Interview: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is never one to pull punches, in his films or in conversation. From the horrific dogfight scenes of his 2000 feature debut, Amores Perros, to his recent characterization of superhero movies as “cultural genocide” in an interview, the Mexican-born director’s brutal candor provokes strong responses, not always positive. But his body of work makes apparent that his convictions run deep, and his commitment to the ideas in his films is total, whether it’s structure (Babel’s time- and continent-shifting mosaic of communication failure in a post-9/11 world), metaphor (the title 21 Grams indicates the weight lost at the moment of death, supposedly representing the soul exiting the body), or tone (Biutiful, as befits a tale of a cancer-stricken single father, is unremittingly bleak).
Birdman is both a departure and a renewal for Iñárritu. Markedly lighter than his past efforts—star Michael Keaton just earned a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy (and Iñárritu shared the prize for Best Screenplay)—the film nonetheless makes fervent, contradictory, and topical points about the lives of artists today—the drive to create meaningful work, the compulsion to stay “relevant” while retaining integrity. FILM COMMENT spoke with Iñárritu recently about the beauty of imperfection, the plight of the critic, and the hilarity of the fragile ego.
This is a film about the insecurities that plague artists. The voice of Birdman articulates the anxieties of Michael Keaton’s character. Do you have a Birdman of your own?
Yeah, absolutely. A vulture, I would say! [Laughs]
Has he ever talked you out of anything you wanted to do?
Yeah. You know, in the creative process I think every human being is confronted with doubts and contradictions and flaws . . . and that’s part of it. That’s the deal of it. That’s the complexity of it. Because it’s very contradictory and that’s the way it should be, I guess—to move two steps forward and one back. And so it’s a torturous process, sometimes more for some than others, but no matter who you are you have to have that.
The film, as I was watching it, reminded me of Godard’s Contempt, in that everyone involved in this meta-production is somehow implicated. Actors who take themselves too seriously, actors who should take themselves more seriously, backers, critics—everyone has blood on their hands, in a way. I wonder if you were trying to make a statement on how art is born not just of noble intent but of ego, narcissism, and dysfunction?
Yeah, I think the film dealt with that a lot—what is art and what is commerciality, and when you’re an artist and when you’re a whore. All the time, artists are dealing with that question, especially in film, when there’s money involved in the process. That’s the tragedy of film, which is an industry and an art and a tool of personal expression, and at the same time a way to entertain the masses. That’s a very difficult kind of balance to navigate, especially today, with the rules of the game… Contempt is one of my favorite films, and I was always asking myself how Billy Wilder or how Max Ophüls or how Godard would do it. Those three guys were always in my mind, and also Brecht’s idea to be breaking the wall between the [actors] and the audience, and the shifting points of view, you know?
I want to ask about the critic character played by Lindsay Duncan. She seemed to be less like an actual journalist than an embodiment of this idea of critics who enjoy unchecked power. Is that a fair assessment?
For me I think she represents everything that Keaton’s character has feared all his life. In the universe of the film, I tried to have her express her frustrations that theater is being taken over by bullshit and propaganda and commerciality, and diminishing and not validating this guy that represents all that she hates. Which I think is valid, and sometimes I empathize with that—me, personally. And for him, she represents that—the possibility of being rejected, of not being validated, which is what he fears more than anything. And I found that the best antagonist for him would be that, because she represents the judge, she represents the priest, the mother, everything that he has feared all his life. So I think it was a perfect antagonist.
What do you think is the role of the critic today?
Honestly, personally, I feel mercy for them. I mean, if I had to see, what, 700 films a year, where I’m sure that 95 percent are really bad, because that’s the reality of the world? Well, I feel mercy for you guys. I see films, but only the ones that I know would interest me. But I’ve been a jury member in some festivals, and out of 20 films, you see two that are good, one that is so-so, and one extraordinary. And then the 16 others are unbearable! And 20 films have a very deep effect on me, you know what I mean? It poisoned me in a way. You have to eat poison or shit in order to taste good things, but then your tongue gets fucking burnt, and that’s why I feel badly for critics now, because they have a very difficult role, to judge 700 films, and you can get lost very easily. So that’s why I have respect, I have mercy, and I have doubts about how well you can really evaluate something after tasting so much shit. Do you agree with me?
