Three amigos change face of Mexican film

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Three highly praised films from Mexico's top directors -- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron -- are opening in the fall. Inarritu's "Babel," from Paramount Vantage, and del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," which will be distributed domestically by Picturehouse, were both entered in competition at May's Festival de Cannes and will play at festivals in Toronto and New York. Cuaron's "Children of Men," which was completed several months after the other two films, debuted last weekend at the Venice Film Festival.

"I'm so proud of our trilogy," Cuaron says. "These three films are by close friends of the same generation. They show who we are. Thematically, they share the same ideology concerning the lack of communication between people."

Far from competitors, the three men, all born in the early '60s, are close friends who lend each other the kind of support that recalls the '70s era when filmmaker pals Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma candidly critiqued one another's films. "We are extremely happy," del Toro says. "At the same time we realize that it's some sort of consequence of the last decade. We have been more and more together as time goes by."

It took three minutes for Cuaron and del Toro to become "absolute lifelong friends" when they first met 20 years ago in the waiting room for the Mexican TV series "Hora Marcada," del Toro recalls. Cuaron wrote and directed many episodes, and del Toro wrote and supplied makeup effects. (One episode in which del Toro played a monster "has a lot to do with the themes of 'Pan's Labyrinth,' " he says.) As they worked their way up through the television and film industries, they always read each other's scripts and lent each other support in the editing room. Del Toro helped Cuaron with FX on Cuaron's film, "Love in the Time of Hysteria" and fought with him fiercely on Cuaron's edit for "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

Later on, the two directors also got to know Inarritu. When Inarritu was editing "Amores Perros," del Toro flew from Texas to Mexico City and slept on Inarritu's editing room couch for four days while he helped Inarritu trim and restructure the film. "I was taking out minutes and air between the sequences," del Toro says. "I also suggested the inter-titles using the names of the characters. He was very happy."

The world has not always been welcoming to Mexican films. When "Amores" was submitted to Cannes, Inarritu says, "at that time there was a guy who selected films in Latin America, but none ever went into the competition. So my film went into Critics Week and won best film, and got a lot of attention. Life is wisdom. Playing the underdog made possible what happened in Cannes for me, when my career changed completely."

The three directors, who all speak fluent English, have made their way to Hollywood while staying in touch with the Mexican film industry. Things have improved for Latin American cinema, Inarritu says, with two Mexican films in this year's Cannes competition: "That has changed so much since 2000. Not only me, but Alfonso Cuaron, Carlos Reygadas, Guillermo del Toro, have all changed the perception of Latin American film. What's happening, funnily enough, is not the consequence of something political-cultural happening in my country. These are individual miracles happening at the same time, three individuals changing things."

After hitting big six years ago with "Amores," Inarritu has managed to retain control over his movies. Both the $20 million "28 Grams" and $25 million "Babel" featured stars and were backed by studios, but they were set up as indie features and released by the studios' specialty divisions. "Babel" was a huge success at Cannes, where del Toro rooted for his friend to win a Palme d'Or: At fest's end, Inarritu picked up the coveted directing prize.

For his part, del Toro has struggled with studios for control over his genre movies, from Dimension on "Mimic" and New Line Cinema on "Blade 2" to Sony and Revolution Studios on "Hellboy." When he was preparing to do "Mimic," Del Toro recalls, "Alfonso warned me not to be as open creatively. You have to be guarded. I am normally very gregarious. It did cost me dearly." Cuaron has produced several of del Toro's films: "The Devil's Backbone," "Cronicus" and the well-reviewed Spanish-language fairy tale fantasy "Labyrinth," in which del Toro moves into artier terrain.

Before Cannes, Inarritu also helped del Toro by excising 10 minutes from that film in a single day. "It was crucial," del Toro says. "We didn't have time. We returned to high school dynamics. We ordered pizza and stayed up until 6 a.m. We needed to ship the print the next day for Cannes. That's the beauty of the friendship of the three of us. It keeps us young."

Based in London, Cuaron is probably the most entrenched in the movie establishment, having directed such studio movies as "The Little Princess" and the blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." That gave him the clout to get his long-gestating passion project, "Children of Men," off the ground at Universal Pictures. Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, the dystopian sci-fi film is set in the year 2027, when the youngest human is 18 years old because the race has lost the ability to reproduce.

At Comic-Con International in San Diego in July, del Toro helped his buddy Cuaron by conducting an interview about "Children" in front of the massive Hall H crowd. Del Toro marveled over Cuaron's lengthy single digital takes, especially one masterful 10-minute action sequence complete with gunfire, exploding squibs and FX. "It took five days to shoot," Cuaron admitted. "At the end of the fourth day I thought it was the end of my career. Magically, at the last moment it all worked."

The filmmakers also have joined together politically to support their colleague Reygadas, whose 2005 film "Battle in Heaven" was attacked in Mexico. They also joined forces to support "Duck Season," which Cuaron presented in America, while Inarritu executive produced the 2005 documentary "Toro Negro."

As these three amigos are proving, there is strength in numbers.
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