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Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. almost starred in Gravity, but Jolie had to drop out of the project because of scheduling conflicts and Downey departed because the cramped physical choreography required to shoot the movie would not allow him to improvise, director Alfonso Cuaron told students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles Feb. 12. Cuaron explained how the movie ultimately came to star Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and consumed almost five years of his life. Cuaron spoke as the first guest in a new interview series, The Hollywood Masters, moderated by THR‘s executive features editor, Stephen Galloway. The series of 90-minute interviews, to be televised later in 2014, will also feature Judd Apatow, David O. Russell, William Friedkin, Gary Ross, John Singleton and Disney Studios’ Alan Horn.
“I thought I had written a small movie … just one character floating in space,” Cuaron said about the Warner Bros. best picture nominee, which has grossed $700 million internationally. “We started developing stuff [trying] to figure out the technology. And the luxury [was] that we could try many things. And part of that was conversations with actors. I had conversations with Angelina, but then she went to do one film, and then she was going to direct [Unbroken]. Something happens, you part ways.”
As for Downey, “It became very clear that, as we started to nail the technology, or narrow the technology, that was going to be a big obstacle for his performance. I think Robert is fantastic if you give him the freedom to completely breathe and improvise and change stuff. [But] we tried one of these technologies and it was not compatible. And, after that, we [had a] week that we pretended as if nothing was happening and then we talked and said, ‘This is not going to work. This is tough.'”
But Cuaron noted that when he talked with Downey, Gravity still had no start date. “It was not until some elements came into place that we could responsibly go to the studio and say, ‘We can set a start date,'” said Cuaron. “Then you can do offers, and that is when we went after Sandra [Bullock] and George [Clooney].”
Cuaron said that eight years after his art house hit A Little Princess and right after the flop Great Expectations and the gritty indie masterpiece Y Tu Mama Tambien, he was “unemployed and without money” when Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling “really pushed for me” to direct 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “It was amazing,” he said of his first meeting with Rowling at her home in Scotland. “She served tea and cookies and stuff that they do over there. She was very respectful about the choices and the decisions. She’d go, ‘You know, I know that you want to try to cut this out. Please don’t do it. This is going to make sense in the fifth one.’ And what was amazing was how well she would know her universe. She says, ‘You cannot put the graveyard there because the graveyard is on the other side.’ “
Cuaron said he wasn’t surprised when Rowling recently said it was a mistake to have Hermione marry Ron, not Harry. “Actually, that was an interesting choice,” Cuaron said. “I remember early on, when I was reading, I thought there was going to be some kind of stuff between Harry and Hermione, but it was wrong. And I said, ‘OK, that’s interesting.’ But now, she’s regretting that, maybe. There’s a twist. Maybe now we can do a movie: They’re in their 30’s, they have a crisis!”
In a candid, wide-ranging, 90-minute talk that spanned Cuaron’s life and career, the director said he had little connection with his father, but grew up under the influence of a criminologist uncle. “He was the one who sorted out the real personality of [exiled Soviet leader Leon] Trotsky’s killer, [Ramon] Mercader. And funnily enough, he became very good friends with Mercader.” Cuaron said his uncle also caught Erico San Pietro, who he said inspired Dustin Hoffman‘s character in Papillon.
Cuaron gave the LMU School of Film and Television students a revealing account of how he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki got kicked out of film school. “It was polemical: When I was at film school, the school was very ideologized and it was taken [over] by a couple of communist groups. It was the base for them to create their propaganda material. They were using the resources of the university for that. We were a younger generation that came in, that loved cinema. We wanted to do film. There was always a clash.”
Though Cuaron said the old communists made “really bad documentaries,” he also admitted, “The truth of the matter, the reason we were kicked out, is that we were these arrogant brats. I mean, no question about it.”
Cuaron said that in one sense, film schools matter less than than they once did. “Sorry to say, these are not relevant nowadays,” he said, recalling that in his day, “You needed to learn so much. It was so complicated, the technology and stuff. The newer generations, they know better than any director what happens behind the scenes. They have home systems to shoot, edit, even do visual effects.” But Cuaron said film school does provide connections that can launch a career. “Understanding film language in the historical context of cinema, how the language in cinema evolved from Lumière until today, that’s the most important thing of film school,” said Cuaron.
Cuaron, who refused to do a second Harry Potter film because “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to offer anything new,” said, “Once I finish a film, I never see them again.” He has said he will never do another film with the massive technological constraints of Gravity and told the LMU audience he hasn’t even begun to think of what will follow Gravity. “I have to finish all of this and go back to life and allow whatever happens next to spring out of life, not to spring out capitalizing on this film, the inertia of this film.”
The full transcript of Cuaron’s interview is below:
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’m Stephen Galloway with The Hollywood Reporter. Welcome to The Hollywood Masters, filmed live at the campus of Loyola Marymount University. I’m thrilled to introduce Alfonso Cuaron, and what I want to talk to him about is his life and work and particularly how a young boy who grew up in Mexico became one of the most remarkable filmmakers in the world today. So, please join me in welcoming Alonso Cuaron. Hello.
ALFONSO CUARON: Hello.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: November the 28th 1961, Alfonso Cuaron is born. What was going on in Mexico at that time and…
ALFONSO CUARON: Oh, I thought you were going to say what was going in my mind at that time.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’d like to know that too.
ALFONSO CUARON: Me too. ’61 in Mexico pretty much it was a country that was going into this period of so-called modernization but it was a very insular country. That continued through most of my life in Mexico. Things actually changed. I mean, it was my fault because things really started changing more and I sort of left Mexico. What I’m talking is that it was a very insular country ruled by the same party ever since the ’30s and it was to the best benefit of that party to infuse these nationalistic kind of ideals in which the government was the patron.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How did that impact you growing up?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, quite a lot, in the sense of that you feel it. You feel that insular feeling. But at the same time when I was a kid, yeah, it was TV was part of the stuff going on. And we had the same TV shows that, I guess, that any kid in the U.S. would have had at the time. But also we benefitted a lot from Japanese television. There was a huge amount of Japanese animations or monsters and stuff. And there was obviously the Mexican television going on that was part of insular situation. Same as there was a government monopoly, there was a TV monopoly, that were pretty much in cahoots: government and TV. It was just more like a propaganda machinery.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: At what age did you become aware of that?
ALFONSO CUARON: You start becoming aware early, … you’re not completely conscious and aware but you’re used to having certain rejections. But by the same token, I have to say Mexico was showered with cinema. Mexico was coming out of, in the 40s and the 50s, what was called the Golden Period of Mexican cinema. During the 60s there was a big crisis. And that the industry started to be in trouble. By the same token we used to have, Mexico was always a cinema-going kind of culture. So there were cinemas and a lot of American films. And growing now into my teen years I benefited from an amazing splendor period of the scenic loves in Mexico.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Before that, what’s your first memory of going to a movie?
