"No matter what, life is bigger than death"

Hot director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu talks about "21 Grams," his wrenching new film about three strangers linked by death, hope and destiny.

Published November 19, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film, "21 Grams," takes its name from the inexplicable loss of weight a body undergoes at the moment of death and focuses on the events leading up to and away from an accident in which several people lose their lives. But don't suggest to Iñárritu that his film is about death.

"I think it's about hope," he says -- the struggle to find hope in the face of loss.

Stretched taut between those extremes, the film -- starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro and featuring cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's unsettling hand-held-camera work -- strikes an edgy, unrelenting chord. Its confrontation with death throws life into sharp relief.

Though it can be difficult to watch, "21 Grams" is a truly remarkable film, and Iñárritu -- whose only other feature film, the equally brutal and profound "Amores Perros," nominee for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film in 2001, and winner of a host of other awards, including those from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the London Film Critics Circle -- is a truly amazing director. Born and raised in Mexico, the 40-year-old Iñárritu now lives in Los Angeles, but he was in New York recently to promote "21 Grams" when it screened during the New York Film Festival.

Speeding through the streets of Manhattan in a hired car, Iñárritu stole a moment between engagements to chat with Salon on his cellphone about life and death, fate, tragedy and the state of cinema today.

"21 Grams," like "Amores Perros," uses a car accident as a focal point from which to view three different interwoven stories. What is it about car accidents that you find so compelling? Are they just a convenient device or a metaphor for something more?

Its a metaphor about how incredibly fast something unthinkable can happen when we don't expect it. In an instant, our whole lives can be changed forever.

So it speaks about randomness. But does the fact that we see these accidents and then find out what leads up to them address the concept of fate?

Fate, yes. But more than that, I think it's about hope, about how you can find something to hold on to in order to survive. All these characters are basically dealing with loss, struggling with loss: loss of health, loss of a family member, loss of faith or beliefs or dreams. In order to survive, we must confront that loss and find hope, principally in ourselves.

What about the way that you play around with time in your films? In both "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros," you move the audience back in forth in time.

Well, I believe in the audience. I think that many films have a fear that they will lose their audience and I think the audience is tired of being told everything in the first 15 minutes for fear that they won't follow. I think that the most beautiful stories in the world always hide the truth and little by little reveal that treasure. You have to discover the truth through a very beautiful narrative, which creates tension and a dialogue with the audience and the characters. I think this structure allows the audience to really interact better with and penetrate deeper into the characters. I think it's more proactive and more entertaining and I think people feel alive in the theater and not dead eating popcorn.

Were you worried that the audience might not be up to the task with this film -- not just in terms of rolling with the time changes and figuring out the information, but also dealing emotionally with the huge topics that you confront?

To tell you the truth, no. I was very careful that this would not just be an intellectual exercise that people would feel like, "Oh, what smart guys these guys are." I wanted people to have an emotional ride. That's the object of any art expression. And I was really more interested in the emotional order of the facts than the chronological order. I'm not making journalism; I'm creating an atmosphere, and I think that if people get the atmosphere, they should not be lost. Maybe they will be, like, trying to find out for the first 20, 25 minutes what's going on, but I think every little piece of this architecture gets you to someplace that you believe that something will happen. And every little piece by itself has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and it's moving along, it's moving along.

About these "huge things" that the film deals with, I think that they are not such huge things. They're very basic, common things -- very ordinary and primitive. I think that this film is going to connect with people because it deals with things that every human being has been through in some way.

I mean, everybody has lost something in their life. Life is an interminable chain of losses, and hope is all around us and we have to find hope in everything. We have to give meaning to our lives every day, and I think that death and loss, revenge, guilt, hope, faith, passion and redemption, ultimately, are present a lot of times in a year. Ultimately, these are things that we learn from, and sometimes the process is painful, but they make us better and more human. When we deal with them, we can enjoy and see life more deeply and profoundly.

Do you think that film is particularly well suited as a medium for dealing with these basic issues: birth, death, hope?

