Capone Roundtables With BABEL Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu!!
Published at: Oct. 30, 2006, 5:11 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
As of right now, BABEL is a contender in my book for the finest film of 2006 (the film is in limited release now, and opens wider this Friday). I know I've still got two months left to make that determination, but I can't imagine another film reached the heights of filmmaking and plumbing the depths of the human soul quite like this extraordinary work. So the opportunity to sit down with BABEL's director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu while he was in town during the Chicago International Film Festival was almost intimidating, especially since his previous two films AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS were among my favorites of the years they were released.
On a personal note, it's looking very likely that before the year is over, I will have interviews with all three members of the unofficial triumvirate of Mexico's finest and most talked about directors, beginning with Inarritu and later with Guillermo del Toro (PAN'S LABYRINTH) and Alfonso Cuaron (CHILDREN OF MEN). I'm shaking in my boots with anticipation.
I should also mention that for this interview, I was part of a small roundtable, which I'm getting more and more used to (but not necessarily fond of). However, I was among a group of writers that I know fairly well, and this ended up being one of the liveliest group discussion I've been a part of. Hope that translates well in this transcript. Enjoy…
Question: BABEL has played all over the world at festivals, starting with Cannes, New York, Toronto, Chicago. So, what has it been like--taking the film to festivals around the world and getting feedback from audiences from all over?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Well, it’s very interesting the way that the film plays like a foreign film in a way, but like a local film, too. It depends on the person who sees it. I feel that the connections are different in every country that I have shown the film. It depends on the culture [in which] they are watching and what point of view they bring to it. And, that has been interesting.
Q: Has it played in Japan yet?
AGI: No. We had only a private screening for the actors, but no, that country still hasn’t been exposed to it.
Q: Films tend to be so simplistic and easy now, and this is a very complex film about complicated issues. How did you get the film made? How was the film sold? I was thinking, Wow, this is a film that a studio wouldn’t put money into nowadays. They’re into the tempo films, the special effects movies, the films that are geared for the 15-year-olds, and this is an adult film--an intelligent adult picture. How did it come together?
AGI: Normally, what I do in my projects--I did in 21 GRAMS, too--I start self-financing it, and once I have the main draft that I really like and I feel sure, I start casting and finding locations and traveling. And, once I have a whole package, then I find somebody who believes in the project, which apparently…I know what you’re saying, it seems like a crazy thing…a film with four or five languages and three continents and these four short stories. How will it be filmed?
But, fortunately enough, I have the enthusiasm of different studios, and basically, in this case, Paramount bought the rights for distribution in the English-speaking markets. And then, half the work was financed by different small distribution companies in every European market or Asian market. So, you are just putting together people that want a piece of that. And, that’s very fortunate. It gives you a lot of freedom.
Q: So, what do you think it was that they saw in this project, in this idea, that was attractive?
AGI: I don’t know. I think maybe the [studio] people are tired to be, as you say, making the same kinds of films. They feel that there’s something, that maybe they can bet on some elements. Maybe they feel like the package makes sense and they trust in the elements, like the story, the director, the actors, and the way I pitched them. And, I presented them in a way that they trust.
I think all of these people, maybe as you are, are bored, doing and seeing the same thing. So, I gather that’s what drives them, kind of the curiosity about this film…I think, I don’t know what really inspires them to do this.
Q: What was it in this project that you were so attracted to?
AGI: I think that all these things that I talk about in the film in some way are things that I feel very committed to talking about. Things that really, in some way or other, I find myself discussing or intrigued about or worried about. And, I have the great privilege to be in a world where I can express my own fears, my own anxieties, and whatever moves me in my work. So, my life and my work or my films are not very separated. I cannot separate one from the other. For me, to make films is not a job where I say, What will make the money? I think it’s a need that I have, and it’s an extension of what I really believe, and it’s a testimony of that.
In the beginning, I remember that I conceived this project as some kind of commitment to what I have to say. I’m so angry sometimes about things that happen that I needed talk about that. That’s the only thing that really can drive me to finish a project, because it’s a very difficult, difficult mountain to climb.
