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Alfonso Cuaron on Getting Expelled From Film School, 'SNL' Parody of 'Gravity' (Q&A)

Alfonso Cuaron Headshot - P 2013
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Alfonso Cuaron

The Mexican filmmaker also responds to an astrophysicist's critique of the film: "We tried to be as accurate as we could within the framework of our fiction."

Morelia, MEXICO -- Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron couldn't ask for a sweeter homecoming. After having invested the last four and a half years of his life on the space thriller Gravity, his most challenging film project to date, he finally got to share his groundbreaking work with a Mexican audience Friday on opening night at the Morelia International Film Festival. Needless to say, folks here loved it. Morelia is Gravity's last stop on an international tour that included screenings in Venice and Toronto. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Cuaron during his Mexico visit.

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So we've got to ask: Is it true you dropped out of film school in Mexico?

No, I was expelled. Chivo (Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) was expelled from the school as well.

Why were you guys expelled?

It's a combination of things. I think Chivo and I, and another filmmaker named Luis Estrada, had a different way of seeing films. But in retrospect, I'm sure we were very arrogant. It was mostly about us questioning the ways of doing films, and we didn't want to subscribe to certain ways that the school had at that time. But I have to say that it's a highly structured school now and it's great.

You've gone from getting expelled from film school to directing a major Hollywood picture that's getting all kinds of Oscar buzz. Must feel great.

It feels great that I get to make movies, that's the thing. I have to say now that I've almost forgotten the stuff about the film school. There was a point [later] when I doubted what I was doing, when I was working as a location scout, camera assistant and assistant director. And while I was doing all that, I thought I was never going to make films.

You mention Chivo a lot, and this could finally be the year that he gets an Academy Award for his work on Gravity, which raises an important question: How did he get the nickname Chivo?

Because "chivo" means goat [in Spanish], and whenever he's around on the set, he leaves small droppings. (Laughs.) No really, since I met him his nickname has been Chivo. I guess it's one of those names your family calls you when you're little, and it sticks with you the rest of your life.

Saturday Night Live did a really funny Gravity parody in which the astronauts' distress call is answered by a NASA janitor because the government was shutdown. Did you have a chance to see it?

It was brilliant! There were two things I saw and thought that's [all I need], that I don't need awards or anything else. There was the Lego version of the Gravity trailer, and I said, 'Oh my god, I've got a film that has a Lego version.' And there was the Gravity parody as Saturday Night Live's opening sketch, which was actually a very good sketch, and it was talking about something very clever and important. I love when the woman is talking about going back to Ukraine because the government in [the U.S.] is very unstable.

What are your thoughts on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's comments about some of the factual errors in Gravity? And by the way, he said he liked the movie in spite of his comments.

I didn't know he had seen the movie. I'm sure that most of the comments are things that we're aware of. The biggest one that I'm sure he spotted is that the International Space Station, the Hubble Telescope and the Chinese station [should be] on different orbital planes, and that's something we knew. When we started having experts read the script and while working with them, they explained that to us. Then we discussed moving everything closer together so that they could have the same orbital planes. And someone said that would be interesting because servicing the telescope would be easier from the ISS. We did a draft explaining why everything was on the same plane, and the screenplay was like 30 pages longer. It was interesting but irrelevant for the fiction we were trying to tell. So we took all that out of the draft. We tried to be as accurate as we could within the framework of our fiction. In the end, it's fiction and it's an emotional journey more than anything else.

What were your favorite comments from other directors, specifically supporters of yours, such as James Cameron, David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro?

I talked with James Cameron, and I talked with Guillermo because he was very close to the whole process. With Fincher, I haven't had a chance to talk to him. What was great was that, for instance, with Cameron the conversation was not about the technical aspect. He wanted to talk about the amazing journey of this character and how it really felt like you were in space. And Guillermo just uses words that you cannot print. Guillermo was not someone who just saw the film, he was a part of it. I can't decide what I'm going to have for breakfast without consulting Guillermo del Toro.

How does it feel to be back in your homeland after being immersed in an imaginary space world for four and a half years?

It's great to be back in Mexico, especially hanging with friends, family and just being in Mexico. Actually, Mexico is the film's first image. It opens with planet Earth, and you see an ocean, and the Earth is rotating. And then Mazatlan starts to comes into the whole thing. That's Mexico! And actually you see Morelia. You see a lake and not far from that lake, that's Morelia.