ALFONSO CUARON: I think the first memory I have of being in a theater, in a cinema theater, was, and for years I just had this image that it was Merlin trapping his beard on the doorway in The Sword and the Stone. Yeah, that image is the one that I remember. On TV I remember, probably one of those Walt Disney Presents, something with Pluto. So you can say Disney is an early memory of…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And did you watch a lot?
ALFONSO CUARON: Oh, I used to watch a lot of movies. Also, my mom and my grandmother were cinephiles. Going to the movies was something that was a constant activity. And together with the Disney films it was many other films that were age appropriate. But there started to be also other films that were not necessarily American films, there were some Mexican melodramas, the Hollywood films, some other Italian melodramas or French melodramas.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Before we get there, what did your parents do?
ALFONSO CUARON: My dad, he was a physician. It’s called nuclear medicine; it’s some kind of diagnostic situation using radioactivity. My mom, she was, she studied chemistry. And later on she changed and majored, she changed later in her career, in her life and studied philosophy and then she did a perfect clash, connection between chemistry and philosophy and she became a witch.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That’s a joke hopefully.
ALFONSO CUARON: No, I mean good witch, but yeah, with cauldrons and stuff.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Who was the big influence: your mother or your father?
ALFONSO CUARON: My mom definitely. I didn’t have much connection, relationship with my dad.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Because?
ALFONSO CUARON: When I was a kid, I guess he was always working. And then my parents divorced and my father disappeared for a while. Then he came back. It was kind of seeing him supposedly once a week and then…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How old were you when they split up?
ALFONSO CUARON: I was 12.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Which is kind of a turning point for people. How did that affect you? Did you then start seeing more movies? Tell us.
ALFONSO CUARON: Yes, doctor. [LAUGHTER]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’m a witch too. I didn’t tell you. [LAUGHTER]
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah, that is very obvious. There is a strong connection with that. Before that, I was already, since I was a kid, I don’t know how old I was, it asked what are you going to do when you grow up? I said I was going to direct movies.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Oh you did?
ALFONSO CUARON: I went through my period, obviously because of Neil Armstrong, that I was going to be an astronaut. But I guess that every single kid of my age wanted to be an astronaut.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Because you must have watched the moon landing when you were 7 or 8.
ALFONSO CUARON: I was seven or eight, yeah. ’69, so yeah. The great thing about that moon landing is that my grandmother got the first color TV in order to be able to see the moon landing that was in black and white.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I
hope you’re more technically gifted than she.
ALFONSO CUARON: Well yeah but it was cool to have a color TV. It was huge. Well the screen was this big but the TV.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You grew up in a fairly middle class environment.
ALFONSO CUARON: Very middle, middle.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was it safe? Because it hadn’t been safe for many people.
ALFONSO CUARON: No, Mexico City at that time, when I was a kid I would just be in the street all the time. And young with my cousins I would just go take a bus to the end of the city to watch a movie. For kids the streets was kind of a, the playground were the streets. Yeah it was a completely different city. Carlos Fuentes, the great writer, he has a novel called The Most Transparent Region, La Región Más Transparente. And that was Mexico; now it’s far from the most transparent region. You could see the volcanoes. I remember I heard the concept of smog when I was eight, that the concept of something called smog existed.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Because the place changed at that time.
ALFONSO CUARON: Well it started changing very quickly at the end of the ‘60s into the 70s. Another event that was an important event in Mexico was the Olympic Games. But more important and more fundamental, at least for me, was in ‘68 there was the student revolts and in Mexico was a massacre. The government ordered a massacre of students and families that were demonstrating. The exact numbers were always hidden but it’s in the hundreds.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How aware were you of that were you at the time?
ALFONSO CUARON: I was very aware of it just because you feel it in the air. You could see the soldiers in the streets, you would hear the more right wing mothers talking about the students are going to destroy this country. The counter point was a big influence growing up was my one uncle; he was like my grandfather figure. He was a criminologist that was one of the creators of the modern theories for criminology, at least at that time. He is the one who, for instance, sorted out the real personality of Trotsky’s killer, of [Ramón] Mercader. And funny enough became very good friends with Mercader.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We should tell everybody here, Trotsky, the soviet leader in exile in Mexico, was assassinated. So, he was on the hunt for Trotsky’s killer?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, actually, the killer was trapped in the scene but he claimed that he was from Belgium. Through conversations, because he was a psychiatrist—just like apparently you are—through conversations with this man, he started realizing that he was not from Belgium; he was from Spain and eventually created the whole profile in which he was the son of this Spanish woman a communist that was living in the soviet union. Pretty much this was a difficult thing trying to prove to the mom that he was a real revolutionary. They became friends, Mercader. Also, in Papillon, the Dustin Hoffman character, his real name was Enrico San Pietro. My uncle was the guy who caught San Pietro while he was forging money in Mexico. And they became very good friends because he was under custody. He was being kidnapped by the Cristeros, who are the Christian fundamentalists, who are trying to do war—the Catholics fundamentalists doing war against the government. And they had kidnapped San Pietro to forge dollars. And because of that they became very good friends. I was always chatting with him and he didn’t believe much in censorship. So would be telling me what was going on in the streets. He was a self-declared communist my uncle. He was very upset about the whole situation.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was your family a communist family?
ALFONSO CUARON: No, my family they were kind of Catholic, from my mother’s side very Catholic. And actually, the brothers of my mom, kind of very right wing. My mom was kind of the black sheep of the family in that sense. And then in the other side there was this uncle that yeah, he was a communist.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So who did you identify with? Him or the…
ALFONSO CUARON: It was more fun to talk to him than with my other uncles. Lovely people, I love my uncles. But with him it was just my routine. Every week I would go to his studio and he would just say, “OK, ask me.” And I would just ask things that he would be telling me stories about what was going on. Through that I became very aware of the social events that were happening in Mexico. Then in 1970 there was another demonstration that was also, there was another massacre. He was involved in being outspoken about it both in Mexico and internationally.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did he encourage you to become a filmmaker?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah, he digged that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I remember that once I was telling him a movie that I wanted to do. And he just told me that, that was so pretentious. That I should do something about the life that I know, not about, you know, not about pretentious things.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you remember what that one was about?