Q: You've said that you couldn’t make this movie if you weren’t a director in exile. Why is that?
AGI: I think living outside your own country and leaving your comfort zone gives you a lot of insight. You are more aware of the consciousness that you create when you are out. And with my [Middle Eastern] kind of appearance, I’m like a suspicious guy. And then, when they find I’m Mexican, it’s worse. [laughs] So, I have the combination of the two elements that make somebody suspicious, which is kind of Muslim appearance but at the end is Mexican, so we are dangerous people.
And, that’s something that really is interesting as an artist and gives you some questions and themes.
Q: I couldn’t imagine an American director doing a film like this, because it has to deal with so many different cultures, and the sensitivity you bring to each story. You don’t just stand there, you try to get into the mind set, the lives of the different people in different cultures, different cities, different countries. An American director, I don’t think, could have done that. Do you think that not being American gives you a special insight?
AGI: Well, I think, obviously people from Third World countries, we think differently. We have another point of view. We have different sides. What you are looking at now is very different from what I’m looking at now. You are looking at the lake, I’m looking at the door. [He's actually talking about the room in which the interview is taking place, with Lake Michigan in the background behind him.] That will define the way I see the world. What makes art art is what is between the object and the eye of who is looking, which is a glance. And, that glance is what art is about. But, coming from another angle, obviously makes things different.
So, I agree. I think, in a way, American culture has been, in the last years, isolated. It has been like an island culturally, in a way, because being able to speak English since you are born, having English the main language, the people don’t have any curiosity to learn another language. And, learning another language is a big thing, because it’s not the language, it’s that you are able to see the territory, the culture [of that language]. It’s a big tool that gives you another perspective of the world, enhances your spirit. And, I have in this case. So, I think that maybe it’s true.
And, I find fascinating the fact that--somebody told me this data--I think 80 percent of the American people don’t have a passport. That’s really stunning, you know what I mean? That means that it’s an island, in a way. So, being exposed to two cultures, in this case, for me, to know your culture, but know my culture, gives me an opportunity to travel more easily, I think.
Q: You reminded me of a story of a friend of mine. Every time I try to take him to a different restaurant, he’ll always order a hamburger… People just have this tunnel vision, this mind set: This is what I know and this is what I like, and don’t try to make me change my mind.
AGI: When I prepare a film…This one, I prepared four months--physically, mentally, because I know that I have to be in good shape to stand one year of this kind of work. And, I have a trainer in L.A. He’s a very nice guy, but it was the first time that he was going to Cancun. I said, Well, go to Cancun, but travel around. Don’t stay in Cancun. Cancun is Miami. It could be any other beach. It’s a resort. So, I put him in touch, I gave him the phone number of a friend of mine that lives in a nearby area that is fantastic. This guy will take you to amazing places, only 30 minutes from there. Pyramids, aquatic kinds of things, whatever, there is so much richness. It’s beautiful and fantastic.
Well, when I talked to him after the trip, he went to the Med Club. He never went out. He stayed playing volleyball, the same as he did in L.A., eating at Med Club…he was fascinated, Oh, those fantastic Mexicans. I love Mexico. So again, he just left the island to be on another island. But, you know, sometimes it happens like that.
C: You obviously have a great fondness for telling multiple stories that are linked, although in this film, they seem about as loosely linked as you’ve ever done it. Two-part question: What is it about that format that appeals to you so much, and do you ever foresee a time when you would do just one story beginning to end?
AGI: Well, I think, based on what we did in 21 GRAMS, we felt that there was an element that was interesting to be playing with. So when I was developing 21 GRAMS, I conceived BABEL, and I thought that we have to be conjuring not only in the subject matters and in the content, but in the formal kinds of things in order to give a body of work that makes sense and can be called a trilogy, because basically for me, it’s that. It’s a body of work: the three films form something together.
And, I think it’s fascinating, being able to play with those tools, to deconstruct the narrative, to play with the structure and the time. It gives the opportunity for the storyteller to play with tools that give a lot of tension, dramatic tension to something. So, every time you play with time, no matter if it’s a clock and you have, like, [makes ticking sound], it’s a tool to play with. And, I think it’s the responsibility of the storyteller to find the best way to tell the whole story. In this case, it’s impossible.
