He's been compared to Bunuel. He's mates with Tom Cruise. And his latest film - on the subject of euthanasia - is up for an Oscar. Just where did 32-year-old Alejandro Amenabar go so right, asks Ryan Gilbey
The last time I met the Spanish writer-director-composer Alejandro Amenabar, his boyish demeanour - all wide-eyed innocence, chipmunk cheeks and bouts of raucous chuckling - made him seem a good deal younger than his 29 years. That was back in 2001, when he was promoting his spook-story The Others and doing his best to ignore questions about Nicole Kidman (the film's lead actress) and Tom Cruise (its producer), whose separation had run parallel to the making of that movie. When I meet Amenabar again in a London hotel to discuss his equally subtle follow-up, The Sea Inside, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he has reversed the ageing process and will, all things considered, soon be back in short trousers. He has short, tufty black hair, and is wearing a bright red pullover and crisp white slacks; he might have been dressed by his mother for prize-giving day. Indeed, he appears to have found the fountain of youth, and fallen in. It sounds like the subject for his next film.

His youthfulness is particularly striking given the maturity of The Sea Inside. This Oscar-nominated film focuses on the last months in the life of Ramn Sampedro, a quadriplegic poet who lobbied unsuccessfully for three decades for his right to die, before eventually taking his own life by drinking a lethal cocktail. Amenabar had followed the story avidly, and first considered its cinematic potential while writing The Others. "At the same time," he explains, "I was interested in another real-life story, about a man who was kidnapped by the Basque terrorists Eta, and kept in a hole for over a year. I became obsessed with thinking about his suffering in that tiny space, and gradually his story started to mingle with Ramn's in my mind."

The director evidently relishes a very specific type of challenge: namely, how to create an expansive experience out of cramped, unpromising origins. His second feature, the 1997 psychological thriller Open Your Eyes, took place mostly inside its hero's deranged mind. (It was later remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise - something of a mentor to Amenabar - in the lead.) The Others was confined entirely to a dimly- lit mansion. And now, in The Sea Inside, Amenabar evokes a sense of limitless physical and imaginative space, despite the main character leaving his bed just once in the entire movie.

"It seems like a small story, set in one house, with a few characters," he admits, "but the themes are huge and universal, so I wanted to communicate that in the look of the film." The widescreen images dispel any hint of claustrophobia. And casting Javier Bardem as Ramn is also a crucial factor; this man has so much charisma that he could have done the role as a voice- over and still lit up the screen. "When myself and Mateo [Gil, the film's co-writer] were working on the screenplay," says Amenabar, "we would sometimes get tired and that's when we knew we had to find a way to get out of Ramn's room." This goal is achieved most spectacularly in the flights of fantasy that lift Ramn out of his bed, through the open window, and send him soaring toward the coast. "Meeting Ramn's family was interesting because they told me how important the world of dreams was to him, and that in turn enabled me to create those fantasy scenes." However, the Sampedro family had its own small objection to the script. "They were not initially enthusiastic," recalls Amenabar, "but they gave me all the information I needed. When I took the script to them, they said it was pretty much the real story, though there was one thing they complained about - the scene where Ramn breaks down and cries. They were adamant that this would never have happened because he wouldn't have let his emotions overwhelm him like that. At the same time, I knew how important that scene was for Javier: he needed it to help him build the character. And the audience needs it too, otherwise they remain distanced from Ramn. I explained that the film is faithful to Ramn's essence. But it's not a documentary."

The family may have been placated, but other elements of the film have riled the Catholic church and provoked fierce debate in the Spanish media. When Amenabar tells me that representatives of the Vatican have labelled the picture manipulative and morally irresponsible, he does so with a bashful, little-old-me smile; it's odd to think of this unassuming fellow taking his place alongside the likes of Bunuel and Almodvar in a tradition of inflammatory Spanish film-making. He's correct, though, to point out that those people who object to the film have not seen it, and have no intention of doing so. If they did, they might find themselves ambushed by its sensitivity or wrongfooted by its restraint: early on in the film, Ramn argues that he is speaking not for all quadriplegics, but for himself. For Amenabar, that was the key to the film's perspective.

"The film was not born out of a desire to campaign," he says. "My aim was simply to place the audience in the presence of death and make them feel alive. I never wanted the film to be disrespectful to anyone who is in Ramn's position, but who chooses to go on living. Javier and I visited the National Hospital for Paraplegics and the doctors there were concerned about what their patients might think after seeing the film. They said, `Here we are trying to encourage them to live. What will they think when they hear Ramn's arguments for dying?' That's why I tried very hard not to generalise, or to preach. This is one man's story, and it is as much about life as it is about death."

