LOST IN TRANSLATION – by Christine Spines
How the director of ’21 Grams’ pushed Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and a multinational cast through ‘Babel,’ his epic four-sided saga of sex, drugs, guns, and terrorism spanning three continents and several gulfs of misunderstanding by Christine Spines.
Cate Blanchett was marinating in a puddle of blood on a dirt floor somewhere near the southern edge of the Sahara. Brad Pitt sat nearby, slumped over on a rock, sweat pouring off him. The temperature hovered near 112 degrees in the tiny Moroccan village that had become home to the cast and crew of Babel, the politically charged four-part epic from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams). This place was seriously primitive, beyond the reach of electricity and, for the most part, running water. Air conditioning? Not a chance. Indoor toilet? There’s only one: See the village
To make matters worse, González Iñárritu, in his quest for supreme naturalism, had just asked them to perform Cate’s near-death scene for the 73rd time that day. The pressure was off the charts and there was just one distraction powerful enough to keep the two actors from going completely bonkers!
‘It felt out of control,’ Pitt says over a year later, in a luxurious, climate-controlled Los Angeles hotel suite, recounting the weeks he spent in a state of ‘frenetic anxiety’ on the Babel set. ‘I thought it was going to push me over the edge.’ Suddenly, the 42-year-old actor leaps to his feet to demonstrate that crucial survival tool. With a hint of dramatic flourish, he grabs hold of his belt loops and yanks his jeans up to his armpits, giving himself a deep-impact wedgie of what must have been the most painful sort. ‘Throughout the movie, I’d walk around like this,’ Pitt says, thrusting out his backside and waddling around like a duck. It must be said that watching Pitt transform himself into an Urkel-like superdork is a sight so perplexing, it could divert a person from just about anything. ‘You’ve gotta find things to make you laugh during the shoot. Cate called it the Hungry Bum.’ He pauses and chuckles to himself. ‘When your bum’s so hungry it’s trying to eat your pants.’
González Iñárritu’s globe-trotting melodrama was shot in six languages and on three continents. As ambitious as it is intimate, the narrative interweaves a quartet of sorrow-soaked vignettes: An American couple vacationing in Morocco (Pitt and Blanchett) are forced to depend on the kindness of strangers when struck by catastrophe; a family of Berber goatherds unravels after buying their first gun; a nanny (Amores Perros’ Adriana Barraza), torn between work in San Diego and family obligations in Mexico, is thrown into an immigration quagmire; and a deaf-mute Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) tries to cure her loneliness by prematurely uncorking her sexuality.
Babel takes its title from the biblical allegory, in which man’s hubristic attempt to build a tower to the heavens compels a vengeful God to create a cacophony of different languages that stymie communication and isolate people from one another. Using this as his metaphorical jumping-off point, González Iñárritu tackles some of the most provocative issues of our time post-9/11: globalization, immigration, the spectre of terrorism. ‘The film is about prejudice,’ the director says, ‘and the dangerous borders and walls we build that affect [communication] personally. And on a global scale, between George Bush and the Muslim world.’
Mixing politics and moviemaking has always been a dangerous game. One false move can mean the difference between Traffic and All the King’s Men. But González Iñárritu’s single-minded determination about the project persuaded some of Hollywood’s biggest power players — Pitt, Blanchett, and Paramount’s Brad Grey, who agreed to back the movie in his first week on the job as the studio’s new chairman — to take a risk. It’s a gamble that’s already begun paying off: González Iñárritu collected the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes film festival, and the movie drew a raft of raves at Toronto. Now Babel looks poised to be one of this year’s leading dark-horse Oscar contenders. And Pitt’s nakedly emotional performance has placed him in the Academy Awards running for the first time since being nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1996 for 12 Monkeys.
All this comes at the end of a long, tough slog. The Pitt/Blanchett story line was just a quarter of the journey for González Iñárritu and the rest of the core crew, who crisscrossed the globe for more than a year, shooting under arduous circumstances. Dehydrated crew members in Mexico, for example, had to be hospitalized. Appropriately enough, communication was particularly difficult: The young deaf actresses in the Japanese plotline required a series of translations, from González Iñárritu’s native Spanish to English, English to Japanese, Japanese to sign. ‘I had three pains I thought were heart attacks during production,’ recalls González Iñárritu. ‘To make this film was to give birth to a boy with four heads. Painful.’