But, I think BABEL is a very linear story, by the way. I think it’s very chronological. The order is very symmetrical. There are no tricks. I think it doesn’t demand as much as 21 GRAMS. I think it’s a tool, it’s a dramatic tool.
Q: In terms of putting it together. Once the actual filming is done, how difficult is it to then structure the finished film. Is the entire structure basically all there on paper, or did it change and evolve once you were in the editing process?
AGI: You know, filmmaking is truly an act, kind of a stage. And, you find yourself in the actors’ world, in a theoretical world, which is the script. And then, you plant the seed of what you want to do, right? And obviously, we knew that that was the kind of structure that we wanted. And, you observe and you calculate and say, This just works.
But then, when you actually go and confront the real world, then you find yourself…I took the script and I worked with Guillermo Arriaga. It’s like this kind of blue print that you will expose to the reality.
Then I go and travel one year with my other collaborators, and I have to adjust and rewrite and be flexible, because the animal is alive, and the situations that you are confronted with are sometimes completely different than what you expected them to be. So, you have to be, again, moving the animal. It’s a living process.
And then, the day you arrive at the editing room, it’s another phase that really you have to confront. And, then you have to find yourself again shaping, and sculpting, and editing, and taking out everything that is not relevant. And, everything that is relevant is there. So, the film and yourself, in this case, myself, were transformed, and the film changed, maybe 40 percent. You change structure, you take out scenes, then you have to move all the pieces. It’s a constant. That’s the difficult thing of making a film, that nothing is written, really. That you are rewriting every day. And, in the editing room, you are constantly moving around until you find your final thing, you close it. When you show it in the theater, it’s not over. And then, there's sound. The sound really can change so many things. So, it’s a constant process of transformation.
Q: I think especially important in this movie, because of the language differences…you did a lot of montage in the film with no dialogue at all. Can you speak about the use of the silent moments in BABEL, where you’re not using any language--the things that are universal or international?
AGI: I think in this film, what I really tried to do was to find in the space that inter-realism world that I was trying to share with these non-actors and documenting real faces and real places, and sometimes real situations can cohabitate with the imaginary world or something more surreal. So, I create some island made by music, like the helicopter arriving or the wedding or the discotheque and the park and all these traveling themes of the journey of the Japanese teenagers, which I thought would be a very exotic journey for the audience…to go into that point of view and feel that. I would use all the tools of silent film, like in congruence with all the silent film. This film has very few dialogues. For me, cinema is what happens between one line and the other one. That’s what cinema should be.
And, I tried to make that happen, and I thought that there were some opportunities to say a lot of things without words that were more metaphoric, like the clash of cultures in the helicopter or to explore, but somebody would understand what I’m trying to say, smelling it. In this film, more than ever, I found that I am very, very happy, because I think I was trying, with the sound, to fight against the tyranny over the image. Always the main thing is the talking and the dialogue and the smart lines. Fuck it! This ‘gigante’ thing is cinema. Film is really image.
Q: As a follow-up to that, one of the things that you deal with in BABEL is how language separates people, literally and as a representation. For example, you mentioned the U.S. as being very isolated. What does language mean to you in terms of bringing together or separating cultures. And, what is it you think also separates people?
AGI: I think language is not the big thing. I think it’s points of views, and that it is the borderline in circles. It’s those prejudices, stereotypes, branding things that we have been getting since we were kids. That we know that Mexicans are dangerous and lazy and they smell bad. We know that Muslims are dangerous fanatics. We know that Americans are the hamburger guys. This kind of branding that we have--all of us--via our churches, via our fathers, via our schools, government, TV, media. Those are the things that I think…you know, we are eating shit every day from TV.
You know, I can’t watch TV more than five minutes, because all that they are saying is completely transformed. It’s the art of lying. The politicians and the media. I was reading this interview, and the guy’s not saying even, you know, the news should be objective. So, it’s propaganda, and the world has become black and white. So, I think those are the things that have isolated everybody. Because language…in the end, you understand. You understand people, you have to watch the eyes, touch the people; you can laugh without saying one word.
