In Babel, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, using riveting imagery and a complex plot, tells a closely observed tale about misunderstanding and miscommunications in today’s globalized world. Among its themes: fatalism and the law of unintended consequences. It is also Inarritu’s cinematic metaphor for the unfinished Biblical tower of Babel, which was being built to reach heaven. Construction stopped when the workers all began speaking different languages and could no longer understand each other.Babel completes a trilogy by Inarritu, preceded by Amores Perros in 2000 and 21 Grams in 2003. All three have garnered critical accolades and prestigious awards. Babel scored at last year’s Cannes festival with Inarritu being named best director and Stephen Mirrione, the film’s editor, getting the coveted award for technical excellence. The film and its actors and creators are considered strong contenders in this year’s awards derby.Mirrione, who used an amazing 4,000 cuts to assemble the finished film, had previously worked with Inarritu on 21 Grams. The rest of the production crew keys were longtime collaborators who worked on all the films in what is sometimes called Inarritu’s “death trilogy.” Among them: director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Brigitte Broch, composer Gustavo Santaolalla and sound designer MartÃƒÂn HernÃƒÂ¡ndez. Their close bond to Inarritu helped in pulling off the challenging project.Babel weaves together stories that stretch across three continents from northern Morocco, to Southern California and Mexico, and on to Japan’s megametropolis, Tokyo.The artifact connecting the tales is a rifle owned by a Japanese businessman who leaves it behind on a trip to Morocco. The gun winds up in the hands of two Maroccan youths who, during target practice, shoot into a tour bus, critically wounding an American played by Cate Blanchett. Meanwhile, a Mexican nanny taking care of the Blanchett character’s two children in California takes them across the border to a wedding in her hometown. The film is the tale of many repercussions.The only familiar stars in Babel are Blanchett and Brad Pitt, who plays her husband. The others in the large cast consist of actors largely unknown to moviegoers, as well as numerous amateurs discovered on location. That was also the case with the crew. Beyond the core production team, many were recruited at each of the filming settings. Overall, Babel required 2,500 location setups.Below the Line: Not only is Babel itself an ambitious multi-segment movie, it’s the final film in your trilogy. What are your thoughts after finally finishing this seven-year effort? Inarritu: I’m very happy with how all three films turned out. They are linked by the theme of the relationship between parents and children, and also how in our global world, there is so much miscommunication, but also unexpected interconnection. Of the three, Babel was the most comprehensive and the most difficult to make, not only in terms of logistics, but it was an emotional and intellectual challenge to do this all in one film. We not only shot on three continents, but the film itself was a kind of Babel. There were 17 languages used by our cast and crew members. That required a lot of translators, and also goodwill, which was plentiful.The production was unique, different from any of the other film I have done. We essentially made four movies—if you include the stories in Southern California and Mexico, as well as those in Morocco and Japan. And we tried very hard to really penetrate these different cultures, not making a film from an outsider’s point of view.Babel was not only an extended cinema journey, but an internal one as well. Everyone on the cast and crew, myself included, was transformed, and the film itself changed as we got to each location. I tried to observe and absorb the situation we encountered, and that even meant rewriting parts of the script for each story during the shoot, to take into account the cultures and the circumstances we faced.BTL: You had worked with almost all of your department keys on previous films. Did that make this long undertaking easier? Inarritu: For many of the members of the crew, I was a friend of theirs even before I became a filmmaker. And it was a privilege to work with them once again on Babel. Over the course of almost a year, we lived around the world like a big circus. And I owe it all to my production team and other collaborators, who provided the best and most satisfying moments, both in making the film and out of it. Without them, it would have been impossible to conceive even an inch of the film.BTL: In addition to your keys, did you use local crews much, given the far-flung locations? Inarritu: The lead production people were the same in each of the locations, including some gaffers and grips. But the rest of the crew was hired in each separate country.BTL: You had a remarkable number of set-ups.Inarritu: We had 2,500 different set-ups—a tremendous amount. It was very crazy—a lot of jumping around. I was trying to document all kinds of thing, in addition to the dialogue scenes in the script.BTL: What did you do visually integrate the look of the separate segments into a cohesive final film? Inarritu: Visually it was a challenge. I decided to shoot each story in a different format. Mexico was shot in 35mm; Morocco was in Super 16mm; and Japan was shot in 35mm with anamorphic lenses. In addition, my DP, Rodrigo Prieto, used different film stocks. These choices were to have the tone of each part be dramatically and emotionally connected, but at the same each of them have a different texture so you knew you were in totally different settings. The idea was to try to show the underlying character of each story.There was always a risk that by using the different