Born and raised in Mexico City, director Alejandro González Iñárritu was expelled from school at 16 and traveled the world as a commercial sailor, an eye-opening experience that convinced him to seek out a more formal education. While in college, Iñárritu scored a job as a radio DJ on WFM, Mexico's most popular rock station, where his playlists showed an early flair for narrative. After cutting his teeth on commercials, Iñárritu and novelist-turned-screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga found financing for their 2000 breakthrough Amores Perros, a searing triptych of interconnected stories spun off from a single car crash in Mexico City. Iñárritu parlayed his immediate success into two ambitious short films in 2001. Included among the first batch of entries in the BMW Films series The Hire, "Powder Keg" follows a mortally wounded photographer (Stellan Skarsgård) fleeing a massacre somewhere in Latin America. Along with figures such as Sean Penn, Shohei Imamura, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Ken Loach, Iñárritu was recruited for the controversial omnibus project 11'9"01, which required directors to consider the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. through short films lasting precisely 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. Iñárritu rejoined Arriaga for the powerful new film 21 Grams, which confirms both men's gift for emotional intensity and gritty, non-chronological storytelling. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro star as, respectively, an ailing mathematician, a grieving widow, and a born-again ex-con brought together by a common tragedy. (The title refers to the amount of weight humans reportedly lose the moment they die.) The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Iñárritu about life in Mexico City, making art that sells cars, and the dangers of confusing screen violence for the real thing.
The Onion: How did your experience growing up in Mexico City influence your concerns as a filmmaker?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Well, Mexico City is very different now than when I grew up, but I was in the streets all the time–though I was born to a middle-class neighborhood where there weren't a lot of gangs and things. I was always comfortable. I was a street kid, basically. But really, Mexico City has always been this big, complex monster of a city that has always had real problems and needs, and I've always found my way through it in different ways. Actually, when I think about growing up, I feel most affected by two travels that I made working in cargo boats when I was 16 and 18. One of them crossed through the Mississippi and Baton Rouge and Mobile, Alabama, and another went all the way to Europe. On the last trip, I stayed in Europe for one year with $1,000, working everywhere I could, doing everything. Those years shaped me a lot and taught me the value of exploring different things. I didn't have a normal academic career. I never studied cinema. I learned from life.
O: You once said that you're more influenced by musicians than directors. Why?
AGI: I've listened to music all my life. I've always felt that music tells more stories sometimes than films, with more possibilities. Every time you listen to them, songs bring different images and moods–depending on where you are in your life, you can listen to a song and it means something different. They each [evoke] new memories and stories and images, so I get a lot of ideas from music.
O: Was it always in your mind that you eventually wanted to make films?
AGI: I like to make films, but the only reason I do is because I'm a very bad musician. [Laughs.]
O: Were there a lot of outlets in Mexico City for a young cinephile to get exposed to different kinds of movies?
AGI: I saw what I could, but we rarely got anything other than big, mainstream American films. That's true of most other countries around the world. Of course, there's always one theater that shows some kind of European film. Now, fortunately, you have DVDs, so it's possible to get anything you want within a few hours. In those days, it was virtually impossible to get Italian films, or German films, or whatever. So I grew up with very standard, mainstream films.
O: When did you get exposed to other types of films?
AGI: When I went to university, I finally got exposed to European films, and they had a strong impact on me. I felt those films had a lot of things to say that weren't getting expressed in the films I was used to seeing. I remember, the first time I saw a [Andrei] Tarkovsky film, I was shocked by it. I didn't know what to do. I was fascinated, because suddenly I realized that film could have so many more layers to it than what I had imagined before. Then others, like Kurosawa and Fellini, were like a new discovery for me, another country.
O: How supportive is the Mexican government of filmmaking?
AGI: They're not very supportive, for many reasons. Myself, I have a contradictory view about it, because I think the arts should get big support, but my country has a lot of needs more important than film. Medication, education, food… The poverty is overwhelming. There are simply more important things to be attended to. I understand when there's no money for the arts in the government, but it should maybe pressure private companies to support more filmmakers. These exhibition and distribution companies are huge, and there might be incentives for them to invest more in Mexican cinema. But all these great films that have come out of Mexico over the last four or five years are individual efforts, individual miracles, without any wave or any structure or any particular thrust in the industry. They're anomalies.
