The Rolex Arts InitiativeLearning from a master

Published in 2015icon-clockTime to read: 5min 25s

The fiercely tender art of Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Oscar®-winning director of Birdman, first touched young cineaste Tom Shoval at a movie theatre in Tel Aviv. A decade and a half later, Shoval found himself under Iñárritu’s wing as a protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. He learned first-hand from his mentor how to be a complete film-maker, absorbing more life lessons along the way. Here, Shoval gives us memorable snapshots of his experience during his mentoring year in 2014–2015.

By Tom Shoval

At the age of 16, I learned my first lesson from Alejandro G. Iñárritu. I was already lovesick for cinema. My young life fed off movies. I saw all I possibly could and read every word I could find about them. I even began to take my first serious steps as a film-maker: I moved to a high school in Tel Aviv that offered a film programme.

Winter was harsh that year. I took advantage of a storm one day to skip school and slip into a matinee. The film was Iñárritu’s Amores Perros; I’d heard so much about it and I couldn’t wait to see it. The theatre was empty, with the exception of an older couple.

The film began playing, and I was instantly struck by the naked, wild, uncompromising imagery. I sat there, thrilled by this discovery and I thought, only in a movie theatre can total strangers from different generations share a secret as powerful as this film. Amores Perros is, for me, a film about fate and how private stories become all of our stories.

I will never forget the barking dogs from the film’s famous dogfighting scene; how powerfully that scene presented the cycles of violence in our lives, and yet how sad and tender it was. After that screening, I knew that if I ever fulfilled my dream of making movies, I too would strive to achieve this tenderness.

A mentorship beckons

Fifteen years later I am walking down a main street in Warsaw, Poland. My first film, Youth, is screening at a festival. The film has played at so many festivals that I’ve become a seasoned guest, accustomed to wandering around a city while the film is shown and planning my route back in time for the Q&As.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu in his office in Culver City, Los Angeles.

Suddenly, my phone rings. An unknown caller. I think I know who it is and I freeze on the spot.

For the past few months, I’ve been a candidate in Rolex’s Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. This year’s mentor in film, to my great surprise and thrill, is Alejandro G. Iñárritu. A month earlier, as one of three finalists, I was flown to Los Angeles to meet him.

It is difficult to put my excitement into words: I meet Alejandro at a sound studio where he is editing his film Birdman. The images on the huge screen look like they were shot in another galaxy, in the distant future. Michael Keaton hovers over the New York skyline.

A thought – am I watching a scene from a film that will change the face of cinema?

Alejandro suggests that we grab a bite to eat.

I am in a car with Alejandro G. Iñárritu. I repeat: I am in a car with Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

Inside the soundmixing stage (Alfred Hitchcock Theater) at Universal Studios, where Tom first met his soon-to-be mentor.

Watching Iñárritu work, I understand that film has nothing to do with the size of the canvas at your disposal.

At the restaurant, a fascinating conversation about film and life. He tells me he really liked my film.
I close my eyes. I open them. No, it’s not a dream.
Back to Warsaw.

My voice is shaking as I answer my cell phone. I brace for the worst, but my body quickly loosens when a voice tells me Alejandro has chosen me as his protégé. I find myself jumping with joy in the middle of the street in a strange city.

I call my father in Israel immediately to break the good news. He is the reason for all of this; he passed the film “bug” on to me when he took me to see films my mother didn’t want to see, and when he placed video tapes on a high shelf and warned me not to watch them, which was tacit consent for a boy like me. My father is moved to tears over the phone.

The best film school

One of the highlights of a year full of them is visiting the set of Iñárritu’s latest production, The Revenant. The film is a neowestern starring Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio. Alejandro offers me the opportunity to follow the shoot from his point of view. Such generosity allows me to witness all stages of preparation and watch him make decisions in real time, working the set and the actors. There is no better film school than this. I even attend the first official pre-production meeting with the crew. I cannot believe my eyes: I see the legendary Jack Fisk, production designer for such films as Mulholland Drive, Badlands and There Will Be Blood; and Emmanuel Lubezki, the virtuoso cinematographer, who just shot Gravity and Birdman. It seems to me that only people who have either won an Oscar, or were nominated for one, earn a seat at this table.

