Pedro Almodovar began making movies long before he ever picked up a camera. At the age of 8, he remembers, he was a great storyteller.

"A fable teller," he says.

As a boy in La Mancha, he would go to the drugstore and come back with a story. Or, better yet, he would go to the movies. His two older sisters were always his best audience. Afterward, he would come home and tell them the story of the film, reinventing the plot to suit his own tastes and providing new details as he went along.

"The movie I'd tell to them would be completely different from the one I'd seen. In telling them the film, I would remake it."

He says that he lived deeply there in the dark. The movies he recalls most vividly are Hollywood fantasies like "Blonde Venus," with Marlene Dietrich, "movies that were laden with intrigue."

He remembers Stanley Donen and "Singin' in the Rain."

"Fantastic ... and Howard Hawks!"

He says he recalls telling his sisters the story of some D.W. Griffith melodrama he had seen -- " 'Broken Blossoms,' I think it was" -- and being profoundly affected.

"When I was little," he says, "I experienced these films with a tremendous intensity. Films like 'Broken Blossoms,' where the characters were suffering so much, were like horror films to me. 'Bambi' was like that too," he says, struggling to keep a serious look on his face by lighting a cigarette.

" 'Bambi' was a terrible film for me," he adds, exhaling. "I suffered for Bambi, I tell you."

Now he can't help laughing.

"And for Lillian Gish too."

Where Almodovar is standing now, in front of a feverishly dynamic wall-sized painting splattered with Kandinsky-colored doodlings, it looks as if his head is exploding, erupting with art. And somehow, the image is a perfect equivalent for what Almodovar gives us in his films -- pictures from the exploding id.

The filmmaker laughs uproariously at the thought. With Almodovar, you can forget the hospital corners. As the creator of "Law of Desire," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and his latest, the controversial "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," he is polymorphously hedonistic -- uncensored, unrestrained, unashamed. His movies revel in sexual hyperbole and messy emotionalism. Almodovar isn't interested in normalcy; his greatest love is for exaggeration, passion, obsession. He dances the lunatic edge.

"I'm tired of being good," says the Carmen Maura character in "Women on the Verge," echoing the sentiments of most of the director's people as she dumps a handful of downers into her gazpacho.

In Almodovar's universe, it's natural for one man to love another so fervently and impetuously -- as one of the characters in "Law of Desire" does -- that he takes hostages, and even kills, in order to spend just one hour with him. Or, in "Tie Me Up!," which received an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, for a love-struck suitor to express his affection for the woman he's kidnapped and bound to her bed by shopping for the softest rope possible.

Camp is Almodovar's orientation -- one of the heroes in "Matador" wants desperately to become a bullfighter but faints at the sight of blood -- but it's camp with hidden emotional depths. A camp mixed with a kind of absurdist poetry. All of his movies are about love; for that matter, so are most of the films to come out of Hollywood. But what makes Almodovar's films so unique is their ability to reach beyond the boundaries of conventional romance into the passionate realms where love becomes a kind of glorious torment. His characters indulge themselves as lovers in a manner so unrestrained that it verges on the comic; they're hopeless, obsessive buffoons, undone by their own ardent excesses.

It shouldn't seem odd that the creator of these immoderate sexual cartoons is a mild-mannered, almost skittishly shy former employee of the telephone company, but it does. Unless you count the brown-and-white saddle shoes and the silky yellow shirt with the big wooden buttons, he seems too placid and self-effacing to give birth to fantasies as extravagantly outrageous as these. Short and rather squat, with bristly hair that appears to have a bit more life than its owner would prefer, Almodovar addresses his questioner with a not unfriendly, but decidedly businesslike, air. The language difference may play something of a role in the slight hesitancy in his manner. (Though his English is excellent, he has his assistant and aide-de-camp, Enrique Posner, interpret for him.) But to explain the trace of hauteur it also helps to remember that in his own country he is a star of the highest magnitude -- the hero of la movida, the explosion in the Spanish arts after the death of Franco, the king of a cultural scene in Madrid where artists were like rock stars, spending as much of their time in the clubs as they did in their studios or cutting rooms.

