Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Tom Shoval

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 4)

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. 

Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Tom Shoval

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 4)

May 2014

Reaching up to the high shelf

Tom Shoval, whose debut feature, Youth (2013), won Best Film at the Jerusalem Film Festival, has been fascinated by film since an early and bewildering encounter with the work of Ingmar Bergman. He hopes his mentoring year with acclaimed Mexican film-maker Alejandro G. Iñárritu will help him understand, among other things, how to achieve a sense of universality in his films.

Growing up in the 1980s in a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv, I think I had a fairly normal upbringing, and cinema was a very big part of it. My father was crazy about film, and when I was very young he used to take me to see everything with him. When the scenes were too grown up, he would touch me on the arm and I would have to look down.

When I was seven years old, my parents left me alone in the house one day, and there was this really high shelf where they kept the videos that I wasn’t allowed to watch. I managed to climb up and get one. I thought it was going to be something erotic or violent, but when it started, it was this really weird film that was in a language that I had never heard in my life, and with these mediaeval people in black and white. A really frightening film, it was so strong I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen. And then the film ended and I cried. I didn’t know why, but I knew from that moment that I wanted to make films. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that it was Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The way that film enters people’s consciousness is a kind of miracle, a kind of gift to humanity.

A style of my own

Even though I began playing with cameras from a very early age, when I went to the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School after I got out of the army, I realized that I didn’t know anything. It was at the school that I really started to develop a style of my own, and to decide what it was that I wanted to do with film.

I love films that seem to come out of deep personal experience, but go beyond being just personal – films like Pialat’s L’enfance nue, or Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. My creativity comes from the traumatic experience of my father losing his job and what that did to the family. That experience feeds into a lot of my work, including Shred of Hope, which was my graduation project at film school, and Youth, my first feature. But even though the starting point is a very personal experience, through the language of cinema, it becomes universal. I love moral complexity and ambiguity in film. I deliberately set out to explore what it means to be good in Youth, where the protagonists want to do a good thing but end up doing something bad.

Issues of goodness

I want to have an audience. I don’t want to make films that nobody wants to see, but, at the same time, I want to make films that are different, that have something new to say. One of the things I admire about Alejandro is his ability to do this, and I hope that my year as his protégé will give me some opportunities to see how he works. I am very excited about being able to talk to him about the project that I am currently working on, which also deals with the issue of goodness, and of doing good.

I still can’t really believe that this door has opened for me. I had the same feeling of unreality when we met in Los Angeles. We were having dinner in this restaurant and I kept seeing the scene from the other side of the room. I couldn’t really believe that I was there.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Tom Shoval

A year of mentoring

Six months with a mentor (Chapter 3 of 4)

May 2015

The ‘best cinema school’

Like his famous mentor Alejandro G. Iñárritu, young film director Tom Shoval has a recent Academy Award nominee for a short film that he co-wrote, which suggests that Shoval too could be destined for cinematic greatness. Here he explains how he got involved in the project and describes his mentorship with Iñárritu in the Rolex Arts Initiative.

The Rolex Arts Initiative:What made you decide you wanted to become a film-maker?
Tom Shoval: From a very young age, I was enchanted by the possibilities of cinema. All my life, as long as I can remember, cinema played a crucial part. I devoured films, read everything I could about them, I wrote about them. At the age of 13, at my bar mitzvah, I received a gift from my parents — upon my request and pleading, of course — for a VHS camera and I started making little films with my neighbours and friends. I was actually a cliché of a cinema child. It was very clear to me even then that I wanted to express myself in cinema language and stay as close as I could to this medium.

Have you had any unofficial mentors in Israel who have helped you or taken you under their wing?
I studied at the Sam Spiegel Film School, where most of the teachers are film-makers in every respect. Orit Azulay, a major casting director and also a teacher, was a big influence on me while I was studying there. In her classes I understood deeply the meaning of uncovering and finding the soul of a character and exposing it through the camera lens. I was also very fortunate to have her as the casting director of my first feature,Youth, and the voyage we experienced together casting this film is one of the profound journeys of my life.

