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Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Hollywood’s King of Pain

How the director of “The Revenant” pushed his stars and crew to the edge of sanity – and created a modern epic.

How the director of "The Revenant" pushed his stars and crew to the edge of sanity – and created a modern epic.

Late one afternoon in November, only two days after wrapping up final post-production tweaks on his sixth film, The Revenant, the director Alejandro González Iñárritu walked into a screening room at the corner of Alfred Hitchcock Drive on the Universal Studios lot in Universal City, California. He was dressed entirely in black, his typical uniform – today, a couture-looking hoodie with extraneous silver zippers, worn over black jeans – and he greeted the assembled audio crew with fist bumps and apologies for his tardiness. He’d driven up from his production office in Santa Monica, where he also lives, and hit traffic, which he normally avoids by zipping around town on a Vespa. Somebody got him a Coke.

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Iñárritu, 52, moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City, his hometown, after the wholly unexpected global success of his first film, 2000’s Amores Perros, which in English roughly translates as “love’s a bitch” – U.S. distributors eventually decided to stick with the Spanish title – and which convinced him to leave the safe confines of the Mexican film community, where he’d spent years as a highly successful director of TV commercials, building a production company with more than 100 employees, and make the move to the big leagues, to Hollywood. When would the timing possibly be better?

He landed at LAX with his wife and two children four days before September 11th, 2001. “All the neighborhoods started getting all these flags,” Iñárritu says, speaking in heavily accented English. On two occasions, walking his dog, he was stopped by police officers. The cops told Iñárritu, whose swarthy complexion had earned him the nickname “El Negro” back in Mexico City, they’d received calls about a suspicious character in the area, that he needed to show them exactly where he lived.

Today, Iñárritu is listening to audio mixes of The Revenant for theaters outfitted with Dolby Atmos surround-sound. “Every time they invent a new fucking system, we have to do a new test,” Iñárritu says with a sigh. “Pretty soon we’ll have sounds coming out of our asses.” The day before, he’d been to a similar test for the IMAX version of the picture. “Sitting too close to the screen, it’s almost disturbing,” he says. “They’ll need to give the audience bags to vomit.”

Iñárritu, we should note, utters all of these lines quite cheerily. He still curses in English with the mirth of a non-native speaker testing unfamiliar idioms, all of his “fuckings” pronounced with more care than other words and delivered with an unjaded relish. When Iñárritu smiles – perhaps because his smiles always seem tinged with irony – his face, thin, with pronounced cheekbones, a moustache and a slightly tufted goatee, assumes a sly, devilish cast. With minimal wardrobe and makeup adjustments, he could play the heavy in an after-school special about the dangers of Satanism.

In a medium-size theater, two sound engineers sit in front of a mixing board that spans the length of the screen. Martín Hernández, one of Iñárritu’s oldest friends and collaborators, works at a laptop. We’re about to watch Reel 4 of The Revenant.

Loosely based on the real-life adventure of a 19th-century American fur trapper named Hugh Glass, the film stars a prodigiously bearded Leonardo DiCaprio, who is mauled by a bear and then betrayed and left for dead by other members of his hunting party. The rest of the movie, on one level, is an immensely satisfying genre exercise, a proto-Western revenge fantasia in the tradition of Death Wish or Kill Bill, in which the audience endures the cruel sufferings of the protagonist as a pleasure-enhancing prelude to feats of impossible endurance, survival and bloody restitution.

Visually, the film is a spectacular throwback, the sort of epic rarely seen since the era of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s also a sustained spiritual meditation, as well as an implicit critique of American capitalism, as told through its earliest incursions into the relatively untouched wilderness of the New World. If Iñárritu wins Best Director for The Revenant, which people who make odds on this sort of thing have been saying is entirely plausible, it will follow his win last year for Birdman, making him only the third director in Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences history to snag consecutive Oscars.

