After Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s electric feature directing debut Amores Perros, the Mexico-born filmmaker became the toast of a specialty film circuit dominated by studios willing to overspend for prestige and Oscars. Top actors lined up to work with Inarritu in 21 Grams and Babel, the latter a picture that personified the excess that would haunt the prestige film business. Paramount paid $25 million to license the U.S. and a handful of other territories and the film was wildly profitable for its makers before Inarritu shot a frame, I’m told. Those days are long gone. Studios fled the prestige game, and survivors are cautious, especially when subtitles are involved. How else to explain why it took four months to get U.S. distribution after a Cannes debut of Biutiful that won Best Actor for Javier Bardem?
Bardem plays a street hustler in Spain who deals in undocumented African street peddlers and Chinese sweat shop workers. Dying of a terminal disease, he can’t face leaving his children to the mean streets, especially since their bipolar mother is too unreliable to care for them. The film is bleak, but behind the darkness, there is light and redemption. Will Oscar voters bother to look? So far, Bardem and Inarritu have been ignored in the critics’ awards, except in the Foreign Film category. Who better to dissect the condition of foreign language films than Inarritu, who worries about the current climate where wary distributors rely on festival reviewers who evaluate complex films in 140 character Twitter posts filed moments after screenings end:
DEADLINE: Though Javier Bardem won Best Actor at Cannes, Biutiful sat for months without US distribution. In hindsight, was that festival the right place to unveil the film?
INARRITU: Cannes or any other major festival is basically an animal in its own nature, creating very specific perceptions of films in a moment. That creates an incredibly stressful situation for every journalist there. It’s like being in a bar and seeing a girl you find to be incredibly beautiful. You’re a little drunk, and she is just so beautiful and attractive, and the next day, when the lights are up and you meet her again, you feel differently. Cannes can be very much like that, this neon atmosphere where perception becomes reality. And then things can change dramatically, there can be this pendulum swing. That makes it possible that three guys booing in a screening can become a story. Or a bubble can be created that bursts. And now it’s very viral. In the cast of Biutiful, the film was portrayed at Cannes as being very bleak, very intense in such a way that guided people to that expectation. Then in Toronto, everything changed. When they saw it again, they realized the film was much more human.
DEADLINE: How much does the rush to judge foreign language films hurt the kind of movies you make?
INARRITU: That incredible bubble and high expectations built at festivals can work against a film. When you have critics filing on Twitter, it leaves no time for thought and perspective. How can you rely on this? But the fact that people came in with lower expectations when they saw Biutiful helped. Everything has changed. I can’t tell you how incredibly well this film has been reviewed in France, I’ve never had a film of mine received like this, or seen these kinds of adjectives, especially after Cannes. A second viewing of this film really helps. It has weight and emotion and it disturbs you, initially. With time and perspective, it’s completely another story.
DEADLINE: There are a handful of maverick guys like yourself, Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson, who tell auteur stories that have carried budgets in the $30 million range. PTA has had difficulty pulling together his next film, The Master, with Universal pulling out because of a $35 million budget. Is that $30 million art film dead?
INARRITU: I love PTA’s work. Here’s a guy who every time out makes films that are original ideas, incredible works of art. We are not machinery. These things are individual expression, themes with original ideas. We may fail sometimes, but we attempt to move things forward. Now, we are being pushed two ways. As an act of resistance, we can still make original ideas and try to find ways to finance them. We understand the financial situation and can help financiers and adjust somewhat to the idea that these films can only be made for a certain amount of money. But we need the excitement and extra effort of distributors to support that. We have to find ways to challenge people to see original material. What good is making a jewel if nobody see it? But cost depends on the story. To get those performances in Biutiful, you need that time. You need 60 takes in a scene, and a year to edit. It’s not realistic to do it any other way. This is very sophisticated, handmade, aged coffee, not Starbucks. That takes time and time means money, unfortunately. That is the tragedy of filmmakers, we depend on money. Quality will suffer. The other course for these filmmakers is to accept work as a craftsman, like a carpenter being hired to build a table. Filmmakers have to pay rent, school, they have to live. I will never criticize anyone for doing that.
DEADLINE: Is getting the budget your biggest hurdle?
