From the moment Amores Perros debuted in 2000, writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been examining the emotional tapestry of the human condition, leaving audiences enamored with his visionary takes on a person’s mind and soul. Since the stunning debut, he has tackled the complexity of a hit and run accident with 21 Grams, woven several tragic stories together with Babel, shown the struggle of a man slowly losing their life in Biutiful, displayed a modern actor struggling with their art form and identity with Birdman, and explored a man seeking absolute revenge in The Revenant. His unique, epic yet intimate style of filmmaking has landed him critical and commercial success, as well as four Academy Awards, including being one of the very few directors to ever win the Oscar for Best Director twice. So how do you follow up the two most successful films of your career? You go home.
With Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Iñárritu returns to his home country of Mexico exclusively for a film that tackles the deeply profound eccentricities of life and what it all means at the very end. A film that he stated that he “needed” to explore as he made the transition to the back half of his life. Starting as a series of dreams, he stitched every idea and topic he could think of, taking inspiration from his life and vast experiences, and created what my review out of Telluride described as “his most self-reflecting, epic film yet.”
When I sat down with Iñárritu, we talked about his writing process for Bardo, the film’s ideas on dual citizenship and identity, his collaborations with his lead actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, cinematographer Darius Khondji and composer Bryce Dessner from The National, with whom the director co-composed the score. As we first logged on, it was a rainy day in New York City, and he marveled at the rain and being able to comfortably see it from a window in his hotel room. We spoke briefly before our interview about his connects to my home, San Antonio, Texas, and with this, we gained a comfortable report as we talked for close to a thirty-minute conversation. It was a detailed discussion from a director who seemed just as excited to talk about his new project as he was appreciative for the opportunity to express these feelings he’s had bottled up inside for some time.
Ryan McQuade: I noticed when Silverio goes home, food plays a role in his comfortability of returning home. What is the food that is a must eat for you the minute you return home to Mexico?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: I crave, and I have almost like a ritual that as soon as I arrive in Mexico City, suddenly by some reason I need to have some tacos al pastor. Pastor tacos are very hard to find in United States because it’s a very particular way to cook the meat and they have this kind of tomato and herbs and chilis cooked into the meat. So the taco al pastor is for me what I crave in Mexico City.
RM: You mentioned at Telluride, when you were introducing the film, that Bardo started off as dreams and then you brought it together almost like a ‘caldo.’ How did the writing process of the script start and how you were able to bring it all together with your co-writer [Nicolás Giacobone]?
AGI: It was a very particular kind of process that I have never been in because the fabric of this film is made of a very unique and elusive material, which is again, kind of memories and images and sometimes emotions and fears and dreams and regrets and all those things that in a way were not narrative elements or events that you can really structure. That was not my attempt. I think I was just kind of finding things that they were meaningful. This film required things of me that any other has because I wanted to bring my own kind of perspective in a lot of these themes that I could feel honest and comfortable and truthful of things that has gone on in this case, from my perspective.
And once I lay down all of these things that were again, made of very elusive material, not like a classic storytelling. And those things were not associated necessarily, they were individually for me important, or they were saying, so these were ideas that were laid down. And then these ideas, I start with Nico working them as sequences, individual sequences about the loss of the son that we have.
That was very intimate, and it was very traumatic and how to overcome that, what that mean in this story, what this emotional loss will mean. Or the loss of the memory of my mother that is struggling with dementia for years and what that means and what, or the relation with the father of things that never were said that everybody would like to see against somebody that we lost and really said the things that we should have said it when it was alive. Or about the experience that we have had of our family of being gypsies and moving all the family around the world because my job and really the impact in our family to our kids that have been growing and that has been moved and being Mexicans in the United States and all the affections and all the family roots that we have lost, that how that feels.