ALFONSO CUARON: Oh, yeah, but I’m not going to tell you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I know you were very influenced by The Bicycle Thief when you saw it. How old were you then? And how did it affect you?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, probably I was, because at that time I already wanted to make films. First there was a Sergio Leone documentary behind the scenes. And I was very impressed about the work of a director. And also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there was a documentary on the making of it. I wanted to be a director. But then one night I was with my cousins and my parents had gone out for dinner or party or whatever. And we were watching TV. We sneaked to watch TV, we were not supposed to watch that late. And then they announced that there was going to be a film that was for adults. Immediately we said, ok we want to see that. We were expecting to see boobies. And it was The Bicycle Thief. It was kind of a life changing experience because I was confronted with a kind of cinema that, with all the love that I have for movies, this was something different. And it had to do with the realities and the truthfulness of the story and situation. In Mexico when lower classes were portrayed, poverty was portrayed, it was always in a melodramatic, patronizing kind of way. This was a completely different experience. Except at that time I hadn’t seen Los Olvidados. That’s a different beast.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: The Buñuel film, you mean. And by the way, you were born, I think, the year that Viridiana played at the Cannes film festival, which I only found out on Wikipedia last night, so…
ALFONSO CUARON: Well that little piece of information, to have that. Wow, there you go. Viridiana is from ’61. Cool.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You went to film school but your parents didn’t want you initially to go. Why not?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well at that time it was more about my mom, the decision. Because, again I was living with my mom. No, she was encouraging me to go, because she found it cool that I was so passionate about film. And actually she’s the one, she introduced me to the cine clubs. And that was a big discovery. That was another turning point. Because in Mexico, first of all you had one of the biggest cinematheque in the world that burned in the 70s. But you had all this access to cinema, to films. And then you had the French institute, the Italian institute, that they were just showing all the films from the 60s and the 70s. And on top of that you had, Mexico had a great cultural relationship with the Soviet countries. So we would see all these Russians, Polish, Hungarian, Czech films. So there was a constant flow of film information. When I decided I wanted to study film the only thing that mom said was, you cannot survive out of making films. Do a career and then I’m ok that you do film. So I decided to, I chose my career that was philosophy. As if that was going to solve any problems. So for a while I was going to film school and philosophy at the same time.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Who in philosophy influenced you? What did you learn there that’s influenced your work?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, I think that that part of the formation was fundamental, in trying to understand schools of thought. For a while, I have to say that something very simple like Heraclitus could just really mark the stuff. But then the relationship between Heraclitus and Nietzsche, that was kind of important. But in terms, I have to confess that, in terms of historical analysis and many ways also certain social analysis, the Marxist is cool with the many of the different variants of Marxist was very influential.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How has that shaped your work or your thinking? Do you see an overall sort of philosophical point of view in your work? Because actually one of the interesting things about it is just how varied it is, and we’ll talk about that when we look at some of the clips.
ALFONSO CUARON: Inevitably, I go, even if I try to dust it off because I’m very suspicious of ideology. Even if, Marxist I think is very misunderstood because it’s a philosophy. An ideology comes later on with people that turn that into an ideology. The whole thing of opposition, the clash of opposites is something that I think it just happens in my though process. When I’m making a film for me, part of trying to understand the language is the clash between character and environment, that I think starts to become obvious from Y Tu Mamá También to the movies that happened after. But also, even in terms of montage, you have the opposition of images, of why you go from one image to another. That is what creates the concepts. So, yeah, I’ve even if I’ve been trying to dust that off throughout the years and decades, yeah there is still some little thing that is still there.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Speaking of clashing with the environment, you clashed at film school. Maybe we shouldn’t reveal this to all the students, but you were kicked out of film school. What happened? There are two versions of this story. Is either one true? One is, you made a short film in English.
ALFONSO CUARON: No, I was the DP of that short film.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Ok. The other one is that you try to get it released or sold commercially. But whatever it is, you and your great friend who you met there, Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, whom you call Chivo, you both got kicked out. Tell us the story.
ALFONSO CUARON: I think none of those stories is true. There’s two different… Yeah I was a DP of a film that another friend did in English and it was kind of not very– it was polemic at school. When I was at film school the school was very ideologized and it was taken by a couple of communist groups. It was the base for them to create their propaganda material. And by the way, most of them, they were in their 30s, 40s,
and 50s. They were using the resources of the university for that. Because what you would get in that film school is you would get a lot of stuff to shoot. And so they were always doing that for demonstrations, shooting demonstrations and documentaries about that stuff. Really bad documentaries. They were more like very piece of propaganda. We were a younger generation that came in, that we loved cinema. We wanted to do film. There was always a clash over there. When this friend of mine, and I was a DP, made the film in English, that it was a noir that he did it in English. So, obviously, it was not very well received. And there was a lot of polemic and stuff. Truth of the matter the reason we were kicked out is that we were these arrogant brats. I mean, no question about it. But film school, I don’t think that in many ways, that film schools, sorry to say, these are not relevant nowadays from the standpoint of when I was a kid trying to think about making film was this huge white elephant that was unattainable. You needed to learn so much. It was so complicated, the technology and stuff. The newer generations, I have to say, they have grown up with behind the scenes. They know better than any director what happens behind the scenes and stuff. They have home systems to shoot, edit, even do visual effects. What film school was fundamental, and it was fundamental for me, was for two super important things. One is that creating a community. So, in film school I started working with Chivo and it’s been my longest collaboration and it’s omething that I really cherish. And at the time I was working with, you know in the end, how life goes and I end up just with Chivo. But for many years I was collaborating with many of the people of my generation. And I think that, that is something that cannot be overstressed: the importance of the collaboration, the collaborations you get in film school. And the other stuff is if you have the right people around in film school, and I was very lucky that I have a teacher, is the understanding of film language in the historical context of cinema. How the language in cinema evolved from Lumière till today and how it evolved and changed paradigms all the time. So I think that that’s the most important thing of film school. Then there was the anecdote that we were kicked out. Yeah, look there were like old dinosaurs and we were arrogant brats. Sothere was just a clash there.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How long were you actually in film school?
ALFONSO CUARON: How many years? It was like four years or five years. But the thing also that had been a clash was that while I was in film school I had already started working taking different position in film sets, as an assistant, I was a boom operator in—I don’t know—like twenty movies. I did a lot of different things and started to be an assistant director at that time.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I know you said that you went through a period of self-doubt then. You were working on all these films but you weren’t directing. How difficult was that and how did you get to make your first film?
