Winter 2019


Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Metaphysical World View

The three-time DGA award winner discusses cosmic injustice, what drives him, the art of collaboration and what comes next


Director Alejandro González Iñárritu. (Photographed by Kevin Scanlon)

When Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros was released stateside in 2001, it was like a gun blast to the collective conscience. The film had been unveiled the previous spring as part of Critics Week at Cannes, after having circumvented the festival's head Latin American programmer (who deemed it too violent), and ended up taking the sidebar platform's top prize. Its subsequent showing at the New York Film Festival sealed Iñárritu's coronation as a new cinematic voice to be reckoned with: The production values were rich, the style assured, the talent on display revelatory. Here was this filmmaker with the tongue-twister of a name who seemed to arrive on the scene fully formed.

But there was nothing feel-good about the story, which involved brutal dogfights (no animals were harmed during production) and a crosssection of desperate characters of different classes and circumstances in Mexico City's teeming metropolis. The structure was like a mosaic, with three different storylines colliding—Rashomon-like—in the form of a fatal car crash. The narrative was splintered; the chronology toggled back and forth between past, present and future; and although the approach was avant-garde in nature, the tone was highly naturalistic, and deadly serious.

Iñárritu would end up moving to Los Angeles in the wake of Amores Perros' success and, with his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, his DP Rodrigo Prieto and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, among others, worked on two more films of similar structure and increasing ambition, 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), before branching out into a more linear form of storytelling.

Biutiful (2010), filmed in parts of Barcelona scarcely seen by tourists, involved a protagonist with a terminal illness, his drug-addicted wife and doomed Chinese sweatshop workers, with no rainbow of hope on the horizon. Even fans of Iñárritu's work couldn't help noting its unrelieved grimness while praising the impressive filmmaking. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw observed that "whether or not we want to receive it, the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu offers his audiences an entire created world, personal and distinctive…"

Given what came before, the director's next film, 2014's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), represented a complete about-face: a dark comedy about a disillusioned Hollywood actor of superhero entertainments who seeks artistic redemption on the New York stage. Newly partnered with the Mexican DP Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, Iñárritu appeared to shoot the film in one long single take. Everything about it was audacious, from its technical wizardry to its percussive score by the jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez to its humor involving fragile creative egos. And the risks paid off, with Iñárritu winning a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement and an Oscar.

Iñárritu would triumph once again just one year later with The Revenant, a 19th century-set drama about a fur trapper left for dead in a hostile American wilderness who seeks revenge for the murder of his son. The film, shot in freezing temperatures in Canada and Argentina, represented a new high-water mark of craftsmanship and physical endurance, and Iñárritu would claim his second consecutive Academy statuette and DGA Award.

Not resting on his laurels, Iñárritu would employ the cutting-edge technology of virtual reality to depict the terrifying plight of migrants attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. with Carne y Arena (see last year's winter issue of DGA Quarterly), for which Iñárritu would receive a special Oscar from the Academy. The filmmaker recently sat down with the DGA Quarterly at his office in Culver City to talk about his career.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu. (Photographed by Kevin Scanlon)

DGA:What are you working on now?

Iñárritu: I'm working on an idea that I have been for almost two years now, about the stupidity of men. Which is a huge source as inspiration.

Q: Large ensemble?

A: Yeah, it's ambitious. There is no other way to approach that theme but by comedy. So I'm trying to build a comedy based on the tragic reality of our limited [laughing] intelligence.

Q: Would you say it's a dark comedy?

A: Possibly. I think the latitude of each of [my] films is one of the biggest questions, and the thing you need to discover as you are doing it. So the latitude will dictate a lot—the color of the performances or the text itself. [It's] hard to define from a conceptual point of view.

Q: Might some of this deal with the abuse of power?

A: People with power is a problem. But I think one of the challenges we have now is that we have reduced everything to labels. The way we name something suddenly becomes a reality itself, and we're stuck with that. And those names and the way we interpret reality is filtered by ideology, religion, political beliefs or self-interests; so [there's] the inability we have to see things as they are, and an addiction to easy conclusions. And this certainty has become the source of major problems.