Filming “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio in 2014. Kimberly French

It’s funny, though: For all of his accomplishments in Hollywood, Iñárritu still describes himself as a frustrated musician. He and Hernández began working together in college as disc jockeys at a pioneering radio station in Mexico City. Iñárritu also played in a band and promoted shows, and he admits to paying special, almost obsessive attention to the sound of his films. “For Alejandro, sound can be more important than visual,” says Hernández. “He has an amazing sound memory. If I change something, he will hear it.” Iñárritu thought of Birdman, filmed to appear as if it unfolded in a single, frenetic tracking shot, as jazz: He went into a studio with the Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez and began recording the soundtrack (almost exclusively percussion) before he’d shot a frame of film, matching the beats with specific lines of dialogue in order to pre-dictate, in Iñárritu’s words, “the pulse of the film.”

For The Revenant, he commissioned a spare electronic score from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, avant-garde composers who have collaborated with Carsten Nicolai on a series of gorgeous, minimalist piano albums, and Bryce Dessner of the Brooklyn band the National. “If Birdman has to do more with jazz and theater,” Iñárritu tells me, “I think this film is more about painting and dreams, when you don’t have to think or talk, but just feel. So the silences and the sounds of nature are very, very important to the narrative.”

Reel 4 begins with DiCaprio’s character lying on a wintry forest bed, staring up at the old-growth trees towering above him like the ceiling of a cathedral, and ends with a thrilling chase scene in which he dives into a river to escape a band of Arikara Indians. As the scene progresses, we watch DiCaprio grunt, gasp, crawl through snow and suck the marrow from the bone of a picked-over buffalo carcass.

Iñárritu sits with his arms crossed and a serious expression on his face. When the lights come up, everyone looks at him anxiously. Eventually, he emits a long “Ummmm . . .” Then he says he’s not hearing the ambient sounds coming out of the ceiling speakers, not nearly enough. “It’s like one cojone, and we need two cojones!” he cries, mock-dramatically. “I want to hear more crackling trees. Make the birds louder! If it’s at 30 percent, go to 60 percent. Then maybe I say, ‘Oh, fuck, too loud!’ And we can take it down. Show me the money, as the producer would say.”

While the engineers tweak the settings on their boards, Iñárritu asks for a second Coke and picks at a plastic tub of peanuts, methodically removing one nut at a time with a thumb-finger pincer gesture. He has to wrap up soon. The next day he’s planning to fly to Austin with his son, Eliseo, a senior in high school, for a college tour arranged by Richard Linklater, the Boyhood director and renowned Austinite who also happened to be Iñárritu’s prime rival at the 2015 Oscars. (Birdman wound up beating Boyhood for both Best Director and Picture.) I ask Iñárritu if it’s typical for directors to be this involved with the sound mix of a rarefied distribution format. He frowns and gives a shrug. “Ask them,” he says, nodding at the sound guys. “I don’t think so. I’m a little cuckoo. Neurotic.” He pronounces the last word with special gusto, just like he does “fuck.”

On set of “Birdman” with Michael Keaton (left), director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in 2014. Everett Collection

A week after the sound tests at Universal, Iñárritu flew to New York for a private screening of The Revenant near Lincoln Center. Afterward, Martin Scorsese moderated a Q&A and called the film a masterpiece. Scorsese had just completed his own historical epic, Silence, filmed in the Taiwanese countryside, and later, over drinks, he complained to Iñárritu, “I’m from New York. I have an aversion to trees. I don’t go camping. I don’t like horses.” Iñárritu could sympathize. “I’m the same,” he tells me the following afternoon. “We are not, like, guys from the woods.”

Iñárritu is dressed entirely in black again, sipping a black coffee in a hotel near Central Park. His son is staying in the room across the hall. A last-minute scheduling conflict had forced the postponement of the Austin visit, but they are planning to check out New York University. Since the ISIS terror attacks in Paris, Iñárritu has also been in regular phone contact with his daughter, María, who is going to school there. “I’m concerned about her,” he says. “You know, we went out of Mexico because of the violence. And now I’m more worried in Paris than in Mexico. I said, ‘Fuck, the world is becoming very scary for young people.’ They are feeling what we felt in Mexico.”

