Alejandro González Iñárritu on ‘Bardo’: “The Most Challenging Filmmaking I Have Ever Done”

Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu is no stranger to the Tokyo International Film Festival. He first visited the city with his debut feature film, Amores Perros (2000), and went on to win the festival’s prizes for both best director and best film. In 2006, he was back in the Japanese capital to shoot major portions of his globe-spanning, Oscar-nominated drama Babel, living with his entire family for four months in the city. Later, he returned to serve as president of 2009 Tokyo festival jury. 

This year, Iñárritu is arriving in Japan with dual duties. He will both screen his first feature in seven years (and his first fully Mexico movie since Amores Perros) — the epic, phantasmagoric comedy drama Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths — and he will attend a glitzy gala at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel to receive the festival’s Kurosawa Akira award for lifetime achievement.  

Produced by Netflix, Bardo began a limited release in U.S. theaters on Thursday, ahead of its global launch on the platform on Dec. 16. 

Daniel Giménez Cacho stars in the film as Silverio Gama, a renowned Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles. When he returns to his native country after being named the recipient of a prestigious international award, Silverio finds himself tripping into an inward existential exploration as he contemplates his family relationships, questions of cultural identity and changes to the country of his birth. 

Ahead of his arrival in Tokyo on Saturday, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Iñárritu for a discussion of Bardo and his relationship with Japan. 

First of all, congratulations on the film. I really enjoyed it — just the joy of submitting to its flow. There are so many big ideas and astounding images. It’s a film that requires multiple viewings. I was hoping we could talk about the writing process of this film, because for a number of reasons, it was kind of hard for me to imagine how it was written. For one, I couldn’t really discern any conventional story structure. Also, although it’s a work of fiction, it feels like such a deeply personal work, so it’s interesting picturing how you went about collaborating with your co-writer on this material. And then, so many of the film’s big ideas are expressed in surrealistic visuals. How did writing this film compare to your other films? 

You know, it’s interesting that you thought about that in the genesis of it, because it was never all that different from other projects that I have done. But, in a more conventional, or rationally structured film, it’s true that there’s a process, or a recipe, already there to guide you — so that you can start building something vertically, let’s say. But this one came from a very different place. Basically, all the other films I have made with my eyes open, and whatever it was that I was constructing was manifested on the outside — and whatever it made me feel, or whatever I thought about it, I was relating to a reality that I saw on the outside. With this film, basically, the process was, I had the need to close my eyes. When you close your eyes, obviously, then you look inward — and that’s a much more complex territory. These introspections are a bit more chaotic. All those things that I was seeing and feeling, all of the memories, images and contradictions that came with it — it was like an involuntary memory and it was very uncomfortable, with no order, with no structure. So for four years, I was just putting down things that were meaningful to me. But then, the problem was that the fabric of this film is very abstract. This film doesn’t have any structure; it just has an emotional center of gravity, basically. So, then it was a process of taking all those things that I understood deeply with my heart — not with my mind in any kind of rational way — and making a sequence that, in a way, represents that emotional material. So what I’m saying is, it came from the subconscious — and we cannot overestimate the subconscious. 

Because it comes from such a personal place — and involves ideas, emotions and images you’ve been grappling with for such a long time — I’m curious to hear what it feels like to have gotten it out. To have processed all that, and to have realized it.

It has been a journey. When Nicolás Giacobone and I were putting the script together, he became kind of a therapist. It was deep introspection that came out as an intimate auto-fiction. I let myself go. I think at my current age, I’m stronger now and I can laugh about myself. I approach most things with humor, in order to illuminate the pain or understand it. So the script writing was a sensitive process, but then when you go to make it, you just have to execute it. The complexity of this film has been the most challenging filmmaking I have ever done in my life — much more than The Revenant, by far. Because every single frame, and every single movement was completely pre-visualized and rehearsed. It was incredibly complex, but it was done with complete control. So I really needed to do a lot of physical work to achieve that. You become like a doctor who is doing open-heart surgery. You cannot get emotional, you just need to be incredibly effective and pragmatic. The patient can die if you get emotional. And then, obviously, you have to put it out into the world — this thing you have been constructing in an incredibly intimate, interior space. It feels vulnerable. But I have a very positive feeling of affirmation with this film. So yes, you do expose yourself, but there is nothing to hide. I also believe that we are all connected by the same emotions, so I’m sure that even though this film is made up of very personal feelings and perspectives, there are universal themes and feelings that many people will connect with. 