If I was from another planet seeing what's going on now, it would be an amazing comedy. The different constellations are laughing at us.

Q: There's a scene in The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Hugh Glass, says to his son, "They don't hear your voice, they just see the color of your face." And it's unsettling that we're still dealing with stereotypes and racism in this day and age.

A: Exactly. That's what I'm saying. Our inability to deal with the set of ideas and beliefs that we have been building through generations from our ancestors. [Even in] this digital era and with all [this new technology], we are still acting upon [our] physical differences, not understanding that it is exactly that diversity that allows us to be who we are. When Copernicus said we were not the center of the universe, he was accused and blamed.

But now we have everything to prove that something is wrong, or something isn't true, and still … once the story goes into [our] brains, it's [in our] DNA. That's why I have a theory that the universe is not made of atoms, it's made of stories. Once the story gets into your bones and your body, it's there. It's a bias. It can be a positive, beautiful, inspiring, powerful, romantic story. Or it can be destructive, nihilistic, egocentric, narcissistic. And even when the physical, tangible reality is there, [people] do not see it. And that's between scary and funny.

Q: You've been referred to as one-third of the Three Amigos, which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. Do you show each other rough cuts of your work to get each other's advice?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you then listen to each other?

A: Yes. Painfully. I consider myself a privileged filmmaker whose friends are people I not only like and appreciate as human beings, but people whom I actually admire as artists. Their advice always comes from the right side of the body, which is the heart. And they can be right or wrong, and we can debate. [We] shake the tree as much as we can for every leaf that is not right. They make me think, make me reflect on many things, the scenes, the script, right up until the editing room.

Q: So you go through all the stages, then?

A: Yeah, even since the ideas are born. So from the conception through the script and then through the editing, we have always been inviting each other to the process at different stages. And, by the way, we are very brutal. There is no politeness. We can be very tough.

Especially Alfonso. He's sharp—his tongue is like a knife. There is no hidden agenda. It's not about Alfonso, it's not about Guillermo, it's not about me. We are talking about what is right for the film, not for [us]. Because maybe there is an attachment to something emotional, romantic or historic. And maybe it [seems] right but it's not helping the film. Then you can confront one another and say, 'Okay, this is good, but it's not helping your film.' And it's painful as hell, because it's like a mistress. You have to kill your darlings, as Faulkner said.

Q: And so you really have to rethink, recalibrate…

A: And sometimes you have to be very faithful to what you believe. And I'm not talking about stubbornness, I'm talking about a vision. Because if you start doing films by democracy, then you are fucked. There's a moment that it's important to be clear in what you want that not everybody wants. Because even if they are right, maybe it's not right for you. There's a territory where there is no right or wrong.

And I think that even a mistake with conviction is a style. And you have to embrace that. And you have to take that risk if you want the right to direct a movie. Own the mistakes. The line between truthfulness and ego is sometimes difficult.

From the top: Iñárritu provides guidance for Sean Penn (21 Grams), Brad Pitt (Babel) and Javier Bardem (Biutiful). The three films would earn a collective 11 Oscar nominations, while Babel would garner a DGA Feature Film Award nomination for Iñárritu, the first for a Mexican director in the Guild's history. (Photos: Everett)

Q: How do you handle creative differences with your collaborators?

A: I see my job as somebody who can bring out the best of everybody's work. And because only you know the whole canvas, your job is difficult. So the job of a director is to have the perspective, the wholeness in your head. Obviously, I love to hear good ideas. And I'm open. But I cannot accept every idea because then I will not be doing my job.

Q: Can you give a specific example of conflict between you and a collaborator, and what kind of solution came out of that?

