With Amores Perros and 21 Grams, director Alejandro González Iñárritu (along with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga) trademarked his filmmaking style: overlapping storylines and characters connected in seemingly random ways; a technical approach that includes gritty locations and hand-held camerawork; and a Big Theme that overarches all. His latest, Babel (read Dennis Harvey’s Guardian review here), is Iñárritu’s most ambitious effort to date.
Alejandro González Iñárritu with Gael García Bernal on the set of Babel. (Photo: Eniac Martinez)
The cast, which includes Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Amores Perros star Gael García Bernal -- as well as several non-actors -- is enormous, and its multi-layered tales circle the globe, with segments set in California, Mexico, Morocco, and Japan. Iñárritu’s similarly whirlwind tour in support of Babel’s release landed him in San Francisco recently, where I caught up with the Mexico City native for a chat about the film and his career to date.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Babel is the third film in a trilogy. Did you plan out the three films from the beginning, or was it a more spontaneous process?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: No, [it wasn’t planned from the beginning]. The first was Amores Perros, then when I was developing 21 Grams I conceived Babel, and I thought it would be a good way to finish my trilogy -- the idea of the trilogy being based on the fact that they are all stories about parents and children.
SFBG: Are there any happy stories?
AGI: I think they are human stories. I think they are life stories. I have never found somebody with a happy life, and I have never found somebody with a tragic life. I think life can be sad at moments, it can be tragic at moments, it can be beautiful and happy at moments. Babel, I think, is more balanced. [The nanny character] Amelia [played by Adriana Barazza] has a nice relationship with the kids, she has a family, a nice son, a wedding -- things happen and go like that. All of these people have the same kind of life that we have.
SFBG: Do you think that any of your characters feel hope -- especially in Babel, which has so many tragic moments?
AGI: I like redemption more than anything. I think the characters forgive themselves. They learn something, and then they move on.
SFBG: Babel covers a much larger scope -- geographically, cast size, and otherwise -- than your previous films. What kind of challenges did you face while filming it?
AGI: It was a very, very challenging film -- most of all, for me as a filmmaker, to find the right visual language and make four different stories in different cultures and languages and scenarios work together as a symphonic piece through images. To find that language to get them together and make sense was a difficult challenge -- beyond the logistics and the physical and intellectual challenges.
SFBG: How do you go about finding that language in a film with so many elements?
AGI: Basically, trying to find the tone and trying to find emotion and a lot of compassion. I think compassion was the key element for me to find. I think all of the elements that I was choosing were to support the music that I was trying to get. The materials that I shot in 16mm, 35mm -- the different reasons why these stories needed these different materials, and how they would be blended, was an equation that I found in every stage of the production, and the editing. But it was a difficult task.
SFBG: What draws you to stories about parents and children?
AGI: I think in families is where you can find the biggest sources of drama in human beings. I think since Adam and Eve were fired from paradise, and Cain killed Abel -- all the old Biblical stories are based on families. The family is the most primitive. We are defined by our parents and our brothers in who we are, genetically and emotionally. I think the most challenging thing is to be a father or mother.
SFBG: What’s the relationship like between yourself and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and how much collaboration is there between you?
AGI: It’s a long process. It takes two or three years to develop the scripts. In this case, I conceived the idea, the concept, and then I invited him, and he started just pulling off some storylines. He brought the story of the kids -- in the beginning, it was set in Tunisia -- and from then, we depart, and then I bring some characters and stories in. He really has a great skill and talent and is a very important collaborator in the first stage, which is to make the script like it’s a blueprint to go to the wild jungle. It’s an interminable exchange of ideas. But he writes it, and he’s an amazing talent.
Then I have to take that and go to my other family, which is the cinematographer and production designers. They so important for me and my process. Then we go around the world and try to find a way to make that work. I have to adjust sometimes and rewrite sometimes. The next step is the editing room, which is my other brother, Stephen Mirrione [with Douglas Crise], where I have to again find out what I bring to the house. Again, it’s a collaboration.
SFBG: How do you begin to approach the editing process, with so many storylines in play?
AGI: It’s hard. Infinitive possibilities open in front of your eyes. To choose which is the right one, you must decide what is Babel and what is not Babel and what is the way it should be. It’s a tough decision. But it’s fun. I really enjoy editing. With Stephen I feel super-protected. I feel like the guy really takes care of me.
SFBG: Do you think you’d ever make a film that contains just one story?
AGI: Depends. I am not working on something that’s more complicated than Babel. And I don’t know how or when I'm going to finish it. Sometimes I trap myself in problems. [Laughs] I like to be challenged by myself. But I would love to do a monologue in an apartment. It really depends on what I'm interested in at that point.
SFBG: Do you think audiences have come to expect that your movies will deliver complicated stories?
AGI: I don’t know. I can do nothing for the expectations of the people. I have just to do what I feel is right and what I really need to do, what I really want to do. After that, I can do nothing more.
SFBG: What inspires you, then?
AGI: My life experiences. I think the source of my cinema is life. I don’t believe in scientific formulas. I think my films are a testimony of my experiences, my vital experiences, with my good and my bad things. I try to grab things from life. There’s a part that is very intellectual, but when I'm shooting I become an animal that is alive and breathing and hunting. To be a director is to be like a bullfighter. You have to confront something that is alive. You cannot do it on paper or in theory -- you have to go and grab it, and the source of that is life itself.
Babel opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters