Q&A: Alejandro G. Inarritu on directing his own career

Alejandro G. Inarritu, subject of a retrospective at the Landmark Theatre in West L.A. this week, said "Birdman" was a film about the creative process that he made while he was reconsidering his own creative process as a director.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu may be brushing off his tux for the Oscars, but he’ll be in more casual attire this Saturday for the finale of a weeklong retrospective of his films at the Landmark Theatre in West L.A. The Mexican director, whose dark comedy “Birdman” is up for nine Oscars, took some time out from his latest project (“The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio) to talk about the filmmaking process, his past and where he plans to go next.

Retrospectives are usually done at the end of a long career. You’re only 51.

It’s the end of my days, I guess [laughs]. I hope not. I have been doing this 16 years and have six films only. It’s because the process for me is very important. To make a film is easy, to make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle.


And I’m sure that stands true for many directors.

Yes, I have known great filmmakers who get to the end [of a project] and are in awe of what they created. You are in a kind of trance then you wake up, it’s like really, I did that? But sometimes you wake up and you have killed somebody. It’s like oh no, I was drunk. I killed! That’s the cost of making art. You can give life to something or kill it.

How much did growing up outside of Hollywood, and the U.S., affect your perspective as a filmmaker?

I saw a lot of European cinema. The Italian and the French. A blend of universality. It’s different if you’re self-fed by a culture such as the U.S. where it’s so rich, you don’t have to look outside. Everything’s already there. But when you grow up in the desert you have to be looking all over for inspiration.

But with that outsider status comes a certain freedom

The only way I know how to do it is with absolute freedom. I can’t understand the conditions of a corporate product being designed and getting millions. I admire it, it’s great, but I don’t know how to do that. I have to have the wheel. It’s given me an opportunity to experience and explore things. If I had been at an assembly line for films, I don’t know if I would be the best driver. I think I would have crashed the car.

Your earlier films, the death trilogy of “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel,” were structured around the butterfly effect: One event can affect the lives of unconnected people in very profound ways.

The idea comes from Latin American literature. At a very young age I was influenced enormously by Julio Cortázar or Carlos Fuentes, in that literature there’s always an exploration of different perspectives, points of view. That style is integrated into the very substance of the story. I was very affected by that idea -- to understand the complexity of one single event through the perspectives of many different characters.

It’s one narrative powered by many.

Yes. There’s something about exploration of narratives that are so infinite, the possibilities. When I was young and ambitious, I tried to convey many things that were important, and do it all at once. “Amores Perros” -- three stories that convey one accident. Or “21 Grams,” the idea was that none of these things would have anything to do with the other in space and time, but would meet in the emotional territory through one single event.

“Babel” worked on the same premise, but spanned the globe.

The exercise in “Babel” was bigger. How do four people -- who have never seen each other in their lives, who are never on the screen together, who are geographically on different sides of the planet -- affect each other’s lives.

But now with “Birdman” and your last film, “Biutiful,” you’ve taken on the challenge of storytelling through one main character.

When I finished “Babel,” I thought I’d already done things that I was comfortable with. I conquered that and got a little bit bored. So with “Biutiful” I changed. How do you tell the story one single time? That was a new thing for me.

“Birdman” is also new territory in that it’s a dark comedy, and a lot of it takes place in main character Riggan Thomson’s own head. What sort of challenges did making this film present?

Always when you are doing films, the themes swallow you in one way or another. In this case it was really a mirror. I was doing a film about the creative process as I was dealing with my own creative process in a very risky way. So nobody wanted to invest in the film. That’s why it took one year and something to really get the money. When there’s no precedent, it’s very scary to get anyone to put money down. I understand. I don’t blame them.

Money is of course where it ends for many aspiring, unconventional filmmakers.

Film has become a commodity of entertainment. But I think that we still have to regard the idea it’s a personal form of expression, that it comes from one perspective that is unique, but represents millions of people. We have forgotten that. That it comes with point of view attached to your culture, your vision, who you are.

What inspired the way “Birdman” was shot, meaning those long, continuous takes?

“The Tunnel” by Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato. Everything in there is stream of consciousness with no commas or dots. It’s like a runaway train. Stylistically, it was like “How the ... did this guy do that?”

Why do you think “Birdman” has been so well received?

Maybe people recognize themselves in those characters. Or let me say, if the film is a mirror of society, we can see ourselves there. I share a lot of the emotional state with those characters. I feel extremely compassionate about them. And I laugh at them too, and myself. How ridiculous and sad they can be.

The film you’re shooting in Alberta, Canada now, “The Revenant,” is it another daring leap for you?

It’s another exploration of time and territory and social context. A time when so many societies crossed paths with no law. It’s a story of surviving, fatherhood -- an intense adventure. A complete new territory I’ve never been in my life. I hope I don’t wake up with a dead body next to me.