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Biutiful Director Alejandro González Iñárritu on Woody Allen’s Barcelona and the Problem With Ordering Coffee in New York

Since making his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has specialized in a form of globe-trotting, socially conscious, grief-driven melodrama, via 21 Grams, Babel, and the BMW-financed short film Powder Keg. In these movies, Iñárritu’s fragile human debris (played by Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, Cate Blanchett, and Brad Pitt) has been strewn across locales stretching from his native Mexico City to Memphis, Albuquerque, Tokyo, and Morocco. The director’s latest, Biutiful, heaps tragedy on Uxball (Javier Bardem), a terminally ill human trafficker with two children to provide for, a bi-polar spouse, and a side career communicating with the dead. Vulture caught up with Iñárritu recently over a hot cup of press-junket java.

Is New York the hardest place to order a coffee?
I went into this fancy coffee store in Soho. I don’t know what to think. It was disturbing to see how to buy a coffee, a fucking coffee in this store, is like you are buying gold or diamonds. Like what the hell, this is a coffee bar? I don’t know, it’s another code — that corporate-ness, the hipness of a getting a coffee in that place in that way, the way they treat you … ? “No you cannot touch it, I will touch it!” Uh, sorry … ? To have the experience of a coffee in that store, you have to learn something first. It’s just so fancy. This corporate-ness and just the kind of way we are living now, this Starbucks culture? The fancier you get and the more difficult it is to get it to the people, the more upscale … How do they say it in marketing? When you desire something? It has to be something that is …

Exactly! It’s aspirational. And it’s a fucking coffee which is water with grain, you know? It’s something that has become like a very hip, boutique thing in all cities and that is very tragic, you know what I mean? All these chic hotels, chic boutiques, chic coffee-making? Why does it have to be chic? Almost unaffordable and a double meaning of being very cool but very inaccessible in a way. I don’t know; it’s strange. The idea of it bothers me. Anyway …

In a way, you could’ve set Biutiful here in New York, or in Mexico City or L.A. or …
All around the world. Yeah.

Why Barcelona, then?
Two reasons. The first is that I wrote the script with Javier Bardem in mind and, Javier being Spanish, I thought that Spain was the place to shoot this film. If I was a more commercial, ambitious producer kind of guy, I would’ve done this film in English, but I don’t really work like that. So I decided to do it in Spain and have the privilege of having someone I wanted to use years ago. Also, we were sharing the language. It was a way for me to go back to a set where there were no translators. And then once I had the characters and the story, which was not about immigration, not about Spain, and not about Barcelona, traveling to Barcelona with the family, I found these amazing places which a friend of mine showed me. I went like, “Wow this is really crazy. This is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I have never seen that.” The complexity and the situation there. In a way as the immigrant that I am now and that I have been, even as privileged one, I realized after a lot of research about the amount of immigration and suffering with it, that this is the slavery of the 21st Century. It’s just that it’s a legal slavery, you know what I mean? Just because people are illegal, that illegality is used to justify the legal exploitation and the deliberate blindness of the societies and governments who say, “Well these guys are illegal. They deserve what they get.” That’s really striking for me. Anyway, I thought that would be a great thing to put on the table. Whoever who fails to see or doesn’t want to see that won’t get through the film because it’s something that is really shocking and painful and intense. But that’s just what it is.

What kind of research does that call for? It doesn’t sound like library work.
No. I interviewed hundreds of Chinese immigrants, I went to the real places, I went with the police to riots and to get the people that were doing the exploiting. Some of the places that I shot the film are places where these things really happened. Ninety percent of the Chinese guys that are in Biutiful are people who have actually been in those conditions. The Africans live in those houses. So all that research I did. Then to cast all these people and use all these non-actors, I wanted to use all these hyper-realistic elements. Not as a documentary but to get truth to the universe that I was presenting. So all the things that you see in there are really, really, really, real.

