Alejandro González Iñárritu is a challenging filmmaker. This much we already know. With films like "21 Grams" and "Babel," he took major stars and put them in morally complicated quagmires that involved personal choice and global oppression, which made for some very uncomfortable viewing. But nothing he has done is quite as confrontational as "Biutiful," a wonderfully executed, spiritually rich meditation on life and death, told through the point of view of Javier Bardem's streetwise hustler (who himself is dying). It's a performance that won him a Best Actor award at Cannes and, once the film is eventually released (it got bumped to January today but will still receive NY/LA qualifying runs for the Oscars), it will break a whole slew of hearts.
We spoke to the director a few months ago, about what it was like working with Javier, the elements of the fantastic that come into play, his high-profile collaborators (in Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón), what it was like working with non-actors and what he might want to do next. Here's the full interview.
[We would be remiss, and probably chastised loudly, if we didn't insert a spoiler warning here although, it's about a guy who is dying. What do you think the ending is going to be? Him getting on a spaceship? Regardless, you can read our interview with Bardem here. ]
We wanted to ask you about the element of Javier's character being a psychic. Was that always part of the film or was it a spiritual embellishment later on?
Inarritu: Honestly, it came with the package. What really fascinated me, about this character, was how he introduces himself as this street guy from this tough immigration neighborhood and at the same time he presents himself as a very sensitive, spiritual guy. And the fact that he knows what happens after we die and he himself is dying, that's suddenly something that hooked me, strongly and said "Wow." I didn't understand it. But I wanted to explore it. So it came with the contradiction itself of the film itself.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
It's a difficult question to answer, because creation has a very mysterious way to find their ways to be expressed or be found, to be connected with one's self. I'm trying now, I'm understanding now... Because this is the first time I've played with the metaphysical or supernatural element in any of my films... This is a film that has or proposes or explores timeless questions - as the last line of the film - "What is in there?" What happens after we die. It plays with a timeless question in the very specific time that we are living, with a social thing that is happening. So the combination of these two things I guess has to do, a little bit, with the existentialism writers that I read when I was 17 year-old and really had a huge impact on me. From 17 to 20, the only thing I read was existentialism and Latin American literature. And I guess that that view of what the fuck would happen combined with my age now, maybe that's... And the indignant news that I got everyday from the way that all the world and the Western eight powers are dealing with immigration that is so urgent and so important, I think that those type of things I probably want to explain to you on the subconscious level and on the conscious level bring me these ideas and bring this character flesh and bones.
Can you speak to what it was like writing and directing, since this is the first time you've made a film without Guillermo Arriaga?
Well, writing is not an unknown territory for me. I've written many other things. Always, I have been close to the process of developing with Guillermo. I always spent two years or three years developing with him. And I'm not the type of director where I wait and I receive a script and I say, "Okay, I'm going to direct it now." I really invest myself in that. This time, I obviously have to put myself behind the typewriter and write it myself. Then, I wrote this time a draft, and after that I invite on other collaborators, Nicolas [Giacobone] and Armando [Bo]. And it was fascinating. It was a similar dynamic in a way - I like with having collaborators in that stage. It's a time when you have to spend time dreaming without being hit by the physical problems of production. So I found it fascinating, that territory. So it was similar and different, in a way, since you have to type it. But similar in a way that it took me, again, one-year-and-a-half to two years to put it together.
On the subject of collaboration, do you often see and get input from Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón [his production partners in Cha-Cha-Cha]?
With this one, I missed them. Because Guillermo was in New Zealand and Alfonso was in London. And really, we didn't have the time. I really appreciated - they gave me their comments in the beginning on the script and they really liked it and they comment on a couple of things. And then I went into production. And then, when I had a final, almost-cut to Alfonso and very, very at the end to Guillermo. And their comments aren't about the quantity but the quality of those comments. Those comments really help. And more than anything I consider them a valuable and really amazing tool as almost like therapists - just talk to them and complain to them about things. It's a shared experience and a very valuable friendship that really helped me to navigate.
Did Guillermo have any influence over the visual representation of the ghosts?
