Mexico City-born Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's achingly beautiful film about human miscommunication, Babel, has received seven Academy Awards nominations, including achievement in directing and best picture. Produced by Anonymous Content, the film, the third in a trilogy (21 Grams, Amores Perros), features Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as American tourists waylaid by an accidental shooting that triggers an international crisis. The first-time Oscar nominee, who also directs commercials, shot the film in six languages, including sign language, to tell a story about the need to connect. Q: You direct commercials through your production company Zeta Films in Mexico, and contributed a short film for BMW Films (Powder Keg). How has advertising helped prepare you for feature film work?
A: The first thing I did was compose a score for a short film. After that I was the host of a three-hour show at a radio station. I learned to entertain people every day with sounds, music, characters, words. ... The same people who invited me on the radio when I was a 20-year-old guy ... invited me to create a corporate image for Channel 5 [in Mexico]. So I started writing and producing and [then] jumped to directing these 30-second and one-minute promos. [I learned] that every second counts.
Do you still direct spots?
I haven't done commercials in a long time. I love that some clients are doing short films now. I think that's fantastic. But I haven't had the time, unfortunately.
What are you currently working on?
On two projects that I was developing a long time ago, but I really need to rest. I'm completely exhausted.
Babel has seven Oscar nominations. Why do you think it connected so strongly with the academy and the public?
People around the world feel disconnected, and not only because they talk different languages and have different cultures and religions. I think that ironically [while] the world has so many technological advances made for communication, people feel more isolated than ever. I think there are some themes to explore in that isolation and in our ability to love and to receive love.
What was your inspiration for the story?
When I conceived the film it was almost a moral kind of commitment. There are all these things explored in the film that are things you read about every day [such as] the immigration situation and the paranoid state of the United States government in terrorism. There are a thousands of people who have been dying by this George Bush policy. People that we think of as "them," they become enemies. All the hysteria—I wanted to explore that through the intimate stories of people who have been affected by that. I thought first about the [ideas] and then searched for the stories.
The film features four stories. Where did you begin with the writing?
With the story of the Moroccan kids [one of whom accidentally shoots an American tourist, played by Blanchett]. From there we started exploring the story of the American couple, then I thought about [their Mexican nanny and her] story, which I'm very close to living in L.A. and being Mexican. I'm very sensitive to how tragic their border stories are. After that, I love Japan. [That thread concerns itself with a widower trying to communicate with his deaf daughter.] We're talking about communication and language, why not sign language and ... being limited by your senses? It was a three-year process.
Why use a biblical theme?
I found the name very late in the process—two months before we started shooting. I had long and corny names, very bad ones. I don't know, since the World Trade Center collapsed, I remember I had the image of those towers, like the Tower of Babel, all the people from all over the world speaking different languages and then collapsing. I thought about that metaphor in the Old Testament—how God punished man by creating different languages, and I thought it was ... a simple way to define what this film is about.
How did you maintain creative control on such an ambitious film?
All of my films have been independent. I start self-financing them myself. Once I have finished the script, the casting and locations, I go and find the best partner. I have been very lucky to have worked in this town with the best. [Paramount] believed in the film, my vision, they respect my voice and they were fantastic. I've never [gotten] one stupid note from the head company that they wanted this or that. When I do commercials, I know that there is a guy who believes he's a creative genius and who wants the shirt to be orange or blue because of whatever. ... You are paid for that. My films are expressions of myself.
There have been reports of turbulence in your partnership with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Will you work together again?
I feel we have explored what we have to say in this trilogy. It's a body of work we are very proud of. It's a natural ending of the relationship and that's good.
What advice would you give a filmmaker starting out today?
Be very stubborn. You have something to say, you have to say it no matter what.
How do you respond to critics who describe the film as anti-American?
The right-wing people will always feel that anything that questions any act will be anti-American. As George Bush says, if you aren't with us, you are against us. Which is one of the most stupid things I have heard. Because then you are killing diversity and difference, and making "the other" the enemy. I don't think the film is anti-American. I think it's a film about prejudice and that's why I didn't want to have bad or good people. All the characters, Brad and Cate, are as important as the kids in Morocco, as the Japanese. ... We all share the same vulnerability and pain. ... The point [the film] is making is [if they] assume one point of view, [they] think they have the truth. They have never seen the other point of view. That's why I wanted four different points of view about one single act.
You moved to L.A. five years ago. Would you have been able to make this film if you were still living in Mexico?
No. The fact that I came to the United States has triggered a lot of things, in a good way. ... There is some anxiety when you are leaving your country. ... You are more aware about things, more sensitive about things and it gives you more perspective on who you are, who are the others.
What surprised you most in the making of this film?
The film in the beginning and the way I was trying to approach it was about some difference that we have, and in some way what a bad situation we are living in. In the end, there is an emotion that guides me through it, which was compassion. I felt a lot of compassion through the characters during the whole thing. And during one year, you change a lot. The film was transforming and at the end I discovered the film. Which is the beautiful part of it. I really [was left thinking] about what we have in common rather than the differences we have, the common humanity and compassion. That was a good surprise for me.
What were the most challenging aspects for you?
Every location had its challenges. When you see 300 goats on a mountain with two kids, you say, "Looks simple." But it is super difficult to bring kids and those goats up to that mountain in that weather, and the crew speaking seven different languages. In Japan, it's another challenge—there's no film commission, so everything that we shot in the street we had to deal with and chase it. [Another] challenge was to work with non-actors in different languages and then combine it with actors. Intellectually, the most difficult thing for me was to find a dramatic angle to build from so many diverse elements, something that is congruent, coherent—to make one film about four short films.
What did you dream about doing when you were a child?
When I was 16 years old, I started working on boats cleaning the toilets. When I was 18 years old, I stayed one year in Europe with $1,000 living in the streets. I believe life is the greatest source of inspiration that anybody can have. Filmmaking, I don't think you learn that in a book. The only way to do a film and learn to do a film is to do it. Obviously, a good teacher will help, but the real source of it is life. At least the kinds of films that I like are the ones that capture life and analyze life.
What are some recent favorites?
[German director] Michael Haneke [Caché] I like very much. Code Unknown is one of my favorite films of the last five years.