O: You got your start in commercials. What sorts of commercials did you direct?
AGI: I made commercials for corporations like Volkswagen and Coca-Cola, but I was always the one to write them, too, which was a very good exercise, because I learned to tell little stories. I was aware of the possible biases you could get as a commercial director, like being too concerned about the technical aspects of the form rather than anything of substance. If you keep working in commercials, you can get trapped in a very superficial way of thinking. I always used commercials as an exercise for filmmaking, like going to the gym.
O: Of the BMW shorts I've seen, yours is the one that most strongly resists its function as a commercial. Is it difficult to reconcile such a politically conscious piece of work with the fact that it's being used to sell cars?
AGI: That was a practical decision. I don't have anything against commercials, and I really like BMWs, to tell you the truth. [Laughs.] One of the reasons why I agreed to do it is that they gave me complete freedom. I just had to have the car in it and write a story around it. I wanted to do something serious set in a Latin American country, but again, it was an exercise in style for me. I want to make something with a guerrilla documentary style. I didn't care about the car, you know what I mean? In this particular story, there has to be a car, so I put the fucking car in there. If they give me a BMW, then great. But I considered it a chance to make a good short film, and fortunately, they paid me well for it. It wasn't difficult for me to accept it as a commercial, because I had no restrictions. If I presented that short to somebody who doesn't know about the BMW film series, I doubt they'd even notice it was a commercial.
O: You don't think they'd focus on the car?
AGI: No. I wrote and edited the thing, and I was surprised and fascinated that [the producers] didn't tell me anything. Because the car has been riddled with bullets, a guy gets killed, and there's blood all over the backseat. At some point, I expected them to say, "Who's going to want to buy a car when you show some guy getting shot, and the whole fucking thing is covered in blood?"
O: But the car does speed around some rough terrain with a lot of agility.
AGI: Oh, yeah, it's a great car. But I respect BMW for not interfering in these projects. They're just trying to support short films with their brand, which I think is great.
O: With Amores Perros, did you ever feel that you were attempting something too ambitious for a first feature? Was it overwhelming to make a film of that complexity with so little experience?
AGI: I knew it was ambitious, but I like challenges. Narratively, it was difficult to make sure that people can get all the stories and understand how the pieces fit together. The car crash was a very tough scene, and the dogfights were especially hard. Emotionally, it was a very intense piece, so to get that intensity all the time and maintain the right tone wasn't easy. Sometimes, shooting on location can be a little unpredictable, but I work hard in pre-production. I arrived to the first day of shooting almost wanting to go to the hospital. I was completely exhausted, because I believe in being thoroughly prepared, and I want to spend my time during the shoot focusing on the scene and the actors. I don't want to screw around with stupid things, like bad locations or whatever.
O: What is your working relationship with Guillermo Arriaga like? Why do you continue to collaborate?
AGI: I think we have a great relationship, because we share certain visions and obsessions. We have a lot of trust in each other, and we listen to each other. Even when we fight and get caught up in crises, like on 21 Grams, which was very difficult to write, it's a healthy process. We're fighting for the same thing, which is the best story we can tell.
O: What is your process like? It took you more than 30 drafts to write Amores Perros, and I assume it was no different with this new film. Why?
AGI: I'm a perfectionist. When you're dealing with these kinds of stories, every little change can effect other changes all the way through the script. But really, I'm a neurotic perfectionist. Every single word in the script is the one that I want.
O: The structure seems tough to manage, too. Your films, especially 21 Grams, don't situate the audience very comfortably in the narrative. Are you ever worried about confusing them?
AGI: I think movies in general should have more respect for the audience than they do. Too many films are afraid to confuse people, so all the information is given to them right away, and there's nothing left for the film to do. It ruins many stories, because everything becomes obvious and predictable. I want my films to engage people more and make them more actively involved in the story.
O: Violence is a central element in both of your films. Do you feel that filmmakers have a responsibility to present violence in a particular way?