Around the time of the release of Amores Perros, Iñárritu’s mother had her jaw broken by muggers, and his father, in a separate incident, was thrown into the trunk of a car by kidnappers and held for 12 hours for a $500 ransom. Iñárritu had his own car broken into and all of his family’s luggage stolen while on vacation in San Miguel de Allende; afterward, he had to fly directly to New York to accept an award, and he borrowed “an old suit of stripes” from a friend, “the worst, cheapest suit ever – it’s from 1948. I was the worst-dressed director in the history of New York fancy people.” That trip was the first time Iñárritu met Scorsese, as it turns out – Scorsese liked Amores Perros and had invited Iñárritu to stop by his office – and Iñárritu showed up in the suit, feeling “like a fucking Mafia guy from a Scorsese film.”

The rising violence in his home country, coming at a time when his own public profile was increasing, factored heavily into Iñárritu’s decision to move his family to L.A. He says it also informed his approach to violence in his films. “The violence became such a painful social situation in my country, with so much suffering, that I didn’t find it funny in films,” he says.

Iñárritu grew up in Narvarte, the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood where Che Guevara lived in the 1950s while plotting the Cuban Revolution. Iñárritu describes a happy childhood, including a skateboarding phase and a love of prog-rock bands like Genesis and King Crimson. At 17, and again at 19, he got himself aboard cargo ships sailing out of Vera Cruz and Coatzacoalcos, earning his passage by performing menial jobs, and he spent a year in Spain picking grapes and doing odd jobs – even working as a swimsuit-clad dancer in a disco. (Q: Like Magic Mike? A: “God, no! I didn’t have the qualities.”)

Back in Mexico City, he played guitar in a synth-rock band called Noviembre Uno (Q: Is that the date of a revolution or something? A: “It was the date I met a girl. We were trying just to play sounds from that period, which … the Eighties was the worst”), dropped out of college, became a local radio celebrity and eventually began directing television commercials. “Even today, if you talk to someone my age, they’ll remember us by the radio,” Hernández tells me. “I had the morning shift and he had the afternoon. He was the lazy one.” In 1989, Iñárritu brought Rod Stewart to Querétaro for one of the first stadium rock concerts in Mexico in years. Thanks to scalpers hawking counterfeit tickets, the venue was so dangerously oversold that one of Iñárritu’s friends told him to take the next flight to Miami. “Alejandro,” he said, “this will be serious! People will die here.”

“There was a moment that I thought I would be in jail,” Iñárritu acknowledges. “But one guy died, only.”

Iñárritu with Robert Plant, while working as a DJ and promoter in Mexico in the Eighties. Courtesy of Alejandro González Iñárritu

Amores Perros is indebted, in many ways, to Quentin Tarantino: three interweaving plotlines, jarring temporal leaps, an underworld milieu. But after the film’s visceral delights, the death-haunted, relentlessly somber works that followed felt ponderous, making one long for just a touch of Tarantino’s irony and sense of humor. 21 Grams (2003) featured indelible, gutting performances from Sean Penn and Naomi Watts and took an even more staccato approach to linearity and narrative, but the script leaned too heavily on preposterous Shakespearean coincidence. (Watts’ widow falls in love with the very transplant patient, Penn, who received her late husband’s heart, a premise that wouldn’t even have been acceptable in a Nineties romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Matthew McConaughey.)

Babel (2006) was released to international acclaim, just as Iñárritu’s friends Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón unveiled their own most-heralded works – Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men, respectively – prompting critics to espy a Mexican cinematic renaissance. But the sufferings Iñárritu piled onto his characters were beginning to feel not only sadistic but false. A subplot climaxing with a Mexican housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) stumbling through the desert in high heels and a ripped cocktail dress is so over-the-top, given everything else that’s already transpired in the film, it nearly plays as camp.

