Is it true that it took you a long time to put Biutiful together?
Yeah, it was a long process. The writing process took me almost two years, and then there was a lot of research. I spent a lot of time in Barcelona, having the privilege to get into these communities and understand the whole thing. It was a long shoot, too – 14 weeks – and then, in post-production, I took my time. It was a luxury I’ve never had before, almost one year of editing. So by the end it was almost four years.
How does that work, taking a whole year to edit?
Sometimes you can get the whole film in maybe ten weeks or twelve. The problem is those last few frames. Ninety per cent of the film you get very fast. And then it is just that last ten per cent that can make you crazy. You start to find that even just one frame or two frames can change the meaning of a performance or add some things. So it’s like a diet. the first kilogrammes go like that (snaps his fingers). But then the last one is harder. What I did was, I had the opportunity to separate myself a little bit from the film. And when I returned, it was very clear what I had to do.
The title is very specific. What does it mean?
Well, I honestly thought, from the beginning – at least for me – that one of the dramatic tensions that exist throughout the whole film was that even in incredibly tough circumstances, great opportunities rise for beautiful human things, or meanings of things, that are beyond the pain. And that’s what this title means, in a word, for me. There is also a glimpse of humour, in a way, in the way the Spanish pronounce English, which is terrible! (Laughs) And at the same time, there’s a thought I had, which is that not all beauty is beautiful. You know?
Was it your working title, or a title that came to you after you’d made it?
Normally, all the titles of my films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel – I really choose very late in the process. This one, in a way I knew it earlier. I knew early on that it would be called Biutiful.
And did you always know it was going to star Javier Bardem?
Yes. Again, this is the first time I’ve written something especially for someone and taken the risk of being rejected. But fortunately he accepted. But I always saw him doing this role. So I wrote it, I shaped it and I designed it for him.
And did he say yes straight away?
Hmmm, no. It took three days. He knew that what I was offering – at least this is what he told me – was not a role, it was a journey. He knew that he would have to journey to a very dark place, and the way he works…. He knew what kind of place he’d have to go to. So he had to think about it.
How did you shape the character of Uxbal? Was it through research?
The character simply appeared to me. It’s a thought that really provokes me, and excites me, and scares me. For me it, it was a privilege just to make a film about that, to explore what one man would do with the last 75 days of his life, in the context of the world I’m presenting.
So what research did you do? Did you go to Barcelona and spend time with those people?
Yes. I was able to get into these communities, to get to know them. Most of the people that appear in the film – the Africans and the Chinese people – are people who have been in those circumstances. The places I shot in were basically real places. I went with the police to arrest some people that had slave people working in their factories and I watched the moments when they were caught. So for most of it, there’s a lot of journalistic research there. As a human experience, it was great. And surprising.
Is that kind of research something you like to do?
Yes, but I have a rule – too much analysis is bad. Sometimes you can go too far. I mean, I’m not doing a documentary. But the way I work, I’m inspired by real events – I’m not imitating them, or illustrating, or dramatising them. I’m //inspired// by them. But it’s good for me to know what I’m talking about. Then I can invent or avoid certain certain things, or I can tool it. But, for me, it is good to know the whole material, the facts. And that’s something I can play with to make a story.
Did anything you found, or anyone you met, influence the story in a way you hadn’t foreseen? There’s a lot of illness in the film, both physical and mental…
Unfortunately, many of these things have been in my families – my wife’s family and my own family. So, unfortunately, I know those things – I’ve been closer than I would like. And cancer? I think fifty per cent of the population, in some way, will die from some form of cancer; it’s a horrible disease, and most people will have a relative with cancer, I guess. The bipolar thing is a very terrible thing; it’s kind of a new-brand emotional disease, which is very difficult for everybody who suffers it. because it’s not craziness, it’s not schizophrenia. It’s not an easy emotional disease to deal with, as a family member or even as a patient. I, unfortunately, know these things.
So how much came from you and how much came from the research?
It’s a combination, I think. I don’t know exactly the percentage, but there are things you create. You get facts, you find out how things are, and then you put that to work for you own universe.
Why does Uxbal seem to have these psychic powers?
You know, honestly, that was something that was dictated to me. It wasn’t something I was conscious of. When you are developing a character, sometimes it’s a very mischievous process. Sometimes the character tells you: “I’m doing this. I need to do this. I //am// this.” And I began to research this. So I interviewed a lot of these guys and women. I met three of them that were really impressive. In the movies, these guy have been portrayed as people with soft, flowing clothes and candles in their houses… Long hair… A new age kind of thing. (Laughs) And it’s not true. Many people that have these kind of gifts, the people that see the aura, that see things, most of them are really uncomfortable with it. It’s not an easy thing, it drains them emotionally. Some of them make a living by that, but some of them don’t – they do it as a favour. It’s a very complex thing and very funny, because you can find very normal, ordinary people with that gift. In the film, the woman who helps Uxbal to navigate this world, that character was inspired by a woman I met in Barcelona. A very humble, nice woman. When you go into her house and you talk to her, you immediately find something very pure and very profound. She has no interest in money. She just has that… knowledge. She knows something that you don’t know.