There he has attained that level of stardom where only one name is required.

There he is ... Almodovar.

His films, he says, reflect the wild release of the post-Franco '80s in Madrid. "Madrid and I have a sort of winking relationship with each other," the director says. "We've been changing and evolving together. We grew up together."

All of Almodovar's films have grown directly out of the country's sense of rebirth and limitless possibilities. But in particular this applies to the 1987 "Law of Desire," which features a famous movie director as its hero. And the 1981 "Labyrinth of Passion," in which an Arab prince targeted for assassination by a rather sleepy group of radicals takes cover as the lead singer in a rock band.

"From 1979 to around 1983, that was the golden age in Madrid," Almodovar remembers fondly. "The city was just awakening, and everything seemed new. The search for pleasure was almost like a political ideology. There was a great spontaneity for being able to do things and to show them to the public. Suddenly everyone was a composer. And everyone was singing on stage. And there'd always be a public for it. Those were the things that made it crazy and fun."

In the late '70s, while Almodovar earned his daily bread at the phone company, he worked with a theater group called Los Goliardos, which he describes as "very experimental, very political"; wrote pornographic comic books and foto-novelas; and sang. "I led a double life," he says, smiling.

But most importantly, he made films. All kinds of films, all, like home movies, shot with a little Super-8 camera.

"The Super-8 was for me a kind of magical discovery," says the 38-year-old director, thinking back to when he was 19. "I did everything with Super-8. Biblical epics, everything. All genres, except for the Western. I've never been able to write a Western."

How many did he shoot?

"Oh ... thousands of them."

Thousands?

"Yes. I loved it. That was my only school."

When they were finished, Almodovar would show his films anywhere he could, in schools or bars or at parties, and after a while he developed something of a reputation. Encouraged by the reception his pasted-together pictures received and the growing crowds that gathered to see them, he and some friends raised enough money for him to make another film, except in 16mm. The result was "Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap," his first and, he says, his dirtiest feature.

Almodovar claims that his objective in making that and all his subsequent features was to preserve the "same spirit of anarchy and independence" that guided him in the shooting of his Super-8 films.

"Movie images have always had a great importance for me, even when I was a little boy," he explains. "I had this great need to make movies. That hypnotic quality that the big screen has -- I had this great temptation to be a part of all that. To be able to create the same fear that Lubitsch had been able to create in me, or the excitement and entertainment that a film like 'King Solomon's Mines' could create -- I wanted to be able to do that."

Almodovar admits that for a time his life had a kind of crazy edge to it, but the scene that nurtured him has changed. And his interests along with it. The day-to-day life of the filmmaker character in "Law of Desire" is close to the one Almodovar led at the time, "working, then going out to the open-air bars." All of his characters, he says, are based somewhat on himself, "on my life, my dreams, my fears." But only somewhat.

"Perhaps the best of myself is in my movies," he says, taking a sip of coffee. "I'm absolutely present in my movies, absolutely sincere. Still, I don't know if I would want my life to be exactly like my movies. For example, I don't know if I could bear to live through an extreme and absolute love like the one in 'Matador.' You can't breathe in the middle of a passion this great. Even though it is everyone's dream to be loved wildly and absolutely, in reality it would be unbearable. I know that I could not live with it. This is just the paradox of a human being. Though we fantasize about it, it is not only difficult, it is impossible to live with passion. A few moments, yes, but not a whole life."

The process of making a movie, Almodovar says, is like a love affair. "For me, it is a kind of obsession. When I am making a movie I feel absolutely possessed, and that possession is the most intense feeling I have ever known. Some people say that a film director is like a god, and, in fact, it is a little like that. It's an extraordinary gift to be able to represent your own fantasies and give them life. Not just your dreams, but everything that excites you and interests you. It's a virtue that few other professions can provide you.

"It gives your life a lot of meaning."

