It’s been over 20 years since Alejandro G. Iñárritu made a film in his native country of Mexico, his feature debut Amores Perros. His time spent away from home has been an unqualified success and he has a whopping five Academy Awards to prove it: three for 2014’s Birdman, one for 2015’s The Revenant and a special achievement award in 2018. With his latest, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Iñárritu looks back at that lengthy time spent making movies in Hollywood, and the result is a near-three hour romp through the elusive dreamscapes of memory. Its surrealist touches recall the similarly-autobiographical 8 ½ from Italian master Federico Fellini.
Like Fellini, Iñárritu continues a long tradition of filmmakers turning their gaze inward, with lead characters who act as stand-ins for themselves. Two other examples are currently in theaters: James Gray’s Armageddon Time looks at the New Yorker’s coming of age in the soon-to-be Reagan ’80s. And Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans tackles a topic head-on that Spielberg had otherwise dealt with indirectly: his childhood as shaped by his parent’s divorce. But while those two tackle childhood, Iñárritu’s Bardo examines someone (Daniel Giménez Cacho as the documentary journalist Silverio) operating at the height of their creative powers: the film’s bombast obfuscating what is ultimately a spin in the well-worn territory of the midlife crisis.
We sat down with Iñárritu to chat about how Bardo‘s script differed from his other work, his anxiety running a film set versus his love of screenwriting and post-production, and how the internet has changed the narrative on truth.
Caleb Hammond: So it’s been 20 years since you’ve made a movie in Mexico. How have those 20 years gone? Were you tracking it? “Oh man, it’s been 10 years since I made a movie in Mexico.” “It’s been 15.” Or did it sneak up on you?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: It went by in one day. That’s what the film talks about. It was a plan of one year. Twenty years pass, and then you say, “How did I get here?” How time passes — that’s what the movie is made of… that kind of snap of time that is a lot of time. You end up talking about things that feel like two weeks ago, and somebody says, “That was 15 years ago.” “Really?”
Caleb Hammond: Part of that, I think, is that Los Angeles itself is a unique place.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: It’s a unique place, but at the same time, it doesn’t matter if I had been in L.A. or in Rome, or in Spain, life passes very fast. … I realized that’s an experience for every human being. If I had time to meditate on that, observe that, it becomes an interesting exploration to try to make sense of the time that passed.
Caleb Hammond: Has this idea been bouncing around in your head for a while? And has it evolved from the initial conception to what we see on screen?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: “Carne y arena” was an installation I did about immigration. For it I interviewed hundreds of immigrants, and from those I created this virtual reality installation of six minutes. That had a huge impact on me. I realized that no matter how privileged or lucky you are, as an immigrant, the sensation of leaving your country was the same, and that this was something that I had not been dealing with myself.
I explored this in other films like Babel and Bitiful, but I have never talked about it from my own experience. I needed to do that to make sense of what I left, and what the implications are for my family and my reality — what are the consequences of that? I started to identify some acupunctural points that were emotionally important for me. I followed that line.
Caleb Hammond: The press notes for the film come with this history of these Mexican-American conflicts that are part of the narrative. From your standpoint, what does the audience need to know about this history going in? Do they need to know anything?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: I was not trying to make a history lesson — it is a walk in the consciousness of a character. And this consciousness includes the intimate personal events that mark him along with the macro historical events that have had a huge psychological impact in a collective way on a nation — like the conquest of the American war, or the disappearance of thousands of people. These are open wounds that mark who we are as a nation.
I revisit the Mexican-American War because most of the people here do not know it. I have been living here 20 years and even my kids were never told about it in their history lessons. It was actually an invasion. 15 million pesos took half of our country and nobody really knows how that happened. It’s not something that is important, even when it happened 175 years ago. But it’s something that in Mexico has a huge impact. Not on this side. There’s always two sides.
Caleb Hammond: When you’re developing the story, using this acupuncture method, did anything surprise you? Did you think one way about Mexican history and then once you actually got into it, you realized your viewpoint was different or that your perspective had changed?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: The whole point of the film is that this character is completely uncertain about everything. He does not claim truth. He is in a crisis, in a subjective exploration of what is true and what is not — that is why the film navigates fiction and reality all the time. That’s the world we are living in right now.
The internet really opened this. We don’t know what is true or not: fiction and reality. When you open the news, nobody can know what is real. So, I never came from dogmas to say things. … There was no evolution of truth, apart from the non-truth of things. I was never trying to prove something.
