A wide-ranging, incendiary conversation on finding beauty in the darkness, and dealing with the cowardice of Hollywood
The Mexican-born directors Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro have been close friends, colleagues and compadres throughout most of careers that have included "Babel," "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros" (Inarritu) and "Pan’s Labyrinth," "Hellboy" and "Mimic" (del Toro). They sat down with theWrap to talk about Inarritu’s new film "Biutiful," a haunting meditation on finding beauty in the darkness and grasping at life in the face of death.
To start at the beginning, what was the genesis of "Biutiful"?
ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU I was shocked the other day that I found a book from a Mexican poet called Jaime Sabines, who is dead 10 years now. My wife edited a book with a lot of his writings and things. Now we are fixing our house, and I found this book and remembered that four years ago I read a poem, which in the very early days of the editing process, I wanted to put it as a prologue on the film.
It something like, “Somebody whispers in my ear/Gently, softly, every day of my life/live, live, live/it was death.“ It’s a short poem, but it‘s very impactful, very powerful and it’s very beautiful. And I remembered that I did this cut using it, but then I thought, maybe I am guiding the people too much where this film is going to go. It was more than a prologue, it was more like the sense of the film. And I realized two days ago that that was what the film was about, and I haven’t said it to anybody. That poem is basically a reduction of what the film is.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO There are such acute and minute little portrayals of humanity in the film. And that’s why I always say, as Sabines said, it’s impossible to judge how valuable life is unless you do it from the perspective of death.
IÑÁRRITU Exactly. That’s why I was shocked two days ago when I found it. I thought, why haven‘t I remembered, and why haven‘t I said this? Because the poster could be that: “live, live, live.“
DEL TORO You should have put it in.
IÑÁRRITU But you know why I didn’t put it? Two reasons: I thought it would be pointing out, and at the same time it was kind of pretentious.
DEL TORO I like it. It has a really down-to-earth thing. It’s not the type of poetry that seems affected. And you open with a guy with cancer, it’s not like you‘re hiding anything! You should have put it in.
IÑÁRRITU Maybe. Maybe if you had not been in f___ing New Zealand, then you would be with me and reaffirm what I was thinking. (laughs) And the other thing that I thought of, the title of the film was "In the Memory of Others." Because always I thought of the really desperate grace of [Javier Bardem’s character] Uxbal, and the question that we all have, which is where are we going after we die. The only thing that we really transform after we die is in the memory of others. That’s what’s left of us. And again, I thought it was a little bit too poetic, a little bit too pretentious, a little bit too much like Latin American magical realism.
DEL TORO I like that title.
IÑÁRRITU I like few words. One word. And the word of biutiful, the way it’s written, for me is a glimpse, how do you say un guino?
DEL TORO A wink.
IÑÁRRITU A wink at the most important thing, which is that not all beauty has to be beautiful. That’s something that people have to understand—that not all beauty has to be beautiful, as we understand it. And that’s a wink at that. That’s why I like it. It’s not obvious.
DEL TORO I always understood the title when I read the screenplay in your house the first time. It’s the perfect title for the film.
IÑÁRRITU So you were bothering me saying that the other one was better, right? He wants to make me feel bad.
DEL TORO I don‘t think it’s better. I liked it. But I think "Biutiful" is better. I always saw the movie as beautiful.
IÑÁRRITU The title that I had, and the poem of Sabines, they were kind of the genesis. I went through this journey, and now I found them again.
Was it difficult to check in with Guillermo the way you usually do, with him so far away?
IÑÁRRITU It was difficult, because Guillermo was at that time in New Zealand doing preproduction on "The Hobbit" [which he later dropped out of], and I was in Europe. So the time was very, very difficult. And it’s true that we couldn’t work as much as I would like.
DEL TORO In preproduction, we did talk a lot about how to approach the supernatural. He was asking me, “How do you think I should do this?“ and he telling me his ideas. Originally, there were more ideas about magical stuff. He didn’t want to make a supernatural film, he wanted a film where the supernatural was treated in a minimal, very discrete way. He wanted to have the exact balance. I’m not claiming that I helped, but I was another ear.
