Alejandro G. Iñárritu & Tom ShovalLike a Hollywood script

Published in November 2015clockTime to read: 4m55s
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In a highly eventful mentoring year, protégé Tom Shoval was invited to watch post-production work on Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s masterpiece, Birdman, and was present when his mentor received three Academy Awards for his film at the 2015 Oscars. Iñárritu invited Shoval to witness the filming of his new feature film, The Revenant, in the Canadian Rockies. The young director was almost overwhelmed by his mentor’s generosity in terms of the access he was given, which included a visit to the famous studios founded by George Lucas in San Francisco.

by Todd McCarthy November 2015
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu
    The Mentor
  • Tom Shoval
    The Protégé

In his surreal year as a protégé, Tom Shoval found himself on the red carpet at the Oscars for a short film he co-wrote and also spent weeks on set in the Canadian Rockies with the multi-Academy Award-winning director of Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

It has been an annus mirabilis for Alejandro G. Iñárritu. His virtuoso theatre-world drama Birdman capped its awards' bounty by winning four Oscars, including three for Iñárritu personally. But the Mexico City-born writer-director had to put aside his Hollywood laurels and hurry back to his locations in the wilds outside Calgary. He hoped to finish his new film, The Revenant, before the snow disappeared.

The ever-forthright Iñárritu, 51, cannot deny that he is likely at the peak of his career. “I personally feel that, at this moment in my life, I am probably a much better director than before. The years and experience have given me a range and understanding of life combined with enthusiasm, curiosity and technique that I can now put on my plate.” It is a splendid time to be in the orbit of this artist at such a moment. The privilege has not been wasted on Tom Shoval, an Israeli film director 18 years Iñárritu's junior, who shadowed his mentor from the New York post-production of Birdman through the arduous mountain shoot of The Revenant, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

Shoval was raised a film buff by his father. “But he put all the films he thought I shouldn't see on a top shelf. I was about eight the first time my parents left me alone. As soon as they left, I got a chair and reached up to the shelf... I could not stop watching, I was completely in a trance. My parents were very angry. Later, when I was 15, at the library of the cinematheque in Tel Aviv, I asked for The Seventh Seal and I felt like something from the past was grabbing me. I realized this was the film I'd watched. That was how I came to realize that I had to be involved in cinema.”

Hollywood Boulevard

Shoval pleaded with his parents to give him a VHS camera for his bar mitzvah, then began making short films with his friends. His father, in an act of parental largesse, took his son on a trip to their own personal holy land, Hollywood. “I expected to see the old Hollywood. But Hollywood Boulevard looked like Taxi Driver." That did not squelch Shoval's passion. During his army service he became a cameraman and made propaganda films. He later enrolled in the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem. Shoval has written and directed two shorts, The Hungry Heart; and the half-hour Shred of Hope, as well as the feature, Youth, a disturbing drama about two brothers over their heads in a misguided kidnapping scheme.

For Iñárritu, learning has always been far more an experiential matter than something confined to the classroom. By 21, he was a rock radio DJ and within four years he was head of the station, the most popular in Mexico. During the 1990s he ran Z Films, which thrived making commercials, shorts and television shows. Beginning with his electrifying debut, Amores perros, in 2000, all his features, including 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, have reaped awards at festivals and reached international audiences.

The idea of being a mentor “terrified” him, as he had never truly had one himself and because “I don't have patience and I don't have a methodology to understand my own process.” He did, however, have what he calls “a life mentor of knowledge and philosophy,” legendary theatre director Ludwik Margules, who “let me know what a director was. He was from the minimalistic theatre tradition in Poland, where after the war you couldn't tell the stories you wanted to tell, so you had to say it in a very rigorous, very minimalistic way that was understood almost secretly.”

Psychopathic disease

Wary of the role of sage, Iñárritu adamantly believes that what is most important in film-making cannot be passed along. “You don't have to be a genius to make a film. The craft, the ABCs, the technical side, all of those things are really easy to learn. But to make a good film that's another thing, and nobody can teach you that. For me, there are three things that are essential and that cannot be learned. First, you have to be crazy, and l'm not saying this lightly. I think there's a kind of psychopathic disease in the brain of a real director. I truly believe that you have to be a little cuckoo.

"Another thing is rhythm, and that is God. Without rhythm, you can't do music, you cannot write, you cannot do architecture; without rhythm, you are a miserable loser. Writers can have great technique, great ideas, but there's something about rhythm that is impossible to teach."

"The last thing is that you have to have an interior life, baggage to share, meaning you have to have something to say. And without that, even if you receive a great script, if you don't impregnate that with your own condition, you will make something sterile. If you play a concert of Beethoven, you have the great notes, but, if you don't feel anything about them, you have nothing to say. If you're a writer, the same words are available to everybody, but you can't explain why some work is better than others. You have it or not, or you allow it and you listen or not. I think it's something you're born with, and the only thing you can do as a mentor is to help your colleague or protégé shake the tree about things that your protégé already has, to be better or to go further."