Barcelona’s been turning up more frequently on U.S. movie screens lately. You showed part of it that doesn’t get seen much.
I didn’t have to look very hard, you know what I mean? It may seem as if I was really looking for those places and those corners of the city, but no I literally just moved the camera to the right and it was all just there. It’s an immense community which is diverse and powerful and very human in a way. It’s exactly the opposite in a way to what we were just talking about before. You suddenly find this humanity and you smell the food and you smell the people on the street and a coffee shop is a coffee shop and a chicken store is a chicken store, you know, like it used to be. It’s real, it’s rough, it’s electrifying. That part of the city is as real as the one that’s shown in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There’s a very big and important part of the city that’s integrated by those people who are in a very limited existence by being ignored, by being invisible, by nobody wanting to see them. And that’s the point. That’s the point.

New Yorkers joke sometimes about Woody Allen’s New York, a place that only seems to exist in his films, and in a way you’ve shown the other side of Woody Allen’s Barcelona.
Yeah, well that’s a great thing, you know? I mean I love his films but you never see a black person in his films, you know? But when I arrive in New York, all I see are Latins, Africans, Arabs — I mean, I love that about New York. My eyes immediately go to that. But that’s the beauty of the freedom of what you see. Between your eyes and the object you look at is where art really lies. That’s the look of an artist. I respect that. I love Woody Allen’s films, it’s just that he’s curious about different things. I go to Barcelona and my vision just goes to that other thing. He goes to another territory. But both are true and it’s fine. It’s fine.

I think the first black character with a prominent speaking role in one of his films was a prostitute.
[Laughs.] Exactly.

Deconstructing Harry, maybe?
I’m glad he hasn’t portrayed any Mexicans in his films! Who knows what we’d be doing? But I really want to clarify that I love Woody Allen. He’s a fucking genius. He’s just portraying his universe and that’s fantastic, you know? It’s just that we’re attracted by different things and that’s the way it should be.

Biutiful deals with the afterlife as well.
For me the spine of the story is not about immigration. I’m playing with things I have never played with before. One is the genre. The genre is tragedy. It’s basically a guy falling down the black hole. While his destiny’s against him in every territory, he’s trying to stand up, he’s trying to maintain his verticality with dignity and fighting every fight as he’s kind of redeeming himself, kind of purifying himself. He’s finding a meaning and a way that all the most profound and meaningful things that he has left behind like love and compassion and forgiveness can be put together. So for me it’s a guy enlightening himself while he’s going into the obscurity. That’s the kind of thing which goes from Medea to Macbeth to King Lear. But unlike those stories, this guy isn’t a king, he’s just an ordinary man with a simple life being expressed in a very complex world. That was the idea. And I had never done that.

And I had this metaphysical element or supernatural element that I never tried before either. Not only thematically but visually. What really excited me was how somebody who is dealing with the most existential question of all, “What will happen when I die?” That existential incredible anxiety faced in everybody’s life that we will come to one day or another if we are lucky to know that we will die and we are not in an accident, you know? But this man knows exactly what will happen when he dies. And he’s dying. How does a man behave if he knows already what happens after death? I thought that was a very interesting dramatic element to that, you know? What will you do if you’re dying and you know that life doesn’t end when we die? That’s what the film is about — how to deal with that, with all the things that you have to do and what’s important to be dealing with. The contradiction of a guy miserably getting every fucking coin to get his kids something to rely on, the very ordinary, earthly things — to pay the rent and all these little things, and at the same time dealing with big questions. I don’t know if I succeeded or not but I tried to put them in the same pot.

Did you watch any films for inspiration?
I don’t do a lot of that kind of research because I don’t think that’s very healthy. One film that was important to watch was Kurosawa’s Ikiru, which is basically a guy that knows that he’s going to die. But there’s only social commentary in it and no supernatural element. The supernatural element just came with the character for me. I remembered The Death of Ivan Ilych, the Tolstoy novel, which is very beautiful. It’s a guy lying in bed and reflecting on his death and all that. I don’t know, my father used to tell me that depression and all those kinds of sicknesses are for rich people. He said a taxi driver can’t just be depressed and lying there in bed. They have to go and work and fucking get the money for the kids, you know what I mean? There’s a certain amount of reality that some people have to deal with every day and there’s not many time-outs. You have to get the fucking job done.

Biutiful Director Alejandro González Iñárritu on Woody Allen’s Barcelona and the Problem With Ordering Coffee in New York