ALFONSO CUARON: Part of the stuff that happened is, I was a very young dad. And very soon I found myself having to survive. And film became my source of living. So when I was working as an assistant it was my source of maintaining my family. And what starts happening is that I was young and concerned about money, basically, so I didn’t have much time to think creatively. By the same token, I just wanted to be in movie sets because I wanted to learn from people who had more experience. So I would even do films for very little if I knew that there was someone that I could learn from. There’s a point in which my other peers, my generational peers, they were already doing films and developing stuff. And I kept on working as an assistant. And yeah, there was a point and I thought that probably I was not going to direct films. But as things goes, it’s great when you have mentors and people who give you a hand. I was lucky that some other directors started embracing me, some of them that I had worked with as an assistant. And started pushing me to do stuff and eventually I started working on this TV anthology of — it was not an anthology. It was like a Twilight Zone where I met Guillermo del Toro. We used to call it Toilet Zone because of the budget. We had the chance to do, they were like thirty-minutes horror stories. Each one individual. And we had the chance to write them, direct them, edit. I was the DP for most of them they did. I worked with Chivo in those ones as well. So it was a great opportunity to start flexing the muscle and more importantly to start getting the security of doing stuff. And from then I had the chance to do, I wrote with Carlos my brother. I started collaborating in the Toilet Zone with Carlos my brother writing some of this stuff and then we decided to write a screenplay. There was—I think it had to do with Chivo, that one day very earnestly he asked me, you’ve been doing a lot of this shows. What is your goal? Do you want to do a telenovela? Because, we were working for the same company that did the tele-novelas. And some of those directors doing those were starting to do telenovelas. And I got shocked at that point.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How old were you then?
ALFONSO CUARON: I was 28-29.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Wow.
ALFONSO CUARON: And then I called Carlos. He thought were going to write another episode. And I said no, no, no. Let’s write a screenplay.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So that was your first feature film?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah, Solo Con Tu Pareja.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Love In The Time of Hysteria. Which was a sex comedy about a guy who’s duped into believing he has AIDS. And pretty different from Gravity and Y Tu Mamá También, even then. What happened with that film? Was it released in Mexico?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah. It was a big hit in Mexico. But in order to do that film, it was a film that was partially financed by the government. But it was still the government carrying that old mentality of—I mean, by the way, still has it, I’m not saying it’s changed. But what has changed is the attitude of the new generations towards it. At that time the government was the grantor of funds to make films. So it was like you had to go and kiss the ring of the pope over there.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And you didn’t like doing that?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, no because it was clear that we were going to be partners. So I started treating them like partners and they didn’t like that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They had the money.
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah, but by the way, they were co-financing. I was kind of, just because nobody charged. We were pretty much working for free so it was the group of people who worked on the film and the government was putting in the money. But in a way it was like we were co-producing and that was my attitude. We’re not your employees. We are partners here. And things didn’t go that well with them. And I knew that the film was invited to the Toronto Film Festival. And I knew that I had burned all my bridges with the government, that at that time was the only way that we knew how to raise money to make films. So the film was premiering in Toronto and I started getting attention from people.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You sort of moved to America then. Maybe not full time. Were you going into a kind of exile? Or is that how you perceived it?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, it was just one more type of survival. The little money I had, I had put into the film. I had only debts and I had my kid. I had to raise money. I knew that going back to Mexico, I was not going to put together another film. My option was going to do gigs as an assistant director or location scouter that I was doing quite a lot. Or start figuring out what was going on with… It was very funny because when I was in Toronto, I made a big mistake. I didn’t know about those things and they invited me to the festival and they said I could stay the 10 days or 2 weeks, whatever it is. I said yes, for all that time. What I didn’t know is that once your film is screened there’s not much point to stay there. But my return, my next ticket was to LA because I was going to the Palm Springs Film Festival, I think. So I had to wait in Toronto but I didn’t have money. People started inviting me for lunch asking me if I had representation. I didn’t understand, I really didn’t know what they were talking about. But, a lunch invitation was a good thing. So, I would go to these lunches and I ordered a lot of food and at the end get all that food into my doggie bag and I’d go into my room and gave it to my brother. Because the other alternative was to eat the carrots in the hospitality suite. And like that I learned what this whole thing of agents and stuff was about.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You then worked for Sydney Pollack on the television series and that led to your first American feature, which really put you on the map globally. And we’re going to take a look at a clip from A Little Princess.
[CLIP FROM A LITTLE PRINCESS]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How do you feel seeing that again?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well the visual effects were a little clunky. Once that I finish a film I have never seen them again. So, this is weird to see.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You haven’t seen this since you made it?
ALFONSO CUARON: No, this is
the only one because one day Guillermo del Toro called me and said, have you
seen Little Princess lately? And I said, no I haven’t seen this. And he said, well, how old is your daughter? I said, well she’s six. It was five. He said, ok when she is six you have to see it with her. And I saw it, like, six years ago.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was that good or bad?
ALFONSO CUARON: It was great because I was not watching the film. I was pretty much enjoying my daughter.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: This was your first experience working with an American studio. How restricted were you?
ALFONSO CUARON: It was… I have to say, I have never seen my movies again and the movie that I like is that one. And yes, I can see those visual, you see that is why I cannot see them again. It was such a good experience, the whole thing. It was one of those things that just happened. There was really no interference. It was I guess that this was such a small movie for them, at that time, that they didn’t care that much. I remember the first week of shoot I got this whole thing of they asked me, they said the film was not going to cut together because the way I was shooting it. The executive in charge was Dede Allen. Dede Allen is a mythical editor. She’s an amazing master. Bonnie and Clyde I think is one of her work. Dede said that it was not going to cut together because I was just shooting everything from behind, I really didn’t have the faces. And then instead of doing anything, I went to the cutting room and I cut the scene. And then she saw it and she says, oh I completely get it. I thought that you were shooting conventional and that you didn’t know what you were doing. From that point Dede went to all the other guys and said leave him alone—he knows what he’s doing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you feel that you knew what you were doing?
ALFONSO CUARON: No. But that’s been a constant, man.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you get afraid when you film?
ALFONSO CUARON: No, not afraid. It’s not afraid. It’s this moment when you’re shooting and it’s about choices. I think it was Alain Resnais that said that there are one million possibilities for a camera position and only one right one. One is the right one. There is a stressful thing. Something I have been passionate about in cinema from the get-go, even when I was a kid. I cherish cinema as a language. A language that is different than any other language. I don’t like the idea of cinema being a bastard of literature or theater. I really believe that cinema has its own language and in many ways is more related to music than any other art form. So the cinematic choices are very important. So, I don’t get afraid. But there’s always the thing that you are on your toes trying to make sure that the thing is the right thing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But you agree that there is only one right position for a camera?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You do.
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you got it wrong?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah. It is
in the sense that the end product is only going to be that position. So that particular project, there was a lot of ignorance from my side, and I think from Emmanuel Lubezki as well. In the sense that, for some reason that film, in my memory, it jelled when it should have not jelled because we were not knowledgeable enough. By this I mean that because Chivo and I, we were so concerned about the technical aspect of film, because something that happened in 60s and 70s, great Mexican films, but most of Mexican cinema was lacking technique. So we were very concerned about trying to make something that was technically polished. And we were still confused about language versus style. So, that, for some reason there was a certain innocence at the same time that I want to believe the film had a good outcome. When I did my next film it proved that it was pretty much a happy accident.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Just before you count that, what do you mean by a confusion between language and style?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well I think it’s two complete different things. Style is just an impression. Style itself is hollow. Style, its ok style as long as it is part of a language. Style for style itself is just something very hollow. I think language is connected with theme. While style is just connected with aesthetic.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So is that what went wrong when you did your next film Great Expectations, which I know you’ve regretted doing? Why did you do it?