INARRITU: The problem is less about finance than distribution. That’s the bottleneck. Let’s say Malick, me or PTA get money from different countries. In France, Biutiful is doing great, and in other territories, it’s more incredible. In the US, it’s more challenging now. I believe there is cultural curiosity of the audience. We get money to put films together, but the problem comes when you finish. Exhibitors might not take the risk and I understand the dilemma. You have to make millions on Friday night, because there are another 600 films waiting behind you, with explosions and everything. That’s where these films are being hit, and what happens when you call them bleak art films. We are being branded even by distributors and media, instead of encouraged. There are reasons you have to see these kinds of films, especially the ones that really work. It would be nice if media and distributors tried to cultivate and encourage, instead of calling them bleak, small independents, or other adjectives that hurt and create a ghetto. What makes a film smaller, is it just budget? PTA is just one of the incredible directors fighting this fight, and it’s getting more difficult. It has me worried.
DEADLINE: About the future?
INARRITU: How many people are there in this country, 300 million? And how many are moved to see these films? You have kids studying master class visual arts, who are pushed to make films that will be successful economically, that’s what they focus on. So they work for corporate interest instead of artistic expression. And now, they don’t have chance to observe the alternative. Where are all the thousands who should be interested in these films? That is where the call should go. There has to be more than just finding a book that some film company will buy. This is a little terrifying, this dark moment we are in. But I’m sure we will come back, or at least that is my hope. It cannot be all black and white, you need to leave room for some gray.
DEADLINE: Javier Bardem’s character worked in the streets with illegal businesses involving African street peddlers, Chinese working living in sweat shop conditions. And yet he was a loving father of his own children, and seemed to care for his workers who were being exploited. Did you see him at all as a villain?
INARRITU: No, not at all. When I started writing the character, he appeared to myself full of contradictions. The title is a contradiction, in the sense that our nature is complex. We are not bad or good. I think one of the things I hate most in films, and Western films especially, we tend to think of the world as having a lot of Manichaeism. It’s black or white, good or bad. The characters are very well established, in a very childish way. I think that when we are children, we need stereotypes, archetypes, to understand the world. But when we grow up, we understand that things are not that easy. We are not good and we are not bad, we do good things and bad things simultaneously. We are angels and devils. These contradictions appeared for me since the very early beginning. I found that Uxbal is a character that was very primitive. He had to have a physical strength to survive in tough circumstances. He’s a street guy. But at the same time, it needs to be a very sensitive spiritual character in a way. Javier, who I met nine years ago, is that way as a person. He has this very physical strong presence, but at the same time, he has a fragile, vulnerable poet’s soul. That’s how I think about him.
DEADLINE: You dedicated Biutiful to your father, and called him The Old Oak. In his life, your father made and lost a fortune. Like all your movies, Biutiful has characters who experience sudden swings in fortune. How did he or his life influence this film?
INARRITU: This film is at its core a love story between a father and his kids. To me, that spirituality sustains this film. My father and I have a strong relationship. He told me things without never telling me nothing. He never preached. I never saw my father…he struggled a lot, economically, we lived in a kind of tough, poor neighborhood. We were five kids. My father never have a lot. Often, there was no fruit, and the milk maybe was old. He’d wake up in the morning, 4 AM, and bought fruits in the market to sell to restaurants, hotels. It was a very tough business and he was a fighter. He was always ready to listen, always very open, never criticized nobody. Very tender and compassionate. Even now, when he’s 80 years old and sick, he sustains himself. I relate him a lot with Uxbal. When I dedicate it to my father and said, old oak, when we were kids or teenagers we would measure ourselves against him and he would always be higher, and say he was still the old oak. I saw Uxbal as an old oak, a big noble tree with strong roots, and everybody depends on him. But this big tree is falling.
DEADLINE: Compared to when Babel was shopped with every studio-backed arthouse distributor chasing it, the market for prestige films has contracted dramatically. Then, you had Brad Pitt and part of the film was in English, while Biutiful is Spanish language. Describe the difference.
INARRITU: It was just a couple years ago, but thinking back on it, it feels like we are talking about a prehistoric period. It’s funny. Back then, the United States bought those films first, and the foreign distributors waited to see who bought it in the United States and then they were the followers. Now, it’s the contrary. This was financed first, completely sold around the world first, and then the United States is the last one to bet on it. That’s very sad, how the United States has become the follower that waits and sees how a film plays in other territories. That is the big change. I doubt that many people feel proud about what they are distributing or producing, the stories they are telling. A revival, or a movie based on a series of comic books, comfortable comedies, and explosions. You can tell nobody is very proud of it, but there’s this conglomerate mindset is defeating the meaning of what we used to do. All of us are concerned individually, but in the mass, it seems things are moving into a direction that is getting people blind. I worry that the foreign language audience hasn’t been educated and growing. Nobody is really getting into that market, and the ones there are reducing. A filmmaker who was used to being in so many theaters is now reduced to being in 25%. That’s because a new generation is not being educated and that’s sad. It is creating a narrow vision of what film can be. Or it’s that other sickness, that a great film can come from whatever country, and everybody loves it in that territory, but few people go here and nobody really distributes it very well. And then it is a remake in the United States. They can’t stop seeing past the obvious and that’s a sickness, I think.
