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November 2014
Issue: February 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - 'Biutiful'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu directed and produced his acclaimed 2000 debut feature film Amores Perros, which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film and received over 60 prizes, becoming the most awarded film around the world that year. 

Iñárritu's 2003 follow-up film, 21 Grams, which he conceived, directed and produced, won Oscar noms for its stars Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts. His 2006 feature Babel, starring Cate Blanchet and Brad Pitt, earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Film and Best Director. 

His latest feature, Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem, marks a change of focus for the master of multiple storylines, fractured structures and crossing narratives. Instead, it tells the simple but powerful story of Uxbal, a father of two living in Barcelona, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and is coming to terms with his life and death.  

Here, in an exclusive interview, Iñárritu talks about making the film and his love of post and editing.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?

ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU: “This film took me to places, spiritually, physically and emotionally that I don’t go to very often. I think that’s why when people experience it they will feel it’s taken them to places they haven’t visited in a long time too. So those emotional muscles are stiff from lack of use. I think it will also show them sides of a city that they thought they knew, but really didn’t. It’s a journey in a good way, and that’s what I set out to make — a journey.”

POST: What were the biggest technical challenges of making this?

IÑÁRRITU: “There were several sequences that were very challenging to shoot. First, there’s the huge chase in the center of downtown Barcelona, so we had to close down the whole area, and that was a big problem logistically and politically. We had to work hard to make that happen. Then there was the disco scene, which was just one long shot, and that was very challenging technically to design it and stage it. 

“But I’d have to say the most challenging aspect for me was finding the visual grammar, the architectural design to maintain interest in a guy who’s fallen down, a guy who’s dying. How do you keep the audience interested in the last 75 days of this man’s life? How do you pin down the internal structure of each scene, so it keeps moving and growing? But the most difficult thing was to maintain and survive the emotional demands of each scene, because we were dealing with very radioactive material, emotionally speaking. So to get the truth out of every performance — not just Javier’s, but of every non-actor around him — was very time consuming and challenging.”

POST: Where did you shoot and how long was it?

IÑÁRRITU: “Almost five months, all in Barcelona.”

POST: Tell us about working with DP Rodrigo Prieto, as Biutiful marks your fourth collaboration.  

IÑÁRRITU: “I’ve worked with him since even before I became a filmmaker, and he’s just a master of his craft. In this case, because of the subject matter and the metaphysical and supernatural aspect of it, we took license to get the work to another level. I think this is his most lyrical and poetic work up till now. We sit down and design every frame of the film. 

“So Uxbal starts as this very tight, controlled guy, and we used lots of long lenses and the camera’s moving quickly and we edited those scenes quickly, all in the 1.85:1 format. But once he begins to surrender to the news and he has to become wiser about his life, we changed format to 2.35:1 to get his vision literally wider, and we began shooting in 27fps every time we come to his point of view, so that everything becomes a little slower. His life then becomes more important and more relevant and more profound. So maybe audiences won’t notice all those things, but I think subconsciously they will, and the changes in his life and point of view.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

IÑÁRRITU: “Post was very complicated as we began post in Barcelona and the lab was there. Then we also began editing over there, and then sent stuff here and moved back to LA to continue all the post and editing work, which we did in a little suite on the lot at Universal, and finally finished up at EFilm.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 

IÑÁRRITU: “I love the whole post process, especially the editing, as it’s the third dimension of making your film. Before that, the film is nothing — you just have all these pieces that don’t mean anything yet. So it’s only when you start editing that you basically rewrite your script and find the film. And I just love that process and finding out what the film really is and means.”

POST: You've previously worked with editor Stephen Mirrione on two of your films — Babel, which won him his second Oscar nomination, and 21 Grams. How does that relationship work?

IÑÁRRITU: “I really love working with him because I think he’s not just a very smart, accomplished editor with incredible technical skills, but he’s also a very sensitive guy and has very good taste, which is also very important in an editor — and we work well together. We always agree about the real meaning of a scene and what’s valuable to save in a performance. That’s crucial, I feel. 