ALFONSO CUARON: That’s a film that I did for the wrong reasons. I regret it because it was not a good experience but I never learned as much as from doing that film. It’s one of those things that you have to do through your worst experiences so you finally get it. What happened with that one is, I think it’s that it’s an indigestion of style and of technique. Chivo at that time, I wanted to polish the technique and I wanted to polish the style and stylize absolutely everything and Chivo was just experimenting with very single toy and tool that he could get hold of. So it was a very bad combination of all of those things. Truth of the matter is that the biggest mistake and one of the biggest things I learned is that I had said no so many times to that film. They offered it to me and I said no, no, no. And I allowed myself into the whole thing. Chivo throughout the whole shoot, every single time says, next time please trust your first instinct. That’s something that, when you’re asking about if you get afraid, you get a little stressed sometimes trying to make the choice. And you say, come on, stop arguing with your first instinct. Just go and do what you think is the right thing. But in that one I let myself talk into the film because of business considerations, Hollywood, cool stars that were going to be part of it, Art Linson the producer that I like his films and he’s the most charming and fun guy to be around. And I just allow truly, I allowed my ego to be part of the process. But there was a constant of why I did that film, and I think that’s the reason I make films. Pretty much I make films every time I run out of money. At that time after A Little Princess, I was just travelling around the world and I ran out of money and then it was a big consideration to make that movie.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: At what point in the film did you know it was not working out?
ALFONSO CUARON: Oh, it’s just that when things don’t work out it’s so early on. I didn’t have a grasp on the material. I was confused thematically about what I was doing with the whole thing. But I didn’t even think about the theme because I was just trying to figure out a way in which it could be cool, that it could be, compensate with visuals and style. I didn’t have the grasp on the material and I was feeling all the time lost. What happened, I remember one day, that we were going one location in New York and I was with Chivo in the van, and we were going through New Jersey and we would see the houses and stuff. I remember saying, why did we paint everything green? Because the whole film was green. Look, reality can be so awesome just the way it is. And there’s something truthful over there, and it’s just so fake everything that we’re doing. And I think that was the beginning of a process of, ok let’s now learn from everything that we’ve done before.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did the actors sense your uncertainty? How did that affect your relationship with Robert DeNiro?
ALFONSO CUARON: Bob was fantastic. He was fantastic, because also, his character appears at the beginning and at the end. And it’s very clear why he‘s there. So there was not much ambiguity about what those scenes should be about. He was fantastic, he was great to work with, he was fun. But also, at the time I guess, I was covering everything. That was another thing. I felt a little lost and then I was covering everything. That is something that is not in my nature.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s interesting that you say you started to look at reality and you said that after Great Expectations we were hitting dead ends, everything was feeling baroque, and then you make this truly astonishing leap into this amazing film that caught everybody by surprise and is still one of my favorite films. Let’s watch a clip from Y Tu Mamá También.
ALFONSO CUARON: Glad you’re not showing a clip of Great Expectations.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I knew you wouldn’t want that.
[CLIP FROM Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You noticed we cut out…
ALFONSO CUARON: I noticed that you cut out…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I thought, you know, I’m in a university setting. This scene is so fantastic. I think you’ve all seen the film. And so beautifully constructed, just as a piece of writing. You don’t notice because it feels so naturalistic. This turning point in her character where this person that you felt is relatively passive has been sucked along in this, drawn into this situation and turns out to actually be far stronger than the boys. I’ve seen this film so many times and it’s just a remarkable piece of work. What did you think when you made it? So here you are and you’ve come back to Mexico, tail between your legs. You’ve had Great Expectations, which is a disaster.
ALFONSO CUARON: Thank you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: The promise that you’ve shown with A Little Princess, crashed. And here you are and you go in a completely different direction. What were you thinking?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, the things is, it was, what happened is that I became aware that I had lost my way. I had lost my joy with cinema. I was completely lost. I was living in New York at the time. So I went to Kim’s Video, that was a video place. And I rented a bunch of films, the films that I loved in the first place, when I wanted to make films. And I rented a bunch, dozens and dozens of films and for two weeks I was just watching one after the other. And I fell in love back with cinema. Wow that is the reason, why am I doing all this crap? If that is the reason I wanted to make film. And I called Carlos, with whom I’d written Love in The Time of Hysteria. And says, are you busy now? I have a couple of weeks. Ok, come and let’s write something. And with Chivo we started talking. The point of departure is, to make a film that we would have made before going to film school, before we knew that there were rules. But at the same time, self-imposing on ourselves certain rules. One was that character and environment were going to have the same weight. You were not going to favor one or the other. Then in the writing, you have this story of these two kids and the journey from teen age into adulthood, together with this woman that eventually you discover that is on her journey to die. But that was going to be as important as the background. There was the country, and it was the commentary about the country that in many ways was going from a teenage country to a grown up country. And the byproduct of that was in many ways the death of a culture. Linking the two of them was a voice over. We wanted the voice over to be not telling us information about the film, but of other stuff about context around the film. And most of those conversations of the voice over were about death. So when I arrived to Mexico, you said I arrived with my tail between my legs. No, I arrived completely fearless. That was a beautiful journey with Chivo, and Gael [García Bernal], Diego [Luna], Maribel [Verdú], and Carlos [Cuaron], just doing this film.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was it at difficult film to make?
ALFONSO CUARON: No. It’s difficult like every film is difficult. Making films, you’re always going to have problems, there’s always going to be challenges. But it was a small production, we were always on the road, and there was a very strong collaboration between the actors and Chivo and myself. So it was a great experience.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Until the end. And then of course you had some issues with the Mexican government. I want you to tell everybody, they censored your film.
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, they gave an over 18 rating, so you have to be 18 to see the film. And I was kind of very upset because it was a film about teenagers. And I find it very stupid that teenagers could only see caricatures of teenagers but they couldn’t see films that you try to be a truthful context, a truthful portrayal of teenagers. So we engaged into a legal battle with the government about the rating, that obviously we were not going to win. But what happened was that then the young people start pretty much revolting in front of theaters. In just going in mass and getting into the cinemas. In one city they did a demonstration outside getting naked outside the theater and stuff.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you?
ALFONSO CUARON: I was not there but I wish I’d been there. The film itself connected with a whole generation in Mexico. But the more important thing is that it connected with a whole generation, you realize that that journey is a universal journey. The best thing was to hear people from all different countries telling you, all around the world, saying things like, oh yeah that reminded me of my teen years, I did a trip like that. And there was a guy from Israel telling me that, there was a guy from Australia telling me that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you ever have a road trip like that?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah. Not exactly like that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I mean, the older woman, this is every young guy’s fantasy.
