Summer 2013

International Man

Alfonso Cuarón learned to direct in his native Mexico, traveled to Hogwarts for Harry Potter, and a dystopian future for Children of Men. For his latest excursion, Gravity, he goes spacewalking


SPACED OUT: (above) It took Cuarón (left) and longtime DP Emmanuel Lubezki (center) five years to create the look of weightlessness for Gravity. (below) Cuarón brought his own touch to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.


"It's like Steven Spielberg said about shooting Jaws, ‘Pretty soon, you learn you cannot walk on water.’ Well, you cannot walk in space either. And that sucks.” This is Mexican-born, London-dwelling director Alfonso Cuarón talking, with considerable weariness, about the challenges he faced while shooting his most recent film, Gravity. Cuarón has just emerged from a marathon production process to complete the spacewalk thriller; it presented the 51-year-old director, and his longtime DP Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, with an unprecedented set of filmmaking challenges that led to the development of cutting-edge technology.

Gravity is Cuarón’s seventh feature as director, following his near-future dystopia Children of Men (2006). Before that he worked on films as varied as A Little Princess (1995) and the third installment of the Harry Potter saga, The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). He has also been a key player in the emergence of Mexican cinema onto the global stage, along with his friends and fellow directors Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Carlos Reygadas. His international hit Y Tu Mamá También (2001) won numerous awards from critics’ groups around the world.

Cuarón has come a long way from his teenage years in mid-’70s Mexico City, where he first attempted to study filmmaking at the CUEC (Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos) film school. After he was expelled for political reasons, he learned the ropes doing anything and everything in Mexico’s ramshackle film and TV industry. “I tried to connect with whoever knew a bit more than me, as an assistant or whatever, editing an informercial, anything.” One of his first jobs was working as an assistant on a series of government-sponsored documentaries about the education of indigenous people. “I visited every corner of Mexico,” he says, which became an invaluable resource when prepping locations for Y Tu Mamá También. One job as a boom operator allowed him to observe Glengarry Glen Ross DP Juan Ruiz Anchía. “That was an education, looking at where he put his lights, all his choices.” Cuarón eventually evolved into a sought-after assistant director, working on American or European films that were shooting in Mexico, including Romero for John Duigan, and Gaby: A True Story for Luis Mandoki. He says he even prepped a film Marlon Brando was going to direct (it never happened, and he never got to meet Brando).

By the early ’90s, Cuarón was more than ready to direct his first feature. His 1991 debut Love in the Time of Hysteria (Sólo con tu pareja) was an Almodóvar-esque bad-taste farce in which a man is tricked into thinking he has AIDS by a nurse he has cheated on. “We shot it in six weeks, working five and a half days a week. Chivo was the DP. All we really wanted was for our film to look good. Mexican cinema at the time was technically poor, and rejected any aspirations towards aesthetics. Our attitude was, if one sequence in the film is good, then that’s enough. It was a learning experience in itself. I was also obsessed with staging; my main plan was to try and imitate the rhythms I’d seen in Ernst Lubitsch comedies.”

Even at this early stage Cuarón says he was already thinking internationally, partly the result of falling out with his backers in the Mexican film industry after having the temerity to try and hire a sales agent to sell his film abroad. Love in the Time of Hysteria ended up at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1991 where he was so green he thought the people asking him if he had “representation” were lawyers, and only went to lunch with them so he could take a doggie bag of food back to the room he was sharing with his equally penniless brother Carlos.

But he got an agent out of it and things started to move. Cuarón’s big American break came via Sydney Pollack, who gave him a slot on Fallen Angels, a Showtime cable series of six hour-long films noirs. Cuarón readily admits he felt totally out of his depth: the other directors included Steven Soderbergh, Peter Bogdanovich and Tom Hanks.

LONG WALK: Cuarón, with Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, staged a number of long, traveling master shots with complex camera moves for Children of Men.

“I have to tell you, I felt so bad. The network didn’t want me, but Sydney said, ‘Well, we want this guy.’ I was last on every list, for locations and equipment, I had less shooting days than anyone else. The first day of the shoot, I was paralyzed with fear, and it was a total disaster.” After a pep talk from his lead actor Alan Rickman (“he saved my life”), Cuarón insisted on repeating the first day’s schedule, much to the AD’s horror, and managed to get back on track.

Still, it was a massive culture shock. “I had more toys to play with, but the crew was three times bigger than my Mexican film, with producers giving me notes, which I never had before.”

After Fallen Angels, Cuarón found himself developing projects at Warner Bros., but made little headway. “For one thing, they wanted big movie stars who didn’t want to work with me. That’s part of the challenge of being a director.” But then he stumbled upon the script for A Little Princess, an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 classic children’s novel. Even though it involved a risky move—quitting another project at the studio—Cuarón got a green-light. “I never revisit my films after finishing them, but Little Princess is my favorite film, and it was a wonderful experience.”