A: Most of the departments always work like that, where you arrive at the point where both ends [result in] something new. So I believe in one plus one is three. When you have a collaborator where both of you are three, it multiplies, and it [becomes] another thing. Working with, say, Rodrigo Prieto as my DP on the first four movies, or with (Emmanuel) Chivo Lubezki, the last three, I think I have found that.

Once you start working with craft, with the material, with tangible elements, you find another reality that suddenly does not match necessarily what you thought. And then you have to find a way to transcend the tangible to look for the mysterious, for the intangible. You have to transcend the material world to get into the immaterial—to get to the spiritual or the mysterious. And that's where a great cinematographer or a great writer can [improve] what you were thinking in the first place.

Q: In terms of working with DPs, what is the baseline technical knowledge a director needs to have a fruitful discourse?

A: Well, I think you have to have at least the very basic knowledge of how light works and how light behaves and how you can use light in a way to enhance whatever dramatic objective you are looking for. If you don't understand the rules of light and how the light's direction or the quantity or the color of light will be affecting your emotions, your perception, how it shapes a scene, you cannot be a director.

I'm not talking necessarily about the technical aspects. I think it's important that technically you have a minimum of knowledge. But it's about having the sensitivity to understand light, because I will say that light is 90% of a scene. The light will speak more in a scene than any dialogue you can ask.

Rodrigo and Chivo, when you have cinematographers of their caliber, I don't think anybody knows better how light behaves than these two guys. And theoretically you can be talking with Chivo for one hour and you still don't understand it all. So in that sense, when you have a collaborator that skilled, they are able to create anything you ask for. I need to know what I'm looking for, of course, but I know these guys will do things very few people in the world will be able to manage with the light.

Q: Going back to Alfonso Cuarón, I know you did the Q&A when he showed his film Roma at the Directors Guild recently. But when I saw his movie, I wondered if you would ever tackle something as personal to your own life as he did with Roma.

A: Absolutely. I think what Alfonso did is not only universal, but I think for us Mexicans, he did something that's almost a miracle. At that time (the early '70s) in our country, the films were really bad. You know, '65 through '85, it was 20 years of a government-controlled film industry. There were only six, seven auteurs who were doing very indulgent films. Some of them were not bad, but not very good. And then the other films were very mainstream, cheap. There were always films about the super poor people, or the rich people. But the lives of middle-class people in the city were never captured. TV ruled, and nobody saw Mexican films. Everything was European and American films. So this film is almost like a recovery of an archeological treasure. Suddenly, we see a neorealistic [drama] in a way the Italians of that period brought to light, about ordinary people, and you could understand the country just by seeing [them]. What Alfonso did was go into the subconscious of a nation and, through his personal story, recreate a big part of that period in our society. And it's miraculous.

Q: Did your parents encourage your pursuit of the arts?

A: Not absolutely. I was the black sheep of the family. My parents always considered me a little bit crazy, a little bit difficult. I was not a very easy adolescent.

Q: Was there a point in your life where you became entranced by movies? Do you recall an experience growing up when you looked at a film and you thought, 'Wow, this is something I could do'?

A: There were like three, four films that I remember really moved me a lot. One was (John Schlesinger's) Midnight Cowboy (1969), which my father took me to see. It was shocking for me because I was very young, and I saw (Dustin) Hoffman and (Jon) Voight with sweat, and the acting and the camera—everything just felt real. And my father used to love that song.

Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, who play actresses in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence), receive direction from Iñárritu, while cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki is reflected behind him. The film would result in a DGA Award and an Oscar for Iñárritu's direction. (Photo: Everett)

Q: Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'."

A: Which is great. And then when I heard it in the film in such a nostalgic and sad and romantic way, and the friendship of these two characters… I don't know it was a film that changed a lot of things in me.

Another film I consider a very important film is Yol (1982), directed by a Turkish director (Serif Gören, the assistant of writer-director Yilmaz Güney, who was in prison during production). And it was about these guys in jail in Turkey at that time. And it's an incredible film, really moving. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It was prohibited because it was against the regime.