You're now being mentored by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. What was your first meeting with him like, when he was choosing his protégé? What connections did you feel or establish artistically, intellectually and/or emotionally?
I was kind of amazed how fluent our first meeting was. I met him on the sound stage, while he was doing the sound design for Birdman, and I saw some images running on the big screen and was in shock from those few frames. Then we went to a restaurant and I was still under the influence of the flying Michael Keaton sequence I just saw, but the conversation just started and didn't end. We talked about cinema, about our own films and about life in general. Even though we are from different, faraway places I felt we have a lot in common — our love for cinema, passion for life and some autobiographical elements that connected us immediately.

As the mentoring year officially began, Iñárritu was editing Birdman and now he is shooting his new film, The Revenant, in Calgary, Canada. What has the mentoring process been like so far?
It has really been a ride for me, starting with being on the sound stage in the final editing and mixing of Birdman and actually witnessing a modern classic being born; going through my extended visits on the set of The Revenant, which has absolutely been the best cinema school one could ask for, seeing how Alejandro builds a shot, choreographs and moves all the elements and creates a complex and emotional peak in every frame. It's been a completely overwhelming experience for me. Alejandro, with his generosity and passion for cinema, allowed me to be present through the entire decision-making process -- which is not something you can take for granted. Also, our conversations about cinema were inspiring for me and a lot of our talks helped me with the work on my new film and in life in general. I am truly thankful for this outstanding opportunity.

How would you describe the similarities and differences between Alejandro's style and working methods and your own?
Alejandro is a total film-maker. He embraces the story, characters and style, and it seems like he is living every aspect of the film, as if the film were a part of his spirit. As I watched him direct, using all his charisma, I thought to myself that I wish that I had this quality, to become as one with the film. My approach is somewhat different in the sense that I am looking from the outside, constantly gazing at the world that we are creating in front of the camera lens. Maybe it is true to say that I am echoing my own film, I am like its shadow, or maybe the film is actually my own mirror reflection. Maybe the temperament is different between us, but the essence is the same and that is why we understand each other so well and get along, and why we also became good friends.

How would you describe Iñárritu as a director? What do you find special and most exciting about his working methods?
I think he understands 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. I am very connected to his approach.

Do you already feel that, when you direct your next film, you will approach some things differently due to having watched Iñárritu work?
Sure, there is no doubt about that. I will try to practise some of his notions on space and mise-en-scene and try myself to choreograph it so that reality and cinema can inhabit the same place harmonically.

You co-wrote the script for Aya, a 39-minute film that has been nominated for the Academy Award for best live-action short. The other writers, Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnum, were also the directors. How did you become involved in this film, and did you have any idea that it might be nominated?
Mihal and Oded were working on a script for a feature when they unexpectedly received financing for a short film from the CNC fund [France’s Centre National du Cinéma], so they decided to put off the writing of the feature and focus on the short. They actually cut out a scene from their feature and approached me, asking if I could turn this scene into a short film. We've known each other for a long time and they like the way I write, so they thought that perhaps I could bring something of my approach and the tender irony I usually write with to make the main character in the scene believable, compelling and interesting. I was flattered, of course, and accepted immediately. I wrote a draft and then the three of us worked together on the final touches of the script.

Ayais about the encounter of two strangers and the possibilities that arise from their meeting. They meet unexpectedly at an airport. He mistakenly assumes her to be his assigned driver. She, enchanted by the random encounter, does not hurry to prove him wrong. The writing process was very interesting, as we tried to break this encounter into a series of human nuances and to actually create intimacy between two complete strangers.

Ayawas kind of an unexpected success. It was actually the first short film that was commercially screened in cinemas in Israel, where it was a great success and won the Israeli Oscar, the Ophir, in the short film section. But I never even considered the possibility of a real Oscar nomination. It came as a wonderful surprise.

How many Israelis have ever been nominated for Oscars in any categories?
Israel is actually a champion in nominations for the foreign film section, with more than 10 films, but not even one win. There were also nominations for Israeli films in the documentary sections but, as far as I know, our film has the first nomination in the short live action section.

What are you doing right now and what are your upcoming plans?
Right now, I am working on my second feature film. I am just finishing the scriptwriting and we are aiming to shoot towards the end of the year or the beginning of 2016. The working title is Shake Your Cares Away. It's an Israeli, French and German co-production, a drama with dark and absurdist elements on the class gaps in Israeli society, echoing Viridiana, Luis Buñuel’s grand masterpiece. I'm also in pre-production for a new short film called Justification, which will start shooting in April.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Tom Shoval

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 4 of 4)

November 2015

Like a Hollywood script

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 Cuarôn'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.”