With the recent release of The Revenant and its subsequent 12 Academy Award nominations and three wins, there's been a buzz about Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his bold style of filmmaking.
Going off his filmography, there's no denying Iñárritu takes his art form seriously. He's declared: “I think that in order to be a film director, one has to be a warrior who shouldn't be defeated by the daily onslaught of problems. We are all hanging by threads and are at the mercy of various elements; if one fails the whole flight could come crashing down, and like a good warrior I'm not going to break down.”
To find out more about his work we've taken a look at what drives his inspiration and creative vision, as well as digging deeper into his upbringing, past films, and visual and thematic styles.
"Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports."
Early life and getting into film
Iñárritu was born in Mexico City in 1963. After being expelled from school at the age of 16, he set off to be a commercial sailor, taking several transatlantic trips that would later have a powerful impact on him as a filmmaker. He has even set several of his films in some of the locations he had visited on these trips.
Ultimately he was persuaded into finishing his education, majoring in communications in Mexico City, and pursued a career as a radio show host for one of Mexico’s most famous rock stations, WFM. He worked his way up to run the station after several years, continuing to host interviews, transmit concerts, and build playlists. He constructed these playlists into loose narrative arcs, which functioned as an early education into the art of storytelling.
“I like to make films, but the only reason I do is because I'm a very bad musician.”
As a musician at heart, Iñárritu composed and played music throughout his time at WFM and from 1988-1990 composed scores for six Mexican features. During this period in Mexico City, he met novelist-turned screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, cultivating a long-term friendship and collaboration. Soon after developing his skills as a producer for the Mexican TV production company Televisa, Iñárritu started his own company in 1991 called Zeta Film, with a focus on writing and directing commercials.
“Cinema is an infinite medium, so we should take advantage of it, I think.”
After several years in advertising, Iñárritu transitioned into directing for TV and film, eventually traveling to Los Angeles in the late '90s to study filmmaking under renowned theater and film directors. During this time he and Arriaga decided to collaborate on their first feature film – a frenetic and gritty tale of Mexico City, Amores Perros, which would go on to earn critical acclaim and launch his international career.
Visual & thematic trademarks
Music is an integral part of Iñárritu’s life, as his musical eclecticism reflects his stylistic direction. His time at the radio station left an indelible influence on his career; therefore Iñárritu often uses music as groundwork for building his interweaving narratives. Often a well-written score is juxtaposed with silence and authentic sound design in order to heighten the reality and emotion of the sequence.
“My cinema is an extension of myself. A sort of life-testimony of my vital experience, with my few virtues and my numerous limitations.”
Collaboration is key to Iñárritu’s success – from composers to cinematographers to writers. His first three films were co-written and heavily influenced by Arriaga, his mentor and close friend, but their relationship soured after a debate over who was responsible for the films’ success. These first three "Death Trilogy" films were an exploration of the butterfly effect idea. The ensuing stories were told through various intertwining characters and perspectives.
After these films, there is a distinct change in style in his films, with focus shifting to a single protagonist. Even 2014's semi-comedy Birdman was a push to the lighter side, surprising both critics and collaborators. Iñárritu has never been afraid to try new techniques or stories, while his focus remains on the plight and struggles of his main characters in an attempt to humanize their tragedies.
Iñárritu is known to collaborators, crew members, and actors as full of energy, intensity, humor, and passion – a voice pushing for creative input yet constantly critical. In terms of shooting a film, Iñárritu prefers to shoot in chronological order (even if he later re-edits it out of order), as he feels it allows actors to better understand their characters and emotions.
“That's the only way I understand the story and the characters, and that's the way I leave the story room to grow and understand it, and make changes to suddenly what is required to do. As filmmakers, sometimes you are a god, and sometimes you are a creature of the thing. In a way you have to be humble to hear what's going on and see the transformation... even when it costs a little more. I'm not investing in visual effects, but emotional effects, and I think actors understand the emotions better when it's chronological.”
His influences include a wide range of international music, particularly folk and rock music from Mexico and South America that he carried with him from his radio days. He is an avid reader, inspired by everything from 20th century Spanish-language literature, like the novelists Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes, to American writer Raymond Carver and philosopher Marcel Proust.
“Good directors don't answer questions with their work. They generate debate and create discussion.”
In the world of cinema, he has stated that most of his influences come from classic directors such as Max Ophüls, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Leone, Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. Iñárritu is adamant that inspiration comes from many sources in his life and is not limited to simply film.
“To make a film is easy; to make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle.”
“All of us want something in life, all of us have flaws, and all of us have strengths. So, I always try to discover those things in a character and then try to expose it in one way or another.”
His first feature film, Amores Perros, is the first of three films comprising his "Death Trilogy", in which Iñárritu explores themes of death, human connection, and the dissolution of hopes, dreams, and ideals. Each film in the trilogy features interconnected stories cut in a nonlinear narrative, focusing around one central event that connects these characters. It's a triptych containing three separate stories, each related to one another by a car accident and through the metaphorical motif of dogs.