Yes. There are several channels, but I think that there's a lot of these cartoon stories in film today that I don't relate to. I don't relate to these heroes that are huge and unreal and kill people and laugh and make love with the most beautiful woman and have a great joke and a great line every moment; they are completely inhuman. I mean at some point, cinema should be a mirror and should talk about ourselves and create a catharsis in ourselves and we should be able to see ourselves in that. I love this story because of that.

Speaking of catharsis, in some ways this story does seem like a real tragedy in the Aristotelian sense. It has a lot of the key ingredients: You know in advance what's going to happen. It's inevitable. There are consequences to people's actions. Were you conscious of that when you were making this film?

No. I mean, I like inevitability. I think there are some things that are inevitable. I will die, and you too. That's inevitable. But we live and we love our lives even though we know it's inevitable that we will die. Everyone knows that the Titanic will sink in the water, but everybody loves that story even though they know the end, because it's one thing to be inevitable and another thing to be predictable.

I think this film -- yeah, it's inevitable, but I think it takes you someplace that other films don't take you. And if you are able to go there, it's a great ride, a great emotional ride, and I tried to find hope at the end of the film -- big, strong hope about life. For me, what I wanted this film to say is that life goes on, that no matter what, life is bigger than death.

What made you decide to shoot both of your films with hand-held cameras?

Hand-held for me is the natural way to see the world. That's how I see it with my eyes all the time. I think tripods and cranes and dollies and all that stuff, they're sometimes beautiful to use because they're very stylish, but in this case, I like Rodrigo [Prieto] to operate the camera because he helps me narrate. His photography is not only observation -- it's an active character that tells you something.

What drew you to the actors that you worked with in this film: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro? What do you look for in an actor?

Well, first of all, they have great integrity as actors and work that I respect, obviously, and most of all, all of them have a very powerful interior life, which you can see in the eyes. They can portray very complex and real human beings. They're not models.

Do you feel that the Mexican view of death differs greatly from the American view? Was that something you thought about when you were making "21 Grams"?

No. I think that is a very universal thing. In my culture we make this party once a year and the celebration is very particular, but here you make Halloween, which is a very American way to see death. The way they approach death is different, totally. But death is death. The folkloric expressions of death vary from one country to another, but that doesn't mean that people really take it seriously to put a pumpkin by the door at Halloween. That's about merchandising and to give the kids a good time. I don't think anybody's thinking about death, about the real thing, on that day.

In Mexico, people go to the cemetery and take food that people used to like, and cigarettes, and they drink and make a party and they start to cry and they really go a little bit more to the bone. But it's more symbolic. That approaches death as a symbol, not as a fact. And I'm talking about death as a fact.

You've said that one of your motives for making "Amores Perros" was to show that Mexico was more than a Taco Bell ad. But you shot "21 Grams" in Memphis, and I'm wondering why. Is there something you wanted to say about Memphis, or about America?

Well, I think that this film means that America is more than McDonald's. [Laughs.] No, I think Memphis is a nice city. I wanted to be out of L.A. and out of everybody's life so they could do their best work. And Memphis seems to me to be a very unique, very beautiful city, but at the same time a city that anybody can relate to, a human city that's not very specific. It seemed like a space where the events in the film could happen, but I didn't want it to interfere with what was happening. The city itself wasn't a character.

You also deal with people from all sorts of different classes in your films. What is it about class difference that fascinates you?

I like to observe every class. I think for me -- I don't know why -- lower classes are more intense and more alive and more dramatic. The higher classes are more boring; they're more planned and politically correct. They don't have as many colors. But life and suffering is for everybody. If you are rich, you suffer. If you are poor, you have to be suffering all the time. All of us are connected by more than how much we earn or who we are.

What class did you grow up in?

I'm a classic middle-class Mexican guy. I never had money. My family never had a lot of commodities. I took my first airplane at 16 years old. And I never went to the United States until I was 17 years old, when I cleaned the floors on a boat that went to Europe and crossed the Atlantic twice, working as a lower-class marine. All that experience, I think, helped me to be a filmmaker. For me, it's not about having technique; that's a very easy thing to do. I think you have to have something to say and then work hard to get the opportunity. You learn doing it. There's no better way. There's no book, there's no school, there are no teachers that will teach you more than doing it yourself.