Working with 20 children, he says, wasn’t a problem, thanks to his experience as an AD in Mexico where he’d dealt with children on set many times before. He has a theory about getting performances from them. “First, you have to find kids who are not jaded. I don’t like ‘actor’ kids, it’s the poison of a good performance. Your casting is vital. Second, rather than rehearse them, ask them to study their characters themselves to find what they think is true, and see what you can borrow. If you rehearse them you lose the amazing things—the spontaneity, the lack of self-awareness. Sometimes telling stories works. In A Little Princess, when we were doing the scene when Sara Crewe gets the news of her father’s death, I told Liesel [Matthews] a story of when I learned about my parent’s divorce: I could remember where I was sitting, what I was looking at, how I was absorbed in a piece of fabric. She got it, and the scene worked.”

His follow-up, the modern-day adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke, Robert De Niro and Gwyneth Paltrow, is the one filmmaking experience he appears to seriously regret. “Great Expectations took away a good six creative years of my life. Every day was horrible. There were budget issues, script issues, and we were trying to fix it as we went along. And because of my insecurity over the script I tried to compensate visually; to carry what was not on the page. The actors were great, the producer was a good friend, Chivo’s work is stunning, the art direction is amazing, but for me, Great Expectations is what happens when you do things for the wrong reasons. It was a bitter lesson.”

KIDDING AROUND: (top) Cuarón, with Liesel Matthews on A Little Princess, says the key to working with young actors is casting. (above) He returned to Mexico to direct the surprise international hit Y Tu Mamá También.

Cuarón admits his confidence was shattered, and in a career about-turn decided—along with Lubezki—to abandon the highly stylized, lighting-heavy approach he’d so far pursued. “We had to strip back the technical aspect,” he says. Together with his brother Carlos, Cuarón returned to an idea he’d had about two young guys on a beach trip. “We wrote the script in three weeks. And the whole premise, when we shot the film, was to approach it like we’d never been to film school, or worked in Hollywood. No rules, no preconceptions.”

Returning home allowed Cuarón to concentrate on one of Mexico’s peculiar contributions to cinematic technique, the plano secuencia—a long, traveling master shot, designed with complex camera moves, that effectively prevents the use of close-ups, inserts, and other forms of coverage. Cuarón calls them “one-shot deals,” and they figure heavily in Y Tu Mamá. “A close-up separates a character from its environment,” says Cuarón, “but in this film, character and environment are equally important; one is a product of the other. That’s why I opted to do one-shot deals all the time.”

The climactic sex scene, in which his two highly macho Mexican actors, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, had to kiss passionately, was one of the more memorable in recent memory. “For weeks Chivo and I discussed how we would light it. First we thought: candle. But then we thought, that’s too cute, too obvious. Then someone suggested an ugly bare light bulb. Wow!

“The day of the scene, the two were so nervous; they were fighting a lot, and arguing like mad. We tried to get them drunk, but it didn’t really work. We spent a lot of time discussing the scene, but it was really just fear of jumping into the water. Then one of them said, ‘Shit, let’s just do it.’”

Y Tu Mamá became an unexpected international hit and one of the highest grossing foreign-language films in U.S. history. Cuarón then took another career about-turn, agreeing to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It was del Toro, he says, who talked him into it, even though he himself was not especially interested in Potter at the time. Though he had previously worked on chamber-sized dramas, Cuarón says the scale of the Potter fantasy didn’t faze him. “Having worked so long as an AD, I had so much confidence about the process—the inner mechanics of filmmaking. You soon learn, no matter what the film is, that it’s all about breakdown. You break it down, and then break it down again, and something that looks so overwhelming at first becomes simple.”

As for the actual filmmaking, with two highly successful films already in the series and the literary franchise established, Cuarón knew “I had to work within strict boundaries, but I also wanted to do it my way. How do I change things, without alienating the people who love it?” Cuarón’s choices included infiltrating the film with plano secuencias—“I decided to do lots of one-shot deals, with very few close-ups”—as well as subtly changing the costumes. “In the previous films, the kids had atemporal clothes—not from any precise era. I put them in jeans and hoodies to ground the story, and make them look the way kids look.”

When all was said and done, “Potter was an amazing school for visual effects, but for me the biggest learning experience was rendering shots.” By this he means the digital process of compositing visual effects and filmed material. A key consideration was what he calls “light integration”: the consistency of light sources and textures in the final image. “In comic book realities, people don’t tend to notice problems with light integration because the light never makes sense anyway. But when we did Children of Men we had to make sure light integration was part of the design from the beginning. It had to look real.”

Cuarón readily acknowledges Children of Men was the film he had really wanted to make, and Potter gave him the opportunity to do it. “I wrote Children of Men right after Y Tu Mamá, but no one wanted to do it. After Azkaban, it was a different story.” A complex science-fiction fantasy, set in a future London overrun by immigrants and where human fertility has all but ended, Cuarón says the script and preproduction phase was “all about research. We had to see what the future would look like, based on all the sociological and population studies we could find. I had a month to speak to a lot of very smart people, using what the eggheads said to create a scenario. That was the toughest thing. I ended up with charts of which ethnic [groups] should be living where; the percentage of blacks, Asians, whites in each neighborhood.”