So, what I’m saying is all these things in a way were laid down and then what I did is was I fictionalized all of them. I think fiction has a huge impact here because fiction helps to find a higher truth. It really helped to reveal what reality hides. So, all these things are very personal, but it transmitted in the universal, I guess because all these things are things that are very common to most of the people. It took on me a lot of personal things when it fictionalized. And it was funny because again, this film was not structuring act one, act two, act three, plot point, blah blah blah. So, I betted and hoped that all these sequences that were completely separated will have a sense of meaning and as a dream will have the “no logic” of a dream that is logical for that.
RM: You mentioned that this is a very personal film. I think this might be the most personal film you’ve made. Why was this the right time for you to tell this story and these feelings that you’ve wanted to express with Bardo?
AGI: I needed it, I needed it, Ryan. I think that for me, I think I’m going to turn 60 and in a way there’s a moment that the last 20 years has been so intense and radical, and my life has changed from where I come from. I come from a middle, low class family and I never expect to be living in the United States and have success. And there’s something that maybe few people understand. I don’t know if you were raised Catholic or not, but when you are raised Catholic, as I was in a traditional conventional family in Mexico in the sixties, Catholics pride themselves on success as some kind of privilege, in a way that feels to be prevent coming close to a sin, to be tempted by the devil. You can become a lot of things by having that. So, there’s a guilty kind of feeling or a shame of having success because that can be a temptation that can get you to open the doors to many bad things.
So, when all these happen to me and trying to understand how I got here and the decisions that we made, what is the consequence of that? It was a way for me to clean my closet and put things together and try to understand many things that has been sometimes suppressed. And again, it was not like a factual or chronological experience. It was the emotional things that has been unravel that all people feel. Our lives are made of all these things that we give a sense of chronologically, but they are random images and memories that are being transformed. I want to make a film about that, the way I feel now. This is the way I feel now that my life is constructed like a pastiche, a clash of things that pretend to be in a way attached to a story, but actually it’s not.
RM: The movie tackles internal identity within Mexican/US citizens who doesn’t feel as if they belong to one country. Can you speak to why this was a vital issue to explore within the film?
AGI: I think it’s for all of us who has left our country for so long, and this case 21 years that my family and I moved to the United States. In the personal experience, I have been talking about immigration in many films. I did it Babel, I did it in Biutiful, I did it in Carne y Arena, which is a beautiful reality installation. And I interviewed 500 immigrants that cross the border in very, very tough conditions. So, I have always been observing these phenomenon of the marginalized societies that with no privilege and tough conditions cross that.
But regardless of the outcome of your adventure, if you are successful or not or if you are privileged or not, we share this very, very, melancholy or the nostalgic thing that we have lost and we missed. And there’s a background, there’s something that you are missing that you will be in between and there’s something that dies when you move, remove from that. And I wanted to talk about that emotion, but at the same time in this particular scene that you are mentioned, this is something that happened to my wife exactly like that.
And for me, I have an O-1 visa for 15 years in United States living. I have to renew every six months. I have to travel to Mexico and then come back again. And I had some rough experience sometimes. So, you realize that in some case, it’s a hard balance between when your identity or your feeling at home can be decided by somebody looking for, in a paper and it feels that you never fully integrate to something. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain, hard to explain, but that’s what I want to tell about that sequence, that it’s one of many, many experiences that we have had that feels strange.
RM: I think some of the scenes that hit me the most were the ones that you were talking about earlier with your parents but there’s a breakfast sequence where Silverio and his son are having this discussion about their identity and it’s this younger generation versus the older generation. I’m kind of curious just about these generational conversations that are in the film. It feels very specific, and it feels like you’ve had these conversations possibly many times before.
AGI: Yeah, every friend that I have, immigrant as me, not only from Mexico, but other parts of the world, when you move, you remove your family from your grandparents, your uncles, your cousins, your everything, all the affections that has been built, the roots of a tree and you remove that tree planted in another territory. In a way, I think that I was lucky that I lived in 36 years in Mexico City and then my wife and I moved to LA, but my kids, who they arrived to United States when they were four and six years old. So, they have all this family in Mexico, but at the same time we have been basically isolated in United States by ourselves, trying to build again kind of a community that will provide that. But nothing is the same with your family and your language, your customs, your identity, all what normally that give you, the collective power to belong to some place that you feel there.
