Emerging from the vital wave of
recent Mexican cinema, former
radio DJ and TV producer Alejandro
González Iñárritu has proven himself
to be a moviemaker of unprecedented
intensity. To experience his
movies is to be torn open and shaken to the core,
ripped apart and put back together again.

With 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu not so
much debuted as exploded onto the international
scene, establishing himself immediately as a
director to be reckoned with and as an actor’s
dream. His follow-up, 21 Grams, featured a kind
of holy trinity of contemporary acting talent: Sean
Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro tearing
through an emotionally taut narrative with all
engines at full throttle.

His newest film, Babel, features superstars Cate
Blanchett and Brad Pitt alongside Amores Perros
vet Gael García Bernal and a host of talented
unknowns. The last film in what Iñárritu refers to
as his “trilogy,” Babel echoes the momentum of its
predecessors, as well as the others’ intertwined,
“cause and effect” narrative structure—where one
act sets off a chain of events that detonates a
blast of gritty, high-speed high drama.
Babel takes this formula to the nth degree,
addressing issues such as class, immigration,
terrorism and the misery of miscommunication,
all with equal fever. As always, Iñárritu refuses
to look away from the discomforting and finds
his momentum in a continuous undercurrent of
tension that propels his story toward its climax. The
result is something akin to a cinematic tsunami.
MovieMaker spoke with Iñárritu in an effort to
find out what makes him tick.

Jessica Hundley (MM): This film is quite
an intense emotional journey for the audience.
I’m wondering, in your mind, what
your intentions were—what you wanted
them to take away from this experience.

Alejandro González Iñárritu (AGI): I didn’t
target some specific thing. I think the target
of every film that I do is to create a catharsis,
an emotional movement. The response
depends on the people who see it and which
story and which theme or simple image will
speak to them. But I don’t target a specific
message or emotion. I feel like the sum of
the emotions exposed in the film should create
a kind of emotional earthquake in the
viewer—to shake people’s minds and souls.
If I can accomplish that, then I’m happy. I
think that’s what art should try to accomplish;
that’s its purpose.

Said Tarchani and
Boubker Ait El Caid
star in Alejandro
González Iñárritu’s
Babel (2006).

MM: That’s interesting because I feel
like we’re living in an age, particularly in
America, where we’re bombarded with
media to the point of becoming dulled. I
think the result is a lot of apathy and a
disconnection to our own emotions.

AGI: I find what you say is true. I feel like we
deliberately make emotions banal. To feel
today is to be weak. To feel today is to not
be productive, or it’s construed as “corny”
instead of “cool.” Then films end up making
violence and humiliation very banal. And
if the audience feels something, it tends to
make them very uncomfortable, because
they’re losing control. In the cinema they
become unsettled. But people want to be
touched. That’s why they go into the dark
room called a cinema, because it allows
them to feel and to cry and no one can see
them. And we pay for that!

MM: In this film you’re exploring vastly
different characters, each of which represents a very distinct human characteristic
and emotion. I think almost anyone in the
audience can find a piece of him or herself
in at least one of the characters. How did
these stories evolve? Did one character
lead to the next?

AGI: I’m not very concrete in my concepts
at the beginning; I’m very abstract. I’m not
very pragmatic. I depart continuously from
the concept and I can’t always explain where
I’m going—but I know where it is. I think
one of the things that triggered at least one
of the stories was that I moved to the U.S.
four days before September 11th. I think the
self-exile and the immigrant-consciousness
makes me feel more aware and more vulnerable.
In the world we live in now, every six
months I have to renew my Visa in Tijuana
and endure the humiliation and the exposure
you have to be put through in every
airport in the world. And all this shit about
“Are you with us or are you against us?”

I think that those topics, immigration
connected with terrorism, are affecting
millions of people from my country. Every
year 1,000 Mexicans die in the desert. I felt I needed to do a film to talk about all
that—about the idea of how one decision
can be made and it can become a human
tsunami and affect—20,000 miles away—
another family who will never know where
that wave came from. From there I thought
about incorporating different countries and
languages, and I also thought that it would
be the right way to finish my trilogy. Amores
Perros addresses local issues; 21 Grams addresses issues in a foreign perspective;
Babel addresses issues on a global scale.

