Alejandro González Iñárritu would like you to think that he is the man that killed Mike Nichols. During a lunch with the legendary director, Iñárritu told Nichols about his next film—his first comedy—about an actor who first became famous for being a superhero then attempting to pursue prestige on the Broadway stage.
“Who’s in it?” Nichols asked.
“Oh, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton,” Iñárritu replied. Nichols looked displeased.
“Those aren’t funny actors,” he responded, “but maybe you can fix it in the editing!”
Iñárritu informed him that there was to be no real editing, that the film was supposed to look like it was done in a single camera take. Iñárritu then mimed Nichols’ reaction, wide eyed, full of anger.
“This is going to be a disaster, Alejandro.”
Of course, it wasn’t. That film “Birdman” won three Academy Awards, including best picture, and took Iñárritu to new heights of success and esteem. But still, it was a comedy without the most important elements of comedy, and both Iñárritu and Nichols knew that.
“Mike died two weeks after the film came out,” Iñárritu laughed. “I don’t know if he saw it, but I think if it did, I might have killed him.”
That story was indicative of “An evening with Alejandro González Iñárritu,” which superseded the Wesleyan Film Series as Wednesday night’s event in the Goldsmith Family Cinema. The event, a brief conversation between four-time Academy Award winner Iñárritu and the University’s legendary Corwin-Fuller Professor and Film Studies Chair Jeanine Basinger, was an entertaining and surprisingly moving talk between two cinematic giants. The material ranged from silly and twisted, like the aforementioned Mike Nichols story, to profound and powerful.
Before Iñárritu was bombarded with questions from excited, inquisitive University students, he and Basinger discussed his youth and early career. This began where it had to begin, with the Three Amigos. Iñárritu’s friendship with fellow Mexican directors Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, is the stuff of legend. And as it turns out, it began with a cold call. A friend told Iñárritu that Del Toro was going to screen a rough cut of Iñárritu’s first film “Amores Perros” (2000) and, the next day, he received a call from the director. Despite never having met him, Del Toro boldly told Iñárritu that one of the three stories depicted in the film was far weaker than the other two. Iñárritu, taken aback by the claim, told him to come by and talk with him about what problems he might have had.
“The next day, there was this great fat guy in my doorway,” Iñárritu said. “He ate all my food and we sat in there for two days.”
What impressed Iñárritu was the way that Del Toro was not asking for anything in return; he simply loved movies and wanted to make Iñárritu’s better. The two have been friends ever since and, with the added friendship of Cuaron, a new force has emerged in Mexican and global cinema.
When prompted by Basinger about his friendship with the other directors, Iñárritu went into detail about the way the Three Amigos work on movies together. They share each other’s scripts and, during the process of making their films, they are “merciless” to the other about their work.
“Until the premiere, of course,” he winked. “Then we simply say ‘that’s a masterpiece.’”
Iñárritu was always enamored with characters, storytelling, and the presentation of narratives. As a 20-year-old, he helped run a radio station in Mexico City, with several other young people, where they would invent stories and characters and put them on the air. One particular story they invented, a man locked in a storage box in the middle of the highway, was so convincing to listeners that it affected traffic, and they were shut down by authorities. He clearly brought that anarchist streak, that desire to mess with the perception of audiences and listeners, into his movie making, and it is a thrill to see where that began.
At this point, and for the next hour, Basinger began to field questions from the audience for Iñárritu to answer, yielding some interesting and surprising results. When asked about the difference between making Spanish-language and English-language films and their respective cultural spheres, he talked about how vastly different production is between the two; whereas his Mexican film crews did not have as many defined jobs and lines, and so everyone was a little involved in everything, his English and American film crews were more divided and unionized, yielding confusion and complexities. When someone asked about an upcoming virtual reality project he is working on, Iñárritu told us about how excited he is to work in that medium, how nothing great has been made there yet, but it is about to. When asked about if he chooses to make movies based on caring about the story and money, he laughed and sarcastically said “money,” then referring to himself as a “mercenary.”
Ultimately, some of the most memorable moments of the evening were pieces of filmmaking advice. Visibly moved, he told the audience that filming the most ordinary day of your life, if true, is an extraordinarily powerful thing.
“When I was working on my first film,” he said. “I told myself: ‘if I have made one good, true scene, then I have done something right.’” He explained that he wasn’t trying to change the world, just make one good scene in a film. But, most stirring, was his discussion of filmmaking as an art form that requires you to be “rigorous.”
“A bad beat,” Iñárritu said, “is like a hair in a soup. It could be the most delicious soup you’ve ever eaten, but once you get to the hair, it is all you can think about.”
To make films, you have to look at every moment, every beat, every line, and make sure that it works, that it doesn’t distract or stick out for the wrong reasons, like a hair in a soup. While talking about the process, Iñárritu gestured more wildly, his body opened up, and his low molasses voice broke a few octaves. This is a man who cares about filmmaking, who has worked rigorously, and for whom the process is powerful and exciting.
In the middle of this talk, Alejandro González Iñárritu took a moment to talk about how lucky he is to get to work in the film industry, to get to tell stories, and experiment, and just to make film after film after film. Whether or not he killed Mike Nichols, we are lucky to have listened to him, too.