When you move from another country, yes, you can integrate, but you have to disintegrate on other parts of it. And I think of the younger generations, the third culture as they are called now, the generations that have been removed. All the DACA people, like how many DACA students? There are 11 million young people that maybe were moved to the United States with no reasoning or without their knowledge and now they are not citizens of Mexico or the Latin America or they are not citizens of the United States. They are in a blurred identity, and they speak English, but they are not considered Americans and when they go back to Mexico where they belong, where they are born, they don’t even spoke the language. So that’s the battle.
And I think that for us, yes, our daughter and our son, as all the friends that I have with their kids, we have these conversations that they don’t know where they actually belong, and they have to be finding their own community and identity in themselves. It’s a little bit more challenging for somebody to understand where they belong. And some of them try to return as a friend of mine. Her daughter has just returned. She’s super happy. She bloomed. She was having a lot of mental health issues like anxiety and when she returned to Mexico she just bloomed.
It’s funny, I just want to mention something. I have a foundation which I did after Carne y Arena and I offer scholarships. Four, five years ago, I did this with University at Monterrey. So, the opportunity was for all these people, young kids that have been struggling to get a citizenship or rights to work that were completely trapped, I offered them a scholarship in Mexico. Instead of the American dream that goes from Mexico to the United States, I said, “Well the dream is maybe in your own country.” And they were super afraid to return because maybe they cannot come back. They won’t come back. We have already 15 guys that we have changed their life and all of them have bloomed in Mexico, in Monterey in this university. And it has been a wonderful thing for them to recoup their own identity and not be afraid of that. I think for young people as my kids, it’s a process it takes for them to understand where they belong.
RM: No, for sure. You have some great collaborations here on Bardo alongside your work. Can you speak to the collaborations working with Daniel Giménez Cacho as your lead, Darius as your new cinematographer, but then also working with Bryce Dessner on the score?
AGI: Well, I will say that Daniel was an amazing thing for me because Daniel is the best actor in Mexico that we have. We know that. But in the moment that I have a first meeting with him, I identified that it was the right person because we are from the same generation. We have both been married 30 years, we have two kids the same age and we are the same age. And he has, I will say, and interior life and kind of his journey, his meditations and his spiritual life is navigating toward the same place that I’m interested in.
So suddenly when we were talking, he talked about some images of some meditation and practice he did that include one of the images of the film and he hasn’t read the script. And it was very profound, and it include the kid going to the water as this kind of baby. And I was super surprised because I was confiding with him in the point of view of the way we see and feel life and what our interests were. And I said, “This guy, even if he will not be an actor, he’s perfect to understand the thing.” And I said to him, “Please don’t read the script.”
And he just read it once and I said, “Don’t intellectualize. Just do not react to nothing. Just be presence and just observe as if you are basically having a lucid dream,” which is when we are aware that we are dreaming. That’s what he was doing. And that’s kind of the tone of the acting that he did that was incredibly difficult, which is, it was not the classic actor preparation, building a character in big strokes and changes and plots and no, it was just demanding his honesty, his presence.
Because people feel that he was playing me, and he never said that. I was not interested about that. Basically, all this material that was fictionalized, which is very personal and intimate, but in a way that belonged to him. And he had his own encounter with his father that he lost 11 years ago. So all that scene in the bathroom, I could see only in his eyes how move he was, how honest he was and all the material he’s making him himself, the relation with his kids because we all have lost something. We all have been through all this challenge. So, he made the material himself and he own it. And he played very deeply and very honestly. It was one of the most fascinated kind of relations that I have had with an actor. He did an amazing job.
