'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Alfonso Cuaron ('Roma')

The Oscar winner, one of the key figures of New Mexican Cinema, opens up about being kicked out of film school, the evolution of "The Three Amigos," the widely varying scales and genres of his films and why his latest — a black-and-white Spanish-language masterpiece on Netflix — is his most personal yet.
Courtesy of Netflix
Alfonso Cuaron

"There's a moment in which you want to make sense of who you are, and a lot of that has to do with who you were," the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron says as we sit down on the Raleigh Studios lot in Hollywood to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast and begin discussing his motivations for writing, producing, directing, lensing and editing Roma. The black-and-white Spanish-language masterpiece, which was inspired by Cuaron's own childhood and the women who raised him, is now poised to become Netflix’s first best picture Oscar nominee — and quite possibly to propel Cuaron to his second best director Oscar.

The 57-year-old — an admired filmmaker who is one of the key figures of New Mexican Cinema — has previously directed 1995’s A Little Princess, 1998’s Great Expectations, 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2006’s Children of Men and 2013’s Gravity. He says of Roma, which stars Mexican newcomer Yalitza Aparicio and veteran Marina de Tavira, "It's kind of exploring and revisiting old wounds."

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Cuaron was born and raised in Mexico City. As suggested in Roma, his father was a physician and his mother was a biochemist who became a philosopher after her husband left her and she became the sole breadwinner for her family, which included Cuaron, his two brothers and his sister. Cuaron fell in love with film at an early age, visiting cinemas throughout Mexico City and joining cineclubs that held special showings and discussions. (At one, he met his future cinematographer, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, who is two years younger.) "The industry felt so far away, so impossible to find, so difficult to access," he says, and it wasn't until he began watching making-of documentaries that he realized that he wanted to become a director, and that the path to doing so might go through film school.

The driven young man wound up at the top film school in Mexico — while, at the urging of his mother, simultaneously studying philosophy so that he would have a backup career. When he was 20 and still a student, his girlfriend became pregnant, and suddenly he had financial responsibilities. In order to pay the bills, Cuaron began taking whatever professional film-related jobs he could find outside of school — he served as a PA, a boom operator, an editor and ultimately an assistant director on films like 1987's Gaby: A True Story — before getting kicked out of film school, with Lubezki, for being "arrogant brats." Subsequently, he landed his first job as a full-fledged director on a horror-anthology TV series. (Another director for the series was Guillermo del Toro.) But Cuaron knew that in order to realize his ambition of making a feature film, he would have to come up with his own material.

Cuaron and his brother, Carlos Cuaron, co-wrote, and Alfonso directed, the 1991 Mexican sex comedy Solo con Tu Pareja, which was well-received around the world, but, as he puts it, "pretty much burned my bridges" in Mexico. Fortunately, he was invited to Los Angeles to meet with Sydney Pollack, who wanted Cuaron to develop a feature for his production company, but that fell through and Cuaron instead directed an episode of the Showtime TV anthology series Fallen Angels, for which he ultimately won a Cable ACE Award, which helped to put him on the map in America. He signed a deal with Warner Bros. to direct a movie called Addicted to Love, but instead wound up making his English-language directorial debut with A Little Princess, thanks to a vote of confidence in him from the Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson and the legendary editor-turned-executive Dede Allen.

A Little Princess launched Cuaron into an orbit of opportunities, but he made the mistake of following it with an ill-advised choice: an adaptation of Great Expectations, which proved a critical and commercial failure. "It was the best lesson," he says, as it taught him not to tell stories that weren't important enough to him to develop himself, and also not obsess over form or style to the detriment of substance. Just a few years later, he applied what he had learned by making the coming-of-age sex dramedy Y Tu Mama Tambien, which he also co-wrote with his brother and which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It became a phenomenon — not least because Mexico rated it in a way that prevented people 18 and under from seeing it, which led to protests that got it widespread attention (and also probably caused Mexico not to enter it into the best foreign-language film Oscar field). In the end, the Cuaron brothers landed a best original screenplay Oscar nomination.

