We’ve been going a bit crazy about Biutiful, the new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu. So much so, that in addition to a review and competition, we’ve now got an interview with the director himself.
Is it true that it took you a long time putting Biutiful together?
Yeah, it was a long process. The writing took me almost two years, and then there was a lot of research. I spent a lot of time in Barcelona, having the privilege to get into these communities and understand the whole thing. It was a long shoot, too – 14 weeks – and then, in post-production, I took my time. It was a luxury I’ve never had before, almost one year of editing. So by the end it was almost four years.
How does that work, taking a whole year to edit?
Sometimes you can get the whole film in maybe ten weeks or twelve. The problem is those last few frames. Ninety per cent of the film you get very fast. And then it is just that last ten per cent that can make you crazy. You start to find that even just one frame or two frames can change the meaning of a performance or add some things. So it’s like a diet. the first kilograms go like that (snaps his fingers). But then the last one is harder. What I did was, I had the opportunity to separate myself a little bit from the film. And when I returned, it was very clear what I had to do.
The title is very specific. What does it mean?
Well, I honestly thought, from the beginning – at least for me – that one of the dramatic tensions that exist throughout the whole film was that even in incredibly tough circumstances, great opportunities arise for beautiful human things, or meanings of things, that are beyond the pain. And that’s what this title means, in a word, for me. There is also a glimpse of humour, in a way, in the way the Spanish pronounce English, which is terrible! (Laughs) And at the same time, there’s a thought I had, which is that not all beauty is beautiful. You know?
Was it your working title, or a title that came to you after you’d made it?
Normally, all the titles of my films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel – I really choose very late in the process. This one, in a way I knew it earlier. I knew early on that it would be called Biutiful.
And did you always know it was going to star Javier Bardem?
Yes. Again, this is the first time I’ve written something especially for someone and taken the risk of being rejected. But fortunately he accepted. I always saw him doing this role. So I wrote it, I shaped it and I designed it for him.
And did he say yes straight away?
Hmmm, no. It took three days. He knew that what I was offering – at least this is what he told me – was not a role, it was a journey. He knew that he would have to journey to a very dark place, and the way he works…. He knew what kind of place he’d have to go to. So he had to think about it.
How did you shape the character of Uxbal? Was it through research?
The character simply appeared to me. It’s a thought that really provokes me, and excites me, and scares me. For me, it was a privilege just to make a film about that, to explore what one man would do with the last 75 days of his life, in the context of the world I’m presenting.
So what research did you do? Did you go to Barcelona and spend time with those people?
Yes. I was able to get into these communities, to get to know them. Most of the people that appear in the film – the Africans and the Chinese people – are people who have been in those circumstances. The places I shot in were basically real places. I went with the police to arrest some people that had slave people working in their factories and I watched the moments when they were caught. So for most of it, there’s a lot of journalistic research there. As a human experience, it was great. And surprising.
Is that kind of research something you like to do?
Yes, but I have a rule – too much analysis is bad. Sometimes you can go too far. I mean, I’m not doing a documentary. But the way I work, I’m inspired by real events – I’m not imitating them, or illustrating, or dramatising them. I’m inspired by them. But it’s good for me to know what I’m talking about. Then I can invent or avoid certain things, or I can tool it. But, for me, it is good to know the whole material, the facts. And that’s something I can play with to make a story.
Did anything you found, or anyone you met, influence the story in a way you hadn’t foreseen? There’s a lot of illness in the film, both physical and mental…
Unfortunately, many of these things have been in my families – my wife’s family and my own family. So, unfortunately, I know those things – I’ve been closer than I would like. And cancer? I think fifty per cent of the population, in some way, will die from some form of cancer; it’s a horrible disease, and most people will have a relative with cancer, I guess. The bipolar thing is a very terrible thing; it’s kind of a new-brand emotional disease, which is very difficult for everybody who suffers it. because it’s not craziness, it’s not schizophrenia. It’s not an easy emotional disease to deal with, as a family member or even as a patient. I, unfortunately, know these things.
So how much came from you and how much came from the research?
It’s a combination I think. I don’t know exactly the percentage, but there are things you create. You get facts, you find out how things are, and then you put that to work for you own universe.
Why does Uxbal seem to have these psychic powers?
You know, honestly, that was something that was dictated to me. It wasn’t something I was conscious of. When you are developing a character, sometimes it’s a very mischievous process. Sometimes the character tells you: “I’m doing this. I need to do this. I am this.” And I began to research this. So I interviewed a lot of these guys and women. I met three of them that were really impressive. In the movies, these guy have been portrayed as people with soft, flowing clothes and candles in their houses… Long hair… A new age kind of thing. (Laughs) And it’s not true. Many people that have these kind of gifts, the people that see the aura, that see things, most of them are really uncomfortable with it. It’s not an easy thing, it drains them emotionally. Some of them make a living by that, but some of them don’t – they do it as a favour. It’s a very complex thing and very funny, because you can find very normal, ordinary people with that gift. In the film, the woman who helps Uxbal to navigate this world, that character was inspired by a woman I met in Barcelona. A very humble, nice woman. When you go into her house and you talk to her, you immediately find something very pure and very profound. She has no interest in money. She just has that… knowledge. She knows something that you don’t know.
There is a recurring theme in all your films, of people trying to connect. This time that extends to the other world…
I guess for all of us, the question of life is: what is there? That’s the first question of the film and the last question. What is there? What the fuck is there? That’s what gets us crazy, I think. I think it’s nice for me to have this privilege. I used all the courage I had as a director, after Babel, not to make a franchise, a film with explosions – a $100 million film. I wanted to make a personal film and use that privilege to make a film about a tough subject matter in Spanish – in my language – and use all the tools that I wanted. That was fantastic for me, to make a film about death. Normally you have to make a horror film, a genre film. This is a very personal film. I couldn’t have made it now, because things have changed. I was lucky.