Also, Once Upon a Time in America (1984) from Sergio Leone was really a killer for me. I saw it like 17 times, so I remember every scene. The (Ennio) Morricone score is just incredible. And it's a wonderful film, like 3 hours and 40 minutes. Arnon Milchan, who did The Revenant, was one of the producers when he was very young. He told me all these stories about how much of a disaster it was (a shortened version of the film received mixed reviews in the U.S.).

(Ridley Scott's) Blade Runner (1982), the original, was very striking.

The last I remember that was very, very powerful for me was (Federico Fellini's) (1963). That was another that my father took me to see. It was, for me, completely [from] another planet, in black-and-white, and very, very different from everything I had seen. And I couldn't even understand a lot of it, but I was fascinated by the whole world inside.

Q: Movies that keep revealing themselves on a second and third viewing are the great ones.

A: I agree. There's a lot of [concern] now to show everything very early and not leave anything unclear. And I think it has to do with people experiencing film now through the rationalization of an experience, instead of allowing themselves to go through sensorial emotions—a space where things do not have to make sense, necessarily. But emotionally they are cohesive.

I think the mystery of things allows us to fill the blanks. And I think that's the beauty of cinema, right? Because cinema in the end is this little locked door that you go in that shows you 20% of the reality in a flat, bidimensional [way] where you have to put 80% of what is happening behind the camera. And you fill in that gap. I think what is not said is more important than what is said. And I think now everything is said. And when everything is said, then there is nothing for you to be engaged with.

Q: You went to the Universidad Iberoamericana and majored in communications. Why communications?

A: I didn't know what to study. I took a gap year; I went to Europe. I worked for everything. I didn't have one cent. My father didn't have one cent. I was terrified. When I returned from Europe and Africa, I thought I would be a lawyer. And I studied law for six months in a very tough university, and when I was in the first day I said to myself, 'What the hell I'm doing here?' I was an anti-lawyer. So I quit, and I didn't know what to do. And communications was honestly the career for everybody who does not know what to do. It was everything: It was radio, TV, film, journalism—it was like a vast amount of things that [allow] you to discover what to do.

Q: And you were a DJ at WFM for a while. It's been written that you feel music was more of an influence on your aesthetic than movies were.

A: Yes, it is. I spent five years as a DJ, host and director of a radio station, which was the No. 1 radio station for five consecutive years in the biggest city in the world. And it was a huge thing. I learned to keep people, three hours every day, engaged through stories, dialogue, music and rhythm. I did a lot of experimenting, [created] a lot of characters, political jokes, very provocative things. The government cancelled us two times. So I learned how to engage with people through imagination—with many elements that in a way are limitless because it's only about how far your imagination can go.

And music, yes. I think that music in a way, the attitude of music and how a piece of music can go through to you directly, not through words, not through intellectual games, not through how smart you are, no emphasis on language. If film and art don't have boundaries, I think music is the only one that is actually spiritual. You don't see music. It's something that I feel purely.

The moment I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker, or a storyteller was precisely at the moment I listened to The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd for the first time; when I listened to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, when I discovered Yessongs by Yes, or As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls by Pat Metheny, or each song [put out by] Motown.

It was not the images or the letters and their stories that impacted me first. I was first struck and run over by the pure, intense and raw emotion of music. All of my instincts were shaken and my intuition awakened through it. I understood the world through rhythm, harmonies and melody, and the emotion that it comes with it. Music took me to cinema.

"I was first struck and run over by the pure, intense and raw emotion of music. I understood the world through rhythm, harmonies and melody. Music took me to cinema."

Q: Did your reputation working at the radio station lead to you becoming a producer at Televisa?

A: Yes, because I had a friend who went to direct a channel there, and he wanted me to start [crafting] the corporate image of that channel, [which at that] time that had a lot of prestige.

Literally, they were short films, not commercials, because I was not selling any product. I was just selling an attitude. I [spent] seven months shooting film, literally learning how to do it. Shooting these things that were my ideas, and I learned how to shoot, to edit, and put it on the television screen. So I had the luck to be in the right time at the right moment.