His next film, Biutiful, no less gloomy – the main character, played by Javier Bardem, helps to manage a Chinese sweatshop, has an alcoholic for a wife and is dying of cancer – was critically and commercially Iñárritu’s worst-performing picture. Depressed, and approaching 50, Iñárritu says he fell into “a very, very difficult state.” To snap himself out of it, he went to a 21-day silent-meditation retreat in the South of France. Every morning, he would stare at the clouds as they shifted and changed colors, and he felt like he’d never seen anything more spectacular.

Then he made Birdman and with it made a huge tonal leap. As in all of Iñárritu’s films, the main character, the actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), takes a merciless beating – pretty much everything that can go wrong for him over the course of the film’s two hours does. The difference here is that Iñárritu seems to have realized that when you inflict a series of punishments on a character, it can be King Lear if played one way, but played another, it’s Charlie Chaplin. Birdman is very funny – at times slapstick, even. Coming from Iñárritu, this feels like a radical act.

He admits as much. His love of dark movies and books comes from his mother. “Sad music, I always thought, is more beautiful than other music,” he says. “But at the same time, I am in my personal life a very happy guy. I have a sense of humor. I am not the kind of depressed guy all the time brooding. No. I am very enthusiastic about things. And that’s why, for me, Birdman was so liberating, to be able to laugh about tragedy.” He smiles. “Because then it can be even more sad, in a good way.”

Iñárritu and Brad Pitt on the set of “Babel” in 2006. Everett Collection

A framed photograph hangs on the wall of Iñárritu’s Santa Monica office: a man, his back to the camera, sits alone amid a spectacular wintry landscape. Mountains loom on the horizon, and there are no traces of civilization. The solitude plays as epic, an existential provocation. But there’s something inherently comic about the man’s isolation: how puny he looks, the incongruity of his presence in such untouched natural surroundings, that puffy parka. It’s a selfie stick away from a New Yorker cartoon-captioning contest.

Iñárritu’s assistant snapped the photo on her phone during the shooting of The Revenant and later gave it to him as a present. “Is that me?” Iñárritu asked. It was! He was taking a lunch break. “I like that picture,” he says, chuckling. “It represents the feeling of directing this film.”

Shooting on location in remotest Canada, in subzero temperatures, is a difficult enough undertaking. But Iñárritu and his brilliant cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, had decided they would only film in natural light, which meant they had about 90 minutes each day where things would look just right.

“It was insane,” Iñárritu says. There’s a hint of pride in his voice, at having survived something so reckless, the same way a certain type of sober person can almost sound like they’re bragging when telling tales of past self-abuse. “I would say the film is a happy accident of a very bad decision,” he continues. “It’s the result of an irresponsible decision that I made. But we need that sometimes – to be naive, blind from reality. If not, we will not embark ourselves on things. I’ll be an office guy or whatever. I mean, I’m not an idiot – I knew how difficult it would be. But I can feel now how far I was from reality when I was deciding how this was to be made. I’m glad that I did that irresponsible decision, but it could have been really bad. You know what I mean? Like when you climb Mount Everest and nobody dies, but we were so close! It’s that feeling of relief.”

“I’ve been in a lot of ambitious projects – Titanic was certainly one of them – but this seemed absolutely bizarre, and like a crazy adventure to be a part of,” DiCaprio says, adding with a laugh, “In a lot of ways, I think Alejandro was looking for a Fitzcarraldo experience.” He’s referring to the notoriously arduous 1982 feature by Werner Herzog, filmed mostly in the Amazon rainforest, a shoot so insane it became the subject of its own documentary. “He wanted to go into the heart of darkness,” DiCaprio says, “and not only film nature, but really immerse himself in a completely transformative experience.”