The label of provocateur is commonly applied to the director, but he declines it, claiming that it is a fabrication of the press.

"They give me a bad boy image and call me enfant terrible," he asserts, "but I feel that I'm neither terrible nor a boy. I understand how some people may be shocked by my films, it is not enough motive to work -- if you only want to shock the audience. I am trying to tell my stories from my own point of view, and they are very wild, I know. It is very obvious when a filmmaker is only interested in shocking his audience,but it is very old-fashioned now to do that. Very '60s."

These days, it seems, filmmakers who explore controversial themes risk being grouped with the pornographers, and as a result have to be ready to explain themselves, to justify themselves. Almodovar is more than ready.

"I was furious over the X rating they put on my film," he says. (Rather than cut the movie, the distributor released "Tie Me Up!" unrated.) "I feel completely humiliated, and scared, by it. I can't understand any kind of censorship. And I refuse it. And I deny it. For me the freedom of expression is something basic. I mean, I was tempted to come and work in this country, but when this happened the desire disappeared completely. I don't want to make anything here, with this fright and these kinds of limitations. I prefer to keep making no-budget movies in Spanish. I remember when Franco was leading Spain, it was exactly like this. Exactly.

"People here are not conscious of how dangerous this system is," he continues. "It is outrageous what is happening with {photographer Robert} Mapplethorpe. It is not pornographic, it is much deeper than that. The sensation that I had when I saw the show was that I was in a cathedral. In those pictures, human nature is exposed so completely, with all the pain, all the beauty. The work is almost -- I don't know another word for it -- mystic."

The beauty of human nature exposed is the quality that this Spanish director is driven to capture. But, he says, "the kind of things I'm interested in are precisely the kind of things that the movie industry here wants to avoid. The reality. American movies are so far from what reality is. The young people only see the most artificial things, and their thinking now is artificial. What the censors want to cut out is the reality. And I would be very afraid of that."

In making "Tie Me Up!," Almodovar claims that he had no intention of exploiting bondage for its sadomasochistic meaning but instead used it "as a means of exploring just how painful and difficult it is for any two people to get to know each other deeply." The ropes, he says, are merely metaphors for the emotional ties that bind every couple.

It's pointed out that one of the characters is forcing the other to fall in love with him.

"S '," he says.

"I think that is the most romantic thing in the world."

The eroticism in Almodovar's films is all the more important because it is so scarce today on American movie screens. Sex -- even innocent sex -- is a taboo subject, and so there's a kind of militancy in the emphasis he places on telling stories that show the sex lives of his characters. "We are sexual creatures," he insists, "but movies today don't want to acknowledge this. Even films in which erotic elements form part of the genre, like James Bond films or 'Tango & Cash' -- movies where once you might have expected to see sex -- there's no sex anymore. The heroes of those films have nothing to do with the girls anymore. The industry is clearly avoiding the issue, so my reaction is to become more radical. Naturally there are reasons why sex is more prohibited now more than ever, but it can never be a ghost that people won't talk about."

Almodovar says he has always felt that one lifetime isn't nearly enough, but that through his movie-making he can live other lives and give his one life more intensity. "I involve myself so much, through my imagination. But it goes far beyond the imagination. When you're shooting, you feel it in your own body. You live the process. Your life is always less risky than the characters', less spontaneous. Less free."

In "Tie Me Up!," one of the characters is an old filmmaker working on a grade-B horror film who, because of a stroke, is restricted to a wheelchair. And rather than talk about specific projects for the future, Almodovar talks instead of a life lived in film, of working into old age, far past the time when his body has failed him -- directing from a wheelchair, "if that is what's necessary."

"I was very moved by John Huston late in his life, and felt very close to him. In making movies, you are always involved in that search for perfection -- for that perfect expression of your ideas. And I can't imagine doing anything else."

Perhaps, if his career were to falter, he says, he could be an adventurous journalist. "A war correspondent. A reporter in the middle of something not just dangerous, but intense. I will do it someday ...

"Or maybe I will just live it through the cinema."