Oscar winner Iñárritu part of Mexican wave in Hollywood

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Birdman won four Oscars, credits two countrymen for sharing insights into each other’s award-winning work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm

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Director Alejandro González Iñárritu needed trusted voices to check out his first foray into dark comedy. The Mexican filmmaker was well known for serious dramas such as 21Grams (2003) and Biutiful (2010) – but the satirical Birdman, however, was new territory.

So he did what he’s done dozens of times over his 20-year career: he called his old friends, fellow Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006).

The three rose to fame in their home country, each breaking cultural and language barriers with fiercely independent styles. All in their early 50s, their astonishing success has informed the growing international culture of Hollywood, as well as the search for bold, original voices in cinema.

Del Toro is the master of special effects and fairy-tale horror in films such as Pacific Rim (2013) and Hellboy (2004). Cuarón made his name with big-picture storytelling in such Hollywood films as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and edgy independent fare such as Y Tu Mamá También (2001).

And Iñárritu is known for complicated emotional and political tales, often told through multiple stories as in Babel (2006).

The three directors discussed Iñárritu’s Birdman idea. His story about an ageing film-star superhero who tries to make his comeback on Broadway was tricky at best, thanks to its blend of psychological tension, stark realism and the supernatural.

It’s not about ego or yourself. It’s about how to make the film better
ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU, DIRECTOR

They spoke in the sort of shorthand old friends use – a language built on trust, respect and brutal honesty.

“Guillermo is the master of cursing,” Iñárritu says. “With just one bad word, he can convey more to me than most people can in an entire conversation.”

“I’ll tell him if it’s [garbage],” Del Toro says. “That’s what friends do.”

The directors offered their input, as Iñárritu had done many times for them. “There’s no film I do that doesn’t go through them, their eyes and their hands,” Cuarón says.

Cuarón and Del Toro agreed there wasn’t much to do this time around. Del Toro calls the finished product – a riveting performance by Michael Keaton, scenes rolling out in long unbroken shots, a soundtrack made almost entirely of free-form jazz drumming – “miraculous”. Cuarón says it’s impressive “in its complexity”.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – to give the film its full title – came away with four of those prizes on Oscar night, including for best picture, and Iñárritu became the second Latin American and Mexican in Oscar history to garner the best director accolade – after Cuarón, who won last year for Gravity.

“When Alfonso won, we wanted so much for the Oscar to reach a Mexican filmmaker,” says Del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth won three Oscars in 2007, including best cinematography for its Mexican director of photography, Guillermo Navarro. “It was extremely important, especially since we are living in a time when Mexico is in dire need of good news. I’ve said it [before], but you really know who your friend is when you actually forgive success.”

United in a visual and moral aesthetic that was born in Mexico, they’ve long been referred to as cinema’s Three Amigos. But each has his own clearly defined style.

Today, Iñárritu lives in Los Angeles, Cuarón in London and Del Toro “wherever the exchange rate” takes him. Yet they are always connected.

Del Toro says Cuarón recently spent three 12-hour sessions with him on Skype to help cut 11minutes off his upcoming horror film, Crimson Peak. They’ve all appeared in the credits of one another’s films, but mostly, what they do for their friends is a labour of love.

“It’s not about ego or yourself,” says Iñárritu during a recent shoot in Canada for his forthcoming film, The Revenant. “It’s about how to make the film better.”

Their alliance dates back to the 1980s when Cuarón met Del Toro working on the Mexican TV series La Hora Marcada. Del Toro was a special effects and make-up guy from Guadalajara; Cuarón, an assistant director from Mexico City.

Cuarón recalls directing his first project on the series, a segment that “everybody really liked”. Then “this big guy” walked into the room. “He said, ‘Hey, you’re Alfonso, right?’” Cuarón says. “‘You made that show inspired by the Stephen King story?’ We started raving about the King story, then he said, ‘Let me ask you something. That story was so great, so how come your show sucks so much?’ That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.”

Iñárritu, already a well-known, eclectic music radio DJ in Mexico City, entered the picture in the mid-1990s, connecting with Cuarón through mutual cinematographer friend Emmanuel Lubezki, who won his first Oscar last year for Gravity and followed that up this year with Birdman.

Iñárritu eventually brought Cuarón early cuts of his gritty and ambitious film Amores Perros (2000), about an accident in Mexico City that connects three very different groups of people. Cuarón recognised its brilliance, helped Iñárritu refine his ideas and then called in Del Toro.

“Alfonso said there’s this really stubborn guy who needs someone to wrestle with him in the editing room,” Del Toro recalls. “The only other person who is stubborn enough to do this with him is you.”

He adds: “Alejandro says we removed about three or four minutes of the film. We removed between 17 and 21minutes and reorganised the way things happened. I have the VHS tape to prove I’m right.”

That kind of no-holds-barred feedback, they say, makes films better. “Originally Gravity was way more silent, less dialogue, more of an abstract experience,” Cuarón says. “Alejandro said, ‘I understand you’re taking a very conceptual approach, but I always go for emotion on top of concept. So some of the rules you’re setting for yourself are working against that emotion.’ Then Guillermo sat with me in the cutting room to find ways of pumping up the tension, so there was this tension all the time.”

The trio were part of a Mexican cinematic revival that began in the 1990s as a new wave of films such as Like Water for Chocolate (directed by Alfonso Arau, 1992), which made its way into American art house cinemas. By the time Iñárritu’s Amores Perros opened, says Del Toro, “it seemed to finally catalyse every effort that came before and then surpassed them. It opened the floodgates.”

Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá Tambien and Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (both 2001) followed, becoming their breakthrough Spanish-language films. When Del Toro attended the premiere of Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006 at Cannes, he did so with Cuarón and Iñárritu in the same room.

After the credits rolled, the crowd roared its approval. Del Toro recalled being strangely absent in the moment. “I was not allowing it to sink in. I was not enjoying it,” he recalls. “Alfonso hit me on the back and said: ‘Relax, man. Enjoy it. Let yourself be loved.’”

Los Angeles Times