Over the course of just three feature films, Alejandro González Iñárritu has established himself as an international director whose work addresses both social issues and the most personal yearnings of the human soul. Conceived with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, these films have examined how chance and accident connect disparate characters in surprising and heartbreaking ways

Set in Iñárritu’s native Mexico, Amores Perros (2000) announced the arrival of a bold, new talent experimenting with form in telling three stories linked by a car crash. The movie garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Iñárritu set his next film, 21 Grams (2003), in the United States and employed a highly fragmented narrative structure to explore the impact of a terrible accident on three lives. The film earned two Oscar nominations for actors Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts.

Babel (2006) brought Iñárritu international recognition in the form of the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Composed of four interlocking stories that form a haunting meditation on both the connections and the barriers between people, the movie went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Throughout his career, Iñárritu has demonstrated great facility with actors. He has directed four performers to Oscar nominations, and Biutiful—his latest feature and his first without Arriaga’s collaboration—boasts Javier Bardem’s standout portrayal of Uxbal, a man who ekes out a living in the Barcelona underworld while trying to be a good father to his two small children. A diagnosis of terminal cancer sets him on a personal journey of redemption that is both painful and moving.”

Eschewing the fragmented structure of his previous works, Iñárritu focuses on his central character while nonetheless placing his story in the context of a complex society that includes exploited Chinese workers and struggling Senegalese immigrants. Iñárritu calls it a film “based in contradictions,” and says Bardem’s character “has the contradiction of being a primitive man that can survive in those tough neighborhoods” while at the same time possessing “a very delicate and sophisticated spiritual life.” In addition to this metaphysical level, Iñárritu also wanted “to deal with tragedy” as a genre and engage in “realistic social commentary,” ultimately finding “the contradiction of all these elements” at play with each other.

Just hours before he was honored with the Mill Valley Film Festival Award, MM spoke with Iñárritu.

Peter N. Chumo II (MM): What was the initial impulse or idea behind Biutiful?

Alejandro González Iñárritu (AGI): For me, it’s difficult to identify exactly where a film starts. What I can tell you is that the first image I had was a man being observed by a doctor, and that moment of fear that all of us have faced… that life-changing experience.

So I started with ‘What if?’ and then this character began to knock on my head and, little by little, invade my space. I didn’t even know who he was, but for two or three years he kept calling me, and I began to write the biography of who this guy was. So, literally, I was obeying the orders of somebody who wanted to be expressing himself… In a way, all of the films that I have made are referring to some urgent themes that have been impacting me in my everyday life.

MM: Was it mortality and sickness and death? Those kinds of fears?

AGI: I would say that this film is more a love story between a parent and his children; that’s what I wanted to say. I wanted to make a film not about death but about how life can be accepted or how a life can be lived through the light of the end of life. Through that angle, how life can be reached and understood in a different way and how a man who controls everything—or thinks he controls everything—reacts when things go out of control. Who we are when that happens, and how things like love, compassion, forgiveness and redemption can be achieved even when you are falling 100 miles per hour.

MM: One hallmark of your films is that you coax marvelous performances from your actors. How do you approach your work with actors?

AGI: I can be unbearable in a way that I am very obsessive. I am a perfectionist when it comes to achieving what I consider to be the main objective of each scene and what the character needs to achieve through that precise scene. I can ask somebody for 40 takes to get some little thing; I can really focus on things that I know I need.

But I have had the best actors in the world—and non-actors—and I try to have an enormous respect for them, creating almost a sacred silence in order for great inspiration and ideas to grow… I arrive very prepared in terms of who these characters are, so anything that the actors have doubt about, I will be available to support whatever fears they have.

I am also very patient. I talk to actors using clear action verbs that can clarify to them where they have to be heading to and, if they struggle in getting there, to have other flexible choices to help them to find themselves.

I ask a lot. I demand a lot. I squeeze everything they’ve got—but with respect and support.

MM: You mentioned working with actors and non-actors: In Biutiful, you have Javier Bardem, who is an experienced film actor; you have Maricel Alvarez, who is an accomplished stage actress but had never been in front of a camera; and then you have Diaryatou Daff, who has never acted before.

AGI: She’s basically a girl who has had the same experience as the character. I looked at almost 1,000 people to find this character. We found her in a hair salon in Madrid. She has escaped from Senegal; she has a boy that she hasn’t seen in three years. She has a very similar life, so she has never seen a camera before. It’s a strange salad.

MM: Do you give different direction to different actors? Does Diaryatou need more guidance than Javier, for example?

AGI: It’s different. You have to use a different language. And you have to be very careful with non-actors, because they don’t have the tools. They don’t have the skills, so you have to really guide them in a more primitive way for them to achieve. The big thing for the director is to cast well.

Even in the cases of actors such as Javier— They need to have not only the physical presence that I need, but a very powerful interior life that in a way is very similar to the character so that it’s easier for them to navigate. That’s why I take a lot of time casting.

MM: You start the film in widescreen and then, post-opening titles, it goes flat. Then, in the last section, it goes widescreen again. Can you talk about why you did that?

AGI: I always subordinate the visual grammar of the film to the dramatic needs of the character and the point of view of the main character. In this case, the film starts with a guy who is very controlling and tight. Even the wardrobe, all the settings, the long lenses and the camera moves, everything is tight. Everything is claustrophobic. Once the guy learns about his diagnosis and surrenders to the news, he begins to get wiser… He begins to understand where he’s going and the meaning of fucking life.

I wanted this character to be surrendered to that and to begin to get expansive in his vision. His narrow vision, his tightness, becomes wider, and I shot all his points of view in 27 frames per second, so that everything that he sees is a little slower. The camera movement is different, the lenses are wider. Hopefully it helps the audience to feel that on a subconscious level.

MM: The film is mainly in Spanish, and it’s Mexico’s entry in the Oscar race. Was there a sense of going back to your roots for this film?

AGI: Yeah, it was a difficult choice. It was a great choice and implies a lot of things. For me, it was a relief to shoot in Spanish because it was the first time that I didn’t have a headache on a set. There was no translation—it was great. I knew that I was doing a foreign language film, which always reduces the market possibilities, But I needed to do this film… I knew that I was doing something that can have costs in terms of what people now consider “successful,” but I am so proud of it. It was great for me to shoot a film like that. MM

Roadside Attractions will release Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem, on December 29, 2010.