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Editors’ Pick: Director of 21 Grams Answers 21 Questions

Alejandro González Iñárritu tells young filmmakers at COM to make mistakes

Film director Alejandro González Iñárritu tells COM students how to make good films. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Behind Sean Penn’s 21-gram soul and Brad Pitt’s latest billboard appearance, Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárritu has a story of his own. In Boston to promote his latest film, Babel, González Iñárritu swung by the College of Communication to share some of that story and to answer questions from BU film students.
 
Question number one: what happens when an independent director from Mexico has a shot at becoming the darling of Hollywood?

“You have to make a choice,” González Iñárritu said. “There are thousands of people in Los Angeles and in New York that are able to discover or to support independent voices, making films that are completely personal.” And for directors coming from Europe or Latin America, that choice between Hollywood and independent filmmaking is a good thing. “That’s because in Latin America there is no choice,” he said. “The first one is a choice that doesn’t exist.”

González Iñárritu told the students that each system has advantages and disadvantages. The good news for Latin American filmmakers, he said, is that they realize early on that they have to have a voice and that “nobody will hire them to do Superman.”
 
“You have to develop your own stories,” he said, and that necessity is a business reality that very often results in films that have something to say.

Of course, said González Iñárritu, the problem for all directors is deciding what to say, and sometimes more important, what not to say. A director concerned that his first film could be his last often tries to say too much. “They want to talk about their childhood,” he said. “Then they want to talk about their religion and about the first book they read.”

“In the United States,” he said, “if you make a first film that is decent, you can be pretty sure you’ll do a second one because there is an industry that needs you.”
 
Talking about making his first film, Amores Perros, he said that at one point he had to film a car crash, and because his budget could buy only so many cars, he had to get it right in one shot. “It was a very irresponsible way to do it,” he said. “We never knew what would happen. It was a very risky thing.”

Being able to create a realistic chase scene before the car crash he attributed to his understanding of audio technology, a technical skill he gained working in radio in Mexico City. “I understand audio better than anything,” he said.
 
González Iñárritu moved from radio to video, shooting short commercials for a TV station 360 days a year at one point. “That was really the best school for me,” he said. “I was inventing all the time. I could do whatever I wanted.”

Only six years after his low-budget start with Amores Perros, González Iñárritu has major productions under his belt: the drama 21 Grams, in which Sean Penn’s character begins his search for a soul after having a heart transplant, and Babel, a story set in four countries and starring Gael García Bernal, Brad Pitt, and Cate Blanchett.

He told his listeners that despite the differences in his films, all three were created with the same freedom, and all three reflect his own vision. “I consider my films like an extension of myself,” he said. “They are a testimony.”

“I have been … I wouldn’t say lucky,” he said. “I’d say stubborn, to maintain my vision through the whole process. I am the only one to blame.”

González Iñárritu advised the COM students to grab a camera and a couple of actors and film whatever they can. “Do not be stopped by critics, theories, or budgets,” he said. “Break the fear of being criticized and the fear of failure. In some ways, the most important thing is to fail, many times. Getting it right once is a matter of thousands and thousands of mistakes, so start making mistakes right now.”

This article was originally published in BU Today on October 10.