A bond beyond borders

ABOUT six years ago, while wrapping up "Amores Perros," the movie that would stamp him as the new "It Boy" of global cinema, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu got an early-morning phone call from a man he'd never met in his life. Like Inarritu, the caller was a headstrong, iconoclastic young Mexican filmmaker, better known at the time for his prodigal potential than his actual achievements.

"Your movie is a masterpiece, but it's too long," Guillermo del Toro said point-blank.

"Well," Inarritu replied, "it's impossible to take out anything." But Del Toro persisted in the long-distance wrestling match, until Inarritu told him that if he really felt so strongly he should come down to Mexico City and point out exactly where the film needed pruning.

Del Toro was a man on a mission. He'd been sent a tape of "Amores Perros" by a mutual friend, another up-and-coming Mexican auteur, Alfonso Cuaron, who also thought the movie was an overlong chef-d'oeuvre. Though Del Toro was "very broke" at the time -- he'd recently paid a hefty ransom to rescue his father from a kidnapping -- he caught one of the first available flights to Mexico from Austin, Texas, where he was living then.

"Next day, or two days after, I opened the door and I see a fat man with blue eyes, with the face of a kid, with very intelligent eyes," Inarritu, 43, recalls. "And in the next three days he ate all the food in my refrigerator but he made me laugh like nobody, he made my life so happy. And he helped me, really toughly, to get those seven, eight minutes out of it."

For the record, Del Toro insists it was 20 minutes, and he swears that every time Inarritu tells the story the tally gets shorter. "Alejandro, come on!" he says, laughing as he relates the anecdote. "Next time you're going to say we took out four minutes!"

The rest, in any case, is history, or a rough draft of it. "Amores Perros," a haunting, metaphysical triptych of stories about jittery modern-day Mexico City, earned Inarritu overnight comparisons with the likes of Luis Bunuel and was nominated for the 2000 best foreign-language film Oscar.

Del Toro's career also took flight in the following years with the release of two fastidiously crafted horror-fantasies, "The Devil's Backbone" (El Espinazo del Diablo), in 2001, and "Hellboy" (2004), establishing him as a thinking-man's cult director on par with John Carpenter or the early Sam Raimi.

Cuaron's professional stock went blue-chip as well. A year after "Amores Perros," he scored an international hit of his own with "Y Tu Mama Tambien," a revisionist road movie of free-floating sexual politics, set in contemporary Mexico.

In the years since those breakout films, Cuaron and Inarritu have steadily ascended the industry ladder toward bigger movies, bigger budgets, bigger stars. Cuaron found a way to cross-stitch his own idiosyncratic sensibility into the pre-fabricated world of the "Harry Potter" franchise when he directed the third film in the series. His latest release, the $72-million future-shock fable "Children of Men," is stocked with box office-friendly names in Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine.

Inarritu's second Hollywood feature, "21 Grams" (2003), starred Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro, and his soon-to-be-released "Babel" casts Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a couple whose cozy Western life suddenly implodes while vacationing in rural Morocco.

Although Del Toro hasn't yet attained that level of Hollywood insider-dom, he's moving there fast. His new fantasy-thriller "Pan's Labyrinth" (El Laberinto del Fauno) will close the New York Film Festival. He also has negotiated a deal with Fox to develop a TV series.

Sometimes nothing breaks up a relationship faster than mutual success. Amiable rivalries curdle into resentments. Former comrades turn their backs on old alliances as they vie for the trophy heads of the 21st century -- three-picture deals, seven-figure beachfront mansions.

But perhaps as remarkable as any development from that encounter six years ago in Mexico City was the convergence of one the most creatively fruitful friendships in Hollywood, a place not widely known as an idyll of brotherly love. Partly as a result of that bond, over the last half-dozen years the directors have spearheaded a Mexican cinematic renaissance occurring on both sides of the frontera.

One for all, and all for one

CALL them "Gordo" (Del Toro), "Flaco" (Cuaron) and "El Negro" (Inarritu). At least, that's what they sometimes call each other, which sounds a lot less cloying than, say, "The Three Amigos." Not that anyone could miss the depth of their professional camaraderie. It has become routine for the three men to send each other their screenplays, and to proffer advice on films in progress, all the way up until final printing.

Then they deliver their verdicts -- diplomacy and mincing euphemisms be damned. Occasionally, they work together as full-blown collaborators. "We share, we complain, we fight, we suggest. And then you support," says Inarritu.