No, he didn't see anything until I showed him the basically, one day before I closed the cut, I showed it to him. He loved it. We even talked about it on Saturday on a talk that we had with the guilds in Los Angeles, and he was saying that I was navigating with that thing in dangerous territory. Because if I pushed a little bit more of that I would be going into the horror film genre or fantasy type of thing. And I didn't want that. And he mentioned that he really enjoyed, because he's the master of that, that he was scared because it was real, it wasn't fantastic. He really liked it but he wasn't close to the process. But I would have loved him to.
Can you talk about that last shot, where the camera goes through the mirror?
It was a very mechanical shot. There was a lot of, I think architecturally or at least in the visual grammar of this film, is more complicated and layered than other films that I've done, by far. It's much more lyrical. People don't trust their eyes anymore, because they think that it's CGI. There's a bunch of mechanical stuff. But this is the magic of film.
Has Guillermo ever tried to push you into more genre territory?
Not necessarily. I think that he said that I am a very good action director, that I should do an action film. He loved the Nike commercial I did. He said that if he arrived to a set and didn't see a monster, then he felt depressed. If I saw a monster, I don't know what I would do, cry...
Do you want to attempt a comedy in the future?
I would love to, I would love to. I really am keen to do something lighter, yes, yes. I think it would be great and fun. And I would at least be excited to explore another territory, of course. I finish it very exhausted, with this one. It was a life changing fucking experience in a lot of ways. It took me four years to make this film, so it was really tough.
What was Javier's process like?
I shot in chronological order, which really helps and it's something that... I put my money there. It's where I really invest - not in special effects but in special affects. To get all of these emotions and scenes and things, sometimes with actors, non-actors (there's a lot of non-actors), kids... Those subject matters really demand a lot, for me, to get it right, to get to the truth, I can demand fifty takes of every fucking detail. So it was exhausting for him. It can become unbearable as a director, very specific, to get to what I need. To survive that, being him, the guy who really carries the film on his shoulders in almost 95% of the scenes, differently from the others. I was used to getting a new actor or a new actress every month because it was different stories. This time it was 5 months, a heavy 5 months, of carrying this film emotionally. Because if you do scenes like this in the morning you can't just shake it off in the night and go to sleep. You really are affected. So it was very intense for all of us. He's a perfectionist, I am too. He's intense, I am too. So it was a very intense process, he submerged himself and at the end when we were shooting the last scene, we were shooting the last scene of fucking Uxbal. It was heavy for him. It was a really heavy process for him.
You talk about non-actors. And the woman who plays his wife was a non-actor, right?
What was it like working with her?
It was amazing because I arrived one-year-and-a-half before to explain, and a casting director told me, "This character, you will not find here. You will never find her here." And I laughed at him and he didn't do the film because he didn't want to fail me. Two weeks before we started shooting, I didn't have nobody. I didn't have the actress. And it's not because there are not talented actresses in Spain, it was just that I didn't find the spirit. For me, I took casting very seriously and I had to find the internal life of the person being close to the interior baggage or whatever I found in the fictional character. And I didn't find that. So I opened casting in Argentina. I sent some pages of some scenes. She read it. I saw the video and I said "wow." So I flew her for 12 hours, because she's an experimental theater actress, she has never done film. She came. She read ten hours, with Javier and I. And I knew she was it because I felt dangerously of her. So, you know, she was not used to the camera and the language of cinema. But it was a fascinating type of discovery because she liberated the whole thing. And she gave a lot of reality to it. So it wasn't Javier with another actress. It was somebody real. And the same thing with the African woman. She was a hairdresser, she was found from 1000 African women. Most of the people you see, the Africans and Chinese, are real people who have been exploited.
Do you think that you've exhausted this thematic material? Or is it something that obsesses you and you'll explore it further?
For now, I've got to say that I think I have an incredible banquet [laughs]. So I probably will go to dessert. Or probably I will repeat soup. I don't know where I am. But what I have to say is, honestly, I'm at the stage now where, in these interviews, I'm trying to understand who I was two years ago. Because I started shooting this film two years ago. And I'm a different person now. And to try to understand your film in a few lines, in ten minutes, is very shocking. But what I can tell you is that what I'm gonna do now. One is this kid, 'Biutiful,' to start walking by itself in a couple of months. That's it. You know what I mean? Now I'm going to say I'm hungry again.
"Biutiful" was scheduled to opens in limited release on December 29th, but just got bumped back to a January 28, 2011 date.