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Spring 2016 Director's Profile: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
A historic Oscar and DGA Awards run

With Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2015 and The Revenant this year, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has made industry history, becoming the first director to win the DGA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film two consecutive years—and the third filmmaker ever to earn the Best Director Oscar in back-to-back years (the others being John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath in 1941 and How Green Was My Valley in ‘42, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives in 1950 and All About Eve in ‘51).

Yet while heralded for his individual achievement, Iñárritu is quick to point out the collaborative nature of filmmaking, citing such steadfast compatriots as cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and editor Stephen Mirrione, ACE, among others. Lubezki is on a run of his own, winning the ASC Award and the Best Cinematography Oscar three straight years—for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2014, followed by Birdman in 2015 and The Revenant this year. Mirrione is a three-time Best Film Editing Oscar nominee, winning for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic in 2001, and nominated for Iñárritu’s Babel in 2007 and The Revenant.

Underscoring how much Iñárritu values his collaborators, he observed during the DGA Meet The Feature Nominees session in Los Angeles last month, “Editing is rewriting the film.” Iñárritu described himself as “a true believer in that process,” affirming that editing is akin to music and that finding the right rhythm is essential to the success of a film.  Iñárritu added that he and Mirrione have “developed kind of a silent communication” starting with the 2003 release 21 Grams. Mirrione has cut every Iñárritu film from that point on. “He has great taste. He understands what I like,” said Iñárritu of Mirrione.

Iñárritu noted that The Revenant was “inspired by painting.” In fact he envisioned the look of The Revenant as akin to a chiaroscuro painting. “Chivo has played an incredible role in creating this film as a visual work of art,” said the director. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Iñárritu said to Lubezki, “Thank you for bringing the light to this journey.”

New collaborators
The art of collaboration also extends to brand new relationships as Iñárritu partnered for the first time with production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West on The Revenant. Fisk earned his second career Oscar nod for The Revenant (the first coming for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood in 2008) while West picked up her third Best Costume Design Academy Award nomination (the first being for director Philip Kaufman’s Quills in 2001 followed by David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009).

Two close collaborative relationships yielded the opportunity for Fisk to work on The Revenant with Iñárritu. Connecting the production designer with the director were Lubezki and producer Steve Golin, founder/CEO of Anonymous Content, one of the production companies on The Revenant.

“I’ve known Steve Golin for 20 years; he had the rights to the project,” said Fisk. “And I worked with Chivo on six films. I got introduced to Alejandro because of Chivo and Steve. I met Alejandro in his office about two years before we made the film. I realized he was a passionate artist. He doesn’t just want to make a movie. He wants to make something very special. And I wanted to help him do that once I learned more about the film and saw what he is about.”

West also shed some light on Iñárritu, describing him as “an auteur, a metaphorical, metaphysical director who responds to things viscerally, especially costumes. His career is about delving into the inner workings of characters psychologically. This journey of [legendary frontiersman Hugo] Glass [an Oscar-winning performance by Leonardo DiCaprio] is marked by enlightenment through pain and suffering. And part of what I had to do was metaphorical, portraying all that in the costumes Glass wore. Alejandro responds to costumes; his body language changes when he likes something. I had to work to get that feeling from him. It goes beyond historical detail, which he cares about very much. But he also cares deeply about the emotions that he feels a costume is portraying, reflecting the character’s inner being, what his path is, his backstory—in the case of Glass what he encountered in the wild.”

Iñárritu had the poetic idea that Glass would wear a bearskin that’s left behind in camp when his fellow trappers abandon him. The director was drawn to the irony that what almost killed Glass, a bear, ends up saving the courageous explorer in the wilderness. The bearskin protects Glass and gives him buoyancy down the river.

The love and appreciation Glass had for the wild and its creatures informed Iñárritu’s decisions, observed West in reflecting on the director. “There’s a scene where Glass climbs out of a horse’s carcass which protected him during a brutal storm,” said West. “It’s almost like Glass is reborn. He can stand up again and touches the horse in a tender manner, thanking it. He’s thankful for the animals. For Glass, wilderness is his cathedral. For that reason, I chose an almost spiritual monastic costume for him, with a hood. Alejandro responded to it—it was one of the first costumes I showed him...This was a very spiritual journey for Glass—as it was for Alejandro, and he wanted it to be like that for all of us who were making this film.”

Iñárritu shared, “For over five years, this project was a dream for me. It’s an intense, emotional story set against a beautiful, epic backdrop that explores the lives of trappers who grew spiritually even as they suffered immensely physically. Though much of Glass’s story is apocryphal, we tried to stay very faithful to what these men went through in these undeveloped territories. We went through difficult physical and technical conditions to squeeze every honest emotion out of this incredible adventure.”

Iñárritu is a three-time DGA winner. With his recent success, it’s often overlooked that his very first DGA Award came in 2012 for a short-form endeavor, Procter & Gamble’s “Best Job” produced by Anonymous Content for Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore. “Best Job” earned Iñárritu the DGA honor for Outstanding Achievement in Commercials.