DEADLINE: Considering those new realities, did you consider, or were you nudged to make Biutiful in English?
INARRITU: Never did I think it, and never would anyone have been brave enough to even suggest it. I would have been insulted. I would have betrayed the whole film, turned it into a perverted version and robbed it of its truth. As an artist, you have to honor the truth of the universe that you are presenting. So if you do that, you are completely poisoning and betraying the whole thing.
DEADLINE: So you make Biutiful, when when you come to Cannes, it is the film everybody is dying to see. Javier wins the Best Actor. And not one U.S. distributor bites. How did that make you feel?
INARRITU: That’s what was shocking. I think two things, because of course I don’t have the truth. But what I saw was the perception, the way that this film was perceived in the new period of the blogs. The immediacy of reactions, where you have to get it on Twitter, 20 seconds after the film ends. And the fact that this new immediacy leaves no time to assimilate or metabolize anything. It has changed things completely. Add the fact that the few distribution companies that exist now take fearing out of those results that are based on opinions coming from an immediate response. I think those messages unfortunately create damage with the few people now dealing with art house films. Fear is spread in a couple of fast opinions and it affects those few people still in this business, because they have to explain results to conglomerates. The territory is fragile already because of the economy. The result is a kind of blindness, a fragility in understanding things that are complex. It’s a disrespectful thing to filmmakers, but exhibitors and distribution companies feel that people need easy things to consume, and not have challenges brought to their tables. That, in its extreme, is killing any possibility to do a film that is more interesting. That’s what I think, but I’m curious about what you think?
DEADLINE: I think it’s extremely hard to quickly judge Biutiful, because you would tend to focus on the tragedies. A little distance would allow anybody with kids to relate to Uxbal’s love for his children, which redeems him. But it is hard to get past the dark places in this film to see the redemption. I’ve also seen how buyers get rattled or excited by rushed reviews in the trade and blogs, even though who knows how many of these people are qualified to render an opinion worth respect?
INARRITU: These could be people who might not have anything going for them, but unfortunately these executives are listening. I understand they have to be interested in results but how can they be terrified by some guy who does not have the profundity, the knowledge of film. Biutiful is about people who are not bad guys or good guys. In my view, this is my most compassionate film, and there is a reality that hits every part of the world. It’s not only the United States and Mexico, but the South border of Mexico, and Europe, which is also hit by all of these immigrants who start their journey from very sad origins. The reality in these countries is they are treated as though they are invisible. That is a growing problem that will cover not only Europe but all parts of the world. We are acting like they are invisible and trying to find easy, radical and xenophobic solutions. I wanted to make a point here about these people, who are human beings, survivors. From the Chinese to the African woman who befriends Uxbal, all of them have a reason to struggle and survive, and they struggle with the same fear. How can I feed my kids? Those are beautiful, universal problems. Uxbal redeems himself in that manner. He gives love, he forgives. It was something for me to play with a tragedy, to show how someone who falls so low can purify himself with dignity and with love and compassion and forgiveness. And give everything to others. That for me makes a beautiful love story. Some people can’t see it. A guy who saw the movie in Cannes told me he was very disturbed because there was a wave of pain he didn’t know what to do with. He saw it again and said he felt no pain this time, and so he saw the beauty behind the pain. He said that Uxbal is such a big character, and the pain and the emotions are so big and vivid that sometimes they can blind you to what I see now, which is micro-layers of beauty. The architecture of the film is much more complex than any film I have done, in my point of view.
DEADLINE: You’re an artist, but also a savvy businessman and probably not a lot of companies have lost money betting on your films. When no US distributor jumped, did you find yourself having to sell or defend your vision?