‘I am against Tolstoy,’ says González Iñárritu, referring to Anna Karenina’s famous first sentence about how all happy families are alike, while unhappy ones are miserable in ways uniquely their own. ”Tolstoy said that happiness is what gets families together. I think what really connects human beings is what makes us miserable.’
He should know. The 43-year-old director has been dishing out despair ever since making his feature debut with 2001’s Amores Perros, which thrust audiences into a car accident’s emotional wreckage and went on to become an indie breakout hit in the States, grossing more than $5 million — an impressive sum for a subtitled movie with no stars. He then delved into the unending grief of losing a child in 2003’s 21 Grams, which yielded Oscar nominations for both Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts. And though a few of Babel’s characters do ultimately find the smallest shred of redemption, González Iñárritu and
screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams, put them through hell getting there. (The pair, who spent two years toiling on the script, have since decided to end their collaborative relationship. And despite rumors about a dispute over authorship, González Iñárritu’s camp insists their split was amicable. Arriaga was unavailable for comment.)
González Iñárritu says he culled ideas for all four segments from personal experiences after moving to the U.S. four days before 9/11. ‘With my Turkish [looking] face, people wondered if I was a terrorist,’ recalls the director, who has penetrating espresso-bean eyes and a wild tangle of brown hair. ‘It’s the world we live in now, where terrorists have made xenophobia and racism legal.” He then decided to incorporate plotlines based on the disenfranchised and dislocated Mexican nanny he hired in Los Angeles to care for his kids, and the intense isolation he perceived in disabled teens he observed while publicizing 21 Grams in Japan. ‘It was a cultural orgy,’ González Iñárritu says of his decision to take such a global approach to filmmaking. ‘My big fear was that it would end up like four stories about Moroccans, weird Japanese, drunk Mexicans, and bad Americans.’
His best hope to avoid some of those dangers? Careful casting. In early 2005, he became obsessed with persuading a reluctant Blanchett to commit to a role that primarily consists of her writhing in pain for all of 20 minutes of screen time. He felt Blanchett’s ability to communicate volumes about a character’s subtext without words (think: her taciturn frontierswoman in 2003’s The Missing) held the key to the success of the movie. ‘I needed somebody to make people have empathy with her immediately,’ he says, ‘as a woman who is uncomfortable with her husband, uncomfortable with the place, uncomfortable with herself. I had to beg her.’
Ultimately Blanchett was won over by the sheer challenge of making something out of almost nothing. ‘I had one scene to communicate everything and then had to enter a [near-death] state,’ she says. ‘But it was really about Alejandro’s passion for me to do it in the end. We all like being flattered.’
Pitt, on the other hand, showed up like a gift on González Iñárritu’s doorstep.
The star pursued the role before the script had even been sent out to actors. His interest was fueled by a longtime desire to work with González Iñárritu and by Babel’s underlying message of one-world unity, which had taken on a powerfully alluring personal dimension for him. The actor had recently become a father figure (and, ultimately, adoptive dad) to Angelina Jolie’s growing multicultural brood — Maddox, from Cambodia, and Zahara, from Ethiopia. ‘Our kids come from different parts of the world, and it’s the perfect example of, if we didn’t have these perceived differences we wouldn’t be defined by geography,’ says Pitt, who has since added another member to the family, Shiloh (the couple’s first biological child, she hails from the land of the genetically blessed). ‘What I liked most [about the script] was this idea that we’re all the same, and it’s our lack of understanding and lack of communication that gets in the way.’
But Pitt was far from the obvious choice to play a middle-aged Everyman who is quietly crushed by his powerlessness to protect his family. González Iñárritu felt that in order for Pitt to be credible in the role, the actor would have to dial back his alpha-male charm considerably. ‘My goal was for the audience to forget they’re watching Brad Pitt,’ González Iñárritu says. ‘If that didn’t happen, it would f— the film.’