And then Darius, again, I met the brother that I have not met. I mean Darius is a painter, Darius is an artist. He’s an exquisite person to have on the set. He has such an amazing gentleness and class. The way he moves, the way he observes, the way he built every lighting decision on this thing that, we shot with this 17 millimeter lenses in 65 millimeter, which is a very wide in very, the apartment for example, that has a central patio. We have these long takes with 360 degrees in movement. And I want the film to always constantly move, right, like life is in constant movement and music is constantly moving and creating a generation, generation of different emotions. And I want the flow of this film to be like music, like live, like a dream that is constant movement, but he has to hide the lights and balance them in. And so, it was a huge challenge technically, but I think Darius basically the light defined the sensation of a dream of this film. And he did an amazing, amazing job.
And then finally Bryce. Bryce for me was crucial. We worked together in The Revenant. He did the last third act of The Revenant that I did with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. And Bryce, he’s just maybe the most talented musician, the most eclectic. He composed classical music, modern, contemporary, classical music. He composed jazz. He has collaborated with Thom Yorke, with Steve Reich or the Nationals.
And I knew that I wanted the metal sound and then I whistle things, the tunes and I send it to him and I said, “This is the sound that I would like.” So, we will start collaborating together. And it was such a delicious thing to see him understanding this Mexican bands of Oaxaca, the sound that is always out of tune and very melancholic that you can play it in a wedding, or you can play it in a funeral that is very related to the Jewish music or the Serbian music. And the way he composed all these kinds of whistling, that it was coming from my father who was a very good whistling and then he is working with these very humble Mexican Oaxacan band. It was one of the most forgettable moments that I have lived. It was a very, very incredible thing that the music has a huge impact, at least for me in the movie.
RM: You can sense a great deal of freedom that you have as an artist in making this. What was the most rewarding aspect or sequence of the film and that keeps on rewarding you as you’re talking about Bardo and as the film has been released?
AGI: First of all, I think it was a very cathartic experience for me because all these things coming from a very, very delicate, fragile, vulnerable part of myself, to allow myself to open and to express things that I have been maybe suppressed for a long time because they belong to the unconscious. So, to open and allow you to have the courage to be this, you know what I mean? Which I think in this world that we are living, that everything can be spit or can be a violent attack and everything can be deconstructed and criticized, I took the courage to say, at least this is my feet, even when it’s a horrible foot, I will show it to you because that’s the only one that I have. So, I think that was very liberating for me.
This is my seventh film, and artistically, it was so liberating to make a film, not necessarily as a storytelling narrative chronological thing, but to pay homage to cinema through images and emotions and light and very elusive thing, as Buñuel said, “A film is a dream being directed,” right?
And I think that many things that I was trying to put in this experience was that the people through images, through sounds, through light, through very different slices of things can experience a cinema experience without the classic conventional narrative. I push that convention to another space that I have never worked so radically and it’s an experiment.
And the last thing that I will say is that all these sensations that we all as humans have, of having these lulls of uncertain moments or wounds, it was a way to heal. There are so many, the loss of this kid, which was crucial for Maria and I, my wife. I shared that. And I think the art give us the opportunity because life is not perfect, right? And life sometimes is really, really tough or some emotions can be very tough and I think art or painting or literature or cinema give us the opportunity to represent that and to heal those wounds through that because life is not enough and you have a way to really deal with emotions and reinterpret that and liberate those things through an expression and sharing it, but understanding it from another perspective through the expression that is different from reality that sometimes sucks.
For me was a way of sharing these things with people that has been in my same situation and betting that the audiences will find this rare fish that is out there that is called Bardo, that is not a classical conventional film. But I like that. I like to offer that opportunity for people to find this kind of not conventional experience. So, it was liberating for me. That what really fills me with the satisfaction, that I was able to materialize something so elusive as a dream and make it happen. That was for me the success of this adventure and hopefully sharing this emotion with people that can share that with me.
RM: No, that’s great. I think it’s a fantastic film, sir. And thank you so much for your time.
AGI: I really appreciate that you connected with Bardo and thank you for your time.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is currently playing in select theaters and will be on Netflix beginning December 16.