IÑÁRRITU I would have loved that he would have been with me on the set, because it was the first time that I was dealing with these kind of supernatural, metaphysical elements. I missed him in that sense, but it was helpful for me to talk. And during the editing, it was such a Guillermo del Toro territory that I was thinking, what would he be doing?
Were you trying to do it the way he would have done it, or did you want to do it differently?
IÑÁRRITU In a strange way, yes, I was conscious that I didn’t want to invade that territory because that was not the genre of the film. But in the same way, I would say technically, I wished he could tell me how this can be done better. I was trying to do something that would not be crossing to his territory, but at the same time I would have loved to have his input to get the physical and technical things. I remember Guillermo once said, “If I arrive on the set and there is no monster, I don’t know what to do.“ Several days I did have a kind of monster, and I was fascinated by it.
You‘ve had public support from people like Werner Herzog, Sean Penn, Robert Benton… This seems to be the kind of movie where the business doesn’t know what to make of it, but the artists are responding.
IÑÁRRITU I think that’s very accurate. I’m feeling that what the industry or probably the audiences are looking for are clowns. And I reject clowns. I mean, that‘s just about entertainment. And many atrocities have been committed in the name of entertainment.
If you just want to be entertained, get the f___ing clown. But I will not spend three years of my life just entertaining people. That’s implicitly what I do, that’s a rule of what I do. But I try in this film to give a little bit more than just entertainment.
Guillermo, you’ve had lots of dealings with major studios over the years. Has the business changed dramatically?
IÑÁRRITU I think so. The economic crisis hit when Alejandro was in Spain, and the business changed radically in the last two years. Radically. I think it’s maimed beyond recognition. It’s not the same industry. I told Alejandro, “While you were away, a holocaust happened. You‘re gonna come back to a wasteland.“ I consider the state we are in now a truly catastrophic panorama.
IÑÁRRITU I will say that obviously there are great people out there who want to do great cinema. The thing is there are so many corporate impossibilities. But I would say that the major problem is not economic.
DEL TORO: It’s cowardice.
IÑÁRRITU I would say even worse than that. We are living, not only the United States but around the world, in a cultural genocide. People’s state of mind is with the TV, Internet kind of immediate, reductive, fast entertainment. And some very interesting things come out of that, but unfortunately not so often.
DEL TORO TV writing is now excellent. But when you say TV, I know what you mean.
IÑÁRRITU Yeah, it’s not the crème de la crème shows, that are fanatastic. I‘m talking about TV as the general state of mind of people for 24 hours, and they produce s___. I‘m not talking about great shows, I don’t want to be misunderstood. But if you take the number of those good hours, as compared to these 500 channels of s___ 24 hours a day, there is just .1 percent that is good.
A whole generation has been fed by the reductive and stupid and super banal. And that is affecting the perception of cinema all around the world.
DEL TORO I actually think it’s catastophic. I think the studios are being conservative, and cowardly. That they only venture to the safest, most inane bets for the audience. Things that seem recycled from a recycle from a recycle.
IÑÁRRITU It is almost not possible if you are not based on a bestsller, on a big comic book, or have a branding behind you. To bring an original idea is just the scariest thing that anybody can confront. Original ideas, and adult films, human films, those are the scariest things.
DEL TORO Those are almost impossible to finance now, whereas in the '70s, all the great movies were for adults. It doesn’t matter if it was "Three Days of the Condor," or a commercial thriller, or "Taxi Driver," or whatever it was. They were geared for adults.
I love it now when you can see a Gaspar Noe movie, or "The White Ribbon," or "The Secret in Their Eyes." There are still great films out there. But in the past, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, America was an incredibly fruitful place to see and find foreign films. Not only you had the occasional breakthrough hit, but you actually had outlets, places you could go and see a great foreign film. Right now, if I’m optimistic, it’s shrunk ten times the size from what it was even five years ago.
