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The Contender

At the U.S. premiere of his debut feature, Amores Perros, at last fall’s New York Film Festival -- following awards and accolades from festivals around the globe and box-office success in his native Mexico -- director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu stood in the spotlight in front of family, friends and a sold-out crowd that included such luminaries as Harrison Ford and Jonathan Demme. And he wept.

”I‘m not ashamed to say that I cried,“ Iñarritu declared a few days later with the same soulful sincerity that laces his film. ”I never expected the way the movie has been accepted, and it’s been a very emotional trip. As a first-time director, you give your life to this one thing that takes you away from your family, your house, your job. It‘s beautiful, but at the same time it’s scary and strange.“ When we first spoke at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Iñarritu had recently signed with the Hollywood talent agency UTA (following a purported bidding war over him with other high-profile agencies). By the time of our third conversation in late March, his film had been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. (He would lose both times to the Crouching Tiger juggernaut.) Attentive and thoughtful, he seemed essentially unaffected by the surrounding whirlwind, the very definition of low-key, cosmopolitan hipness.

Amores Perros is a bold and bracing film, a work of immense ambition that dares to aim for greatness. Wrapping three stories around a car crash, it prowls through a vision of Iñarritu‘s native Mexico City sprawling enough to include a home-wrecking supermodel who loses her dearest asset, a low-rent hit man trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, and a young man who steals his brother’s dog, then tries for his girlfriend, too. The tri-pronged story structure has earned comparisons to Pulp Fiction (the opening inescapably references Reservoir Dogs), and the T word has trailed the film since its premiere at Cannes. But Iñarritu has more on his mind than Tarantino worship, and it‘s an influence he is quick to play down. ”Living in a violent city,“ he responds flatly, ”I don’t see anything funny in violence. Tarantino‘s approach is very cynical, very superficial. Violence has consequences, and the consequences are really painful. It’s nothing to laugh about.“

Amores Perros is all the more remarkable given that feature directing is the third career the 37-year-old Iñarritu has embarked upon with surprising success. At age 20 he was a DJ for WFM, Mexico City‘s biggest rock radio station, and by 23 he was the station’s director. ”The radio gave me an opportunity to learn how to entertain people, to do sketches and things. Also it taught me how to create a mood, to sustain a certain ambiance,“ he says. ”But I almost felt ashamed to be a radio guy. It‘s so easy to end up as Howard Stern. I wanted something more.“ In 1990 he switched to advertising, working as a creative director and shooting promotional spots for WFM until starting his own production company, Zeta Film. Unsurprisingly, he looks back on his early advertising career as a training ground that ”gave me the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes. But I seem to get bored every five years, my life seems to work in five-year cycles.“

Again grown frustrated and restless, Iñarritu approached novelist Guillermo Arriaga, having read one of his screenplays, with a few ideas for features. Arriaga declined Iñarritu’s suggestions, but shared one of his own: three interlocking stories that ultimately would lead the two men through the 36 drafts and three years it took to create Amores Perros. Though their film is a gritty, hard-hitting drama, the pair were inspired by the lightweight comedies Smoke and Blue in the Face, creations of Wayne Wang and Paul Auster, another filmmaker-novelist combo, for the way they catch the flavor of a specific time and place. The duo wanted to capture the churning, mixed-up feel of modern life in Mexico City, and decided to draw from the architecturally intricate narratives of William Faulkner, another shared love, to create their conceit of following the past, present and future of a car crash and the lives it interweaves (what Iñarritu refers to as a ”centrifugal structure“). They had also already decided on the film‘s metaphoric use of dogs. As Arriaga explains, ”I think that dogs are the animal that emotionally best represents human beings. We wanted what happens to the dogs to reflect what happens to the people.“

In an intersection worthy of their own script, Iñarritu and Arriaga were into their writing process when producer Martha Sosa of Mexico’s Alta Vista Films approached the director about doing a feature on the strength of his commercials and his storytelling abilities as a DJ. Surprisingly, Iñarritu told them to wait until he and Arriaga could finish finding the right balance of elements in their script. Ultimately, Alta Vista would secure the film‘s budget of approximately $2 million, quite healthy by the standards of Mexican productions. The title translates as the punning Love’s a Bitch, and, although they take up less than 20 seconds of footage in a film that‘s over two and a half hours long, it’s the early scenes of underground dogfights that have proven to be an unintentional attention grabber, causing festival walkouts and narrowly avoiding cuts to receive R-equivalent certification in Great Britain. Special harnesses, muzzles and wires were used to ensure the dogs‘ safety, but some people just won’t believe that none was hurt. ”People will see on the DVD, frame by frame,“ responds Iñarritu, simultaneously pained and bemused by the accusations. ”It‘s the camera and the sound design that make you swear it happens. In a way, it’s a compliment when people won‘t believe it’s not real, like a magician. But all directors are liars, and the bigger liar you are the better. And no one ever asks if we killed anybody in the car crash. No one cares about the people killed in Gladiator.

“It‘s not a film about dogfighting. It’s a film about life. If people stay for the first 15 minutes, they‘ll stick it out for the whole thing, because they realize what it’s really about. For me, it‘s not a violent movie, it’s an intense movie. And that‘s different.”

With cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s hand-held camerawork and the same unusual printing process used in Three Kings, the film has a bold and jarring look that heightens the wallop of its adventuresome storytelling. “We were after a realistic feel for the movie, but with a punch to the stomach,” says Prieto. Having previously worked together on numerous commercials, he and Iñarritu knew they were thinking alike when they both brought the same book of Nan Goldin photographs to their initial production meeting. As Prieto continues, “We felt we needed to give an extra edge to convey what living in Mexico City or any megacity can be like. Things are not under control, and you know that anything can happen at any time.” Unlike the retrograde images of Mexico as corrupt, unruly and impoverished, Amores Perros portrays a cosmopolitan country on the brink of big changes -- full of confusion and contradiction but brimming with hope. It is of no small significance that the film opened in Mexico a couple of weeks before last year‘s elections overturned the PRI, which had ruled for more than 71 years. “I think the same forces in Mexican society that were pushing for change influenced the film,” says Arriaga. “It’s a mirror, and people are grateful for this movie because they see themselves as they are.”

After promoting Amores Perros for almost a year now, Iñarritu has begun to make his way through the projects being sent by his new agents, while also squeezing in the odd commercial job. Meanwhile, he and Arriaga are well into the first draft of a new script, 21 Grams. The director is pointedly staying in Mexico City with his wife and children, hoping to keep both the artistic and cultural baggage of “going Hollywood” at arm‘s length. “I would like to work with somebody, not for somebody,” he concludes at our final meeting with a slight air of defiance, while also acknowledging the difficult, uncertain waters ahead. “I’ve always been in control of my process. I‘ve been the owner of my life for a long time. If somebody wants to control my material, my actors, my cut, they need a secretary, not a director. I could never do that. I can wait.” A charming smile undercuts the moment. “Never say never, but I will try.”

Amores Perros opens in Los Angeles on April 13.


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