By Gary M. Kramer.
This year, at the Tribeca Film Festival, one of the Tribeca Talks programs featured Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu being interviewed by Yugoslavia-born artist, Marina Abramović. “She is the queen,” says Iñárritu, acknowledging Abramović grandly as they arrived on stage. “I’m super-nervous.” The artist opened the hour-long conversation by calling on an audience member to ask a question. It was about what Iñárritu wants as his legacy. The filmmaker responded, “Hopefully, someone will put the pieces together with meaning, but that’s not controlled by me. I don’t know what legacy means.” Abramović followed up by asking the director about his mistakes. He admitted, “My biggest mistake is miscalculating what is required to make a film. Ambition diminishes reality. I would like to plan but enthusiasm overwhelms me. She observed that he puts actors in extreme situations, not unlike how she puts herself in extreme situations in her performances. Abramović inquired, “How far do you go with actors?” Iñárritu said that different backgrounds and schools of approach dictate how he handles actors. “There is a fear of overburdening actors to feel emotion.” He doesn’t like to over-rehearse. He likes performances to be natural. In reality, film is not an art born by one moment, but by sculpting emotions through truth. “I rely on my intuition.”
Turning the tables on his moderator, Iñárritu asked Abramović, “How do you deal with emotion in a performance?” She said, “Emotion is real. We’re both immigrants. In a medicated society [people] don’t show emotion. We go for hardcore emotion, which is what I do with my performance.” The artist next asked Iñárritu what films that inspired him and his career. He explained that in Mexico, there were very few Mexican films as the government controlled the industry. The 1970s were a “terrible period” for filmmaking, and that lasted through the 1990s. They mostly screen American films in Mexico, he indicated, but there were cinemateques where art-house fare played.
Curiously, he fondly recalled two films he saw as a youth, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a 1971 British film called Melody (aka S.W.A.L.K.). He also mentioned that melodramatic telenovias were part of his upbringing. “I cried a lot,” he said, indicating the pain that they generate. Iñarratu also told an anecdote about the singer Caetano Veloso getting his cultural impression from telenovias. Abramović countered that when she was growing up in what is now the former Yugoslavia, she used to sit and watch the TV test pattern until Dynasty or Dallas came on. Shifting the talk back to Iñárritu’s process of making movies, Abramović asked if the filmmaker always followed the script or if he was fond of improvising. He answered that for a film like Birdman, he had all the camerawork planned in advance so there were no room to improvise. “It was planned so diligently.” This yielded an insight that Iñárritu imposes a “grammatical rule” on each of his films. He explained how a fart joke in Birdman, didn’t work so they cut it; it ended up costing a day of shooting. “It was like a piece of hair in your soup.”
Abramović also inquired about the director’s progression from deep realism to the supernatural. Iñárritu explained that, “Realism interested me less. It wasn’t giving me as much; it didn’t reflect, enhance, or reveal anything. Using the camera to capture reality is great, but it’s not as exciting anymore.” As the discussion moves from the creative part of moviemaking to the business side, Abramović asked about financing. Iñárritu admitted that guarantees for financing are always difficult. He mentioned Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand), a forthcoming virtual reality project. “Virtual reality is not an extension of cinema,” he insisted. “Virtual reality is everything that cinema is not. Cinema is something we create in our minds; we fill the reality we can’t see and explore narrative space with the framing, the length of a take and editing.”
He continued, “Our brains don’t have the ability to distinguish between fiction and reality. That’s why religion has survived for 2000 years.” Abramović used that remark as an opportunity to probe Iñárritu a bit about politics, and the planned Trump wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Iñárritu demurred that he didn’t have an answer for this, stating, “I’m not a politician. Ignorance and fear is the enemy.” Abramović reacted by saying how deep pain triggers change. Iñárritu concurred, “I like to play fully with serious emotions.” His comment prompted Abramović to suggest they work together on a film, and she indicated that she envisioned being on her knees on the floor as a cleaning woman. “You want to become Mexican?” he asked, incredulous. “It would be a spiritual experience,” she responded in her deadpan style. The conversation contained a few other revelations. Iñárritu said he was a “frustrated musician,” and he wish he could have worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman. And when Abramović’s asked what he wished he’d known when he started out, Iñárritu responded sagely, “to be awake and be present.”