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Alfonso Cuarón Dares to Hope
By Sean Axmaker
December 21, 2006 - 3:40 PM PST

"The end result doesn't matter; what matters is what we learn for the next one."

Alfonso Cuarón is one the freshest filmmaking voices to come out of Mexico in decade, along with Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu. It's no coincidence that the three are also friends and even collaborators, with Cuarón producing Del Toro's recent Pan's Labyrinth and teaming up with Del Toro to produce Sebastián Cordero's bitter thriller Cronicas.

The three caballeros have made their respective marks not simply in Hollywood but on the international filmmaking stage, with Cuarón as the elder statesman of the trio. He was the first to make his feature debut, a black comedy about machismo, AIDS, and middle class mores called Sólo con tu pareja, which struck a chord with young Mexican audiences and became the number one film in the country in 1992; and he was the first to cross over into Hollywood with his magical screen version of A Little Princess, a tender ode to childhood imagination and innocent optimism.

His career since has shown a refreshing diversity, from the sexy and unapologetically raw Y tu mamá también, a coming of age drama of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll with an eye-opening undercurrent of socio-political discovery, to the family friendly Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the hit fantasy series about the famous boy wizard. What remains consistent is a vivid visual approach, different for each film but always vibrant and alive, a compassion for his characters and an empathy with youth, especially children and teenagers. "If I care to connect with anybody, it's young people," he confesses. "It's a selfish thing, because they keep you relevant."

His latest film, Children of Men, takes his career into unexpected - but decidedly relevant - territory. Based on a novel by P.D. James, it's set in a world where two decades of infertility have created a mood of hopelessness as devastating and destructive as a nuclear holocaust. The bleak, impoverished near future could be today reflected through a grimy, distorted mirror, but true to Cuarón's sensibility, the film becomes a road movie powered by the spark of hope.

The interview was conducted in early December in the midst of Cuarón's press tour in support of Children of Men. Though the gray flecks running through his unruly hair and scruffy beard gave away his age, his energy and attitude made him seem younger than his 45 years. Easy to laugh, eager to talk and passionate when discussing his work, he was a blast to interview, but he must have been hell on publicists. My interview started late; by the time it was over, he was an hour behind schedule. "Don't worry, we can go a little longer," he assured me after I got the five-minute warning. It wasn't even noon. His cell phone beeping with calls from Del Toro and Iñárritu didn't help his schedule, but it honestly felt more like a benediction than an intrusion when the director of Babel interrupted the conversation for a brief chat.

Your debut feature, Sólo con tu pareja, was just released on DVD in the United States.

I haven't seen it since I finished. Ever since I finished them, I haven't seen any of my films. I don't make myself responsible for them. [Pause.] But I'll tell you what I like about this DVD [the Criterion edition released in 2006]. The short [Quartet for the End of Time], that was my first short. That I like.

In the documentary that was on the DVD, your brother Carlos said that the best thing that happened to you was that the film did not get good distribution, but it was a smash hit in Mexico. What did he mean?

I think he meant here in America. In Mexico it was a big hit. There is a long story in which a company bought it [for American distribution] and then got afraid of the polemic and then they dropped it and nobody picked it up again.

I believe it finally received its American theatrical debut this year.

Fifteen years later. [laughs] It's one of those things. And you know what? Maybe it is the best thing that ever happened to the film and to me and to everything.

How did it lead to your first American directing assignment, an episode of Fallen Angels, the series of modern film noir short films for Showtime?

Sydney Pollack saw it, he loved it, and he got me to do Fallen Angels. It was great. I have to thank Sydney Pollack and Bill Horberg, who was his partner at the time, that they got me to do Fallen Angels when I was the black sheep. Because everyone else was a big name. Steven Soderbergh directed an episode, Jonathan Kaplan, who was huge at the time. Phil Joanou, who was the young, hot guy. And I don't think that Showtime was very happy about having me and, I have to say, Sydney and Bill pushed for me.

I thought the entire first season was great and your episode, "Murder, Obliquely," had the silkiest style of them all. It was so quiet and subdued and smooth.

Oh, good. Again, I haven't seen it since I made it, but what I remember is that we, my cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and I, tried to do everything in big close-up. I don't know if it was too claustrophobic, but I remember that was what we tried to do.

Can film noir be too claustrophobic?

[Laughs] Maybe not. No, but it was actually a very good adaptation [of the Cornell Woolrich short story].

You've been working with Emmanuel Lubezki ever since your first shorts, is that right? Every single film except the Harry Potter film.

Because he wasn't available. He helped me to choose a DP and I became such good friends with Michael Seresin. He was a DP that we have always admired and that was actually a pretty good collaboration.

What kind of collaborative relationship do you have? All of your films have a distinct and striking visual style, which changes from film to film. Children of Men couldn't look more different from Y tu mamá también.

It's funny you say that because our earliest conversation was that, even if the canvas was bigger, the approach was going to be the same as Y tu mamá también in Children of Men.

In what way?

What we were trying to do in Y tu mamá también was not to favor character over social environment. So you don't have close-ups; you stay loose because you want your character not only to blend in with the social environment, but ideally to create a tension between character and social environment. Also, not to use editing and montage simply for an effect. We were trying to create the moment of truthfulness in which the camera is just there to register that moment. That means a lot of very long takes. The big difference was that the social environment was Mexico and most of the scenes and the moments were just two or three characters talking and the biggest challenge was some sex.

In Children of Men, we had to create the social environment, and there were a bunch of characters and action scenes, like chases and ambushes and battlefields. That makes it more complicated. But in principle we tried to keep the visual approach the same.

Now with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki's nickname], the communication has become almost telepathic. What we say is that when we make a film, the end result doesn't matter; what matters is what we learn for the next one. We learn a lot being together and at the end we become very critical about the film, about what we like and what we don't like. And as important is the process in which we separate before working again.

What was fundamental for us in Children of Men was his work with Terrence Malick shooting The New World. Because then he was fearless about Children. In Malick's film, he didn't use any electric lights. Everything was source light, so he wanted to do the same thing with Children of Men. So he was adding, on top of creating the moment and registering the moment and not using montage, on top of that, there was only using available light. Chivo and I were very concerned about controlling and about trying to create that aesthetic.

In The Little Princess, I was trying to create, through artifice, trying to create that reality. And me and Chivo, more and more our concern is more conceptual, what the concept is going to be rather than how we are going to make it look pretty. Early on, we were worried about making it look good. Now it doesn't matter if it looks crappy as long as conceptually it's powerful.

I think Children of Men looks good but I would never say it looks pretty. This is a movie that looks like it's been painted with cement dust.

[Laughs] I'll tell you something. Shooting in the winter in England, that is bleak. [laughs] You don't have to do much. It was painful. Chivo was so happy because [whispers] "The breath! The breath shows everywhere!" That was great and he was so happy how the light was so low and so foggy, but we had only four hours of light. It was bleak. When we arrived on the set, it was dark and you start staging, you're freezing your butt off, it's cold and it's dark and you just want to disappear from there. And light eventually shows and as soon as there's light you have to shoot because you have only four hours before it gets dark again. So it was bleak. It's not that we were trying to paint in cement dust, but that's London.

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"The end result doesn't matter; what matters is what we learn for the next one."
"Clive is not only the leading man, I consider him a co-writer and a co-filmmaker."
"If I would rescue one of my movies, it would be A Little Princess."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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