ALFONSO CUARON: Look doctor…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You can’t get out of the question just by saying that.
ALFONSO CUARON: This was a combination between stuff that happened to me, stuff that happened to my brother, and stuff that we heard to other friends that happened. But definitely we knew every single one, we know the reference, we know the characters. We actually have referenced characters by name of people that actually exist. There’s a wedding scene in the film in which is full of body guards and nobody cares about the guy that is getting married because everyone is concerned about the president that is present. I went to a wedding that was like that, in the same location.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you identify with young people?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, yeah. I identify with people. I’m very pessimistic about the present but I’m very optimistic about the future because of the next generations. I think that the next generations are wiser. Yes, I not only identify. I want to pretty much learn from them.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: In what way are they wiser?
ALFONSO CUARON: Until they become older, so guys—be careful. Particularly that we’re living in an extraordinary generation right now. I think that we’re going into a place that I’m very optimistic and very excited about, because it’s the first generation in probably hundreds of hundreds of years of humanity, that has born with a new set of tools. And that those tools are are organic to them. They have born with all the problems and screw-up-ness that our older generation have inherited to them. At the same time they have these tools, and these tools that are not only computers and stuff, but is all this connectivity that they have. And I think that there’s, we haven’t seen it yet, but I think that there is going to be a really positive outcome in all of that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You’re not afraid that there’s going to be a negative outcome from that?
ALFONSO CUARON: No. It’s like everything. Technology is technology. Technology doesn’t have a, it is not good or bad. Technologies are tools. Yes, you can see them now. The bad ripple effect, we know it. But I really believe there is the possibility of something great that can happen in the right hands. We have no idea of the possibilities of that tool and how that tool is going to effect consciousness. And how that tool is going to effect… At the end, every single tool in the history of humanity has changed the evolutionary program, even from a biological standpoint. You learn to use a tool, there’s the thumb and there’s a ripple effect to that. I’m very curious, if I get to live to see that–to see what would be that thing, that outcome to that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well, you’ve used some of those tools, this is a clunky transition, in your next film, which we’ll show – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
[CLIP HARRY POTTER
AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That is such terrific filmmaking. I mean, to do all that in a tiny space, and build from three kids in a little room, to operatic level drama, and also just technically, we know exactly where we are at every point. And I’ve seen that now multiple times, where we watch the clip in preparation for this, every time the skill of it just astonishes me. So congratulations.
ALFONSO CUARON: Thank you. Oh, for the DPs in the room, you have to adjust that monitor. Sorry.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So here you’ve done Y Tu Mamá También, nobody expects you to do a major franchise film on which a studios fortunes are depending. They’ve, Chris Columbus has pulled out, they’ve gone to a couple of other directors who’ve turned it down. You are now in the running with Callie Khouri, Kenneth Branagh, and you. How come?
ALFONSO CUARON: I have no idea. I think it was not so much the studio at that point. It was David Heyman, the producer and J.K. Rowling, that both were big fans of A Little Princess and Y Tu Mamá También. And they really pushed for me. And what happened to me was that I had just written Children of Men, and the studio didn’t want to do it. And one more time I found myself unemployed and without money.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You spend a lot.
ALFONSO CUARON: No, come on. I was coming from Y Tu Mamá También and the previous film to that was Great Expectations like eight years before. So, I’m not that prolific
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you have to go and interview with J.K. Rowling?
ALFONSO CUARON: I did. It was amazing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Tell us about that meeting.
ALFONSO CUARON: She’s just an amazing lady. We just started talking about the book, about the themes of the book. I was talking about how everything sounds so relevant. How everything is like mirroring. It was a book about magic that really was about people. Why I’m interested in this is if Y Tu Mamá También is the journey from teen age into adulthood, this is the journey from childhood into teenage. And also the cast was going to be 13 and they were 13 in the book. Pretty much we were just talking about that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Where did you meet her?
ALFONSO CUARON: In Scotland.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You went to her house.
ALFONSO CUARON: Her house, yeah.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What’s she like?
ALFONSO CUARON: She’s great. She served tea and cookies and stuff that they do over there. She was very respectful about the choices and the decisions. Actually gave me, there would be only the moment in which I would get, she’d go, you know, I know that you want to try to cut this out. Please don’t do it. I know that it’s a bore for your film, but this is going to make sense in the fifth one. And if you get rid of that, this is not going to make sense. And what was amazing was how well she would know her universe. I have a design of some stuff in what I was going to do in the geography of the stuff. But she says, look, I love that but you cannot put the graveyard there because the graveyard is on the other side. So I had the opportunity to work with her, giving a geographical eloquence to Hogwarts. Because something that I got a bit obsessive is about the geographic eloquence of situations. In Hogwarts, I worked very closely with Stuart Craig, the great production designer, giving that eloquence. Look this is the great hall, if you go out of the great hall, and the camera was linking those spaces, you see the stairwell. Then if you go to the stairs there’s the fat lady painting, and then you go inside and there’s the room, and you go up the stairs and it’s the bedroom, and if you go out of the window you see that it’s the tower. And then if you go to this direction and you go to the hospital, in the hospital is a long corridor and the long corridor leads to the clock tower. If you look down from the clock tower, you see there is this courtyard, and there’s a bridge. If you follow the bridge, you arrive to Hagrid’s hut, and if you go to the left, you go to the forest. And everything was linked, visually linked. And J.K. helped to figure out that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did she tell you what the end was going to be?
ALFONSO CUARON: I knew everything. I knew that Harry and…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: By the way, recently she said that she thought she made a mistake.
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah, she told me that five years ago.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: No. Were you surprised when she said that?
ALFONSO CUARON: No. Actually that was an interesting choice that I remember early on. When I was reading the stuff, that I thought there was going to be some kind of stuff between Harry and Hermione but it was wrong. And I said, ok that’s interesting. But now, she’s regretting that maybe. There’s a twist. Maybe now we can do a movie. They’re in their thirties. They have a crisis.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They go to Mexico.
ALFONSO CUARON: Yeah, they go to Mexico. There you go.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why did you not do another Harry Potter after this?
ALFONSO CUARON: Because it would have been to overstay my welcome. I felt that I have learned so much through that process and it was such an amazing experience. I walked into this machinery that was already engaged. That I didn’t have to worry about raising the funds, or the cast, most of the cast was already in place and was fantastic, it’s great to Chris Columbus. That I felt that it would be doing another one, I don’t know if I was going to be able to offer anything new. And also I really wanted to do Children of Men. That was the other thing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well let’s watch a clip from Children of Men.