One of the feelings that I connected with, which the film expresses so profoundly and in so many subtle and interesting ways, is the idea that you can never really go back once you’ve left your home country for a long period. It will never be the same. I’m American but I’ve been living outside the U.S. for about 17 years. So, setting aside issues of career and family practicalities, I wondered whether part of you ever wishes you never left Mexico — because the film is suffused with such a complicated longing for your country. Are the gifts of perception that come with living abroad, in that in-between space, worth it?

I don’t really regret it. I’m pretty comfortable and I have integrated. It has taken me a while, and there have been a lot of mountains and valleys, with pain and laughter. But I think there is a lot of opportunity and growth that we have gone through as a family — along with the contradictions, uncertainties and doubts. But overall, it is a privilege to live abroad. For you, as an American, to have left your country, I think that has given you an amazing perspective and a chance to grow interiorly as a human being. Because when you go away, you become a more rounded human being, and you are less closed in by the walls of ideology and national narratives — many of which are invisible until you are outside of them. Those narrative are also great, because they give you a sense of identity, belonging and collective power. But when you get out, there’s a third eye that emerges, and gradually you begin to see things a bit more three-dimensionally, right? So, you are separated, but in a strange way you feel a bit more fulfilled. There is a price to pay for this, but, no, I would not change any of that. 

I think it can be very hard for many Americans to get outside their bubble, because it’s a very self-serving culture. You can go anywhere in the world and expect everyone to speak your own language, and it’s a very sustainable ideology and culture that fulfills most of your needs. So, it’s sometimes very difficult for American people to grasp the emotion that we are talking about here. But that’s what I have attempted to do with this film. And even if some people cannot relate to it, I think there are millions of immigrants around the world who know this feeling. It doesn’t matter if you are Mexican or American, or privileged or not. When you lose your roots, this is what it feels like. 

Films and works of fiction about artists inwardly interrogating their origins, memories, country and legacy could be said to make up a genre of a kind. It probably has a name, but it’s escaping me. When you were working on this film, did you look to any past works that had pursued similar aims? Or did you avoid influence as much as possible and just go inward, as you described?

You know, it has been very difficult for me to try to explain the line between fiction and reality with this film. In a way, it’s a dialectical film; it plays with dialectics, dualities and coexistence. I think two things can be real and co-existing at the same time simultaneously, without one canceling the other. That’s the reality of the world. We have become very binary-brained creatures, which is destroying us because our reality is much more complex than the one that we would like to perceive comfortably. For me, all biographies are lies and our own lives are a fiction. The narratives that we put together to accommodate our own interests or needs, as a nation or as a person — all of those dots that we try to string together could be interpreted in many different ways. And I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy when you say, “This is what happened.” Because memory does not have truth, it just has emotional conviction, just as the character says in the film. And that’s why I said it is an auto-fiction, because I think fiction has much more possibility to reveal what reality is hiding. So when you consider events, you have to betray them in order to get to a higher truth. You must go looking for something that’s even more meaningful and real. But you don’t say, “Oh, this fact.” It’s about what the fact means and how those things are connected. Again, you need to have this third eye to really observe reality as it is. So that’s what I tried to do here — navigating between reality and fiction, to uncover things that I could not have seen or said if I were simply trying to state the facts. 

I did find myself wondering why you chose to have your protagonist be a journalist and a documentarian, rather than, say, a filmmaker or a visual artist of some kind. Were there similar motivations to this decision? 

Yeah, I think that’s part of what I was saying. Most filmmakers work in fictional worlds, but at the same time, I have been challenged to do a lot of research as a filmmaker. When you do that first period of writing on some subjects, you can end up doing some real journalistic work — interviewing people and getting access to situations and different kinds of worlds. It’s serving a fiction, but it’s journalistic activity and material. I did that for Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand), which was a virtual reality installation I did about immigrants. I did a lot of research and interviews. So those immigrant themes that I have talked about in my other movies, you know, suddenly, I felt that there’s a kind of dual reality, where fiction is always the source that feeds reality. I was interested in that idea. So, I have Silverio navigating these two worlds freely, as both a journalist and as the guy who is more interested in fiction, which is what he’s becoming. He is questioning what is true and what is not — and that all comes out in that discussion he has on the terrace with that other TV journalist guy. 