Sole outsider

Iñárritu's way is to embrace his collaborators, sweep them up in his process. So it was for Shoval on The Revenant. “It was unbelievable for me. I thought I'd just be watching Alejandro, but it's been quite the opposite. He kept me involved, took me to all the meetings, standing by the monitor, watching the dailies, giving me answers to all my questions. I could see the evolution of the directing, especially in how you keep the mise en scène vital all the time. From the reading to rehearsals to the actual shooting, I was really with him.”

Inspired by Hugh Glass, a real frontier character who has figured in several books, The Revenant is set in the American West in 1823 and tells the convulsive story of Glass's brutal mauling by a grizzly bear and his epic struggle to survive and ultimately take revenge on the men who left him for dead. The tale demands a visceral cinematic approach but, characteristically, Iñárritu was driven to take things even further.

He and his long-time cinematographer, the wizardly Emmanuel Lubezki, decided to test the long-take style that bedazzled viewers in Birdman by filming with only natural light during the dead of winter. In the frigid wilderness beyond Calgary there might only be four or five hours of useable light per day. Iñárritu's goal was for the audience to “feel like there were no human footprints ever there before".

Mountain locations

Shoval was the sole outsider allowed on location. He travelled up to the mountain locations every morning and watched rehearsals that would take most of the day, concluding, if they were lucky, with four or five shots in the mid-afternoon. “It was overwhelming,” he recalls “The fact that there is such a big production in the middle of the Rockies is amazing.”

It was during rehearsals in Hollywood that Shoval had gained insight into Iñárritu’s mettle. One of the drama's key scenes, Glass's mauling, was intricately choreographed by Iñárritu. Observing the action, which depicted Glass seeing the angry bear and her cubs, picking up his rifle, turning to leave and then immediately being attacked, Shoval thought it all looked marvelously convincing. But the director was dissatisfied. “Finally, Alejandro created this pause where, after seeing the cubs, the man and the bear exchange glances. All of a sudden, this little change elevated the tension, it made the scene more complex.”

At least two of his mentor's methods impressed Shoval so much that he plans to adopt them. “Alejandro is very involved on the set, in actually being in there, where l'm more looking from the outside, from the frame. But I want to try what he does, the first walk-through with the cast that he does himself, so that he will understand the film not only from the director's point of view, but from the actors'. He gives them the ground to walk on but doesn't tell them how to act it.”

Background action

The other revelation was Iñárritu’s intense involvement with the background action in his films. Shoval noticed that the director “talks with every extra who's in the frame, discusses what their story is, their narratives. This means that everyone on screen has a sense of purpose and that the film is not bound by the frame, but that there's life outside it. It brings a certain electricity to each scene that wasn't there before. The background gives the foreground the power to exist, it creates layers. This was very inspiring and it told me that, as a director, you always have to see the whole picture.”

In Shoval's view, Iñárritu grasps “something very profound about cinema. He really understands the metaphysical aspects of time and space and movement in this medium and how to make all of this dance together. He is like a choreographer and a musician and a painter combined, and refers to space and time as his stage. He is also a very physical and sensual director, and you can feel in every scene he creates a sense of life and the romantic side of it.”

Once the awards season went into full swing, Iñárritu often had to commute from Calgary to Los Angeles on weekends to attend events and ceremonies. Despite the disruption, Iñárritu's love for Birdman made it “a blessing to escape for a day-and-a-half from the intensity of the shooting, the weather”.

At the Oscars

In a serendipitous coincidence, his protégé was able to join him on his night-of-nights at the Oscars. Shoval had co-written Aya, a 39-minute Israeli film that was up for Best Live Action Short Film. The prestige of Iñárritu's crew had initially intimidated Shoval, but now, he thought: "Everybody present, including me, has either been nominated for or won an Oscar."

Iñárritu invited Shoval to fly with him on a private plane to L.A., along with Revenant actor Lukas Haas, who's been winning awards since he was a child, and Lubezki, who has become the most sought-after cinematographer of his time. Nominated for an Oscar seven times, Lubezki had won his first the year before, for Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity.

The Aya team did not win, but Shoval's let-down dissipated in his excitement over Iñárritu's and Lubezki's victories. He later exclaims: “How many people can say that they watched their mentor win such wonderful recognition in real time?”

Over the past year, sandwiched between multiple visits to see Iñárritu in New York, Calgary and Los Angeles, Shoval has been writing the script for his new film, Shake Your Cares Away, a dark satire about a rich do-gooder in contemporary Israel.

“Alejandro has been kind enough to accompany me throughout the process with his advice,” Shoval says. “Shooting will begin next year. 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.”

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