15.6. Morning Discussion with Alfonso Cuarón

It was always clear to Mexican Alfonso Cuarón that he wanted to make movies. He had a vivid imagination that he had to hide, because he was embarrassed of it. In Saturday’s morning discussion he told, that as a child, he could not make a difference between make-believe and movies. “Then I learned that [in the movies] there is a director.”

In Cuarón’s youth in the 70s Mexico was a time of different film clubs. The best club was run by a local Jesuit who screened works by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and other master directors. Cultural institutes programmed classics from their countries, so from an early age Cuarón had a chance to watch old Soviet, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and even Japanese films. To his parents he claimed that he went to football practice, and they gladly paid for a healthy, active hobby.

”But those clubs were not only about movies, but community,” Cuarón said. Some of the youth gathered at the clubs for the parties after the screenings. However, they would end up seeing a film or two by coming. Cuarón stated: “People miss the point of great films, if the focus is not community.” 

Watching Bergman as a teenager, Cuarón thought that his films were about abstract things. He thought that they were some sort of philosophical arguments, until he realised that they were about life.

Cuarón told that he sneaked into advertisement studios near his home, spending more and more time there. Steadily he started doing small tasks, helping the studio’s crew here and there. Then he learned how television was made, and someone asked him what was next and if he planned to write telenovelas. “I got scared. That wasn’t my way and I forced myself to write my first script.”

In 1991 Cuarón released his first film Love in the Time of Hysteria but it took a decade before Cuarón understood what filmmaking was really about. It is not for the result, but what you learn for the next film.

At the time he lived in New York and was stuck. Around that time French director Leos Carax played a small but significant supporting role on Cuarón’s journey. One time Cuarón sat with Carax in an armoured car without air conditioning for seven to eight hours, while Carax kept on smoking two cigarettes simultaneously. “I thought that I could also be like that.”

Cuarón decided to go to a video rental and rented some 30 to 35 movies, even though the limit was just five. He went home, watched them all and realised how far he had gone from what he had really wanted. I was losing my way. It made me sad.”

After the movie marathon Cuarón called his brother and asked if he would like to write something together. A couple of days later the brother landed in New York, and they started writing Y tu mamá también. When Cuarón said he wanted an audio narration in the film, his brother threatened to fly right back to Mexico. But whenCuarón showed him Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), the narration could stay.

With the narration Cuarón wanted to create a story where background is more important than the foreground. The backdrop of the story is based on the atmosphere caused by the strong and suffocating class differences in Mexico. In the film, the other boy comes from a rich family whilst the other one is lower middle class and lives in an apartment building. The tension between the foreground and background was achieved for example with wide camera angles. “Those kids are the excuse to tell the story in the background.”

While finishing Y tu mamá también, Cuarón pitched his next screenplay but without results. Around that time he told his friend and fellow Mexican director Guillermo del Toro that Warner Bros. had called with an offer to direct the third Harry Potter film. Cuarón was not convinced as he had never read the books.

”You are a fucking arrogant prick,” del Toro stated and ordered Cuarón to read the first book immediately. Del Toro would call again in two days, and Harry Potter seemed fun after all. Cuarón thought that if he could solve this story, he would find resolutions for the problems in Children of Men (2006). According to him, some stories are paths to others, and they are made to create something else later.

In Cuaróns view it is impossible to make movies that are not about life. By life he means the events of the real world. In Y tu mamá también the world is seen in flashes of mishaps in the background with the homeless on the streets. On the other hand, Cuarón believes that in some ways, Children of Men came true in some ways already in 2008, and not in 2027 as the timeline within the movie.

“In the end I’m hopeful of reality. I tend to be pessimistic about the present but optimistic about the future.”

Like in his movies, life plays a significant role in Cuarón’s career. After Children of Men his financial situation was not great, and he had to come up with a potential hit. That is how Gravity (2013) came to be. Because of Gravity’s success, he was able to make Roma (2018). “Life invents life – Life, with a big L, invents the little one of my own,” Cuarón muses.

For Cuarón Roma was a deep dive into his childhood and a return to a study of the Mexican class society that he had begun with Y tu mamá también. It was important for him to create a tight bubble in which the movie could emerge. The props and set were built during a two-year period. He wanted certain tiles for the buildings, a specific sofa and items in drawers inside. The cast and crew were not given the script beforehand, so that the understanding of the story and characters grew throughout the shoot.

The experience was intense, and Cuarón said that he would not do a project like that again. “I would not recommend anyone to do it.”