,” he said. “I had no purpose in it.” But inspiration struck when Anthony Vaccarello, the creative director of the fashion label Saint Laurent, said he had just produced a short film for Gaspar Noé. Almodóvar recalled the sequence with the two pistoleros, added a scene-setting prologue and a guns-out aftermath, and offered Vaccarrello the screenplay for the 31-minute “Strange Way of Life.”
“Of course it could have been a feature film,” he said. “But I do think it was the perfect duration for the story I want to tell.” And after making 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 western type, the spaghetti western, I wanted to make it a classic western.”
Almodóvar soon contacted Pascal, whose star began to rise with the series ‘The Mandalorian’ and ‘The Last of Us’. The 48-year-old actor was eager to sign up; he had seen 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 I was going to a new theme park,” Pascal said in an email. “A whole world of color and play and a kind of mischievous rebellion was introduced into my experience.”
His co-star was just as gung-ho. “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 movies, there’s a third entity in the room, which is you want the movie to sell — you just feel it from people behind the monitor. And what’s great about working with Almodóvar is that you feel like there’s no one to make you happy except Pedro Almodóvar.”
The short went into production last summer in Almería, Spain, on the outdoor sets where Sergio Leone once shot his classic 1964-66 spaghetti western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. “The passage of time, 50 years of it, has given authenticity to the place,” said Almodóvar. And in addition to producing the project, Vaccarello doubled as a costume designer, a crucial role in an Almodóvar film.
“There are some directors I’ve worked with who are great directors, but they’re just not that interested in costumes — it’s just, ‘Yeah, whatever you want to wear is fine,'” Hawke said. deciding what shade of green is the wall behind you or what shade of gray your jacket is and what fabric it is made of.”
While Almodóvar’s films are also notable for what happens when those clothes come off, “Strange Way of Life” is surprisingly discreet, fading to black when Hawke and Pascal gather for an embrace.
“The sexual tension in my film is centered around the looks, so from the very beginning I decided that I wouldn’t show the whole sexual scene,” said Almodóvar. “They’re much more naked in the conversation they have afterwards.”
It’s that conversation that made Almodóvar want to shoot the film in the first place: After making “Pain and Glory” (2019), which starred Antonio Banderas as a thinly disguised version of his director, Almodóvar feels increasingly more drawn to stories of middle-aged gay men looking back on their lives.
“I think this is partly a reflection of my own age, that I’ve decided to tell stories about older men,” Almodóvar said. “If I had written these stories when I was 25 years old, I probably would have written a story about two 25-year-old cowboys.”
Shooting wasn’t easy, Hawke admitted: the production had to endure a record-breaking heat wave in the desert for 15 days, “and it’s very hard to think about nuanced ideas when your body just wants to sleep or look for something. air conditioning,” he said. But when the project came to an end, he was able to step back and take it all in.
“Suddenly I wrapped myself up and realized I was in the desert in Spain on an old Sergio Leone set, and Almodóvar hugged me, thanked me, and I thought about how much I love movies and what a unique challenge this is. was and how much I want to keep tracking these kinds of experiences,” Hawke said. “I somehow felt better for doing it, and I don’t know how else to say it.”