Really, "friendship" seems too prosaic a term to capture the unique amalgam of concentric worldviews, simpatico humor and bare-knuckled honesty that defines this trio. Partly, it's a Mexican thing: All three were born and raised in middle-class families south of the border and broke into Hollywood in an era when Mexican directors were scarce on studio back lots. "I think we are very close because we felt lonely and we felt that we needed support," says Inarritu.

Over time, their connection has deepened despite their pronounced dissimilarities in temperament and artistic M.O.

"Alejandro is a man with a plan," says Del Toro, at 41 the baby of the group. "He's the guy that is absolutely intellectually organized, and I am voracious, and Alfonso has like the light, like this incredible passion, you know? Alejandro is definitely a bipedal mammal. Alfonso and I still like to hang out on the branches and throw food at each other. Compared to Alejandro, we're much more down and dirty."

With the trio at its center, a growing colony of expat Mexicans is working and living in Hollywood, including the Oscar-nominated cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki (a three-time nominee, most recently for 2005's "The New World") and Rodrigo Prieto ("Brokeback Mountain"), who've partnered with Cuaron and Inarritu, respectively, on several films, including their latest ones. "It's not a community in the sense that we are a force," says Cuaron. "None of that interests me. What interests me is that we are friends and that we support one another."

The three-way fellowship dates to the mid-1980s, when Cuaron and Del Toro first crossed career paths. Back then, Cuaron was already a hotshot young assistant director at work on a network TV show called "A Hora Marcada," a kind of Mexican version of "The Twilight Zone." Del Toro, meanwhile, was directing short films and doing special-effects makeup, hoping for the chance to write and direct features someday. But he'd already heard plenty from colleagues about Cuaron.

"They were always talking about this brilliant kid called Alfonso," Del Toro recalls. "And you know, when you're 20 and you hear about a brilliant guy, you hate him! You're too young, you're too silly."

After admiring Cuaron's work from afar for some time, Del Toro happened to notice that an episode of "Hora Marcada" bore a striking resemblance to a Stephen King story. Del Toro confronted Cuaron about it in the television studio.

"I said to him, 'You stole that story from Stephen King!' That's like my opening line to the guy, right? And he says, 'Yeah, you're right!' And I go, 'I like this guy!' "

Cuaron, 44, confirms that the pair instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits. "Guillermo and I were trying to go through the different steps in the long ladder of filmmaking," he says during a Hollywood stopover from his London editing studio. "He had heard a lot about me, and I had heard a lot about him. And from that time there was an immediate connection."

Before long, Del Toro was writing and directing some episodes for "Hora Marcada" and also doing FX makeup. He even stepped in once to play a sewer-dwelling ogre who befriends a little girl, a precursor to the story line of "Pan's Labyrinth."

Inarritu entered the picture somewhat later. In the mid-1990s, Mexico's gargantuan Televisa network had unexpectedly bailed out on a TV series for which he had directed the pilot. He decided to visit Cuaron in Los Angeles, just to meet him and show him his work, which had consisted mainly of commercials.

"He was very nice with me, and I gave him my reel, commercials and my show," Inarritu remembers. "And one day after he called me, and left me a message in my cell[phone], telling me beautiful things, really generous things."

Cuaron then invited Inarritu to visit him on the set as he filmed "Great Expectations." Ever since, says Inarritu, Cuaron has been giving him insights and the benefit of his own trials and errors as a filmmaker. "So I always tell him he doesn't know this, but he's my master," Inarritu says.

Rather than a mutual admiration society, however, this equilateral triangle resembles a fraternity where the intellectual hazing never lets up. If the three filmmakers are each other's biggest fans, they agree, they're also each other's most merciless critics.

"Oh, yes, we're brutal," Del Toro agrees. "Our deal is, when we don't like something we have to say it."

Who but Cuaron, for instance, could've persuaded Del Toro to cut 20 minutes of dead air from his first feature, "Cronos," which won the 1993 Cannes Film Festival critics' prize? Or to follow his instincts in casting the Spanish comic actor Sergi Lopez against type as a ruthless Fascist officer in "Pan's Labyrinth?"

Who but Del Toro, returning the favor, could've come up with the dramatic clincher to Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien": an amorous kiss between the two male leads?

Who except Inarritu could've spent two solid hours driving down the 405 Freeway, then sitting in a parking lot off Wilshire Boulevard, berating Del Toro for squandering his talent (in Inarritu's view) on the Wesley Snipes vampire gore-a-thon "Blade II"?

No hard feelings, eh hombre? Well ... mostly not.

"He didn't talk to me for like six months, I think," says Inarritu. The candor, he adds, makes the compliments meaningful. "I think that's why we appreciate each other."

