Pablo Berger’s Black-and-White Silent Film ‘Blancanieves’

March 24th, 2013

THE DWARFS are still present. As is the poisoned apple. But “Blancanieves,” a silent black-and-white film opening Friday, updates the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Snow White” in a decidedly non-Disney way: The fairest of them all does a lot less whistling and a lot more bullfighting.

That’s not the only change. The writer-director, Pablo Berger, has moved the setting to southern Spain and reached deep into the pockets of film history to tell the story of Carmen (Macarena García), the daughter of a famous bullfighter living with her vicious stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Carmen finds her true passion when she is taken in by a troupe of dwarfs and follows in her father’s bullfighting footsteps.

The film is set in Seville in the 1920s, a period Mr. Berger became drawn to when he was younger and would attend the San Sebastián Film Festival. There he saw a screening of Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” (1924) with a live orchestra. “When I got out I was converted to silent cinema,” he said during an interview in New York.

Here Mr. Berger discusses the film and its many inspirations, including photography, Hollywood films and literature.

Out There In the Dark

For the look of the wicked Encarna at the moment she hands over the poisoned apple, Mr. Berger had a particular photo in mind: Edward Steichen’s image of a veiled Gloria Swanson. That was translated into the eerie lace costume by Paco Delgado, who also designed costumes for “Les Misérables,” from 2012.

“Although the film is very Spanish, I wanted the stepmother at times to have a Victorian edge, like the evil characters from English Gothic novels,” Mr. Berger said. He also saw Encarna as an amalgamation of heightened characters from Hollywood melodramas, like Bette Davis’s former child star in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” or Swanson’s faded silent actress in “Sunset Blvd.” He asked Ms. Verdú to strike a balance between very scary and very funny.

Fully Drawn Character

In the first scene a bullfight features Carmen’s father, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), as a matador. Before production began Mr. Berger worked extensively with the artist Iñigo Rotaetxe on storyboards that lay out many of the shots and convey a sense of style and pacing. “We had the whole movie drawn,” Mr. Berger said. “The storyboards could be their own graphic novel.” These images show how the variety of shots, not words, moves the narrative along. Toward that end two Super-16-millimeter cameras filmed at the same time. “The goal was to get as many shots as possible,” he said. The finished sequence contains more than 150 edits in five minutes.

Sparked By a Photo

In the film, a troupe of dwarfs comes to Carmen’s rescue. Mr. Berger opted for six dwarfs instead of the usual seven. But his decision to reimagine “Snow White” as a Spanish tale was inspired by an image by the Magnum photographer Cristina García Rodero, who documents Spain. That image of bullfighting dwarfs appeared in her 1989 book, “Hidden Spain.”

Mr. Berger said, “When I saw it, I thought, ‘What if I put Snow White in the middle as a bullfighter?’ ” That idea became the jumping-off point for the story, which uncovers and celebrates elements of Spanish culture from an era past but uses a contemporary approach to filming. Instead of directing the actors to make the bold, pantomimed gestures often found in silent film, he sought stylized performances only for the villainous characters, and a more emotional, realistic approach for the others. “We didn’t want the movie to look like an exact copy of a silent film from the 1920s,” he said. “But it had to have that feel and take you to that time.”

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