INARRITU: No. In terms of business, the film had been sold, in every territory. And the reviews around the world have been amazing. The natural countries for Biutiful, like Spain and Mexico, I hope they will be huge. I think most of the distributors around the world have worked with me before and were all completely satisfied. The problem was the United States. And that made me sad. Why? Because the United States is full of immigrants, people who form a complex social network, and there should be understanding. In terms of business, it was shocking to see the United States’ response. Because the whole world was completely booked. In one day. Boom, done. Why? I don’t know. I’ve given you a couple of possibilities, but there is more to explore, in what’s happening anthropologically in business and society. Everybody has the same concern and I think everybody is not proud of what happened here.
DEADLINE: When you construct a business plan for an expensive foreign language film like this, how important is the United States?
INARRITU: With this film, it was only a part because we knew this was going to be a foreign language film. It was different from 21 Grams. But Babel was also a foreign language film, only a quarter was in English. This time, we knew we’d be confronting a different period. I was so lucky to make the film. It was produced two months before the collapse of the economy in 2008, so I think if I would be dreaming about doing a film like this today, it would never happen. This is the Last of the Mohicans. Guillermo del Toro tells me that this was the last gem, the last foreign language film with this kind of scale. It would be impossible now to do something like this. We always knew that for our business strategy, the United States would fortunately be just a part. So we are not sad, businesswise. This deals with more of an issue of how we don’t want to see struggle. But I’m excited that Roadside came, and they are really enthusiastic about it. That made me feel good.
DEADLINE: Considering how important the US has been for breakout specialty films, is it really possible we are on our way to becoming an afterthought?
INARRITU: How else could you explain a film like last year with The Prophet, or White Ribbon, great films that did maybe $2 million or $3 million? It’s incredible. What is that, 100,000 people, in a country of 350 million, in a very decent economy? And 100,000 people saw the Cannes Film Festival winner by Michael Haneke, or The Prophet? That is very sad. That doesn’t mean only .0001 percent of the population likes these kind of things. They are curious to see things beyond the United States, but nobody has cultivated that. If you see TV, see what kids are exposed to, it’s depressing. They don’t have any visual culture. I went to see Enter the Void by Gaspar Noe. There were only two shows, Monday and Tuesday. There were 45 people there. 45 people! And yes, maybe there are ways the film could be better narratively, but it was an amazing visual experience, an unbelievable, visceral journey. A powerful cinematic experience. As a filmmaker, it’s so refreshing to see something like this. You say, wow. It’s an injection of fire! And there was 50 people, and it is gone in two days. This is LA, the city of film. You have to wonder, what’s going on? What’s going on in the schools with the kids? What are we showing them? How to do explosions? Only black and white characters and explosions? What’s going on? Humanity, real emotion is prohibited now, it’s not cool. What’s going on? There are more to fucking human beings, what’s in the eyes, emotions, the complexity of the human machine. It’s just gone now. I’m not saying I don’t like those other films, and I’m not a bitter guy. But when everything is hamburger…
DEADLINE: After you made a splash here with Amores Perros, you must have been courted to transfer your visceral style to Hollywood films. Your colleagues, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro have played successfully in that big budget sandbox. Why haven’t you?
INARRITU: It’s not that I resist it. I don’t have nothing against it. It’s just that what I have been offered. It has been a lot over 10 years, honestly, some big films, and they would have been fun and I would have gotten a lot of money and attention. But I am always working in my own projects that are based on my own ideas. And I have never found something up to now that is more interesting than what I am doing, or which speaks to me more urgently than what I’m doing. That’s why I have always decided to keep doing what I’m doing. But I really pray, and hope, that someday I will find a script I didn’t have to write, and that it will be great and powerful, because that will save me two or three years of writing. That would be a fantastic present! I haven’t found that. I’m open to work in a project that isn’t mine, but so far am left with an urgency to do the thing that I’m developing.
DEADLINE: Doesn’t sound like you’ll be a director for hire anytime soon, even though your road is harder.
INARRITU: I have discussed this with Guillermo and Alfonso, and they’ve said that sometimes the best experience is when they are hired and work as craftsmen, a carpenter. By the end, every film becomes yours in one way or another. Maybe it would be fun, and maybe I’d want to kill myself right in the middle of that process. It might be less painful. But my films are an extension of myself and I feel very proud and blessed to have made each one. But in the world we live in, you can be punished by being stubborn. I did a commercial for Nike for World Cup soccer, and I didn’t want to. My kid was the one who convinced me. He said, father, that’s not cool to say no. This is cool. I did it because of him, and it for me was an experience I loved so much. My kid took me out from this other thing I was writing, and I spent almost two months on this commercial I was hired to direct. I didn’t regret it and I had a good time. I just don’t know if that will happen with a feature.