He insists, too, that making The Sea Inside has altered his own perspective on death. "I don't think I'm scared of dying now. I'm more interested in how we all cope with the idea that, whether or not there is an after- life, this... life... has... to... end." He gives those last words a dreamy, drawn- out emphasis that distracts temporarily from what he has said. Then it sinks in: what does he mean "whether or not there is an after-life"? Is this what 10 years of education at a Catholic boarding-school in Madrid has produced? "Yes, I was born and raised a Catholic," he smiles, "but I'm not practising. When I was growing up, everyone told me, `Don't worry. If you're good, you'll go to heaven.' Then my pet rabbit died when I was seven, and I asked my priest if the rabbit would go to heaven. He said, `Rabbits go nowhere.' I was devastated. And from that moment, I changed. Now I consider myself agnostic. But even so, I think I'm a moral person; I don't think I'll end up in hell if there is one."

The year 1979, when Amenabar lost his precious rabbit, along with his unquestioning faith, was significant in other respects. That was also the year in which he remembers that his enthusiasm for writing, drawing and playing music began to shade into obsession. He was a studious child, he says, who never caused any trouble. His Chilean father, a mechanic, and his Spanish mother fled to Madrid from Santiago in the wake of Pinochet's coup d'etat in 1973, shortly before Amenabar's first birthday. If you want a portrait of the infant Amenabar, look no further than the scaredy- cat kid brother in The Others, who spends much of the film hiding under the blankets while his sister, and assorted apparitions, scare the bejesus out of him. "I was scared of anything and everything - corridors, cupboards, anywhere something might be hiding." Comfort came in the stories and music he dreamt up. To this day, he writes scripts with music playing in his head, and won't let another composer near his films. "I'd be a pain in the arse if I hired someone else to do the score," he smiles. "There would be fighting."

The young Amenabar had dreamed of being a scientist, then an engineer, and had enrolled in the Sciences Information Faculty at Madrid's Complutense University before switching to film studies. Movies had come into his life around the age of 10, when his North American neighbours not only let him watch their videos, but helpfully provided simultaneous translation into the bargain. "I saw everything - The Omen, The Exorcist, Alien. But most of the nightmares I had were about school."

Once he began making his own short films, he found himself drawn to the suspense genre. He is not interested in discussing his first short. "I've been asked to put it on DVD, but it's very embarrassing. Thankfully there's only one copy of it. And I own it!" However, his subsequent efforts, Himenptero (made when he was just 19) and Luna, serve as prequels to his first two films - Thesis (1996) and Open Your Eyes respectively - and can be found as extras on the Spanish DVDs of those titles.

Back then, Amenabar considered himself something of a rebel. "As students, we all liked to kick out at the establishment, which in those days was represented by directors like Almodvar and Carlos Saura. We thought we had all the answers. What's funny is that someone told me that my films now occupy that place - all the students want to rebel against the kind of films I make. Apparently if you want to insult a film student, you tell them: `That's so Amenabar.'"

After the international success of Open Your Eyes, Amenabar could easily have sold out and taken the first Club Class ticket to Hollywood that was dangled in front of his nose. But while he agreed, at the suggestion of Cruise and fellow producers (including Bob Weinstein), to relocate his script for The Others to the Channel Islands from its original South American setting, he didn't compromise its tone of repressed horror and strangled sensuality. "I didn't feel any pressure from anyone," he shrugs, perhaps wary of journalists angling for tales of the small fish who nearly drowned in the big pond. "I tried to concentrate on keeping the intimate nature of the film intact. It was such a simple story that no one could demand that I put in an explosion or a car chase."

Cruise has remained a friend, and if it comes across as obnoxious to read about Amenabar visiting him and Steven Spielberg on the set of Minority Report, rest assured it didn't sound that way - the young director described the trip as though it was nothing more noteworthy than popping to the corner-shop for a block of Battenburg. And besides, it was Spielberg's composer, John Williams, whom he really wanted to meet. "He wasn't there that day," he sighs, like an empty-handed autograph hunter.

Even the glossy debacle that was Vanilla Sky doesn't appear to have dented Amenabar's relationship with Cruise, or Hollywood. "Watching it felt strange," he admits. "I kept thinking: `I would have done this differently.' Then I realised I already had done it differently. Cameron had just put his own voice onto the same story." So you hated it then, I say. "No!" he giggles, rolling around on the hotel sofa in an alarming manner. "I didn't say that." In the wake of the success of The Others, Amenabar didn't get sent as many scripts as you might suspect ("I don't have an agent," he says, "so that helps keep the offers to a minimum"), but Hollywood clearly remains smitten by him. Despite Amenabar's assertion that The Sea Inside would be lucky to be acknowledged, it has earned Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Make-Up (in honour of the extraordinary job done by Jo Allen - the woman responsible for the triumph known as "Kidman's Nose" in The Hours - in ageing Bardem by 20 years).

"I completely trust that the audience will go on the journey with Ramn once they are in the cinema," he says, "but getting them in there in the first place is another matter. People say to me, `Thank you for making the film, I wasn't going to see it until someone convinced me.'" I ask how he would market the film, and he thinks for a moment. "You might not think you'll like it - but you will." m

`The Sea Inside' is released on Friday