Alejandro Amenabar on The Sea InsideThe Young Man and the Sea
Making an uplifting movie about a man who wants to die was a challenge Alejandro Amenabar couldn't resist. After the fantasies Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky) and The Others, the 32-year-old writer, director and composer chose a more intimate—and controversial—subject for his latest picture, The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro in Spanish). He started with the basics.
"After finishing promotion for The Others, I went [for a visit] to the sea," Amenabar said during an interview in Hollywood. "I thought my next movie should start and finish with the sea, because this is like the ultimate place of rest." He created a character-driven plot, which he insists was easy. "This is one of those stories where the story picks you up, instead of you picking up the story. I couldn't help being fascinated."
It's a well-known tale in Amenabar's native Spain. A sailor named Ramon Sampedro, paralyzed after a catastrophic accident while sea diving at Furnas Beach, demanded the right to die. In heavily Catholic Spain, it was no trivial matter; Sampedro, played in the movie by Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), was the first Spaniard to plead to the government for the right to die. Sampedro waged his lonely struggle for 30 years.
"Like many people in Spain, I was just interested in the case," Amenabar explained. "After Ramon's death, I bought his book, as an act of curiosity, to see how good a writer he was. I read it, and I thought it was great. I'm not really into poetry but it was very touching to me. A few months later, I decided to watch all the documentaries shown on television [about Sampedro's case]. There was something very interesting about the family—you could tell they were holding back."
The Sea Inside required a lot of preparation. Besides his research about Sampedro, Amenabar learned about the law and medicine, and he watched Whose Life is it, Anyway?, the 1981 movie based on Brian Clark's play, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a paralyzed sculptor who wants to die. Amenabar said he loved it—but he wanted The Sea Inside to be more cinematic.
"The main challenge was how we were going to get out of [Sampedro's] room without making it obvious," Amenabar said. "It's actually in reverse of The Others, which is told literally from darkness. The Sea Inside is told from light and from life itself. I never thought a dark tone would be appropriate. When I read his book, I really felt alive."
"But when you tell people that this is going to be the story of a paraplegic who wants to die, some of them will be scared," Amenabar said. "I always insisted on the uplifting tone of the film. It's not death itself that interests me, but how the individual deals with the fact of dying." Describing his own religious philosophy as agnosticism, which he said was sparked when a priest told him that his pet rabbit would not go to Heaven, Amenabar said he preferred to focus on life on earth.
"This is a man who's been reading and thinking for 30 years and doing nothing else, so his mind is very powerful," Amenabar said. "I guess I'm interested in freedom—and in suffering, or a feeling of being trapped, that's something that scares me. The way the world is moving now, we are losing many rights. But I consider myself an optimist."
Amenabar, who lives in Madrid, cites Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick among his primary influences. After being told as a child that the person who created E.T. was the same person who directed Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was intrigued; as interested in Mr. Spielberg's connection to subconscious emotions as he was in the technique. He first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager and viewed director Kubrick's work as a model of simplicity with a hypnotic quality (though he added that he doesn't always share Kubrick's bizarre point of view). For Amenabar, the director of Rear Window is an unparalleled expert in the elements of making movies. "Hitchcock is pure suspense. It's like mathematics," he said.
Amenabar's own philosophy is equally straightforward. "The way I conceive films is the opposite of modern art," he said, "where simple things are [depicted as] very cryptic." Contrary to Hollywood's current trends, Amenabar favors steady cameras and longer shots—"the longer, the better." According to him, the plot always comes first.
Though he has known actor Javier Bardem, who is also Spanish, for many years, Amenabar was initially opposed to casting Bardem as the male lead. "It was my producer, Fernando [Bovaira], who said we should offer him the role," he explains. "I said 'he's too young.' He said, 'but he's the best actor in Spain,' and I kept saying 'but he is too young.' I wasn't sure if it was suitable for him." Now, he credits Bardem as the soul of The Sea Inside.
For his Golden Age devotion to storytelling, Amenabar is not one of those directors who think making money means selling out. Asked if he follows box office receipts, Amenabar answered without hesitation: "Yes."
"Movies are expensive, so it's something you have to seriously consider. When I decided to be a film director, I also thought about the money all these people are investing in the movie," he said. "When I make a film, I make the film I would love to see in the theaters. I want to connect with myself as a potential viewer. I am making a film for myself."
The payoff, he said, is the motion picture itself, which he sees as art, not activism. Aware that The Sea Inside may incur the wrath of those opposed to euthanasia, he doesn't see his movie as overtly political. "Of course I have a position but I'm very reluctant to talk about politics," he says. "I've noticed when talking with the media that some have tried to put me in that place—that because I'm making this film [about the right to die], I'm left-wing and that sort of thing. But my family always taught me to have an open mind."
A version of this article originally appeared on Box Office Mojo in 2004.