I loved that scene… So, is it true that you cut 22 minutes from the film after the Venice and Telluride screenings?

Yeah, absolutely. 

What prompted you to do that and what was the process like? 

You know, the visual effects arrived very late. Basically, two days before going to Venice, I finished the film. So I never had the opportunity to really watch the film with an audience. I was still very close to it. So when I arrived in Venice, it was the very first time that I saw it in front of a big group of people. And, you know, I realized that it was an opportunity for me to get into some scenes a little later, and to get out of others a little earlier — to introduce a little more muscle and internal rhythm. Honestly, the people who saw the original film probably will not even notice the changes. The film is intact, essentially, it just lost a little weight. It’s the same person, it’s just a little bit thinner. I’m very happy about that.

So the film is opening in a lot of cinemas in Mexico this week. What are your hopes and feelings for the Mexican release?

At the heart, this is a very Mexican film. In a way, I tried not only to recoup personal memories, but to grasp some of the collective memories of our country and society — about the conquests that happened 500 years ago and remain an open wound. I tried to synthesize in a cinematic way a lot of the things that have left eternal scars and still have a lot of emotional impact on us. Like the American invasion in 1846 that cost us half of our country. In the United States, they don’t even really teach the kids about that story. It’s not something that is forgotten; it happened very recently and the consequences have been crazy. And all of the people disappearing in our country — some 120,000 people have disappeared in the last 10 years, with no information about what happened to them. So all of these scars and events — together with my intimate events, in a different way — have a lot of meaning for our society. The people responded beautifully at the Morelia Film Festival and I could see the connection the film has with our emotions. I was blown away by the reception. 

So, the fact that the film is opening in Mexico on more than 500 screens, including IMAX, seven weeks before it goes on the platform — I’m so grateful and happy about that, because it was made to be a very cinematic experience. If you demand from this film a very logical structure — like the usual three acts — you are going to be frustrated. Like you said at the beginning of this interview, you “surrendered to the flow of the film.” That’s the way to approach it. It’s a cinematic experience to immerse yourself in. Cinema is a dream being directed, as Buñuel said. If you ask this film for the same structure of the TV series you have been binging, you will be fighting with it. Just go and get lost and forget about the world and yourself for a couple hours. 

So, I want to talk a little about the honor you’re getting in Tokyo. You’ve had quite a long relationship with this festival. Your very first film, Amores Perros, won awards here and later you headed the jury. And, of course, a big portion of Babel was shot in the city. Do you feel you have developed a connection with Tokyo? And what does winning an award named after Akira Kurosawa mean to you?

All of those things you mentioned are such great memories for me.  When I came with Amores Perros, as a young filmmaker — well, actually not so young, I was 35 years old already — but it was a huge surprise, because we actually won two awards. At the time, they had previously only given one award per film. It was very meaningful for me, because back then — I don’t know if they still do it — they gave a $100,000 prize to the grand prix winner for best film. And I didn’t earn one cent from directing Amores Perros; I actually put my own money into it and never got any money out of it myself. So I was in debt and really in need of money. So, wow, winning $100,000 — that sounded incredible to me. So when they announced during the awards ceremony that I had won best director, I went on stage and I was very happy, but at the same time I was thinking, “Shit, I guess this means I didn’t win best film.” (Laughs) So when they read out that Amores Perros had also won the grand prix, I was super surprised because I didn’t think it would be possible. And it was a beautiful honor — but it also provided so much relief to me in my personal life. 

And when I shot part of Babel over four months in Tokyo, I have to say, it was one of the happiest times in my life. I felt so comfortable there. I don’t know what it is. It’s such a beautiful culture and so civilized — there’s something very profound about spending time in a place that is so pleasant but where you don’t understand anything. I was just always so fascinated. So, anyways, I have a lot of wonderful memories in Tokyo. 

And what can one say about Kurosawa? I think he is one of the top three or four gods of cinema. Every single frame and the humanity and aesthetic power he had as a storyteller — he’s just a giant. To receive this award under his name means something very, very profound to me. 

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