IÑÁRRITU I saw [Noe's] "Enter the Void" three weeks ago at the Nuart, my wife and I with 30 people. And you can say whatever you want to say about the film. Maybe you can find a lot of problems narratively, or say the ambition went too far. But it’s a f___ing extraordinary cinematic experience. It’s unforgettable. And it’s a guy who’s trying to move forward the language, the experience – and even failing, it’s such an ambitious film. There are Kubrick moments thematically and visually, and I came out with those 30 people, with the eyes completely blown, saying what the f___? You feel alive.
And if we play the intellectual police, as many critics or reviewers want to play, yeah, we can find some problems here. But the whole experience was so fascinating, so refreshing. You know, Gaspar was booed, the film was a disaster critically and economically. But when I saw it I immediately sent him an email saying "bravo bravo bravo bravo bravo." That theater should have been full of film students just saying "What the f___ is this film?"
DEL TORO I happen to not believe in that term, "too ambitious," even if somebody fails. When Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, too ambitious? Well, yes, of course. But I don’t believe it’s a defect. If it’s a defect, we need more of that.
IÑÁRRITU Or "There Will Be Blood," the Paul Thomas Anderson movie. People said, "Oh, it was too ambitous, it fails…" F___ it, it’s a great film. To reduce everything to "it was too bleak,“ those reductions just get me…
DEL TORO When I saw "There Will Be Blood," I felt the way I felt when I was a kid, going to see a Kubrick movie. Or the early Scorsese. I was seeing a great American film, beyond definition.
INARRITU But now it seems that you have to navigate in the calm waters of the standard cookie-cutter kind of things in order to not bother sensibilities, and entertain. The word entertain has been completely intoxicated, or corrupted.
So are people being too reductive when they say that "Biutiful" is dark?
IÑÁRRITU Yeah. It’s just the word that people love to say. The reduction, the safe word is bleak, or dark. And there's much more bleakness and darkness in a 30-minute TV news broadcast than in my f___ing film, you know what I mean? The film is about the life of a guy that you care about, it’s a celebration of life. To say it's bleak is a reduction, a lack of analysis.
DEL TORO Maybe it’s because we’re Mexicans, that we’re shocked on the fixations on the tragic aspects of it. I think that Javier does such a great job of portraying the nobility of this guy. The fact is that this guy is all of us, is representative of the whole human race. He‘s monumental. He's monumental as a presence in the way that few actors are monumental, now or ever. Anthony Quinn was monumental, also. Javier is monumental.
"Biutiful"won a Best Actor award at Cannes, but it took months after that to find an American distributor. Are you bothered by the reception?
IÑÁRRITU I can't complain about "Biutiful." And let me tell you why. I think the problem is only here, in the United States. The film was sold all around the world immediately, it opened in France with the most amazing reviews that any of my films got, and good boxoffice. In Mexico it was good, very healthy. In Spain it's opened, healthy financially, critical acclaim, everything. The film has ben working great globally. It’s just here, in the market in the United States, where the struggle is.
Is the economic crisis the root of the problems you're talking about, or are there other significant factors?
DEL TORO I tell you, I squarely put the blame on the fact that very openly, corporations are now the star. The era of the filmmaker-driven cinema is dying because corporations find it absolutely unacceptable. Film is driven by marketing, and lawyers, and people that see a poster, a package, and that's it. There was a time when you could resist that, 10 years ago, when there was enough money and enough markets. But as soon as the money shrunk, they became ultra conservative.
IÑÁRRITU Corporations have a lot to do with it, and the marketing and the dictatorship of capitalism is the worst. It’s the worst f___ing dictatorship that we have ever seen, because there is no basis, there is no religion, there is no politics behind it. Their religion and god is f___ing money, in the hands of who we will never know. That’s a very scary thing.
And there is no analysis. Nobody is talking about cinema, or the language of cinema, the craft of cinema. Everybody's talking about power, celebrity, awards, boxoffice. That’s it. That game is played by everybody.
And it didn’t used to be?