Alejandro introduces me as a friend and a promising young film-maker who made a beautiful movie. Hearing that, it is hard to keep myself from falling off my chair. After the meeting, I approach Alejandro and ask if he has noticed the fact that the entire crew has ties to the bald, golden statue. He laughs, pats me on the back and says he’s sure it’s only a matter of time.

I take a step back and wonder how this production, with a budget of tens of millions of dollars, could teach me anything? This is nothing like anything I’m used to in my country. But the truth is, just watching Iñárritu work – he is a total film-maker – I understand that film has nothing to do with the size of the canvas at your disposal. Thanks to Iñárritu, I relearn this truth about film: it always takes place in the space between one movement as it connects to another, creating a shock of emotion.

I’m getting used to Iñárritu asking me what I thought of the take and to Leonardo DiCaprio watching the monitor alongside me. I’m getting used to long trips on roads with breath-taking mountain views, which seem so grand that they could be another set. Film and reality mix, and to be honest, I find the feeling addictive, a boyhood dream come true.


Now, what I’m about to write will seem like the far-fetched invention of a screenwriter gone too far, but it is reality.

I am told that a short film I co-wrote, Aya, has achieved the improbable and made it into the five nominees for Best Live Action Short Film at the Academy Awards. And so, completely unprepared, I find myself up for an Oscar in the same year as my mentor’s masterful Birdman, which is up for eight. The circles of fate continue to close in on me.

The hallowed carpet

Alejandro is very happy for me, and I’m deeply moved by his happiness. He invites me to fly to LA from the set, with the production crew. I make myself comfortable in my seat on the plane and look at the others, when it hits me. This time everybody present, including myself, has either been nominated for or won an Oscar. For a moment I think this is another one of Alejandro’s brilliant directorial touches, making me realize that if I believe in something, I can map out the path and walk it until I get there.

Here I am on the red carpet. People walking around me take their sweet time, drag their feet, even stop along the way, all to further validate their 15 minutes of fame. Security guards yell at everyone to keep moving, but no one heeds their orders. No matter how I look at it, this thrilling moment shatters any wall of cynicism. An hour later, I am at the entrance to the hall. At this point, you realize that a barrier has been broken. I am surrounded by all the celebrities of the world and they are just as relaxed and excited as me. I find myself making small talk with Marion Cotillard and Ben Affleck.

My film did not win – it was never the favourite – but Alejandro swept all the important Oscars with Birdman. How many people can say that they watched their mentor win such wonderful recognition in real time?

The location of The Revenant, the stunning mountains around Calgary, Canada.

One last crucial lesson

These days, I am working on my second feature. Alejandro has been kind enough to accompany me throughout the process with his advice. The circles of fate will continue to surprise me, and I don’t plan on preparing myself for them in advance; I will accept them with love as they come. This might be one of the most important lessons I learned from Iñárritu: always leave a little room for surprise.

Tom Shoval biography

1981 Born in Petah Tikva, Israel.

2005 Writes and directs his first short film Ha-Lev Haraev (The Hungry Heart).

2007 Graduates from Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film & TV School. Writes and directs the short film Petah Tikva.

2011 Writes and directs the short film I Will Drink My Tears.

2012 Co-writes the short film Aya.

2013 Debuts feature film Youth. Youth wins best film at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

2015 Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short for Aya.

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative

Tom Shoval and Alejandro G. Iñárritu are among the many pairs who have participated in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative since its inception in 2002.

Rolex launched its Arts Initiative to help ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is handed down from generation to generation in the time-honoured manner of master and apprentice. Through this philanthropic programme, some of today’s greatest masters in seven disciplines (architecture, dance, film, literature, music, theatre and visual arts) are paired with budding young artists — often from far across continents and cultural divides — for a period of creative collaboration in a one-to-one mentoring relationship. Hundreds of artists worldwide have been touched by the initiative that provides the gift of time to these highly promising young talents. In film, Alejandro G. Iñárritu joins a list of revered contemporary film giants that have gone down in the annals of movie-making and served as mentors in the Rolex Arts Initiative. These iconic figures are Stephen Frears, Walter Murch, Mira Nair, Martin Scorsese and Zhang Yimou.

Perpetuating Culture