A Chat with Alejandro González Iñárritu, Director of Babel
by Roger Durling
In Babel, a tragic incident involving an American couple in Morocco sparks a chain of events for four families in different countries throughout the world. Tied by circumstance but separated by continent, culture, and language, each character discovers that it is family which ultimately provides solace. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Gael García Bernal, Babel is a cinematic masterpiece that opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend. I had the pleasure of chatting with Iñárritu recently.
BabelAmores Perros is part of a trilogy that includes 21 Grams and . How did this third one come about? It was a natural kind of progression. Amores Perros was something I did with a very local point of view. Mexico City is my city — I was born and grew up there until I was 38 years old. Then I went to the United States to make my first American film, which was 21 Grams, and it was a very foreign experience. After that, I wanted to explore that — on a global scale — any action we do can create ripples in foreign lands. Coming from local and foreign, global was a natural ending. At the core of it, Babel [is] about the complex relations between parents and children, and that’s basically what this trilogy is about.
All three films have a very complex structure. Why do you shuffle the chronology of events? There are several reasons. The first reason is I was very influenced by Latin American writers, and Latin American writers are used to this kind of structure. They are not afraid of language and schematic structure, so people like Jorge Luis Borges or Juan José Arreola — all these genius guys — are always able to play with that, without fear. The other thing is my father, who is now 78 years old, is a great storyteller. Since I was a kid, he would always start in the middle. And he’s jumping around in time. Then, I have a kid who is 9 years old, and his mind is always jumping around. And I find out that he is ADD, and then slowly I realize that I am ADD. And then I realize that my father is ADD, too. So I think it’s a family problem of jumping around.
In Babel, your characters desperately want to talk to each other but they’re not listening to each other. That conflict is heartbreaking. Tolstoy said that families are the same in happiness. I don’t agree with Tolstoy, with due respect. I think what makes us similar is suffering. Every time there is a tragedy in any part of the world, we respond, no matter if they are Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim. We don’t care. We just jump and share that pain with humanity. What makes happy a Japanese girl is very different from what makes happy a Moroccan girl. But what makes them sad is exactly the same, and what is that? It’s the trial of human beings. It’s not being able to be loved. It’s not being able to receive love or to communicate it, and vulnerability, and how fragile we are to the ones we love. And my characters I think share that same fragility or vulnerability.
How challenging was it to deal with four different casts and crews that all spoke different languages? It was very close to the subject matter of the film. We had like seven languages — French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, Berber, Arab — and it was a mess. It was really difficult. At the beginning you want to kill everybody. … But you know the difficult thing is not the language, it’s about the point of view of things. We always try to think about borders as some physical spaces — the unfortunate fence that will be constructed between Mexico and the United States. That’s not a problem, because we Mexicans will be jumping anyways — we are rabbits, you know.
But the real borderlines are the ones within ourselves, in the world of the ideas. And those ones are the most dangerous, the most difficult to break down because you have preconceptions, you have stereotypes, you have been filled with ideas. Ideologies really damage the world. Religion, government, media, our parents, our cultural traditions, whatever, they have been filling us with good ones and bad ones. But the bad ones — all these stereotypes that we have about the “other,” that we see them as different and because they are different they are dangerous, that thing of “because you are not with me you are against me” — that is when you find yourself alienated.
In all three of your films, you’ve brought out the best in your actors. Why are you so good with them? You just pay them double and then they do their job! No really, I think I care for them. I think some actors have not been very well taken advantage of. I always try to get people who have some kind of interior life, some spirituality, some connection to something bigger. You can tell in their eyes. You can tell they are complex people who are very interesting. And I have been very lucky getting to them — having them trust me and putting themselves in my hands. And it’s not easy putting yourself in the hands of a Mexican director.
What also helps me is that I live with these characters a long time before I start shooting — two years, three years. So I know how they walk, I know how they eat, things you start developing in a relationship. So I think they feel when they are just starting to grab what these characters are, they feel comfortable that I can help them whenever they need me and that I can talk about them as a close friend of mine.
There are some actors, like Benicio Del Toro, who want every single detail, like what kind of wine their character drinks, so you have to pretend you know what kind of wine. And then there are some people like Sean Penn who doesn’t work like that. He just needs an image. So sometimes I say, “It’s as if this guy is doing this.” I use a lot the term “as if.”
I try to be very sensitive with each one of them; each of them is a different creature, they need different things. Actors are very vulnerable, sometimes insecure. They put their face in front of 100 people. I don’t know how they do that. It’s so difficult. Now, today, they have to cry. It has to be the scariest job in the world.