The spots became very successful, so we created a production company…

Q: Z Films.

A: An advertising company. It was like two, three years shooting 100 days a year, doing every experiment, with all the cameras, with all that learning.

I decided to study theater for three years as I was doing it, because I knew that I was becoming very much stuck in the technique and the craft, but I was terrified [by] actors. I didn't know how to talk [to them]. So I studied theater for three years with Ludwik Margules. And that changed my life. That's when I learned directing theater was the most terrifying thing ever.

Q: So how did Amores Perros come about?

A: We wrote the pilot for a TV series in '95. And that was the first time I was directing something more than two, three minutes. I was very rigorous with myself. And then I decided to start working in film. And [I was introduced to] Guillermo Arriaga. So we both started working on the script to make my first film.

Q: So you'd already done quite a bit of hands-on training before your first feature.

A: My first film I directed when I was 36 years old, which is considered very old now. But honestly, I arrived with a lot of hours on the set, like a pilot on the plane—I had flown 10,000 hours, more than most of the film directors in Mexico. I arrived at the right time.

Q: Were you prepared for the rapturous reviews?

A: To be very honest, I was caught off-guard. Not only because I didn't expect it, but at the same time I was living in Mexico. I was not reading reviews or going to festivals. The globalization was not like it is today, where every kid has the access. I knew the film had been very well received, but I didn't have any frame of reference, until the second film that I made (21 Grams).

Q: You've never really experienced the conflict between art and commerce that faces some directors.

A: No, I have been lucky in that I have been able to work on my own material and things that spoke to me at the time [with] support. And I don't take that lightly. I'm very, humbly thankful about that, because I have [heard] terrible stories of filmmaker friends of mine, for years, who had suffered enormously by being treated like shit or being torn apart by horrendous stories of power and stupidity, Guillermo del Toro [among them]. I was lucky to always have worked with people who supported my vision. And I have never been asked to do anything that I didn't want to do. I have to say that if a film of mine is shit, it's my fault. It's my shit.

Iñárritu, on location in Alberta, Canada, for The Revenant, with lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio and his DP, Emmanuel Lubezki. All three would earn Oscars for their work on the film, and Iñárritu would earn his second consecutive DGA Feature Film Award. (Photo: Everett)

Q: That period between your first and second film, was that around the time you moved here?

A: Yeah, after Amores Perros, Mexico became a very, very [dangerous place]—there was a rise in kidnappings. It was a very tough time to be there. I had two kids who were young. I became kind of a public figure and a kind of easy target because I refused to be with bodyguards or live in a gated community. So I felt a little uncomfortable. And at the same time, I felt that it's good to have a chance to challenge myself and do something else that will take me out of my comfortable ranchito and try something new.

Q: And 21 Grams also had something to do with that?

A: Because the story involved a religious fanatic—the character of Benicio Del Toro—I thought that the way the character related with God was so childish, so primitive that I thought it [aligned] very much with some of these religious institutions that are in the American South. And I thought, "Well, this can be a very interesting way to portray that religiousness in our neighbor country." And then I wanted to work with Sean (Penn). And we came and lived here, and I was developing the script almost two years.

Q: After moving to L.A., did joining the DGA help you establish a sense of community here? Did it help you acclimate to the industry?

A: Yes, I have always I felt the DGA was very generous. That it was very diverse. I never felt like coming here was tough. Honestly, the kids not speaking English was difficult. And Los Angeles is especially different from any part of the world, and so different from Mexico. So it took me some time to really get used to. I was a little bit in a kind of depression. And the script was very tough, dealing with tough subject matter. But I found the DGA was very inclusive and there were people from all over the world. And then, obviously, to be accepted—it made me feel, at least professionally, very welcome. Accepted. Included. Yeah, I really appreciate that. Always.

Q: Were there certain directors you reached out to for advice?

