There's a distinct four-country setting to the film; what was the seed for that structure?
“I needed to talk about a lot of things that are happening in cities and cultures that I love – whether it's issues of the Mexico/US border problem or the misrepresentation of Muslims as terrorists. I want to address these issues.”
What's your own experience of moving between Mexico and the states?
“I cross the border every six months. It's difficult. Sometimes it's like a ritual of humiliation. It's very sad hearing people's stories while I'm waiting for my visa. I feel privileged compared to how some people are treated. I spoke to one guy who waited three days and he was rejected; he only wanted to cross the border to go to the nearest hospital. The officials don't care.”
What did your own research uncover about the border smuggling and immigrant problem?
“The stories are unbelievable, but basically it's a two-way thing. The government of my country doesn't stop the smugglers, and the government of the US needs to arrive at a conclusion that's not about building walls, but creating a solution to make these people feel like human beings and not invisible citizens. In the film, I wanted to treat these issues with subtlety because it's more effective. I don't want to preach or make propaganda, or judge. Babel is about how our everyday lives are affected by walls, miscommunications and barriers.”
You've claimed that this is your most personal project so far…
“Three years before I made the film, I taped my personal reflections and ideas for this film. I have three tapes with three hours of reflections, and I did it because I wanted to understand my process of thinking. I never did this with Amores Perros or 21 Grams, but this time I recorded every important thought that I had about it. When I listened to it, I realised that I had to do this film because I had a personal and moral obligation to do so. There were personal reasons beyond professional ones about why I should do this film.”
Was Gael Garcia Bernal the first actor you cast for Babel?
“Yes. Even symbolically, I wanted to work with Gael in this film. He's more expensive than when I worked with him before – that's the only problem!”
Did you notice any changes from when you worked together in Amores Perros?
“Not at all. He was more of a prick than Brad Pitt, but he was good to work with. He's the same funny guy and a good friend, and that's why I called him.”
Why cast Brad Pitt in a relatively small role?
“I liked the idea of the extreme situation of having a celebrity playing such a human character. That was an exciting idea. I felt that he would help me guide people through a very tough journey of different languages, and that he would attract people who would not normally go and see this film. He's charismatic and has a rare star power, and he's really representative of American people. I was very pleased that he trusted me; he wasn't an obvious choice to play a 50-year-old guy.”
How did Brad Pitt react to his grey hair and wrinkles in the film?
“He put himself in my hands and he was into it. I told him he would be a good-looking middle-aged man, and it would be a good exercise to prepare for the next ten years.”
I hear that you attended the 'A Day Without Immigrants' rally in the US, while making Babel – what did you do?
“My kids didn't go to school and I went to the march. I was in the middle of mixing the film. The producers were really mad at me because I escaped for four hours. It was a beautiful image of at least 80,000 Mexicans and Latin Americans with flags in downtown LA. It wasn't an angry march; they were united in a cause of immigrant rights. I was very proud and happy to participate in it.”
This article first appeared in Filmink.
Sunday 6 June, 1:05am on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Language: English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Adriana Barraza