This film is different in that these characters
never cross paths. They are completely
disconnected physically, but they are completely
connected emotionally—they are
connected by pain. It is the only way we
connect completely as humans. Happiness
is different for everyone. Tolstoy said that
“families are connected in happiness,” but
I disagree. I think happiness is different
for everyone. But what makes us miserable,
what hurts us, is exactly the same for every
human being.

MM: But what about love?

AGI: I think that pure love, the emotion, is
the same. But I think what people love is
very different. The inability to love—to give
love or to feel love or to receive love—that
is exactly the same for everyone. The things
that make us miserable are the oxygen of
life, the key elements that connect us. This
film is also about compassion.

Rodrigo Prieto and Alejandro
González Iñárritu collaborate
on the set of Babel (2006).

In my experience of doing the film, I felt
compassion for each character. It sounds
corny, but I think we’ve lost that. We have so
much criticism and very little compassion. We
judge things according to politics, to the market,
to the costs—never to the people, never
with those human eyes, with compassion.

MM: Do you feel like each film has been
easier to make as you progress in terms of
production? You’ve gotten a lot of critical
support. Are you finding that the process
is easier from one film to the next?

AGI: Yes. I mean, if one film works at one
level or another, it does help you. It helps
you to not only find economical support,
but also to find the people that you want to
work with, in terms of actors. Fortunately I
have been very lucky to have worked with
people who really understand my work and
we find a mutual interest. So I find it easier
each time, yes.

MM: In terms of the casting process, you
worked with Gael García Bernal again on
this film, who was wonderful in Amores
. Tell me about casting this. Did
you have him and the other actors in mind while you were writing the characters?
I know you used many non-actors as well.

AGI: I went to Morocco and Tunisia and
started casting the non-actors early on.
Then I went to Japan and then I thought
about Cate and Gael; those two were always
in my mind. Then I thought about Brad.
It was interesting, because he’s one of the
most famous people in the world, and
I wanted that challenge of making him
become a human being in front of the audience.
I wanted people to forget he was “Brad
Pitt” and remember that he’s a good actor.
I wanted them to see him as human—as a
real person. I like the challenge and the
risk that involves. The possibility of failing
excites me and I try to anti-cast sometimes,
to go against expectations.

MM: It’s an interesting choice for this character,
because Brad Pitt is some people’s conception
of the quintessential American male.

AGI: I agree, he’s an icon. There were a lot of
actors who were obvious for that part, but
that wouldn’t have been as fun or exciting.
Instead you see this guy, whom everyone
knows as this huge star, and little by little
he’s stripped of that identity and becomes
a man trying to save his wife. Just a man.
That’s what this film is about—that we are
all the same, no matter how rich or poor,
no matter what religion, no matter if you’re
Japanese or Mexican or American. We’re all
connected by pain. What is life but to share
pain and give love and ask questions about
the things that happen around us?

MM: You’ve worked with cinematographer
Rodrigo Prieto on all your films. I’m
interested in how involved he is with the
process. Does he have input while you’re
developing the story?

AGI: Our connection is almost telepathic.
One of the biggest challenges of this film was
to get rid of the text, get rid of the literal language,
and just find a visual language that
could make, from diversity and these four
different stories, some connection. I wanted
to shoot each story differently—in different
formats and different styles—to make them
diverse, but pieces of a whole. It was very
risky and very challenging.

This film has very little dialogue. There are
a lot of moments that are like silent film, so
we had to find a way to connect and convey
emotion. The Moroccan scenes are 16mm;
the Mexico scenes are 35mm; we used different
lenses for Japan. We didn’t know what
would happen at the end, but ultimately,
there’s an emotional tone to Rodrigo’s work.
Just the way he operates the camera makes
everything connect spiritually and lends the
film its rhythm. So there’s always collaboration
there at every stage. He is my right arm
to tell these stories.

MM: All of your films are intrinsically
linked in that they are about an event and
action that spreads like a spider web to
other people and places. With your next
projects, are you thinking of going somewhere
totally different—a narrative costume
drama, maybe?

AGI: (laughs) I’ll do a chronological monologue
inside an apartment—with one actor!
I don’t know. I take two or three years
for each film. I’d love to be more productive,
but I need to spend time with myself.
In the next months what I’d really like to do
is nothing. I think that’s what I really need.
I’m like an empty battery right now. MM