Mexico's Alejandro González Iñárritu has established himself as one of the most innovative filmmakers when it comes to drama with just four feature films, each of which have defied all the expectations established by the one before.
His first feature film Amores Perros
received his country's blessing on its way to a Foreign Language Oscar nomination, followed by 21 Grams
in 2003, which got two of its cast their own Oscar nominations and 2006's Babel
, in which Iñarritu cast his camera on the globe with four concurrent stories, and that one was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Iñarritu for his direction.
For his fourth film Biutiful
, Iñárritu worked with Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem to create the character Uxbal, a street hustler from Barcelona who learns that he's dying of cancer. Not quite ready to go, he spends every waking moment trying to make good with all the people in his life from his two kids to his estranged bipolar wife--a stunning film debut by Argentina's Maricel Álvarez--and all the people he has dealt with on the streets, trying to make amends for some of his wrongdoings and find closure before the end.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker to talk about the ins and outs of making the film and due to the existential nature of the film, we decided to throw in a few headier questions for Iñárritu to ponder.
ComingSoon.net: I've seen the film twice now and it's really quite amazing. It's one of those movies that you leave thinking, "I've seen something I've never seen before" and it seems like one of your most personal movies even though it's probably not autobiographical in anyway. Going into it, were you always thinking of making something more personal?
Alejandro González Iñárritu:
Yeah, this is a very personal film. I think all the themes and all the subject matters that surround the character, some of them have been around physically present or subconsciously present, so they're close to me in a very powerful way. There's no way to make a film like this unless it's not really important for you. (chuckles)
CS: But you set it in Barcelona rather than in Mexico City so was that something you also knew you wanted to do very early on?
No, I thought it was the right decision. I wrote the script with Javier (in mind) and when he accepted, being that he's Spanish, it was natural and it was congruent to make it in Spain. If I would be more ambitious as a producer, I would be doing this in English to make it more marketable. I was not doing myself like that, I never have done, but I knew that Spain was the right place and we shared the language. We speak Spanish, so it was an opportunity for me to return to my original language in a great country, and I found after I already had this story of this character, I found the context, which was in Barcelona, which I found incredibly contradictory to how Barcelona normally is perceived. I thought this (to be) an incredible context for really surrounding this character's story. It's an urgent theme that I really wanted to talk about.
CS: I'm sure you've spent a lot of time in Barcelona anyway, but did you spend any extended amount of time in Barcelona while you were writing this?
Yes, I did almost one year of research. When I was 17 years old, in a cargo boat, I crossed the Atlantic, working by cleaning the floors and that was the first port of Europe that I saw, so yes, I have a good long-time relationship with Barcelona.
CS: Have you gone back there and spent more time there recently when you started thinking of making this movie? What did you get out of that most recent visit that you decided to bring to the script you were writing?
It was just this incredible neighborhood and thousands of people from different countries that are completely being abused in these beautiful, diverse multi-ethnical communities, and I found that fascinating, the relationship they have with the few Spanish people that still live there. I thought it was fascinating and then I started making a lot of research. I interviewed a lot of them, hundreds of these people, to understand what is the mechanics, what is the way they survive, what is the economics? I found fascinating stories, and you can read every time in the news, all the time, there are tragedies like this. It's just that they're a part of the statistics that never has been individualized in a life and then put on the screen.
CS: It's interesting because as much as the movie is about Javier's character and you focus on him, every once in a while, you go off and look at some of those lives and then you drift back, and I was curious if that was something that came out of the process of making the movie and wanting to find out more about these people?
Well, yeah, because the story is about a father and his two kids, it's a love story about that, and it's about a man who really has to put his things together before he dies. That's the spine of the film, but I think the context of the film, the perfume that I surrounded (him with), speaks a lot about... narratively, what I was trying to achieve differently from "Babel" in this case, it wasn't an event that creates a ripple effect that affects people's lives around the world, it's a person's choice and a person's destiny that creates the ripple effect in a neighborhood. I wanted to see all the people who depended on him and all the people that he depended on and how complex is a simple life of a primitive unemployed guy in the streets. I think that, for me, was interesting to see... it's an expression of a simple life in a very complex world that we're living in. So even the most simple guy has a lot of roots and a lot of branches that when he falls down, it's just the amount of people that we affect as just a single person.
CS: It's really fascinating, and one of the things I really like about this movie which I'm sure is one of the criticisms is that it takes a good 90 minutes of just watching this guy's life unfold and not really knowing who anyone is at first, and as things progress, the more of these things start coming together. That kind of movie is very difficult to make and I'm sure it's difficult to get the money to make I assume. Did you always know that was the way you'd have to pace the movie to make it work?