How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?

I wanted to tell stories. My father is a great storyteller, and I always wanted to express things. I love films and I want to explore the possibilities with them. I learned on my own -- I didn't have any school or any teacher -- but by different ways, I think I get what I want. One of the first times that I went to a set, I fell in love. Then later I went back wanting to direct, and because I had been lucky enough to write some promotional stuff for a TV channel and I was writing, producing, directing and everything, I had a lot of experience built up. So then I studied theater for two years, and I wrote some scripts for TV and just learned it doing it and observing in the streets. That's it.

Your first film, "Amores Perros," got a lot of attention and won every award on the planet. Did your life completely change after that?

Yeah, it changed because fortunately that opened doors. It made it easier, obviously, to make a second film. That's what really changed. You are in some way accepted and welcomed in the world community of cinema, and that's good because people can recognize you and people trust you and people believe that you can drive the plane safely.

Were you a little worried making "21 Grams" that you wouldn't live up to what you had accomplished in "Amores Perros"?

Yeah, well, when you are developing something, these things pass through your mind: I hope this works, or whatever. You have different thoughts about it. But once I decided to make this story and the story was getting better, it didn't trouble me anymore.

Can you tell when you're working on something good?

You can never be sure if it's good or bad. It's moving all the time. It's a living piece. Obviously, if it's completely wrong, you will notice. But sometimes you lose perspective. I think that's what happens to many directors -- and it could happen to anybody. I can't believe that there's a director that begins shooting on the first day thinking, "Oh, this is shit. I will make the worst film in the world." I think that when you go to the set the first day, you're always thinking that you will make the best picture in the whole world. But you know, sometimes things don't work out.

In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, "'21 Grams' is tantamount to the discovery of a new country. It's too early to call it a crowning work of a career ... but it may well be the crowning work of the year."

Well, I'm very happy that people are getting the film, but you know, you can make a mistake maybe on the third one. To be a filmmaker is to make bad films and good films, and that's it. You can never do only good films. But who cares? The thing is to make the film you want to make -- that's the most important thing. After that, you know, some will be better than others, but in the end, it's so hard to be a director and so stressful, and I suffer so much that it least has to be something that I personally can feel good about.

How do you relax when you're not working?

I never relax.

You don't? You're completely intense all the time?

Almost, yeah. I'm a very intense person.

I guess that explains why your movies are unrelenting. Do you see them that way?

Yeah, people tell me that. But I like that. I think that both films show the vision of life that I have. That's the way I see things.

What about the violence? People have reacted very strongly to the starkness of the violence in both films.

You know, TV, I think that's very violent. I don't allow my kids [ages 6 and 8] to watch the stupidity on TV. And action films really bother me because those really are violent films without any humanity and a lack of pity and tenderness. They present violence -- these guys running around with guns -- as a cool thing. Or the pornography on the channels -- at 9 o'clock you can see people making love very violently and, you know, these things are presented out of context. I don't know. Let's really observe the world, life and death. I think this film ["21 Grams"] is not violent. I think it's human. And I think that here, violence has a reason. Everything has a weight and a consequence, a painful one.

"Amores Perros" was hailed as reopening the door for Mexican cinema. How has Mexican film been doing the last few years?

I think the quality is great, but the quantity of the films is bad. There is no industry. Each film is a particular effort, an individual miracle. Of 12 or 14 films produced in a year, two or three are really good. So the talent is there, but there's no industry supporting it. That's a problem.

You've moved to Los Angeles since "Amores Perros." Are you an American filmmaker now, or will you go back to shoot in Mexico?

I would love to. I just need to find the right story.

What do you think the 21 grams that you lose when you die is?

I don't know. It will mean something different for everybody. Everyone has to do their own homework.

By Amy Reiter

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