Pitt was more than happy to shed his celebrity skin. Over the past few years, between big-budget bonanzas like Troy and the Ocean’s movies, he has on occasion flirted with — but pulled out of — challenging roles in auteur-driven projects, such as Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming sci-fi epic The Fountain (in which he was to star opposite Blanchett; the two will costar next in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). ‘I was caught in the leading-man trap,’ Pitt says. ‘I was trying to find my place. It’s a luxury to be invited into that forum, but it’s also a dead end.’ This time, he took to dismantling his image with relish. He embraced the idea of aging himself as a way to morefully disappear into the character. And he personally sought out makeup experts
to do the job.
Casting two huge marquee names in an ensemble movie brought its own set of hazards. The vignette in which they appear together stands in stark contrast with the others, which are populated with faces unknown to American audiences, except for Gael García Bernal (The Science of Sleep) and Japanese superstar Kôji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?). The patriarch of the Berber family, for instance, is played by a local Moroccan carpenter. Pitt and Blanchett’s star power could easily have thrown off González Iñárritu’s four-way juggling act if he wasn’t careful. ‘This was a very democratic film,’ he says. ‘Every
character was crucial. There were no principals.’
Still, Pitt’s superstar clout came in handy in nailing down the film’s approximately $20 million budget and González Iñárritu’s complete creative autonomy. Ultimately, the financing came together from an assortment of investors including Paramount, a natural home for the project since Grey had been Pitt’s producing partner. (Babel then became the inaugural release of the studio’s new specialty division, Paramount Vantage.)
Once production was under way, González Iñárritu was constitutionally incapable of taking the path of least resistance. He set out to extract documentary-style realism from actors and non-actors alike. Scenes could take days to shoot. ‘For me it was orchestrating madness,’ says the director, who pushed Barraza — a two-time survivor of minor heart attacks — to her physical limit as she carried her young charge (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s sister) for hours in blistering heat. ‘I’m a torturer,’ the director concedes. ‘I’m kind of bipolar. When I’m happy, I’m the most excited guy in the world.
But when I’m not I can be really frustrated. I don’t know how people survived.’
He could also be blunt. The time-honored Hollywood custom of massaging a star’s ego was never part of the agenda. ‘He used to just come in and say, ‘I don’t believe it,” recalls Pitt of the director’s reaction to certain takes. ‘I respond well to that. It usually means you’re relying on some intellectual idea.’ Generally, Pitt says he tries to approach his work like a full-contact sport. ‘I use it all: head, heart, and balls.’
There was just one scene during the entire shoot where González Iñárritu was satisfied with the first take: Pitt’s climactic moment, in which his character finally erupts into heaving sobs after spending days on the verge of calamity. ‘It was 6 a.m. and we had been shooting all night,’ González Iñárritu says. ‘It was very difficult, and you can see that. It was the sum of the whole experience, and he got it all.’
Despite the chaos, the shoot yielded the type of bare-knuckle adventure in the big wide world that’s hard to come by in pampered Hollywood — the moviemaking equivalent of joining the Peace Corps. ‘When you are touched by human experience like that, you cannot be the same [afterward] unless you’re dead or an a–hole,’ says González Iñárritu.
Five months after his part in Babel wrapped, Pitt traveled to Pakistan to visit earthquake victims and donated $100,000 toward relief. He then spent time in Africa, where Jolie gave birth to Shiloh in May. In September the couple gave $1 million apiece to organizations that work with the world’s sick and needy. ‘This idea that wherever you’re born decides your opportunity and the life you’re going to have… I just feel this need to even out the playing field if I can help in any way,’ he says, choosing his words carefully. ‘I see it as the main global issue: How do we create the will to understand each other? And maybe things like [Babel] will contribute to that.’
Back at the hotel, Pitt’s stylist has assembled a selection of outfits for him to change into for EW’s photo shoot. Pitt immediately starts rifling through the hangers and slips a beige cashmere sweater over his head. It’s been pre-ripped to the point of looking like it’s been through three wars. Pitt likes it immediately. ‘I’m shopping for India,’ he says of his imminent trip to the subcontinent, where he’s producing A Mighty Heart, which stars Jolie in an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about the terrorist kidnapping and murder of her journalist husband, Daniel Pearl. ‘I’m only taking a couple pairs of pants, a few T-shirts, a sweater, and stuffing them into a knapsack. And that’s it. That’s all I need.’ He pauses, pleased with the prospect of a pared-down adventure, and quietly mutters, as if to himself, ‘Film as expedition…’