Keeping the Innocence With “21 Grams”; Alejandro González Iñárritu Discusses His Sophomore Opus
by Wendy Mitchell
Alejandro González Iñárritu made his name with 2000’s Oscar-winning stunner “Amores Perros,” a gritty, stylish look at life, love, and death among the underclass in Mexico City. He returns with “21 Grams,” a much different film that still sticks to the themes of life, love, and death. Working with a budget 10 times greater than “Amores Perros,” Iñárritu rehired some of his collaborators on “Perros,” namely screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and recruited three amazing Hollywood talents to star: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Naomi Watts.
Told in a non-linear fashion, “21 Grams” presents the stories of three very different strangers — a dying college professor (Penn), a born-again ex-convict (Del Toro), and a grieving mother (Watts) — as their lives collide following a tragic car accident. Inarritu and Arriaga spent more than three years, and 30 drafts, crafting the final script. indieWIRE sat down with Iñárritu at September’s Toronto International Film Festival to discuss “21 Grams”; Focus Features will release the film today.
indieWIRE: As with “Amores Perros” you have three different characters, different stories that connect. What draws you to that structure?
Iñárritu: There’s something that attracts me about the characters’ affects on each other. I think to tell a story about somebody, you have to look at all the people he’s crossing in his life. We are what we are because of the others. We are the others at some point. And I really like that. I feel we are so connected, I like how we affect each other. Sometimes we’re not conscious of it. That gives me the opportunity to have a bigger vision. I can explore more things, more emotions. It’s a little bit ambitious.
indieWIRE: For you, what does this film boil down to? Is it about death? Morality?
Iñárritu: For me, basically it’s a film about loss, and about hope. How we can find hope experiencing such extraordinary losses, how we can survive that. That’s what I love about these characters, about their weaknesses and strengths. And in the end it’s a love story. Watching Naomi and Sean, I was really moved by the raw circumstances, and how these lonely people need each other.
iW: Did you prepare the actors a lot before you shooting started?
Iñárritu: I was there to answer their questions, discuss some things. To talk about how they understand it, how I understand it, so that they were comfortable. We had a couple of readings. I worked with Benicio more. I worked with him like four or five months before we started shooting with weekly basic meetings. But with Naomi I had another kind of preparation — we went to therapy with people who had lost kids, and she read books. Sean was more practical, reading with Naomi and discussing some scenes. Every one of them showed me a different way of working.
iW: What is your relationship like with your DP, Rodrigo Prieto?
Iñárritu: A lot of DPs are trying to impress people and trying to obtain some beautiful aesthetic images. Rodrigo is trying to touch the heart of people. For me, he’s the best DP in the world. We work very close to each other. We design the film long before we shoot. [For “21 Grams”], we decided to use different film stocks for different emotional moments of each character.
iW: Why did you decide to go with a lot of handheld shots?
Iñárritu: It’s the way we look at things. I think tripods, cranes, and dollies are really artificial. Handheld, when it’s well-operated and well-used, not an MTV kind of thing, it creates and immediacy, a reality, it’s natural.
iW: Were you feeling a lot of pressure after the success of “Amores Perros”?
Iñárritu: You can’t escape from people’s expectations, but when I decided that I wanted to make this film, there was so much work that I couldn’t think about anything else. It’s the adrenaline, I didn’t allow myself to be thinking about that pressure.
iW: What did you learn with “Amores Perros” that helped you on “21 Grams”?
Iñárritu: I committed some of the same mistakes I committed on “Amores Perros,” to tell you the truth. As a person, I am the same stupid guy I was three years ago. I try not to have a formula because I think it’s beautiful to go in like a virgin. Literally I couldn’t remember how I did “Amores Perros” when I was starting to shoot “21 Grams.” In some ways I think it’s useful not to learn so much. To keep the innocence. To feel vulnerable.
iW: Now that you’ve done an English-language film, will you continue working in English or will you go back to Spanish-language work?
Iñárritu: Maybe I will do a Japanese one [laughs]. I don’t know. We are working, Guillermo and I, on another project. We are just starting so I don’t have an idea. The fascination of cinema is that it can make you understand people without limitations of borders or vanities. So I feel comfortable [working in English], plus my English isn’t as bad as when I started.
iW: Are there any films in particular that influenced “21 Grams”?
Iñárritu: Not many because I haven’t seen that many films in the U.S. until the last three years. Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown,” that is a fucking masterpiece, it really gets me. That film was really inspiring because of the structure and the humanity about it.
iW: Why is the time-shifting structure so important in “21 Grams”?
Iñárritu: I say to the audience in the first minutes, you will be part of this experience of these characters. You will be alive with these characters. You will know them as your friends.
iW: It really involves the audience mentally. You’re thinking, you’re wondering, you’re frustrated.
Iñárritu: I hope that it’s more emotionally than intellectually. That was one challenge: how can we be more emotional than intellectual? I hate intellectual films. I hate cold art.