The three directors also have actively backed the work of talented younger Mexican colleagues such as Carlos Reygadas ("Japon") and Fernando Eimbcke ("Duck Season"). Last year, when Reygadas' "Battle in Heaven" was being shellacked in some quarters for its explicit opening sex scene, Del Toro, Cuaron and Inarritu defended the movie's artistic quality. Del Toro served on the Guadalajara Film Festival jury that awarded "Duck Season" its first prize.

With scattered exceptions, this wasn't the way business historically transpired in Mexico's film industry, whose mid-century, government-sponsored "Golden Age" was followed by an epoch of fratricidal squabbling over a shrinking financial pie. "Eighty percent of our colleagues in Mexico that came before us would love to have seen all new generations of directors be left to die in a ditch," says Del Toro.

Fortunately, he says, his generation had the benefit of a handful of older Mexican producers and directors, including Arturo Ripstein, Jose Luis Garcia Agraz and Fernando Camara, who guided and inspired while hewing to their own maverick tendencies. "They admired Bresson, they admired Antonioni, Fellini, but they also admired Spielberg, or they admired Walter Hill, or they admired Don Siegel," says Del Toro.

This eclectic approach spurred the young filmmakers' awareness of how to mix and match different cinematic styles, and how a genre film can transcend its conventions and become a subterranean passageway into a more personal vision.

"That's what I love about what Alfonso does, what Alejandro does, or what I do," says Del Toro. "What we have in common is that all of us use, in terms of surface, we use very different molds, genres, paradigms. But they are somewhat subverted or changed by will."

Variations on a theme

THIS fall, the three directors are bringing to theaters a high-profile trio of films that immerse audiences in worlds where alienation and displacement are the new normal, themes that have grown in part from their personal experiences as expatriate Mexicans living abroad.

Despite their films' vast differences in plot, setting and character, the directors believe they've inadvertently created a kind of "trilogy" that presents an alternately harrowing and hopeful picture of our present human condition.

"The theme of the three films is exactly the same," Cuaron says, "how ideologies get in between people, in communication between people."

Perhaps the biggest career milestone is "Pan's Labyrinth," which Del Toro, as is his custom, wrote, directed and produced. Opening Dec. 29, it's a darkly sumptuous fable about a young girl who uses her imaginative powers to combat the terrors of the Spanish Civil War. This is the third movie the director has set during the fascist era, that grim World War II curtain-raiser, a period he believes is "very pertinent to today."

"To me, it speaks highly about how moral choices are oversimplified when group mentality kicks [in]. When the choices are pre-made for you, then you have no problem in acting anything, any sort of brutality, because that's the way things are," he says. "The fable of the movie is about choice. It's a quintessential theme in fairy tales.... And fascism represented, as a concept, the avoidance of choice."

"Pan's Labyrinth" should cement Del Toro's reputation as a skilled magical-realist storyteller, while extricating him from the horror-genre ghetto where some have confined his work. Cuaron, who executive produced "The Devil's Backbone," is producing the new film with Del Toro.

Cuaron's "Children of Men," opening Christmas Day, is an artistic gamble of a different sort. Its uncompromisingly grim vision -- leavened with touches of black-comic humor -- posits a future in which sterile Britons, struck by a global infertility plague, plot suicide with a government-issued drug, and Third World immigrants are brutally herded into holding pens (shades of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, according to Cuaron). "In a way," says Cuaron, "the infertility in the future is nothing but a metaphor for the failing sense of hope in the present."

That leaves Inarritu's "Babel," a powerful melodrama of interlocking stories, written by Inarritu's frequent collaborator Guillermo Arriaga. Set in Morocco, Japan and along the U.S.-Mexican border, "Babel" traffics in weighty themes (immigration, cultural chauvinism, the shrinking global village) that orbit around a Moroccan peasant family, a Mexican nanny and her impulsive nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Japanese father and his deaf-mute daughter, and the couple played by Pitt and Blanchett. It opens Oct. 27.

All three movies touch on the plight of refugees and accidental tourists, the displaced and the dispossessed, traipsing through moral terra incognita with no road maps to guide them. That thematic overlap is no coincidence.

All three directors seem to have taken to heart James Joyce's famous prescription for making art: silence, exile and cunning (well, at least the last two). Both Inarritu and Del Toro have lived in Los Angeles for several years, while Cuaron now makes his home in Italy.

No one ever is a prophet in his native land, it's been said. But for the three directors, staying a calculated arm's length from Mexico has brought clarity and perspective. Cuaron says that living in London for a spell helped him fathom the byzantine British class system underlying "Harry Potter" and "Children of Men."