Q: I recently read the Anna Thompson piece in the Hollywood Reporter about your relationship with Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. You all came into the business at the same time. You all know each other. She talked about how you helped del Toro do last-minute editing of PAN’S LABYRINTH before it went to Cannes. Why now is there this emergence of Mexican directors?
AGI: We want to take back California. [Everyone laughs] Basically, I think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s a very lucky coincidence that these two friends of mine, we are releasing films in the fall. And, I don’t know if you have seen PAN’S LABYRINTH or CHILDREN OF MEN, but both films, plus BABEL, talk about the same subject matters, about terrorism, about immigration, about all the tourism. And, Guillermo’s film explores the past, 50 years ago in Spain. I’m exploring the present, what we are living now, and futuristically, I think, Alfonso is observing what will happen with these things possibly in 20 years. So, it’s a very interesting kind of trilogy that we never planned, and that is done by three Mexicans, who are middle-class and living out of our own country. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, I don’t know how it happened, but it happened. And, it’s very great to be in a generation that we are not just filmmakers from the same country, but we are very close friends. We are very tough with each other. We help each other.
Q: I wanted to ask about the casting of this film, because, obviously, you have well-known actors like Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal and Brad Pitt. And then, you’re also working with people who have never acted before. Could you talk about the casting process? And also, as a director, working with someone like, say, Brad Pitt, who knows his way around a movie set, as opposed to, like, the Moroccan kids who have never acted before. I know you were using a lot of translators. I was curious about that.
AGI: I had one great translator in Morocco, a Palestinian actress. She was really helpful, so she was really a guardian angel.
No, I work differently with each of those groups. Every actor is different, but in this case, it was like trying to put together to play the best quarterback of the American football team with the guy who has never seen a ball. It was very difficult to pretend that they play at the same level. So, for me, every technique, everything that I approach was different. The kids were fantastic. I was really lucky to find the right people, you know, because sometimes you can find the right people, you think, and you find somebody that has never seen a camera, but you find such a purity and talent and naturalness. They are great in the readings or in some rehearsals, but then, when they see the cameras, in front of the lights, and the people, and you say, Roll camera, they panic. And, that didn’t happen to me. The kids were so smart, so honest, so into that. The [Moroccan] father--the man who plays their father--is a carpenter, and the other guy was a computer guy, who arrived to ask for a job with this computer system designed for the production company.
So, all these guys, they were not intimidated by Cate and Brad, because they didn’t know them. And, that was a beautiful thing. They were not branded. They were not stereotyped. They were not affected by this pop culture that we have or these cults of personalities, that we are now living with all these young kids, and they see Brad Pitt and they know what to do. They didn’t have that. Nobody has spoiled them. They see him as a human. That made my life a little easier, I think. If not, I would have destroyed myself, killed myself. I would not be here.
Q: You dedicated the film to your children. And maybe more than in any of your other films, the fractured relationship that children and parents can have is really a focus. Do you fear for children?
AGI: Yes, I have two kids. Obviously, when you have kids, you are more vulnerable. It’s when you understand how vulnerable and fragile you are. That’s the thing. That’s what all these characters share in a way, how vulnerable the ones that they love are. Yeah, I’m worried about the kids, and especially because the kids have been paying the last years--well, always--but the kids have been paying the last years especially, for all these stupid things that we adults haven’t been able to solve.
So, the wars that are going on now, and if the media would show us how many kids are dying and the images of kids that have been dying. In Iraq or Afghanistan, it has been…I don’t know if you read that two days ago it was 600,000 [civilian casualties] now. Maybe 200,000 are kids. So, if we could see that, I’m sure this country would be different. But, they don’t show it, because it’s scary to go there. It’s really scary. And, that’s kids paying the consequences of the fathers. If a soldier dies or if a terrorist dies, it’s his decision, but the kids…what do the fucking kids have to do with it? We sacrifice them all for it. As a father, I’m very sensitive to that. That’s why I expose that horrendous scene that I show in the film of these kids dying. It was a tough moral decision for me. To make it a great film, I have to do it, at least. I have to be the one to expose that.