[CLIP CHILDREN OF MEN]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s just dazzling filmmaking to do that with so few setups., And also, the humor and the suspense of the car not starting. Your brother said something interesting about you. He said that when you make a film, you take on the character of the film. That when you did, and this is your brother talking, that when you did A Little Princess, you were like a little princess. When you did this, you became this pessimistic, dystopian guy. Is that true?
ALFONSO CUARON: Probably. I guess so, I guess. I think it’s that, Children of Men, if you had seen that here, you would see Chivo’s work that is amazing. You couldn’t tell over there. Because he went from this dusk into sunrise because the whole thing was to keep it in real time, but anyway. The point of departure of Children of Men is that we wrote it right after September 11. So the idea of Children of Men was for us trying to sort out, trying to understand what was shaping the 21st century. So it was a film about, as much as Y Tu Mamá También is that film about environment, about that background that environment that is happening behind those characters — Children of Men is about that background, that environment behind. We did a lot of research about what was shaping; that it was the phenomenon of immigration, environment, the whole thing of security versus freedom, and all of that stuff. And yeah, it was very pessimistic view, and I was very concerned about that. So maybe hat’s what he means.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You had several writers on this film. Why?
ALFONSO CUARON: I wonder because the truth of the matter is that it was a novel by P.D. James that I didn’t read because when I said, oh I want to do this, I read the coverage of it. It immediately sprang the idea of this film, but from the standpoint of those things of the thematics of the 21st century, that the novel is not about that. And the studio had already a draft that was a straight adaptation to that novel. And I said, no I don’t want to read it, because that’s not what we’re doing. And I didn’t want to read it, I didn’t read the book, I didn’t read any of that stuff. And we did this story, that has nothing to do with that other stuff, but then later on the Writers Guild arbitrate that, because there were other writers involved in the title, then they would have the credit. But the reality was Tim Sexton and me. This film, yeah, this other script…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How do you deal with studios like that? Do you find that you’re always in battle with them?
ALFONSO CUARON: That was not the studio. That was the Writer’s Guild.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Oh. But generally, when you’re making a studio film, how do you navigate all the competing voices, the fact that they’re spending so much money?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, you say competing forces. I have a good relationship with the studios. I get that what they are doing. I don’t see them as Darth Vader trying to destroy me. And some can be very helpful. Some executives are very, very talented in terms of narrative and stuff. But yes, the thing of the process of the studio is a little bit as if you are trying to figure out or to invent a melody, a song in the shower. You’re trying to go through your song, and you find 65 people singing a different tune at the same time. You have to be very focused about the music that you have inside. Not in this scene, but there was this other scene at the end that battle which is a one shot deal and it was like the climatic set piece of the film. And in a conventional film you have your amount of days to do that scene. I think scene we have like 12 days. And by day 10 we hadn’t started shooting yet because we were setting up the choreography and the special effects and all of that stuff. And what happens is that after the second day that you don’t shoot, you start getting visits from one executive first. And they start suggesting, why don’t you start shooting inserts. Well, there are no inserts in this one. [LAUGHTER] And then a few days later, higher up the ranks, another executive comes — how you doing? Things are good? Yeah. Do you need some extra cameras? We can bring some cameras to help. There is only one camera. And then by day 10 there’s like bleachers with executives waiting for you to start shooting. And that specific shot we nail it in the very last second. There is a certain thing that you have to just stick to the plan, stick to what you want to do, and you try to work with studios and executives that they get it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you insist on final cut?
ALFONSO CUARON: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Your next film, which everyone has seen, which we’re going to come to finally, was in one studio and then went to another. It was at Universal; it variously had Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey attached, there was some talk of Scarlett Johanssen, Natalie Portman, went from Universal to Warner Brothers. What happened? It’s been, what, five years since you started thinking of what became Gravity?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, five years that we wrote it and started the process. At that time I had done Children of Men at Universal, so it was like a natural thing. You have your battles and stuff but they were great at Universal. So the natural thing is to stay there. But then as we started working on the thing, the administration changed. The new administration, that was very cool and said, look, right now we are in a period of transition. Your movie at this point is going to get lost. They were very cool that they let me bring it out and go back to Warners that has been my home for, this is the third film. I always got a great relationship with them. And in the process, I thought I had written a small movie. I called Chivo and said, this is a very intimate movie, just one character floating in space. This story of this woman dealing with her grief. So, when I was writing and stuff I thought it was going to be a small movie. Soon it proved that it was going to be more complicated. So we didn’t have the technology to do it. We started developing stuff, or trying to figure out the technology. And the luxury that we had is that we could try many things while we were doing that. And part of that was conversations with actors. I had conversations with Angelina, but then she went to do one film and then the other she was going to direct. Something that happens, you part ways. With Robert Downey I had other conversations, but it became very clear that, as we started to nail the technology, or narrow the technology, and that was going to be a big obstacle for his erformance. I think Robert is fantastic if you give him the freedom to completely breathe and improvise and change stuff. And here it was clear that we were going to be very…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And he said that, that he felt that way.
ALFONSO CUARON: No, we tried one of these technologies and it was not compatible. And after that we have our week that we pretend as if nothing was happening and then we talk and say that this is not going to work. This is tough.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Is it heartbreaking when you lose a guy you want, you lose a studio you want, or do you think, no it’s just going to happen?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, the thing is that at that point we didn’t have, we were still trying technologies. We didn’t have a start date, and it was not until some old elements came in to place, that we could responsibly go to the studio and say we can set a start date and hope that the technology is going to be ready. That then you can do offers and that is when we went after Sandra and George.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And how much pressure did the studio put on you during this? Did you know going in what your budget was? Did you know that you had to finish date? Were they easy going or did they say, hey come on, what’s happening?
ALFONSO CUARON: It was a very strange process because, and this is a real fact: the film has not been greenlit yet. So, it was just one of those things that we were developing, and the studio was fantastic like that. We started developing technology and we had great champions there at the studio, like Chris DeFaria, the visual effects executive there was passionate about it and he was being very helpful. So we kept on developing technology while we were developing the pre-vis that became the bible that would program all the tools on the set later on. So, there were a lot of things happening, and next thing suddenly, finally we have a start date. And yes, the studio was clear they loved the screenplay, they saw the pre-vis and saw the possibilities, but it’s a woman drifting in space. So we had a number that we could not pass. So we have the only constraint if anything was that we could not pass the budget. So that was part of the challenge of how to create all of this film and the technology in the constraint of the budget.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’m going to show a clip and then we’ll take student questions because we’re going to wrap up. But what you do so interestingly in this film and we’ll see it here, is continue what really began I suppose, in Y Tu Mamá También and then you develop with Children of Men, these really long takes. I want you to explain why you did that and also, it seems if you’re going to make a thriller, what’s the easiest tool you have to create drama? The cut. And yet you avoid that. Was that a difficult decision and why have you more veered more towards these very long takes as you move forward in your career?
