In a radio interview not long ago, Alfonso Cuarón compared his movies to ex-wives: He’s grateful, wishes them well, but has no desire to go back and visit. What he didn’t say, but could have, was that none of these wives bears much resemblance to any of the others.
For an important filmmaker, Cuarón’s reputation rests on a small and eclectic body of work, with long lulls: two movies based on children’s books (The Little Princess, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), a remake of a Dickens classic (Great Expectations), a sexual coming-of-age film set in Mexico (Y Tu Mamá También), a dystopian science fiction movie (Children of Men) and then, of course, there’s Gravity, his most recent and most successful film, which is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz.
If you really study Cuarón’s movies, you can detect certain recurrent preoccupations — class awareness and the vast differences between haves and have-nots, for example — and even some technical trademarks. He loves long tracking shots as much as Hitchcock did, and like someone trying to see how long he can hold his breath, drags them out until you feel him getting a bit blue in the face. But on a first, or even second viewing, you could be forgiven for thinking that the director who made Y Tu Mamá, say, and the one who made Gravity were simply not the same person.
“A director I respect once told me: ‘You’re too much like a pendulum. You have to find your centre’,” Cuarón says. “But I just do what I feel is the right thing at the time.” Thinking about that for a moment, he smiles, “But, on the other hand, almost all the directors I admire do have a common thread in their work.”
That list is lengthy, eccentric and heavy on art-house types: Bresson, Murnau, Lubitsch, Wilder, Tanner, Kubrick, Coppola, Spielberg. He was exposed to them while growing up in Mexico City, where his whole family was movie mad. (Cuarón’s brother Carlos is also a filmmaker, and so is his son Jonás, with whom he wrote Gravity.) The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, has worked on almost all of his movies and is an old friend.
Together, Lubezki and Cuarón in the early ’80s went to their country’s best film school, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Eventually, they dropped out, because they considered the place too backward, and Cuarón’s real education took place in the Mexican film and television industry, where he held just about every job imaginable.
“It was obvious to everyone but him that someday he would be a great director,” Lubezki says. But Cuarón, who is now 52, was in many ways a late bloomer. It’s clear that he is passionate, generous, enthusiastic. But he can also be stubborn, impulsive and obsessive. “There are times on the set when you think, ‘Who is this madman?’,” says Lubezki.
The Little Princess, for example, landed in Cuarón’s lap in the ’90s when he had more or less despaired of ever getting a chance to direct. He read the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, which he was unfamiliar with, and realised that this was something he could do.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also came his way unexpectedly. He hadn’t read that book either, until his friend, the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, shamed him into it.
A big turning point in Cuarón’s career was his second feature, Great Expectations, or what he calls “the bad movie”. An adaptation of the Dickens novel, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, it’s actually a pretty good-looking movie. Its main weakness is an undercooked script. “It’s a movie I did for the wrong reasons,” Cuarón says. “I was too engaged in the machinery” — in reading scripts, that is, and taking meetings, trolling for stars. He and Lubezki also agree now that they both got carried away with technical issues.
Cuarón’s next picture, Y Tu Mamá También, which he wrote with brother Carlos, was a course correction: It’s looser, raunchier, more personal, and more Mexican than anything he has done.
Y Tu Mamá is filmed mostly in wide shots and without close-ups, and Cuarón likes to think of it as a movie that dispenses with technology. “I said to Chivo we need to make the film we would have made before we went to film school — before we became too obsessed with polishing everything,” he explains.
From Y Tu Mamá to Harry Potter is a stretch. The latter, after all, is a franchise, with a cast already in place and a story line that requires computer effects. But the film Cuarón meant to make next was a small, low-budget one: Children of Men, an adaptation of the P D James novel about a future in which humans have lost the ability to reproduce.
Prisoner of Azkaban, generally regarded as the best of the Potter movies, allowed Cuarón to make Children of Men, and in a way also enabled Gravity. He insisted he never planned to make a space epic. He was working on another low-budget independent film, written with his son Jonás, when the financing fell apart.
The money for Gravity came quickly, especially because Angelina Jolie was originally set to star. In Cuarón’s mind, though, the movie was never supposed to be a big deal. “He told me: Only one actor, it can’t get simpler. We can do it in a few months,” Lubezki says.
It took four and a half years, mostly because Cuarón hadn’t considered how he was going to film weightlessness. Lubezki and Cuarón finally devised a complicated system that involved computer animation, millions of flashing LED bulbs, and imprisoning Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in an isolation chamber.
Insisting that what really makes Gravity work is the actors, Bullock especially, Cuarón is now a little ambivalent about his technical breakthrough. “If you have to do it, you just do it, but it’s really better not to invent new technology,” he says.