Success stories, humble starts

Mexican talent basking in glow of awards attention

When director-producer Guillermo del Toro was developing his first film, "Cronos," in the 1990s, he had to mortgage his house to secure financing. Later, he was forced to sell his van because he could no longer afford to fill the gas tank.

Not much has changed over the years — filmmakers here continue to struggle. Yet those who have persevered are enjoying an unprecedented payoff this awards season.

The numerous accolades drawn by Mexican talent are nothing short of remarkable, especially when one considers that many of these individuals have emerged from an industry sorely lacking in production and distribution opportunities.

Del Toro's dark fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth," a Spain-Mexico co-production, won best foreign picture at the recent BAFTA awards, took home seven Goya statuettes and is up for six Oscars.

"Babel," Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's multicultural exploration of miscommunication, grabbed best drama at the Golden Globes and garnered seven Academy Award noms, including best picture and director.

Then there's Alfonso Cuaron's sci-fi thriller "Children of Men," nominated for three Oscars and a BAFTA award winner for cinematography.

Among the many Mexican nominees are cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki and Guillermo Navarro, who picked up Oscar nominations for their work on "Children of Men" and "Pan's Labyrinth," respectively. Eugenio Caballero will vie for Hollywood's top prize as production designer on "Labyrinth." Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who won best screenplay at the 2005 Festival de Cannes for "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," secured an Oscar nom for "Babel."

Granted, most of the aforementioned Oscar nominees worked on non-Mexican productions, yet the fact remains that these individuals first had to overcome major obstacles in their home country to achieve mainstream success.

The biggest hurdle in Mexico is the lack of financing available for local productions, even for a typical project that costs about $2.5 million.

"It's ridiculously difficult," del Toro says. "It doesn't matter how much the film costs, raising the money is an impossibility."

Distribution presents serious problems as well. In a good year, Mexico produces about 50 features. However, only half of those will make their way to theaters.

Longtime friends del Toro, Gonzalez Inarritu and Cuaron are enjoying a breakthrough year, yet at the same time they are deeply concerned about the lack of production and distribution channels available for young Mexican filmmakers.

"The tragedy of it all is not losing a voice of someone like Alejandro, Alfonso or I, who is in the middle of his career," del Toro says. "The real tragedy is all the voices that will go unheard — and are going unheard."

Thanks to the slew of recent awards and nominations, del Toro says the three directors plan to sit down with the federal government and demand more legislative support for the industry.

"I think we have been garnering weapons to demand attention to support an industry that has been neglected for so many years," he points out. "This Oscar season is crucial because if we win even one award it will be put into use to make these demands."

The three amigos also are planning to get more involved in Mexican productions. Inarritu has expressed interest in backing two young filmmakers who collaborated with him on "The Making of Babel." Del Toro and Cuaron, who have produced such titles as "Duck Season" and "Chronicles," are eagerly seeking more projects from first-and second-time directors.

Octavio Maya is writing a book titled "Days of Battle," which contains biographies and exclusive interviews with 40 contemporary Mexican filmmakers, including del Toro, Gonzalez Inarritu and Cuaron. Among other themes, the book explores the hardships of accomplished Mexican helmers.

"People often praise the 'Golden Age of Mexican Cinema' in the 1940s and 1950s," he says. "But during that era there was never as much international recognition as there is now. I've always said that Mexico, or Mexican talent, needs to win an Oscar to draw more interest in production."

Some people here fear that if Mexicans fare well at the Academy Awards, foreign producers might make stronger efforts to drain the talent pool. Yet del Toro says that shouldn't be a concern because it boils down to individual choices. Cuaron, for example, after having made "Children of Men" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," says his next project will be a small Mexican feature.

Del Toro, Cuaron and Gonzalez Inarritu have managed to put the woes of the Mexican film industry behind them by surrounding themselves with proven talent. More importantly, they haven't turned their backs on a new wave of up-and-coming helmers. This awards season marks a time of celebration for the three crossover directors and their colleagues.

As del Toro emphasizes, it marks a time to "help change the rules" of filmmaking in Mexico.