Inarritu says he couldn't have made "Babel" if he and his family hadn't relocated to the United States five years ago. Though the transition was "very tough" at first, he believes it has helped him stretch the boundaries of his artistic comfort zone.

Yet while they aim for the universal and the timeless, the directors have maintained a strong sense of what it means to be Mexican. Cuaron's upcoming projects include a movie set in part during Mexico's violent political turbulence of the late 1960s. Inarritu is planning a film that will touch on the legacy of a Dominican priest who pitted himself against the Spaniards' brutal methods of New World colonization. And Del Toro continues to make films in Spanish when he thinks it's artistically necessary.

"Growing up as young filmmakers, we felt there should be no borders that define who we are, but there should be roots that define who we are," says Del Toro. "The difference is that borders confine you, roots nurture you."

Of like mind

THESE days, the men rarely see each other face to face. Cuaron and his Italian wife recently relocated to a hill town in Tuscany. Del Toro lives in Westlake with his wife, two daughters and his collection of 6,000 books, 8,000 comics and 6,000 DVDs. Inarritu shuttles between his Santa Monica home and Culver City offices. Given their hectic work schedules and L.A.'s onerous commutes, they might as well be in separate states.

E-mailing is out too, Del Toro says, "because Alfonso is completely computer illiterate."

But, in another sign of apparent mind-melding, their new films all manifest some characteristically Mexican attitudes about the iffy nature of governments and institutions and the gnarly irony of fate.

For Del Toro, that consciousness was reinforced by the 1997 kidnapping of his father, a Guadalajara car dealer, and his family's 72-day ordeal, until a ransom payment secured his release. Soon after, Del Toro moved his family from Guadalajara to Texas, then eventually to Los Angeles.

"As a Mexican, you always have a sense of the anarchy and the deeper endemic corruption of the system," he says. "You have a sense of vulnerability and a sense of fragility that it's impossible probably for a First World person to imagine."

As Mexicans, the men also are acutely aware of how impersonal forces can conspire to crush individual lives. All have strong opinions about the current furor surrounding the mass migration of Mexicans to the United States, a theme that particularly bears on the plot of "Babel." Inarritu says that being required to renew his U.S. work visa every six months in Tijuana gives him an appreciation of what he calls "the ritual of humiliation" experienced by the Mexican nanny in "Babel," and thousands of his fellow countrymen.

"I think the real border lines are within us," he says. "That's the worst and that's the most difficult to take down."

One other global phenomenon sent shockwaves through all three movies: the Sept. 11 attacks and their violent aftermath.

Cuaron says he and co-screenwriter Timothy Sexton began working on "Children of Men" in the wake of the calamity. Rather than following the "what-if" formula of dime-store science fiction, Cuaron insisted on a "what-next" scenario in which everything in the movie's time frame of 2027 would reference the social context of 2005, from the advertisements glimpsed on the London streets to the political meltdown that drives the plot.

The movie's most alarming aspect may be that the dystopian future it depicts -- while exacerbated by global warming, flu pandemics, nuclear wars and other man-made mayhems -- is shown to have occurred not within an Orwellian dictatorship, but a democratic society in which the people voluntarily surrendered their freedoms and sealed their fate. Cuaron believes that recent events worldwide have shown that it takes more than democratic choice to uphold human liberty and dignity.

"Democracy right now I think in a way is losing its luster," he says. "Democratic decision doesn't mean good decision."

As for Del Toro, his normal jollity fades when he starts talking about the darker implications of his work. Humanity, he thinks, has created a "bone-eating machine" that is grinding us all down, that "makes us less spiritually ... makes us less morally."

"When you create a void so big that it can never be filled, when the ethics and the morals have collapsed to the point of becoming a black hole, it'll eventually suck the entire universe," he says. "And we are at that moment right now, a black hole. And it is sucking the light out of the universe."

But where there is anxiety and uncertainty in these films -- and in these lives -- there is also the possibility of renewal and rebirth. All three men's careers are blossoming, albeit in foreign soil. All three are husbands and fathers of young children.

Can it be (yet another) coincidence that their new movies all cast children in heroic roles, and hinge on the question of whether they will be sacrificed or saved?

When he started making "Babel," Inarritu says, he saw it as a film about "in-communication, about how different we are." But after spending a year traveling and living on location with his family and crew in Morocco, Japan and Tijuana, he now believes the movie illustrates not "how different we are, but how close we are as human beings." In "Babel's" closing credits, he dedicates the movie to his son and daughter, "the brightest lights in the darkest night."

"My vision of life was more cynicism, or more pessimistic," he says. "Now, I'm more hopeful."

Children, like foreign encounters and uncommon friendships, will do that you sometimes.

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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