Q&A: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

'Biutiful' director reveals why U.S. distributors resisted his film

For his newest feature "Biutiful," which will be released by Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment stateside in December, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu strikes out in a new direction. Working for the first time without his "Babel" screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Inarritu wrote the first draft of his screenplay about a man, played by Javier Bardem, coming to terms with a messy life, amid the slums of Barcelona, as its end approaches. Inarritu spoke with THR film editor Gregg Kilday about taking a new approach, mixing the spiritual with the realistic, and why American distributors resisted the film.

The Hollywood Reporter: When "Biutiful" premiered at Cannes, the first thing that struck audiences is that instead of the multiple storylines of "21 Grams" and "Babel," you've taken a more linear approach, focusing on just one character. Why the change in direction?

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: I think I was kind of getting a little tired. I think it was a very dangerous thing, fulfulling people's expectations about how smart we are. It was becoming a little bit predictable. That's very dangerous territory to be in. So I wanted to explore a linear narrative that was a challenge for me.

THR: Even though you're telling a more straight-forward story, do you see similarities here with your previous films?

Inarritu: Well, I did very different things here. I think it is the most lyrical and poetic one because of the subject matter of the drama. Where do we go when we die? That question. I try the camera, the photography and the light to achieve the process of, the understanding that when we get closer to that moment, probably we get wiser, I think. Or we surrender to that fact, that we have our whole life rejected. The closer you get to death, the transition that you have to do, I think and I assume because I interviewed many people who are in that stage, that you get in a state of mind and consciousness that reflects another reality. I tried (to suggest that) with all the camera, lighting, shooting the crucial moments. I was doing little tricks to make people unconsciously conscious about the state of mind that works with the point of view of the character. I was shooting 26, 27 frames every time I cut to his point of view. I changed the format from 1:85 to 2:35. I played with silence to reflect that powerful state of consciousness. I think I have never done that with another film.

THR: You had a bigger hand in writing this film. How did you approach that?

Inarritu: When I was doing the script, when I was writing, I had a very precise construction, very risky, of having him going into a spiral internally and of life going against that spiral exteriorly. And at the same time, there was a line that he was following that is a spiritual one. It was the first time I have scratched a supernatural element in any film that I have done. I'm less interested in reality. I'm more interested in perception, the truth of the universe that we see. In this case, I was the one who wrote the first draft, and then once I had the first draft, I invited Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone (to work with me). It was a nice, soft collaboration. I think we had a very great time working together. They are two young and talented people.

THR: How specific is this story to Barcelona, or could you have set it in any large city?

Inarritu: I think this story could have been in many suburbs in any city of the European reality now. All of them contain the same political change that has been hit by immigration. These poor people, these immigrants, have been always forgotten, have been always invisible. I found them so diverse, so interesting, I couldn't resist it. I felt closer to that reality. I think it is a human reality that the whole world experiences. I wanted to integrate them into the story, and not just be background. And wanted them to be part of it, without judging them. This is the reality of the social immigration that we are living -- not only in Europe, but in many places.

THR: Did you spend much time investigating conditions yourself?

Inarritu: I read a lot of of journalists' work. I even went to a raid against some Chinese. We were present with the policemen. I interviewed and spent a lot of time with the Senagalese community, interviewing them, getting their stories and their sense of life. I like to investigate and explore. Not too much. Enough for me to get a sense of reality and then use it accordingly to what I need. But I really did a very deep exploration about it. This is really close to reality.

THR: How much did you simply shoot real people in the street scenes?

Inarritu: It was a combination. It was very dangerous, because we were doing some violent things. So sometimes I have to have some extras, but I cannot pay so many extras on this kind of film. So I have to say roll cameras and god knows what will happen. It was a combination of reality with some blocking that I can control.

THR: Did you have Javier Bardem in mind from the start?

Inarritu: This was written for Javier. It was a suit made for him.

THR: And you shot mostly in continuity?

Inarritu: Mostly, I tried to do that. It's very hard, with this kind of mechanical, emotional clock. It's hard not to be shooting, at least for me, chronologically. You and the actor have to be growing emotionally in that sense. You have to be affected, you have to be emotionally more attached to understand reactions, which you would not understand if you were shooting out of order completely. I don't have that talent. It was a jump into the void. These kind of special effects, which now are forgotten, are emotional truths. It's a demanding technical and precise thing. It's emotionally, physically, spiritually (rough) -- for him and for me, we went through a very tense process. It almost killed us. Some people are more impressed by bombs and explosions. That's a piece of cake compared to this.

THR: Even though Bardem won the best actor award in Cannes, American distributors shied away from the film. Why do you think that was?

Inurritu: Basically, all the world was sold. The only place that was resistant was the United States. It was a very sad thing for me. The United States is suffering this kind of phobia, people can't deal with some taboo things. There are people who try to block pain, they find many resources and methods, and they react against it. It's just sad, They are preventing people to watch things that offer different ways to see things differently. There are films that can open and reveal different things about who we are. And there are films that just block reality, the real perception that we should have. I feel sorry for American society in a way. Finally, Roadside took the film, and they are really enthusiastic, and I am thankful for that.
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