A: I became friends with Michael Mann, for example. He was one of the directors whom I really I started getting close to, yeah.

Q: Back to the God thing: it's one aspect that stands out in your work, especially in the first four movies—the question of whether God exists. And if he does exist, it's the God of Job—a cruel, testing God. Can you talk about these metaphysical conflicts in the stories you tell?

A: I have been always very, very aware, I would say, of God's presence since I was a kid. Since I was very young, my mother was very religious, Catholic. She is still alive. My father passed away four years ago. He was Catholic, but he never really practiced. But my mother was very guilt-driven, which is very traditional, very much about guilt. And about God as a guy with a rifle; any little thing you do, POW! You know what I mean? He will punish you. So it's a little primitive. And childish. I was raised on a Catholicism that was based on fear of the devil, through the judgment that will come from the Second Coming—that God will come and will judge the good and the bad.

So yes, there's a lot of those kind of destiny things about guilt in the first films. I have changed. I'm a completely different person in the last 10, 15 years. I have evolved. In my questioning and in my understanding. And it's not that I never believed. I always questioned.

Q: In some ways your career could be viewed as the films you did with Guillermo Arriaga, and those you did after. After those first three films, you were no longer doing those interlocking, non-chronological stories, and the narrative was more linear as opposed to kaleidoscopic. Was that just a sign of creative growth?

A: Yes. I think when we finished Amores Perros, we started working on 21 Grams, where one accident affects three different lives in a different way. It was really three stories again. But they were interlocked very differently. And when we were finishing that, I thought, "Well, I did one in my city (Amores), I did one in another country (21 Grams), and I would like to keep exploring this structure to make films as a mosaic, but now on a global basis (Babel). It was a tempting experiment to say, "Okay, let's go from the local to the foreign to the global." And I started working from that. The experiment with 21 Grams was that every scene will never have any relation with the next one. And if you see it, when we cut, there's no relation with [the previous scene]. And [the challenge was] how we can have a cohesive emotional journey without actually narratively having that connection.

And in Babel, the experiment was how we can create a story where characters will never physically see each other; they will never touch each other; they will never even know about [these other worlds], but their lives at that moment will be absolutely impacted by one another, even when they don't know about it. So it was in the middle of 21 Grams when I realized we should do a triptych; let's try to close the cycle—to explore different ways to narrate stories in different geographies and different modes. And it was exciting in that storytelling sense.

But when I finished Babel, I was absolutely exhausted by the method of it. Because you end up with very little screen [time] with the characters. Even if it's four stories in Babel, you have 35 minutes (each). So you end up doing kind of short stories. And then you have to find a way to interlock them, which is a very difficult task, by the way. I was tired, exhausted; I didn't have anything more to say than that.

And then I was starting to be criticized because it was "Oh my God, the same shit now, just reversed." And in a way it felt [done], it was enough. And then I challenged myself by doing my first linear, orthodox, classic film.

"If you start doing films by democracy, then you are fucked. There's a moment that it's important to be clear in what you want that not everybody wants."

Q: With Biutiful.

A: With Biutiful. And as Orson Welles said, to do a genius picture is very easy. But doing a right picture is very difficult. And I said, OK, I'm going to do a traditional, narrative, one-character storyline. And I found myself really much more challenged in that one than in any other. Because the other ones, in a way, you have more ability to play with characters. You have three sauces. And [with Biutiful] you have one. And there are no tricks. There's no smokescreen. It's clear as it has to be. So I found myself very challenged.

Q: There's an interesting conflict between First World and Third World in Babel, and the way Westerners view the people of Morocco or the way the people of the United States view people from Mexico. And part of the tragedy of that film is the inability of people to see each other as fully formed human beings.

A: Absolutely. That was the whole point of the thing—not seeing the human dimension and just qualifying people or labeling them, for Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans or "gringos" or whatever. And I think that has been amplified in the recent years, unfortunately. So what is happening now on the border, by calling these [migrants] "invaders," when you see moms with kids, barefoot. I mean, that kind of thing is exactly what I was talking about before—just by being from a foreign country or by believing in some god or religion, you are already attached to a way and you cannot escape. That has been enhanced.

