The biblical Tower of Babel story recounts how God scattered humanity across the earth and gave people distinct and divisive languages. But the films in this year’s Oscar race seem to suggest the world is more globally unified and polyglot than ever before.
“Babel” is, of course, the most obvious example. Filmed in five languages in four countries — Japan, Mexico, Morocco and the U.S. — the film, both in its making and its content, is all about “breaking boundaries” and “globalization,” says Oscar-nommed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. “We are all traveling in the same boat, no matter what side of the boat you’re in,” he says. “Finally, the world is getting closer, not only in an economic way, but in the ideas that we share.”
“The barriers that once existed between different countries are breaking down,” echoes Paramount Vantage topper John Lesher, who not only shepherded “Babel” into theaters but once repped Inarritu, among other foreign helmers, at Endeavor.
This boundary-blurring is starting to bleed into the way Hollywood — or Globowood — makes movies, as reflected in this year’s major nominees, from “Babel” to Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language WWII story “Letters From Iwo Jima” to “The Departed,” Martin Scorsese’s remake of Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs.”
“It’s a global business now,” says Universal co-prexy David Linde, who executive produced 2001 Oscar phenom “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “And it is incumbent upon us to work with people who are working in a global environment.”
Guillermo del Toro, whose Spanish-language “Pan’s Labyrinth” is up for six Oscars, says there’s been a “huge, dramatic opening” since the early ’90s. The helmer recounts a story about a lengthy project meeting he had with a studio head some years ago. At the end of the discussion, when the executive asked who’d write the screenplay and del Toro replied that he would, the exec responded, “How’s your English?”
“Now,” says del Toro, “we are not pigeonholed to do mariachi or bullfighting movies. A director can come in and direct ‘Harry Potter’ or an action thriller or whatever we want.”
One of the reasons for the upsurge in international-minded cinema is the pull of A-list talent. “Some of the biggest stars want to work with these directors from different parts of the world,” Lesher says. “That’s been a power source, where they can attract some of the best actors, which can then attract the financing.”
Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney, distributor of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and 2003 Oscar nominee “Y tu mama tambien,” says Globowood is “led by the talent. And the talent is not just working in Hollywood, they’re also going out and financing movies in other ways and in other countries. I think that pattern will continue to cross-pollinate.”
With international co-productions and slate-financing deals on the rise, it’s not surprising to come across a Mexican director making a movie in various countries with American stars, or a Hindi-language drama, shot in Sri Lanka, with financing from Canada and Hollywood.
“People don’t look at it as a risk now,” Deepa Mehta explains of her foreign-language nominee “Water,” which was financed in part by L.A.-based Echo Lake Prods. “In the past, if anything was outside the shores of North America, they looked at it as a risk.”
Continuing the trend, an upcoming Mehta project for Focus Features that toplines “Babel” star Cate Blanchett is fittingly set in both Manhattan and Korea.
“Not only is Hollywood more receptive to foreign directors making films here,” Lesher adds, “we’re also more receptive to the notion of making films on their own terms, but utilizing the best of the Hollywood system — the money, the distribution and the actors — while still maintaining their independence.”
“Children of Men” producer Hilary Shor holds up that Universal pic as a perfect example. “It’s a true polyglot,” she says. “It’s has all the quality that the best of a Hollywood studio can give you, and yet it was made in the U.K., with all their wonderful filmmaking talent, and this guy from Mexico (helmer Alfonso Cuaron, nommed for a writing and an editing Oscar) who really understands the views of the people on that screen.”
British Oscar nominee Paul Greengrass, director of the distinctly U.S. tale “United 93,” notes one of Hollywood’s chief strengths has been “its absolute willingness over decades to bring filmmakers in from Europe, and from elsewhere.”
“Whenever the world looks complex and threatening and ambiguous and dangerous, it seems to me that cinema really can flourish,” Greengrass adds. “And I think it would be natural at those times that you have a plurality of voices, and it’s one of those things that makes Hollywood continually vibrant.”
“Audiences are demanding additional perspectives from the movies that they see at the exact moment when we need them to do just that,” echoes Universal’s Linde.
While Greengrass says it’s not his Britishness that influenced his level-headed take on 9/11, but his “experience making films about physical violence,” other foreign-born directors embrace their distinct origins.
“A director’s nationality will always be with him or her,” says del Toro, who intends to continue working in Spanish and English. “They will always have a particular point of view that will reflect their idiosyncrasies.”
“The language of cinema is cinema itself: it doesn’t matter whether it is filmed in Spanish or English or French or Japanese,” helmer Cuaron wrote in a recent blog post for Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “The same goes for the people who make it. Yes, I’m a filmmaker from Mexico. But I also belong to the world.”
Or as Inarritu says, “I want to have my roots very deep, but my wings ready to fly without borders.”