DEL TORO There was a clear generation in the 1960s and '70s that grew up with a certain type of cinema, that broke with that and found the auteur theory, and for the next 20 years that was the discourse that was adopted. If you were a film lover, you were able to talk about Hitchcock, Ford, Truffaut, Bunel, Godard in the same breath.
My problem is that in the last 20 years, the fim connoisseurs have completely co-opted the industry language: demographics, opening weekend, boxoffice projections, easy to market. When you go to a blog or to a comments section and you have people adopting the lingo of the industry and talking about a movie by not discussing if it's good or bad or art, they're just saying "really hard to market, I don’t know what audience they're trying to reach," I get really depressed.
And worse, even some critics tend to be adopting the language. That’s why I celebrate contrarians, even if they are wrong or irritating. Like, Armond White hates my films, but I celebrate his existence, because I love reading somebody who is at least an iconoclast about the profession. Who is not regurgitating a press release or falling on his knees to the boxoffice.
So as a filmmaker, how do you negotiate your way in this landscape?
IÑÁRRITU I’ve had a very interesting way to kind of navigate. Because I have worked withthem, not forthem. I have been very lucky to develop or write my own material, and be absolutely in control of it with final cut, final everything.
DEL TORO But a movie like "Biutiful," right now it's impossible to make.
IÑÁRRITU It’s incredibly hard… No, impossible. Now, I think there are two ways that are the rule. You’ve got your studio film, and you will have to find a way to make it yours, to make it personal. Which is going to be a huge battle, depending on the film. Or if you develop and write your own material, you will have to find a way to do it for less money. And you will have to struggle, and you will not get what used to be normal distibution.
DEL TORO The thing that I try to practice, and I practice it diligently, is I get involved in ventures that I love, always. And I ty to organize them so that I have a very commercial project, and I'm using that to support a very small project like "Julia’s Eyes" this year, or "Biutiful" or "The Orphanage" right after "Pan’s" and after the "Hellboys." In the market, that allows me to find the financing for movies that are smaller and more difficult.
I think that’s a strategy that I can continue employing as a director and a producer. I learned that from Steven Soderberg and John Sayles. I was friendly with John Sayles in the '90s, and he literally told me that, "I write a big movie to finance my own movies."
Guillermo has done that, but you never have, Alejandro. Can you see yourself doing a big studio movie to finance something smaller and more personal?
IÑÁRRITU I don’t know if I will do it. There‘s some things that have been offered to me, but always I have been devloping things when it happened. And it's so exhausting to do that development, even more exhausting than to make the film. And then it's exhausting afterwards, because these markets have become, for me, I call it the flea market. All of us are like fleas, jumping to see which one gets more attention. And then the wide scope of the media is saying, "Ah, look at that one, that's funny," and "that one is not so funny" and "look, there's a clown." It's a game. And then intellectual police saying, "Oh, he broke the rules, he’s not entertaining."
DEL TORO Look, I would love to take a moment and say there are thousands and thousands of filmmakers I admire who are working right now, so it’s not all bleak. And each of them finds an individual solution to create the movie they create. Among them is Alejandro. And I think that there are new solutions to come. The old solutions, the way we used to make films like this or "Pan's Labyrinth" [right] or "Y Tu Mama Tambien," that time is gone. Just think about it: there is almost no chance for a Spanish-language movie to have a distributor in America the way you used to have a distributor. Because corporations have absorbed all the mini-majors and destroyed them.
You couldn't make "Pan's Labyrinth" now?
DEL TORO I think you could, in a way, but you would have to make the movie different, and smaller. And not only do I think you could make it smaller, but I plan to make movies like that again. The fact that there are no structures the way we knew them doesn’t mean that we need to quit. F___ that. This is the time to make these movies. When they are impossible to make, that’s the time to make them.
As I said, I think it's catastrophic. But I always see catastrophe as a moment of opportunity. In Mexico, there’s a saying, “The wild river, the dangerous river is the fisherman’s game.“ Whoever ventures in right now valiantly and intelligently will find a lot of opportunity.