Q: I just saw The Revenant again recently, and it's very vivid in my mind—that scene toward the beginning where the fur trappers get attacked by the Arikara warriors and have to retreat to the riverboat. How did you approach this scene?

A: I started preparing this film in 2010, and I scouted in 2011. Then it was delayed because we were waiting [for Leonardo DiCaprio to finish] the Martin Scorsese film…

Q: The Wolf of Wall Street

A: —and then it was late. But I had already done a lot of scouting and I had storyboarded that scene. I always wanted to see how it must have felt to be in those battles. It's only in paintings. But the paintings were so beautiful. So I told myself, "Okay, I really want an extreme point of view with no cuts, to really not make this a film experience but actually a stream-of-conscious experience, a sensorial one. And immersive—as far as I can go in the immersive world. So I started blocking the scene bit by bit. I storyboarded it. And I knew that I would have to arrive at the river for the escape.

So I developed certain actions that involved the two characters: Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). And I had to be telling both the stories, these two guys who will then become rivals. So both points of view, floating, going from one to the other, going toward the river while things were happening. And then planning how far we can go with one long shot, and then where we will do the stitch to create the illusion, and then go to the next long shot. So it was several long shots. Not many, but three, four, which were stitched in the right moment.

It was difficult because we were using 65mm, and we were basically the first ones to use the [Arri] Alexa 65 digital. And there were a lot of complaints about us using digital because everybody wants me to shoot in film. Because I wanted to shoot in a big format at 3 p.m. under the trees. There was no light; no exposition. I needed to do it in detail. So it was inevitable that technology in this case helped. So we used that camera. And it was a couple of weeks of rehearsals and then like three days of shooting.

Q: Were you using a handheld Steadicam?

A: A Steadicam, yes, handheld.

Q: And there was never any tracking?

A: No. Not tracking. The last shot when they go into the water was a Technocrane.

Q: I assume there were a lot of non-actors in that scene.

A: Yes. Many of them were not actors. That was a native territory where we were allowed to shoot. So we [reached out to] the indigenous communities in Canada. They were super gracious. They were very happy that we were basically doing this film. I wanted to make sure they felt respected. And it was a beautiful landscape. I found when I was scouting that it's difficult to find rivers that have not been industrialized or manicured by men. So to find something that looks really untouched is difficult. And that was a particular area that has the right sun direction, and a lot of it, so…

Q: So were you shooting a lot of that in early morning and late afternoon?

A: Only late afternoon. And every single scene of that film was absolutely prerehearsed. But with precision and in terms of movement of the actors, blocking, camera movement. Everything was absolutely measured. And then when the sun was exactly in the position that we wanted… We always had only one hour and a half, two hours if we were super lucky to shoot the scene. Every day of that film was like that. There was no normal day that you could shoot in the morning. Every day was like a clock—tick tick tick—that was about to explode.

Q: Another of the notable aspects of your films is the richness and the depth of the casting. You've introduced international audiences to actors such as Gael García Bernal, Emilio Echevarria, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, to name just a few. Tell me a little bit about your casting process. Are there people you already have in mind going in? Or are you completely open to new talent?

A: It depends. I have been very lucky to work with (casting director) Francine Maisler on the films I did after Amores Perros. But I have to say that if I can work with nonactors, I'm happy as hell, because there's something invaluable about the naturality of non-actors. If you find somebody with that truthness that is real, you are lucky. But I also really love to work with talented actors who have such an amazing range that they can do whatever you want.

And then I found that the combination [between pro and non-pro] is what's really exciting. So it's the most difficult thing, but when you pull it off, it's a fascinating process of having Cate Blanchett with a veterinarian from Morocco who has never seen a camera in the same scene. It helps the actors. It's very alive.