formats, the film could end up as a pastiche. But Rodrigo did a great job working this all out. The characteristic look of each story he differentiated in terms of film grain, color saturation and the relative sharpness of the backgrounds.BTL: The film takes place in far-flung parts of the world. Did you use any sets in addition to the actual locations? Inarritu: Basically everything you see in the film is real. I don’t like sets too much. There’s something about places that’s real; you can’t fake that. You can add a bit and change some of what’s there. The magic of Brigitte Broch as a production designer is that when she adds something, even the smallest extra detail, it only adds to the sense of reality.BTL: That must have quite a job for her.Inarritu: Brigitte worked very closely with Rodrigo to tie the segments together. One solution she came up with was to have a different color scheme of each setting, at the same time, keeping the hues within a range. There was an earthy, burned orange for Morocco, bright red for Mexico and kind of purple for Japan. She didn’t overdo this, however, to the point that it became unreal or too obvious. She also tried to be faithful to each culture, using the materials of each setting. Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer, also had a monumental job, and he used local costumers for each segment.BTL: What was your shooting sequence? Inarritu: We began shooting Babel in Morocco in May, 2005, then on to Mexico and then Tokyo. We completely finished the picture, including postproduction, a year later. We were rushing at the end so it could be ready for Cannes last May.BTL: Talk about some of individual locations and the shooting conditions you ran into.Inarritu: In Morocco, the key thing was finding a location to stand in for the village of Tazarine in the script, in the southern desert with little or no foliage, which was supposed to have a small tight-knit enclave, as well as a central plaza and a mosque. We needed roads large enough for the tour bus, and also our production trucks. After a series of scouting expeditions around Ourazazate, Morocco’s new burgeoning film center, we found Taguenzalt, a remote Berber village built into rocky gorges which met the other requirem
ents. The village was very humble and real, and the people were extremely nice and also very spiritual.After Morcco production hopped back to Tijuana, Mexico. Again we were shooting in a dusty desert setting near a small, rural town, El Carrizo, which stood in for the rundown hometown of Amelia, where she goes to the wedding taking the two American children she’s caring for. Some key sequences were shot along the border on the Mexican side, where we found the fencing and the surveillance cameras that are a fact of life.A smaller cast and crew moved on into the desolate Sonoran desert for the scenes in which Amelia and the children struggle to survive after the disastrous failed border crossing. Five people on the shoot had to be hospitalized from the heat.Finally we went to Tokyo. I’ve been there before. It’s a fantastic metropolis and )has a very sophisticated film infrastructure. But it was challenging in other ways. Things work slowly. And there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no way to obtain permission to shoot anything. So we were always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew.BTL: How did you do that amazing final shot, where the camera is close-up on Chieko, the deaf young girl, on the balcony of the high-rise apartment and then steadily pulls back until it captures what seems like all of Tokyo? Inarritu: Rodrigo and I struggled with a lot of ideas. Finally, the camera was placed on a 30-foot crane on a rooftop of another building, and went from the closeup and drew back. But ultimately, it was a combination of digital and the real shot.BTL: This must have been a daunting task for your editor, Stephen Mirrione.Inarritu: It was hard. Yes, in the final version there are 4,000 separate cuts. He said it was like assembling a mosaic from little tiles.BTL: When did you start editing and how long was the first cut? Inarritu: We finished shooting December 2005 and he started the edit in January. But even before that, the previous October, he started assembling scenes. I love the editing process. That’s where you get control. You come up with a version, then you rest a little and then go back. The first edit was four hours. We had a lot of good stuff, but it had to be sacrificed. It’s like having to kill your mistress.BTL: The music by Gustavo Santaolalla also did a lot to knit the film together.Inarritu: We’ve worked together since Amores Perros, and through 21 Grams. We’ve been developing a particular music language that connects with the human aspect of the three movies. There were some regional sounds. Like the music at the wedding Mexico. But he didn’t want to make it a travelogue. He came up with two simple stringed instruments—an oud from North Africa—a kind of early guitar—and the Japanese koto, which is plucked—as the main voices in the orchestral soundtrack.BTL: Babel, with its different segments, must have gone through a thorough digital intermediate.Inarritu: Yes, it was very helpful. Especially with the different formats, we could put them all together and come up with a finished final film. There also was some small adjustment in color and lighting. But most of what’s in the film is what Rodrigo saw through the camera lens. The digital intermediate is fantastic but it’s easy to overdo it.But aside from such technical issues, the real meaning of making Babel to me was the cultural interaction while making it. The way we worked with people from all of these countries was really beautiful, and reflects the theme of the film, the need to communicate in a global world.
Written by Jack Egan