To portray the brutally grim life of Mexico City, Iñárritu creates a soundtrack of Mexican hip-hop, acoustic ballads, and a droning, melancholic score. This would be the first of many collaborations with Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla and Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, as well as the breakout role for actor Gael García Bernal.
“'21 Grams' is only one story told by three different points of view, but they are really physically connected – literally, with the heart.”
Iñárritu’s second feature film, 21 Grams, was his first big opportunity in Hollywood. With a budget of 20 million USD and a star-studded cast comprised of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro and Charlotte Gainsbourg (all of whom wanted to work with Iñárritu after the power and beauty of his first film), the director retained full creative control of the film.
He once again worked with Arriaga on the script, Prieto on cinematography, and Santaolalla on the score. The film turned into a box office and critical success, earning nearly triple its budget, and proving that Iñárritu was a force to be reckoned with in the industry.
“Two words guided the making of 'Babel' for me: 'dignity' and 'compassion.' These things are normally forgotten in the making of a lot of films.”
Iñárritu’s third and final film of his "Death Trilogy", Babel, was the most ambitious and grueling of the three with a 25 million USD budget. It follows four separate narratives, each taking part in different countries and continents, yet loosely connected through an accident. Brad Pitt notably dropped a role in The Departed in order to shoot Babel with Iñárritu.
While the film fit stylistically into Iñárritu’s opus, many critics thought it lacked the raw energy and emotion of his previous films. Regardless, Iñárritu went on to win best director at the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the event was marred when Iñárritu banned Arriaga from the screening and award ceremony. This ended their long-term friendship and collaboration, yet began the second renaissance of Iñárritu’s filmmaking career. Despite these issues, the film went on to earn a whopping 110 million USD, earning several Oscar bids and surpassing all expectations.
“Biutiful is not about death. It's about life. It's a hymn to life.”
Iñárritu’s follow-up film to Babel steers away from a non-linear, interweaving narrative and focuses on a single protagonist. Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem, is a career criminal, whose world progressively falls apart after he is diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Iñárritu wrote the part specifically for Bardem in mind, taking nearly three and a half years to complete, from inception to the final edit. The film marked Iñárritu’s return to Spanish-language cinema and was an attempt to refocus his energy and push his cinema to new boundaries.
“'Amores Perros' is rock, '21 Grams' is jazz, 'Babel' is an opera, and 'Biutiful' is a requiem.”
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
“I think the film dealt with that a lot – what is art and what is commerciality, and when you're an artist and when you're a whore. All the time, artists are dealing with that question, especially in film, when there's money involved in the process. That's the tragedy of film, which is an industry and an art and a tool of personal expression, and at the same time a way to entertain the masses. That's a very difficult kind of balance to navigate, especially today, with the rules of the game.”
Iñárritu’s 2014 hit film, Birdman, was an even bigger leap in his career, as he made a left-turn into comedy. The innovative play-within-a-play (much of the content is based off of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging star known for his performance as the superhero Birdman, as he prepares to write, direct and star in his own Broadway play.
The film was shot entirely on digital format – the first fully digital film to win the Academy Awards’ Best Picture category – and was intended to look as if it were shot in one Steadicam take; in reality there are a total of 16 hidden cuts. It feels more like a well-written play, as it was meticulously written to accommodate the one shot production – amazingly it was written in a year and a half, mostly online, as the four co-writers lived around the globe.
For the first time Iñárritu shot with fellow Mexican and legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his visceral images, long takes and preference for natural light. Rehearsals took almost two months, and filmmakers, producers and actors were weary and unsure if Iñárritu could pull off such a feat, yet the beautifully captivating story, score and performances let the film speak for itself.
“From the time we open our eyes in the morning, we are navigating our lives without editing. Only when there's urgency are we in hand held mode. Editing time and space comes only when we talk about our life, or the way we remember our life. I wanted to slowly put myself in the continuous experience of somebody else without escaping.”
“Directing non-actors is difficult. Directing actors in a foreign language is even more difficult. Directing non-actors in a language that you yourself don't understand is the craziest thing you can possibly think of. But I would do it again in a minute.”
In his latest and certainly most epic of films, The Revenant, Iñárritu spent nine months on principal photography, shooting in 12 remote locations around the world. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki wanted to shoot with only natural light, so they had a limited number of daylight hours to shoot with each day (in fact, there is only one shot around a campfire that uses additional lighting).
When winter turned to spring in Canada, the crew was forced to move to Argentina to match the wintry locations. Obviously this schedule took a toll on the budget, and Iñárritu’s film more than doubled in costs, from 65 million USD to 135 million – however, Iñárritu’s response was, “I come from a third-world country, and every [other] film of mine has been on budget.”
“Filmmaking can give you everything, but at the same time, it can take everything from you.”