In accepting his second consecutive DGA Feature Film Award for The Revenant, Iñárritu gave an emotional speech, mentioning his father, who had passed away two years prior, adding that "this embrace that you're giving me today, it goes to a whole country (Mexico), to a whole Latin American community in this country.". (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for DGA)

Q: Let's switch gears. Music plays a role in distinguishing the three different worlds in Babel, and Gustavo Santaolalla's work is so evocative. What were some of the other ways you differentiated the scenes in Morocco from the scenes in Mexico from the scenes in Japan?

A: I shot all the Moroccan part and both the story of Cate and Brad and the (Moroccan) kids in Super 16. Then I shot the story of the (American) kids and the nanny in 35 mm. And I shot the Rinko (story in Japan) in 35, too, but I shot it with a completely different stock. So I tried to divide it into textures and the way I dealt with the materials in order to give it a little difference that mostly people don't know.

Q: When you're working with actors on the level of Sean Penn and Cate Blanchett and Benicio Del Toro, do you give them a lot of latitude or do you want them to be contained?

A: Every one of these actors come from different schools, different traditions, and [have] different needs. And sometimes you have, like in 21 Grams, three actors of that caliber and you are trying to deal with the point of view of each of them, and each of them ask you for different needs. There are actors who are inside out, or outside in. Some of them ask you a lot of questions about [a character's] past and [other] specifics about the characters.

Q: They want an origin story…

A: Exactly. And that's terrifying because sometimes you have to create something. And then there are those who the less they know, the better. And they just create everything sensorially from the outside, they internalize that. Another person that I have to credit is a woman named Judith Weston. She's an incredible teacher.

She really helped me to understand what an actor needs from you. So my job is to get the best of out of them by clarifying objectives. I really believe in rehearsal. I know there's a lot of debate about trusting in improvisation or the intuition that will bring that powerful, electrifying thing. I agree that's the case sometimes. But I learned that you cannot rely on improvised responses, which sometimes can be good but sometimes not as good. So if you rely only on that, whether it turns out good or not, they will get tired. They will stop being natural.

So what I learned—and especially in Birdman, which then I applied to The Revenant—it was to rehearse with the actors really deeply. First of all, they need to know the words by memory, so they are not distracted by them. When you are thinking about the words, you can see it in the eyes because they are thinking of what to say.

I want the actor owning the space, not being a victim of the space. They [should] own the space and really mold it like clay. I close my eyes and I envision a space and the lights and the timing of every word and the distance between one actor and another. Are they going to be seated? Are they going to be standing up? Because that will change the whole relation, the whole energy of the scene. And so once you rehearse all that and you find those answers with them, and the camera movement is [mapped out], everything is transformed, and you have to control that transformation.

In Birdman, because we were doing these long takes, we rehearsed so much that everybody felt they were ready. But when [it came time to shoot], we knew, as with The Revenant, that we have one or two or three takes maximum. And the moment that you are doing an 11-minute take and you are in minute seven and the guy has to do a monologue and turn at exactly the right the moment, the cameraman goes there, every actor knows that if they fail, they will fuck the whole thing up. And when you are seven minutes in, you don't want to fail.

So the beauty of this thing that I found was that suddenly, I was doing two things: theater and film. I rehearsed as one would in theater—deeply to control every movement perfectly, like a clock. Because of the adrenaline, when the camera is rolling, everybody was performing as if it was a theater play in front of the audience, with that fear and that electricity that becomes alive.

It was like walking a tightrope. Because doing film without fear is a banality. Film is an act of love. And love implies fear—because you have to fall. You have to surrender, you have to be afraid and not afraid at the same time.

And I remember when we finished one of those takes, the happiness, the excitement that happens. And so I found that this, for me, had been the most joyful way to do a film. And that's scary as hell, but in a good way.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly includes The DGA Interview featuring Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a look into motion smoothing technology on television sets, stories featuring directors Nora Gerard, Robert Aldrich, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, George Tillman Jr., Elma Garcia and more!