Caleb Hammond: The best films are the ones where a filmmaker doesn’t have everything solved going in. And then they make the film and they still don’t know how they feel.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: I was not trying to say, “I’m gonna make this point.” No. Actually, the point was, there is no point. There is no truth. There is no real reason. There is no one side or the other. That was my statement.
Caleb Hammond: Take me into working with cinematographer Darius Khondji for the first time. How did you two build rapport to build out these really fabulous extended sequences?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: We got connected on a phone call, and in 20 minutes, we were talking already about lenses. I just told him the concept and without reading the script he was already in. It was like finding a brother I have never met.
He absorbed the culture immediately. He felt Mexican in one second, because he’s French but Iranian, so he understood the dual nationality, and he felt at home in a way. The connection was incredibly electric and easy. We never actually had a discussion — we were sharing a vision. The first thing that he said is “This film has to be radical.” I said “Exactly. It is a radical, immersive dream and we cannot play with little approaches.”
Caleb Hammond: With your elaborate storyboarding and the staging of the sequences, is there a way that you work in order to keep a certain creativity on set or is it the creativity is in pre-production?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: I made the film before I made the film, writing it for four years. All of the writing was incredibly precise. I have never had such a script that was so incredibly precise with every element: storyboard, every scene, rehearsing every location, blocking every single step, camera movement, equipment. It is the most controlled film that I have done in my life. And the reason is that to portray this unreal, something off-as-a dream, in those wide lenses, the lighting was super important. The design and the way the light behaves in the film is constantly moving, and there’s this lucid dream feel — all these things have to be planned. You cannot find them and shoot it. The time of the day, everything was absolutely pre-conceived and then executed. So in a way, when we shot the film, we just executed. The film was done for four years. It was super, super, painfully planned.
You cannot portray a dream just by chance and find it. You have to create it: the world, that metaphysical sensation — you have to build it.
Caleb Hammond: Do you think you’ll stay in this more-detailed writing mode?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Every film demands different things. The fabric of this film is made by very elusive material: feelings, emotions, dreams, fears, reflections. So you have to build it. The material of this film is so difficult for me: it’s story without story. So to turn that into an idea that makes sense, and then a sequence and then execute it — it was a process that I have never went through before in my life.
Now, if I do another film that will require an immediacy with encounters that capture reality, with a little 16mm camera with a little crew, then that’s another thing. I don’t think there’s a way to make a film. I don’t know if I will do another dream film or not. But if I do it again, it would be great to have a little crew and then capture things with no plan. That would be a dream. That would be another way to do things, which would be fantastic.
Caleb Hammond: Is there a part of the process that you like the most, that you’re the most excited to get to?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Writing and editing are my favorite processes. Writing is very beautiful, especially when you’re putting things together. Finalizing a script is painful. But the process of writing is nice, because it’s free, and it’s open and everything could happen. You are like a sponge. Life becomes very rich. You’re capturing, you’re hunting, and everything is interesting. And then the editing is quiet and lonely. It’s like a womb. Those two are my favorite things. The other things I don’t like.
Caleb Hammond: Are you an anxious director on set?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: It’s stressful because you’re dealing with financial things, with a lot of people asking a lot of answers that you don’t have, and you have to pretend that you have all the answers. And everything can go wrong, and most times will go wrong. It is what it is. It’s very material, radical, rational — it’s harsh. It doesn’t have that thing of the editing or writing that is like mush — it’s unmaterial, abstract. But the physicality of the shooting is demanding and stressful, at least for me.
Caleb Hammond: Park Chan-wook told me recently that when you’re co-writing, if you fail, it’s just you and your co-writer failing. Once you get beyond that, then it’s much more.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Exactly. The reality of shooting is hard. It is what it is. And writing is always about what it’s becoming, and that that is a beautiful way to be.
Caleb Hammond: What’s the most important thing to look for when searching for a co-writer?
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: First of all, it’s the confidence, the mutual trust in a deep personal way. At least in this process on Bardo, it was a personal thing. So you need to have a bond that goes beyond the technical aspect. How good or bad doesn’t matter, it’s about the bond.
The other thing is the understanding of the point of view of life, that you share at least some common ground. Obviously, you can see some things differently, and that can be a great dialectic to have. But you have to be grounded in the same soil. So, it is confidence and sharing a point of view. That has been key with Nicolás Giacobone, the confidence that I have and that he has with me. He became an important mirror in this case.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, co-written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is currently in theaters. Bardo will be available to stream on Netflix on December 16.
Main image: Bardo: Daniel Giménez Cacho dances as Silverio in Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Courtesy of Limbo Films / S. De R.L. de C.V. / Netflix