Cuaron had taken Y Tu Mama Tambien to the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001 — and became "stranded" there on Sept. 11. The catastrophic events of that day made him want to revisit a dystopian script treatment he had recently seen, Children of Men — but he found he couldn't rally much interest in making such a dark project at that time. In the meantime, J.K. Rowling expressed interested in Cuaron to direct the third installment of the Harry Potter film franchise, The Prisoner of Azkaban — he had, after all, experience with coming-of-age stories. But, initially, due, he says, to his "pure arrogance," he had no interest. But then, Cuaron recalls, del Toro "ordered me to go and read the books," and he was sold. "It was about trying to turn it into my own, but at the same time, within the boundaries of what the Harry Potter world was established as," he says. The resulting film remains widely regarded as the best of the series — and also taught Cuaron how to work with visual effects.

After Azkaban, Cuaron was attached to direct Life of Pi, but finally found partners who were willing to finance Children of Men for $76 million, and therefore went with that project. Perhaps best remembered for its frenetic closing action-sequence in which the 'blood' that splatters on a camera lens was, Cuaron says, "a happy accident," the film was not well-promoted and lost a lot of money. But it was highly regarded by critics and awards voters, and at the 79th Oscars in early 2007, "The Three Amigos" — Cuaron, del Toro and their mutual friend Alejandro G. Inarritu — all had films up for Oscars. Children of Men was nominated for three awards, and Cuaron was personally nominated for best adapted screenplay and best film editing; del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was nominated for six awards, including best foreign-language film, and won three; and Inarritu's Babel was nominated for seven awards, including best picture, and won one. The trio of Mexicans had begun to conquer Hollywood.

It would, however, be another seven years before the world saw another Cuaron film. The filmmaker imagined that Gravity, which he co-wrote with his son, Jonas Cuaron, would be a small-scale production that could be shot in just a few weeks — "It was jut an intimate film in space," he reasoned. Instead, it took five years of hard work and innovation. In effect, what is usually considered postproduction was for this film preproduction — the performances were the last thing added into what was essentially animation only after the development of "technology that did not exist before" made it all possible. The challenge was worth it — the film, which was widely seen in 3D — proved a critical and commercial smash, and Cuaron walked away with the best director Oscar. (Beginning with Gravity, one of the Three Amigos would win the best director Oscar in four of the next five years, with Inarritu winning for 2014's Birdman and 2015's The Revenant and del Toro winning for 2017's The Shape of Water.)

Cuaron initially planned to follow Gravity with a prehistoric drama, the details of which he drunkenly shared with Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux at the Morelia Film Festival several years ago. Fremaux, however, told him the idea was ridiculous and that he should instead return to a personal project. "I got pissed off at him, but he was right," Cuaron says. He already had such a project in the back of his mind. "Twelve years ago the film manifested for the first time," he says of Roma. "I didn't have the guts. I was scared of doing it." Now, after Gravity, he was ready, and he returned, for the first time in 17 years, to make a film in Mexico, much of it where the original events took place, with many non-actors who were like the real people they were to portray. Gravity may have been an epic film, but this was an epic production, taking 108 days — longer than any other shoot of Cuaron's career — because he was constantly "trying to find moments of truthfulness, moments that are real."

If critics' reactions to Roma are any indication, Cuaron has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams — the film has a 96 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It rolled out at virtually every major fall film festival (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York, London, AFI Fest) en route to an unprecedented. albeit still limited, theatrical release for a Netflix film (part of Cuaron's deal in bringing his film — which was financed by his longtime collaborator David Linde's Participant Media — to the streaming service) and then a Dec. 14 debut on Netflix itself.

Why was a theatrical release so important to Cuaron? And how many days and how many theaters does a pic need to play to be considered a full-fledged film? "I don't think there's a rule of thumb about how many days and how many theaters," he says. "I just know that the theatrical release of Roma worldwide is probably wider than I would have gotten in a conventional way for a black-and-white Mexican film in Spanish. In the last few years, probably one of the most successful global releases of a foreign film has been A Fantastic Woman, and probably we have the same theaters or more." He adds, "I will always advocate for the theatrical experience. I also know that my film is going to live for way longer in digital formats. So I think that the important thing is to find the right balance."