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A Biutiful New Film from Alejandro González Iñárritu


Alejandro González Iñárritu on the set of Biutiful. (Photo by Jose Haro)

Biutiful is the highly-anticipated new film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose previous features – Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros – have helped elevate his country’s film-making stature to the top ranks of global cinema. Unlike Iñárritu’s other fatalistic films, which hopscotch between multiple plot lines, Biutiful is a linear tale that unfolds in the unglamorous, hard-scrabble neighborhoods of Barcelona, Spain, teeming with immigrants, where life is lived on the margins of legality.

At the center is the main character Uxbal, played masterfully by Javier Bardem, who won the best actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Uxbal’s day-to-day struggle to survive, by supplying cheap Chinese labor to sweatshops and black market goods for illegal immigrants to sell, while raising two children and dealing with his bipolar ex-wife, grows dire when he learns that he has incurable cancer and only a few months to live.

As he does what he can to put his life in order for the family he will leave behind, Uxbal moves toward acceptance and transcendence.

Iñárritu was able to rely on a familiar production team for the intense and lengthy location shoot made up of veterans who had worked with him on all or most of his previous features. They include director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Brigitte Broch, editor Stephen Mirrione and composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

In a recent interview with Below the Line, he talked about the making of Biutiful, which opens in theaters Dec. 31. The film is Mexico’s official entry for the foreign film Oscar.

Below the Line: Alejandro, you are known for your total, almost obsessive immersion in the details of the films you direct, down to designing the visual grammatical language of every single aspect of a production, including wardrobe, production design, camera movements and even the use of different film formats. Could you talk about this dedicated interaction with your production keys on Biutiful?

Alejandro González Iñárritu: Luckily, I have been working with many of the same members of my production team on my last three feature films going back to Amores Perros, and again on Biutiful. I call them my rock band.

We understand each other so well that they can read my face and by some little gesture, know if I like something or not. At the start of prep, I spend a lot of time talking with each of them about my vision, what I will need and what I would like to achieve. These are my first ideas. Then they begin to work by themselves and with each other, and through a collaborative period we cut to the bone of what I want.

Javier Bardem and Hanaa Bouchaib in Biutiful. (Photo by Jose Haro)

BTL: Your DP Rodrigo Prieto shot most of the film handheld, and did some amazing long camera takes. What was the look the two of you were going for in the cinematography?

Iñárritu: The design was based on first shooting hand-held with long lenses in a 1.85:1 format to represent Uxbal’s tightly controlled but shaky life. After Uxbal finds out he is sick, the handheld shooting gets steadier and the takes are more prolonged. And then when he begins to surrender and accept the fact that he is going to die, we widened the format and shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Also the point-of-view shots were all 27 frames per second, the lighting became more lyrical and poetic, and the handheld shots became steadier and more quiet.

It was the same with his wardrobe. His clothes were tighter at the beginning and then loosened up as he approached death. And the colors Brigitte Broch used in the production design also followed this progression.

BTL: You’re very specific in what you have in your mind’s eye?

Iñárritu: Very specific. I envision the interaction of colors and shapes and lenses. The film may look very naturalistic and improvised. In fact, everything was pre-designed with a lot of work behind it.

BTL: The production design was so realistic it was almost invisible. I assume you mainly shot on location.

Iñárritu: I don’t like sets. Everything was real locations. That kind of truthfulness permeates the film. But the elements of how these people live were created by Brigitte. She is a master at finding a little detail that has a life of its own and speaks a lot about the characters.

BTL: You’re known for doing numerous takes, up to 50. All that footage must present a challenge to your editor Stephen Mirrione when it comes to cutting the film.

Iñárritu: I do a lot of takes because I know what I am looking for, so I’ll shoot until I get that. When you have that much material the editing selection becomes more challenging and it may take more time. But it’s also richer – that’s a good problem to have.

BTL: You spend a lot of time in the postproduction editing phase?

Iñárritu: This time I spent over a year – one year and a month. I enjoy the editing a lot. And it’s very important in getting the genre and the tone exactly right. But Stephen starts making a first assembly while we are filming. Because I shot Biutiful in chronological order, that proved to be especially an advantage.

BTL: Gustavo Santaolalla, your composer, has said that he came up with almost 200 themes for the film but in the end only four were used.

Iñárritu: Yes, we took a long time trying to find the musical voice for the film, and it was difficult. Finally we got it and a lot of music was dropped. I am going to do a soundtrack CD called “Biutiful,” and then a double-CD called “Almost Biutiful,” which will include many of the tracks that were left out.

BTL: You shot the film in and around Barcelona. You had your own production keys, but much of your crew that was hired was from Spain. How did that work out?

Iñárritu: I was very lucky to work with Fernando Bovaida, the veteran Spanish producer, and Sandra Hermida, as my line producer. Another of my producer’s Guillermo del Toro, who didn’t have a great experience there on Pan’s Labyrinth, warned me to get a crew that is strong and committed to work the way I work, which is not always easy to find in Europe. I asked Sandra to find me people who would really give their life to make the film, to really kill themselves, as I would do. And she found them. The Spanish crew was young and very dedicated and supportive.

BTL: You remain very committed to using film and not going digital. Can you talk about your preference?

Iñárritu: I think film is still ahead of digital. There are some good digital cameras, but I think there is something about film that can’t be translated. There’s something about digital that reduces the soul of what you see. Maybe it’s my Romantic or nostalgic point of view, but I feel there’s a texture, a roughness, a chemical process that’s absent when you use a digital camera.

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