ALFONSO CUARON: The thing is, as you said it started in Y Tu Mamá También, before that in every single film I’ve done from the first film or the little TV things that we used to do, we used to do one shot deals. But I guess that a lot of those were more for the sake of style. Then in Y Tu Mamá También it became a conscious decision from the standpoint of language. And it was what I was saying before about the relationship between character and environment; not to give more weight to one or the other, but for one to inform the other or clash with the other. Together with that is to do that in real time. The by-product of that is the one-shot deals.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at Gravity. I think that they see it better than we do at this angle but you can tell us afterwards. Or you’re not convinced. [LAUGHTER] Let’s have a look and then we’ll take the student questions.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s so amazing because it’s both this thriller and yet it has this kind of mystical quality that elevates you to a different level. Let’s take some student questions. Are we ready with our first student?
ZIYI ZHENG 1st year student: Hello. My name is Ziyi. I’m a first year student in Film Production. It is great to meet you sir. My question is regarding talents and skills, what do you think is the most commendable quality for a good director?
ALFONSO CUARON: I think it’s about the thematic elements. And yes, story is important but the most important is the theme and how you‘re going to convey theme cinematically. I’m a believer also in an awareness of film in the context of history is very important and film history is very important.
MARCO CERVANTES 3rd year student: At this school, we have a lot of international film students, so my question is since we see you as an international filmmaker, how difficult is it to create stories or films that don’t generally apply to Western or American audiences?
ALFONSO CUARON: It’s a good question but at the same time, at the end of the day it’s about: we’re born first humans then after they stamp our passport. The most important thematics in humanity I think that are completely universal and completely relatable from one person to the other. As long as, one more time going to back to the thematic, as long as you’re truthful to that thematic, you can trust that that is going to transcend. For me that was a a happy surprise of Y Tu Mamá También. Because I remember when it was premiered in Mexico, someone said, well people are going to get it here in Mexico, but it’s not going to travel. And it happened that the film traveled quite a lot because people were connecting with that experience.
CHRIS 3rd year PROD Grad: Are you more interested now in moving back to smaller personal films like Y Tu Mamá También, or larger scale films with a personal angle?
ALFONSO CUARON: I don’t distinguish too much one or the other. They are films. Yes, what I miss this thing of intimacy of doing one camera and working with the actors. Something was frustrating for me in Gravity was that we have to plan everything. Everything was preprogrammed. When I’m shooting, what I like and I do a lot of with Chivo is that we prep very well, we believe in preparation, to be super prepared. But we arrive to the set and we forget the preparation. And it’s about we’re inventing everything. And each take is absolutely different. It’s about finding what Chivo calls the miracles, the little moments, the accidents that sometimes those are the ones that make the scene and create that truthfulness. With Gravity we couldn’t afford that. Everything was computerized. So, yes I miss going back to that. If it’s in the context of Hollywood or not, I’m not sure right now. I don’t know.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you know what your next film is going to be?
ALFONSO CUARON: You know, I have to finish all of this and go back to life and allow whatever happens next to spring out of life. Not to spring out of capitalizing from this film or the inertia of this film.
MIKE SOLOMAN WPTV: – You touched on the technological developments, especially with a film like Gravity, that really pushes the boundaries technologically and visually, I’m wondering how you communicate your vision to your cast, your crew, your co-producers, about something that really hasn’t been shown on film before. How you get all your various collaborators on board with an idea that is something new that no one has seen?
ALFONSO CUARON: It would be pretentious to say that I started the process saying we’re going to do something that no body has seen. We didn’t know that. We had a screenplay that was very specific, and I think that the thematic elements were very clear. And a lot of most of the discussions were around that. What started happening was that when we started grounding the film, in the case of Gravity was about the pre-vis, is when it started to be clear that the technologies that existed were not going to apply to do this. Then everybody starts working trying to figure that out. But the technology was nothing but a by-product, it was a tool only of the creative. We were not trying to create something technologically ground-breaking. I thought that we were going to be a small movie. As a director, you’re only as good as your collaborators. You surround with collaborators that are going to understand what you’re trying to do. Not only that, they’re going to push and fight for what you’re trying to do. In moments of obstacles in Gravity, whenever I would say, wow if it’s really becoming this nightmare maybe if I do this. And they would go, no, no, no, we cannot do this. Going back to the idea that there is only one right way of doing it. This is the movie we’re trying to do. We need to figure the way of making that happen.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But do you show him art? Or do you talk about other films to give them a context or?
ALFONSO CUARON: Well, depending on whom you’re talking, with Tim Webber, the visual effects supervisor, my first conversation was saying that I wanted for NASA, after seeing the film, for NASA to sue us; he said that that terrified him because he understood that we wanted a photo real rendering. Not that comic book or kind of fantasy rendering of space, but something that would be photo real. With Chivo we have an almost telepathic communication, but when we talk about Gravity for instance we never refer to any space film. When we’re writing the screenplay we talked about Duel of Spielberg, and A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. Those were the references that we have. And the other stuff you communicate this language of character and environment and trying to keep everything together.
MOU MOU 3rd year PROD: I’m very interested in the long shot in your movies and you explain that it was more for the style. I’m curious about how does the long shots in the production, how does it affect the acting? Is it easier because the acting is continuous?
ALFONSO CUARON: That’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the long shots. One is this thing of what it means in the film in terms of language. One of the byproducts of that is performance. You don’t have a safety net. What you have there is what it’s going to be. You cannot speed it up later on or do edits to create another rhythm. Because of that your actors are almost like your co-filmmakers because a lot of the editing job falls on their shoulders. I love that process in which there is no safety net. Then the actor also can allow mistakes, because there’s no such a thing as a mistake. You’re working with good actors, that thing that starts as a mistake becomes actually the life of what is going to follow in the scene. I find that it is fantastic, and for me it is easier than for the actors. Because in Gravity, a lot of people have commented about the opening shot and stuff, but this one shot that is Sandra Bullock alone in the space pod, that she’s talking to someone on Earth that they don’t understand each other and then goes into this dream scene that Clooney’s character comes back and goes later on to her new resolve to keep on going, that all of that is one single shot. And all this emotional up and down is following on Sandra’s performance. And so no matter what you do with your camera and all of that stuff, if what is happening with a performance doesn’t work, your scene is not going to work. So all the weight goes to performance. It’s very exposed.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Thank you
– I would love to ask you more, but we have to wrap up. These were great questions, by the way. This body of work is so astonishing. Each time you do another film, I’m just more and more dazzled. Gravity now that I’ve seen it three times is just remarkable. Thank you all. Alfonso Cuaron, thank you for taking part in The Hollywood Masters.
ALFONSO CUARON: Thanks to all of you guys.
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