Yes, it was a long process. It was a process that was dictated by the own mystery of the characters that began to appear for me. I never did tried to accommodate it or subordinate it into commercial kind of things, I was just trying to expose myself to a world that I wanted to express. But yes, if I wanted to make that film now it would be impossible. I was really lucky to start shooting almost 15 days after the crash. I was really lucky, but this film would be impossible to do it now, impossible.
CS: Did you know right away this wasn't going to be as commercial as "Babel"?
Yeah, yeah, when you do a film in a foreign language, you know there's a cost in it, that you know unfortunately, the audiences of foreign language films have not been cultivated. There's a market but the market has been reduced unfortunately, and you know that when you're making a foreign language film, you're making a choice. I never made this film thinking of massive audiences honestly. I knew what I was doing, and I feel like a privileged artist to have the support to get a film like this made, but this will be much more rare in the future unfortunately.
CS: What about Javier? I assume you must have known him beforehand.
Yeah, I knew him before and we wanted to work together for a long time until I began to write this for him.
CS: So you wrote this for him.
Yeah. I told him that I was writing something for him and I took the risk, because he could have said "no" but he accepted and I was very lucky, but it was tailored for him.
CS: Since you knew you were going to do this movie together were you already talking to him before you started writing?
No, I just told him I was writing something for him and that's it, and then I showed him the script completely finished.
CS: I don't know many actors who would say "no" to that. I'm sure there are some, but if it's a script and you tell them you wrote it for them, I'd assume...
Yeah, but you have the possibility that for some reason, they might say "no" always, and they have the right.
CS: Once he had the script, was there something in it that he knew immediately he wanted to explore? Was there an immediate response to the material or something he wanted to explore more in it?
No, no, he was really affected by the material and it took him a couple days to really say "yes" because he knew he was jumping into the void. But once he said "Yes," we always agreed who this guy was.
CS: I also want to talk about Maricel. I don't know if she has any other credits but is this really her first movie and everything?
CS: Amazing, because I saw this movie and I was sure she must have been something else...
She's a theater actress, experimental theatre, but she's fantastic, and it was great. It took me a lot to discover her, because I cast in Spain all around and two weeks before I almost had to stop the shooting, I opened casting in Argentina and I found her just in a lecture that she did and I knew that it was her.
CS: Having not done any previous films, was she just ready to go wherever or do whatever was necessary to create this character?
Yeah, you obviously have to shape things and you have to really take care of her, but her nature was really powerful and she kind of made me feel in danger every time I was putting the camera on her. There's a vibe that's almost uncomfortable or unstable, which I think this character should always be.
CS: I think we all know women like her, and every once in a while an actress will get a character like this right.
It's very difficult to make these roles right and to execute it as an actor is very difficult because it's very easy to end up in a cartoon kind of a thing, a caricature, and bipolar disease is very tough, because it's always navigating a very thin lines of normality and not, so it's hard to define.
CS: That's exactly what I was thinking, that it's a hard thing to put your finger on, because you meet these women and you fall in love with them and you know you're going to be in for a ride, but the point is that they're completely unpredictable, and trying to create that sort of unpredictability in a character is a tough.
CS: Going back to Barcelona, did you shoot this movie very differently from other movies or did you approach it differently other movies?
Yeah, I think the visual architecture of this film is much more I would say sophisticated, more lyrical, more poetic in a way and subtle, and it is an arc of construction of different lenses and long lenses in the beginning, more shaky handheld, and then obviously the visual of this, I shot it in chronological order again and that helps a lot to navigate emotionally with me and the actor and be in the moment and to be changing things as you are living and experience it, but visually, we changed the format in different periods of the emotional ride of this guy and shooting in different speeds for his point of view. Every time that he's growing and learning and enlightening himself, surrender the camera and the style and the lenses. Everything is just enhancing that experience, so visually, it was very nice to design very precisely what this film needs, so I think this was a very meticulous process.
CS: I can't remember. Did you shoot "21 Grams" in chronological order?
Yeah, I shot in chronological order each story.
CS: When you were shooting in Barcelona, were you able to shut down the streets and stuff like that or were you trying to capture Javier in the real place rather than trying to create that environment?
I think we controlled most things. In the chase, for example, I had to storyboard everything and the logistics were very difficult, but most of them, all these looks that are kind of natural is really pre-designed in every single way.
CS: So you actually had extras rather than just shooting with real people?
I have extras. Sometimes in that chase for example, things went out of control, so sometimes, some real things went in, but there were a lot of accidents that were not so nice, so anyway. Normally, in those kinds of scenes, we really have to rehearse a lot or pre-plan a lot. You have to design a lot and work a lot to make everything look natural and accidental, so all that seems like an accident is not an accident. It's actually something you're recreating and putting together.
CS: That said, did you have any happy accidents while filming it?
Yeah, of course. Completely, you have to have your eye open and sometimes, the greatest moments in films are about accidents.