Yes, especially about the 95 percent.
Not long ago you spoke very frankly about superhero movies—you called them poisonous and inherently right-wing.
For me superheroes represent that vision of humans as flawless and certain, and all those things that are a delusional projection of how human beings should be. It’s almost fascist—there’s something very scary about that, the vanity. And for me, humans are exactly contrary to all that. I’ve never met a human like that. And I’m much more interested in humans, which I find much more dimensional and contradictory and flawed and driven by fears and anxiety, but at the same time, beautiful, pathetic, lovable creatures that I find fascinating. I think the values of the superheroes are in a way affecting the way the military mind works. So I have a conflict, philosophically, with the generations today not being fascinated by our human flaws and possibilities, and everything that’s human seems to be boring now. It’s scary for me. That’s my conflict—that humans seem to be now no longer subject to analysis and observation, and we cannot see ourselves in films because we feel so bad about ourselves. We have been acting so bad in the last years, the world is in such bad shape, that probably the reason [for the superhero craze]—I’m being outspoken here—is there’s a shame about seeing humans on the screen. And that’s sad.
Godard said the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, so is Birdman your critique of a society that’s saturated with fascist values on screen?
All the themes that the film navigates are themes that are really close to me, personally. I feel affected by or curious about them, and I’m part of it. It’s nothing I observe intellectually or detached from—I’m part of that discussion. I’m part of the problem, maybe. But I think that’s why it’s such an important and incredible journey for me, to be able to exorcise many of those thoughts that I have, through this story and these characters, because I empathize with all of them! I have been all of them, and I feel that sometimes I can really empathize with each point of view at the same time, so I don’t have a point of view. I’m not certain—I don’t know who’s right. I don’t know if Emma Stone’s right in what she says to her father. Sometimes I can empathize with her, and sometimes I can empathize with him. So that’s who I am, I guess.
The film isn’t overtly political, but you say that superhero movies are reactionary, and you have a critic who’s resolved to uphold the status quo, and the Birdman voice is constantly cautioning Keaton against being too ambitious. It seems like you’re saying that conservatism is anathema to art.
Yes, I think so. I don’t know if you know that the score of the film was rejected by the music branch of the Academy, because they considered that the classical music [drawn from preexisting music] was taking over the emotion of the film, and I disagree, because the [original] score of the drums was two times more in the film than the classical music. They [the music committee] attach emotion to strings but they cannot attach emotion to drums. For them, drums are not an instrument that’s as good or as emotional or as harmonic as guitars or piano. So yeah, I think the conventions don’t allow expression to be evolving in different ways. And yes, the form of this film—the fact that it was shot as perceived in one single shot—was a way to explore possibilities of experience or extend the emotional state of characters to another grammatical language.
As I’m sure a lot of people have noted, this film is lighter in tone than your other works. Does that grow out of the material or is it a change in your outlook?
I don’t think I’ve changed the subjects of my films—I’ve changed the approach. And, honestly, sometimes when you see how some people in this industry complain about how difficult it is to make a film, I feel like, oh my God, they haven’t been in Third World countries where people work in really shitty places with horrible fucking conditions. I’m not diminishing the pain of the creative process, and the need to be loved and express yourself and be naked and all those things. But what I’m saying is that I knew if I took the suffering of these existential things seriously, I would be betraying the real nature of the pathetic side of it. There’s a very pathetic side of the ego needing to be recognized, and applauded and validated. There’s something that, if you detach yourself a little bit, is more funny than tragic. It’s both at the same time, but I knew that if I took this so seriously, it would be as pathetic as everything [else]. So I prefer to take it from the hilarious vision of the tragic reality of the complex mind of artists. It’s more truthful that way.