Directors without borders
Los Angeles Times
May. 25, 2006

Rachel Abramowitz

HOLLYWOOD -- On May 1, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu skipped out on the final mix of his film "Babel" to take his family to the immigration rallies in downtown Los Angeles. While his absence might have given heartburn to the production staff hurtling to get the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett film ready for the Cannes Film Festival, to Gonzalez Inarritu, it was worth it.

"It was like Simon Bolivar's dream -- people from all over Latin America," says the 42-year-old Mexican director. "I didn't feel any rage or any anger. It just felt like 'Hey, you depend on us. We depend on you. We have to work together.' "

Talent is the one universal passport, and Hollywood has always had a place for immigrants -- from German maestro Fritz Lang, who headed west when Hitler's minister of propaganda pressured him to take over Germany's top studio, to Polish Roman Polanski, who directed Los Angeles' definitive film noir, "Chinatown," and Taiwan-born Ang Lee, who became the first nonwhite to win an Academy Award for directing"Brokeback Mountain," his reinvention of the western.

As Hollywood tries to stave off commercial stasis, the industry has been undergoing another chapter in its love affair with foreign writers and directors, particularly those from the Far East and Latin America. The international box office now accounts for more than 60 percent of a film's box office gross, boosting the street cred of such players as Lee and Brazil's Walter Salles, whose respective foreign-language films "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Motorcycle Diaries" were international hits.
Although the studios still tend to Hoover up foreign directors and turn them into the purveyors of such glossy fare as "Mission Impossible 2," "Independence Day" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the indie divisions at least want the auteurs to retain the individuality that made them attractive in the first place.

Of course, in this age of globalization, it's unclear what it even means to be a Hollywood immigrant anymore. "It doesn't matter where you live," says Paramount Classics chief John Lesher. "We all talk on the phone. We see each other at film festivals. You can edit a movie in Brazil, and your editor can be in London, and you can put it together seamlessly in perfect time."

Gonzalez Inarritu, whose riveting first film, "Amores Perros" (2000), was nominated for a foreign language Oscar, moved here five years ago as he began working on "21 Grams." He thinks in Spanish and writes with his longtime collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga, in Spanish, which is then translated into English. He says he moved for practical reasons: "I have two small children. Traveling would have been harder on them. I'm a director in exile."

Conversely, Arriaga stays home in Mexico City, except when he's filming. "Hollywood is very tempting," says Arriaga, who also wrote Tommy Lee Jones'  directorial debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." "It's tempting in the sense that you can be meeting interesting persons all the time.

Living in Mexico allows me to be more down to earth, to see regular people, life itself bubbling."

The recent boomlet in foreign directors has been led by actors willing to work for directors for whom English is not a native language, and often for a fraction of their studio prices. "Thank God for the actors," says Lesher.

From its genesis, Hollywood has thrived on creative outsiders. Almost all the studios were founded by immigrants, from the Russian Louis B. Mayer to the Hungarians William Fox and Adolph Zukor. In the '20s, their nascent businesses lured F.W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch, already stars of the European cinema. In the '30s came many Jews fleeing Hitler.

With the affectionate but detached perspective of the newly arrived, the immigrants famously reimagined America, from Otto Preminger's definitive courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder" to Fred Zinnemann's paeans to Americana, "High Noon" and "Oklahoma!" to Billy Wilder's witty deconstructions of Hollywood ("Sunset Boulevard") and the media ("Ace in the Hole").

The next generation of European cineastes -- Godard, Truffaut, Herzog, Fassbinder, Bergman and Fellini -- pointedly stayed away from America, disgusted by the strictures of the studio machine. And then came the Reagan generation -- Paul Verhoeven and Wolfgang Petersen, for example, -- who embraced the Hollywood ethos and the competition for blockbusters.

Today, Hollywood still remains a kind of Faustian bargain -- money for your individuality. Or at least, with the money, comes the bureaucratic headache of all those studio executives trying to help you achieve your vision. But now, many of the studios' indie divisions seem keen to help the auteurs retain their distinctive points of view. But the beast is what the beast is.
Writer-director Alejandro Agresti, who's made films in his native Argentina and Europe, is now living in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel finishing up his first film, "The Lake House," for Warner Bros. It's a total global mash-up, a remake of a popular Korean film, written by an American, reworked by an Argentine (Agresti) and starring two American movie stars: Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

"It's nice to work with great actors, to use all the technical facilities you can get here, to do the dream shots. When you come from a country like Argentina, where your lawyers have to count the money, this is great. You really feel like you're in paradise," says Agresti. "People tell crazy stories about Hollywood, but I have to say they gave me the freedom I needed to make the film."

Still, it took some adaptation. "What I found difficult is to concentrate with so many people around," says Agresti. "You have to adapt yourself to the process here where you have an infinite number of executives and people giving an opinion. If you start to try to please 12 people, you forget what it is you wanted to do. You can become completely crazy." Still, Agresti is planning to move to the U.S. when the film is completed.

Unlike the German refugees from World War II, the latest immigrant directors know they can go home again physically and cinematically. Indeed, many use a cinematic journey to their native regions to revitalize their creativity.
After the disappointment of "Ride With the Devil," Ang Lee returned to East Asia to make his first Chinese-language film in years, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Alfonso Cuaron suffered through the making of the modern update of "Great Expectations," returned to Mexico to make the gritty "Y Tu Mama Tambien" before directing the third successful installment of the "Harry Potter" franchise. He now maintains two companies, one to make English-language films with Warner Bros., the other to make Spanish-language and independent films.

Salles, whose 1998 film "Central Station" was nominated for a foreign film Oscar, has bounced back and forth from his native South America to the United States. He's slated next to make "On the Road," Jack Kerouac's ode to the road trip. "The independent arena is where I come from and intend to stay," says Salles. "But this doesn't prevent me from also investigating other territories. It's as if you're leaving home for a short while to visit a foreign country. But you should always come back to your roots."

Gonzalez Inarritu says his latest film was influenced by his own experience of being "a Third World citizen living in a First World country."
Specifically, the Mexican woman who cleans Gonzalez Inarritu's house inspired one of the stories in "Babel," but such is the way of the artist that he and his screenwriter subvert the audience's expectations. His character, a Mexican nanny, gets perilously stuck in the desert, stealing back into Mexico with her two American charges in tow. "Conventionally, the film is about borders and immigrants, but it's really about how fragile and vulnerable human beings are, what little animals we are," he explains. "We tend to talk about borders as a difficult space -- but the real most dangerous frontiers are within ourselves. That's what is happening around the world. The otherness creates a potential threat."

Although "Babel" boasts major Hollywood movie stars, Gonzalez Inarritu says it's not just another American movie. He notes that his seven key collaborators are all Mexican. "I consider ("Babel") Mexican. Beyond the words, the brains and soul are Mexican."