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15 Years Ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu Told Indiewire He Might Never Make a Movie in the U.S.

15 Years Ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu Told Indiewire He Might Never Make a Movie in the U.S.

Long before winning back-to-back Academy Awards for bold visions like “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” Alejandro González Iñárritu was an unknown film director heading to the 53rd Cannes Film Festival. The year was 2000 and the movie was “Amores Perros,” a triptych anthology film telling three different stories all briefly connected by a singular car accident. The drama would lay the groundwork for much of what we now expect from the thematically-heavy filmmaker (especially his study of violence and its ramifications), and audiences took notice of the talent on display from its very first screening. “Amores Perros” won the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes that year, and it would go on to screen at the New York Film Festival and earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the first of many for its breakout director.

READ MORE: Alejandro G. Iñárritu on Leading Oscar Nominee ‘The Revenant’: “This was a film that easily could kill you”

The film didn’t hit U.S. theaters until almost a year later – it opened in select theaters on March 30, 2001, before expanding nationwide on April 13 – but when it finally landed stateside, critics took even greater notice. The movie was showered with unanimous praise, and even those shocked by its intense violence found much to appreciate in its graphic depiction of human nature. At the very least, “Amores Perros” confirmed to the world that Iñárritu was here to stay, and he’s continued to experiment with narrative and violence in exciting ways in the year since. 

Indiewire has caught up with the director numerous times over the years (most recently for his three-time Oscar winner “The Revenant”), but, like the rest of the industry, “Amores Perros” was our first encounter with him. After the movie’s successful showing at the New York Film Festival, Iñárritu joined Indiewire for the very first time to discuss his transition from shorts to features, his handling of violence and whether or not he’d want to make a movie in the U.S. system (we all know how that turned out). The times have changed since then, but the interview provides a fascinating look at Iñárritu when he was just a rising breakout.

As “Amores Perros” celebrates its 15th anniversary today, take a trip down memory lane and read our first-ever interview with Iñárritu.

How did your work on short films prepare you for “Amores Perros”?
I began to learn about the camera and the actors. That gave me a lot of the skills. At the same time, advertising gives you a lot of vices, for example, an obsession for a superficial look, but at the same time, it gives you the capacity to synthesize the story – tell a story in one minute.
The film is really almost three short films. Did this come out of your background?
Not necessarily. I think it was the nature of the story. The structure came more from the spirit of the story than a formal decision. We did not talk about this structure – of three stories, and playing with time – would be three short films in a film. I always thought of this as a feature film, divided into three segments.
Can you talk about how you shot the three different stories? You used different styles, even different film stocks, yes?
I shot the first and the third story with Vision 800, a very grainy material and the middle one with 500, a little more clean stock, because I thought that’s what the story needed. I don’t know if it was a good decision. People feel like there’s a lot of changes in the second story, not only a change of rhythms, but of social class and tone. I changed the way I shot it, more in an orthodox way – still handheld, all the movie is handheld – but the way I shot it was more conservative, as the characters are. I think it works, but when I was editing, I missed the energy of the other segments. I was experimenting, you know. All of this journey has been an experiment to see if things happened the way I conceived them.
Any other stylistic changes?
Basically, they are the same. Personally, I like the third one the best, in terms of how I shot it, because the DP Rodrigo Prieto – now he is going to shoot the Oliver Stone movie – began to got used to the handheld language. So I think the third story, which was the last one we shot, since we had the experience of shooting two months, it’s the most pure and authentic.

How was it getting the money for “Amores Perros”?
After we got the script finished, a new company called Altavista Films – they’re trying to make 4-5 pictures a year – they loved the script and they invested immediately. The budget was a little more than they wanted. But it was a bit over budget, so my company put up 25%, so they owned 75%. But the money wasn’t a big problem. I was very lucky. There’s always money. The problem is to get a good idea, that’s more difficult. When there’s a good script, everybody circles.
It is a very good script. You went through 36 drafts to get there, though. How long did that take?
Three years. There were a lot of changes. It was like a domino effect. A little change affected everything. Once or twice a week, we had these meetings where I was able to express all my needs and points of view. I was lucky to have this kind of collaboration. And I invited the writer to get involved with the casting, so we made a very good duo. The most difficult thing was to shape it. When you have these three stories, it’s very easy to be seduced by the intellectual game. All the time, I wake up and go, ah! Octavio can meet El Chivo here. And then we think, no, this is cheap. So to make it subtle was difficult.
You deal with violence very responsibly in the film. Did you say that you had a personal encounter with some violence?
In the scouting of locations, I was assaulted, with all the crew, outside the house where the dogfights take place. 14 and 15-year-old boys, all drugged out, took out all the crew and forced us on the floor and took all our things. And I wanted to shoot there. If you call the police, you are dead, because they kill the police and they kill you. It’s their territory, and you have to negotiate with them. The producer hired security guys who could talk with the gangs, and they said, we want to shoot here, what do you want? And they don’t accept money, in this case. It’s an animal thing: they put down the line, “this is my territory and if you want to come here, all you have to do is ask me and I will say yes.” . . . In the end, they became our security.
It’s very scary, there’s a lot of vulnerability; it’s very fragile. You feel like if you go out for dinner tonight, you don’t know if you will return. There’s that kind of Civil War going on out there. It’s crazy, it’s crazy, it’s very sad. Because it became that way just eight years ago. Now, I think a lot of drug dealers have come in from Colombia, everything is so corrupted and the policemen are the worst. You see police at night, run!
Can you talk about the music and sound design? That one sequence with the song called “Si Senor” is used very effectively. Is that a popular song in Mexico?
It was a song that was released a year before, by a famous group in Mexico called Control Machete. It was an accident, because I worked with a specific rock group to make a special song for that moment. I cut the film with an Everlast song, so I never thought to use that one. It’s an American song and it would have cost a lot of money, so I was working with a rock band to make that beat, but a Mexican song with that same spirit. In the end, it didn’t work. That song didn’t have the same power. So desperately, with my music supervisor, we began to listen to other music. And then we found the song from Control Machete and that song ended up matching with the same power. I’m not a big fan of the song, but it works very well in the context, the kind of music that they would listen to, and the beat and the power.
How long did the sound design take?
The sound design was a nightmare, because it was made by a partner. We are Seta, so we have Seta Films, Seta Advertising, Seta Audio. So the guy that manages audio Martine, he did the audio for my first short film when I was in school. Then we became DJs and then we opened this studio. So I wanted to share this with him. But he’s never made audio for a feature. We made audio for commercials, but never for a feature. So while I was cutting, he was making some tests. So it took seven months, because he was learning. I was like, no, it sounds like a Coca Cola commercial. It’s harder to make real audio than special effects audio.
You’ve said that you’re not interested in being compared to Tarantino. What filmmakers would you like to be compared to?
I like so many different directors: Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavettes, Jarmusch, Gus van Sant, Woody Allen and the greats like Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky and among current filmmakers von Trier, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai.
What do you think of making a next movie within the U.S. system?
In some ways, it’s scary. Because for me, it’s so demanding, my process is so obsessive and neurotic. It’s hard for me to work for somebody else. I can work with someone, but not for someone. If I can find a partner or maybe in a studio with a producer that wants to work with me, as partners, then maybe. Because at the same time, I’m a good partner. I know how to work with people. I’ve worked with the same people for 10 years. I’m not that kind of auteur. I hear ideas. So maybe, someday I will.

Watch the trailer for “The Revenant” below…

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