DEADLINE: Since the film takes place in Spain, how surprised were you that Mexico submitted Biutiful for Best Foreign Language Film consideration?
INARRITU: I was really surprised by the nomination. There were a lot of good films this year. The Academy has reacted powerfully to this film, they felt the emotional impact. I’ve received beautiful responses from them, very nice letters, on how much the film stayed in their heads for a week after they saw it. I felt very honored by this. Mexico is going through the worst crisis. Since I’ve been alive, I have never seen a crisis like this, an historical crisis of violence, sadness and pain. It’s a very tough, almost unimaginable situation we are going through. Institutions are corrupted and collapsing and it’s a country where we have to reinvent ourselves, literally. We have to go to a bottom we haven’t hit yet, but we will be born again. I’m sure this crisis will result in something great, I just don’t know how long and how much blood and pain it will take. To the people, I feel responsible to represent them to the Academy, that they trust in me and this work. I’m honored and happy but I feel burdened. I hope that this film can be appreciated by the Academy and its members and they can understand where I come from, a visceral culture and this is why I do the kind of films I do. My films are not decoration pieces. Art should provoke. It should be about love, emotion, catharsis and I hope the Academy can get this film, get behind the scheme of pain and see the light behind it. I hope we can get nominated, that would be good news that I would love to bring to my country.
DEADLINE: The brisk sales of independent films at the Toronto International Film Festival gave reason to be cautiously optimistic that the specialty business was rebounding. But what will happen to the foreign language film?
INARRITU: Both specialty films and foreign language films are in a down cycle. I think the much more punished ones are foreign language films. If it’s not an action film, or has monsters, or is a genre film, I think right now it’s an impossible dream for foreign language films. Some art films and some good filmmakers—I am one of them, or at least I was—are able to get financing for challenging films, human films and some films that are more than cookie cutter kind of thing. Most filmmakers are in big trouble. Just take a look how many people used to see films by talented directors like Pedro Almodovar. And now, it’s completely something other. What happened? How did we get into this thing of narrow vision, of not being couriers of other visions, viewpoints and talents? It’s what this country was built on. That is really what worries me. What is the future for all the young filmmakers who will not have the opportunity to see films like White Ribbon, or Into the Void? There is nothing made here you can compare those films to. People that will be making films 10 years from now won’t have that cultural knowledge. That is what really worries me. I have two kids. What will they be able to draw inspiration from? That’s a crisis.
DEADLINE: Anything in your experience at the festivals that made you feel optimistic?
INARRITU: Oh, my God, of course. I went to Telluride, I went to Toronto, and it was such a release. The industry and the people who operate the business is one side of things. I’m not judging them and don’t want to come off as the bitter guy. I know what they’re up against and that they answer to conglomerates. People were blown away by the film in Telluride and Toronto. The first time I showed it was 8:30 in the morning in Telluride. I thought it was suicidal, but it was a standing ovation like I never had in my life. People said it was a love requiem. Same thing in Toronto. Audience reaction has been the same way since. I never had this, not with Babel, 21 Grams, even Amores Perros. Never. Standing ovation, and 90% of people staying for Q and A’s, with smart questions. I felt so good. The reviews are better and the energy is building. It gives me hope. Toronto and Telluride changed completely the energy of the film. If people don’t intellectualize or block themselves emotionally, and they allow their emotions to flow, they will get it. It’s like classical music. Everybody loves it, but they have to listen to it, to give it a chance, to hear it.
DEADLINE: After a mostly numbing summer, it has been nice to see fall films like Biutiful, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, and feel something.
INARRITU: Thank God for these festivals, where you feel that pulse, you feel that it’s alive. And you feel like, we need to keep doing this. Industry people are few, the world is larger and I have high hopes for this film. I hope we can encourage people to see films like this. I was left feeling optimistic and positive. This is a love story. It’s funny you mention the idea of feeling something, because feelings now are not cool. To show emotion isn’t cool and we are acting like machines in a way. Bono, the singer, I showed him the film in Barcelona awhile ago. He was really hit by it. After 10 minutes, he stand up and say, ‘Alejandro, this is one of the most intimate experiences I’ve had in my life. I felt close to the character in his bed, at the last moment of his life, when does it get more intimate than that?’ He said a line I thought was great. He said, ‘I have discovered one thing. Intimacy is the new Punk.’ I love that line. It’s true. Intimacy is transgressive. I completely believe that. If people, instead of texting and tweeting, allow themselves to be intimate, I think the film will be okay.