There is a recurring theme in all your films, of people trying to connect. This time that extends to the other world…
I guess for all of us, the question of life is: what is there? That’s the first question of the film and the last question. What is there? What the //fuck// is there? That’s what gets us crazy, I think. I think it’s nice for me to have this privilege. I used all the courage I had as a director, after Babel, not to make a franchise, a film with explosions – a $100 million film. I wanted to make a personal film and use that privilege to make a film about a tough subject matter in Spanish – in my language – and use all the tools that I wanted. That was fantastic for me, to make a film about //death//. Normally you have to make a horror film, a genre film. This is a very personal film. I couldn’t have made it now, because things have changed. I was lucky.
The reviews out of Cannes weren’t very kind. Perhaps for the reason you say – it’s a film about death that doesn’t hide behind a metaphor…
This is not a comfortable film for many people. It creates shadows, and it has a resonance that can put people off. Because you cannot brand it. It does not work in the usual conventions, in the structure of it, the narrative of it and the genre of it. It doesn’t obey many too many things that you can feel comfortable with. It’s a journey. You can like it. Or you can //not// like it. But nobody will be indifferent. That’s what I know. People really feel very irritated by it or people really are into it so passionately. And that’s what I think art should be – to provoke. I’ve seen some of the reviews by people who saw it a year ago, and they are //still// talking about how irritated they were by the film. And I love that. I love that. Because it means that it means something much deeper. I love that. I have to say that art should provoke, It’s not about the quality. This is not a film where you have to say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. This is a film that offers you a journey.
How did you prepare Javier to take that journey? Or didn’t you?
It was an intense collaboration. I have intense relations and intense participation during the shoot with the actors. I talk with them a lot. Honestly, every actor I work with is different, from Sean [Penn] to Benicio [Del Toro] to Gael [Garcia Bernal] to Brad [Pitt]. They all have their own mechanism, which you have to respect. But at the same time you have to impose what’s needed and get them to a bridge where you can arrive at something you can both be comfortable with. Although I always make sure they subordinate to the dramatic needs that I have. Because if you leave them alone, they can do genius things, but those genius things aren’t necessarily working for the film in general.
What was Javier like to work with?
It was a very intense process. Sometimes actors can resist themselves – when they are going through different territory, they can resist, and you have to push. And the process was painful. But what was always good about it was that we were looking for the same thing. We shared the obsession and the perfectionism, so we were looking for the same thing, passionately. And that was really rewarding.
The film looks so natural. Surely Javier is too famous to walk down those streets…
At the beginning there was a fear of that kind of thing, because we shooting in these neighbourhoods and we wanted to become part of them. But we were left alone, pretty much, I have to say.
Why did you decide to leave behind the multi-stranded format of your last three films?
After Babel I felt that I was getting into a predictable route. I didn’t wanted to be branded as the multi-linear guy. People were just trying to guess how smart I was, and it was becoming more of a guessing game, an intellectual kind of game. And after those three films that I did, where I did those things, I began to think that I have said enough, and done enough, by exploring those structures. So I deliberately wanted to explore a straight, linear narrative. Even though it has a circular structure – it begins when it ends. But I explore a new genre, which is a tragedy, with some metaphysical or supernatural elements that I have never played with before. And at the same time it’s an extension of my other films, because thematically, visually and emotionally, there are similarities and differences. Simultaneously.
So what are the similarities?
Well, I think the father theme, the filial love story, that is something that has been present the whole time. And I would think there are emotional strings and tones that exist in the other films, in a way. I can’t go against that. (Laughs) I do apples. And if you do apples, you are an apple tree! You can’t do… I don’t know, cherries! (Laughs) But I try to say different things. And I’m very proud because I think I explored things that were challenging for me, that were new, and I navigated them.
Why did you set the film in Barcelona?
It was just that I discovered that part of Barcelona. I think all of Europe has been struck by immigration, and it’s getting really, really tough. And I found that in Barcelona – thousands of emigrant people living in these circumstances in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Which it is. In the First World. But it has these hidden, dark places. For me, it was fascinating to find that in Barcelona But it’s not about Barcelona, the film. I didn’t care about Barcelona. Maybe the Barcelonans were mad about that! (Laughs) It was just a background, it was just a city that represented all the cities in Europe that are dealing with the same issue. So it was a great opportunity, because it allowed me to add these people – the Africans and the Chinese – to the fabric of the film.
