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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Rules for a Successful Collaboration

The Oscar-sweeping writer-director of Best Picture winner Birdman joined forces with three other writers for the film.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Rules for a Successful Collaboration
[Photos: courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures]

Alejandro González Iñárritu is a “real pain in the ass.” At least that’s how Emmanuel Lubezki described him Saturday as Lubezki won an Independent Spirit Award for cinematography on Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the highly decorated film that Iñárritu directed and co-wrote (and that went on to win many more awards including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, and Original Screenplay).

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So if Iñárritu is such a pain in the ass—and it’s easy to imagine he is, what with his very specific and emphatically expressed opinions—how is he also a wildly successful collaborator? You might think that someone who is one thing (say, a perfectionist pain in the ass) cannot also be its seeming opposite (say, a great and generous collaborator), but that would be a trap. Iñárritu himself says that one of the marks of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once. Not only does he use that as a benchmark for writing dynamic characters—as he discusses below—but, evidently, he embodies it.

Here, Iñárritu’s wisdom on collaboration, ego, and meditation.

DON’T BE PRECIOUS

Iñárritu says he cannot fathom the notion that some writers have of the screenplay as a sacred text because writing it is only the beginning. “Everybody will have to transform it and touch it and interpret it,” he says, animatedly. “If that thing is not alive and flexible and is not dying and born and dying and born as people touch it, then it is just a stiff piece of paper. One thing is the notion of the thing and other is the thing,” he says of the resulting film.

Often Iñárritu doesn’t even enjoy reading screenplays. “Sometimes reading scripts is terrible. A Cuban friend of mine, a poet, once said, ‘Alejandro, the word water doesn’t soak you.’” Iñárritu then mocks the language of the screenplay: “Interior: Night. Blah, blah blah,” he says, disdainfully dragging out the aaah. “The problem with the screenplay is that it’s not literature and it’s not a film. It’s a very weird, technical kind of blueprint that will be absolutely transformed into something else that is not that, you know?” And just in case you’re not sure how he feels: “Honestly, a screenplay is no literature. It’s fucking technical shit. It’s the beginning of something. And whoever thinks differently is delusional.”


COLLABORATION IS PART CONFRONTATION

“My brain works much better when I am confronted by [another person],” says Iñárritu, who used to be confronted by just one collaborator: Guillermo Arriaga, on Babel. More recently he has done it with as many as three: He shares writing credit for Birdman with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo (oh, and Raymond Carver, but that’s a nod to the play within the movie, which is based on Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love).

“Once I speak some stupid thing it can become a beautiful thing,” says Iñárritu, who finds that together he and his collaborators grapple with an idea and turn it into something worthwhile. “Somebody else may return to me with a stupid idea and then maybe I can transform it. We speak something and it can be transformed. But that interchange of ideas is [like] a mirror you hold up to yourself. I find that extraordinarily useful to make much more potential than what I have in my mind.”

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And he believes that rather than sacrificing your voice in that process, it only serves to define it. “It does not mean you lose your voice and it will be an orgy of voices, that is not true. I directed the film, it is my voice…but for me the collaboration in this case was the most beautiful and generous and funny one by far that I’ve had.”

EVERY CHARACTER HAS CONTRADICTIONS

“I think intelligence basically can be in a way defined by the possibility of having two opposite ideas living together and at the same time functioning,” says Iñárritu. “That’s why I think a smart script has two things living in the same place and they’re absolutely contradictory.” The example he gives of that is Birdman’s main character, Riggan, played by Michael Keaton. “He thinks that he is a great fucking artist half the time and half the time he thinks that he is a fucking jellyfish.”

And Iñárritu sees such contradictions all over our culture, in ourselves. “We want to conquer the world and have 1,000 likes, 1 million likes, but at the same time we are depressed. We are lonely but we have 10,000 followers. We are all bipolar. I’m popular but I’m lonely, I’m an artist but I’m a whore. That’s how this guy [Riggan] operates.”

THE DIRECTOR IS KING, BUT THE KING IS FALLIBLE (LONG LIVE THE KING!)

We should get something else straight, while we’re at it. Iñárritu is talking about films, not movies. “I don’t watch movies, I see films.” And those films are the result of the vision of one person: The director. “When somebody is behind it with a vision, no matter how many collaborators he has—and there are always many—200 people in the crew and three or four writers, it doesn’t matter, it’s the vision of whoever makes the last decision.” He illustrates his point by jumping up and running across the room, where he explains how one director’s perspective can change a story.

“If I had a scene with you and me, if I put the camera fucking here and I shot this room, which is nothing, it says something different than if we go to a cafeteria full of people and do an over-the-shoulder shot. And the pacing and how I edit it and if there’s music . . . If it’s shit, it’s your shit. It’s nobody else’s fault. It’s not the fault of the actors. If the film doesn’t work, it’s your fucking fault. Because every decision at the end was made by you. You can be hearing ideas, you can be influenced and be flexible, but in the end the last thing, the print of the film is by one person, only one. That’s the truth.”


WANT CLARITY? MEDITATE

You don’t have to spend a lot of time in the presence of Iñárritu to know that he is an intense person with deep passion and a wildly reeling mind. To keep that mind in check, he meditates every day, often twice a day. “For me now [it] is not a choice, is not an option for me, it’s just a way of living. [It] is a condition to try and help my brain which is always all around the place.” So for 24 minutes every morning and often for another round in the afternoon, he tries to “touch base with something. And I think it helps me enormously,” he says.

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“I’m more aware of how my demons operate. It’s an observation. Meditation is nothing but to observe and concentrate deeply on something. By concentration you get some insight. By just observing. It’s literally observing, from my breathing to what I feel. And by observing it’s like open a window in a dark room. Not until you open the window can you see clearly. Aah, there’s a red chair there. Nothing changed but you see clearly. It is just to be aware what is the furniture that is happening in those dark rooms. When you are aware you are a little more conscious. That consciousness prevents you from acting in an unconscious way. That’s the only difference. It’s such a simple thing and that’s why it’s so effective. It’s just a practice that anyone can do.”

Iñárritu follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese master of mindfulness. “It’s like my island that I can touch, my own time and I feel completely by myself. It’s very nice and gentle. It’s the most simple thing, like breathing. Literally just being aware of your breathing is a powerful thing.”

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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