CS: What's an example if you want to share one?
Ummmmm… (long, long moment of silence)
CS: Okay, I'll ask you later if you want to think about it. I wanted to ask about working with Gustavo Santaolalla once again on the music. He won the Oscar for "Babel" and deservedly so, because the music is beautiful. For this, he distorted things and used tape loops and other processing. Can you talk about working with him and is he generally on board very early in the process?
Yes, but incredibly, I spent almost one year and two months editing this film, and this film has been the most difficult to find the voice. We did music with African people, with Chinese people with gypsies, then we did some chorus and orchestra pieces. Then we deconstructed that electronically. We went through a lot of phases that didn't work. At the end, it was when we nailed it down. It was a difficult soundtrack, difficult score to really get it. It took a lot of time but at the end, it was down again to "less is more."
CS: I loved the fact that it is sparse. It comes in at the beginning, then it's gone for a bit, and then comes back. It's melodic at times but then other times when it gets atonal almost like "Sonic Youth." You tend to do one movie every three or four years at this point but do you generally have ideas for things as you go along? Can you multitask?
No, I have to focus. I have learned that I am a one-woman man. I was developing a couple of things while I was doing this with other people, but I don't know. I always find myself inclined by something and I have to follow that. And that's dangerous, because sometimes you're working on something and you never arrive to a conclusion and maybe it didn't work, but it's hard for me to be developing many things.
CS: I was curious about working with Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. When "Babel" came out, all three of you had movies and the "Three Amigos" aspect of your relationship became a thing. I know Guillermo is amazing at multitasking, and he can be everywhere.
I don't know how he does it. I will not be doing 10% of what he does, it's amazing. No, but we have a great friendship. I think it's a very lucky thing to have.
CS: How does that work on a movie like this one, which is very personal? Do you still have them very much involved?
No, in this case, because Guillermo was in New Zealand and Alfonso was in London doing his project, so for example, they just read the final draft of the script and they comment on a couple of things which are valuable. At the end, I show them the cut. Guillermo saw it very late, almost one day before I had to close the cut, but maybe he gives me one comment that is very valuable. It's not about the quantity, but maybe it's about the quality of the comment. The same with Alfonso. He saw the film in an early stage, and his comments or suggestions work and I appreciate that. That's the way we work. They send me the scripts or they send me things that they are proving. We're just like friends, like colleagues, expressing our opinion in an honest way, and then one can take it or not, but it's a good way to know that comments come from the right place, from the heart, not from any other interests.
CS: Were they surprised by the direction you chose to take with this movie compared to "Babel"?
They thought it was the best film I've ever done, so honestly, they were really happy and really impressed. Since the script, they were really supportive of the project.
CS: Just a general question but what would you say has been the biggest influence on your life or your movies or your creativity, something that happened in your life or a movie you saw that was a catalyst for everything you've done?
I don't have that kind of iconic or definitive experience or moment in life. I'm always surprised when some director says, "When I saw this film, that changed my life." I don't have that. I think my influence has been much more complex, but I think music has had a much bigger role in my life emotionally, and that's affected me more and influenced me more and my driving force creatively has been music, more than films honestly. I'm a music animal and I have a better ear than an eye, so I conceive everything as a musical piece.
CS: Another general question but going the opposite way. What would you like your film legacy to be? Let's put it in the context of the character in your film: You just found out that this will end up being your last film so your legacy is the four features and shorts and other things you've done.
I don't know. Honestly, the transcendence of humanity or the artist is such an illusion that makes me laugh a lot. The thought that we will transcend and that we will leave our mark, I find that to be very naïve. The time that we spent on the planet Earth is f*cking a glimpse of a star in the night, so of the millions of years that are still to come in eternity, nothing will be remembered. (laughs) Maybe it's a very existential way to think, but it's true. We have reference of human existence 6,000 years ago, let's say, writing of the Egyptians. That's nothing. Anyway, to be remembered, I don't know. Honestly, it's disorienting because it's only time that will really tell, and time will really allow which context you made that film and what that film means, because nobody now knows what this film means. We don't have perspective. So how many films that were the biggest things have collapsed in just twenty years? Or twenty years later, everybody suddenly realized how important that film was that never was recognized because nobody could see it? Probably that's what will happen to this one, hopefully, for good, for bad, whatever. I really don't worry too much about how I will be remembered, because I don't care. I will be under the earth.
CS: I'm sure Beethoven and Bach and Mozart would never imagine that hundreds of years later, their music would be instantly recognizable by anyone.
They didn't care, and I have to say that if you're thinking about that, you would normally never achieve it. So that's a consequence that's out of your control and should never be the purpose, because if that's your purpose then you never will achieve it. It will just paralyze your process. Finding an eternity in what?
CS: With that in mind, do you think your next movie will be back to English where you have a studio and actors that are known similar to "Babel"?