AGI: I hate superficial violence. It's shallow and stupid, and the impact on the audience is really bad. As a sensitive filmmaker, I think you have to really be careful in how you explore it. Not that you can't tell any story you want–I'm not calling for censorship or anything. But if you're going to have violence, I think it's important to deal with the consequences of that on a human level, not just to make people laugh. I personally can't handle frivolous violence. I overreact to it. My country has been wracked with violence for a long time. Just to see all the violence on the news makes you sick. It's true that violence is in our nature, but I try to explore deeply where it comes from and where it goes and what it creates. Not in a moralistic or preachy way, but just to observe the real consequences of violence in a human being or in a society.
O: What do you think are the consequences of audiences watching, as you put it, violence treated in a superficial way?
AGI: It trivializes it. When people laugh and applaud as characters are killing each other, and you never see the body that's lying there, or you never see the family that suffers, then it turns into a cool thing to do, like a videogame. Then, when you watch the news and see that 15 soldiers were killed, you start to see them as just numbers, material, information, images. We lose the real weight and real value of one simple human life. Or you hear about bombings in other countries, or numbers like "10,000 people died"–you hear that number and you think, "Well, I saw that yesterday in a film, and that didn't look so bad." Younger viewers, in particular, lose perspective on reality.
O: How did you get involved in the 11'9"01 project?
AGI: Sean Penn recruited me to do it for these French producers. I initially said no, because I didn't feel like I had perspective on it. It was just too raw and affecting for me to get a handle on it. But I accepted because of the caliber of the directors involved, and because I was told that the money it earned would be redirected into social programs. Nobody was paid. In the end, I felt it was a good opportunity to exorcise the nightmare that was that day.
O: Your short was the only one to deal with the event directly. [Among other things, the film focused on the jumpers falling from the World Trade Center towers. –ed.]
AGI: Yeah, because I didn't feel like I could do anything before or after the event itself. It was just too soon. I wanted to just observe what affected me directly. I didn't want to reduce my 11 minutes into some political statement. Even if I could, it's just impossible in that timeframe to express the complexity of that event politically. I just wanted to make something abstract that had long-term value. If I were assigned that project now, I'd make a completely different film, because so much has happened–Afghanistan, Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction. You begin to say, "Wait a minute. This thing wasn't as simple as the U.S. being attacked." But at that time, I wanted to focus on the human lives that were lost, and the incredible fucking terror of 3,000 people dying in that way. I wanted it to be a grief ceremony with chants of Indians in my country praying for them and their families. I wanted to make one statement, which is that we've been killing each other since Cain and Abel, and how the fuck can we continue to use God to justify these kinds of things? I tried to go beyond the political thing.
O: You've said in the past that you enjoy working with actors above any other part of making a movie. Why? What are your methods?
AGI: The actors make the film. They're the ones that take this theoretical movie that's in your head and make it real. The success of a film is entirely on their shoulders. I admire them, because acting is such a difficult thing to do, and I personally can't understand it. Even when someone's taking a picture of me, I'm at a loss about what to do. How can [actors] learn their lines and be honest in front of 30 people and all the lights? It makes me cry sometimes. I can't understand how they can be joking with me 30 seconds before, and 40 seconds later they're giving me all this incredible feeling. And I don't have any methods. Every time I go onto a set, I'm freaking out, because I don't know what the fuck to say and do. I don't even know how to start the process with rehearsals. I have to improvise all that stuff. I try to just listen, observe, help them, and sometimes throw them ideas, but I really have no clue.
O: Do you have to account in some way for the intensity of emotion in 21 Grams? Is that taxing on the actors? Are there limits to what they can give you?
AGI: With sensitive actors, it affects them deeply. They have these very personal sources where they draw emotions. But I try to have a sense of humor, because it allows them to get some relief. I try to keep silence when it's required, and to throw out a joke or something when it's appropriate. You have to help them to be honest and protect them, to where they feel that the set is like a womb. They can make mistakes and nothing will happen to them. I won't judge them.
O: What's next for you?
AGI: I don't exactly know what I'm going to do. But I do know what I'm not going to do.
O: What are you not going to do?
AGI: The things that I should never do. [Laughs.] The things that should never be done, but are done every day.