Intriguingly, each of the locations of BABEL has played a role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s life. Gonzalez Iñárritu took a life-changing trip to Morocco at age 17, and from the minute he was first introduced to that country’s shimmering deserts and soulful mountains, he determined he would one day make a movie there. In this age of terrorism and fear, the setting became even more relevant to Iñárritu’s story of mixed up communication and mistaken motives.
Similarly, the director’s previous visits to Japan inspired him to commit to returning one day with a movie camera. In 2003, he went to that country to promote 21 Grams, and visited a place named Hakone, a landmark mountain with steaming thermal waters that struck him as magical. While climing up the Hakone mountain, he saw old man taking care of a mentally-retarded adolescent Japanese girl with such love and dignity that the image had a powerful effect on him – leading to the idea of telling the story of a relationship between two isolated people in the middle of bustling Japan. Later on, the strange and constant appearance of deaf people in that same trip, became the seed of the Japanese story,
Another influence on Gonzalez Iñárritu as he forged BABEL was his own recent move from his former home in Mexico City to the United States. The director knew he wanted to set one of his stories against the deadly and highly contentious border between the U.S. and Mexico. “Being an immigrant myself, I gained a clearer perspective of myself, my country and my own work. I also now understand what it feels like being a Third World citizen living in the First World country, and the complexity of its significance.”
Production of BABEL began in Morocco in May of 2005, then moved on to Mexico and Tokyo – but wherever the production traveled, González Iñárritu attempted to bring the same sensibility. “We wanted to blend ourselves into each of the cultures,” he says. “We wanted to transcend the black-and-white view of the outsider or tourist.”
In Morocco, the key was finding a location to stand in for the village of Tazarine, a small, tight-knit enclave in the southern desert. Gonzalez Iñárritu had a very clear vision of what he wanted – a traditional-feeling community featuring a central plaza with a mosque, little or no foliage and roads large enough for a tour bus (not to mention a few production vehicles) – and set out to find it.
Following a series of scouts near Ouarzazate, Morocco´s now burgeoning film center, Gonzalez Iñárritu found the remote Berber village of Taguenzalt. The village, built into the rocky gorges of the Draa Valley, boasts ancient, adobe-style houses (ksours) with rooms facing around an inner courtyard. On rooftops, Berber women saturate wool in vats of boiling water, using henna, indigo, saffron, and other ancient dyes to make the prized rugs named for the Berber people. Each night the sky, dusted by fierce Saharan winds, glows orange and red as the sun sets.
“I liked that this village was very humble and very real,” comments Gonzalez Iñárritu. “The people in Taguenzalt were extremely nice and spiritual. And I mean really spiritual. I felt safe there.”
The villagers of Taguenzalt can trace their Berber ancestors back more than 3,000 years, and today subsist mainly as pastoral nomads and farmers, raising dates, figs, goats and sheep, as well as weaving their internationally renowned rugs and handbags. Taguenzalt is so traditional that as the film began production, the village was just getting “electrification,” power poles and cables to provide the local people with their first ever electricity. So while some villagers had seen a movie on battery-powered television sets before, no one recognized the actors – even Brad Pitt. Thrust into the world of international film production, the entire village enthusiastically participated, with some 200 locals serving as extras.
Despite the warm hospitality of the people, the conditions in Morocco could be daunting. Temperatures regularly soared to 98 degrees, with afternoon windstorms whipping up sands from the southern Sahara. Yet the discomfort only added to the gritty realism of BABEL. “The heat was brutal and uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what this story is about. This was not only method acting, but method execution,” says Gonzalez Iñárritu.
After Morocco, production hopped back to Tijuana, Mexico – where once again, in parallel with the film’s characters, the production found themselves in a dusty, sweltering desert and a tiny, secluded village. Here the rural, Norteno town of El Carrizo stood in for Amelia’s ramshackle home in the “Los Lobos” hamlet. Key sequences were also shot along the border between Mexico and California, where Gonzalez Iñárritu captures the view from the Mexican side – with its extensive fencing, surveillance cameras, mega-watt stadium lighting and fortress-like atmosphere. A smaller cast and crew then moved on into the harsh, desolate expanses of the Sonoran desert for the scenes in which Amelia and the children struggle to survive during their disastrous border crossing.
“Five people were in the hospital in the Sonoran desert. Adriana almost suffered from heat stroke on set. It wasn’t easy,” recalls the director.
Finally, Gonzalez Iñárritu and his crew arrived in Tokyo which, despite being the only urban setting in the film, was rife with its own hectic challenges. “Tokyo was both a wonderful experience and a difficult one,” states Gonzalez Iñárritu. “Things work slowly there and there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no permission to shoot anything, so you are always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew, ready to improvise, moving fast.”
Every phase in the making of BABEL both mirrored the situations faced by the characters, and in turn informed the film’s story even further. “Everyday, I was adjusting and adapting the script, depending on how the culture struck me,” says Gonzalez Iñárritu. “If the film molded reality or the other way around is best left for the audiences to guess.”