Do you think this a political film?
Yeah… I mean, I don’t want to subordinate my films to a political view. If I wanted to do that, I’d make speeches or write for the newspapers. I will never subordinate or sacrifice the drama or the truth I want in order to make a propaganda film. I think that no matter what you do, a film is political. Always, a film contains a statement. With every decision you make, you are proposing something, you are saying something. But something I didn’t want it to end up being was preaching to people, or victimising these guys and blaming the government. I think the human drama is much more complex than that, and I didn’t want to do easy solutions, or just use that as my point of view. I just wanted to give them the same human problems as the main character. These families, these Chinese, their drama is the same: they have to feed their kids. They have no jobs. It’s the same as Uxbal. He is unemployed, he is dealing with the black market, he has to feed his kids. He has the same father worries. I wanted them to be at the same level of humanity.
The film changes a lot, visually, throughout. The image even seems to physically expand…
This film, even though it looks very natural and very documentary-like, it’s pretty much designed. There’s a lot of things that I played around with. I always assign the visual space to the point of view of the character and what the drama is that he’s going through. I wanted Uxbal to be a guy that is very tight, even in his wardrobe – the jacket he wears. He controls his kids, the Africans, the Chinese, his wife… The camera in those scenes is all long-lens, shaky and unstable. It’s a control thing, tense. And once he finds out that he will die… Little by little, during the journey, he begins to surrender, to give up. He begins to learn, and he gets to slowly understand himself. And there is a transition in every single decision, in the colour palettes, in the wardrobe… The handheld camera becomes much more stable – the movement of the camera – and there’s a moment when I thought that he would be seeing everything in much more of an expanded way. He would be much wiser, in a way. So I changed the format from 1:85 to 2:40. And then I changed it even to anamorphic. After that, everything became more relaxed. And every time there’s a point of view show, every time Uxbal looks at an object, I change the speed. Instead of shooting 24 frames per second, I shoot 27, so everything in the moment becomes a little bit slower. He observes things more clearly. It’s very subtle. But I think it helps to navigate the emotional journey.
Have you ever thought of doing a Hollywood movie?
Yeah. A lot of people were surprised that I was doing a Spanish movie, because that would reduce its market. You know what I mean, all that shit. But for me, a film takes me three years. My pregnancy is three years! (Laughs) So to spend three years just to make a career move… I can’t. I don’t have a problem doing another kind of film, but, again, this was a privilege. To have all this money to make this film. I didn’t follow the logic of business, or the mercenary scenario the industry is in now. I did exactly the contrary. I’m probably wrong, but I was very happy to do that.
Were you surprised by the Oscar and Bafta nominations?
It was very surprising, I have to say. All the Oscar nominations, the Bafta nominations and the Goya nominations… I think it’s incredibly surprising, for me, because I’m sure this film is anti-Academy. I’m sure about it! (Laughs) It doesn’t touch the right notes for the Academy taste, in the conventional way. But I have to credit the reverberation of the film. It’s funny, because it just stayed with people longer than I ever expected. It has an aftertaste, or a perfume. It plays better after. I don’t know how to explain it. It has never happened to me before. It was taken one way in Cannes, and one year later it came back in an exactly contrary way. One French guy, a guy I respect as a movie critic, he said to me, “Alejandro, I saw your film two times in Cannes. The first time I was overwhelmed by the emotional wave and I couldn’t see a lot of things. And the second time I was able to get through the emotional wave and I scratched the skin of your film. Now I understand the beauty of it.” In a way, I think it is a film that needs to be seen two times. It’s like when something very emotional happens – you see it one way, how you acted, how you thought. But then when time passes, and you take out the emotionality of it, it takes on another meaning. And I think that’s what happened with Biutiful. I don’t know. Whatever happened, it’s to the credit of the film; I didn’t do anything! It’s just been navigating very strangely in people’s minds. And the nominations are a great distinction for the film. It’s a way to celebrate. (Laughs) It’s a justification to get drunk!
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of things that I really like and that I’m developing myself. I have a couple of things that I think are really interesting that are not mine. Before now, I have never done a film [ie, shot a script] that is not mine. But I like to be uncomfortable. After Amores Perros I could easily have stayed in Mexico and in ten years I would have been the king of Mexico! (Laughs) So I went to the US and I did my own script [21 Grams] and I put those actors to work on my first film there. And then I did Babel, which was another kind of challenge for me: five languages and non-actors from all around the world. So I did that as a way to put myself in territories I have not explored before. Maybe to make a studio movie will be something that will be very scary also! So… I don’t know if I will do something that I have been offered or something that I’m developing. Because this [meaning a promotional tour] is the worst time to make decisions. To promote a film like Biutiful, a small film like this, it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. So I need to recuperate.