Honestly, I don't know. I have to empty myself completely in order to know what I'm hungry about. I just need to see this kid walking by himself and then abandon him and say "Goodbye," and until that happens, it's hard for me to say... Honestly, I'm getting empty. I need to finish and be a little empty and begin to understand myself, who I am and what I want, and if I want or not.
CS: Have you thought anymore about any of the happy accidents that happened while making the movie?
No, but I will let you know.
Sadly, we never would find out about them, but we did get a few more insights from the filmmaker during the roundtable that followed our interview; here are some highlights.
Q: How did you come up with the title of "Biutiful," and how long did it take to come up with that title?
I recognize the titles of my films always at the end. "Amores Perros," "21 Grams," "Babel"--I always named them at the very end of the process. I liked "Biutiful" because of the scenes that take place, and because I thought that "biutiful" written--or as it is pronounced--in Spanish, it gleams, or it's a gesture of inviting people to understand that not all beauty is necessarily beautiful in the obvious way--that there's a much more profound way to find beauty, not in the surface, but on a deeper level.
Q: What is it about loss that fascinated you whether it's loss of sanity or loss of money?
I think in a way there is an obsession. Our real human nature is revealed better when we are confronted with limited situations, and I think that life itself is an immense accumulation of losses: we lose our childhood, we lose our virginity, we lose our parents, we lose our hair, we lose our life... But at the same time, we are getting a lot of things, simultaneously--that's the deal. That's what this journey is about, in a way. This guy is losing all these things, but at the same time--at least what I tried to achieve--Uxbal is getting a lot of wisdom, a surrender to the flow he just got and found meaning in his own life, what really is important, and the much, much more profound things. Losing the control of the destiny that's only hit him in different angles. The guy himself makes decisions in the interior choices that he makes, he found love and compassion and forgiveness. But he gained that, while he's losing. I think that's kind of how life works, and dramatically, I like to observe those characters in and that's where I feel we reveal ourselves better. That has been the constant theme in my films.
Q: Does cancer have some personal relevance to you?
Yeah, I think I am super-scared of how many people are getting that f*cking thing. It was written that 50% of the people will die from that. It's growing, amazingly. My father got sick three years ago--it's always a fear I have. At the same time, I found that Uxbal is fighting against cancer of society in a way, which is this greed and this kind of system we are in. He's fighting in a way this cancer of himself--physically or metaphorically, cancer is a good way of [viewing] corruption, in a way.
Q: I noticed that you brought a lot of extreme emotion out without a lot of dialogue. Was this one of your goals?
In all the films I've done, the dialogue... It's funny, because for me the scripts are a very limited technical guide. That's what they are. You can not write it differently from a musical part; you cannot write their tones, volume, silences, time, space, light, shadows - all those things that are really huge, and that's what the film is made of. Dialogue is, as Bergman said, one of the few things that can possibly translate to the film, but even the dialogue can be transformed by the actors and the moment. When I arrive and I see the set and then the physicality of it, normally I try in that scene to take out as much as possible. Less is more, so if I know that the scene can be said or expressed by less words, the better. Sometimes, once the machine is moving, and the film has already started, and you chronologically begin to feel the speed of the train, it's very easy to know: "I don't need this line. I don't need this." So you take a lot away. Then in the real writing of the film--which is really when a film becomes a film and you arrive with these industrial pieces in the editing room. In the editing is when you really redefine the whole thing, and then you understand that half of the words and half of the things are completely unnecessary. I arrive always late to the scenes, and I leave as early as possible. So less is more--that's the theory behind it. And it's very uncomfortable for the audience, because it shakes you, and you have to maintain the attention; it's not very obvious and not very comfortable. You need to be grabbing what it's really about. (laughs) The train is constantly moving in an unstable territory, as it should be, I think.
Q: How did you direct Javier through losing weight through the course of the film? He got so thin.
I just cut his diet - just locked him in his trailer, with one spoon of sugar a day, that's it. (laughter) It's a process that he has, but it was very healthy that we designed every phase of the character. I shot the film chronologically, so that gave us a lot of advantages. We could say, "Okay, from here to here, this guy is going to be a f*cking ***hole. He's a controller, he controls his kids, this the way he is; this is the introduction of this little kingdom of this animal." Then, okay, he hears the news, and he rejects, he's mad, he doesn't want to go, then he receives the f*cking slap: "Yeah, you will die. Okay." So you begin to see, emotionally, how this character is dealing with this thing until he surrenders. So you prepare not only the architecture of every element - the visuals, the lenses, the language that I will use, how I am going to enhance everything that I want the audience to be feeling how he's feeling interiorly. That's one of the things that chronologically shooting gives you - that's one of the beauties.
opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, December 29. Look for our interview with Javier Bardem sometime before then.