Shooting began in October 2014 in Alberta, in wilderness so deep it required commuting two hours each way from Calgary. Soon, costs ballooned. Snow had a way of melting, or not accumulating fast enough, interrupting the shoot. More snow had to be trucked in. There was flooding. For one scene, Iñárritu demanded the triggering of an actual avalanche. The filming had been scheduled to wrap last spring, but it stretched on until the end of summer. At the Oscars, in February, Iñárritu may have triumphed with Birdman. “But at the ceremony, I was receiving texts that the location is fucking flooded,” Iñárritu recalls. “I was having a photo with my Oscar and being like, ‘Fuck!’ I was shooting 36 hours later.”

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu with cast and crew accepting the Best Picture award for “Birdman” during the 87th Annual Academy Awards on February 22, 2015. Kevin Winter/Getty

Industry rumblings became so intense that the producers, in damage control, took the rare step of making Iñárritu available for an interview in The Hollywood Reporter before filming had even been completed. The headline, nonetheless, was “How Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The Revenant’ Shoot Became ‘a Living Hell,'” and the story was replete with tales of staffers being fired or quitting, of Iñárritu allegedly barring one of the producers from the set. Unnamed “veteran crew members” claimed that “making the film has been by far the worst experience of their careers.”

While he feels vindicated by the film’s reception, Iñárritu still bristles at early characterisations of his shoot as a modern-day Apocalypse Now. “Everybody that embarked on this film knew the conditions,” he insists. “Nobody was lied. Some of them complained. I understand. For all of us it was hard. But guess what: 99.9 percent of the people stayed, and we are so proud. To cover this gossip – like, ‘Oh, somebody was fired.’ Well, there is 300 people in the company! Of course some people were fired. And some people stay and love it. Is that really something should be even discussed? I don’t think so. But anyway, now the film is there, and now the people understand that every penny, every decision that was made, was worth it.”

“Human nature usually applies to filmmaking,” Sean Penn says. “People get tired and lazy, and they start accepting things. But Alejandro never lets himself go there. He’s got more warrior spirit than that. Too many of my colleagues, actors and directors, like to put on a nice suit or dress and represent the picture more than make it.”

Iñárritu appeared on a panel recently with the director Ridley Scott, who talked about shooting Gladiator five minutes from the airport in London. “And he looked at me,” Iñárritu recalls, “and said, in an ironic and humorous way, ‘You don’t have to go places to make the film look like they are in those places.’ And I absolutely disagree. Because it shows. People are very surprised when they see the film. ‘Oh, my God! The landscape, the light!’ And I said, ‘That’s available. I didn’t create it! I just captured it.’ And how I did it? I just put a fucking camera down and I stayed 11 months freezing my ass to capture that fucking thing. I didn’t invade the fucking screen with pixels and electronics.”

Among this year’s now-infamously-white list of Oscar contenders, Iñárritu was the only person of colour to be nominated in any of the major categories. The nominations had yet to be announced when we talked, but Iñárritu did bring up questions of representation in Hollywood, mentioning that he enjoyed the complexity and nuance of Sicario and Narcos and lamenting the “clichéd stereotypes of fat, bad, drunk Mexicans that are so common in mainstream American films sometimes.” Iñárritu being Iñárritu, he pays particular attention to musical slights. “I love Sam Mendes, but I went to see Spectre with my kid, and the opening scene of the Diá de Muertos party, with this kind of tropical music, in downtown Mexico City, with all these people dancing like it’s the Rio de Janeiro carnival … I had to laugh. Or when I was releasing Amores Perros on DVD here, the music over the menu was flamenco! I said, ‘Guys, this is from Andalucía, from the south of Spain. This is not Mexican music.’ ‘Oh, but it’s so Latin.’ I said, ‘”Latin” is a fuck you!’ Like if I say, ‘It’s so Anglo,’ and just play some German music.”

Iñárritu has been most dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump, and the ways in which, despite his racism, he’s been treated as an entertainment figure on shows like Saturday Night Live. “He’s a very poor man who only possesses money,” Iñárritu says, adding that he takes solace in one certainty: “Trump doesn’t know it yet, but he will become one of the guys that he hates very soon. Soon he will be a loser.”