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Alfonso Cuarón Discusses Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Cannes Masterclass

For the versatile filmmaker whose credits range from A Little Princess to Children of Men, movies are like ex-wives.
By  · Published on May 29th, 2017

For the versatile filmmaker whose credits range from A Little Princess to Children of Men, movies are like ex-wives.

On Wednesday, May 24, Academy Award-winning Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón held a Masterclass at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. He spoke about his long and incredibly varied career for two hours, sharing a range of personal anecdotes and advice from over thirty years in the industry. Here are ten things we learned:

1. He and Guillermo del Toro met in a waiting room and bonded over a mutual admiration for Steven King.

The two filmmakers were already aware of each other by reputation, as two promising up-and-comers in the Mexican film and television industry (there was a little jealousy, at least on Cuarón’s side). After sizing each other up, they greeted each other coolly at first—until del Toro brought up that he was a fan of a Steven King story that Cuarón had adapted into a short. However, after bonding over this shared interest their interaction took a decidedly sharp turn when del Toro went on to ask Cuarón why, considering the strength of the source material, his short was so bad. But Cuarón ultimately concluded that del Toro had a point, and a friendship for the ages was born.

If Cuarón’s anecdotes alone weren’t enough to demonstrate that he and del Toro have a friendship for the ages, del Toro showed up in the middle of Cuarón’s talk, took a seat in the front row, and from then on provided occasional commentary and second opinions, both solicited and unsolicited, the way true friends do.

2. When he was making his first film his hero was Ernst Lubitsch.

One of Cuarón’s goals when directing his feature-length debut, Sólo con tu pareja (1991; English: Only With Your Partner), was to mimic the rhythmic nature he admired in Lubitsch’s work. He was also inspired by how Martin Scorcese approached comedy and how Woody Allen used titles. Generally, Cuarón referred to Sólo con tu pareja as a “salad of stuff I was intrigued about.”

3. Emmanuel Lubezki read the screenplay for A Little Princess first and recommended it to him.

The three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, Cuarón’s close friend and most frequent collaborator, put the project on the director’s radar. Cuarón loved the screenplay and pursued the project, thinking “this is a film I have to do.” While Cuarón’s filmography is incredibly varied, he mentioned that one thread connecting a lot of his films is class consciousness.

‘A Little Princess’ (1995)

4. The formalistic lessons of A Little Princess.

After getting the job—apparently in spite of the disapproval of both the producer and screenwriter, though they did warm up to him in time—Cuarón said A Little Princess was important for the development of his filmmaking style. He said it was the first film that taught him the benefits of self-imposed limitations as part of the filmmaking process, frustrating as they may be. Using limitations, such as keeping the film in the protagonist’s point of view (she’s the only character that has over the shoulder shots), gives the film a valuable “inner language.” Speaking of the form of A Little Princess, Cuarón also emphasized the value of giving as much thematic information within the frame as possible.

5. He thinks Great Expectations was a mistake.

Cuarón turned down the project multiple times before finally allowing himself to be “seduced” by financial motives and perks like dinner with Robert De Niro. He felt no connection to Dickens’ work and wasn’t fond of the script, but thought he would be able to compensate visually (in retrospect, Cuarón said that this is never the case). “I did the wrong film,” Cuarón said. “It was a horrible experience.”

6. If not for Great Expectations, he wouldn’t have made Y tú mama también.

Following Great Expectations, Cuarón had a bit of a career identity crisis. “I was disenchanted,” he admitted. “Not by cinema, but with where I was.” So he rented a pile of his favorite films and locked himself away for a week, living off a cinematic diet and remembering why he loved movies. From there, he went on to develop Y tú mama también.

7. He wasn’t exactly thrilled about being offered Harry Potter.

At the time he was offered Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón had just had a project he had written himself turned down (spoiler alert: it was Children of Men). His only exposure to the Harry Potter series had been the first film, which had not impressed him. He then called del Toro to complain about the “crap” he had been offered. Del Toro proceeded to ask if Cuarón had read the Harry Potter books and he replied that he had not, to which del Toro said, “You fucking arrogant bastard.” So Cuarón proceeded to check out the books, and it seems safe to say, considering how the whole situation turned out, that they impressed him more than the film adaptation.

‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004)

8. He doesn’t consider his films his children.

Unlike many creative types, Cuarón doesn’t feel any paternal sentimental towards his films. Instead, he considers them “more like ex-wives… we move on and love each other from a distance.”

9. That said, he’s worked with kids a lot in his films, and enjoys it.

From A Little Princess to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón has worked with his share of child actors. While some directors list working with children among the hardest parts of the job, Cuarón is of the opposite opinion—he finds it very easy. He said that children “offer miracles instantly,” and spoke fondly of how Thirteen-year-old Daniel Radcliffe was “so intense and earnest.”

‘Gravity’ (2013)

10. He and son Jonás laid out the storyline of Gravity in nine hours.

“[Gravity] is not a movie I had in my head for many years,” Cuarón admitted. When he and his son, filmmaker Jonás Cuarón, sat down to brainstorm, he was determined to come up with a film that fit two major criteria: it had to be something that film studios would want to buy, but also something that he would really want to do. The first draft had no dialogue and only one character [it’s particularly interesting to imagine an alternate universe in which this would have been the final draft instead, considering 2013 was also the year All Is Lost was released]. While Cuarón was quite frank about his financial incentive to make Gravity, he also elaborated on his more artistic goals with Gravity, including his desire to explore “how to convey things without being explicit… how to express it, how to feel it, how to experience it”—something Cuarón considers key in developing a “more mature consciousness” about cinema.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.