“You hear stories about directors and editors who fight a lot, and I will not even consider that. I edited Amores Perros myself; it took me eight months and it was very difficult and lonely, even though I love editing. So for me, I find it far more enjoyable when I can share that time with someone else in a dark room and all my thoughts about how to put it all together — all the infinite possibilities.” 

POST: So Stephen started working on the film in Barcelona?

IÑÁRRITU: “Stephen came to Barcelona on the set and started editing while we were shooting, doing an assembly. Then we finished up in LA at Universal. We did it all on an Avid system, and we edited for one year and two months — a long time!”

POST: Who did the visual effects, and how many visual effects shots are there?

IÑÁRRITU: “There are a few visual effects, but not that many, and they were all done by this place in Madrid, called El Ranchito. They did a really good job. I’m pretty involved because the problem with visual effects is that you have to get them exactly right. If you don’t, they can destroy your whole film, and the most difficult thing is to make them look natural and use them when you really need them, so they add this whole other dimension. So we pre-designed them all, and I love it when people don’t even realize that they’re there.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?

IÑÁRRITU: “For me it’s hard to overestimate just how important they are to my films. I think there’s a dictatorship of the image in all films, and I really like to challenge that. For me, sound is even more important than what you see on screen, in the way that it hits you. The emotional chords are much more sensitive to sounds than images, because they’re more abstract, and like smells they can trigger a much deeper understanding of things. When you see images, they’re very concrete. When you hear them, they’re abstract in the way they trigger your own emotional baggage. 

“I spend a lot of time looking for just the right sounds and textures for my films, and I’ve worked with sound designer and editor Martin Hernandez, who has designed all my films since we were at college together. So he knows exactly what I like and want, and in this case we really pushed it, just as we changed the formats to get the visuals wider. So little by little I wanted to keep all the scratches and sounds of the lavelier mics to come up in the mix, which we did at Universal. 

“There’s the scene where Uxbal embraces his daughter in the bathroom, saying goodbye to her, and you could hear their heartbeats in the laveliers, and the classic first session with the mixer is where he wants to erase all that. 

“I said, ‘Wait — this has to be pumped up, not removed!’ Because this apparent technical mistake is for me a statement. This guy’s hearing every heartbeat, every scratch their clothes make. So this hyper-realistic approach to the sound mix was very important to me, to make people aware of his journey and the hyper-sensitive last moments of his life. 

“The music is the same. I need to hear a film before I start it — what are the sounds, what is the texture, what is the tone? A film for me always begins with a vague idea, often a bit of music, and this began when I was listening to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. And [composer] Gustavo Santaolalla did 130 tracks for the film. It was very difficult to find the right voice for the film. Now I’m doing a CD titled ‘Biutiful,’ which will contain all the tracks from the film, plus one, ‘Almost Biutiful.’ That will have all the tracks that didn’t make it.” 

POST: Did you do a DI?

IÑÁRRITU: “Yes, and I think it’s a very interesting process. The first time I did it was for 21 Grams, and I only used it for a part of the film. It wasn’t that well defined back then and it was painful to watch the end result. But now it’s changed and it’s far more sophisticated. I still resist it a little as it’s so easy to perfect every single frame if you want. The danger is you can go crazy with it, so you must control yourself and not overuse it, because then you can lose the natural look of light. The choices it gives you are scary, and I also feel you lose the grain — and I love grain. Some people love sleek looks, but I prefer some grain. But I know it’ll keep getting better and better.” 

POST: Is film dead?

IÑÁRRITU: “I think so. It’s inevitable. Digital has made it so much easier, but I also feel that some things are lost, which is a shame, but that’s the way it is.”

POST: You directed, co-wrote and produced this. Do you have a favorite hat to wear?

IÑÁRRITU: “I hate producing! I only do it because I have to; I’d far rather just write and direct. I’d say that editing and doing the music are my favorite parts.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

IÑÁRRITU: “Completely. Of course, in post there are always things you question and feel you could have done better, but it’s a bit like an old, aged wine — we spent so long on post that I had a lot of perspective to hopefully make all the right choices, and I’m very happy with the result.”