"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.