Cuarón also took the opportunity to pull off a series of bravura plano secuencias, most notably one featuring actor Clive Owen running through a building under military assault. In a fantastically complex sequence lasting over six minutes, Owen’s character moves along blown out streets dodging heavy machine gun fire, running for his life from tank shells, while desperately searching a battered apartment block for the girl and her baby that he is charged to protect. “The problem with a shot like this,” says Cuarón, “is that you have 14 days on the schedule. You start prepping the shot and you arrive at day 13 and you haven’t rolled camera. Since day five, every executive on the set has been getting nervous. They say: ‘Shoot coverage, do inserts, get the second unit going.’ You have to tell them: ‘No.’”

Staging that shot was a whole process in itself. “First you have to tell everyone what you’re doing. Then you choreograph it, bit by bit, with the actors. Then you bring the camera in, and that changes the equation: this or that doesn’t work, so you need to change it. But changing one thing here has a knock-on effect over there; other things have to be changed. And there’s more. People are shooting guns, so you have bullets hitting the wall, and you have to decide which people will be hit. Then you have tanks! Tanks are clumsy, slow, noisy and unreliable. But eventually you sort it out. Then you start shooting.

“And here’s the real problem: you do a take, it goes wrong, but you can’t just go again, you have to clean up the entire set. Everyone with a squib must change costume—that’s thousands of people. You have to build loads of walls again because they’ve been blown up. The actors have to be patient too. You can’t talk much while the shot is going on. I had to trust Clive to make decisions about when to stop and go, and to maintain the rhythm of the shot.”

And where was Cuarón while all this mayhem is going on—huddled away behind his monitor? “Oh man, I hate video assist; I have a little handheld monitor, but that’s it. I always want to be next to the camera. But they are such long shots, with so much going on that you sometimes lose track. I am embarrassed to say on one of the early takes I forgot to duck at the right moment and we had to cut. For a shot like this you need everyone on top of their game.”

Children of Men was released in 2006, and it took five years for him to start production on Gravity. Cuarón is an extremely genial sort, and only displays a touch of irritation when asked about the rumors that began to circulate after shooting was delayed until 2011. Actors, including Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey Jr. and Natalie Portman, came and went. “It was never put on hold. We just couldn’t start shooting until we had solved the problems. Because of that you start losing actors like crazy. Actors are constantly taking projects—some go, some fall through, so it’s a constant flux.”

Cuarón was shooting for a realistic visual style, and that took time. “Essentially, we wanted Gravity to resemble a Discovery Channel documentary that happened to be shooting up there,” he says. “But in space, the characters are floating all the time. There is no up and down. They are always moving in relation to the light source. That’s the reason why, in most space movies, they keep them inside the mother ship, and they have special magnetic shoes. Everybody walks.”

Cuarón says he and Lubezki quickly exhausted the conventional means of shooting spacewalk sequences. “We did tests with wires, and it didn’t work. You can see the gravity, the strain. Plus they get in the way if you want to move the camera. We came to the conclusion that we needed to create our own technology. We spent months and months figuring it out.”

The solution was a combination of things. “Space itself would be CGI, no way around it. But the big challenge was how to incorporate our characters, lighting-wise, into such a vast environment. They are always floating, moving, so the light is always moving, but you cannot move lights here on Earth in the right way—it is physically impossible. So we used synchronic robots, like they have in car factories. The camera was on one robot, the light on another, and the bounce light on another. And so it became a choreography of robots, all keeping the same relationship when everything was moving.”

But that, it turned out, was only the half of it. All the robots’ moves had to be pre-programmed and Cuarón says he found the process ultimately untenable. “With this process, you cannot change your decisions at all while you are shooting; that’s just not the way I work. It became very frustrating down the line.” So in what must be a filmmaking first, Cuarón and Lubezki had a cube constructed—he estimates 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet—with all the surfaces made entirely out of LED lights. Inside was a harness for the actor, as well as a camera. That way, Cuarón could design shots and keep the light source consistent, but also incorporate camera moves. So while the actor was holding still, the lighting could suggest the character was actually floating in space.

“Man, if you went to Shepperton Studios to see our set, it didn’t look like a movie. All you saw were banks and banks of computers like mission control at Houston. There were long dollies with robots, which are very beautiful, and then there was the cube of light. It looked more like an installation than a movie set.

“The amazing thing for us was that we needed to complete postproduction before starting preproduction. We needed to animate the whole film, completely program the lights and camera, add all the sound effects to make sure it works, mix it and color-correct it. We couldn’t start shooting until we did that.

“I said to Chivo, ‘We can do this very quickly. There are only two characters, so we’ll finish fast.’ That was four-and-a-half years ago.” Hopefully, Cuarón says, the results were worth the wait.

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